by Barbara Stepien-Foad
As told by Marcin’s brother –Stanislaw Stepien, her Father
This is the story of my older brother Marcin who, had he died a natural death would not be alive today as he was born at the end of the 1800’s. At that time, he was born into a Poland occupied by the Tsarist Russians. He was called up for national service – which lasted 10 years at the time! And worked mainly in present day Manchuria (near China). Following the end of the First World War, he was granted in 1922 by way of a “gratutity” about 85 acres of land. His wife was Apolonia (Pola) and children Witold and Danuta. He was later elected as “Sheriff” of the town – an easterly area close to the Russian border.
In 1939 the German Army attacked Poland from the east and Russia attacked from the west - despite a pact of non aggression. The Russian NKVD (KGB) took my brother’s family from their family home to work camps. Following false interrogations and arrests, they were not given any reasons for these actions. They were transported in unmentionable conditions to Siberia. If anyone fell “out of line” they were immediately shot, as an example to the rest. They were constantly distressed, 24 hours of the day, living in fear and uncertainty. During this journey, their 5 year old daughter Danuta fell ill to appendicitis. The appendix burst, she had no medical treatment whatsoever – unbelievably she survived – apparently, starvation had saved her life.
After 4 weeks of this hell, they reached the Archangel region of Siberia. Marcin was imprisoned, those who survived the journey were taken to work 12 hour daily shifts in order to obtain a “norm” of work performed. The nights were light. They were allotted 600 grams of frozen bread per day together with salt fish soup – the portion of fish was tiny, as well as Kasza (meal) – which inevitably had worms in it.
Following Germany’s attack on Russia and an agreement made between the Polish Government-in-Exile in London and the British Government, there took place a so-called ‘amnesty’ agreement. Those imprisoned and held in Russian work camps in Siberia by the Russians were to be freed. The Polish Army began regrouping itself. General Anders – the leader of the Polish Army in Russia – obtained permission to evacuate the army to the near east – Britain needed reinforcements in Persia and Iraq to help fight the Nazis.
Marcin was freed some time later. He was reunited with his family and found that his son was suffering from “night blindness” – he was completely undernourished. Marcin killed a wild dog and the nourishment this gave Witold, helped regain his sight.
Because he refused Russian citizenship Marcin was arrested – and this was the last his family ever saw of him. It was believed he either died in prison or that he was shot for being “subversive” – as was the norm at that time. Thus, Pola became widowed and her children orphaned.
It was at this time that the German Army uncovered mass graves at Katyn in Poland. It was revealed that some 15,000 Polish Army Officers, Police and professional Polish persons (Intelligentsia) were killed there - all with a single bullet wound to the back of the head. They were buried there in mass grave mounds. The Polish Government-in-Exile in London proposed an investigation to be carried out through the International Red Cross. The Russian Government would not allow this, saying that the murders were carried out by the Germany army (untrue) and severed all talks with the Polish government following this request.
Double hell then erupted as the Soviets cut all food rations. Pola and her children were left in Uzbekistan as that was a far as they had travelled before the Government revoked the amnesty. She feared her children would die of starvation. She did not know who to turn to, people were sickly and dying all around her. She crept out at night to an area the Uzbeks used to slaughter camels. She took a container and gathered up the blooded snow that she then boiled and fed to her children. She managed to keep her children alive this way.
Witold at the age of 13 was taken to work in a lead mine – he could earn some money this way and when he had saved enough he could buy a loaf of bread and some oil which he brought back to his mother and sister, and so these conditions of hunger and others beside continued until the end of the war.
When the war ended, they set to returning to live in their former East Polish residence. Unfortunately the area had been given to Russia by the Allies and so they travelled further West, not knowing what was to become of them. Despite the government no longer being Polish, Pola felt that she was helped as much as possible. 80% of housing was in ruins, yet they managed to obtain a roof over their heads. Pola obtained work, Witold entered a Jesuit run technical college, and Danuta, following state education, entered University. And so they lived under communist rule in Poland.
Witold excelled working in a lightbulb factory. He developed an invention concerning an aperture for mechanical control. He presented this to the factory who rewarded him in typical Communist fashion by awarding him new housing and a vehicle for his own use (both a scarcity then). He married the firm’s secretary and they had one daughter. Danuta became a middle school mathematics teacher. There was a shortage of teachers in Poland following the war, as the Germans had shot many scholarly people during their occupation. Danuta married Remigiusz and settled with him in Warsaw – she had to obtain permission from the authorities to move in with her husband. They are childless.
Pola emigrated to New Zealand when her children were married and settled. She remarried there and became a widow once more. She is 99 years old and would have liked to return to Poland to die, but the New Zealand Government would not send her pension on to Poland.
Following early retirement, Witold died of a cancerous tumour, the medics felt that this was a direct result of the time he spent working in lead mines which had very little safety precautions.
It was 50 years following the findings at Katyn that President Gorbaczow agreed that it was indeed the Russian KGB who murdered the 15,000 Polish Officers found in the mass grave.