Krystyna (Martusewicz) BALUT
My childhood story
I was born in Poland, near Wilno, Nov. 23, 1930. This region later became part of Russia and is now in Lithuania.
As the only child of Hala and Wladyslaw Martusewicz my life was blissful. My mother was a teacher. My father was the master of the railroad station. Because of his prominent job we got a government issued house. We visited lots of people and places because we had free train tickets: relatives, friends and spas.
My mother was born Helena Zbilut, but was called Hala. She was the oldest of her siblings. She had a sister two years younger, Waleria (nickname Wala) Zbilut and a brother who was four years younger, Wojciech (nickname Wojtus) Zbilut. Before the war, my aunt Wala had married Wladyslaw Starzyk, but they had no children. They did have a car, which was the envy of everybody. Wojtus was not married. So my life was full of fun and lots of attention from all members of the family, especially considering that I was the only offspring in the Zbilut family. One might think I could have been spoiled, but according to general opinion I was the exception.
My father was the oldest of his siblings. He had two brothers (Waclaw and Antoni) and a sister (Zosia). Before WW1, his father had been the director of a train depot in Wilno, and the whole family was deported to Russia in 1915. His Father disappeared during war WW1. His Mother died of typhus in Bransk, when he was 16. He had to be the caregiver of his siblings, so he returned to Poland and had to lie about his age to get a job.
At the time we didn't know that Germany and USSR had made a secret agreement to divide Poland. Then on September 1, 1939 Germany attacked the western border of Poland. They were extremely efficient and aggressive, and made quick progress towards the capital of Poland, Warsaw. Within a couple of days Poland was in chaos. The army was quickly defeated and people were trying to escape. To eliminate opposition and set an example, Germans arrested and executed Polish “intelligencia” (those involved in politics, teachers, soldiers, and government employees). My future husband, living in Western Poland, 15 years old, saw these executions. Germans targeted all Poles: Jews, Catholics and Gypsies.
Then, less that 3 weeks later, on September 17, 1939, Russia attacked Poland from the east. There was so much chaos and not enough time to regroup and form resistance - the defeat of Poland was complete within 3 weeks. Poland was a country divided between two powers, both enemies.
I was 8 years old and in the second grade. I still remember bombers over our heads, the flames of burning buildings, and alarms warning of attacks. I watched bullets whiz by above my Mothers head. The Polish news media tried to raise moral, but the nation was paralyzed. Everything was in disarray: communication, trains, telephones - and most roads and bridges were destroyed. People were stuck hopelessly without food, water, shelter or information.
Just as the Germans were doing in Western Poland, Russians also arrested many Poles in Eastern Poland. Every Pole was considered a “dangerous” person. Confiscation of people’s belonging started instantly. If you were important within Polish government - you were automatically on the list of enemies. You were considered a risk to plot against and overthrow the new regime/conspirator. Can you imagine the difficult responsibility of adults to evaluate their choices and make decisions?
My parents, my maternal Grandmother and I lived in eastern Poland, in the city of Janow Poleski. After the German attack, many families in eastern Poland became bigger because relatives were trying to escape German occupation. My aunt Wala Starzyk and uncle Antoni Martusewicz came to live with us. My aunt Wala drove her car and brought her important belongings, her husband stayed in Western Poland fighting in Warsaw. But then the Russian army overtook Eastern Poland, and now they were trapped with us under Russian occupation.
We were forced to leave our government dwelling and relocate. My father was still needed as the specialist of railroad traffic, but we knew it was only temporary. He never slept at home and then went into hiding because the Soviets started arresting all men for deportation to Russia. My uncle Antoni Martusewicz went into hiding in neighboring villages – to avoid search parties. My aunt Wala was in a panic because she was a Captains wife (she had brought with her a suitcase of his medals), and went into hiding too. My uncle Wojtus Zbilut lived near us in Pinsk and was a soldier – lieutenant of the Polish reserves. He had gone on patrol in a neighboring village in his uniform one evening. On returning, he overhead Russian being spoken and knew that his division had been surrounded and captured. He returned to the village, where the local people gave him some civilian clothes, and he escaped arrest and went into hiding.
To escape the inevitable detention and deportation to Soviet Gulags my father, aunt Wala, uncle Wojtus and uncle Antoni decided to relocate to Western Poland. They escaped through the “green boundary” from Soviet occupied Poland into German occupied Poland. They thought it would be a safer place to hide and survive, because no one knew them there. But they had become nomads.
We were abandoned: my Grandmother Helena Zbilut, 58, my Mother age 32, and me 8years old. In early 1940 my Mother, Grandmother and I went by freight train, with our cow on board, to Malkowicze some 100 km away. My father had been a train stationmaster there before. In Malkowicze we had a house that was inherited from my Mom’s great-grandmother. Mrs. Misiewicz, who was paid for her services, was caring for it. Mrs. Misiewicz was a very kind and generous person - so when we arrived there were 8 people living there because the Russians had expropriated the houses of those poor people, and they had no place to go. It was very difficult. The house was overcrowded with mostly old people. Life without earnings was difficult: we had to scrounge for food, barter, and ask for help. And we had to help those less fortunate than us, which was difficult.
My Mother did all sorts of odd jobs to help feed “the family” of 11, plus a priest who wore civilian clothing. The Polish postmaster was replaced by a Russian woman, who commented when a postcard arrived from my father (under a false name): ” We know whom it is from, we know everything!”
I continued going to school. Amongst the usual subjects, I was taught the Poleszuk language (Bielorus), a dialect of much of the local population. It is more closely related to Russian and uses the Cyrillic alphabet.
The winter of 1940 was extremely cold. Then the deportations from our area started. Feb. 10, 1940 was the first deportation, to Archangelsk in the extreme northern part of Russia. It was cold and freezing, resulting in many casualties – babies, the old and the sick. The second set of deportation started April 12, 1940 - deportations to Kazakhstan in south Siberia. The conditions were better, as it wasn’t so cold and a less harsh destination. We never heard from the people who had been deported. At the time we had no idea where they went or what had happened to them.
Something must have happened, I still don’t know why, but there were no deportations for over a year… maybe a miracle or a bureaucratic mess of the Soviets.
We lived in fear every moment, day and night. Fear had been a constant factor in our lives. I think you need to live through the atrocities of a war and to experience these kinds of situations to really understand. My salvation was my ignorance, my lack of responsibility as a child. I felt invincible.
Then on the June 20, 1941 the third set of deportations, to Novosibirsk, began.
The NKWD (Soviet secret police) always came at night. That night, June 20, 1941, the dogs furiously began barking at 3 am, indicating something abnormal. The household awoke and was on their feet instantly, not knowing who is going to be deported now. When two Russian soldiers with bayonets charged in the door we knew our fate was sealed. There was a moment of despair and hopelessness: who . . . when . . . and how long will they last in Siberia. As a rule, deportation to a Soviet Gulag was a death sentence – slow if you survived longer, a struggle and in agony, or quick. Prior deportations and fatalities from climate, hunger and diseases were historical facts, and well known amongst Poles. Deportations have been repeated by previous generations on our family members and predecessors, with the purpose of extermination of conquered lands. “Genocide” and “Holocaust” is a procedure to cleanse the land of undesirable people.
“SOBIRAJSIA Z WIESZCZAMI - PACK YOUR THINGS”.
Upon entering the house the chief commissar opened the over shoulder bag where my Mother could read her name. She instantly had an attack of fear - thinking she was going to be arrested, sentenced and sent to prison leaving her helpless mother and daughter without the means of a livelihood, food and a chance to survive. She fainted, collapsing and hitting her head on the floor. When she found out that all 3 were being deported - she calmed down a bit. Our frustration and panic had no end. My Grandma with a nervous stomach had to go to the bathroom and the outhouse was ¼ mile away - a soldier with a bayonet had to escort her.
The Russian soldiers had come to arrest me, my Mother and my Grandmother. The hostility of the soldiers, the cruelty of the situation, the hopelessness . . . all these traumatized our family of 3 women that had been picked! Why? The enemies of the people and humanity, revolutionaries and dangerous elements: an old woman of 55, a caregiver of 35 and the child of 10, had to be sentenced and deported.
We were told we had two hours to pack, and to take lots of food. There was complete panic, desperation and disarray. My Mother upon recovering from fainting barely started to pack a few things and fainted again. I was dispatched to fetch the doctor, which was quite far away. I was young and didn’t understand, and instead of proceeding promptly and helping with the packing, I was visiting all our friends and informing them of our misfortune of being selected to be deported. The Doctor arrived and gave my Mother an injection, and she was able to get up and function coherently, to give orders and to proceed in selecting things that would matter for survival. Six times the soldier with the bayonet escorted my ailing Grandma to the outhouse.
We took some of our suitcases and trunks that we brought from Janow Poleski, which were still unpacked. This later came in handy for our survival because there were items such as linens, tablecloths and silverware, which we used to trade for food. We grabbed a few essential things. I was packing and my mother kept throwing things out of the suitcase saying those items won’t be needed, and I kept putting them back. I packed what I thought was most precious, my photographs, and left behind my doll.
The other residents of the house, instead of helping, scattered and hid for fear of being sentenced along with us. Outside of the house a crowd was gathering, some curiosity seekers and some willing to help but fearing to be arrested and deported with us. If you supported your arrested friend you became a suspect yourself. The choice was to denounce and condemn your loved ones – or stay away. But there were others, waiting like vultures to get part of our household possessions after we’re gone. This is a horrible side of human nature, the greed and desire to take advantage and benefit from someone else’s despair.
Soviet army trucks came and drove us to a different town where there was a general collection point. We were taken to a station where a train of cattle/freight cars was waiting. The deportations of “dangerous “ people to Siberia were done executioner style: push the people into cattle cars, fill to the fullest possible capacity, slam and lock the door. Trains departed to unknown destinations. Some statistics say more than 1.5 million Poles were deported to Soviet Gulags During WWII.
They packed some 80 people - mainly women, children and elderly men - into each car. There were no young or middle-aged men; they had all either gone into hiding or had been arrested and taken to prison. There were 2 shelves in the car, which served as bunk beds. There was no toilet, only a bucket for all to use. Our train was then placed on a sidetrack. I hardly remember those moments, feeling that our lives were at stake . . . helplessness, disbelief, paralysis. We were locked in without facilities or food, in despair and fear, for a couple of days.
Two days later, June 22, 1941, Germany unexpectedly attacked its ally, Russia, and quickly advanced into the Russian occupied part of Poland. We were still located in Polish territory - cattle cars filled with people, locked, without food or water, for a few more days. We could hear the German planes over our heads, bombing strategic targets. We were lucky; we were not hit. After four days the Russians cut a hole in the floor of the freight car to serve as a toilet, which was a relief.
Shortly after our arrest, my uncle Wojtus arrived to check on us, and was devastated to find out we were gone. He had been asked to return to Eastern Poland since he knew the area. He was the leader of a group of 100 soldiers who hid in the woods to blow up German trains or train bridges, to prevent the German troop advancement.
RUSSIA –SIBERIA/ KAMIEN ON RIVER OB - ALTAISKI KRAJ 1941-1942
Considering the current situation, we were lucky to be transported all the way into Russia; otherwise we could have been exterminated as simple criminals. We were totally locked in the cattle cars, only a few times we were allowed to get hot water. We were totally disoriented. We just existed. We passed Bransk – where my paternal grandmother was buried in 1918. Now the German planes were bombing the station and the rest of the city.
We passed Moscow, and the doors were opened which allowed us to at least look out. There was hardly any food or water.
We traveled in these conditions for 3 weeks. The train would make stops to drop several people off at a time, to work as lumberjacks in the tundra. They would be loaded on barges, which would go along the rivers and drop them off to survive by any means possible. We were unloaded in Novosibirsk, where we were boarded on a ship for distribution to many different settlements along the Ob River. We disembarked in Kamien na Ob (Rock on the river Ob), which was in the Altajski Kraj (Region). There was only one man on the barge – a friend of my father’s who right away got a job building grain elevators. He said we were his relatives and so we were lucky to be unloaded here with him, while the others went on to even more terrible destinations further into Siberia.
Kamien na Ob was an industrial town, and fortunately for us, laborers were needed to replace Russian men drafted to fight on the German front. In the summer, my Mother’s job was to haul mixed cement up six floors to build a grain elevator. It was very hard, physical work. I remember one wonderful treat. My Mother was then assigned to work in storage elevators for sunflower seeds. What a delight for her that she was able to consume a delicious, tasty and nourishing snack, and that she was able to fill her winter high boots with seeds and bring some home. It was very special as they had a bit of “fat”. But she had to be very careful, since this was an act punishable by imprisonment.
In the winter, my mother was ordered to work as a night guard of a hole cut in the ice (przerembla) in the middle of the very wide river Ob, which supplied fresh water to the whole city. She had to be by herself, in the middle of the night, -40 degrees C, with only a kerosene lamp. Being without another human being for 12 hours in the dark and cold was a terrorizing experience. She did get higher pay, maybe a few more ounces of bread as a reward.
There was a barrack to house us, with 20 people per room. There was no hygiene. At least we had a roof over our heads. Later my Mother got a tiny room for the 3 of us, where there were cracks in the timbers and wind and cold blew in during the winter and we had icicles hanging from the ceiling.
We had a little stove to cook on and it was a bit warmer when the stove was on. Cooking was difficult, since wood was so scarce, we had to steal or find wood shavings. Once in a while, my Mother would bring bread and other items to trade for cabbage and other vegetables. We ate water mixed with some flour – a kind of a soup. We never had any meat during the entire exile. From time to time they gave us soup - watery stuff - but not enough for everybody. My Mother would send me to get the soup and I always got ahead of the line because the people in line felt sorry for me a mere child. Each slice of bread had to be cut in half, in case there wasn’t bread tomorrow. Otherwise we could only get food by bartering. I had to steal to survive, take care of my sick mother, and do the shopping and washing. I was 11.
All the kids were forced to work. Our job was to make bricks for cooking and heating made from dung and straw. We had to mix it with our feet. It really stank.
My Mother delegated me to do the shopping with the measly few rubles that we had. That function required skills of bartering and haggling. I did not have a piece of meat, vegetable or fruit for the whole year. One day I was drooling over the stalls with the fruit and decided to buy myself a handful of crabapples. I reached into my pocket and in horror found that I had been pick-pocketed. This was the equivalent of one months worth of basic food supplies. I was in a state of shock and threw myself at the three teenagers behind me, screaming, yelling, but nobody was going to help, as those hoodlums were too strong to argue with. They just walked by with everyone watching.
We were there for a year. I don’t remember people dying, I was too young, ignorant, and deeply cocooned from a dire situation.
Miracles do happen! After the German attack on Russia, Russia joined the Western Alliance. The Polish Government in exile, based in London, united with the Russian Government to fight the monstrous Hitler. An agreement was formed which allowed the creation of a Polish Army in the Uzbekistan territory, South Russia, from released Polish prisoners and deportees. General Anders, himself released from the Lubyanka prison, was to lead this Polish army. He wanted to get all Poles out of Russia, but knew he could not. The best he could do was get family members of his soldiers out too, so he crafted the agreement such that the permits issued to form the army included immediate family members also.
After the so called “amnesty” was declared a Polish soldier came to Kamien na Ob with a pass for his family of 2 people, but my Mother, with some ingenuity, forged it to 21 people. So 21 of us got out and left with the Polish soldier. Before our trip we sold everything we had so we had some money for the trains.
The whole trip south to Kermine took 3 weeks. We had to make several train transfers, and each time we had to dip into our supply of vodka to bribe the railroad ticket agents, conductors etc. The conditions and situations were monstrous. We had to sleep on the ground at the stations waiting for the trains. Fighting our way to get into the train, bribing, being robbed. It was very difficult to keep our group safe and not to lose each other.
It took us 2 weeks to get to Tashkent. It was very dangerous. We had to barter, bribe, steal and lie to get passes and buy tickets. We knew stealing was rampant, so in Tashkent my Mother strapped herself to a suitcase. Suddenly she noticed that she was airborne and started screaming. Other Poles came running to her rescue and she was dropped like a sack of potatoes.
After Tashkent it took another week, and we finally made it to Kermine in Uzbekistan where the Polish Army was being formed. We were lucky that our trip was only three weeks. Others who came later weren’t so lucky – they were left behind in Russia and thousands of people died here.
Arriving in Kermine, Uzbekistan was a shock. The only water available came in storm sewers along the road, and it was only released at 4pm. People dashed to get water and drank it, and later came down with dysentery because the water was contaminated. The other problem was that the food was too greasy for starved people with empty stomachs. Approximately 5,000 died. There were so-called “flying coffins” because the dead would be put in a coffin and after the body was placed in a common grave, it was used time and again for “burial”. The conditions were devastating: people were dieing of typhoid, dysentery, malaria, starvation, neglect and lack of hygiene.
Only families of men in the army could register to leave Russia. So here was my Mother’s dilemma: either she had to join the army and put me in an orphanage, or find an “eligible bachelor” and leave under a false name. There was no time; transports were leaving in three weeks. My Mother found a friend, the brother of a good friend who was left behind in the Russian barrack, Lt. Ziemacki – a single man who seemed to have a very important job. He registered all three of us as his family - and we left Russia under the name of Ziemacki.
DEPARTURE July 1942
Finally it came, the day of departure, a day full of fear, excitement hope and prayers. We went as Lt. Ziemacki’s family by train to Krasnowotsk. From the train station we had to march to the ship eight kilometers away with only what you can carry. My Grandmother carried water.
At the port we were listening for our names to be called. It was very confusing because my Grandmother was still using the name Zbilut, which was OK because she was an “in-law”. She was called first, so we were separated. My Mother and I had to force ourselves to remember that our name was now Ziemacki, and had to step up at the right time when that name was called. We were loaded on unbelievable dirty Russian ships and sailed south on the Caspian Sea to Pahlevi, Iran. The ship was packed to the brim with people, no sitting place. General Anders intentionally did this, thinking that there was only a small window to get Poles out of Russia, and so he wanted to get as many out as he could. To go to the bathroom was so difficult. There was common slanted platform at the edge of the ship, which allowed the refuse to go overboard. The facilities were for all. There was always a long line. I didn’t like the idea of going next to adults, with no privacy. My mother found us a spot under the stairs, and had a little teapot for us to use. There were so many sick people. I had no shoes and torn garments.
PERSIA (IRAN): PAHLEVI, TEHERAN, AHVAZ July 1942 - July1943
We arrived at the beaches of Pahlevi. Those who were stronger were helping those who could barely walk. We had to go through inspections, where they would shave heads and de-lice us. Many people were continuing to die even after reaching Pahlevi, being so exhausted, weak and dilapidated. We were in Pahlevi for a few weeks.
Then we went by army trucks though the Elborz Mountains on winding dangerous roads to Teheran. A few trucks went off the road and all those aboard died in the accidents. We were moved to another temporary camp, Camp No. 2 in Teheran. We were there for nine months.
This camp was on the outskirts of the city, an old military camp comprised of brick buildings. I remember the food! Three meals a day!
We formed Polish schools. My Mother was a teacher. Mrs. Goleniewski, another Seattle survivor, was one of her students. I was in the 4th grade, age 11, and there was one book for the entire class! There were hardly any pencils or paper.
In Teheran I danced for the Shah of Persia. In my Polish school we formed a Polish dance group. It was funny, because my friend on my left was Zosia. Zosia's mother asked Zosia to ask “Krystyna” to dance in the group, but she meant another Krystyna, the one who was quite the actress. But Zosia was more friends with me and asked me, and somehow I did OK in the audition and that's how I got in the dance group. The dance group had 20 people.
Many of the Polish camps had student performing groups. The Shah had been very supportive of the Polish people, so the camp administrator decided to thank the Shah for his generosity by putting on a show by these student performing groups. It was an exciting day. They took us by bus to the big theater in Teheran, and I danced for the Shah. He was sitting in the first row. It was embarrassing because we were supposed to dance a Kujawiak (very slow Polish song) and accidentally someone put on the music for an Oberek (a fast Polish dance) and so we were very confused and doing our dance too quickly.
We were given clothes by the IRO (International Refugee Organization) and gifts (clothes, hats, shoes, utensils) from the USA. Some things didn't fit us, so we had to make changes, like we took two dresses to make one dress.
My mother got sick in Teheran and was hospitalized for three weeks. This was scary, because we could have been separated if the scheduled transport to Ahwaz had occurred, as hospitalized people were left behind.
We were waiting to be placed in a “permanent” camp in other countries such as India, Uganda, Kenya, Rhodesia, South Africa, Mexico and New Zealand. The Persian camps were transit camps. Soldiers were sent to Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine.
We were sent to Ahwaz, because it was near the port from which to be shipped to our “permanent” camp. Ahwaz is the hottest place on earth, with temperatures often at 115 degrees F. My Mother got sick with typhoid fever, so she spent three weeks in an army hospital, hallucinating. She was put in quarantine. But I wanted to see my Mother. So friends would toss me over the barb wired fence so I could visit her in the contaminated area. Then they would pull the barbed wires apart so that I could sneak out after my visit. The survival rate was minimal, 80% of patients died, but my Mother had a strong will to live, knowing she had a daughter and elderly Mother to take care of, and she wanted to be allowed to leave with us to a further destination.
In Ahvaz I got a pair of purple shoes. In Russia I had to wear one pair of shoes for 1.5 years. I can’t describe adequately how excited I was - I got a pair of BRAND NEW shoes, and they were PURPLE. I loved purple.
We were in Ahvaz for three months. Altogether, we were Persia for one year, in these temporary transit camps.
INDIA – KARACHI, VALIVADE/KOLHAPUR 1943-1948
We went by British army ships from Basra in Iraq. In Basra they waited for a safe time to sail because the Japanese submarines were in the Indian Ocean. We left Persia July 1943 with a convoy of 30 ships and sailed to Karachi, which was then in India.
We rarely knew what was happening in the world, what was the status of the war, what has happening at home. We had no access to radios. The only way got news was via word of mouth.
We arrived in Karachi in August 1943. As we docked in the port, there was a ship that was being loaded with Polish refugees being relocated to Africa. The people from the other ship were shouting to us, they were shouting something about General Sikorski. That was how we learned that General Sikorski had been killed. He died in a tragic plane accident near the Rock of Gibraltar. It was devastating. There were two very important Polish generals whom the Polish people, scattered all over the world, relied on and who gave them faith and hope: General Anders and General Sikorski. We knew that he had been working with the Polish government in exile in London, working to secure the freedom of Poland. Now this major force was gone.
We were moved to another displaced persons camp, a tent city with cots. Our camp was 50 miles away from Karachi, an isolated empty place, and a barren desert area. There was barbed wire surrounding the camp, not to keep the Poles in but to keep the thieves and criminals OUT!
We arrived in Karachi late at night and were transported by lorries to the camp in the dark. That first night there was a horrible typhoon. The downpour was horrible, 1.5 feet of water in a short time. Our luggage was amassed in the open space unprotected from rain and thieves. We climbed on top of the beds and tried to salvage what we could, praying that the water will not rise higher, praying that the tents support will hold out and protect us. Whatever we loaded on the beds or were holding survived. The raging water was like a river flowing through our tents. My mother was devastated, as she watched her precious kettle being washed away. I was devastated, as I watched my beautiful purple shoes being washed away. A few days of scorching sun dried the soaked belongings we had managed to save.
We stayed there 9 months. We were able to arrange the camps to make us feel more at home. We formed Polish schools. We had a Polish scouting club and international scouting jamborees.
Nearby Karachi were American GI camps. Soldiers used to come to visit us and bring gifts. We got an invitation to join them for Christmas festivities. What I remember most was the ice cream - which I hadn’t had for so many years! It was a magical event, the atmosphere was so wonderful, soldiers speaking Polish, laughter and dancing. At their camp we had a real Christmas tree. In our camp we had a twig (which we were lucky to find in the desert) with cotton balls.
For New Years our camp hosted an International Boys and Girls Scouts Jamboree. We invited the GI soldiers to come celebrate with us and the scouts from other camps. Our camp was mainly women and children. We hadn't seen men for so many years, because our men were off fighting the war. We were in a trance. The troops of scouts were varied and included soldiers, ethnic groups, and beautiful and colorful costumes. I was 11 years old dancing with tall adult soldiers. We had all kinds of performances: dancing, entertaining and singing. I still remember how proud I felt dancing for them as part of the New Years Eve party in my colorful Polish costume, while many others just wore their gray uniforms.
Then we survived a cyclone. We were totally exposed to it, we could see it coming, a huge gray cloud, swirling in the distance and rapidly approaching across the barren desert. There was no place to hide, no place to go, and we knew our flimsy tents wouldn’t survive or protect us. We watched it turn and it missed us by 10 km.
But this was another temporary camp and after a year we were transferred. We traveled by ship to Bombay (now Mumbai) and then inland 300 km to Valivade-Kolhapur. Our camp had semi permanent dwellings, with cooking facilities. They were mud houses, but it was at least a real roof over our heads. We remained here for 4 years, my ages 12 through 17.
We had a somewhat normal life here, except we had little money for food.
I went to school with regular curriculum and teachers – it was almost a regular life. Wanda Domanska, a friend of Gandhi, was our constant lecturer about history, culture, and the wonderful parts of this host country.
Again there were no men in the camp; they were in the Polish army fighting the Germans in Norway, Africa and Europe. We were unaware that the Japanese were only 300 miles from our location.
In Kolapour there were monkeys and cobras. I learned to walk very slowly at night, putting my heels down first to feel for cobra snakes. We would find snake skins all around our camp in the morning. We would avoid monkeys, since they would pull your hair and attack you.
My Mother and I contracted malaria. For eight months, I spent two weeks each month in the hospital with severe attacks.
After the war ended in 1945, contact with rest of the world happened slowly through the Red Cross. We were slowly finding out who has survived, and who has perished under our horrible circumstances. Can you imagine how surprised my family was to find out that the three of us women were in India! We were lucky in that we lost only five members of my family (all males, one who was a teenager). We learned that my father, aunt Wala and her husband, uncle Wojtus and uncle Antoni had all survived fighting in the Polish resistance.
The resettlement of Poles began. The first to go were the families of Polish solders who were in England, they were allowed to join them. Those without connections had to stay as refugees. We were known as DPs - displaced people.
In 1947 India became independent. Bloodshed started between the Hindus and the Moslems in 1948. UNRRA (UN Refugee Rescue Agency) helped us with food and other essentials. After Gandhi’s assassination there were bloody uprisings, and Pakistan separated from India. Because India was no longer part of the British Empire, and the unrest due to the civil war so dangerous, all camps in India were closed and the refugees moved.
AFRICA, UGANDA, KOJA 1948-1949
We made another trip to Bombay, and then two weeks on a ship across the Indian Ocean to Mombasa, Kenya. There we took a train to Kampala, Uganda. The train ride showed us the wonders of the African extensive and free zoo. The flora and fauna were magnificent: virgin land with giraffes, elephants and hippos. What a wonder to see nature’s splendor in its natural habitat.
Koja is 40 miles from Kampala, and 10 miles from Entebbe. Our Displaced Persons camp was on a beautiful peninsula on the shores of Lake Victoria. Life in camp seemed normal – roof over head and food. We had thatched roof and mud houses, a little garden, domestic animals and friendly people.
But we quickly learned that Africa’s natural habitat is not so friendly towards you, it is a dangerous place with crocodiles, hippopotamus and boa constrictors. We couldn’t swim in Lake Victoria, because of crocodiles and the disease Bilharzia. Hippos that lived in the lake would come out at night. They would make a noise like pigs. The Poles had a little farm and the hippos would come destroy the farm and eat the food. We lived on the row of houses next to the farm so we would hear them at night.
Again we were mostly women and kids. We had chickens in a coop. One night we heard the chickens screeching, and found that a boa constrictor was eating our chickens. We ran clanging our pans hoping it would leave. Another night one of our neighbors caught the boa eating their chickens. It was about 12 feet long and it took many people to hold it. There were also a lot of small poisonous snakes. So at night you had to walk slowly to test each foot step to make sure you weren't about to step on one. Just like in India, in the mornings we would find snake skins all over since they shed at night.
And then there were the termites. The legs of our table and food storage box had to be immersed in kerosene to keep termites off the table. We also kept the legs of our beds in kerosene, to keep the termites off our beds. Termites would eat everything, including our thatched roofs. They would move like a black river, and some of them trickled off like streams. My Mother put her important documents under her pillow to keep them safe, but they were half eaten by termites that had dropped from the roof onto the bed.
I was stricken with tropical dysentery – amebic. I had a long stay in a hospital with good results. Survival under these conditions was harsh. The church and Catholicism were instrumental in providing hope, faith made it possible.
Then the Mau Mau rebellion of blacks against whites began, with bloody attacks. It was an awful experience because we could see boats with people lurking just off shore from our camp.
One year of paradise and then a decision had to be made on where to emigrate. After the war ended, there was an exodus of thousands of homeless people from displaced persons camps. They were emigrating throughout the world. Some went back to their old country, but Poland was broken, burned, homes were destroyed, property had been confiscated, the border had been shifted, and the country was under Soviet communist control. Others were offered the opportunity to immigrate to a new country and start a new life. Some people left with only a suitcase. The transitions were dramatic.
My father had survived the war in Poland; hiding with relatives and friends (like in the movie “Pianist”), fought in Warsaw’s Uprising and was captured. On the way to the concentration camp he escaped, returned to Poland and started life “as is”. My Mother decided not to go back to Poland to face another Genocide or to live under Soviet communist rule. My Grandmother chose to go back to Poland.
We were leftovers. Commissions from other countries came to pick up the remaining refugees. The Canadian commission offered us a contract: a job for one year to pay for our transport. The decision to emigrate was tough. We had a distant relative living in Canada so that was our choice.
The Commissions x-rayed and examined the people they were considering, to not allow infected people to bring diseases in.
We traveled three weeks on a Canadian troop ship through the Suez Canal, Port Said, Mediterranean (Mount Vezuvius), and Gibraltar and then across the Atlantic Ocean in very primitive conditions. We arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia in August of 1949 to, finally, a normalized life. I felt like “Gulliver’s Travels” had ended and real life began at the age of 18.
My mother and I settled in Montreal, where we became active in the Polish community. I joined the Polish scouting organization and was again in a Polish dance group. Here I met and married Przemyslaw Jan Balut. We have 3 children- Grazyna born in Canada, and Tomir and Halina born in Seattle and Bellevue respectively. We came to Seattle in 1959 because Jan, an engineer, got a job with Boeing where he worked until his retirement.
My Mother stayed in Montreal, until she passed away in 1980.
I went on my first visit to Poland in 1966. I hadn’t seen my Father for 28 years. I was 36 years old (I last saw him when I was 8 years old). Poland was under Communist rule, visitations were difficult to arrange, especially because my husband was on a Communist wanted list (he had escaped illegally).
I also got to see again my Uncle Wojtus, Aunt Wala and many other relatives. Although I was to learn some of their stories, much of their stories are lost. Many stories of brave Poles were not told – there was too much danger with informants going to the Communist government. It was too dangerous to tell even ones own children – as the communists would use them as informants. What little I learned about my Aunt Wala’s and Uncle Wojtus’ story while in Poland was told in whispers, so that Aunt Wala’s son would not hear. Now the information is lost.
For Poland, WWII lasted 45 years, because the cold war and Communism were occupying forces in Poland. It wasn’t until the rise of Solidarnosc in 1989 and the fall of Communism that Poland finally regained her freedom. The government honored me with the Cross of Siberian Exiles, for being a survivor of the Soviet Gulags. It is my Mother who deserves this honor.
I often am disheartened when I hear that some people think that it was only the Jews who were targeted for extermination during the war, because Catholics were targeted too. And that the term Holocaust has come to mean the extermination of Jews: I’ve come to use the term Genocide for what the Germans and Russians did to the Poles.
I also am disheartened when I hear about Polish prejudice against the Jews. Granted, there were some Catholics who were prejudiced against Jews, but there were many Catholic who helped Jews, including many of my family members. We hear about the non-Jews who helped the Nazis find Jews, but I saw with my own eyes Jews who helped the Soviets find Catholic Poles who were hiding. I want there to be an understanding that there are dishonest and greedy people in all religious sects, just as there are also brave and honest people.
I’ve included the accounts of a few of my family members. There were many, many Poles who are heroes of the Polish underground, also known as partisans. The symbol of the Polish partisans during the war were the initial PW (Polska Walczy – Poland fights), which were left as graffiti almost everywhere, to raise the spirit of the Poles under occupation. These brave men and women deserve being honored.
After my Father went into hiding in Western Poland, he was living in Warsaw. As a result he fought in the Warsaw Uprising. The Warsaw Uprising was another great Polish tragedy. After the Nazis attacked Russia, the Russian army entered Poland to help the fight against the Germans. The Polish Underground was in communication with the Soviet forces, and there was agreement that they would work together to defeat the Nazis. The Soviet army was on the banks of the Vistula River, which borders Warsaw, when the Poles in the underground began the battle. But the Soviets did nothing. They sat and watched. Allied forces dropped air supplies as the valiant Poles fought the Nazis all alone, but these supplies were not enough. The brave partisans lasted 63 days before being beat and captured by the Germans. Most Poles suspect that the Soviets intentionally did not intervene, because it was in their best interest to remove (see killed) as many patriotic Poles as possible.
During the Warsaw Uprising, my Father was a gunner, hiding behind chimneys and shooting at German airplanes, and a fireman extinguishing fires caused by the bombs. At the end of the uprising he was captured, arrested and targeted for deportation to a Nazi concentration camp. He happened to be carrying his railroad conductors hat in his briefcase, so he put it on his head, saluted the Germans guards, acted like he worked there, and walked away - this is how he escaped from the Germans.
He chose not to join his wife and daughter, as he did not want to leave his homeland or learn another language. He later remarried and lived in Lodz until his death in 1983.
Uncle Antoni Martusewicz
Working for the underground in western Poland, Uncle Antoni was illegally providing food to Jewish families, endangering his own life, the life of his family and the lives of those who made contributions.
Aunt Wala Starzyk (nee Zbilut)
After my Aunt Wala went into hiding, she joined her husband Wladyslaw Starzyk, and they both worked together in the Polish underground in Central Poland, near Warsaw. Aunt Wala was a courier. When I was visiting my Father in 1966, he pointed to an intersection and told me that it was there that Aunt Wala was stopped by some Nazi soldiers as she was bicycling and interrogated. Fortunately, they did not find the messages she was carrying in the handle bars of her bike, or she would have been arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
Her husband was responsible for retrieving supply packages (drops) that were parachuted in by allied aircraft, and distributing the supplies. When I was in Poland in 2004, I came upon a memorial plaque for WWII partisans, and to my surprise saw Wladyslaw Staryk’s name, and the etched plaque informed me that he had been in charge of a group of 480 partisans.
After the war they moved to Wroclaw, and adopted an orphaned boy, Franek.
Uncle Wojtus Zbilut
Uncle Wojtus was very prominent in the Polish Underground. His code name was “Jor”. His primary assignments were to lead a group of men that would hide in the woods and destroy the Nazi’s main source of transportation – the train system.
When the efforts of the partisans expanded to Eastern Poland, he was asked to be a leader there since he was familiar with the terrain. He quickly agreed, since he was worried about us and wanted to make sure we were OK. He arrived at our house shortly after our arrest and deportation, and was devastated.
He again was the leader of a group of partisans hiding in the woods and fighting against the Germans. His group’s primary responsibility was thwarting German train travel between Poland and Moscow. His group was responsible for blowing up 27 German supply trains, and numerous railroad tracks and bridges.
He was also the leader in ten battles against the Germans. Once he came across a group of Jews who had been arrested by Nazis and were being marched to a collections point. He freed the Jews by attacking and killing the Nazis guards. His partisan group came across Jews who had escaped and were hiding in the woods - and they would help them. He also collaborated with Jewish partisans.
When the war ended, many Polish Partisans came out of hiding, thinking Poland had regained her freedom. But with Poland under Russian control, Poland was not free. The Russians did not trust any of the Polish Partisans, knowing they would be willing to fight to free Poland. So the Russians arrested all the partisans and sent them to Siberia.
Uncle Wojtus was arrested by the Soviets in 1944. I’m actually not sure whether he was captured or turned himself in, but either way he thought he would be treated well by the Russians, since he had been blowing up German trains, essentially fighting against a common enemy. But instead he was arrested and deported to Siberia. When he couldn’t prove his identity, he revealed that he was under an assumed name, Zbigniew Karlicki. He was sentenced again for three more years.
He was in the Gulags for 11 years total. He escaped many times, and was recaptured many times. Once he was sentenced to the far north of Siberia. He was being taken to Irkuck on Lake Baikal. They were being taken on a ship. The ship broke down and they asked if someone could fix it. Uncle Wojtus was able to fix it and was put in charge of the ship building and repair unit, but was still treated as a prisoner.
On his last escape, he ran into a movie theater, because it was dark inside the building and easier to hide. The Russian soldiers ran in after him, so he started kissing the girl sitting next to him. She took him into hiding for two years before he was able to return to Poland in 1956. She later followed him to Poland and they were married.
My future husband, Jan, was 15, living in Bydgoszcz when the Germans invaded Poland. He witnessed the gathering and execution of the intelligencia in the town square.
He had one brother, Tom, three years younger. During the war, it was decided that the family of four needed to move south. Going through Warsaw he and his brother heard they were giving away free chocolate at the Wawel factory, so they crossed the bridge, just before German Stuka airplanes did a strafe run over the bridge.
He was too young to be in the army, so the Germans put him to work as a train laborer. He learned German quite easily, and so got a good job. But you always had to be on your toes. One time the Germans were talking about how they heard that Polish men would cut off the breast of women they captured. Jan said, “don’t be stupid”, and was quickly surrounded by silence and stares. He expected a knock on his door in the middle of the night from the Gestapo, but fortunately it never came.
After the war ended they moved to Gdansk. They now faced a miserable life under communist rule. He worked in a factory, and keeping the machines oiled was part of their job. Some would not oil the machines as intentional sabotage. One time, during a shift change, there was a miscommunication about who was to change the oil, and Jan didn’t do it and the machine failed. When he was accused of sabotage, his Soviet boss spoke up defending him, and saved his life.
Both he and his brother went to the Gdansk University of Technology and got degrees in engineering. But his brother Tom did not want to live under communist rule. So the two of them hatched a plan to escape. They decided to take flying lessons, with the hope of escaping by flying to Sweden. They were learning to fly in two-seat PO-2 biplanes, one seat for the student and one for the instructor. The instructor was there at all times, to insure no escape, and they always kept the airplane fuel tanks near empty. They realized that to escape they needed to have four factors line up: enough fuel in the tanks, a wind to the north, cloud cover to hide them from chase planes, and to have the instructor momentarily away from the airplane. So, every day they were ready in case the opportunity came up. On October 26, 1950, all the factors lined up, including that the instructor decided he needed to go pee. As he went away, Jan jumped into the instructor’s seat and they started to take off. The instructor stopped to button up his pants (those few seconds probably saved them) and then as he ran he missed grabbing the tail by only a few feet.
They were airborne, but in the turbulent clouds could not read their compass and determine which direction they were headed. They dropped out of the clouds to orient themselves, and saw a Yak-9 banking away from them. The fighter pilot’s orientation as he was turning was such that he didn’t see them. They got their orientation, went back into the clouds and flew to Sweden.
They had heard that several governments had quietly returned escaping Poles. So they decided that once they landed they needed to go to the press first. The press put a story in the paper, and they were given asylum in Sweden. Both their parents were arrested, but they in fact knew nothing of the escape. Their Mother was released shortly after, but their Father was in prison for three months, and upon his release they were told they must leave Gdansk.
Jan and his brother were in Sweden for a year, and then moved to Montreal, Canada. Both brothers joined the Polish scouting organization, and this is where I met Jan. Jan passed away in 2009 at the age of 84.
Martusewicz family and Wojek Wojtusz in 1933
Karachi - Krystyna, Mother, and Grandmother in 1944-45
Valivade - Dancing ensemble, March 1945