Maria (Zareba) ANDRZEJEWSKA
(Maria's story was originally published on the Canadian Polish Historical Society of Edmonton, Alberta website
and is repeated here with their permission.
My father, Adam Zareba and my mother, Maria Kosterkiewicz were married in 1919 in Przemysl located in southeastern Poland. Adam Zareba was a major in the army and held a law degree. My mother was educated as a teacher but chose to devote herself to raising and caring for her family. I, Maria, joined the family as the third daughter in 1925.1 had two older sisters Danuta, born in 1921 and Janina in 1922. My father's military life led us to move often and as a result, I was born in Nowogrodek Region in the northeastern part of Poland. Our next move was to Kowel and there my father retired from military life. We moved once again to Kuty in southeastern Poland and my father began to practice law. Another child was added to our growing family. Eva, born in 1932, was the last child and our family was complete. We settled in Kuty for a short period. There we enjoyed hiking and swimming in the Czeremosz River. Our parents, who were very family oriented, doted on us. My mother dressed us in beautiful outfits and we felt like little princesses. My father read and told us stories. We were loved and pampered by both parents. Then we moved to Kolomyja (the former Polish Eastern Territories (editor's note)). In Kolomyja is where I spent the majority of my childhood. There I went to school. We attended an all girls' school and all of us girls loved our studies and the new friendships we made. We all excelled in our schooling. Our final move in Poland would be to Peczenizyn (the former Eastern Territories). My father accepted the position of Mayor of Peczenizyn. Here we attended the local school and I completed my first year of junior high. We enjoyed our life there: skiing, hiking, picking mushrooms, playing sports and reading. We were healthy, active sisters so full of life.
Tragedy then struck when Germany attacked Poland on September 1-st, 1939 and Russians on September 17th. Our beloved country of Poland was partitioned. In October, my father was arrested and put in prison. I remember to this day how they took his beautiful saber I so admired. It symbolized a loss of safety and comfort and a new vulnerability emerged. We did not know what prison my father was in but we knew he was somewhere in the Soviet Union. My oldest sister was with one of my aunts at this time and luckily, they escaped to Romania during this turmoil.
On April 13th, 1940, at four o'clock in the morning, we heard a sudden hammering at the door and a strict order to open it. My frightened mother responded and Soviet soldiers barged in. The Komisar (a Russian officer) barked for us to get ready with our belongings. We were given 15 minutes to take whatever we deemed precious and essential. In shock, we packed little food but many clothes. A horse and buggy transported us to Kolomyja to the railway station. We were commanded to enter a cattle boxcar. Each boxcar contained 50 to 60 people. The doors were bolted. There were no windows. No one was allowed in or out. People defecated through a hole in the boxcar floor. It was unsanitary and demoralizing.
The journey lasted a whole month. My mother rationed the little food that we had. Hunger and unsanitary conditions made our lives miserable and difficult. We were only let out once onto a field for a short time and were hesitant to wander too far as we were scared that we would be left in the middle of nowhere. We attempted to keep our spirits strong by praying, singing and with the hope that this would be temporary and we would return to our beloved home and country. Eventually, we were brought to the village called Aleksijowka, in the Soviet Republic of Kazachstan. We were put in a dirt type dwelling with no stove or furniture. There were about thirty people assigned to this hut. We all slept side by side on the clay floors. People of all ages were together. Our new address was Aleksijowka, Semipalatynsk , Czarski region, Sowchoz Czalabaj. Life consisted of hard labour. We dug water ditches for field irrigation and then gathered hay during harvest season. In spite of our very hard work, we were given very small rations of food for it. We needed to save as much as we could as winter was approaching. Before the winter, we went into villages to barter our clothes in exchange for food. We needed to gather as much as we could because we knew the winter would be vicious. (In winter, there was no work - so in accordance with the Soviets' principle "Who does not work does not eat" - deportees were not given food (editor's note)).
In the fall a group of us were moved into a small chicken coop. We cleaned it as best as we could and moved in for the winter. There was no work in winter except for clearing snow and creating paths. Winter was brutal, cold, and dark and with so much snow, the entire building was immersed in it. Food was scarce and we endured the bitter season with very little. It is a miracle how we ever survived. We melted snow to get water so we could make a thin soup which we had once a day. If we had bread, our mother cut one slice of bread into four pieces, each of us receiving a small piece. All winter I was very ill. My toes were full of festering boils because I froze my feet on one of my trips to the villages. The Russian manager of our community wanted to send my mother and me to the hospital so one of my legs could be amputated. My mother refused and began making herb compresses and my uncle luckily sent some medicated cream from Poland that was now occupied. After two months, I began to walk again. My older sister Janka also became very ill. She developed large black sores all over her legs and they began to spread to her torso. She was unconscious for a long period and many believed she was dying. Today looking back, we suspect that she had anthrax. My mother's twenty-four hour vigil, constant care and nursing paid off as she recovered. I also contracted the infection, but it did not take such a hold on me. Now we had severe illness to add to our list of misfortunes. We managed to keep our spirits raised by recalling better times, and fantasizing about food. We amused and entertained ourselves with song, stories and playing homemade instruments made of things like combs.
In the spring of 1941, we were sent to work in the fields. After, we were transported again to huge stables to take care of cattle. During that time, I recall an incident that exemplifies Communist policy and at the same time a disregard for common sense and the human condition. We were told we could gather leftovers from the harvesting of sunflowers. We eagerly went to the fields to gather what seeds we could when a car from the Sowchoz pulled up to us and questioned us as to what we were doing. We innocently told the officials that we were gathering leftovers that would simply rot or decompose on the field. They informed us that this was a crime against the state and we could be charged and put in prison for stealing. They took the sacks away from the children and young teenagers. We stood there crying because it meant food for us when it was just going to be left to rot. This was another example of mistreatment and no empathy for even starving children.
In August of 1941, our manager told us we were free to leave due to an agreement drawn between governments because of the German attack on Russia. We chose to go to the south of the Soviet Union because we heard that General W. Anders was organizing a Polish army. We decided to sell everything that we possibly could so we might go to where the army was being organized with the hope of finding our beloved father who we have not seen since 1939. Thousands of people had the same thought and we had to fight to get the tickets for the train to Tashkent and Samarkand. We travelled for weeks suffering again from hunger and disease. In Samarkand, we lived on the streets for three weeks. We were attacked and robbed. A friend helped us move to Zirabulak. Here I worked in a cotton factory. We lived in a little factory living quarters and I worked for a ration ticket for bread that I shared with my family. My older sister Janka worked in the mines. On her visits, we teased her for looking so healthy. She was a beautiful girl and the cook for the workers at the mines gave her the best food in an attempt to get her favor.
After a few months, we heard the exciting news that the Polish Army and some civilians would be allowed to travel to Persia. With hope, we moved to Kermine. My older sister met an army officer, Waclaw Grocholski (her future husband) who helped us gain access to travel to Krasnowodsk, a port town on the Caspian Sea. The ship was in very poor condition and it was overloaded with people trying to get away from the Russian hell they lived in. We were hungry, ill and nervous but filled with new hope. We arrived in Pahlavi, Persia. The feeling of freedom was overwhelming. We found shelter in tents on the beaches. People were weak, ill but thankful for surviving and coming this far. We soon were transported to Teheran. In Teheran, we began to normalize. Then the most blessed event came, the reunion with my father. When he was released from captivity, he began searching for us. It was a joyous moment; the Zareba family was reunited minus the eldest daughter who was, thankfully, safe with family in Romania.
In Tehran we began our studies. Janka finished her matriculation and moved to Beirut, Lebanon. She taught herself English, received a Rockefeller scholarship and began studying Arts and Chemistry at an American University. She received an Honors Degree in both areas. I finished my Junior High and High School and then studied Polish language and history so I could teach it. We could not return to Poland due to Communist rule. My father was sent to England and we followed him. At a Polish Military Resettlement Camp located near Liverpool, I met my husband to be, Antoni Andrzejewski. After a brief courtship, we knew we were meant for each other and thus became engaged. In July of 1949, Antek left for Alberta and I joined him as his fiance in January of 1950. And on February 11th we were married.
Antek was a decorated soldier who fought as a member of the Polish Home Army. He was in Auschwitz Concentration Camp for four years and was one of the few who managed to escape. Later, he joined the Polish Army in Italy and eventually ended up in England where I met him. Antek was a patriot and for many years, he dedicated his time and energy as a leader of the Polish Scouts. He was a member of many Polish organizations and he was dedicated to making a positive impact in the Polish Community, in the Polish Church and on Polish youth. His love for Poland, youth and family is remembered and honored by many today. His family felt his impact. We had three children, Antek, Basia and Jadwiga. Like their father, all of them have been involved in community work and service. Our children rewarded us with four beautiful grand children, Peter, Jenny, Adam and Lucas. Our family expanded with my older and younger sisters joining us in Edmonton with their husbands and children. My mother also came from England when my dear father passed away. My mother lived with my family and me until her passing. She was a great comfort to us considering what we had been through as a young family.
I was also involved in the Polish community through Polish Scouts and Girl Guides and other Polish organizations but most important; I was able to pursue my passion for education by teaching twenty years every Saturday at the Henryk Sienkiewicz Polish School.
I write these experiences with mixed emotions. We lost so much but gained in the way that what we lived through shaped us as the people we are today. My entire family and I have been touched in some way by these incredible times and events. I am grateful that we did come together and our family survived such adversities and did reunite. Were we scared? Of course, war does not leave anyone without injury. We helped each other heal and reminded ourselves each day that it is the bond and love of family that gave us the strength to endure and survive.
Written by: Maria Andrzejewska, age 85 (January 5, 2011)
Edited by: Helena Fita and Zofia Kamela
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords