Our Russian Hell
(UNPUBLISHED WORK COPYRIGHT 2007 KRYSTYNA BOJANOWICZ-KACZMARSKI)
For many years my friends and relatives tried to convince me that I should write about what I went through in Russia. I did not want to think about it. My past and my pain were buried deep inside me. Why dig them up? My travels around the world helped me to pretend that the horrors of my life never happened. So much was going on around me: new places, new people, a new life – new me. I was a normal young person, like everybody else. But was I really? In high school, I collected and memorized sad, depressing poems and recited them to myself. I was withdrawn and demure, not vibrant and lively like other girls.
Finally, my relatives in Poland persuaded me to write. They said that I must do it because this is the only way to honor the memory of my parents and my sister. Young people, especially my own son, his wife, and their daughters – should know my story. It is high time, since I am old. So I decided to write what I still remember. It is much easier now: the anger is gone, the hatred is gone, even the despair is far behind me.
I was born (1922) and lived in Warsaw, Poland. My father was an accountant at the City Hall. In 1939 he retired and we moved to Wilno (now Vilnius) in the summer of the same year. There were rumors that a war was brewing, but nobody believed them, or paid much attention. In September 1939, the war came: Hitler marched his army into Poland from the West, and Soviet Russia came at us from the East. The Russian red army occupied Wilno bringing hunger and misery. My father's pension immediately stopped. We were spending the rest of whatever cash we had. To the relief of everybody, conditions improved significantly when the magnanimous Soviet Union gave Wilno to Lithuania as a gift. Lithuania was still independent. Low and behold: here comes the Lithuanian army bearing gifts – food, food, food. And plenty! They even set up kitchens for the poor. Such a small country and so much to eat!
But the good times soon ended. Russia annexed all the Baltic States including, of course, Lithuania. Starvation and misery were back. We thought that it couldn't be any worse, but we were wrong, very wrong. We did not know what was in store for us. How could we? We knew nothing of the ignorance, stupidity and hatred of our "liberators" from the East. They "liberated" us of everything.
What was there to do now? Only pray. So we prayed at the Holy Shrine of Ostra Brama, begging the Holy Mother for help. My cousin, Wladyslaw Sila-Nowicki, saw an ad about the opening of a musical theatre, which needed singers and musicians. He persuaded my father to apply. Out of many applicants, my dad was one of the few accepted. We were overjoyed. We knew, however, that it would be some time before the theatre would open. In the meantime we needed money to live. Dad found a job as a night watchman in a factory, but he developed a boil. He had to be operated on immediately. He was in bad shape when he came home, because the infection was still there, and the wound would not heal. He was in pain and so weak that he could hardly walk.
It was the summer of 1941. The theatre had not opened yet. We were beginning to hear all kinds of rumors. First, Polish ex-officers were going to be arrested and killed. Sila-Nowicki had been an officer and went into hiding deep in Lithuania. The second rumor was that the Germans would march into Russia, which we thought might be better for us. We hated the Russian occupation, and thought that the German occupation would be an improvement. But who knew how the Germans would treat us? We were between a rock and a hard place.
Off to Siberia
We saw absolutely no reason why we should be sent to Siberia. None of us were in the army. My father was too old. I had no brothers. My only one sister was younger than me. We felt completely safe. But how safe can you be in the hands of a depraved evil power?
A few days prior to 21 June 1941, when the German army marched into Wilno and all of the territory occupied by the Soviets -- starting the war between Germany and Soviet Russia -- we heard a loud banging on our door. What could it be? Maybe there was a fire in the house? My mom and I ran to the door. We opened it and stood motionless. In front of us stood a KGB officer and with him were four soldiers with rifles. Behind the soldiers stood a young civilian with a red bandana on his arm, a translator. They pushed us to the side and forced their way in. The translator told us that we were being transferred to another province and that we had half an hour to pack up what we could carry. My mom asked him, "Which province are we going to?" When he said he didn't know, we were stunned. My father had trouble standing on his feet and my sister Helen was only ten, so only my mom and I seemed able to carry a few things, but not much. What to take? Maybe it would be cold where we were going, but winter clothes were heavy to carry. The soldiers pushed some papers at us to sign. We didn't understand them, though they were in Lithuanian and Russian. My father asked the soldiers what would happen to us if we didn't sign them.
The KGB officer, cold as stone, said calmly, "You will be shot." So we signed whatever was written in the papers. The officer kept looking at his watch and telling us how many more minutes we had left. We packed one suitcase, because we only had one. The rest of our belongings, we tied in blankets and towels. I will never forget my little sister dragging a bundle, not much smaller than she was, and my dad, not quite steady on his feet, carrying two small bundles.
We were marched into an open van. It was early morning. The sun was rising over Wilno. "What a lovely sight!" I thought. "Good-bye my beautiful city, good-bye forever!" The van brought us to the train station where freight trains were waiting for us. Masses of people were being pushed into these trains. Some had a lot of baggage - big, big boxes - and some had very little, just like we. When we got inside the car, it seemed full, but some more people were brought in after us. There were about forty passengers in each car, and at both ends of each car, there was a sort of bunk bed from wall to wall, made of wooden boards. Very high up were tiny windows; from the top bed you could look out through them. My family and I were fortunate because we got places on the bunk. Those who came in later had to sleep on the floor. A young Lithuanian woman, all alone, nursing a baby in her arms was brought in last and stayed on the floor the whole time, refusing to change places with me. I asked her what her "crime" was. She responded, “My husband was a policeman."
Late in the day, the train started to roll. We were moving, but where were we going? Our destination was unknown. A sudden fear gripped me: "Maybe we are going to Siberia? Oh, God! Where are these Kalmuks taking us?"
At first, the direction seemed to be Moscow but it was changed suddenly. Later we found out that the Germans had been bombarding the train station in Moscow. Hitler attacked Russia right after we had been picked up and placed in the train. "Why did these idiots take us?" I asked myself. "To make trouble for themselves," was the only answer. Now they carried this "precious" cargo far away from the front so that we could help build a proletarian paradise undisturbed by war.
Every few days, a sack of bread was thrown into our car. A pail of hot water was also brought for tea. The problem was that we had no tea. So we drank hot water. Through the little window I could see only flat fields of weeds with few trees and bushes – a sad, sad landscape. A feeling of desolation and hopelessness permeated everything in sight.
After a month of this ride, the train stopped at a small station, in the middle of nowhere, at night. Whatever they did with us, it was done in the dark – the way of criminals.
They transported us by big vans to the government farm, called sovhoz. The bread they had given us on the train got moldy. Soldiers put it in a sack and dumped it on the floor in the big room where we were waiting to be assigned to our quarters. After a while, Russian women from the sovhoz started to sneak in. With them came children, very skinny, with big abdomens. "It is from hunger," somebody who knew Russian told my father. A few bolder women looked at our bread with a sort of fascination. One of them asked if she could have some. "Of course, but it is green with mold," we said. "Oh, it's okay," she said as she grabbed one loaf and began breaking it up into smaller pieces and giving them to her children. The others followed. Our bread was gone in no time. We looked at them with horror, "Is this what awaits us here?"
Eventually a KGB officer walked in with our documents – permits to live in this grain sovhoz, in the province of Altay. The Altay Mountains were on the border of Soviet Russia and China. Now we knew more or less where we were. They brought us almost to the edge of their empire! We were still in Siberia although there were no trees, only flat plains called steppes. In this sovhoz people did not own houses. They lived in barracks owned by the state. Our family (parents and two daughters) was too small to get a separate room, so we had to share with another family: Mrs. Haas, her daughter and son. We were taken together to our new home. It was a pretty large room with a small kitchen. We were grateful for getting such nice people to stay with. Mrs. Haas had a terrific sense of humor. Her daughter Lusia was my age and we became very good friends. Her son Zbyszek was funny and liked to play tricks on his mother, which made us all laugh. We slept on the floor. But that was not the problem. The problem was hiding in the walls and waiting for the lights to go out. The walls were not finished, and between wooden boards were clusters of bed bugs, famished and bloodthirsty. We were killing them and killing them; we kept bright lights on all night, every night -- all in vain. We did kill a lot of them, but achieved only partial success.
The administration of the sovhoz did not know what to do with us. The grain was still in the fields. There was not enough equipment to bring it in. But the supreme law of the country was, "Who does not work, does not eat." So we had to work. From my family only my mom and I were fit to work. My sister was too young; my dad was too ill. He even got an excuse from the doctor. Eventually, "the workforce" was called together and marched to a tree plantation. Our boss showed us the trees, which were three to five inches high. The weeds were much, much bigger. "Get the weeds out," came the order. An order is an order. What could you do? The ground was like cracked rock. The sun was burning hot, no shade, no place to hide and – naturally -- no water. We worked until sunset. Our lips were parched, cracked and bloody. Oh water, water, where are you? On the way back, we saw an old, abandoned house and a small barrel with water, which smelt pretty bad. But we were thirsty. We drank almost all of it, but when we got to the bottom, we saw a dead, rotting fish there. Yet, the water was better than wine! I had never tasted anything so good!
The next day the authorities invented more useful work for us. When good heads get together and think hard enough, something good must come of it. Each one of us got a shovel and we were marched to the nearby field. Our supervisor attached a string to a stick, which he put in the ground, and went some distance with the string. Then he took another stick, put it in the ground, and tied the other end of the string to it. This procedure was repeated a few more times. We were divided into groups of four or five. Each group had to dig a ditch along the string. I wanted very much to ask what was the use of this elaborate, "highly sophisticated" work, but did not dare. The man did not look friendly and most likely had no answer anyway. Our digging did not impress him. Not at all! In fact his irritation was growing constantly. Just then he looked at Mrs. Haas who was standing and gracefully leaning on her shovel. "What's that? Not working?" he shouted. "I am resting," she answered. "You came here to work, not to rest," he yelled. "I did not ask to come here; I was forced! Besides I am not going to stay here." "Oh, is that so? Where will you go then?" "To America," said the dignified, calm and polite lady while his irritation was mounting. His face became crimson with fury and he yelled: "Here is your America! Here you will stay „til you die! All of you, all, all! Like dogs, just like dogs! Perish here like dogs!" Frozen with fear and foreboding, I thought: “Is this a prophecy for us all? What are our chances of getting out? By death, by death alone! Oh Dear God, please save us!”
It is true that many of us, including my family, perished in that cruel evil country. Mrs. Haas, though she never made it to America, did not do too badly. She found her husband and they had a lovely house in London, furnished with beautiful Persian tapestry and carpets which she bought when we were both in Teheran. As far as I know, her daughter was studying medicine and her son engineering. That was long ago, when I was in London. I assume that they received a good professional education. I also assume that my parents and sister are in heaven, which is better than any place on earth, even America. As for me, I am writing these memories in America!
I am including these small episodes to give you a better picture not only of our life there, but also of our feelings.
Now, back to the story. We went a few more times to dig the ditches, but they remained unfinished. Finally the grain arrived in the sovhoz. It was well known that in Soviet Russia people worked only in their trade or profession. So one morning we were ordered to go where the grain was waiting for us in huge piles. Our job was to clean it with hand-operated contraptions (like hand mills) and then carry it on our backs, in sacks, to a different area. Some trade or profession! This work contributed nicely to the dislocation of my spinal vertebrae and discs. They give me a bit of trouble at my old age. The work was progressing beautifully until the rains came. There was no roof where the grain was. In the Siberian steppes when it rains, it pours. All the grain sprouted! The grain and our work proved to be good for nothing. Wasted! What a shame! What a shame! In this land of plenty, millions of people perish from hunger. Any wonder?
Our pay was low, very low. So, on Sundays, my mom and I would go to the bazaar in a small town nearby to exchange our clothes for food, mostly vegetables. During our stay in Russia we never had a piece of meat. We worked with grain -- grain surrounded us every day -- but we were not getting enough bread! Mrs. Haas's son had ski boots that he wore to work. In the evening, after work, he would step in the pile of grain and bring some grain home in his boots. Once a week, my mom would borrow a coffee grinder, put the grain through it, and we all had a delicious cereal with milk. At first Mrs. Haas was afraid that her son would be sent to prison and she would never see him again. But, unable to resist the aroma of cooking cereal, she would give in at the end.
There was one fear that haunted us all – a terrible, dreadful fear – the fear of winter.
The Russians delighted in bone-chilling stories about Siberian winters. It was not only that the cold was brutal, but also the snow was higher than the people and stayed that way all winter long. In order to survive, you needed high warm boots, coats stuffed with goose down or wool, fur caps, and woolen gloves with one finger. And we? What did we have? Elegant dainty city shoes and regular winter coats. "We'll surely perish! Or we must get out of here. But how? We have no right to leave this place. We are doomed."
Then, one Sunday, people in town told us that they saw regular trains coming from the northeast. Even more astonishing was the fact that Polish ex-soldiers were in them! These soldiers had been arrested for defending their country and sent to prisons called gulags in Siberia. Now, they were going to join the Polish army that was being formed in Bernaul and Yangi-Yul. Was the world turning upside down? Were these walking skeletons in rags going to defend their tormentors? I would not have believed it, if I had not seen them myself. Finally somebody got hold of the newspaper with the whole story. The Polish general, Sikorski, made a pact with Stalin, that if all Polish people sent to Soviet Russia were released, he would form a Polish army to help fight the Germans. "Incredible! So Russia must be in trouble, real trouble! And our general Sikorski must be some great politician, if he managed to outfox Stalin, the supreme master of deception. Now, what about us? Are we going to be free?" There was new agitation, great agitation, and a glimmer of hope!
Finally official news came. We were called into the "Convention Hall," where, such a short time ago, we were gathered as slaves. A KGB officer informed us that we didn't have to stay in this sovhoz; we didn't even have to stay in the Altay Province. We could go where we wanted, except near the front. So, we couldn't go home because the front was between our country and us. But we could run from the cold. We packed our meager belongings, happy that we wouldn't freeze to death.
We bought tickets to Chimkent, boarded the train together with the Haas family, and off we went to the unknown. At first we delighted in the newly found freedom. I remember standing with my dad in the open front of the wagon, the wind blowing in my face and my hair, my dad singing, "Though hungry and cold, we travel free and bold." Oh, what a journey it was! Never to be forgotten. Great expectations, great hope! But above all -- the feeling of freedom. It turned out that we were deluding ourselves. How can you be free in a community of slaves?
We arrived at Chimkent train station, but could not get off. The platform was full of luggage and people who were war refugees with no place to go. So we went to the next station, and the next, and so on. Homeless people were everywhere. We passed Alma-Ata, Tashkent and a whole lot of small towns. Everywhere was the same story. We must have been by then in a warm climate because we didn't even feel that it was winter. And the terrain had changed. It was more like a desert; huts seemed to be growing out of the ground -- all the same color, the same texture and very low with small holes for windows. Women were covered with black veils and carried baskets on their heads. When the train stopped, they came close to sell what was in their baskets. It was dry fruit that they called uriuk.
Finally we came to the last stop. "Everybody out!" shouted the conductor. He checked all the cars; the train went back and we were left on the platform.
What now? This place looked desolate, not like other stations that we saw before. But there were a few people away from the platform and someone told us that we were close to a very big river, the Amu-Daria. There were barren fields all around. In the distance we saw a huge building. It looked like a meeting hall or something similar. It was getting chilly. We heard that nights were cold. After all, it was December. So we went to this "Convention Hall" to see if we could stay there for the night. It was full of people. Politely they made room for us on the concrete floor. We lay down, huddling together. Alas, we ran out faster than we came. It seemed that all lice that came to "the convention" started feasting on us. Outside we saw many people sleeping on the ground. They must have been attacked by lice before us. So we settled on the ground with Mrs. Haas and her children. We stayed together like one family. In the morning we were covered with light snow. The whole field was white as far as you could see. We were shivering from cold and we were, oh, so hungry. Very hungry. But even this was better than lice. I cannot describe my shock and disgust when I saw them for the first time!
Homeless dogs scavenging for corpses at night were frightening. They walked among us sniffing and sniffing. Most people were dying at night. Later on, in Teheran, I was told that these dogs chewed up the face of a beautiful girl who I knew in Wilno. She, her mother and sister had Swedish visas and had been packing to go to Sweden. Instead they ended up by the Amu-Daria River. A cruel, cruel fate!
We were in pretty bad shape. Dad was very weak, and looked old, very old. Helenka had a cold and I had strep throat. Only my mom was the strength of us all: she cheered us up, tried so hard to give us hope, and kept praying.
We moved closer to the train station. When the train came, we boarded it quickly. It took us through desolate and rugged terrain. When it stopped, we had to get off, everybody. Funny, there were no refugees there. Where were we? In a little town in Kazakhstan, near Uzbekistan. I cannot recall its name at all, no matter how hard I try to do it. We were told to wait for someone to take us to the kolhoz (communal village). Helenka was very hot and feverish.
A woman doctor came, examined her, and said she had chicken pox and had to go to hospital for a short stay. My mom and I cried, but, believing that hospital was better for her, we let her go. We hoped that, at least, she wouldn't be starving with us.
Local people came to take us to their kolhoz. They were Mongols with black straight hair, slanted eyes, and flat yellowish faces. We were put on wagons: some regular size, drawn by horses; others high, with two big wheels, called arbas, drawn by camels. We passed muddy fields with small stems sticking up here and there -- relicts of the last summer's cotton bushes. It was the end of winter already. The village huts were made of clay mixed with straw, with flat straw roofs. We got one tiny hut with a real door and one small window with wax paper instead of glass. There was no floor -- just hard clay -- but there was one platform bed covered with straw and a little iron stove in the corner, with an iron bowl on the top. The walls had niches in them. We asked why. "To sit in them when it rains," came a tart answer, with anger at our stupid question.
The Haas family was taken to another bigger house, with some other people. A friendly Kazak brought a bunch of straw for us. Mom, Helenka and I would sleep on the bed. Dad had to sleep on the floor. We put more straw for him next to our bed. Dad used to play the piano. Without knowing, we brought the piano cover with us. It came in handy: he could not only sleep on it, he could also wrap himself in it. Suddenly a shiver came over me with a horrible, dreadful thought: "Maybe this will be his shroud? Maybe he will be buried in it? There is something symbolic here, for he loves music so much. Oh God, don't let it happen!" These thoughts bothered me terribly. Where did they come from?
We had nothing to eat. A young Kazak woman, speaking some Russian, said to us, "Tomorrow you get breakfast." We went to sleep hungry, dreaming of tomorrow's breakfast. By then, going to bed with empty stomachs was nothing new. Why couldn't we get used to it?
Next day, the Kazak woman came to take us to breakfast. We needed a sack. So we took a pillowcase and followed her. Only my mom and I could go. Helenka was still in hospital and Dad was too weak. We got not only breakfast. We got the supply of food for the whole week -- one cup of flour a day per person. It looked like a lot of flour. The trouble was that it was all. Nothing more to eat. Not a thing! Besides food, we got some kerosene for our stove. We came home and cooked our breakfast -- flour mixed with water. Hunger made us eat even that.
Another trouble was that the water was dirty. It came from ditches on both sides of roads. By the roads, in this water, people washed themselves, did their laundry and everything else. Also, the soil there was full of clay, so the water was muddy. But there was no other water. Later we learned to collect water at least one day in advance. This way the mud settled at the bottom.
We were also told that the food, lodging and all other supplies that we were getting was an advance payment for the work we would be doing. This was a cotton kolhoz. We would plant cotton and pick it, when the time came. All these empty fields around would be covered with cotton bushes. That meant quite a lot of bushes and plenty of work with them. I had never seen a cotton bush, so I thought that it might be rather interesting to work with them.
The best thing about having a separate lodging was the fact that we were able to get rid of the lice very quickly. We de-liced our clothing by putting it out at night when it was freezing cold. What a relief! No itching, no scratching -- no lice!
Mom brought Helenka from hospital. The poor child was not herself anymore. Skin and bones! She used to be always happy, no matter what: running, jumping, skipping. A lively, lively girl. Now she had to be propped up on all sides to be able to sit in bed. And she coughed day and night. I could not understand how such a short stay in hospital could have done this to my sister. Much later I found out that she contracted tuberculosis there.
Mom had a beautiful black taffeta dress, embroidered with beads, which she was saving for "really hard times." She exchanged it for about half a pound of butter to save Helenka. Alas, it was too late. Her daughter was too far gone. For the dress, my mom was able to negotiate a glass of milk a day for the rest of our stay there. I got smallpox from Helenka, then strep throat and ear infection. Mom did not let me go to hospital. She was afraid that they would finish me off. Perhaps she saved my life?
The people who stayed in the house with Mrs. Haas had typhus. They all had lice. Mrs. Haas and her children got typhus too. They came back from hospital towards the end of February, weak and emaciated. Mom was promised another glass of milk a day for them. All this was for one dress. Well, under the circumstances, she achieved a lot. I begged her to leave the milk by the door and not to go inside. If she got their lice, she would get their typhus too. She promised, quite solemnly too. But how could she? With her heart!
One day she came home with lice. To me it was a sign of death. I cried, "Mama, how could you do that?" Calmly she said, "I had to help them: they can hardly walk." My poor, poor mother! With sick husband and two sick daughters, she was endangering her own life for other sick people. Terrible fear gripped me. We picked up and crushed all lice that we could find. But if they had already bitten her, she was doomed. I prayed hard, begging God not to take my mother. We all prayed and waited. Two weeks later my mom got very hot. Her temperature was very high. She lost consciousness. The doctor diagnosed typhus. A horse-drawn wagon came to take her to hospital. Somehow I knew that I would never see her again. How could I pour all my love for her into a few last kisses? The wagon left, taking away the only person in this world dearer to me than life itself.
I was gripped by fear. Every day was a torture and every night was filled with macabre dreams. Yet, I had to be strong for Dad and Helenka -- two sick people under my care. So I did my best. Every morning I went to get milk and to gather cotton roots, fuel for our stove. The news came two days later. Mom died on March 12. This was the end. She was really gone! I felt numb. I did what had to be done, but inside there was nothing, nothing, just emptiness. A horse-drawn wagon took my dad and me to hospital to get the death certificate and to collect Mom's belongings. At the door I got a small bundle, all that Mom was wearing. I asked for the death certificate. I got surprised looks. Incredible! A patient dies in hospital and no document for it is required. Finally, a doctor came to the door and handed me a small piece of brown paper with something scribbled on it. Seeing my hesitation, he assured me that it was a good certificate with the stamp of the hospital. I asked where my mother was buried. I wanted to go to her grave. He said, "We cannot tell you that and it's better that you don't know." Later I found out that every few days corpses of all the people who died of typhus were thrown into a common grave; then lime was poured over them. The hole was then covered with dirt and leveled with the ground. Nobody knew that human remains had been buried there.
I left my dad in the wagon when I went to the hospital because he had trouble walking. When I came back, he had a new big wound in his leg and said that a homeless dog had bitten him. Oh God, what else did we have to endure? This hospital was of no use for him, for it was only for typhus patients -- an infectious disease place. So we went back home. A kind Russian woman was watching Helenka. As soon as we got back, I went to the doctor and asked her to come to my father as quickly as possible. She came, put some ointment on Dad's wound and left. It did not do any good. I went again to the doctor and begged her to help my dad. She said that she could do nothing more and would not come to see him. "He will get better in time by himself," she said. I told her again that his leg was swollen and blue. She showed me the door.
I did all I could for my family. I brought milk every morning and a piece of bread, if I could get it. I walked over the muddy fields and collected cotton roots for fuel. They had to be kept in the house for about a week to dry. I made soup from flour, water and some milk. Helenka ate almost nothing, only coughed and coughed. In the evenings I lit a little kerosene lamp, which Mom must have bartered for something. It looked like one of those lamps that people put on graves in Poland. The thought came to me that maybe this lamp was here on our common grave. I cried a lot and when Helenka saw me crying, she said, "Don't cry, Krysia, Mama will be back and everything will be all right " She never found out that Mama would not be back
After about a week, I could not get up. I was dizzy. I thought to myself that I must not get sick because I had to take care of Helenka and Dad. Then I lost consciousness. Then again it came back, but I couldn't move. I looked at Dad. He was not in his "bed" of straw but on the cold ground. I tried to tell him to go back on the straw. He did not move. I stretched out my hand to his forehead. It was icy cold. Oh God, he was gone too!
I don't know how long we were with our dead father. I even thought that by the time somebody came, there would be three corpses. All Polish people were gone. They went to where the Polish army was being formed. The only Russian woman in that kolhoz, our Guardian Angel, who used to check on us from time to time, must have gone somewhere. We were abandoned. Then, suddenly, I saw a well-dressed woman in our door. She told me that she was Jewish, from Estonia, and had run away from the approaching German army. May God give her a great place in heaven! She took care of us, called for the wagon to take us to hospital -- me to the typhus hospital, Helenka to the general hospital. She promised to see to it that Dad would be buried right after we were gone, and that he would be wrapped up in the piano cover, on which he used to lie. So my blood-chilling premonition came true.
In hospital I was asked my name. I did not know it. Then I thought that it was all right, for I couldn't talk anyway. Suddenly it got completely dark. I couldn't see anything and I didn't care. Darkness surrounded me; darkness was inside me. Darkness and stupor. Typhus is a dreadful disease. Consciousness comes and goes, comes and goes. The lady doctor tried very hard to keep me alive. To this day I wonder why. At last, the typhus was gone but I got pleurisy. I was transferred to the hospital where my sister had been taken. Right away I asked about her. The nurse told me that she had been sent to a better hospital in Tashkent. Somehow I did not believe her and insisted that she tell me the truth. After a few days of my persistent questions, she admitted that Helenka died of tuberculosis.
Such was the end of my family in this cruel God-forsaken land. Now I was alone.
When my temperature went down, I was discharged from the hospital. Where could I go? Due to the general amnesty for Polish people, there were representatives of the Polish government (exiled to London) in most of Kazakhstan's towns. Where I was, there was also one such representative. He was helping the Polish people brought here by force. With some difficulty I found his place. He gave me a few rubles (Russian money) and said I must find myself a place to live. There was a Polish orphanage, but it was full. In the back of this office I noticed an elderly gray-haired gentleman at another desk. He looked at me but said nothing. I went out into the street. At a distance I saw a small building, completely abandoned. It was the typhus hospital. I knocked at the door. No answer. Silence. Next to this building was a little shed that was beginning to fall apart. One wall was almost gone. I went in and saw a bathtub. No pipes, no plumbing of any kind, and, above all -- no water! So why the bathtub? Did they ever bathe anybody there? Probably never. Nobody bathed me when I was brought there. Strange was the proletarian paradise. Many things surprised me; many irritated me. Would I never get used to their logic? On the ground I found some dry hay and slept on it all night. The Waldorf Astoria does not come close to this comfort. When I opened my eyes, I saw the elderly gentleman from the Polish office. He said: "My name is Leon Kropiwnicki. I am the older brother of the Polish representative. I found a place for you to stay." I thought and still think that he was an angel from heaven. He took me to a very old Russian woman who gave me a real bed on the porch. That suited me perfectly, she would not hear my weeping and coughing at night. This place was like a paradise: a pretty large vegetable garden, a little brook running through the middle of it, and real (grape vines?) bushes on both sides of "my" porch. Leon made arrangements with the orphanage to give me soup and one slice of bread every day. Two girls from the orphanage would bring this food to me. I could not eat bread, only soup, though I looked like a walking skeleton.
One day I met two Jewish women from Poland who were starving. They accepted Russian citizenship and, being Russian, they could not get any help from the Polish authorities. The KGB was watching them. I had to leave the bread for them in a place where they could find it, not give it to them in the open. This way they could eat my bread every day. Later, I wondered what happened to them after I was gone. Leon got me a wagon to go where I used to live with my family and get all my belongings. I took everything. Not much clothing, but many photographs, a painted portrait of my great grandfather, religious pictures and a framed box of holy relics cherished by my poor mother. I took them for her sake. Nobody could tell me where my father was buried. The lady from Estonia was gone. I only got my father's death certificate.
Leon found out that some Polish soldiers and their families left Soviet Russia for Persia (now Iran) in the spring of that year (1942). There were rumors that another transport would leave very soon. I had no hope that I would go, for I had nobody in the army. Then, suddenly, in front of the gate to my "paradise" I saw an army wagon with one soldier and Leon sitting on it. This soldier came first to the Polish representative and asked for Helenka and me. Leon told me that I had to go right away, before something changed. So I packed my little suitcase and said good-bye. Tears were running down my face when I had to part from the man who was like a father to me. What he had done for me, nobody else would do. Now I pray that God give him the most beautiful place in heaven. After I leave this world, I will ask an angel to take me to him. I have never seen Leon again.
I was brought to a small town where the Polish army was stationed. Soldiers' families were there too. They were all waiting for the next transport to Persia. I was given a place on a porch, where many people were already sitting with their belongings. It was the house of a Polish priest who was very warm and kind. I gave him all my holy pictures and the relics of saints. I hope that my mom forgave me, for they were much too heavy for me. Now I could lift my suitcase and carry it a very short distance. Oh, what a relief! In the evening came the captain who had sent the soldier for me. He explained to me that my cousin Irena Kowalska, who was working in the army headquarters, wrote a letter to him, asking him to save two orphaned sisters Krysia and Helenka Bojanowicz. Later I learned from Irena that he wrote to her, "Only one girl, Krysia, is alive but she will not last much longer."
The poor orphan Krysia is now 85. Strange indeed are the ways of God.
The captain put me on the list of soldiers' families and told me that if anybody asked me whom I had in the army, I was to answer -- my brother. A few days later we were put on a train going to the port of Krasnovotsk on the Caspian Sea. From there, a ship would take us to Persia.
A huge crowd gathered in front of the ship's dock. We stood there in the sun for many hours without a drop of water. I was sitting on the ground, but when the ship came, I got up and stood in the line. At the entrance, the ship's captain said to me, "You cannot get on the ship." I started to cry. Sobbing I asked why and he said that I would die on the ship and he didn't want any trouble. To this, I shot back: "I will surely die if I am left here. On the ship I will dance!" People around me burst out laughing. A lady in a white coat showed up. She was the doctor. She said: "Let her in. She is not going to die. You have my word on it." So I got on the ship. May God reward you a thousand times, or more, my good white fairy, my savior!
The whole trip lasted maybe two or three days. The sea was very calm, the sky blue, beautiful. I met Mrs. Haas on the deck. Both her children joined the army. She even found her husband, who was a colonel. On the ship she was wearing a dress that was really falling apart, with a big hole in the back. I asked her if she didn't have anything better. She said, "Oh yes, but I will put it on when I know for sure that this hell on earth is behind me." Always spunky, Mrs Haas!
In the port of Pahlevi (now Banda-Anzali), we were put on trucks. I remembered that I had been taken to Russia first by truck. Now I was leaving it by truck. Only then, I was with my family: there were four of us. Now I was alone.
We got off the trucks on the beach in Pahlevi. With bare feet I stepped on the sand. Oh, you blessed sand! You hot, good Persian sand! I wanted to fall on my knees and kiss it. But I had to go forward, had to move with the crowd. For a second I raised my eyes to heaven and whispered: "Thank you God! Thank you, thank you! I am free!"
At last the Russian hell is behind me. Now what? A whole lot of sand and a very hot sand too. Our first stop is the beach in the Persian port of Pahlevi (now Banda-Anzali). Primitive roofs of straw protect us from the sun. Otherwise nothing but the sand.
My first day there was a shame and disgrace. I got myself so drunk that I did nothing, but sleep on that blessed, golden sand. A little digression is necessary here by way of explanation. In the last stage of my life in Russia, in the little town where I lived, I used to drink a glass of wine every day. It tasted like slightly fermented grape juice. Its content of alcohol was minimal, but the taste was out of this world, oh, so very, very good! Exactly like ambrosia, which the Greek gods drank on Mount Olympus.
Well, let‟s go back to my story. On the first day of freedom each one of us received six pieces of Persian money. I got my money, went to the store and bought a bottle of wine, good wine, very tasty, with real alcohol in it. I drank the whole bottle on an empty stomach. I slept very well after that. Mrs. Haas woke me up the next day. She had some trouble finding me. That was my one and only drinking binge.
Mrs. Haas looked so elegant with very short, salt and pepper wavy hair, in her “new” chic, navy-blue dress with a delicate, white imitation lace design. I also had a lively, light blue blouse and skirt outfit from the same “House of Dior” – American Donations. My hair was also nice: short and wavy. Suddenly, we hear over the loudspeakers a dreadful announcement: Everybody must go through “de-licing.” So we two march to the head-nurse and tell her that we absolutely, definitely have no lice. Never mind, she says, everybody must go. No excuses, no exceptions. So we get our heads shaved completely bald. Then a hot, hot shower and new clothing! Really NEW! And what outfits! Sack cloth dyed in bright colors, with three holes: for the head and arms. We all look like extra-terrestrials –“baldies and uglies.” Our beautiful dresses burned on the altar of hygiene. By some miracle I was able to hide my little suitcase, and my family pictures and documents did not burn at the stake.
The time came to transport us to Teheran. It was done by very big English Army trucks with Persian drivers. Only they could drive those extremely dangerous, mountain serpentine roads. In Teheran, I was sent right away to hospital, where I was greeted by a nurse with golden, wavy hair – a picture of beauty, health, and vigor. Looking at me in horror, she exclaimed, “Krysia, what happened to you?” Then, I recognized her, too. She was Marysia, my classmate from school, who changed into a charming, young lady. After a little chat, she left to help other patients, promising to come back the next day. The next day came, and the next, and a few more. No Marysia. So I asked my new nurse what happened to Marysia. “Oh, she died, got typhus from a patient,” was the answer. Hard to believe. How could it be? She was so very, very healthy! And I, who had one foot in the grave, am still alive at 85.
After a thorough medical examination and chest X-rays, I was sent to a big room, full of coughing people in pretty bad shape. Sure, they all had tuberculosis. From here the only way out was to the other world. Strangely, this fact had no effect on me. It did not matter at all. Now I knew why I had coughing spells for some time already, especially at night. Prior to this hospitalization, people tried to keep their distance from me. I thought “What‟s wrong with me? Do I smell so terribly, or am I a leper, or something?”
Well, here I was in a nice place, the food was good and I had a small glass of wine every night, before sleep. But most of all, I had good company. My bed was between two most wonderful ladies. On my right, in the corner, was the bed of Mrs. Swierzewska. She was a real queen. Only her crown was missing. She was the epitome of elegance, charm and good taste. She used to tell us short stories after supper. I don‟t know how she could remember them all and tell them so well, with such aplomb. Unfortunately, she knew influential people in London, who whisked her away. I cried for a few days. But my angel on the left took me under her wing. Her name was Halina Dlugoborska. She was a very talented painter, an ex-student of the Academy of Art in Warsaw. I still have two of her drawings of me and some landscape compositions.
I was there a few months and life was good, as I was under constant medical care. Then, one day I got a very high fever and felt really sick. Well, I was lucky -- I had stomach typhus. I was isolated from everybody, and lived on buttermilk and shots. Eventually I did get better. What‟s more important, the X-rays showed no TB. Oh, God, no Tuberculosis!! How can it be? So I went through more Xrays and more and more other tests. No TB! One of the doctors said that the only explanation could be, that my very high temperature had destroyed the T bacilli. So typhus saved my life!
Now I had to go back to the Refugee Camp. To my great joy, Halina Dlugoborska was waiting for me with her mother and sister. These wonderful ladies took care of me. They took me to “their” barracks and did their best to bring me back to normal.
Life in the camp was pretty dismal. Food was very bad. Only the camp aristocracy had it a little better. They were people working for the camp administration, and wives of officers. They lived in real buildings and slept in real beds.
The lower classes lived in clay barracks with straw roofs, very cramped and very hot. I found Mrs. Haas who, as the colonel‟s wife, stayed in a brick building. Her husband used to send her money, which she was spending on Persian carpets. She kept them under her bed. Later, she was able to bring them to London, where they decorated her and her husband‟s home. Trips to Teheran to help her buy them and see a movie where my only entertainment.
Mrs. Haas lived in one big room with the other officers‟ wives. One of them used to fan herself, complaining: “Oh, how hot, how hot, and flies keep biting and biting.” I thought, “What would you say, if you had to live in a miserable barracks with a straw roof?” I did not complain. I was FREE! Even the worst kind of life was a blessing, a gift from God.
My greatest desire was to go back to school, to finish high school. But I was afraid that I was too old and unable to learn anything after my horrible experiences. Yet, thanks to Halina Dlugoborska, I gathered up all my courage and applied to the first grade of a two year senior high school. I was accepted! To my great surprise and relief, other students were my age, so I really buried myself in my studies. School was all I cared for, school was my salvation. But it was not easy. We had one book for the whole class for each subject. To compensate for the lack of supplies, our teachers were first-rate. Thanks to them, every subject was interesting. I wanted to learn more and more about the world I live in and this desire lasts to this day.
My essay about my return to school was published in a scholastic magazine in London about Polish education in the Middle East.
But the joy of being in school again dissipated when new troubles started to loom over my head. The truth was that our camps in Iran were meant to be only transit camps, from which people were sent to Africa or, occasionally, to India. Originally there were five camps, at the end only one. This one was the best camp. It was beautifully located and we stayed in army tents, not barracks.
Halina and her family were taken on the transport ship to Africa, they did not object. To them it was a new adventure. But I had to stay. I was finishing high school and I was determined to get my diploma, for I knew that those who graduated earlier were sent to Beirut, Lebanon, to college. Other girls, studying with me, had mothers who found jobs with the American army and could stay as long as those bases were there. And so could their daughters. But poor me had no mommy, no daddy, nobody. And I had only a few months left to finish school. The camp‟s administration put me on the list for transport to Africa. Yet I did not go to Africa, I went to Beirut! God used to extend His hand to me whenever I was drowning, so why not now? I begged Him for help.
It came in the person of our school principal. Somehow she knew when the next transport would be. And she always warned me. Thanks, my dear lady! I hope that you are The principal of the greatest school in heaven! So I went to Beirut!!!
We arrived in the evening. Beirut was shimmering with lights, like a big jewel. We spent the night on the floor of some Polish office. In the morning we were taken to the Polish students dormitory by bus. On the way we admired this beautiful city, on the shore of the Mediterranean. I could not believe my eyes. Is it a dream, or fairly-tale come true? I was happy, oh so happy! We got a room big enough for four of us – all from the same class in high school, all friends! Our balcony is as big as the room. Almost. We can see a mosque with a high minaret and every now and then we hear the Mullah calling faithful Moslems to prayer.
The most important thing, however, was that I was with my friends, with whom I had shared hard times in Teheran. Now we were together in this wonderful place, in a real room with ceiling, floor, and four walls. You could even turn the light on and off by pushing a button in the wall. I used to run to that button every now and then and push it just for the fun of it. This was driving my friends to fits of laughter. I was like a caveman magically brought to civilization. Funny, how quickly we adjust to any kind of luxury. So did I, so did I in no time.
Now we had to decide about our studies. My secret dream was medicine. But I gave it up when we were told that long studies were out. There were no funds for them. Now I know that it was for the better. I did not have enough science in our Polish high school and now my son is an MD, and he is much, much better than I could ever be.
Only one of us, Bobka, chose dentistry at the French University. The other three decided to study at The American University of Beirut. Jasia chose music, Alicia and I were admitted to the sophomore year in the Arts. It was pretty tough. English was a foreign language to us and we knew mighty little of it.
But on the whole, those were good years; the grand, beautiful years of our youth.
After graduation, when we received Bachelor of Arts degrees at the American University there was no more reason to stay in Lebanon. According to the agreement between the Polish Government in London and the Lebanese government, we had no right to work in that country. Alicia got married and emigrated to Australia. Bobka had not finished her studies yet; Jasia found her fiancé in England and he brought her there. And I? I always had problems with myself. What to do? An English commission came to get people for work in England. So I went to meet them with some other ladies. English gentlemen were very polite and assured us that nothing bad would happen to us. So we all signed the contract with them.
With breaking heart I left Lebanon. From the ship I watched the beautiful white houses of Beirut with their windows shining in the setting sun, until they disappeared from view.
Gloom and doom were my first impressions of this island. When we arrived in Liverpool, it was covered with dense fog. A little drizzle made it even worse. I felt as if I had left a paradise to come to the land of the damned.
We were placed in a sort of army camp with barracks. On short order, we were sent to work in cotton factories, in the vicinity of the city of Manchester. In Russia I was supposed to pick cotton, and here to work with it in a factory! Some progress! Well, I was going forward, at least. Everything in between disappeared, as if it never existed. All my efforts to move up now seemed like a figment of my imagination. I had to keep telling myself, “Not true, not true. This cannot last!” It was indeed like a nightmare, a factory full of cotton dust in the air and me dragging cans of raw cotton to be cleaned. This dust was just right to finish off my lungs, already damaged by TB. But I would not let anybody turn all my efforts into a complete fiasco. The trouble was that only a doctor could release me from my worst fear. I found one, who X-rayed my lungs and excused me from work in the factory, not only the cotton factory, but any kind of factory!!! I won! For me it was a huge victory!
I moved to London, where I met a Polish Army veteran, Kazimierz (Kazik) Kaczmarski, a man with golden hair and a golden heart. We were married in 1950 and emigrated to the U.S.A. We could not go back to Poland, because it was in Russian hands, given away to Stalin after the war by our allies. We lost all hope of ever going home.
In America, we settled in New York. I had a good job, but not for long, because in 1954 our son was born. For a few years we lived peacefully and happily. He was a good boy and very smart. When he was in kindergarten, my husband became very ill, was operated on and diagnosed with cancer. He went through intensive therapy, but was still very weak. Thinking that his time on earth would be short, he wanted to see his family in Poland and France, and friends in England. We went first to France, where our son, not knowing French, had real trouble communicating. The next stop was Poland, where he did a lot better, but not enough, according to him. We could not stay long, for Kazik did not feel well at all. So we went to England.
In London the taxi driver said a few words to us in a strong cockney slang. Our son turned to me, disappointed, saying “And you told me that they speak English here!”
We visited some friends and went back home. Kazik had more treatments and slowly began to get better. I begged God not to take him away from us. Eventually it seemed that the cancer was gone. Now I felt that our little boy would not lose his father. God was good to us. Years were passing, he was an outstanding student, getting scholarships all the way up to medical school, to which he went in New York. His graduation was a great event and his father was really proud. I too! He specialized in surgery. Soon he married a fine girl and when a beautiful child came, they were very happy. And so were we. We both retired and moved to New Jersey. Our son with his family settled not far from us. We forgot all about Kazik‟s cancer. Then suddenly, it came back strong, seemingly with a vengeance. Nothing worked. He was fading away. His golden hair turned into gray-white fluff.
Our son took him to the hospital where he worked. The best care did not help. In 1990 our brave soldier lost his battle. I was with him when he breathed his last breath and I am sure that his soul is in a better place. Yet my despair was beyond words, beyond consolation…
I still live in the house that we shared. It is lovely here. I have a small parrot and rabbit to keep me company. There are many different wild birds and other animals here. I love them all. My son has two children now. One is an accomplished pianist at age 13. I wish my father, a man of impeccable character, who also played piano and died in extreme poverty, wrapped up in his piano cover, could hear his grandchild playing on a concert piano. Maybe he does? Maybe he even smiles in his special way? Who knows?
When I was studying at the American University of Beirut, in beautiful Lebanon, surrounded by rich Arabs, I could not believe that it was true. For a long time I feared that I would wake up from this enchanted dream and be back in my Russian hell.
Then, in America, together with my husband and son, I travelled all over this great country. So many wonders, so much beauty I was grateful to God for everything, especially for my family with whom I could share my feelings.
But there was a time when I had a different family. Now I cannot share anything with them. Where are they? Gone, gone! But in my heart they will stay alive forever, until its last beat, until my last breath and beyond.
The time came for my husband to leave this world. After his death, to get me out of my house and ease my pain, my son took me on a tour of Arizona and Colorado. He rented a car so we could see a great deal. We stayed in beautiful hotels. Luxury surrounded us. But I, ungrateful, would much rather have stayed with my „old man,‟ in our old house. I missed him so! My granddaughter was my greatest consolation and joy. What a dear child! My son and his wife helped me a lot too. Together we were admiring sights out of this world. The Grand Canyon filled me with awe beyond description.
I thank God for letting me see all this.
Now, when I am almost at the end of my earthly life, I am filled with new interest and admiration for nature and all that surrounds me, as if I wanted to absorb more in a short time. I discover new wonders, new beauty and new mystery. The past is gone, like a dream, the good and the bad. Maybe our whole life here is just a dream of the soul? Sometimes painful, cruel, even like a danse macabre, but sometimes good, even beautiful. Perhaps after I leave my body, I will wake up and learn the truth and the sense of it all?
This is my reward, my last triumph. Nobody apologized for all the horrible things done to me and my family, but I survived, like so many other Polish people, and I can keep my head high.
Toms River, New Jersey U.S.A.
Edited by Prof. Robert Magliola
I dedicate this to the memory of my parents Władysława and Ludwik Bojanowicz and my sister Helena, who died in Kazakhstan. May God grant them eternal peace.