Maria Alina (Lukaszewicz) ROMANKO
(Maria's story was originally published on the Canadian Polish Historical Society of Edmonton, Alberta website
and is repeated here with their permission.
Maria Alina Lukaszewicz was born on September 20th 1925 in the small town of Haciszcze Wielkie (Nowogródek province), the second child in the family of Antonina and Wladyslaw Lukaszewicz. Alina had an older brother Antoni, and younger sister Wanda and younger brother Janek. Alina attended the local primary school to the fourth grade, and then, grade five to seven, went to school in the village of Stolowicze, about 5 km away.
In September 1939, Alina passed the entry exams and was to attend high school in Baranowicze when war broke out and Germany, followed by the Soviets, began a systematic destruction of Poland. Especially affected were the "eastern borderlands" where the Russians organized systematic deportations of entire families to Siberia as slave labourers.
Alina as a fourteen-year-girl was a witness to these events which she described in her book, "From Russian Gulag, The Alberta Prairies".
"February 10th 1940 was a very cold day. The thermometer registered -40 C.”
According to her father’s account of that fateful night: "At about 12 o'clock at night, a sleigh filled with armed soldiers, a commissar, a peasant, and an acquaintance (from a nearby town), drove into our yard. Suddenly there was an urgent hammering at the door. As soon as this was opened, all quickly entered into our home. The soldiers told my father to put his hands up and to sit down on a chair, which was quickly surrounded by soldiers pointing bayonets at him. The commissar then read an "act" accusing my father and the whole family of being "the enemies of the people". (My nine year old brother Janek, my fifteen year old brother Antoni and I, a fourteen year old student - we were " enemies of the people"!). Nevertheless, the commissar read on, explaining that due to these accusations, we could not stay here anymore and we were being deported to live somewhere else. We were given 15 minutes to get ready and leave our house for a journey to the unknown".
The fifteen minutes were up! The sleighs were loaded, and entered the cold snowy road that lead to Baranowicze, railway station, a distance of fifteen kilometers.
About the same time of night, the same drama was happening at the house of my future husband Aleksander Romanko, at Szpakowce. Aleksander, his father Mikolaj and mother Magdalena were arrested. Then our lives were closely intertwined.
We were all lined up, surrounded by the soldiers, and led outside. Carrying what little baggage we had - tramping through deep snow, half-frozen and hungry, we were pushed in the direction of a very long cattle train. Here the large group was divided into smaller groups of 50-60 people. Our guards stopped our group in front of an open cattle car. Big platforms divided the space between the ceiling and the floor. The platforms were covered with snow. We were told to climb into the wagon. The men went in first and began to clear off the snow with their bare hands. The guards became angry. They wanted everyone locked up in the car as quickly as possible. They were afraid that someone might escape. Escape? How? Where? It was obvious that women and children could not get in because the snow took up the space. After most of the snow was pushed out (not shovelled out!) the human bodies began filling the cars, which up to then carried only pigs and cattle. We spread our clothes and blankets (if there were any) and sat in a very small space allotted to each person - big or small. In the middle of the car, we noticed a small metal stove, but no firewood whatsoever. It was still -40C! There was a little six-week-old baby among us. The mother and other people tried to warm it up with their breath, while the father was pleading with a soldier to let him find some firewood. His pleading brought no results. For many hours, no one could leave the train. The doors were closed and barricaded. In the corner of the floor, a hole was cut out, in haste (in preparation for the long journey). This was to be our toilet. Being a shy person, I could not bring myself to use it and suffered great discomfort by holding in for three days. Only when we were well inside the Russian territories were we permitted to leave the train to relieve ourselves. To do that, we had to cross the railway, crawling under the cars to find some privacy. All this time my mother was burning with fever. She melted the snow in her mouth to quench the thirst. We all did that.
It was becoming dark. The day "a hundred years long" was ending. Suddenly we heard the bolt of our door open. The guard motioned to an older girl, Gienia and me to come out and follow him. He then quickly bolted the door again. First, we were given two pails and led to get some water. After we brought it to the car, we were told to follow the guard again. This time we received some firewood. Someone had a pot. The heater warmed the wagon and some water, which had to be strictly rationed. Hungry children were given some food by their parents, who themselves ate very little or not at all. The little food that people managed to bring with them had to last for as long as possible, because no one knew when our captors would feed us.
On February 17th, in the afternoon, the train slowed down and came to a stop in the middle of the forest through which we had been traveling for the past two days. Through the little window, I saw long rows of sleighs, horses and a group of men dressed in huge Siberian parkas and hats. We heard people approaching our door. The doors were unlocked and opened. Then we heard an order, "Sabirajties!" Get ready! Carrying our belongings, we left the train and stepped into very deep snow. It was very cold. My shoes were full of snow. I had no winter boots. Our family was loaded on a sleigh. With the driver, there were six of us. The horse looked undernourished and had a difficult time pulling the load on the country road covered completely with deep snow. We huddled together for warmth but without much success. The night came upon us quickly and we were going deeper and deeper into the forest. To warm themselves, people decided to walk beside the sleigh. I could not do that because my shoes would only fill with snow and make my feet even colder. I tried to wiggle my toes continuously to keep them from freezing. My mother and father kept reminding me do that, but after few hours, the task became impossible. By that time, I had lost all feeling in my toes and my feet. There was no point in telling my parents. It would only worry them, especially as they were not able to help me.
The name of our slave labor camp was Poldniewica. Its full address was Posiolek Poldniewica, Szarynskij rejon, Gorkowskaja Oblast. The closest larger city, Gorky, was 400 miles away. There were eighteen wooden barracks, which housed twenty five hundred prisoners. The barracks were built from rough logs. The cracks between were filled with dry moss full of bedbug eggs, which later turned into bedbugs and infested our wooden beds and attacked us during the night, interrupting much needed sleep.
Our family was assigned to barrack 18 which, up until our arrival, was used as a garage for tractors. Instead of two tractors, seventy people were condemned to live in that hole. The cracks in the walls were large enough for the light to come through. The cold came through too, as it was -40C outside.
As in every barrack, we slept on wooden platforms called "prycze". Ours was only large enough for the five members of the family to lie down side by side. There was no room to curl up during the sleep. During the day, the middle board was removed, the bedding pushed back and a sitting space was the result. Above us was another platform for another six-member family. The cracks between boards (i.e. the ceiling) were large, and whenever someone up there moved, the dust and dirt fell into our plates and water. Dividing the two sides of prycze was a long passage. In the middle of it stood a huge rough table and, at the end, a stove with four burners. The wooden stove provided some warmth and was used for cooking. Thirteen families used the stove in a very orderly manner and I do not remember even one fight taking place.
There were many of my old friends among the people who were brought to Poldniewica on the night of February 17th 1940. Later I was to meet and befriend many others. Little did I know at the time that among the strangers, going through the same tragedy, was my future husband, Aleksander Romanko. Olek and I were on that fatal train and became a part of the same kind of life, affected by the same events. Without knowing about each other, we were in it together. During this journey, we all tried to keep our spirits up, hoping that this nightmare was all a mistake and that we would return home in the near future. At the end of the seven days’ journey, the Romanko's were part of the sleigh procession on the road leading from the railway station in Szabrycha to gulag Poldniewica. They were assigned to barrack #10 and were given a "prycza" along with sixty other people.
My father and Tonek (my brother Antoni) worked in the lumber camp, and my mother took care of Janek, my younger brother.
Finally, after three months, the Russians began to pay for the hard work done by our people. The wages were very low, but having a few rubles made it possible for us to buy some groceries, which were sometimes brought to our camp store. One could never choose what to buy or decide how much to buy. Everything was rationed and distributed according to how many people were working in the family. Those that did not work did not receive any rations, and were not expected to eat. Sharing their rations with the rest of the family, the workers never had enough to eat and often went to work hungry.
The month of May brought warmer weather. Budding trees brought a promise of new life and lifted the spirits of the people exhausted by hard work, lack of food, and harassment by the authorities. Nevertheless, a new enemy quickly destroyed the hopes for a slightly easier life without the bitter cold. The lack of hygiene due to overcrowding, with the lack of soap, primitive toilet facilities (outhouses), and contaminated water, brought a typhoid fever epidemic. The funerals of the victims at first turned into demonstrations and protests against the authorities that forbade us to walk to the cemeteries. Very quickly, the epidemic took on frightening proportions. Two huge barracks were turned into make-shift hospitals with no doctors, medication, or nurses. The few that arrived were young, poorly educated and inexperienced. The death toll became unbearable. Whole families were wiped out. In many cases, parents became very ill or died, leaving young children to fend for themselves.
At fifteen, I was "too old" for school, and had to start working in the lumber "industry". During the winter, my father somehow managed to obtain my release from work. However, my reprieve lasted only during the two unbearably cold winter months. In the early spring, I began working at cutting trees, and taking the bark and branches off them. The snow was still deep and soon started to melt. We worked while standing in water. I had no proper shoes. My feet and my clothes were constantly wet and very cold. After a while, I became quite ill with a bladder and kidney infection.
The reality of Christmas of 1941 was very grim. With the arrival of cold winter weather, the typhoid epidemic had ended, or so we thought. However, in February, a number of people became very ill with it again. Among them, my friend Wladzia and Olek Romanko were in the hospital gravely ill.
The news came out in hushed voices. "Germany declared war on Russia (June 1941).
The Soviet Union and the Polish Government-in-exile signed a pact that declared Polish citizens that were sent to gulags a free people, and allowed the formation of a Polish army on Soviet territory. We were declared free people. The Polish army would be organized to fight the Germans. Unbelievable! People were laughing and crying. Everyone was making plans.
Nothing actually changed after we received the small piece of paper, which declared our freedom. Few men left our camp and traveled to Buzuluk. The Russians refused to assign a train, which would carry us to the southern part of Russia. They needed slave labourers and they were determined to block our departure. Finally, in October - good news. We were successful in acquiring a train. Horse drawn buggies took us to the closest railway station. The first snow had fallen. After three days, the train arrived and we started out on our journey into the unknown, hoping for a better tomorrow, praying to God for His guidance and help.
During the 6-week journey to Uzbekistan, we were faced with hunger, filth, cold and disease. Many lost their lives, and were interred in unmarked graves. The worst for us was the separation from father and Olek who, in search of food, were left behind because the train departed without warning. Fortunately, after several days of travel, they found us. Without their care, our family and Olek's parents would have died of starvation.
We reached Bukhara in the new year of 1942. We met with great disappointment, because the Polish army was not there. The Soviet authorities took us to nearby kolkhozes (collective farms). There, we worked without any tools, at preparing the soil for cotton plantation.
We were not paid for this work, and we were not given any food because the food was diverted to the Soviet army. To save ourselves from starvation, we went out onto the road and tried to hitch a ride to a nearest town. With great difficulty, we managed to reach Kermine, where Polish army was stationed. On the sandy square of the Polish Embassy, hundreds of women, children and the elderly, often sick, slept under the open sky. We received soup once a day, donated by the Polish army. The Russians refused to provide food for the civilians.
Janek joined the "Junaki" and I joined the female counterpart the "Junaczki". My mother was hired by the army to work in the laundry. This allowed her to leave the USSR with the Polish army, and in August of 1942 she left for Persia (Iran).
In May of 1942, the Junaczki, Junacy and the orphans, were moved to Karkin-Batasz, also known as the "Valley of Death". Death due to typhoid fever, dysentery, lack of water and medical care took its toll. Finally, the Russians gave permission to move 460 Junaczki to Kitabo. This was the beginning of a School of Junior Volunteers. There was an abundance of greenery and a beautiful mountain river, unfortunately full of mosquitoes, which carried malaria. We lay in the ditches, often unconscious. There was no quinine to treat us. Only the hope that we would soon leave this place kept us alive.
In September of 1942, our train began its slow journey from Kitabo to Krasnowodzk. We prayed that the Soviets would not change their minds and that there will be room for us on the last ship that was to leave for Pahlavi. We walked the last 5 km to reach the port. The heat and lack of water weakened us, but no one dared complain.
We were loaded on the ship like sardines. I had an attack of malaria. There was no water or food, and it was difficult to reach the toilet. After 16 hours at sea, we saw the coveted Pahlavi. In Pahlavi, I was reunited with my mom. What joy! God delivered our family from the Soviet hell. Freedom was stunning. We were quartered in tents on the beaches of the Caspian Sea, where there was plenty of food and drink and the longed for fruit!
After two months in Pahlavi, we were taken to Tehran and, a short time later, to Isfahan.
It was a city full of greenery, beautiful buildings and gardens. There were 20 Polish children's institutions. 460 Junaczki were quartered in the district of Julfa, in the palace of the Armenian bishop, who was in India doing missionary work. The palace's beautifully tiled floors would give off loud sounds every time we walked across it in our military boots.
We were learning diligently because we were preparing ourselves to return to Poland, ready to rebuild our free motherland. This we felt was our patriotic duty. It was a joy to sleep in a real bed, and eat at a table. We were able to visit and learn about the beautiful Armenian and Persian monuments.
In March of 1943, a group of 600 orphans boarded the ship "Dunera" and headed for Africa. The 10 senior Junaczki looked after the younger children so that they would not fall overboard. On board the ship, there were children from 18 months to 16 years of age. The ship meandered among mines in the Indian Ocean. We docked at various ports along the coast of Africa, but no one wanted to take orphans. We finally docked at Port Elizabeth in South Africa where the Polish ambassador secured permission to place us in a military camp in Oudtshoorn, situated in a desert like terrain near Cape Town.
It was great joy to read letters from my family. Mom was in Tanganyika, Dad in India, Janek in Palestine, and Olek who was in Italy also wrote to me.
In the autumn of 1943, I left for Digglefold called "oasis of Youth". In Digglefold, a Polish High School had a matriculation program that enabled one to go to university. Here, amongst the pine trees, well nourished, we were getting our education. I matriculated with very good results in December 1946.
In May 1948, we joined my brother Janek, who was in England. Olek and I resumed our friendship and in April of 1949, we got married. Return to Poland was not feasible, because the country was under communist rule. We had no home, and no homeland. In England, we worked hard, saved money and we were building our future together. Two of our sons were born in England: Bogumil - 1951 and Lech -1954.
After arriving in Edmonton in 1955, with two young sons, at the age of 30 I began studying pedagogy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. My husband earned $1.30 per hour and that had to suffice for all our expenses. I taught in the St. Albert Catholic Public School District for 28 years. Meanwhile, my family had grown by two more sons: Mark and Adam.
I wrote a school text "Polish Heritage in Alberta" which was recognized by the Ministry of Education as resource material for the seventh grade in Alberta. I have also written our family history in a book titled "From Russian Gulag To Alberta Prairie."
I was involved in the Polish Community of Edmonton as a member of many Polish organizations. I wrote to Polish publishing houses. I organized archives of the Polish-Canadian Congress Alberta Branch, as well as those of Holy Rosary Parish. I was involved with "Birthright" which speaks against abortion. I was co-founder of the bilingual (Polish-English) John Paul II program and the Magda Tomczak Foundation.
Text by: Maria Alina Romanko
The above article is based in part on the book "From Russian Gulag-To Alberta Prairie" and a written manuscript, in Polish, provided by Mrs. M.A. Romanko.
Text edited by: Zofia Kamela and Helena Fita
Translation of the Polish manuscript into English: Helen Fita
Unfortunately, descriptions were not provided for the photos.