IN the early hours of February 10, 1940 Krystyna Ostrowska awoke to the sound of soldiers banging on the door of her family's home in Eastern Poland.
It was the Russian secret police, who ordered the family to pack what they could in a short space of time. Soon they were being herded onto a cattle truck packed full of frightened people, and for the next few weeks would endure a terrifying journey, with barely any food, water or light, in sub-zero blizzards, before arriving at a Siberian labour camp.
Along with thousands of other Polish people, Krystyna and her family were sent to Siberia under Stalin's brutal regime, transporting 1.7 million men, women and children from Russian-occupied Poland. Many didn't reach Siberia, perishing during the long journey, in temperatures plummeting to minus-40. Between February 1940 and January 1942, it is thought that half the deportees died, mostly from disease, malnutrition, and exhaustion in forced labour camps. Entire families were put to work, from chopping wood to building railways, for limited food rations.
It was while living in cramped, vermin-infested barracks in a Siberian camp that the teenage Krystyna started keeping a secret diary, promising herself that she would record all that she saw, particularly how her family and fellow Poles were suffering at the hands of Russians.
Krystyna settled in Bradford after the war, and this is where her diary remained hidden for decades. It came to light when she handed it to a social worker who was helping her with her affairs. The social worker passed it on to historians visiting the UK, working on a project called Generations Go: Original Narratives of Polish Siberian Deportees living in Great Britain.
What makes Krystyna's story even more remarkable is that she is profoundly deaf, having lost her hearing aged 10 when she had scarlet fever.
The historians spent an entire night reading Krystyna's diaries, written in a series of exercise books. “We were all moved, some of us to tears, by the content,” said Dr Hubert Chudzio, historian for the Polish Press Agency, who was one of the first to read the text. “The poignantly narrated story describes the world of Siberian exile seen through the eyes of a deaf teenager, and later a young woman."
The exercise books made their way to the University of Krakow, where students and researchers typed up all 1,400 pages onto a computer, resulting in 600 pages of typescripts. Now they are seeking a publisher.
At age 90, Krystyna now lives at Elderthorpe Residential Home in Shipley, where last month she received the Siberian Exiles Cross, presented to her by Polish Consul General, Lukasz Lutostanski. The medal, awarded by the Polish government, commemorates the experiences and suffering of Poles deported to Siberia.
Krystyna was born in a settlement in Bajonówka, near Równe, now West Ukraine. When she lost her hearing she attended a school for the deaf in the Polish city of Lwów.
In the camps, Krystyna managed to conceal her diaries. When the Germans attacked Russia and the Sikorski-Majski agreement was signed in July, 1941, she and her family made their way to Uzbekistan, where the Polish Army was being formed.
Her brother enlisted with the Army, fighting with the Allies, and came as a soldier to Britain. From Uzbekistan, Krystyna and her widowed mother travelled with the Army to Persia, now Iran. Before boarding the ship transporting refugees across the Caspian Sea to the free world, the Soviets demanded the destruction of all documents possessed by Poles. Frightened for her life, Krystyna, then 18, burned her diary.
But when she and her mother travelled to a Polish settlement in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, she reproduced her diary, which she knew by heart, in exercise books. After six years in the settlement, Krystyna travelled to Britain, where she and her mother reunited with her brother, and where she finally settled. She married a Polish teacher but following the deaths of her husband, mother and brother, she lived alone in Bradford for the last 30 years.
Now her story has come to light, thanks to her handwritten diaries bound in pages of a newspaper called Pole in Africa from 1947 and 1948. The language she used resembles the style of Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose work Krystyna grew up reading.
It is hoped that her experiences can be preserved for future generations to read about. Just as Anne Frank's wartime diary captures her time living in hiding, Krystyna's writing also reflects the thoughts and feelings of a girl caught up in the horrors of war.
“We would like the diary to be published as soon as possible so that the author, who still feels her life was lost, can see it in print. Perhaps the printed memoirs might offer a glimmer of hope that this life was not lost at all,” said Dr Chudzio.
Many of the Polish refugees arriving in Bradford after the war were survivors of Siberian labour camps. Each year they gather at the city's Polish Club for a ceremony organised by the Bradford Polish Veterans Association, commemorating the anniversary of the deportation. They sit down together for a meal, listen to music and speeches and remember the loved ones who didn't survive.
"Siberia is not just a geographical region; it is a symbol expressing the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands of Poles fighting with a murderous system which never had any respect for human freedom or dignity," said Bradford Polish Veterans Association president Romana Pizon said. "The word 'Siberia' became synonymous with oppression, slave labour, martyrdom, captivity and struggle for independence.
"It is so important that we keep raising awareness of what happened."
Krystyna and her family
Krystyna and her family
Krstyna and her husband Lufwik
Certificate signed by the President of Poland, awardung the Siberian Cross to Krystyna
Consul General Lukasz Lutostansk, Krystyna, President of the Bradford Veterans Association Romana Pizon, and social worker Agnes Anderszewski, who passed Krystyna's diaries to historians.
Krystyna at age 90