The Red Poppies of Monte Cassino
This story was told by Karol Jastrzebski’s daughter - Bogumila Jarosz
and written by his grand-daughter Izabela Spero
This is a short story of my father’s – Karol Jastrzebski - long journey back home
during World War II.
The story began in a small town of Chodel in the eastern part of Poland where my parents, my brother and I lived.
On the 15th of August 1939 when the threat of imminent war became apparent my father was called up to join the Polish Army in Lublin, 50 km away from home. Soon after on the 1st of September 1939 the German forces invaded Poland crossing our boarders by land and by air. My father’s division was ready to be moved to the western front but the army officials allowed some of the soldiers to go back home for final one day visit. On the 3rd of September 1939 dad came home to say goodbye. Although I was only 6 years old at that time I still vividly remember holding my father’s hand very tightly all the way to the bus stop. I didn’t want to let it go. With his soft but deep voice my father kept re-assuring me that the war will soon be over and we will be together again. He asked me to help my mother at home and take good care of my two years old brother. I loved my father dearly so when the bus arrived there was no end to hugs and kisses. My brother and I couldn’t comprehend why he had to go. We kept waving until we could see the bus no more.
The days and months passed by and we didn’t hear a word from dad. Our house was taken over first by Russian and later by German soldiers. Life was very hard. My mother was left on her own to look after the livestock and the small farm. Despite my young age I had no choice but to do the house chores, learn to cook and look after my brother. I cooked standing on a stool as I could barely reach to the top of the cooker. Months became years, still there was no sign from my dad but we never lost hope that he was still alive somewhere….At last in the spring of 1942 the first note arrived containing just one sentence “I am as healthy as…( someone’s name) and well as….( another person’s name)” The names he mentioned were of the local beggars. We understood the message. He was afraid to write more as he didn’t want to expose us to the danger of deportation to Russia, of which at that time we had no idea. Then it went quiet again. Another year passed and we heard nothing. My mother was desperately seeking any information about his whereabouts. She was in touch with the Red Cross but they were also unable to locate him. There was nothing else left for us but to keep our hopes alive, so every night the three of us prayed on our knees for his safe return home.
My father’s long journey began on the 17th of September 1939 when Stalin made a pact
with Hitler to split almost defenceless Poland between Russia and Germany. On that day the Russian Army crossed Polish borders and took over the eastern part of Polish territories. The Germans were advancing from the West, easily defeating Polish forces that were unprepared for this war. All Polish soldiers retreating to the East from the Germans attacks unknowingly found themselves under Russian occupation. Poland as a country ceased to exist. The train on which my father’s division was travelling was stopped in the middle of nowhere and was surrounded by Russian soldiers who gave them orders to disembark, disarm and leave all their personal belongings. Soon after, they were told to form columns and march towards the nearest town Dubno. They walked the whole day and night without food or water exposed to verbal abuse and rough treatment. Russian soldiers had strict orders not to talk to their prisoners. For Poles the whole situation was worrisome and very confusing. They were still on what used to be Polish territory but somehow the Russians were in command. Despite these circumstances they still hoped to be put on the next train back home. After a few hours rest they were told to march again towards ex- Polish military outbuilding were they stayed for a few days. Nothing was disclosed, no explanation was given except for intensified questioning by Russians regarding the rank of each prisoner. They wanted to know the identity of Polish officers. Having met no co-operation from Poles they “identified” higher ranking officers by “smoother looking” hands. Thousands of them were quietly executed in Russian prisons and forests. The Russian communist government had plans for occupied Poland and its citizens. Hundred of thousands of Polish intelligentsia, teachers, high ranking army and police officers, wealthy land owners with their entire families were deported deep into Russian territories to work in factories and forests as forced labour.
On the 26th of September 1939 my father’s division was on the move again. They boarded the cattle train to a yet again unknown destination. Due to the lack of windows they found it difficult to recognise in which direction the train was going. For the next few days they remained hopeful to see their families soon until someone, judging by the sunrise and sunset worked out that they were travelling to the East not to the West. One day, after what seemed to be a never ending journey, the train stopped at Novogrod station. It was now apparent that they were in Russia. Fifteen thousand Polish soldiers found themselves far from Polish borders. They stayed in Novogrod’s transit camp for a few months working as forced labour, building and maintaining local roads. My father met a few of his friends there. Their living conditions were appalling. They slept in barracks which didn’t have any heating. The makeshift beds had no pillows or blankets. Soldiers used their coats and slept close to one another to keep warm at night. Food was rationed and consisted normally of hot broth with small slice of bread. The Poles still had no idea what was in store for them. Life in the “unknown” brought feelings of apathy and nostalgia. Russians kept the destiny of their captives’ top secret.
From Novogrod the prisoners were transported by train to Zaporoze, a big industrial town in central Russia, well known for its steel industry which required a large workforce. Again, with no explanation whatsoever, the Poles were told to disembark and march towards the barracks, their new living quarters. Each barrack with double storey beds sleeping four above and five below had just enough room to accommodate 350 people. The usual food ration of hot broth and small slice of bread was this time re-distributed according to daily performance at work. Each soldier was given a round metal disk with an identity number engraved on it as well as a small identity book to record the performance of daily tasks. Although the prisoners were obliged to have the disk and the I.D. books with them at all times they ignored these orders. The disks were threaded on a wire and hung on the barrack walls and the paper from the books was used to roll tobacco. The camp was fenced and guarded by Russian soldiers. A few tried to escape but they were caught quickly as no Russian was willing to help the Poles. The escapees were locked away in dark and overcrowded “Punishment Barracks”. From now on they were prisoner of war.
When one day the Russian soldiers guarding the camp were replaced by the secret service unit the whole camp went on strike. The Poles didn’t want to be treated like political
prisoners. They were soldiers in captivity hence according to the international convention
they should be treated as POW’s. Russians didn’t like the Poles’ attitude and the repressions that followed were very harsh. Those who didn’t want to go to work were sent to the overcrowded “Punishment Barracks”, each of them containing three to four-storey beds to accommodate 600 people. In some barracks soldiers slept on the floor under the beds. Others who were forced to go to work sabotaged their duties by swapping work places. The situation continued until the secret service guards were removed. However as time went by slowly one by one Russian soldiers were replaced by the people from the secret service.
One day in May 1940 the accountants from the steel factory arrived in the camp unexpectedly. They came to pay off the final wages and to give words of “encouragement” to the Poles ”you are going to hunt the white bear” or “ you will live there but that is all ” . Nothing else was said to the Polish prisoners. Within a few days they were on a train again. After a few days of travel in the overcrowded carriages my father and the POW’s arrived in another transit camp in Kotlas. Two days later they boarded the barges. My father never forgot this challenging journey. The Poles were packed like sardines, 1600 of them per boat. There was hardly any place left to stand on. It was dark and they were not allowed to go on the deck. They were given only one meal per day. On the first day salted herrings and a slice of bread but no water. On the following days boiled water or very watery soup with a small piece of bread. It took them four days to reach their destination. They arrived in the POW camp in Nianda in the middle of the deep arctic forest of Komi in Western Siberia, four hundreds kilometres away from Kotlas. The main objective of their presence in this area was to build 1,200 km long railway track from Kotlas to Vorkuta.
Although it was the middle of summer, the nights were very cold. The prisoners slept in tents or in earth dwellings which were dug up deep into the ground and covered with wood brought from the forest. The Russians planned to finish building the railway by October 1940 but this task was impossible to achieve. Due to the inhuman living conditions, lack of proper food, clothing, heating, as well as the temperature reaching as low as minus 50C many prisoners died of pneumonia and those who managed to survive had frostbite or were simply too weak to work. Life was a daily struggle to survive. My fathers’ camp wasn’t the only one in the area. There were many others full of captured Polish and German soldiers, Gypsies, Polish and Jewish civilians, sometimes entire families were deported from the territories occupied by Russians.
Who knows what could have happened to all of them if the war didn’t take an unexpected turn. In June 1941 Germany declared war against Russia. Stalin, under influence of Western Allies, signed a non-aggression treaty with the Polish Government in Exile in London, which declared an amnesty and the release of all Polish soldiers and their families from labour camps across Russia. They were going to join Russian Red Army to fight against the Germans. Polish General Anders, himself a prisoner of Russian, distrusted Stalin’s “good intentions” and fought with Allies to persuade Russians to let all Poles to leave Russians territories to join British and Allied forces in the Middle East.
In August 1941 all soldiers from my father’s camp were released and transported by train on the railway track they built, towards Talica. From there they travelled to a temporary camp in Tatiszczewo, where under Gen. Anders orders they had to wait for all Poles to arrive from other labour camps. Gen. Anders knew that this was the one and only chance for all prisoners to escape from Russia. During this waiting time, new 5th Infantry Division of Polish Army was formed. Gen Anders took this opportunity to address his soldiers to lift their morale. My father remembered a few, famous now sentences from that speech which gave him hope of returning home one day. First of all Gen. Anders addressed them as “soldiers” he then told them proudly that “the time has come that the Polish Army will be formed again”…. he also said that “for the time being they have to forget about injustice and suffering that they endured so far because their main objective from now on was to fight for free Poland, however long it takes”. This speech brought irreversible changes in the hearts of the soldiers. It brought back the high values each of them held deep in their hearts, forgotten by years of hanger and mistreatments. It ignited high spirits, despite the lack of strength in their bodies. They became restless, but they had no other option but to wait. Slowly the flow of soldiers and their families from other labour camps increased. The Polish Army in order to help many thousands of Polish and Jewish civilians to escape from Russia enlisted them as families but they were unable to help everyone arriving outside their camp. Many civilians had to make their own ways to cross Russian borders to Syria and Iran. Winter was approaching so the soldiers built brick fire places in their large tents to keep them warm. However the main fuel was wood, which they had to find on a daily basis. They were stealing it from the outbuildings and fences’ belonging to Russians as the nearest forest was a few kilometers away from the camp, and the snow was too deep to walk. When times got tough, everybody including high ranking officers took turns to walk to the forest even in a deep snow. With temperatures reaching minus 40C in December 1941 the weakest and ill were sent to the hospital in Taszkient. Food rations improved slightly. The bread portions were bigger, soups had bits of meat in it, and each person was entitled to a few cubes of sugar, an absolute luxury. The Russians provided small quantities of food for the soldiers only. Thousands of civilians were left to starve. Soldiers did the utmost to share whatever they
had with their fellow countrymen.
In January 1942 very cold winds and temperatures as low as minus 50C forced them to move again. This time the trains took them closer to freedom through Kazakhstan, south to Uzbekistan still in Russian territories. The train stopped many times during the journey to pick up Polish civilians who were making their own way from Siberia towards Iran and Iraq. My father was deeply moved by their very poor physical state, “they were walking skeletons covered in rags and lice, no words could describe them” he said. Many of them died of exhaustion and dysentery during the long train journey. The dead bodies were left on the next station to be buried by Russians in unknown places. Some parents had to leave the bodies of their children or the child left the body of their only parent knowing that they will never come back to that place again. The scale of personal tragedies was overwhelming. Having survived many years in the harsh conditions of the labour camps in Siberia they were dying on the way back to freedom. In February 1942 they finally reached Jalal-Abad station in Uzbekistan.
Warm air was like a balsam to their bodies. All civilians and sick soldiers disembarked there to recuperate. The rest of the soldiers continue to travel to Surak. Here, they waited for further instructions from the Polish Chief of Staff. Prolonged recuperation time although much needed at that time, made them restless. The soldiers wanted to fight anywhere just to be closer to home. The evacuation orders came in August 1942. They boarded the trains again heading towards the small port of Krasnovodsk by the Caspian Sea from where Russian oil tankers and coal ships evacuated Polish refugees across the sea to a small town of Pahlavi in Iran. Iranian government had agreed to take a small number of Polish soldiers, however they did not expect to see so many civilians mainly women and children arriving with them. Their condition was appalling.
My father’s first memories of Pahlavi were of a place with plenty of food and a variety of shops without queues. Due to the change of climate many Poles suffered from dysentery, yellow fever, chicken blindness and itching scabs. There were also cases of typhus. It was necessary to quarantine most of them. Old clothes were burned, heads shaved and new uniforms were provided for the soldiers by the British Army. The Red Cross provided fresh clothes and blankets for the civilians. My father fondly remembered the Iranians warm hospitality. For him and many others it was a “promised land”. Most of them kissed the ground when they put their first steps on Iranian soil. They were free at last! Many private individuals opened their homes and shared whatever they could with the Poles. The Iranian government set up different types of camps for Polish soldiers and civilians. Many orphanages and schools were opened for Polish children. My father told me that when he arrived in Pahlavi, he suffered from bouts of high fever for which he had his own medicine…plenty of ice creams.
From now on the Polish Army was under British command. In September 1942, by orders from the British Chief of Staff, Polish soldiers were sent to Khanaguin in Iraq to secure the oil plants and to start routine military training. This wasn’t an easy task in the temperatures reaching plus 50C at midday. The training was usually conducted early morning and the remaining time was spent on rest. It was too hot to be outside and not much better under the tent. To make life more bearable, the inside walls of the tents and the mosquito nets were sprayed with water from time to time. The worst was still to come… the sandstorms… however they had endured so much so far that no heat or sandstorm could make them feel fearful anymore.
In March 1943 the most distressing news reached Polish refugees. The Russian communist government had announced that all Poles who were left in Russia had automatically become Russian citizens and had no rights to leave the country. This also applied to all Poles living in the territories taken over from Poland in September 1939.
Poles were also not aware that their destiny as well as the destiny of their homeland was already sealed in the same year in November in Teheran. The leaders of the Western Allies fearing spread of communist ideas from Russia; mainly USA and Britain by who’s side the Poles fought for freedoms of many foreign countries occupied by Germans, had secretly made pacts with Stalin to assign Poland to the zone of influence of the Communist Russia after the war. Tens of thousands of Poles lost their lives believing that their ultimate sacrifice will bring freedom to Poland too. The Poles felt betrayed and angry when the truth was revealed to them a year later. While still in Iraq, the Polish troops were moved from Khanaguin to Kirkut and then Mosul where Kurdish population made them very welcome.
Easter was coming and many Kurds opened their houses to celebrate this holiday with Polish soldiers. There was also an unexpected surprise. The Chief of the Polish Army Gen. Sikorski arrived to inspect his troops. He promised to involve them in the active service soon. Unfortunately he died with his daughter in a plane crash in Gibraltar a few months later.
At last in September 1943, the troops were on the move to Palestine via Jordan. They stayed in Gaza but were free to travel around. They took part in different types of trainings specially organised for them like first aid, telecommunication etc..
The Poles also had time to travel to Tel Aviv where they could buy newspapers written in Polish, listen to Polish radio, watch Polish movies, go shopping, and eat Polish food. At that time Tel Aviv had a large population of Jewish immigrants from Poland so Polish language was spoken wherever they went. The Holy Land felt like home.
In November 1943 the orders came from the British military under the command of
Gen. Montgomery to move part of the Polish troops to the small mountain village of
Bechuzzin in Lebanon. In these mountains they undertook tough training of fighting in a difficult terrain. Other soldiers learnt different skills necessary for planned actions ahead. As my father was approaching forty and had some medical training in the past in Poland, he was assigned to take first aid courses.
After Christmas 1943 the troops were moved again, this time to Egypt. They spent almost two months in the desert going through rigorous training. The excitement of an imminent action dominated the atmosphere in the camps. The Poles were more than ready. In February 1944 came new orders announcing immediate travel to Port Said. From Port Said the army board the boats to Taranto in Italy just across the Mediterranean Sea. From Taranto, they were transported to the small village of Toro near Monte Cassino and accommodated in private houses. Monte Cassino with its monastery on the top of the hill was an important strategic point on the way to Rome. It was occupied and heavily guarded by Germans. The British, American, French and New Zealand forces had fought there for months trying to take over the monastery from the Germans. All assaults were unsuccessful and almost impossible to accomplish as Germans could clearly spot any tiny movement on the hills and responded immediately with gun fire.
The Polish Army under the command of Gen. Anders was on the front line for the next planned attack, which had a secret code of Hour “H”. Before the attack Gen. Andres addressed his troops. My father told me the lines he remembered: …”for this action let the lion spirit enter your hearts”…”Keep deep in your hearts God, honour and our homeland – Poland”… “go and take the revenge for all the sufferings in our land, for what you have suffered for many years in Russia and for years of separation from your families”My father said that after that speech they were unstoppable and they proved it!
The countdown to the code hour “H” began.
On the 11th of May 1944 at 11pm the attack started with blasts from thousands of artillery
guns across Italy from sea to sea. First Polish 3rd Karpat Division was thrown into action on the hill coded “593” then Polish Eastern Infantry Division. Hundreds of tanks provided some fire cover. The noise of the continuous blasts was overwhelming.
Before the attack my father stood guard at the telecommunication post. When the attack
began he assembled his men, as he was in charge of the medical unit and prepared for rescue action.
Early morning when the fire temporarily died down, the medical teams were able to attend to the casualties. There were hundreds of them spread on the hills. In such circumstances, the medics did what they could. They applied first aid, carried the injured on stretchers to army ambulances, as well as brought down the bodies of fallen soldiers. It was a gruesome task to perform. After days of heavy fighting, at last on the 17th of May 1944 Polish forces broke through the German lines, took over the monastery, raised the white and read Polish flag and rang the monastery bell on the top of Monte Cassino.
The battle of Monte Cassino was over, British soldiers chased away retreating Germans and shortly after, the British flag was raised next to the Polish.
This was one of the most significant turning points in the World War II history. From now on, freedom from German occupation was at the stretch of an arm. The scale of lost lives for this victory was unimaginable. My father shared with me a few of his experiences with his dying comrades. For some, the victory was sweeter then death. Others begged for help as they wanted to live so much, there were those who wanted to share with my Dad happy memories from their homes in Poland, asking to give messages once the war was over and those who prayed asked my father to pray with them.
After the victory it was time to bury the dead. The cemetery in Aquafondale was full.
Many crosses had “unknown” written on them. To commemorate the battle on Monte Cassino, Feliks Konarski composed the song which every Pole young or old knows off by heart. I would like to quote a few lines:
“They went excited and angry,
They went to revenge and to kill
They went insanely stubborn
As always to fight for an honour….
The red poppies of Monte Cassino
Instead of dew drank Polish blood
And on those poppies walked soldiers and fall
Because the anger was stronger then death”…
From Monte Cassino the Polish Army fought Germans all the way to Bolognia, which was eventually freed by Poles. The Italians, as a form of appreciation, asked many Polish soldiers to be the godfathers to their children. My father received such honour from a family in a small Italian town called Forli.
After the victory in Italy my father’s division was sent to England. Regretfully they were not welcome there. They did their job along the British forces, now they were dispensable. The British government considered them as a burden to their country. Many British citizens repeatedly told Poles “to go home”. The truth was, that for many years they wanted nothing else but to go back home but their country was now occupied by communist Russia and they knew best what that meant as they just managed to escape from Russian’s labour camps. They feared that on their return to Poland they would be deported to Russia again, probably with their entire families. New Zealand, Australian and Canadian Armies enlisted to their forces those Poles who made up their mind not to go back to communist Poland and granted them citizenships in their countries. The majority however were buying time as they desperately wanted to be with their families and at the same time tormented by the memories of Siberia, were too afraid to go back home. General Anders and the Polish Government in Exile in London persuaded Winston Churchill to let their men stay in Britain for two more years. Provisional camps were set up to accommodate Polish troops and to provide them with much needed training especially for many young soldiers whose education was disrupted by the war. Being unwelcome immigrants restricted their job opportunities although many of them were high ranking officers, teachers, medical doctors, engineers and intellectualists. Poles took any menial jobs available and any courses to further their education as they needed some sort of stability in their life.
In April 1947, Russia under pressure from the Western countries granted an amnesty
to all Polish soldiers and freedom fighters in Poland as well as outside the Polish borders.
“Free Passage to Poland” was open. Still many Poles remained hesitant. News were floating around about Russian run secret service repressions, imprisonment without
a trail, peoples disappearing without trace, general nationalisation, prohibition of basic rights to free speech, believes, travels. For anyone wanting to start a new life after the devastation of a long war, to face and to live again with an enemy on their doorstep was a very brave thing to do. Those who couldn’t face the separation from their family any longer boarded the first available transport to Poland. Poles from eastern parts of Poland whose homes were now on Russian owned territories had nowhere to go back to. They had no choice but to apply for asylum in Britain or to immigrate elsewhere, hence how “Polish Diaspora” begun
My father returned home on the ship from Leith in England to Gdansk in Poland on the 21st of April 1947.
We were overjoyed with happiness. It felt like he has never left us but, it soon became apparent that he was not the same man and I wasn’t a little girl anymore. Our happy memories ended long time ago at the bus stop in Chodel. I was in high school and lived in a boarding school; my contact with home was very limited. I was desperately longing for loving feelings from my dad again. My father tried very hard to re-build his life. He tended to the house, looked for an employment, my sister was born, yet whatever he attempted to do, he faced a brick wall.
Not long after his return home he was asked to report to the police quarters for “questioning”, then regular secret service visits to our house began. He wasn’t welcomed in his homeland. He was “an unwanted element” who experienced and knew too much. He “probably was a spy” and had lots of foreign currency hidden somewhere or he was propagating “undesirable western ideas”. That’s how my father was treated by the secret police. I could only describe my fathers suffering from that time as hellish. At one point, long after the war ended the secret police took him to the woods and at the gun point to his head told him to reveal his “hiding place for gold”. Looking back, I think that he must have been a very strong man to sustain these intimidations. At first he talked about his war experiences very vaguely and in a big secret. We learnt more as the time went by.
On his return home my father brought with him a mixture of happy and sad memories
and the items shown in his photo collection.
He was awarded the following medals:1939-45 Star, Italy Star, Defence Medal and
War Medal 1939-45 also Polish War Medal and Cross of Monte Cassino.
He brought home “Cross of Monte Cassino” which was awarded only to those who took part in the battle of Monte Cassino, he didn’t collect the others as he feared the reprisal form Soviet run security.
The remaining medals have been recently collected by his grand-daughter.
ALL MY FATHER EVER WANTED… was a quiet life and being surrounded by his family and friends. Like any other soldier he did his duties to his country going to war. Unfortunate circumstances took him through the hell and back.
Source: Bugomila Jarosz at BBC website: bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar