Leonia (Miszuto) STEPIEN
by Barbara Stepien-Foad
As told by Leonia Stepien, her Mother
I was born Leonia (Lola) Miszuto, during the First World Ward, in 1916. I was born into an area of Poland now called Belarus (Bylo Russia) – at the far northeast of Poland. I lived at Sokolowo – the nearest large town was Dzisna – which was on the Russian border. The main river was the Dziesienka. We lived close to one of its tributaries – the Dzwina.
The region had been governed by Russia but, following the First World War, all the inhabitants became Polish citizens once more. Mainly Polish people took up this citizenship, but there were also Bylo Russian and some Russian and Jewish communities in our region. There was also a small Muslim community – the Tatars (who originated from the Caucauses) – they settled in Wilno (which is now, following further remapping of Poland after the Second World War, under Lithuania – you may know it as Vilnius). My parents were of the Russian Orthodox religion, but there were also large Catholic communities and synagogues in the area. I grew up speaking Polish, some Russian, and some Bylo Russian. We all lived very harmoniously alongside each other, respecting and enjoying each other’s religions and observances, often taking part in each other’s customs and traditions. Some people celebrated both the Catholic and Orthodox Christmases for example. People were friends with each other from different communities, they learnt each other’s languages, sang each other’s songs and so on. It was a cosmopolitan mixture of cultures, but a very peaceful and amicable atmosphere to grow up in.
My mother Katarzyna (Katherine) raised my older brother Valentyn (Valentine) and me virtually single-handedly – my father Piotr (Peter) died of TB, caught in the trenches during the First World War when I was only three. The memory I have of him is seeing him propped up by pillows in bed – his sisters – my aunts had all come round to our house. Valentyn was 6 when our father died. My two younger siblings, Eugenia and Mikolaj (Nicholas) died in infancy in the same 12 months as my father.
I finished my education in the Polish language. My mother, as a widow, could no longer afford to pay for any further education for me and so when I finished my schooling I stayed at home to help my mother manage the farm and land. We had to get hired help at harvest and busy times.
Our farm spanned 15 hectares – that is, some 45 acres of land. We kept a large herd of cattle – for milk, butter and cheese, a small herd of 12 or so sheep – for wool, and some pigs – for bacon. My mother would pay the slaughter man to come to the farm to kill animals for meat – it was a very sad time as we got to know our animals well. I loved it when calves, lambs and piglets were born. Piglets are so clean and lovely – then the mother sow would take them into the mud and they would return all blackened – dirty but happy. I enjoyed feeding lambs from a bottle – how their tails would dance about! We also kept chickens, geese and ducks. The ducks spent most of their time in the pond. If a duck refused to sit on her eggs we would give the duck eggs to a broody hen – who was always most alarmed when her hatchlings proceeded straight to water – the “mother” hen would run up and down the length of the pond clucking fearfully for their safety. Our horse transported us on a cart in the summer and on a sleigh in the winter. He helped till the fields for sowing. Our large dog “Saba” patrolled the farm; he was an excellent guard dog. Our cat “Miurcia” was a magnificent mouser – she once brought home a rabbit. She would annually produce one litter of wild kittens in the attic. The cat and dog lived in the house with us. The cat always bossed the poor dog about. All our farm animals were sheltered in barns and sheds over wintertime. No one would ever leave their livestock out of doors in bad weather.
Our property possessed a grain house and many outdoor barns. The grain house stored wheat, barley, rye, linen, oats, peas, and so on. The land to the left of our detached dwelling was a beautiful fruit orchard – apples, cherries, pears, plums – the beehives were placed here. We would gather honey and make honey wine – such a sweet taste I remember. The land beyond and to the right grew flax, wheat, oats, barley, rye, sugar beet and vegetables – cucumber, cabbage, beetroot, carrots, radishes, swede, and so on. We also grew raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries, black and red currants, melons. The remainder was pastureland.
Our house was sizeable, we were not poor neither were we rich. We lived a comfortable life –despite my mother being widowed. Our house was built from wood with a large thatched roof. Swallows would rear their young in the roof and storks would nest on the chimney stacks in the summer time. We had a long open porch to the front which was ideal for sitting out in the long hot summer evenings. The house was heated with wood burning stoves – a large gaily-tiled stove stretching right up to the ceiling in the living quarters and an “aga” type stove serving heat and cooking purposes in the big kitchen. We used fancy oil lamps for lighting – they gave off a terrific light – much better than today’s light bulbs. Spring water was pumped from an outside well – it tasted very fine and so different to tap water. No electricity then.
We lived self-sufficient lives as did most people in the area and there was much knowledge of the land, the seasons, the weather, animals and nature. We harvested our produce, baked breads, made preserves, pickled dishes, dried fish, meat, fruits from the orchard and fruits of the forest in season. We would gather mushrooms in the Autumn, bilberries in the Summer – everything was fresh and tasty. We didn’t use chemicals as they do these days. Flax was soaked and processed to make linen – there is nothing quite like a blue flowering field of flax to look upon. We spun our own wool and so on. We had an ice mound which preserved perishables. This is a deep hole dug into the ground; it is lined with straw and packed with ice (from the frozen river). It would keep milk, butter, cheese and so on remarkably fresh during our hot summers.
Our village of Sokolowo housed about 22 dwellings. We had about 5 neighbours based on either side of the river. We would help each other out. I remember our neighbours’ pig kept swimming the width of the river to reach the other side – its owner would shout across to the neighbours on the other bank to please re-direct her pig back home!
My mother’s sister – Irena – lived at Dzisna – 15 kilometres away and her 3 brothers owned forests and small holdings some 2 kilometres across the river. The brothers were called Tomasz (Thomas), Pawel (Paul) and Teodor (Theodore). My Uncle Pawel – my father’s brother lived the other side of the river in a splendid house. We would visit him by boat. He held many house parties and invited many guests. These parties were always memorable – good weather entertaining outside with long food laden tables, indoors by the stoves in the colder months. There was always an excuse for a celebration. My father’s family were all very musical. My father used to play harmonica and clarinet. My Uncle played violin and there would always be violins, accordions, mouth organs, a clarinet and a piano accompanying the jolly festivities. What fun we had!
Uncle Pawel had a bad tempered guard dog that would become totally placid and protective with children. He also had a cockerel which was renowned for its ferocity. My brother would tease it incessantly but the cockerel would always have the last laugh as Valentyn always ended up being chased about or pecked. This always used to amuse me.
We sometimes attended dances organised at Sokolowo where everyone could show off their newly tailored clothes.
I had a happy childhood. My brother and I walked to school at Stefanpol about 3½ kilometres away. We would pick seasonal wild flowers on the way and I would squeal with glee when Bielus (Snowy) our white dog, chased me through the tall grasses. The river Dzwina was a beautiful river – we would run along its banks bare foot. Valentyn caught fish. We had to learn to swim. The river was quite wide, my uncle’s son, despite being an excellent swimmer caught cramp and drowned in that river whilst still a young man.
I enjoyed school, a lot of emphasis was placed on calligraphy – our teachers were very good, each class comprised about 25 children. We brought our own lunches. My brother was in a class 3 years above me.
The main town – Dzisna with its libraries, museums, galleries and exciting shops was 15 kilometres away. We travelled to Dzisna by horse. In winter time the horse would take us by sleigh.
My mother liked to learn of new dress fashions. She used to visit her sister who had worked in a shop in St. Petersburg in Russia to exchange new dress patterns. We visited Dzisna once a month depending on what was needed shopping wise.
My mother embroidered and sewed but was not a dressmaker – a local woman would come to measure us and fit and sew our clothing. She was a good tailor. Cobblers would stop off at our house to make and mend our footwear. Our shoes were all hand made – and instead of nails we had tightly fitted small wooden pegs. Otherwise travelling tradespeople saw to our needs. Tinkers and peddlers – mostly Jewish men, would come to the house selling pots and pans, some would offer you their pickled gherkins and herrings or threads, buttons, whistles, harmonicas, knife sharpening services and so on. These peddlers would be offered shelter for the night as they travelled on by themselves or to return to their families. I remember one such Jewish peddler saying his prayers in our house after supper. I was quite young. He bowed his head and nodded backwards and forwards whilst chanting. Being mischievous, I stood, unbeknown behind him, copying his movements. When my mother saw this she took me to one side and reprimanded me sternly. She scolded me for not respecting his method of prayer. Sometimes homeless or beggar people would call at the door, my mother would always invite them in and feed them. Everyone in the area did the same.
Looking back it all seemed an idyllic rural lifestyle.
We were brought up to respect religion. We kept icons in the house as is the way in Russian Orthodoxism. Our church was at Stefanpol. It was not large but beautifully decorated, it had the traditional domed spire on the roof. We celebrated Christmas January 6th – the same traditions and customs as for December 25th. People literally “flock” to church on a Sunday.
I remember a happy childhood despite not having a father. I was close to both my mother and brother. I miss them both dearly. I lived at home until my early 20’s. I met my future husband at a dance – he used to visit my family. His mother knew my mother – they were both widows.
I married this Polish man – Romuald – when I was 22 – in April 1938. I called him Romek. His family came from Stefanpol. My family knew his family. I left my mother, took on my husband’s religion – Roman Catholic – and moved in to live with his family in Stefanpol. My husband worked as road buildings manager. I worked at home. I knew Romek’s family already and became quite close to his mother.
1st September 1939 – Nazi troops attacked Poland from the West and 17th September the Soviet armies entered Poland from the East thus affecting the area near our home. Our communities were devastated. My husband was taken first to the Western front battling against the Nazis in September. (In the west of Poland the SS regiments would capture villages and towns targeting civilians. They cruelly murdered Jews, intellectuals, lawyers, homosexuals and Polish patriots – I have heard horrific stores). Romek returned late October to our Eastern area to face the Russian armies here. Poland was literally being carved up between Germany and Russia who had made a pact with each other to completely destroy Poland between them. It became practice that the Russian police – the NKVD – the Soviet Secret Police (which was later to become the KGB) – systematically deported all Polish inhabitants to camps. Communists and Jews were not deported. The NKVD rounded up firstly the “intelligencia” and professional people – judges, police officials, teachers, and so on, and then the remaining Polish and some Bylo Russians – it was only later that Jewish families were deported.
Armed Soviet officials came to our small town – they began searching premises and households for arms, seeing who lived there and for any sign of resistance. On one such occasion they took with them some of our clothing and boots – my husband went to their offices – in the police station – to ask for their return. The items were duly given back. On the next search my husband and I and all the household members were arrested – this was in the very early hours of the 10th of February 1940. The NKVD had drawn up lists of all Polish and non-communist supporters in the area. As Romek had two brothers who were in the regular army we were automatically “under suspicion”. They read us a document, we were to be taken elsewhere. We could take some belongings with us but only what we could easily carry. We rushed around the house in shock, we took some sausage to eat and blankets to keep warm – I also took a photo of my parents and my brother. One of the soldiers told me to take something warm to wear. We did not know what was going to happen to us. We thought we were going to be shot. We had under an hour to prepare. We were ushered on to sledges and for the last time ever I look back on my home, my young happiness and all that was familiar and safe to me. As we were leaving, our cows became noisy – it was their feed time – it sounded to me as if their cries were for us, they sense our distress. Life would never be the same again.
We took it in turns to walk and ride on the sledges. My husband, Romek, his sister Mila, his disabled brother, Wladek, (he had fallen from a roof whilst young), his mother and I all travelled together. The rest of Romek’s family lived away and were later taken on the route to Kazakhstan. We were taken to a school near the railway line where we and other Polish people slept overnight on our belongings on the floor. No one slept well. No one knew where we were going.
The following day we were herded into cattle wagon trucks for transportation. Men, women and children – we were all placed together – there was not much room per person. The trucks were dark and locked, there was only one small window at the top, “bunks” had been made – planks of wood into the sides of the wagon, cramming as many individuals in as was feasible. Conditions were cramped and unhygienic. We stood about during the day and slept of a fashion on the bunks at night. I was lucky; I had brought a pillow with me.
There was a little stove in the middle of the floor, we were lucky as many people had no stoves or bunks, standing room only. We were given no food at all for the first two days. We were expected to eat anything we had brought with us. People were distressed and crying. One woman gave birth to a stillborn child – the guards threw the body off the train when we reached the next station. You had to try not to touch the wooden walls when you slept – your hair would stick to the wood because of the ice and break off. It was bitterly cold. It was difficult to sleep.
After two days, we began to be given hot water. When we stopped at the next station we could boil this up in buckets or any equipment we managed to have brought along. We travelled in a north-easterly direction. On the third day we were given some bread to eat – the bread came in sacks and the guards gave us the loaves that we had to divide ourselves. And so we survived on bread and water for several days. Following this, at a few stations on the way we were given a thin gruel and later on in the journey we were each dished out a large spoon of boiled kasza (similar to buck wheat). This experience continued over a period of over three weeks as we covered many, many miles into the frozen plains. For three weeks, we travelled East into the heart of Russia.
I cannot remember if the “toilet” had already been prepared – liked the crammed bunks – or if the Polish people in the wagon had made it themselves. It was a cut out hole in the wooden floor, someone had placed a blanket round it. There was no sanitation at all. Some wagons were full of sickness and disease – this affected older members and children most of all. Many people felt ill and everyone became weakened both physically and mentally. Many said their prayers continuously and aloud. People cried and wailed. We travelled in such conditions for nearly a month. We were heading far northeast to the White Sea at the very top of Russia. The railway line came to an end. We were unbundled – such wretched passengers – and then taken in lorries to “Kolhoz” (collective farms) to stay overnight with resident Russians – they had been ordered to overnight us. They were all very poor. We were billeted for one night with local families. The family we were sent to stay with were Orthodox Russians – they were too scared to say too much to us for fear of reprisals themselves but they were very sympathetic to us, they too feared being arrested by the Russian authorities. They bade us join them to eat at their table, they were very poor. My mother-in-law’s Russian language was excellent so we could communicate with all of them. They were devoutly religious. They told us they had buried all their holy icons in the soil for fear the Russian soldiers would destroy them. We slept as best we could on their floor overnight.
The following day the journey resumed and we were transported in lorries to the town of Kotlas which took about two days to reach. We were then put into trailers pulled by tractors along the frozen waters of the River Dzwina to a place called Kresty Krzyźe. We were unloaded into barracks – which had central stoves and the bunks (pryczy) were only for 2 – 3 people, the barracks were quite spacious in comparison to the cattle wagons. Nobody knew what was going to happen to us. We were not told anything. We thought we were to stay at this place. There was an organised kitchen and we were given some bread, soup and boiled buckwheat to eat. A few of the older people froze to death overnight; they had probably hung on for as long as possible. We stayed two nights only – we found out that this was in fact a transit camp.
Once again, we were loaded into trailers on tractors and travelled all day until we reached the county of Wierchneya Toyma. We were very tired, very hungry and very disorientated. The Forced Labour Camp we came to was called Yuznaya Korgova – we didn’t know how long we were to be here in this extremely isolated place. It was a huge forest area with many birch and pine trees. The nearest place was 100 kilometres away – Archangel – on the northern coast of Russia. It was freezing cold – a deadly biting wind that dropped the temperature even further but without the wind the place was still and eerie.
We were organised as follows: Five families to each hut. Each hut had a central wood burning stove and simple bunk beds – no mattresses or bedding, just wooden boards. All the buildings were wooden and hardly built to withstand the extremes of the freezing weather experienced in Northern Siberia.
The Russians who had been deported to the area by their own Russian authorities had constructed the camp buildings in 1936. When the people first arrived, the only shelter they had were sacks! They were put to work to fell the forest to build wooden barracks to house them. Some of these people were still in the camp.
The camp had a central kitchen and a communal bathing facility. The Russians, who worked there, used to bathe together but we had separate gender baths.
The weather was continuously freezing cold. We experienced terrible snow storms. You were grateful if you had your own blanket as no bedding was issued. I was very lucky as I still had my pillow with me. After 2 days the NKVD sorted us into workgroups. Those who survived were set to work in the forest – felling the trees. My sister-in-law, Mila, was lucky – she worked in the main kitchen – she could feed herself but she was not allowed to take food out to us. My mother-in-law and disabled brother-in-law remained in the huts – they did not work. The elderly, the infirm, and young children remained – but if you didn’t work you didn’t eat as you had to buy your subsistence – food and fuel in exchange for the work you produced.
The men cut the trees down and the women and older children sorted the wood into different sizes. My husband I worked as part of a team of four people, two men two women, from 6 a.m. in the morning until 6 p.m. at night every day in extremely deep snow (up to my chest) – it was exhausting work. We had to dig the trees out of the snow first of all in order to fell them. The largest logs were placed in the river for further transportation, the smaller bits were sorted for firewood. A piece-system of work was in place – the more you felled the more you got paid. With the money you could buy your food but these portions were extremely small. Very occasionally, the central shop sold poor quality sweets and white bread as a luxury. We used petrol lamps and had to buy the fuel. We later heard that there were Forced Labour Camps in Siberia where workers were brought hot tea, but at our camp we did not get a proper break at all let alone tea. When we were in the depths of the forest chopping wood we would take a piece of bread with us to eat as a meal. By the time, it came to eating it the bread was frozen solid and we had to thaw it out over bits of burning wood. It was bitterly cold and dark, like a deep freeze. If you cried your tears would freeze to your cheeks, if you kept your eyes closed from the wind your eyelids would stick together. We worked solidly. There was no time to relax, we had to buy something to eat at 6 a.m. in the canteen, work twelve hours outside in the freezing cold, return to the barracks after 6 p.m., put our wet clothes to dry by the stove as best we could and get up again at 5.00 a.m. There was no day off. My husband, some of his family and I, lived like this for nearly two years. Everyone was emaciated. We all looked like skin and bones, everyone in the camp – so thin. I must have looked like that too. The snow began melting halfway through June. Bears came out of hibernation, we saw wolves and rabbits, there were plenty of birds of prey. Mushrooms sprouted at this time and there were plenty of berries. It was a short “summer”.
There were almost two months of a Siberian summer when forest flowers grew and bloomed incredibly quickly. There were plenty of tiny wild flowers – the only bright colours around.
My husband Romek was imprisoned whilst we were at the camp – the Russian authorities felt that he may be an agitator. He remained imprisoned for the remainder of our time there. We had to fend for ourselves, our wood felling team was one individual down. Aneczko, a Bylo Russian on our team, was very kind to me and said that although I was a woman and obviously weaker and unable to fell as much, he would still divide the piecework rate equally amongst us. Days were hard and long but they ran into each other. Christmas was like any other day and any attempt to mark it with prayers or carols or anything at all was crushed by the Soviet authorities. In May we had a time of prayers also but this had to be done secretively, we were not allowed to sign hymns or to be heard to pray.
There was a radio in the canteen – it was full of Soviet propaganda, full of talk about Stalin this and Stalin that and how lovely life was in Russia …. we knew full well just how lovely life was in Russia.
There was no escape from the camp, it was heavily guarded all around. There was no contact with the outside world as such. There was a local kolhoz about 2 – 3 kilometres from the camp - again a collection of poor people – their life was definitely not lovely under Stalin. Occasionally we could buy milk or potatoes from them but they did not want money in exchange, they needed clothing.
I was able to write short letters to my mother, who was left under Russian occupation back home. This area was taken back from Poland after the war and is now called Bylo Russia. All correspondence was censored. She sent us a couple of parcels which were so eagerly received: flour, cornmeal, butter, cured bacon and an eiderdown. I will never forget the look in the eyes of two children – brothers from one of the families sharing the hut with us. My mother-in-law was making “placki” – a sort of pancake – on the stove from the recently received parcel. It was such an event to eat something different, something extra to the meagre amount we were given. The boys stood very still, completely silent, totally transfixed to the stove. My mother-in-law always gave them something to share. The look of hunger is something I cannot ever forget. It makes me cry to talk about it. We were all so under-nourished, so starved, and so neglected. We all looked like skeletons. I have learnt that when you are so hungry all you want is a piece of bread.
It was at this time that I caught pneumonia. It was a miracle I survived. I had no medical input as such. It left me with a painful chest.
The alliance of Germany and Russia then came unstuck. The Nazis attacked Russia in 1941. When this happened all correspondence in the camp ceased, I lost contact with my mother until many years later. I did not know if she was alive or not – nor she, if I. The nature of the war then changed – as did our circumstances:- Stalin made a deal with his new Allies – Britain - whereby the Poles in his labour camps would be allowed to join Polish forces to fight the Germans now!
Discussions had taken place between the Polish Government-in-Exile in London (which continued to exist until 1990) and the British Government – the Polish Government-in-Exile tried its best to liberate those Poles in the work camps etc.
In the Spring of 1942, over 100,000 Polish soldiers and some civilians were permitted to leave the Soviet Union via Iran to join and help the Western Allies stationed in the Middle East. The Russians told us that we were freed from our forced labour and we could either remain in Russia or travel further – we were urged to remain by the Soviets but we could not be forced to stay. Romek was released from prison and we both applied to join the Polish Army that was being re-formed. Men and women were not separated, as were civilians. Romek joined the Polish Army in another part of Russia and his sister and I joint the ATS (Women’s Polish Army). This was in the winter of 1941. We were given uniforms and once a day we were given a portion of hot food. We worked in a laundry in Tockoye in Southern Russia. (When we left the labour camp the Russian guards/helpers there were distraught – they had no choice to leave. They had to remain. They had these farewells to say to us “if you remember us and mention us in your lives then thank you, but if you forget us and never mention us again then we will understand”. They realised we had been treated badly. I cannot forget them either and their plight. For the first time we were allowed to celebrate Christmas with Church celebrations. An outdoor altar was set up for a service on Christmas Day – just beyond the camp perimeter fence. We were able to all sing hymns together and pray, we felt so happy, so emotional. Christmas Dinner was soup and bread. It was wonderful. We were lucky we had a small house to share and our health began to improve. Sad it was to see the incoming Polish soldiers looking like shadows with rags wrapped round their feet – they had no shoes until they received uniforms issued by the British Government. They had to live in tents.
You see, when Hitler attacked Russia, the Soviets began to treat us prisoners as allies against the common enemy – Nazi Germany. Stalin agreed to release us and to permit the formation of a new Polish Army on Soviet territory.
However, not everyone was freed – Stalin curtailed the full implementation of this agreement that was badly named an “amnesty” and many Poles were left behind Soviet lines unable to leave. Of those left behind, a Polish General – called Berling, formed an army that fought together with the Soviets against the Nazis – these were sent to the front where many died.
We travelled from Tockoye in wagons and trucks further towards Southern Russia – we reached Tashkent a day and a night later where we were able to sleep on the floor of a disused hotel. It was springtime. We stayed here about six weeks – we ate rationed food which was most welcome and dried fruit for the first time in a long, long time. The area was inhabited by Russians and Muslims together.
Following this, we again headed further south – to Kazakhstan. It was the first time I had ever seen camels. We reached Kermine – a railway town – where again we lived on the floors of disused buildings – some people lived in tents because of the overcrowding. I was still separated from my husband and still travelling with his sister, mother and disabled brother. A neighbouring transit camp, again roughly put together, called Huzaar, was full of typhoid and dysentery – they called this place the Valley of Death as over 10,000 people died from the spread of these diseases. Conditions were a far cry from sanitary. We were lucky not have so much disease. I didn’t even catch fleas!
An evacuation route was planned from Russia to Persia (Iran) further into Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. We were put onto trains. The railway stations were chaotic. Some of us were issued with tickets, some with papers of approval. The trains were packed full of people. Some had to wait 24 hours on the platforms to go onto the trains, as all the carriages were full to bursting. There were also many civilians: mothers, young children, old men and women, they had travelled southwards searching for their sons or husbands in the army. They were following the Polish army in an attempt to join and hoping to find their nearest and dearest. These civilians crowded the railway stations hoping they could join the army to flee – but there was not enough room for all of them. I will never forget those who remained behind - their weeping and begging, they cried after us, “Do not forget us”. These were fellow countrymen and women, these people would remain in the future under Soviet rule detained behind the Iron Curtain devoid of their liberty and freedom. The children I am told were well looked after by the Soviet system but they were beaten if they said they were of Polish origin – they had to become “Russian”. In 1998 after the fall of Communism some of these people were brought to Poland, for the first time ever – to be greeted by Cardinal Glep and the following year they came over to celebrate Christmas in the Polish tradition – many of them no longer speak the Polish language but still consider themselves to be Polish.
We travelled on the trains until we reached a port town on the Caspian Sea called Krasnowodsk. Here we were taken onto a ship, shoulder to shoulder like sardines, we were given saltfish to eat which made everyone, together with sea sickness, very ill indeed. There was a lot of sickness on the ship. We reached Pahlewi in Persia (Iran). It was April, Good Friday or Easter Saturday. We were put into quarantine, our clothing was disinfected, we were showered with hot water (what luxury) and deloused. It was our first Easter on free soil.
We celebrated Holy Mass on the sands, some families were reunited, some knew nothing of their family, they all sang Hallelujah with tears of sadness and of happiness. I had heard that Romek was in a division also headed for Pahlewi and thankfully we managed to meet up - though his division was headed elsewhere. Many people were separated from one another; some became lost in all the confusion. When the convoys reached Persia, civilians and army people were separated.
Those in the army were sent to England and civilians were sent to Africa or India where they received shelter and education. Romek’s mother and brother were in a civilian camp now and Romek was tearful – he told me he believed he would never see his mother again – his premonition was true.
I was in Pahlewi three weeks or so, we ate mutton and rice, dried fruits, bread, margarine, biscuits and drank tea. We lived in tents. Because of the hunger I underwent in Siberia I always wanted to put a portion aside for the next day just in case food was short again. It is a habit that has remained with me ever since. The young Persians liked to sell their own breads and boiled eggs to us.
We then headed for Teheran, where we joined up with another camp. We could shower here, it was Spring and warm. My husband was stationed somewhere unknown. One of his sisters - Marysia (Mary) - joined up to do medical work. She, like many mothers, added years on to their older children so that they could remain together serving in the army. Marysia did this with her eldest daughter – Irena – but her youngest – Jasia – was much younger and had to go to Africa. Families were split up. As civilians Romek’s mother, brother and nieces were listed to go to Africa but I and my sister-in-law (being in the army) were to be sent to Palestine. We travelled again – this time along serpentine hairpin bends through the Persian mountains. The Persian drivers drove like maniacs – one lorry fell off the cliff and killed everyone. We reached Palestine and the allied armies – many British soldiers. Our Polish camp was based at Rehovot close to Tel Aviv.
The Jewish people welcomed us by singing the Polish national anthem – it was very emotional. General Anders and his staff were stationed there. This was a beautiful place, cactuses as tall as a person, some were used as boundary fences, oleanders and sweet smelling jasmines, fruiting trees, fields of water melons. Sunshine. It was like paradise after the horrific hell we’d been through. The nights were fresh but the days were very warm. We settled into barracks, I could shower or bathe anytime! We were issued tropical uniforms to wear – light cottons – and did away with our woollen attire. The allies looked after us well. All the nourishment and heat I was now subject to seemed to take away the chest pains that the pneumonia had left me with. It appeared that I had undergone a sudden cure.
Everyone was given cigarette rations whether they smoked or not. Although we were told not to fraternize with the Arabs, as I have never smoked I would exchange mine for oranges with them. They used to try telling me jokes. There are many stories to tell – of the Polish soldiers who befriended a monkey and called her Basia, she would completely upturn their tents and belongings; of another group who found an abandoned bear cub – they cared for him and called him Wojtek and he travelled with the group – he came to England with them and had to end up in Edinburgh Zoo. I don’t know whether this was kind or not as he was so used to the company of the men. There is a book written about Wojtek. Many Polish people who settled in England would visit Wojtek in Edinburgh – I was one of these and he would answer to his name but his eyes were sorrowful and we felt that he had lost his freedom like us and Wojtek became a symbol for many Polish people in exile.
One day I travelled to the Mediterranean Sea with my sister-in-law where I could swim. I was able to have a “perm” at a Polish Jewish hair salon. We visited Kibbutzes. I happened to be there when the agava plant flowered – it only flowers once every 100 years. The Jewish people were very welcoming to us, they showed us their factories and places of work. They looked to be hard working, both the women and the men worked in the factories. I worked in the Kasino – the canteen – preparing food. I had more than enough to eat and began to put some weight on.
People around began to start living in a different way. They began relaxing a bit. I was lucky to be able to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Galilean Sea. All these holy places are important to me as a Catholic. The Church of Gethsemane was the most beautiful. There was also a splendid Orthodox church I visited there where they believe Jesus ascended to Heaven. Romek was also in Palestine but we were still separated. He was in a different camp. His division was at Kastyna. I was able to visit him and vice versa. We visited Jerusalem together and spent happy times there. I still have photos and souvenirs of our time spent there together. We did not feel the full effects of the war here although the Polish Army was already preparing to battle in Italy.
In the late summer, we travelled to a camp near Baghdad in Iraq. We travelled through the desert; we passed huge long lines of oil pipes on the sands. We lived in tents in the desert. We spent Christmas here and in the spring, my husband and I were still separated. Romek volunteered to join the RAF, he signed up on 1942 and was accepted into the RAF in England, I was also accepted to travel there. Those who had signed up to travel to England had to return to Palestine to await separate transport to the UK. On the journey back we passed alongside Bedouin camps. I had never seen Bedouins before. This was the late summer of 1942. The transport to England was organised for the Autumn.
It was then that we travelled to the port of Alexandria in Egypt and sailed through the Mediterranean Sea through the Straits of Gibraltar and on to Liverpool in England. Romek was part of an earlier convoy and had to travel all the way around the African coast to reach England as the Nazis were attacking with their “U” boats. Some boats were hit and sunk. We were alarmed a couple of times and ready to abandon our ship. We were the first transport to directly access the Atlantic rather than the longer African coastal journey. Many British soldiers of the 8th Army – The Desert Rats and Italian prisoners of war were also aboard including an Italian General who had been awarded a Nazi medal of distinction. He was escorted by guards when he walked the decks. Our Polish girls staged a “show” for the army men, we danced several traditional dances – how they applauded. They enjoyed the entertainment very much. The only Polish people aboard were us females. We reached England and were greeted by Scottish men in sporrans and a welcome of bagpipes, this was all new to us. This was the end of 1942. We lived in an abandoned hotel – we slept on bunk beds.
I was then sent to Wilmslow Camp near Manchester together with my female companions – a huge camp for English soldiers and women of the RAF. I studied a course here to enable me to join the RAF with both physical and practical tests. We also had some lessons in English. Following completion of the course, we were separated into further camps. I was sent to Newton Camp in Nottinghamshire where we spent Christmas. This had a school for pilots. Circumstances here were good but the war was still raging.
I was to work packing parachutes. I made friends with the other Polish women I worked with in the WAFS. We had a stove in our barracks and were paid wages – conditions were congenial. An English officer gave us lessons in English. He taught us to sing English songs. I had no family here. Romek was accepted on to a course in Blackpool to serve flying in the RAF. His sisters were left in Palestine at this time. His mother and young nieces were still in Africa, later to return to Poland, and my mother was to stay in our home under Soviet rule in the far east of Poland. I stayed at this camp till the end of the war.
I was allowed to visit my husband. Romek was accepted into the RAF – flying in the Lancaster Bombers section. He flew with The 300 Bombers and served at RAF Lincoln. Many planes were decimated and we both knew it was dangerous. On the 2nd January 1945 Romek set out in his plane bound for the Ruhr Valley – there were seven men aboard – they were fighting in the Battle of Britain. They were headed for an area producing armaments in Germany. They completed their task and were returning to base. They had to fly low over Belgium and France – there was a huge front here between Germany and the Americans, English and Polish armies. It was at this point that the plane was hit. The plane could have been mistaken for a German plane because it flew so low. I was told that it was not certain where the attack had come from but the damaged aircraft hit the ground, attempted to restart and was seen to be rising once more – but it exploded and perished soon after. All the soldiers in the plane died including Romek. They are buried in a huge American cemetery in France near the Belgian border. My husband was dead.
I was able to visit Romek’s grave twice. He lies with Polish and English fellow soldiers. As I was in the army, I was issued a free ticket to visit France to visit Romek’s grave the first time. I travelled on my own and felt very much on my own in the world.
The second time I visited Romek’s grave I travelled with another Polish woman. We stayed at the YMCA in Paris. We did not know much French. We travelled to Memedit where the American army was stationed. They helped us out by taking us to the cemetery in a jeep. The driving was as hair-raising as the Persians’ but we were very grateful for their help. I have a photograph of my friend and I crouched by Romek’s grave. My friend and I went to see the opera Aida in Paris. It was ironic for me that Russian soldiers were seated in the balcony next to ours. They were very willing to talk to us and were chatty but we did not converse much with them, we didn’t want to.
It was about this time that Romek’s sister Mila, who I had originally began the “journey” with from Stefanpol, married a Polish soldier in England. It seemed that people had fought so bravely, undergone such great hardships and died for the cause of freedom yet at the end of the war our country’s borders had been exchanged and our previous freedom taken away by the steel grip of Stalin.
The war ended. I was demobilised to a camp at Melton Mowbray and I continued to live in barracks with the other Polish girls. What to do? The choices were limited and uncertain. Romek was no longer with me, my family now spread about the world and our dreams shattered. What had kept us going throughout all our ordeals and experiences was the hope that we would return to Poland – the free Poland we knew. The Government in Poland was now an oppressive Communist-led Soviet government – and the Allies had given half of Poland to Russia itself - that part where my mother lived and I had been born. To return to Poland could have meant death or imprisonment – and certainly, a lack of freedom. We were saddened we could not return home to a free Poland. Polish civilians returning to Poland after the war were given safe passage – unlike army people who were at best met with suspicion, many of these were sent back to Siberia. I did not wish to risk death once more. I was so pleased that the war was finished but so sad because I could not go back home. I was a war widow; I was pensioned off with 25 shillings a week. It was difficult to take it all in, I felt I had no option but to continue here in England after the end of the war. I thought that in time, things would change in Poland and I could return. It was difficult to decide what to do for the best.
My sister-in-law Mila had a son, Ryszard. I was invited to be Godmother. Mietek, her husband, invited a Polish soldier he knew to the Christening to be Godfather. This is how I met my husband, Stanislaw – he was from a different region of Poland to mine. We married at Melton Mowbray in 1950 and celebrated with fellow ex-soldiers in the barracks. My husband was already working in the textile trade in a town called Bradford in the North of England. I began to learn work in the textile trade – burling and mending, something I had never done before. I began to learn more of the English language as I mixed with English people at work, my English was still basic. The English people could not understand why we did not return “home” after the war. They were not aware of our background and journey to England. They were not told that we were in exile. The British Government did not publicise our plight because of relations with Russia. It was difficult for us. Some people would tell us to go back home. This hurt deeply.
Stanislaw and I lived in a terraced house in a street. There were other Eastern Europeans living there also. We had Polish, Yugoslavian, Ukrainian, Bylo Russian, Lithuanian and Latvian neighbours. We used to call at each other’s houses all the time. We cooked food for each other. We had lodgers who were also of Eastern European origin – Hungarian people came to the area in the mid 1950’s. We made friends easily, some of these friends moved away to settle in Canada or America, even Australia and New Zealand.
We were given this option. Those who remained in England were instructed at first to work in the depressed industries to help rebuild the British economy following the war – later, following completion of the contract, we could seek other jobs ourselves or seek prospects abroad. We stayed nearer Poland hoping that the Communist system would soon fade away and that democracy and freedom would return.
I received news that my mother had died. She died in very reduced circumstances. My brother died shortly after the war. I lost contact with his children who I never met.
We worked hard and lived frugally. A daughter was born to us and I continued working “pieces” - burling and mending (materials) at home. Romek’s mother visited me in Bradford, our daughter was three at the time, and she called her Grandma (Babcia). It was the last time I was to see Romek’s mother. She died some years later in Poland. We saved hard and struggled to purchase a mortgage for a house with a large garden. We moved to Shipley in 1960 and I live there now. It is a very pleasant area near woods. I am in my 97th year; my husband has recently reached his 100th. I have visited Poland – in 1974, to meet my husband’s family who I never met before and to visit my first husband’s family – they had settled in mid and north Poland – it was very emotional for everyone. All the family members are scattered all over Poland.
Poland was behind the Iron Curtain then. It was dubious whether I would be allowed in or back out of my birth place as this was now Russian soil and so we dare not visit. I used to write to an aunt – my mother’s sister – in Bylo Russia but she died several years ago. I have contact with one remaining cousin – her daughter Nadia – she write occasionally – but in the Russian language, so I have to translate – she no longer speaks Polish. I write to her and send clothing parcels and more recently – cake ingredients – raisins, cocoa and so on which she is unable to obtain. Life is much harder for her there, opportunities are severely reduced. She lives by herself and cannot afford to pay for her medications. Some say I would not like to see the changes there now – I know of one lady who visited a few years ago, she told me that the changes were for the worse – too much industry and depression.
I keep in touch with Romek’s family. His niece, Irena, who lives in Poland now and visits me in England, is planning to visit the area we grew up in. It will be interesting to hear her views. I feel I am in too much pain now to withstand any such long journey. I suffer terribly from rheumatoid arthritis, which has worsened over the years – especially in my back, neck and limbs. It could be that the extremes of temperature I underwent during the war have affected my health in the long term. But I keep busy and as always keep positive, there is so much to be thankful for.
I have shared some of my journey with you and I hope it will help you understand how I came to live in England. I still have deep feelings for the place of my birth and I do feel a pang when I remember those carefree times, the warm nights, the sweet smell of the evening flowers and the song of the nightingale.
Copyright: Stepien family