NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
by Julian Rybarczyk
As the days passed more and more Russian soldiers occupied our area. Early in this Russian invasion they had sent out orders for all railway workers to continue running the trains so father, who happened to be at home, reported for work in Mołodeczno, rather than return to Olechnowicze. He worked on, trying to keep a low profile and often sleeping away from home at night, as night-time was a favourite time for arrests to be made. Kazia had come home to stay with the rest of our family at such a devastating time. Bronek, of course, was completely cut off from us and we didn’t learn what had happened to him for a long time to come.
Winter was approaching and soon everywhere was covered with a thick carpet of snow. That winter was particularly cold and had more snow than usual. The shops were empty. Bread came every morning but people had to queue for two or three hours in the hope of getting some as there were not loaves for everyone. A Russian proverb says "if you have bread and water you are not starving". We still listened to the radio, particularly Polish news from Paris. It was heartening to learn that Polish troops who had managed to escape were being reformed into a fighting force in France.
Time passed and it was Christmas Eve, 1939. We had managed somehow to scrape together a traditional Wigilia meal of twelve courses using no meat. Apart from Bronek we were all there along with two girlfriends of Marysia and Kazia. We ate the meal and then sang carols for a while before Zybszek and I decided to go to bed and left the others talking. Suddenly there was a loud knock at the door and when father opened it he was roughly pushed back into the house by about six Russian soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. One soldier entered my bedroom where I lay in bed already awakened by all the noise. He demanded that I get up and stand by my bed and not to talk or move. He stood guard over me, pointing his gun with the bayonet on it at my chest. Meanwhile in the other room where everyone else was, a soldier proclaimed he had orders to search the house. For the next two hours they searched thoroughly for "anti-Communist literature and weapons". They opened drawers and cupboards and really looked in every conceivable place. We were all terrified. After the search, in which they found nothing, they announced that they would be taking father with them. Marysia protested loudly and was crying. One solider pushed her back into a chair and told her to be quiet. Mother quickly gathered a few essentials into a bag for father to take with him and soon the soldiers left with him and disappeared into the darkness.
We were left in total silence in a state of shock. Then some began to cry and we were all in despair, not knowing what to do. We began to talk and wonder where father had been taken and what the future held for us all.
It took about two weeks for us to find out that father was being held in part of the railway station which had been turned into a temporary prison. Mother was able to take him a change of clothing which she gave to the guards as she was not allowed to see father. One day, about two weeks later, she was turned away by the guards as father was no longer there. We were given no information as to what had happened to him, or where he might be.
Life continued for us with difficulty. No news of Bronek and no news of father. Thanks to mother we still had food that she had stored for the winter. There was salted pork, bottled tomatoes, pickled gherkins, sauerkraut, dried apples, prunes, homemade wine and other things. We still had a milking cow, chickens, geese and a pig or two so we were much better off than most people.
Father’s good friend Mr Olszewski, who had worked with him for many years at the station at Olechnowicze, had also been arrested and had disappeared like him. His wife was very distressed and too frightened to stay on in Olechnowicze without him so we took her in along with her son and daughter, Josef and Halina, who were a few years younger than me.
We carried on in this dismal fashion until Spring and then there was another loud knock on the door. This time it was five o’clock in the morning. Again it was another handful of armed Russian soldiers, some of them KGB. One of them read out a proclamation that stated we were considered to be a dangerous element and a risk to the Soviet Union while we remained in Mołodeczno which was now relatively near the new border with German-occupied territory.
They ordered each of us to collect some belongings as we were to be taken from our home and removed elsewhere. Mrs. Olszewska asked what was to happen to her as she was not part of our family and she was informed that she was also to go. Mother exclaimed that neither was Zbyszek, who was only twelve, part of our immediate family and belonged back in Warsaw but was told that he must come along with us as well.
Can you imagine our feelings? What a dilemma we were in. What should we take that would be of most use to us? The soldiers had brought a horse and cart for us to put our belongings on. We all gathered what we could with no time to think properly. And so, after some time we had put our pitiful bundles and cases onto the cart and left our home and all our most precious things behind including most of our stored food and all the farm animals. We walked to some railway sidings not far from the station. There we found a cattle train made up of many red wagons waiting for us in which already were many of our neighbours with their bundles of belongings.
We boarded one wagon in which there were already people and soon there were twenty seven of us. They were of different ages, from babies to the very old. There were of course no facilities, just the bare cattle wagon with a large wooden shelf at either end on which some people could lie. The wagons were rather small so we were cramped indeed. Shortly an open lorry arrived with loaves of bread for sale and we were allowed to alight to purchase them. One of the soldiers guarding us quietly suggested to me to buy as many of the loaves as I could. We took his advice.
We stayed two days in these sidings while more and more people were brought to fill up this long train. Armed soldier guards stood all along the outside of the train. We only had our own food as nothing was provided. Once a day two persons from each wagon were escorted from the train to fetch hot water so that a hot drink could be made, providing of course people had brought some tea or coffee with them. No water was provided for washing. Toilet arrangements were of the crudest. Periodically we were allowed to leave the wagons and relieve ourselves just outside while being guarded by the soldiers. There was no privacy for anyone.
At some time during these two days I managed to slip away without being noticed by the guards. My plan was to return to our house and pick up some more things that might be useful to us in the days and weeks to come. On the way there I met my school girlfriend, Stanisława and she suggested I go to her house where I could hide. I had to tell her I could not possibly do that as I must return to the train to look after my mother, sisters and young cousin. And so we parted. When I reached our house I found it securely locked with even an official seal on it. Disappointed at not finding any way to enter the house I had to return to the train empty-handed. When I got back a guard refused to let me back on the train! I had to argue with him for some time before he would let me board again to join my family.
Yet another time I managed to slip out to urinate. This time I was spotted by the guards who quickly surrounded me with their fixed bayonets pointing at my chest. When I had finally convinced them of my purpose for being there they told me to just go ahead while they still stood there. Impossible, so I just had to get back on the train.
There was a mother with two teenage daughters with us on the train who were neighbours of ours. The father had been arrested just like our father. These two girls left the train when people were going for hot water. Somehow they managed to slip away, calmly walking off arm in arm, as if they had no connection with the train and its occupants. They were not missed at that time by the guards. Their mother was now all alone but had in fact discussed this escape plan with her daughters and told them to go ahead.
We spent two days and two nights on the train before it started to move, very early in the morning and we were off on our journey. None of us had any idea where our ultimate destination would be. We soon realised we were in Russia and it was not long befo re we passed through Minsk. There was only one small window in the wagon, or maybe two, measuring roughly nine inches by twenty four inches. There was no glass, only a wooden flap to close it.
The train would stop from time to time to let us alight to relieve ourselves. Men and women, old and young together with no privacy for anyone. One or two people had brought a chamber pot with them on this journey so if really hard pressed would use it while the train was travelling. One old man was making use of his pot when a woman in his wagon complained and protested that he could at least open the window. He replied that he could not do two things at the one time. In utter frustration one woman emptied her full potty out of the window while the train was moving. The contents landed on a luckless soldier sitting on the step below. He began swearing and continued for a long time but he didn’t know who was responsible and there were no repercussions for any of us.
Once a day the train would stop in a station and we would be given hot water to make a hot drink and occasionally some watery soup. Sometimes when the train stopped Russian people would come to stare at our cattle train, filled with Polish people, obviously being transported somewhere against their will. These people appeared ill fed and sad as well as poorly clad. We had heard there was a shortage of food, including bread, so we threw some of our bread to them. We on the train then began singing to them, one of the Russian propaganda songs which had been blaring out continually back in Mołodeczno over the loudspeakers since the Russians had arrived. "Our country is big There is freedom, equality and plenty for everyone, For young people the roads are open, Old people have recognition and respect." We hoped that seeing us being deported would give these miserable Russians some food for thought.
The train didn’t go at a great speed and sometimes the soldiers would open the sliding doors a little and secure them. This gave us a better chance to observe the countryside outside. One day we passed by lots of silver birch trees with their leaves just opening and their bark almost white. On and on we travelled, through rather flat country, and always eastwards. South of Moscow we passed by the city of Tuła and on towards the Ural Mountains which separate Europe from Asia. Through the Urals and on towards Omsk. Somewhere past there and before reaching Novosibirsk, after two long weeks, our train finally stopped for us at Szczerbakty (Polish spelling). It was a small village with a large modern flour mill, a post office, a KGB office, a station of course and a restaurant with no food. We were in Siberia. A parting vindictive remark from a soldier to us was "Here you will stay and here you will die".
A Russian official arrived at our wagon, the doors were opened wide and he read out our names. This was when the two young sisters were found to be missing and the official was very angry indeed but there was nothing he could do about it. An open lorry was waiting to transport us even further. We p iled into the lorry with our belongings and I think were was twenty one of us, made up of members from six families. After driving about six miles we came to our final destination, the communal farm and community of Kus-Kuduk (Polish spelling and pronounced in English as Koos-Koodook).
We were told to take our things off the lorry and remain there while the woman in charge of the farm tried to find accommodation for us among the people living there who all worked on the farm. Obviously we had not been expected but this woman farm manager had the authority to make householders take us in whether they wanted to or not.
We were shown to a house at the far end of the village occupied by an old woman, dressed all in black and none too clean. She had a son of about thirty living with her. There were only two rooms in this house and little furniture. The woman and her son had to take one of the rooms and we the other. As Mrs Olszewska and her two children were with us that made eight of us living and sleeping in one room. About the first thing this old woman did was light the clay brick stove in “our” room, even although it was a warm day. She fed it with dog dung and straw and soon the room was completely filled with smoke and we all had to go outside into the open air to breathe. This was her way of showing her feelings towards us.
Two or three days later we found other accommodation with a more sympathetic family. Again it was a two roomed house (in fact they all were). One room had a stove and the owner, his wife and two sons chose to keep this room for themselves, although we were allowed to use this stove for our little cooking. We had the other room and Mrs. Okszewski with her two children moved into the house next door. For rent we gave our landlord, Mr. Imilyansov perhaps a shirt, and later a tablecloth and we helped him in any way we could. The only fuel these poor people had was dried dung, straw and Piołun (a dried tall weed that grows in Siberia (worm wood)). We collected these things and gave them to the landlord.
As the road coming from Szczerbakty (pronounced Schcher-bak-tee) arrived at Kus-Kuduk, it passed between the farm buildings. There were barns and byres where cows, horses and sheep had to be sheltered during the long severe winter months. There was also the farm office where the names of all the farm workers were kept. Alongside their names a record was kept of the days they worked. These were long days in summer but shorter in winter. There were some other buildings and a large well where water was obtained for all the animals. The road passed between these buildings then divided into two parallel straight roads with farm workers' houses spaced along each side of them. When the houses ended so did the roads. All the way from Szczerbakty the road surface was made only by people, animals and vehicles travelling over the bare earth. As it never rained the roads were dry and dusty in the summer, quickly covered by snow in winter and with the sudden springs they would just as quickly dry up again.
There were about forty houses in all and each house had only two rooms. The walls and floors were made of clay. Wood was in very short supply but nevertheless the roof ridge was made of the trunk of a pine tree which stretched from the top of one high gable end to the other. Thin strips of wood were then interwoven with dried Piołun stalks and stretched over the space between the top of the walls, back and front of the house, up to the ridge. Over this structure wet clay was plastered on and when this dried another coat was added. The finished roof covering had about five layers in all and it was important for the last coating to be mixed with cow’s dung which made it more waterproof. This clay roof worked surprisingly well and when the snow melted on it in the springtime the snow quickly slid off its sloping sides.
Each room had one window made with the usual wooden frame and glass. Every house had a primitive clay brick stove, one part of it was for heating pots and the other for baking bread. There was hardly any furniture; only a table, a bench, a wooden chest and that was about all. Near the stove there was a kind of shelf where two people could sleep and this might be warm in the wintertime. Apart from that there were no beds but only some planks of wood which could be made up at night so that people could s leep about one foot above the clay floor. There never was any covering on the floor such as a mat or a rug. There were no toilets, either inside or outside. Each house had a small barn near it in which to keep a cow and this was used by people as a toilet. If not there they would go round the back of the barn, outside in the fresh air. There was only one toilet in the whole community and that was rather primitive and outside the office. It was for the use of the three or four people who managed this communal farm.
Probably the farm had been purpose built after the revolution and it was a poor miserable place. In summer the workers worked long hours growing mainly potatoes, wheat, sunflowers and water melons. The rich soil was watered by the previous winter’s melting snow. The harvest depended on the amount of snow which had fallen. The landscape was completely flat for as far as the eye could see and farther. No trees grew near the farm except for an odd few planted between the houses by people. There was no stream or river nearby and the nearest lake was about seven miles away. Cows, sheep and pigs were kept in the farm and individual workers were allowed to keep a cow, a pig or a few sheep if desired.
The workers were paid once a year … or not at all if there had been a poor harvest. When the harvest had been gathered a substantial part of it had to be given to the government in payment for the use of their agricultural machinery such as tractors and combine harvesters. If the harvest was poor, and that depended entirely on the previous winter’s snowfall, this levy still had to be paid. Sometimes there wasn’t enough wheat etc. grown and then the communal farm where we were would have to borrow from a neighbouring farm to pay their quota to the government. Needless to say the government had to get their quota of the harvest before the workers got any share of it. A note was kept of the hours the farm workers actually worked; long hours in the summer and shorter in the winter.
Their annual pay was a share of the produce and some money. Naturally everyone realised how important it was to try and keep a store of food in case of a poor harvest. Potatoes were stored in a hole in the ground dug in the earthy floor of one of the rooms in the house, flour was kept in a sack and there was always a kind of open-topped bunker built of clay bricks in one room for keeping such things as sunflower seeds and grain.
Our position seemed hopeless as all we had was a roof over our heads. So far we had no means of earning anything and we realised right away we must at least try to obtain some flour. By bartering some item we had brought with us we obtained a small quantity of flour from a villager. We mixed some of this flour with a little water, kneaded it into dough then break off small pieces to boil in water, making our own pasta. A little of this twice a day was all we had to eat. At that time there was no work for us on the farm so the future looked bleak. Occasionally we obtained a little milk, not enough to drink but we added this to the water we boiled our pasta in and ‘hey presto’ this was soup for us. There must have been little nutrition in this concoction but that was all we had.
Very gradually we found ways of slightly improving our food supply. For instance we were sometimes successful in hiring ourselves out to the villagers to carry out different tasks. One thing I did was to have myself lowered down into wells to clear out the silt that had accumulated at the bottom. Nearly every house had its own well, roughly six metres deep and with sides strengthened by wood which always showed signs of rotting. Firstly I would be lowered to the bottom of the well and then a bucket on a chain would be lowered down for me to fill with silt. Once full, someone above would turn the handle to haul the full bucket up and empty it. This procedure was repeated until all the silt had been removed and then it was my turn to be pulled up. For this rather unpleasant, claustrophobic task I was given whatever the well-owners had to spare, usually some flour.
Another job my sisters and I did was to take part in the summer production of clay bricks. Top soil was removed from a circular shape about three metres in diameter. The topsoil was only about 30 centimetres deep and below it was clay and this we had to dig over to break it up. Now we added water and began trampling it with our bare feet. Some straw was added to give the finished brick strength. We worked on until we had the clay in the correct consistency. We would have ready some open-topped wooden boxes in the shape of large bricks and these we would fill with our prepared clay. When filled they were very heavy but had to be lifted, carried away a short distance and then turned over and emptied onto the ground, like a child’s sandcastle. There they would be left to dry in the hot summer sun. We worked for hours, trampling the clay mixture, filling the boxes and turning them out. These bricks were all people had to build with. Again we were paid with whatever could be spared. As well as flour we might get some potatoes or if really lucky a piece of pork fat. A bit of fried pork fat added a tasty luxury to our interminable boiled pasta.
Sometimes we were invited by the family who hired us to join them in their evening meal. Money of course was no good to anyone as there were no shops or anything to buy. However, once a year a supply of vodka would arrive and people could use money to buy their ration of one or two bottles. About once a year a kin d of market would come to the nearest railway station where some basic clothing was on sale and I will tell of that later in this story.
Early in our stay in Siberia we had a visit from a uniformed member of the KGB (secret police). All the Polish deportees in our village, who were made up of women and children apart from myself and two other younger lads, were summoned to the office in the farm. This was in the only wooden building in the place. He sat, with his gun on the table in front of him, in an aggressive way and with a very unfriendly manner. He gave out orders, telling us among other things that we must stay on the farm and not wander away anywhere. Touching his gun, he said if we disobeyed we would be severely punished. It would have been practically impossible to escape from this place as all around was nothing but the flat Russian Steppes. Before leaving he asked if anyone had any questions. One young girl spoke up and asked him what we were supposed to eat. “That is not my business” he replied, before rising to leave. “I will be back to check on you,” he continued, “and I will want to see you all again”.
Sometime later he did return and when it was nightfall he told my family he would sleep in our house. This seemed an extraordinary thing to do as one would suppose he could have found a better place on the farm to lie down than in a room with five prisoners. However, he came and laid on the floor, keeping his uniform on and his gun handy. During the night my mother quietly roused me and whispered that she had heard the KGB man talking in his sleep. He had seemingly muttered something about arresting me. My alarmed Mother told me to flee and run far away. I rose quickly and quietly slipped out of the house but did not know where to go. As I moved between the houses in the dark I thought of a good place to hide, in a neighbour’s small pig sty with their pig. The moment the pig was aware of my presence it started making the most fiendish noise so I had to run for my life. I went quite far away from the houses to a field where the crop had been cut leaving enough stubble for me to lie down in and be hidden. Dawn came and I could watch the activities going on in the farm from a distance. Nothing untoward seemed to be happening bu t I lay hidden all day. Only when it got dark did I decide to venture back to our house. By this time I was exceedingly thirsty and hungry. My family were overjoyed at my return having made up their minds that I had gone for ever and they would never see me again. It turned out that the KGB man had had no intention of arresting me as in the morning he had just got up and left.
By the time we arrived in Siberia in that first year all the snow had already melted. The farm workers were all anxious to plant the crops as quickly as possible while the soil still retained a lot of moisture. All the farm machinery was taken out of the barns and set to work on the land. Often the soil was too muddy and vehicles would get bogged down and have to be rescued by the one vehicle which had caterpillar tracks. In all this hive of activity we hoped that the farm manageress would find a job for us but in this we were unsuccessful.
Time hung on our hands. To earn a little food we did any odd jobs for our neighbours that we could. Mother had brought from Poland her hand operated Singer sewing machine and picked up a little work from the villagers altering and mending things. We still had some belongings which we could barter for food. Kazia and Marysia had their guitar and mandolin and one day a group of us Polish youth gathered just outside the village in the sun and began to enjoy a little music and dancing. This unaccustomed frivolity soon attracted some of the local boys who came over to hopefully jo in in. The Polish girls were having none of them and went off home. Poor boys! Our sad predicament was not of their making and they should not have had to suffer because of it. In time the mandolin and guitar had to go, bartered for food to prevent us from starving to death. The occupants of desperate situation themselves.
I would like, perhaps, at this point of the story to give you a little idea of some of the other occupants of our small community. There was Mrs. A whose name I can’t quite remember and who came from the Ukraine. She had been sent to Siberia some years previously because her husband had been put in prison for some trivial offence. She had about half a dozen children and worked on the farm. Her eldest son was lucky enough to be serving in the Russian Navy despite his father’s imprisonment and was particularly proud to do so. He came to visit his Mother during one of his leaves and went out hi s way to chat to me. One day he produced a map of the world and showing it to me pointed out all the countries shaded in pink, which I knew was the British Empire. “Do you see that,” he said, “all these countries belong to England but we are going to free them all and liberate their people from being exploited by capitalists”. Who was I to argue with him in that situation?
The manageress of the farm had thrown her husband out to the next communal farm and divorced him. She had a lover half her age who visited our farm on a regular basis as part of his job. He wore a uniform and went round the district lecturing the populace on what was going on in the world and how the USSR was endeavouring to liberate people from capitalist exploitation. The manageress liked to drink and seemed to have more access to vodka than anyone else. Often, while tipsy she visited the next house we stayed in as she was somehow related to our “new landlord”. She was very friendly in this state and called me “Handsome”. She stayed for hours and there would be lots of noise and singing. One day an itinerant cobbler and his wife arrived and set up home in an empty house. They were a nice-looking couple in their thirties and were particularly civil and pleasant to talk to. The cobbler made wonderful winter boots, shaped like Wellingtons and made completely of wool. Firstly the wool had to be specially prepared and made into felt which he shaped into a knee-length boot. Then the boot was put into an oven to dry out, stiffen and harden. The whole boot was made of this felt, even the soles. These boots were for wearing in the winter when there was always snow on the ground. They were ideal and everyone who could afford a pair wore them. In our second winter I managed to find a pair with the soles completely worn away which someone had thrown out. I cut new soles from an old piece of rubber tyre and attached these to the boots with wire stitches. I then wore them but they were terribly heavy to say the least. The cobbler was usually paid with food and vodka. Unfortunately, he drank too much and would then beat up his wife who, although bruised, never complained to anyone. He drank and drank and it began to affect his work. His newly made boots no longer stood proud and erect but fell over in a crumpled heap. When sober he was a very nice chap but when drunk he would pick a quarrel with anyone.
The farm employed a “knocker up” who was a man who came round about sunrise, riding a horse and carrying a long wooden pole. He would knock hard on the worker’s houses calling, “Come out to work”. It was necessary to have this man as no one in the village had a clock or a watch!
We had a village post woman who carried milk to Szczerbakty and transported letters and parcels back and forth. In summer she had a horse and cart and in winter a sledge with either a horse or ox to pull it. Near the end of our fi rst winter in Siberia this woman was returning from Szczerbakty when the wind started up and soon it developed into the typical BURAN, a gale force wind containing sand and snow. Soon she was unable to see her way and was freezing cold so she decided to let the horse walk on and she walked immediately behind the sledge which gave her a little protection. Shortly afterwards however she realised the horse and sledge had disappeared from in front of her and she was completely alone. She struggled on in what she hoped was the right direction towards the village which she knew could not be far. Miraculously she stumbled into the village where she was found and taken to hospital. She had frostbite on her fingers and toes and even on other parts of her body. There was no sign of the horse and sledge. The post woman slowly recovered and in time was able to resume her job. The poor horse was only found some weeks later in early springtime when the thick snow began to melt. Outside the village there was a large, long hay stack covered with snow. As the snow melted the top of the stack appeared and then beside it the head of the horse. As more snow melted away the horse could be seen resting against the hay stack, with the sledge, where the animal must have taken shelter from the wind and snow.