NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
by Julian Rybarczyk
Once again I was asked to go on a trip to the forest for timber and as before, five or six of us set out. We stopped during the day, once or twice to rest the animals and have something to eat and drink. Someone had brought a pack of playing cards so it was decided to play pontoon. We all had some roubles with us on the off chance that we might find something to buy. This was most unlikely so we didn’t attach much importance to our money. Money is useless if you can’t purchase anything with it. I was lucky with the cards and before long I had won all the money from the other men. They were good losers and did not show any ill will towards me for winning. When we reached the village beside the forest I again met up with the Polish people there and we exchanged our news. As before, we cut down the trees, chopped off the branches, loaded them on to our vehicle and when ready started on our return journey. The road passed through a farm wit h its adjoining village and I was surprised and delighted to discover they had just received a consignment of sweets. I used up all the money I had won in buying as many sweets as I could, the first I had seen since leaving Poland. Journeying on we passed another hamlet where one of my companions heard the most dramatic news on a radio. He rushed back to me, very upset, and declared that Germany had invaded Russia! This was on the 22nd June 1941.
This entirely unexpected revelation came as a great shock to me. I was momentarily stunned, just like my Russian companion but for completely different reasons. Here was good news for us at last, to give us hope. Too late I realised that my feelings must have shown on my face for the young Russian asked me why I looked so happy. Quickly I had to pull myself together for I could be in a dangerous situation if I didn’t hide my true feelings. “Yes,” I said, “I am happy Germany has attacked Russia because, unlike Poland, Russia is a strong and great nation and will quickly defeat Germany”. I went on in this vein for some time and any suspicions he may have had melted away.
On reaching our village I discovered my family and Polish friends had already heard the news of war and were overjoyed and excited but they had to hide their true emotions. What a day that was for us! I shared out my sweets so it was a double joy for us all. We hadn’t been so happy for a long time. Perhaps now our luck would change. We all experienced a rising feeling of hope that our present situation may now improve. I must mention here that not all Polish people in Siberia were jubilant. Those of the Jewish faith could not rejoice but instead were apprehensive and full of fear. These poor people had already fled from Western Poland to Eastern Poland to escape the German invading army. From there, the Bolsheviks had deported them to Siberia.
Almost immediately we felt the changes that the war would bring to our lives. All the younger Russian men were called up to the army and went off to defend their country. This meant there was a shortage of labour to run the farm so we were allowed to work there and were much in demand. We were given nothing for this work until later in the summer when the harvest was gathered and then we received grain, potatoes and such like. Kazia got a job for a short time planting trees near Szczerbakty and stayed there during the week, then returned home for the weekends. I was given work on the farm collecting the hay and with the help of oxen and cart, putting it in store for the coming winter.
One day I was in Szczerbakty when a train of cattle wagons arrived. From out the wagons came families of Germans. These people were being moved from outside of Moscow where they farmed the fertile soil beside the River Volga. Although having lived there for generations they still spoke German among themselves. As the German army approached further east and so they had arrived at Szczerbakty. Some of the families were placed in our village and started to work on the farm and were given some flour, potatoes, fat etc.. A record had been made of the food they had had to leave behind and this amount was given to them on arrival. The men were big and strong and excellent workers. I noticed that when they were forking the hay up onto the carts, their carts were piled high long before mine. They of course had always been well fed and not starved as I was. I chatted to these people and they were not happy but they didn’t complain. Considering that there was a war on they at least were reasonably safe, fed and able to carry on farming.
On arrival at our village these German families were dispersed like we had been. The farm manageress went to the houses occupied by the Russian villagers and told them they would have to take a German family in to share their two rooms. One of these German farmers had two families. He spent three days of the week with one wife and some children and then moved into another house where he had another wife and more children and stayed the rest of the week. Nobody seemed to bother about this arrangement. Well, there was a war on! Marriage appeared to be taken rather lightly in Russia. To get married you just went along to a government office and registered your marriage and likewise if you wanted to end your marriage you went along to the same or similar office and registered your wish to end the marriage and that was that. For these Germans life con tinued like this in our village for a while until one early morning the KGB arrived. They rounded up all the German men and boys and took them away and we and their wives never heard from them again as long as I was there.
Yet again the farm required wood but now all the men were off to the war so there was only Zbyszek, myself and a deaf and dumb young Russian free to make this journey. We were given two carts, four oxen, the usual supply of meagre provisions and money to pay for the timber and off we went. When we reached the forest the man in charge directed us to an area well away from the village so I was unable to speak to my Polish friends. We were shown where we could cut down trees, just inside the edge of the forest. As Zbyszek was about thirteen years old at this time the work of felling trees was too heavy for him so we left him outside the forest and told him to look after the oxen. The Russian and I commenced felling the trees and worked on for some time when one of the forest guards appeared on horseback to check on us and see that we were doing the work properly.
While he was there we walked out of the forest to where we had left Zbyszek and the oxen. I looked round and could see neither! It was lovely weather, with blue skies and the flat empty countryside spread out as far as the eye could see like a vast ocean. I called Zbyszek’s name and then spotted him asleep on the ground nearby. Of the oxen there was no sign. We stared into the distance and away on the horizon we could make out something which we thought could only be our oxen making their way back home.
I panicked as I was now in a very awkward situation so quickly decided what I would have to do. Soon the oxen would be out of sight so I asked the guard if he would lend me his horse and I agreed to do so for a price. He asked me what I could give him and we agreed that he would accept some flour and some extra money on top of what he was going to charge us for the timber. That settled, I jumped on his horse and galloped away towards the disappearing oxen. Luckily they were plodding along quite slowly and before too long I made up on them. It was quite easy for me then to get them under control and turned round for the walk back. If the guard had not lent me his horse I don’t know what I would have done. The farm manageress had given me the money to pay for the timber and not knowing exactly what it would cost had given me a generous amount. All this money had now gone, mostly on the timber and some for the guard. On returning to the farm I related the story to the manageress and she was so glad to get the timber delivered and the oxen home safely that she forgave me.
One day that summer some of the young people of the village decided to make the long trip to the fresh water lake for a swim. About a dozen of us set off, four Polish boys, some Russian boys and two or three Russian girls. We were in high spirits on this long walk and looking forward to having a swim in the lake in such hot weather. We walked on, passing a few dilapidated and ruined clay houses no longer habitable. One Russian girl was particularly happy and excited as she was looking forward to joining the air force and flying a plane. Her hopes were high as she imagined herself already up in the wide blue sky. At last we reached the lake and wasted no time plunging into the water. What a luxury and pleasure it was for us after enduring such a hard and Spartan life for so long. Into the water we splashed, then out to lie on the sunny banks for a res t before re-entering the water again for another swim and splash about. The time passed so happily for us all.
After a while we noticed that three men had appeared further along the shore, about two hundred metres away from us. They were fishing with a big V-shaped fishing net. We were curious to see how they did this and also wondered if they were having any luck so we strolled over to them. There was high grass and reeds growing there at the water’s edge and their horse and cart stood nearby with the horse tied up and enjoying a bag of oats. The water was waist deep and the fishermen waded out holding the net wide for a while then enclosing it and entrapping any fish swimming by. They then walked back to the shore to empty out their catch and inspect it. They did rather well because each time they emptied their net it produced a good few fish, mainly fair sized pike about 40cm long. The fishermen had two sacks lying on the shore and in these they placed their fish before going back again into the water for more. We watched fascinated as the afternoon turned to evening and gradually our swimming party returned to where we had been bathing earlier, leaving at last just myself, a keen fisherman, and two Russian boys. The two sacks were filling up and we noticed that nearly every time the fishermen returned with another catch they walked away to where the horse and cart stood. We realised that they had vodka there and were treating themselves to a drink of it quite frequently. I thought of a bright idea and suggested to my Russian companions that the next time the now tipsy fishermen returned to their cart we could steal a few fish from the sacks and hide them in the long grass. They thought it was a marvellous plan so that is what we did, not once, but several times. How happy we all were. The fishermen were happy with all their fish and the effects of the vodka. We were happy with the thought of the feast to come and the horse was happy with its oats. I engaged the fishermen in small talk and praised them for being so clever in managing to catch so many fish.
The time came when they decided to pack up and go home but before they did, they said we could have one turn of the fishing net and keep any fish that we caught. They had been fishing for hours so there weren’t many fish still about but with the three of us working the net we managed to catch a fair sized pike and quite a few smaller fish. The fishermen claimed the pike for themselves but said we could have the smaller fish. By this time th e fishermen were drunk and on looking at the fish they had in their sacks were quite perplexed. “How is it,” said one, “that we have fished most of the day and we haven’t more fish than this? Where the devil have they got to?” They were too inebriated to think properly so just climbed on their cart and departed homewards with me shouting a friendly, “Happy journey home and enjoy your fish!”
When they were well out of sight the three of us went in among the long grass and gathered up some of the fish we had thrown there. Joyfully we returned along the lakeside to find our friends and tell them of our good fortune. By now it was quite dark so we all went back to the reeds and searched carefully for the remaining fish. The next thing was to get organised for our feast. Some of us went to the nearby Kazakh village and managed to borrow a big black saucepan. We built a fire and cooked all the fish in a little water. How we enjoyed that fish! So fresh and plentiful! It was far too late to return to our far off village so we settled down to sleep in the open that warm summer night, full of fish and well content.
One day I was given the job of taking a load of grain to Szerbakty, to be turned into flour at the big mill there. To help me I had Zbyszek and the deaf and dumb lad. It was the usual slow journey on a cart pulled by a pair of oxen. On arrival our grain was weighed and tested for quality before being accepted. We left it at the mill for some time before returning to collect our bags of flour and heading back to our village. At our communal farm it was soon discovered that we were short of two bags of flour. I was asked immediately where these two bags had gone. For a moment I was shocked to be told that some flour was missing and could find no answer to this question. The man in charge at the farm looked at me with a suspicious eye when suddenly I remembered that I had put two sacks of flour together outside the door of the mill. It was clear in my mind that I had stood one sack upright and placed the other across it on top. I must have forgotten to lift these two onto the cart. I told this to the man in charge who advised me to get back and find them as soon as possible. He was very serious. I understood the situation and had to make a plan quickly to get back the seven odd miles to Szerbakty. I ran to a nearby pasture where there were horses grazing belonging to the farm. Because of the urgency of the situation I didn’t ask anyone for permission to borrow a horse. As there was no fencing the horse’s two front legs were tied loosely by ropes so that they could not gallop off. Normally I would have had no desire to be near a horse having been bitten once on the arm when going to stroke one in Poland. This time however, I was forced to tak e the risk and kneeling down, I untied one horse’s legs. With one leap I was up, astride the horse’s bare back and off. I chose the shortest route, not by the road, but as the crow flies, across the fields, even riding through growing crops. The horse was galloping as fast as it could and I was hoping against hope that I might reach the mill before somebody stole the two bags of flour. What a relief it was to finally come in sight of the mill and to find the bags still standing as I had left them. Not a soul was about as everyone had gone home for the day. My luck still held for presently a man from our village passed by, returning home with a cart and oxen from Szczerbakty. He stopped and offered me a lift so I tied the horse to the cart, placed the flour on the cart and climbed aboard myself and relaxed gratefully while we made the slow journey back.
Villagers working on the communal farm were paid once a year with farm produce and roubles. The only roubles we had were the ones we had brought with us from Poland. There was rarely any chance to spend them as there were no shops. Once or twice a year the farm would receive a consignment of vodka to be sold and we usually were able to buy a bottle or two, not to drink of course, but to exchange for something more sensible. Once, as I have told, I was lucky enough to buy some sweets from another village as I happened to pass through but I don’t remember ever having a chance like that again.
Every year the government arranged for a market to be set up in Szczerbakty. This was a chance for the population of all the surrounding villages to come and buy some clothes or shoes. I don’t remember seeing anything else for sale like food, china, furniture etc. that one might expect in markets in other countries. Unfortunately for us it was not only roubles that were required to purchase these clothes and shoes, one also had to have tokens as well. These tokens were given out by the government officials in return for certain commodities that the villagers had to hand over. For example, people were allowed to keep a pig, a cow or a few sheep if they wished and when the time came for the pig to be slaughtered the skin had to be handed over to an official in return for tokens. Likewise, some of the wool from the sheep would also earn the owner some tokens. These tokens were saved up until the market arrived and then, along with roubles, allowed the owner to buy goods. I don’t know too much about it because of course although we had a few roubles we had no tokens so could buy nothing.
Mentioning pigs reminds me of our pig which we kept in our porch. We fed it on anything we could spare, mainly potatoes. When winter arrived it had grown quite a bit but was nowhere near its full size. Spare food for it was becoming even scarcer so it had to go. I had the unpleasant task of killing it which I had seen done in Poland. It was wonderful for us to have this pork which we consumed sparingly. With the temperature well below freezing, we had a natural deep freeze to store it in and so we were able to make it last for quite a while.
Before being deported to Siberia we had listened avidly to the news of the war on the radio. To begin with we could hear the news in Polish being broadcast from France and later from London. It was from these news programmes that we learned of thousands of Poles having escaped from Poland by one way or another and were now out of the clutches of both the Germans and the Russians. Most of them had made their way finally to Britain. Members of the armed forces were reformed with others joining as new recruits. Pilots and crewmen of the Polish Airforce fought valiantly, along with the RAF, in the Battle of Britain in the early part of the war. The Polish Army was formed into their own di visions and trained all over the country. Some Polish ships were at sea when the war started and were able to make their way to Britain. All these forces were under the overall command of General Sikorski. Apart from these Polish Armed forces, a Polish Government in exile was set up in London.
In Siberia we had no access to any radio and the only news of the progress of the war or of world events was what we could read in the Russian newspapers that we sometimes saw. We had no way of knowing about a plan General Sikorski had to try and obtain the liberation of Polish nationals in the USSR. Immediately after Germany had attacked Russia in June 1941, General Sikorski approached Churchill. He pointed out to Churchill that the Soviet Government was holding approximately 250,000 Polish POWs in labour camps throughout Russia in appalling conditions. Also there were thousands of Polish men, women and children incarcerated in Russia, mainly in Siberia. All these people, if able and given the opportunity, would be only too willing to fight against the Germans. And so a plan was devised and agreed upon. In due course General Sikorski, with his entourage, went to Russia to put a proposition to Stalin. As General Sikorski could not speak Russian he had to take an interpreter with him, Witek Szymkiewicz, who happened to be a near neighbour of ours in Mołodeczno. General Sikorski proposed to Stalin that if he granted all the Polish people then incarcerated in Russia an amnesty, they would form themselves into an army and under the auspices of the British Government, help to fight the common foe, Germany. It seems remarkable that Stalin agreed to this but it has to be remembered that by then the German army were pushing further and further into Russia and was nearing Moscow. Stalin must have indeed been very frightened at this particular time to have agreed to this proposal as it was quite against his character. And so a pact was signed with the Soviet Government which would allow Polish people throughout the USSR to leave wherever they were and make their way to certain places where they would be organised into a fighting force to be ultimately under British command.
The news of the amnesty seeped through to us in our village, but not the plans to form aPolish army, and we were greatly uplifted. We didn’t feel like prisoners anymore and our hopes of ultimate escape were much higher. There was nothing we could really do in the meantime but stay where we were. Winter was approaching and at least we had a roof over our heads and some provisions, however meagre, to keep us going. Moreover we were together, among friends and in a place that was now familiar.
About this time we heard that at a place, a couple of stations from Szczerbakty, there had been a good harvest and they had flour for sale. Now that there were no restrictions on our movements and we had some roubles, we decided it was worthwhile taking a trip. Along with someone else, I don’t remember who, we took a train from Szczerbakty and got off full of expectations but it was the usual story. There was nothing there, neither flour nor anything else for sale so we had to return empty handed.
One day a Ukrainian widow, who lived in our village, asked me to do something for her. She explained that she was very low on hay to see her through the coming winter and as she had heard that the neighbouring Kazakh village had some for sale would I go and try to obtain some for her? I readily agreed and as someone else from our village was going al so we decided to go together. The other person turned out to be a Russian man who had still not been called up for military duty as he had a very old mother to look after. We set off, each with a sledge pulled by an ox. These sledges were used in winter when there was snow on the ground and were like carts, with runners instead of wheels.
I had been given some roubles and a sack of flour to pay for any hay I could get. At the Kazakh village we went from house to house enquiring if the occupants had any spare hay they would like to sell. We purchased a little here and a little there but we weren’t very happy as the quality was poor and the price high. At last my Russian companion stopped and pointed out that about two thirds of my flour had gone as well as a lot of roubles and, like him, I hadn’t got much hay for it. As it was late he said we should now give up for the day and stay the night there. Kazakhs are hospitable people and we were invited into one house where they turned out to be going to have a feast. They must have killed some animal and were roasting part of it. Inside the house was a low round table with men sitting on the floor all around it. We, along with a few other men, were invited to sit round the table too, behind those already there.
There was no cutlery or dishes on the table. Presently a man entered carrying a large piece of roasted meat. With a sharp knife, and still standing, he hacked pieces off and flung them onto the table, where they were quickly snatched up by the waiting diners. It was only when the men on the inner circle had their fill that we, on the outer circle, managed to grab a juicy piece of meat. As I remember it the meat was quite plentiful and I, for one, enjoyed the unexpected treat. When we were finished a Kazakh came round us all carrying a small vessel with a spout. In it was water, which he poured a little of into our cupped hands. We “washed” our hands but this was more symbolic than actually cleaning our greasy hands and had probably some religious significance. Soon some of the guests departed, presumably to their own homes, but quite a few remained who started to lie down on the floor and go to sleep including myself.
It seemed like no time before my Russian companion was gently and quietly wakening me. He whispered to me that it was time for us to leave and so very carefully we stepped over the sleeping figures and into the starry night. The moon was bright as we silently went to our sledges and oxen and slipped away from the village. I was a little bemused by my companion’s behaviour but just went along with it. We set off in the direction of our village but after about two miles the Russian stopped and beckoned me to do likewise and to get off my sledge and join him. He walked off the road and back about fifteen metres and there stood an enormous hay stack, very high and about twelve metres long. Already one end of the haystack appeared to have been interfered with where someone had removed some hay. The haystack belonged to the village we had just left and the Russian indicated we should fetch our forks from the sledges and help ourselves. This is what we did till we had a magnificent pile on both sledges. We secured the hay with ropes and set off once again for home. The Ukrainian widow was amazed and delighted at all the hay. I think I kept the flour and roubles I hadn’t spent and no doubt she paid me with more flour and roubles for my trouble. Perhaps not a very edifying story but remember my circumstances.
That summer I had been given some work to do in the farm and was paid in the autumn with some of the harvest, a little of this and a little of that. One thing I received was some sunflower seeds. I had also been able to gather some of these seeds while out and about, a pocketful here and a pocketful there. Russians were very partial to these small seeds when roasted. They can pop them into their mouths, crack them open with their teeth and spit out the shell within a second a two. The edible inside seed is very small bu t tasty and enjoyed by the poor Russians who had so little variety in their food.
My Mother roasted our seeds in the oven and we found we had enough to fill a smallish sack. Here was a chance for me to make a clear profit by selling them. But where? I dressed up as warmly as I could, including wearing a large fur hat, borrowed a small sledge, and with the sack on it, set off to walk to Szczerbakty.
Reaching there I placed myself strategically near the railway station and the restaurant (where they only sold thin watery cabbage soup but hot). I had brought a glass with me to use as a measure. When anybody came along I shouted “Sunflower seeds! Sunflower seeds for sale! One rouble a glassful!”. This was a novelty as of course there was no free trade. I was soon doing brisk business. I measured out a glassful and my customers emptied the seeds straight into their pocket. I stuffed the paper rouble inside my jacket, against my chest. No sooner would a customer walk off than they were throwing the seeds, expertly and singly, into their mouths, spitting out the shells and enjoying chewing the tiny seed within. They were very skilled and quick. Trade was good and I sometimes had a small queue. My customers were smiling and happy to have this unexpected treat. It wasn’t too long before I had sold out and had to walk the long journey home across the snow. I had made six hundred to seven hundred roubles! As things turned out I didn ’t get the chance to spend the bulk of this money.
Mrs. Januszajtis, whose two little children had died of malnutrition, stayed with us for quite a long time. At the beginning of our second winter in Siberia, with the amnesty in place, we had a visit from a member of the Red Cross, a Polish lady. She turned out to be the sister of Mrs. Januszaktis’s husband. She gathered up Mrs Januszajtis, and her two remaining children along with Jarina, the nanny and took them away. We didn’t know where they went but we met up with them again, much later. On leaving us Mrs Januszajtis had no news of her husband.