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Karol RYBCZYNSKI: War Memoir 1939 - 1942

translated by his son Stanislaw

Our house in Lwow stood at No. 10 Chorazczyzny Street, not more than 60 yards from Akademicka Street. It was a two story (using the European system of counting stories) stone building. The ground floor housed three street level stores: a custom men's tailor, a ladies' hairdressing salon and an electrical contractor. We occupied almost the entire first floor (one story above street level) comprising 3 very large rooms and a balcony facing the front and 2 very large rooms facing the courtyard, also bathroom, foyer and the kitchen. There was also a gallery running the width of the entire back facing the courtyard at the end of which was the stairway used by the tradesmen with access to the kitchen. There was also another toilet, with access from the gallery, used by our maid. One room and a kitchen and toilet were rented by a widow who lived there with her maid. On the second floor, one above ours (the 2nd story above street level), there were two apartments rented to a drapery merchant and a doctor. The building was the property of my father. On the ground floor facing the courtyard there was a small apartment occupied by our concierge. Today the building stands unchanged but neglected and the stores have been converted into apartments.


On September 22, 1939 I did not open my office and issued instructions to my managers not to open my two stores. I went to the Polytechnical Institute, which was converted into a field hospital, in which was confined my younger son Tadeusz, age 16, graduate of the new type of secondary school. He was wounded in both legs by shrapnel fragments. My son was taking part in the defense of Lwow in a company of scouts and was wounded outside the school of St. Mary Magdalen after his company was retired from Kortumowka Hill in Kleparow (a suburb of Lwow).


From early morning there were rumours that Gen. Langner, commander of the army corps defending the city, was faced with the decision to surrender the city to the Bolsheviks in order to avoid any further loss of life, and he decided to do so; the Soviet Army was supposed to enter the city in the afternoon. On the basis of that, I decided to bring my son home. The chief doctor of the hospital, Dr. Gruca, gave me permission to remove my son from there. I then asked the drivers of a few military ambulances which were standing in the courtyard to drive my son home. Regretfully, they all refused. I then turned to some people I knew, who were standing in the street (the street was quite crowded) asking for help in carrying him home on a stretcher, which they gladly offered and for which I was grateful. 


After bringing my son home, the first thing I noticed from the balcony of our apartment, was a taxi with a red flag driving along Akademicka Street, full of Jewish youths waving their arms with revolvers in their hands (it was still before the entry of the Bolshevik army). Shortly afterwards, a small pick-up truck full of young Jews armed with shotguns and and hand grenades, stopped in front of the office of the Association of Reserve Officers, which was opposite our apartment. At that time, the office was being used as the command post of the civil guard with General Jedrzejewski in charge. The young Jews jumped out of the truck, rushed inside and after a while, came out leading two or three persons with them. I had no chance to see who they were since it all happened so quickly. I had to retreat from the balcony and from the front windows since another group of the "Red Militia," comprising mainly young Jews, was marching along the street pointing their guns at our windows.


After about an hour or two, the Bolshevik military trucks started rolling along Chorazczyzna Street, where our house was situated, towards the Citadel. They were full of armed soldiers with their guns aimed at the windows of the houses they were passing. That night we did not sleep a wink. The following morning, four armed "militiamen," all Jews, came into the apartment demanding that I hang a red flag on the balcony. I did not feel I could do it but the retired Major Henek, who fled with his wife from Cracow before the advancing Germans and found refuge in our home, started to calm me down and said that he will do it for the sake of peace and safety; he took our Polish flag, tore away the white half and hung the remaining red half on the balcony.


Next came the order to reopen my stores irrespective of whether I had anything to sell or not. The following day I opened the larger store, the one that comprised both the wholesale and retail operations, and the lines started to form immediately. I left my personnel in the store and went to the Office of Food Supply at City Hall, which was set up the day the war started, to ask permission to travel outside the city to buy supplies for my stores, chiefly flour and gruels. In the office I found other wholesale merchants, all Jews, since I was the only non-Jewish wholesale merchant in Lwow. There, I received a directive to apply to the chief Bolshevik commissar who had set himself up the day before in the Head Regional Office; I think his name was Belov. All of us went there, where we found a delegation of bakers which had been waiting for its turn for about 5 hours. Finally we were admitted to see Commissar Belov who was sitting surrounded by ten other "comrades" all with caps on their heads, smoking evil smelling cigarettes and tossing butts on the floor or carpets, and spitting as well.


One of our group named Galiger, who could speak Russian, presented our pleas, namely a document permitting us to purchase food supplies from the flour mills and the peasants, and to transport the purchases back to Lwow. At the same time we requested that the Soviet Army officials facilitate our activities. The Commissar listened and told us that he will give us the permits to travel but we must sell the produce at the same price they were sold at before the war, irrespective of the price we pay for it. He also told us that he was surprised to see line-ups in front of the stores, since in the Soviet Union there were no such line-ups. In a few weeks, he would give us permits to travel to the Soviet Union to buy all the supplies we needed so that the shelves in our stores would be heavily laden with goods and all the line-ups will disappear. How the situation in the Soviet Union really looked we found out later! I was convinced that he was lying; unfortunately I could not tell him so.


A few days later I was informed that the permits had been issued and that they had all been given to an old wholesale merchant, quite rich, named Wittels. I went to his apartment. The maid opened the door and left me in the ante-chamber while she went to inform her employer of my arrival. She left the door of the room partly ajar.  I could hear bits of the conversation which included the following: "high time that Poland met its fate. Polish politicians in Parliament and in Municipal Councils always criticized the Jews, now we Jews will pay them back." After a while Mr. Wittels came out and told me that there is no permit for me. Most probably, he did it on purpose because I was always an inconvenient competitor, a thorn in their side; until a few years ago, they had a complete monopoly in the wholesale grocery trade. In this way, I had to once again apply to the Commissar and I received the permit three days later.


After getting the permit, I traveled the country around Lwow and succeeded in bringing in two railway wagons of flour, one of which was stolen after being unloaded at the Central Railway Station, although I had directed them to Lyczakow Station. A few days later I took another trip and managed to purchase five railway wagon-loads of goods which this time arrived in order and I sold them all at low prices, for example, flour at 40 grosze/kg, beans and peas at 70 grosze/kg, coffee compound at 1.60 zloty for 10 cubes and many other items at pre-war prices. As the result of my having obtained these supplies, there was a continuous line-up in front of my store that stretched all the way to City Hall Square (about 1 km).  


During my stay in the country I noticed that 80% of the new officials appointed by the Soviet authorities were our Polish Jews. I did not take part in the so-called "referendum," which was organized to approve the incorporation of the Polish territories, that the Bolsheviks had occupied, into the Soviet Union, since I was not at home at the time. My wife and older son, who had just turned 18, were forced by armed soldiers to go to the polls. There again, under the watchful eyes of the armed soldiers, they were forced to vote "yes." On that day I was in Truston, in the Tarnopol region, where in the market square I heard many Ruthenians, speaking in their language, complaining like this: "Now we are going to have Ukraine, we don't want such a Jewish Ukraine, we wish we had Polish rule again." A few hours later, NKVD soldiers came to the market square and arrested most of them. The population, so-called "Ukrainian," was overwhelmingly against Bolshevik rule. It was so in September and October 1939. What their attitude was later on, I do not know.


At the end of October I returned to Lwow and was informed by one of my friends, retired Major Zabniewski, that during my absence, on orders from Soviet officials, a meeting had been convened of the Polish War Invalids Association, of which I was a member, and for a time its vice-president. At that meeting, a Soviet official suggested that since all private businesses are going to be confiscated, a co-operative should be set up, operating from my main store, with the Association as its nominal operator. Someone then suggested that I should be its manager.


In response to this suggestion a Polish born lawyer, Mr. Allweil, who co-operated with the Bolsheviks, got up and opposed this suggestion then pointedly asked how come this City Councillor, elected by the National Party, is still at liberty; high time that he should be in prison. A Soviet Commissar, attending this meeting, apparently made a careful note. Major Zabniewski, repeated this story to me when I met him again in Teheran.


It is obvious that the note made by the Soviet Commissar had its effect. On the night of November 10/11 at about 2:00 a.m. in the morning, the bell rang in our apartment. Our maid opened the door and two NKVD officers barged into our bedroom and, quite politely, asked me to get dressed and go with them for an "interview." They watched me carefully as I got dressed and, when I was saying goodbye to my wife, tried to calm her down by saying that I should be back at about 7:00 in the morning. They escorted me downstairs and out into the street where they told me to get into a Soviet ZIS limousine and drove me to Pelczynska Street where the headquarters of the NKVD was set up as soon as they had occupied the city. (Translator's Note: Zis limousines were Soviet copies of American Buicks.)


The same two characters who were so politely asking me to come for an "interview," turned into devils after entering the room into which I was ushered. In addition to those two, another three entered and they all started shouting at me, calling me "you damned Polish nationalist, blood sucker, exploiter of the proletariat, leech on the body of the working people, etc." They were waving their fists in my face and hit me a few times. I have to add here that I was a member of the Polish National Democratic Party and was elected the city councillor on that party's slate. I was working on the party's economic panel.


They requested that I tell them all about my activities as the party member and councillor, which I refused, telling them that I am not obliged to tell them what I did in Poland; only the Polish authorities can make that request. My refusal infuriated them. They demanded that I give them the names of all persons that I know; again I refused, knowing full well that it will infuriate them even more and that it won't help my cause. My continuous refusals made them more and more furious. Finally, they left the room, except for one who came close to me and demanded, roaring in my ear, to declare whether I shall give them the names or not. I told him that in my profession I encountered many people without necessarily knowing their names, since I do not ask eveybody I meet what is his name. In response, he hit me very hard in the face with his fist. I got up from the chair and somebody else, who had come into the room in the meantime, hit me a few times on the back with a rubber truncheon, while the one who hit me in the face, now kicked me in the genitalia; I lost consciousness.


They brought me around, pouring water on my face, and quite innocently asked me what had happened. I did not answer and they started demanding that I answer their questions and threatening that I will be shot or allowed to rot in prison. This lasted until about noon of the following day when a Soviet prosecutor came in and ordered that I should be taken to prison. They took me to Leon Sapieha Street to what had formerly been the Polish Police Command Office with a temporary jail adjoining it. I was thrown into this jail and remained there for three days after which I was taken to what was formerly the Polish Military Prison in the suburb of Zamarstynow.


Whilst in jail on Leon Sapieha Street, they did not give us (there were about 20 of us) anything to eat. Fortunately, I had some money on me and they gave us permission to give money to the Soviet guard who would make a list of our needs and brought us bread, sausage and tea. The prices he charged us were outrageous. I have to note here that during the last war (WW1) I took part in the defense of Lwow in November 1918, and was wounded. The bullet damaged some discs in my spine, the result of which was that I had to wear a Hessinger steel corset and use a cane. After a few days I had a high fever and pain in the back and testicles (where I had been kicked). I lay on the floor, since there were no beds or bunks in the cell, and could not get up. They brought in a doctor who told them that I should be taken to hospital. I lay there on that floor for three weeks and it was not until the 1st of December that I was taken to the prison hospital in Brigidki, which was the city's main prison.


In this prison hospital I was kept until mid-May 1940, attended to sporadically by Dr. Zygmunt Sternberg from Belz, but there was very little he could do for me. He prescribed calcium but they did not give me any. With this type of malady, it is important to have good nourishment but in the Soviet prison it was very meagre: 1/2 kg. of black bread and a thin soup every day, no tea or coffee, just hot water and even that was rationed. All of us, and there about 20 of us on this ward, were always hungry.


In addition to the physical suffering, I was tormented morally. Some of the NKVD guards were very rude, calling us by offensive names. They referred to Poland (and to our Polish government officials) as the "Bastard of Versailles" and how now that she is divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, she will never rise again. We had to listen to that, not being able to respond. Once, I told them that the war has only just begun and what will happen in the end only the future will tell. I was told to shut up.


In that hospital with me were, among others, the following who survived: generals Anders and Sulimirski, colonels Janicki and Antoni Rozwadowski, Dr. Szczepanowski from Lublin, lawyer Marecki from Lwow and major veterinarian Lang.


During the second half of May I was taken back to the prison cell from which, after a three week stay, I was brought back to the hospital. I was then kept in the prison hospital until the end of June, at which time I was once again taken back to the cell. On the 10th of June, 1940, about 20 of us were taken to another cell which, as it turned out, was to be the transit cell for prisoners ready for transport. The next day, after a shower, the first since my arrest, disinfection and a very thorough personal search, we were put in a covered truck and taken to the railway station; it was only then that I understood that they were taking us out of our city of Lwow.


Our train left the station 13 July 1940. It consisted of about 40 cattle wagons with about 40 persons in each. Some of the wagons were left behind in Kiev, another lot in another city the name of which I cannot remember, and the rest of us, about 500 persons, were taken to the city of Konotop in the administrative district of Sumska. (Translator's Note: Konotop was a town of some 60,000 people, located about 150 km. north-east of Kiev.)

There were with me, among others, retired police inspector from Lwow, Lukomski; retired director of the Lwow Police Commission, Reinlender. In the hospital cell in which I was placed, were the following who died during our stay there: professor of the Cadet Corps School, captain Walter Jakob; retired Chief Justice of the Appellate Court in Poznan, who had been living in Lwow, Villaume; retired Justice of the Appellate Court in Stanislawow, Dzerowicz; country squire Feliks Cienski; director of the Cadet's Corps in Lwow, major Eugeniusz Wawrzkowski; owner of the Haussman Passageway, Mr. Haussman and many others the names of which I cannot remember. (Translator's Note: The Haussman Passageway was the early version of the shopping mall, a number of stores in a glass covered passageway.)


In Konotop the interrogations started again, individual confrontations, always in the middle of the night. The interrogators were at times beastly rude, at others polite but, unlike in Lwow, it was without the use of physical force. On February 22, 1941, I was taken in front of a so-called judge who announced my sentence: 5 years of exile in Uzbekistan. He told me that the reason I received such a light sentence was because of my disability which made me unsuited for penal work in camps in Siberia. Thus, I must say, I was very lucky not to have been transferred to one of those notorious camps (lagers).


I was then transferred to a prison in Moscow where I shared the cell with Col. Edward Perkowicz, director of the Agricultural Institute in Lublin, Januszkowski and Prince Konstanty Radziwill from Kaunas in Lithuania. We were kept in Moscow prison for 3 weeks whence we were sent to Tashkent where we were kept for another 3 weeks in the most horrible conditions. It was a transit prison, where they kept the worst of the Soviet thieves and bandits before sending them to Siberian camps.


They kept us all in a very large courtyard, subdivided by brick walls into 3 or 4 sections. Those Soviet thieves used to jump over the walls and rob the political prisoners of their clothes and anything else they could lay their hands on. Thus, our Polish group had to keep a continuous watch so that we would not be left naked. There were stories going around that one night the thieves killed one of the guards and threw his body into the latrine.


From Tashkent we were sent, as before in cattle wagons, to Chardzou on the Amu Daria River where we stayed in the local prison another 3 weeks. After that, we were loaded on to a small river boat, used for carrying the cotton and other goods, and after a 5 day journey, we reached Urgench in the administrative district of Chiva. In Urgench we were kept in the local prison for only 24 hours, after which we were given a document stating that we must not leave the town and that we had to report to the NKVD every 14 days. With this document and 30 rubles in hand, all the things they took away from me in Lwow, except clothing, were lost. (Translator's Note: Chardzou is a port on the Amu Daria River and a railway station on the Krasnovodsk to Tashkent line.) 


I was told to go find work in order to make a living. There is a slogan in the Soviet Union "Those who do not work, do not eat." A night's stay in a very modest and dirty hotel cost 5 rubles; to stay in a so-called Chazkhan (a public place where there are 20 cots side by side in one room) cost 2 rubles per night. The result was that we had to sell such pieces of clothing which were left to us in order to feed ourselves. Furthermore, even if and when we could get work, we would not be paid until the end of the month. Thus I sold my fur-lined overcoat for which I received 500 rubles and this kept me going.


I was released from prison 14 June 1941. I felt terribly weak and starved, yet in spite of this, I did not seem to have any appetite. A very sympathetic Russian woman, originally from Moscow, who was deported here in 1932 (her husband was sent to a camp in Siberia) and was now a manager of Gostarg (Government office managing food supplies), took pity on me and offered me a job as a bookkeeper at 350 rubles per month.


Urgench is a town in Uzbekistan with a population of about 20,000; mostly Uzbeks with some Turkomans and a sprinkling of Russians who occupy all the important positions. Uzbeks are a race between Mongols and Turks, their language being a dialect of Turkish. Over the centuries they were very devoted Muslims but now, with religion being officially forbidden, most of them pray and practice their religion in secret. What must have been a beautiful mosque at one time, has now been converted into a museum of atheism.


The climate is dry and sub-tropical with virtually no rain in summer and light rain in the winter with temperatures getting down to close to freezing. The town is situated on the Amu Daria River which flows northward into Lake Aral (aka the Aral Sea), a salt water body. It can be reached only by way of the river, Lake Aral being 400 km to the north and Chardzou 500 km to the south and that is the way we were brought in here.


In times past, there used to be caravan trails crossing the desert but under the Soviets all that has vanished. The town is very drab with unpaved dusty roads and single story adobe buildings with some official Communist buildings in red brick. In the immediate vicinity, the locals grow cotton on government operated farms using irrigation from the river; they also grow some fruit and rice. Beyond, there lies the Karakum Desert to the west and the Kysylkum Desert to the east. On the whole, it is a depressing place but a lot better than the prisons I have gone through.


After 2 weeks I was sent to sit in for a cashier in a local outdoor restaurant, who was taken ill. I felt a lot better in there since I was given a free supper. There was a live orchestra playing every night from 5 to 10 p.m. Some time at the end of July, while I was sitting in the cashier's booth before the arrival of the clientele, the orchestra started its concert with "The First Brigade," the song sung by the Polish legionnaires during the First World War and whose political party had been in power in Poland since 1926. I was flabbergasted. I could not understand what had happened; maybe it was some Soviet song played to the same tune and the band leader did not know where it came from or, maybe he wanted to show me some sympathy. Although I was in opposition to the legionnaires in Poland before this war and did not particularly relish listening to "The First Brigade," in this instance I got up and listened to it standing at attention.


Next day I told my Polish ex-prisoners about this and we were all wondering what it all meant. We were hoping that some changes would take place, especially so since the news stories filtering in from the German-Soviet front were bad. The Germans, who had attacked the Soviets at the end of June 1941, were making great progress; they had occupied Lwow after a few days and I felt that my wife and sons will probably be safer under German occupation.


After a few days we read in the local newspaper that there was a pact signed between the Soviets and the Polish Government-in-Exile in London and that all Polish prisoners and deportees were supposed to be freed. We were overcome with joy and this added to our pleasure on hearing how the Germans were beating the Red Army on the front. Our belief was that when the German Swastika and the Soviet Hammer and Sickle will kill each other off, Poland will rise anew stronger than before. The younger among us began to enquire where the new Polish Army was being formed. Some even went to the Wojenkommat (Soviet Army Recruiting Office) asking to be sent to the Polish Army; some of the older ones did the same.


Put simply, a great enthusiasm and hope got hold of all the Polish men and women in Urgench. After a few weeks, the NKVD started to issue "udostoverene," documents stating that we were Polish citizens and according to the amnesty, we were free to live in the Soviet Union (with quite a few restrictions).


Unfortunately, not all of us received one and I was among that group. Those of us were then called in by the NKVD where the interrogations started anew. When it came my turn to be examined I told them that on the basis of the "amnesty"  all of our so-called crimes are supposed to be forgiven and, as Polish citizens, we are not obligated to answer any questions unless we broke a Soviet law since our release; we are only obligated to the Polish authorities. To my surprise, the NKVD major just smiled and said that he will write down my point in his report, which he did, and I signed it. He then said that this protocol and my complete file will be sent to Moscow and when the answer comes he will let me know. Thus, I did not receive my "udostoverene" document until early in 1942.


A month after my interrogation, the head of the local branch of the NKVD, a colonel, called me to his office and said that he wanted to meet me personally and talk to me. I realized right away that this must be a ruse and that I must be very careful of what I say and how I act. Our talk commenced with praises; that they have a great regard for me being such a zealous Polish patriot.


(At this point, the recollections abrubtly end)



Translator's note:  My father, Karol Rybczynski, was the owner of two grocery stores (one of which also served as a wholesale distributor) in Lwow. He also operated an export/import business exporting dried mushrooms by the wagon-loads to Germany, Switzerland and France and exporting ergot in 5 kg packages to pharmaceutical companies in Germany, Switzerland, France and England.  He used to import, in season, Jaffa oranges from Palestine and prunes and raisins from Yugoslavia.  He also owned the exclusive distribution rights for all of southern Poland for coffees and teas packaged by the Viennese firm Julius Meinl, which is still in existence today.


Father was very active both politically and socially.  In addition to being a city counsellor on behalf of the National Party, he was also vice-president of the local Association of Polish Merchants and Industrialists, vice-president of the War Invalids Association, and Chairman of the Catholic Action - Cathedral Chapter.

Copyright: Rybczynski family

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