Mietek (Mieczyslaw) Cisalowski, Toronto, 1998
(Translated by Wanda Kornatowska)
MEMOIR OF A SETTLER AND HIS FAMILY
After World War I, Polish Army officers and soldiers that fought for the independence
of Poland, were granted government land. Settlements on government land were established all over the country.
My father was born in 1895, in Wilenszczyzna, Poland, at that time that Poland was partitioned by three powers - Germany, Austria and Russia. As a teenager, he was called to serve in the Russian army. After a short indoctrination, he was sent to the Balkans in Greece where the climate and lack of action brought thoughts of escape. News of Polish Forces forming in Italy gave credence to these thoughts.
After escaping, he joined the ranks of the newly formed General Haller's army. He fights on Polish soil for Poland's freedom and, at the end of the war, he is awarded the Cross of Valour and various other medals. His detachment settles eighteen kilometers from the city of Rowne, overlooking Horyn Lake, in a village called Szubkow, where the villagers were mainly Ukrainians. He roomed in a small house where a young girl took care of her father and a small farm.
Many soldiers were stationed outside the village, and the government decided to divide the land amongst them. It was decided that there would be three settlements: Hallerowo, Jazlowce and Krachowce.
Herein lay the problem: What does a young soldier know about farming and building? After assessing the situation, he decided to ask for the young girl's hand, as she was experienced in forming and would be a good mother. The father-in-law's experience and suggestions on farming also helped immensely. They built a house and moved into it, taking her father with them. Next, they built a stable for the cows and horses. The rich soil yielded excellent crops. They planted an orchard, and all along the road to Rowne-Tuczyn cherry trees were planted. The last building was a barn. All the buildings were surrounded by a white picket fence. A long chain was fastened from the stable to the barn and a large dog named Burek was attached to the end of the chain.
The large yard was filled with chickens. During this time, the family grew with two new additions, daughters Marysia and Ewa.
In 1923 wheat prices were very low and there was a general lack of basic goods. The death of their first daughter plunges everyone into deep sorrow. Two years go by and another daughter, Hanka, is born. In 1928, their first son, Roman, is born and, by the end of the next year, another son, Mietek.
Most of the new settlers, including my father, were still involved in army training and belonged to the Krakus unit. The settlement was filled with children and we concluded that a school was necessary. A beautiful, large brick schoolhouse was built, housing a dairy and a bakery in the basement.
In 1932, my sister Marysia was born. Pork prices dropped just when we had a dozen to go to market and my father lost his hair from the stress. Before Christmas, we butchered a pig. It was delicious and naturally, we used its bladder for a soccer ball. We had good neighbours: on the east side was Pleciak and behind us was Czerniak. On the west side lived Lepucki and behind him, Smigiera. Smigiera had a grown daughter, Helka, with 3 children and her grandmother who helped my mother with the plucking of goose feathers and threading on the spinning wheel. Across the street, opposite Pleciak's place, right up to the forest was Kurcz's farm. He had two sons with whom Roman and I often played named Benek and Irek (who sometimes wore his hair like a girl). Mr. Kurcz visited us quite often, sitting on a chair and rotating himself on one chair leg. My mother always commented that he would break the chair, as he was tall and hefty. Mr. Pleciak had a hand wound, which did not allow him to work his farm, so he rented it out and took a job running the store in the school building.
Our main friendship was with Hanka and Wacek Smigiera and Zdzich Lepucki. Once more there are new additions to our family: two sons. One was named Bazil (mother called him Vasik) and in 1937, Janek was born when mother was 49 years old.
Leaving for school, Roman waited by the fence while I would go to collect 4 eggs to exchange for croissants in the store. Mother always saw us but never said anything.
The school had a large sports field surrounded by a track and beside it was a shooting gallery. Here various sports, skating, races, competitions and scout meetings were held. The church was about an hour away so it was decided to build a new one closer to the settlers. In 1937, between Hallerowo and Krachowce in the Karlowszczyzna forest, a beautiful new church, Matka Boska Czestochowska was blessed. Crosses and medals of bravery belonging to the settlers adorned the statue’s robe. The Polish Lancers from Rowno carried it into the church. To see a Polish Lancer was a treat and a great attraction. After the religious ceremony, a dance was held out in the open, with a local band and vodka flowed freely.
Father Kakol, the pastor, was a young priest whose mother, a widow, still lived in the settlement. His brother, a pilot, died tragically in a plane crash. He was buried in the new church cemetery and his propeller was set into his monument.
On May 3rd, we attended mass to pray for our country on the anniversary of Poland's Constitution. After mass, sporting events and competitions were held on the sports field. One summer day on Sunday, on our way back from church, we raided some cherry trees and threw the cherries inside our shirts. You can imagine what a mess we made out of our Sunday clothes. Mother was terribly angry and wanted to hit me with her tea cloth, but I escaped.
September was the month when we sorted and laid out the tobacco leaves. In the evening we would sit around and tie them twelve to a bunch. The children tied the large leaves, the medium ones went to the parents, and the crumpled and torn ones to grandfather, who had the most patience. He would press them out and make them look nice. Then they were tied in bundies and sold in November. The leaves were checked every day for mold. lf any was found, that bundle would be destroyed. Going to market, someone had to watch the rear of the buggy so no one would steal the tobacco. In October, the sugar beets were harvested and sold.
One winter, my parents left for Tuczyn, grandfather was busy chopping wood and Romek brought over a long saw to cut down a large maple tree by the house. lt was said that maple wood makes the best skis. Luckily, grandfather noticed us because the tree would have fallen right on the house. He never snitched on us to our parents. Grandfather was of medium height, with a grey beard and mustache, which was always neatly trimmed. Despite his 80 years, he looked great. In summer, he tended the cattle while making wreaths for his granddaughters from wild meadow flowers. For his grandsons he braided straw hats. In the fall, he made wooden spoons for mother and relatives as Christmas presents. He dressed in an old-fashioned style with his white shirt hanging over his pants and belt around the waist and when he went to town, he wore his best shoes.
One day Romek made a small whip, sat on a cavalry horse, on which father used to ride in the war, and cracked the whip. The horse bolted and took off with him screaming. This made the horse full gallop believing it to be a charge command. It lept over a fence and was charging towards the barn where the top half of the door was open. My father screamed “bend down” which undoubtedly saved my brother’s life. Father said nothing, knowing that Romek would never do that again.
Tobacco was sowed along the side of the road. It had to be visible for inspections. We would dead head them at the appropriate time and would be paid 1O cents by my father. After doing our homework, Romek and I would go and dead head 4 rows of tobacco in our bathing suits, because tobacco was very sticky. After we were paid, we ran 3 km to the Horyn River to rinse ourselves off and then spend our money on sweets.
One Sunday, we were swimming by the mill. Romek could swim quite well. However, I swam like an ax. Two boys, whom I didn't know, got together with Romek and decided to swim the width of the river. They got across all right and rested awhile. On the swim back, the wind and waves picked up, carried Romek to about 30 meters, and dragged him under. A man on shore, seeing this, led his horse into the water, enabling Romek and the other boy to grab the horse’s tail. He pumped water out of his lungs, gave him a swat on the rear and told him to go home. This news quickly reached my parents.
Mondays were market days and my parents took a pig to sell. Ewa and Hanka wanted to make us something to eat because they knew that mother would not be home soon because after Market, father liked to go drinking with the boys. My sisters found a dozen eggs lying in stinging nettle by the fence. Upon breaking them, they had chicks inside, so we had nothing to eat.
To get to the meadow where the river was, we had to ride 8 km through the forest. We made fishing rods from horsetail hairs tied to a branch with a cork and a goose feather for a float. There were many small fish in the crystal clear water and a lot of joy when one was actually caught!
When the harvest was over, mother would leave for a few days to pick blueberries. She would return with at least 3 bushels full. For the time mother was away, Ewa was the woman of the house.
One day Benek and Irek Kurcz were tending the cows where a fence runs along a ditch. Playing, they forgot about the cows who went into the ditch, under the fence and into the forest. When the ranger brought them home my father had to pay a penalty to get the cows back. My father never hit us, but his lecture was worse than a beating.
Our dog, Burek, ripped off his leash and someone shot him by the forest, mistaking him for a wolf. A small black and white dog who adopted us replaced him. We called bim Znajdek (Foundling).
When ice formed between the high ridges, we had a skating rink. We made our own skates by carving wood in the form of a skate and inlaying a wire into the wood. Then we used leather straps cut out of old shoes to tie the skates to our shoes.
After skating awhile we gathered to chat and at that point the ice cracked and many of us fell in. Romek grabbed a branch and with his other hand my hat, which was tied under my chin, and pulled me up on the ridge. Shaking and stiff, l barely made it home. After a change of clothes and my mother's scolding, we went to sleep.
Twenty years passed peacefully since the last war. The older children helped in the field and in the house. This saves money, as we don't have to hire anyone to work. Plans were made for the children’s' future. The older boys would go to military school, etc...
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and from the other side the Soviets invaded. Our plans, dreams and 20 years of hard work vanished. Father was called to serve in the army but was not accepted by the commission. Disappointed, he returned home, which made mother and all of us very happy.
Columns of Soviet soldiers passed by for days. They did not look like an army. Some were dressed in civilian clothing, without rifles or even saddles on their thin, meager horses. They came to our house demanding arms, as they knew that whoever belonged to the Krakus Unit possessed a lance, sabre and rifle. My father had to give up his lance and sword but he buried the rifle in the field. He knew that if they found the rifle he would be executed. He explained to them that he had to tum in his rifle after the war. Another night the tanks rolled on endlessly. The Ukrainians let loose a rumour that the settlers were going to raid Szubkow. In this way they wanted the Soviets to kill the settlers and their families. Two Ukrainians were arrested as they tried to cause a disturbance in the settlement. The settlers were forced to vacate their farms leaving the Ukrainians in charge of their livestock. The Ukrainians, instead, busied themselves making moonshine and ignoring the needs of the livestock.
Because of our large family and the problems they would have putting us up elsewhere, we were permitted to remain on the farm. Another reason could have been that mother and grandfather were of Ukrainian descent.
Grandfather left us to live with relatives in Kozlin. On the l0th of February, a date we will never forget, a Soviet officer rushed into our house as we slept, screaming for us to get our things together and get out. He was the only Russian officer, the rest of them were Ukrainians with red bands on their arms. This is when we lost everything we had worked for. Father was ordered to stand by the wall with his hands up and the rest of us were in shock, crying and not knowing what to do next. My father, not losing his head, started shouting directions to take this and that and kitchen utensils, bedding etc. He wanted to take the clock on the wall but the Ukrainian who was taking over the house wouldn't let him.
Our horses were hitched to our sled and we were taken to the train station in Tarnopol. Poor Znajdek ran alongside the sled with his head down glimpsing at us occasionally as though he knew he wasn't going to see us again. We were loaded on the freight train like sardines into a can.
For all of us, we were allowed one wooden bench in the cattle car. An iron kettle stove stood in the middle, but there was no wood to bum for warmth. The goose down duvet kept us warm and the hole in the floor served as a latrine. A Ukrainian suggested escape to father. Father asked him, are you joking? What would a woman do alone with seven children?
We left that evening and the sobbing and wailing drowned out the sound of chugging. We were going in a northeasterly direction and all the older folks knew it was to Siberia. We had no food or water and the children were crying from hunger. Through the bars in the small window, I tried to scoop some snow off the roof. I even licked a screw to get some moisture and my tongue stuck to it. I jerked my head back and ripped the skin off my tongue. Occasionally the train would stop on some sidetrack and the guards would escort three people to get some boiled water and sometimes some bread. We passed the city of Kotlas, we were taken off the train and deposited into a large hall in a village along the Dzwina river. In the morning, the children were put onto sleds and the adults walked alongside along a frozen river towards Archangielsk. Two days later, we arrived at our destination.
There were log houses in the forest with wooden bunk beds and an iron kettle stove in the middle. We were lucky; there was a lot of wood in the forest. At dawn everyone eleven years of and older was forced to go to work. The younger children were taken to a hall and were baby-sat by Russian women. The men had to cut down tall straight fir trees and the women had to pull them out towards the railroad tracks.
According to my father's diagnosis (because there were no doctors) I had pneumonia. He looked for cupping-glasses or even any glasses. Someone did in fact have the real thing. He rubbed the inside of the glass with spirits, lit and quickly applied it to my back and chest. This brought up all the bad blood to surface of the skin. He did this for 2 weeks, as I lay there almost unconscious from fever. After 2 weeks, my back and chest were black but I felt better.
In May 1940, the snow started melting. We were moved to a prison camp with a high wooden fence surrounding it. Father worked at finishing wooden products such as wooden beams, etc. Mother, Ewa, Hanka and Romek were given the task of removing bark from downed trees. I had to go to school, as I wasn't eleven years old yet and the younger ones to nursery school. Our parents shared their portions of bread with all the children (Stalin's rule was, you don't work, you don't eat). Workers were rarely paid. In the summer, I had the job of buying bread and kasha (buckwheat) before everyone returned home from work. Soup was made from kasha and adding bread to it at least filled us up.
Water from the pump was starting to freeze. Winter was coming. Boards from the tall fence were missing here and there. If anyone was caught taking them they would be punished by sleeping in the barn or worse. My mother, on her way back home picked up some twigs and small branches for firewood. She was stopped at the gate and charged with theft. She slept in the cold barn for three nights.
When I turned eleven I was sent to work cutting off the core from logs. Then together with Romek sawing and quartering logs. The worst part was getting the wheelbarrow uphill. One of us would pull and the other push. This winter was particularly bad. Our shoes were worn out so we wrapped our feet in bags. It was -60 C and frostbite affected hands, feet, and noses. Our father' constant reminders kept us vigilant and we avoided frostbite.
We received a package from mother's relatives: a piece of pork fat and kasha.
Everyone had lice, resembled a skeleton and had swollen bellies. However, God was looking after us. In July 1941, we were called to the hall, we thought for another Stalinist propaganda lecture. Instead, we were told that we were free, that in two days we will be given our documents and a barge will take us to Kotlas. Shouts of joy, crying and praying broke out in the hall. On the day we were leaving, we were given bread for three days and some money. Our family received 3 breads which mother gave to Ewa for safekeeping. Ewa put the bread in a basket and put it under the bench on which she was sitting and held the basket between her legs. When it carne time to eat, the basket was there but the bread was gone. Father's pleas for the return of the bread went unheard. However, some people, who themselves did not have enough, shared their bread with our family.
In Kotlas we found a Polish organization that helped us. We were loaded onto a train and given food. We travelled south and hunger once more took over. Money was worthless as no one would accept it. Cigarettes were rolled using the Soviet Rubles. Complaints were being heard that 'even the Poles had forgotten about us'.
At the city of Andziezan, father had us get off the train. He sat us down beside a fence and disappeared. We were worried about leaving the train. Did he do the right thing? Mother tried to calm us but it wasn't convincing. When he returned, he led us to a spot where there were two two-wheeled buggies tied to one horse. We rode to a commune named Stalin where we received bread, mother was permitted to gather some tomatoes and beets and father was employed to clean the local airport. It took us a week to regain our strength. A few days later an NKVD offficer stopped us to check our documents. Of course, we were immediately escorted back to the train station. In the train we were assigned to one bench for all of us, and a hammock above it so we had to take tums sleeping.
The train consisted of 12 wagons and all the passengers except us, were Polish Jews. Rumours had it that the train was going back to Siberia. At dawn we found ourselves in the city of Dzalabad in Uzbekhistan, where we stood all day under the watchful eyes of the NKVD. At night we returned to Andziezan and back again. For three nights, we went back and forth. Nobody wanted to accept a train of Jews with us amongst them. Luckily, mother still had some of the beets that she had gathered on the farm and these kept us alive. When the wagon doors opened in Dzalabad most of the passengers were in no shape to get up. We don't know what happened to them because we were put on buggies and transported to a commune again named Stalin. My father was given a job cleaning stables and looking after the horses that were in pitiful shape. The rest of us had to go into the field and pick cotton. The children had milk and from time to time father would bring home flour and lamb and horse meat (which was a very popular meat here).
Winter and spring were mild. We had food and the mud hut we lived in had a stove. All the wheat from the field went straight to the movement. The silos were empty. A stray dog wandered by our hut and my father took care of him very quickly. He hid the meat wrapped in cloth in the base of the stove. The Uzbek locals laughed at us calling us Russian 'dog eaters'. They referred to us as Russians because they didn't know where we carne from.
There was a river not far from us where tomatoes grew close to the shore. Since the river wasn't deep, we would cross over being careful not to be caught by the Uzbek guard, and pick the tomatoes. Then Ewa would collect all the turtles she could carry in a bag and bring them home.
Suddenly, my brother Bazil died. His body was laid in a small coffin made from thin planks. Father dug a deep grave so the jackals wouldn't get at it. Hanka and I got bloody dysentery, so mother and Ewa took us to the local hospital in Dzalabad. They found out from some soldiers that there was a Polish Social Services Bureau. After registering there, they were allotted some bread which mother sliced thinly, dried and brought to us, handing it to me through the hospital window each day. Throughout our 2-week stay in the hospital, we were not given any medication.
Ewa found a field of potatoes and would dig some up at night. If she were caught, it would have been the death penalty.
In late autumn, Polish soldiers were passing through the commune. In conversation with them, we found out that the last transport would be leaving, crossing the border. In the dark, just after midnight, we left our hut slipping out the window and fled to Dzalabad. We stayed out in the open by a fence near the army kitchen. The soldiers gladly shared their food with civilians at their gate. Occasionally an NKVD officer would chase us away but we would eventually return. A woman had two pairs of shoes from her deceased child to sell and agreed to let me sell them for her. I guess I looked honest because she trusted me. I took the shoes to the market and in a matter of minutes they were sold, which was a good thing, as I had no sales permit. Once I had been paid for the shoes, I went around the market sampling food. The vendors let me do this because I would show them my money. I returned to the woman who gave me the shoes to sell and gave her the money.
We were told that the last transport would be leaving at midnight. Crowds showed up at the station. Masses of Jews and other nationalities also showed up. However, many didn't have the right documents and could not board. Early morning found us at the docks in Krasnowodzk on the Caspian Sea and here we waited for the boat. There was no food and water was brought in cans. I didn't know that sea water was salty and, although it was dirty, I had a sip. I spat and spat and in the end was thirstier than before.
The small freighter docked and we boarded it. Thanks to the crackers the army gave us, we lived through the voyage. We anchored 2 km from shore and were taken by motorboats to shore to Pahlevi in Persia.
Our heads were shaved, we bathed and our clothes and possessions were burned. We were dressed in anything that was in the storeroom. Men were dressed in pajamas, women in nightgowns and children in bathing suits. Then we were given 2 blankets, each a different colour, and a place on the sand to sleep under a lean-to. These were our only possessions. There was a common kitchen from where we had rice and lamb every day to regain our strength. Whoever overate developed dysentery and wound up in the camp hospital.
Romek wanted to enlist in the army cadets but got jaundice and stayed with us. Here, we met our neighbour Mrs. Lepucka, who told us of the tragedies that had befallen the transport we escaped from. They were taken to some godforsaken place where a stream with salty fish ran through it. They drank filthy water from the stream and got bloody dysentery and typhoid, which spread and many died. Father took her to the hospital but it was too late to save her.
The good life began in Persia. Food three times a day and baths in the sea whenever we wanted. Dressed in bathing suits we didn't have to dress or undress. The soldiers gave us canned or ground meat and we were in heaven! Next, we were transferred to a school hall in a place called Achwaz at the foot of the mountains. Here we slept on the floor. We were fed homemade macaroni in milk, made by ladies who were assigned by the commandant. The boys' job was lighting rock oil for the stoves. I would wake up early so I didn't have to do it. Two weeks passed and again, we were taken to another camp in Teheran. We received more clothes and the kitchen had a more varied menu. School classes were being organized but we had no notebooks.
We left Persia on a passenger ship. There was a lot of anxiety about mines in the water. In 2 weeks we made it to Bombay, lndia, unloaded some things off the ship and we were on our way. The next day we were in Karachi, where we were greeted by Red Cross nurses and taken to a camp in a desert near the city. Large tents were erected and surrounded by barbed wire. We had beds! The kitchen menu was good and for the first time we were given pocket money, as was the English custom.
Christmas was celebrated in the English barracks and they showered us with sweets, dolls, toys and balls. Our stay here was extended because I got malaria and Marysia an unknown illness. Mother stayed at her side in the hospital in Karachi. After they returned from the hospital, everyone was informed about the journey awaiting us to Africa.
The long and dangerous voyage on the freighter was not pleasant. All we saw throughout four weeks was water and dolphins. Another freighter was chasing us so all the women and children were placed to one side. This way when they passed us that was all they could see, not the army on board. It worked. We docked in the port of Mombasa. This was our first meeting with a black person. Going by train through Kenya we could see that
there were people worse off than we. Naked children ran alongside the train with their arms stretched out begging us to throw them something. The next 200 miles we saw nothing but sand. Dusty and tired we finally arrive at our destination.
On a meadow in the middle of a jungle stood mud huts covered with elephant grass with a hole on top for ventilation. The camp was named Masindi, as it was close to the city of Masindi. There were five villages and two consisting of a holding village and an orphanage. We spent a week in holding, where we were examined to determine the status of our health.
In late 1943, we received cork helmets, more clothes and linens and were placed into the fifth village. It took us a while to get used to the tropical climate. Nurses would go around and check under everyone's nails and their heels for parasites that get into crevasses and lay eggs.
Fresh food was available in the stock room and mother would cook it on the stove outside the hut. Gardens were springing up. Everyone planted flowers, pineapples, bananas and papayas. We attended school from eight in the rooming until two in the afternoon with a ten minute break each hour. Scouting was formed, to which nearly everyone belonged. Work places were being opened: sewing, footwear, carpentry and others. Even though the pay was meager, at least we had pocket money and something to do.
Ewa and Romek enlisted in the army and left. Khaki material was supplied, and we went to work sewing gray scout uniforms. The youth frequented the scouting barrack for meetings and games. The army sent scout leader Kozial here as a scouting instructor. He established rules, regulations and ranks. I had the pleasure of starting a group of Beavers called 'Rip Out Oaks in another village.
The camp expanded. An extra village, a student residence, a high school and commercial school were built. The school residence housed students from other African villages. A huge hospital at the foot of Mount Wanda was also built. The biggest feat was building the church alongside the hospital. It was constructed in the form of a cross by men, women and youth. I remember making bricks by the stream in the jungle. My father was in charge of the brick making operation. When the church was finished, father went to work in the footwear factory and later became the boss.
Sports clubs were organized: volleyball, soccer and even a boxing club. Great, but who was funding all of this? UNRA (United Nations Relief Association).
The unexpected death of our saviour General W. Sikorski plunged all Poles in the free world into deep sorrow. The Polish 2nd Corps fought alongside the British 8th Army. Every victory seemed to bring us closer to our return to Poland.
In 1945, the war ended and the world rejoiced. We did not. Poland was sold to the communists - the same ones who stole our lands, sent us to Siberia, and starved us.
Living in Africa was becoming a serious concern. The Africans were beginning to rebel against the British who were in charge of the colonies. It was decided that we would leave for England as the Polish Army was integrated into the British army.
In the latter half of 1948, we left for Mombasa. We slept on the docks awaiting the ship. We said our farewell to Africa and its peoples and sailed into the unknown. On the way, we visited the Suez Canal, Malta and Gibraltar.
After living in a hot climate the British Isle was quite cold. Our appetites heightened but there was not enough food in post-war England. We were sent to a camp named Eastmoor near York in northern England. Once more, a common kitchen fed us three times daily. In spring, we set out to find jobs. I chose the textile industry, not knowing what it was. The girls got jobs at Rowntree Chocolates in York. The camp was dwindling as people found jobs, moved out, or bought houses. Romek stayed in Sheffield, Ewa in London, Hanka in York and Marysia and I in Huddersfield. Janek and our parents also stayed in Huddersfield. For the holidays, we would all meet at our parents' place. We all had families and some even their own businesses.
Father, at age 79, died of lung cancer and three years later mother joined him. In 1990, Romek and Janek also died. The rest of us, in advanced age, revel in our children and grandchildren.
I dedicate these memories to my sister, Marysia.
Mietek (Mieczyslaw) Cisalowski, Toronto, 1998
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords