The Journey South

Richard's story, by his wife Helen Bitner-Glindzicz

(Extracts from the book "A Song for Kresy" which is based on Richard's recordings of his experiences)

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....  We travelled all of the afternoon and right through the night to the next morning before we stopped at a station. I was too young to take much notice of the names of the stations we passed through but it was a fairly large station and had a well constructed barracks. Tadeusz went out to ask the driver how long he would be stopped at the station and while they were talking, he was accosted by a NKVD officer who rather officiously started checking his papers. “Look here!” said Tadeusz “I have permits from the Commanding Officer of the NKVD in AkmolInsk. Come along now! Get us some food if you please! “ The officer hurried off without saying a word and Tadeusz returned to the wagon. A few minutes later there was knocking on the door just as the train started to move off. When we opened the door a canvas bag was thrown into the wagon. On opening the bag we saw that it contained bread, pig’s fat, potatoes, cabbage, and other fresh vegetables which would not have been available for the people to buy on the open market in Siberia in the middle of winter. However, for us, things began to look much better.

We continued south for a further twenty-four hours or so before we reached another station. Once again, Tadeusz went out to chat with the driver who said that within five minutes the engine would be detached from the train and that he didn’t know what would happen to the train after that. Tadeusz went straight to the NKVD who had a permanent presence at all Russian railway stations. With proven confidence in the efficacy of our travel permits he announced with firmness “We need to travel south. We have permits from the NKVD in AkmolInsk. We need enough food for twenty-four people. Here is a written list of our requirements”.  “Right!” said the officer “Don’t worry. We’ll get it for you. Do you want some ready-made meals?” Tadeusz told him that of course they would and with that the officer hurried off. Tadeusz returned to the wagon and got Witold and Edmund to follow him to the NKVD canteen where they collected two buckets of cabbage soup, a bucket of stewed meat, and a bucket of mashed potatoes. “Is that all?” Tadeusz asked the NKVD man “It’s hardly enough for twenty-four people. Is it?” The man told him to take two more buckets of meat and potatoes. “Where is the NKVD shop?” asked Tadeusz and the man meekly pointed to where the shop was. The shop, like the canteen was only open to the NKVD and some privileged civilians who held passes. Indeed, there was always a soldier with a fixed bayonet standing guard outside these establishments. With some of the remaining roubles from AkmolInsk Tadeusz bought enough chocolate and sugar for the twenty-four of us. When he returned with all these luxuries we felt overwhelmed by our good fortune. Not since leaving Poland had we had such an abundance of provisions.

Further south again and we could no longer see any snow or ice. Every now and then the train would stop and our wagon, sometimes with other wagons, would be detached from the engine and left on a siding in the middle of vast desolate expanses of nowhere, to wait for another engine or even for another train. The journey seemed to be endless, with countless delays and obstacles. Neither stationmasters, nor officials, nor railway workers, would ever give us any information in case we were spies. Sometimes the wait would be as long as twenty-four hours. Nevertheless, we were blessed to have Tadeusz who, with perfect Russian and sheer force of character, could be very persuasive when the occasion demanded. In addition, we had food now, we had roubles too, and we still had things to barter.  Our departure from Station 91 had been thoughtfully organized, and nothing had been left behind that was considered worth bartering. Gradually over distances, the weather became warmer and it was very pleasant at times to feel and breath the fresh air when mother dampened down the stove and left the door open. We stopped at unmemorable station after unmemorable station, but at one station when the train moved off, to everyone’s horror it was found that Tadeusz and the two Letowski boys were nowhere to be seen. We thought to our consternation that they must have been left behind. The women became very agitated and poor Mrs. Odyniec was so very distressed. Immediately, the women initiated prayers and this time, without coercion everyone earnestly participated. After about three hours or more the train began to slow down in order to take on water for the engine. It was then that we discovered that Tadeusz and the boys had been riding in the cab with the driver and the stoker who gave them even more food, which they brought to us. We were overjoyed to see them and the women just had to pray again to give thanks for their safe return. We continued our journey, which in total took about three weeks or more, although at the time it seemed interminable.  We knew that once we arrived in Guzar we would have to part company with Tadeusz and family as he would need to return to his regiment.

Eventually, we arrived at Guzar station in southern Russia in central Uzbekistan. We were all exhausted and hungry, but the adrenaline kept us moving. Here, the Russians brusquely ordered everyone out of the train but now there were Polish liaison personnel to help with information and advice. We learned later that there was a detachment of the Polish Army and a Polish military hospital nearby. Both the NKVD and the Polish officials were encouraging Polish civilians to move to the surrounding little villages about four or five miles away, but we were justifiably afraid that if we moved away from the protection of the Polish Army we might miss the opportunity of getting transport out of this place and we could possibly be left behind.

As a temporary measure we were put into a totally empty barrack with a wooden floor. By this time our mother, the Rudlicki and the Letowski families had made up their minds that they would not be moved to any other area despite the gentle persuasions of the Russian and Polish authorities. Shortly after our arrival, mother, Krystyna, and Mrs. Letowska set off for the nearby township which was little more than a few wooden barracks and some mud huts, the homes of the local Uzbeks. Mr. Letowski was left with the boys as he was of little help in negotiating because he kept losing his temper every five minutes. His job then, was to keep us boys in check, as we were boisterous and full of excitement. The women went to look for some suitable accommodation and they took with them stuff that they could barter. They eventually found to rent a large mud hut that would accommodate the three families, with the men sleeping in the stable. The women cleaned and cleaned the hut over and over again and finally they whitewashed the walls. All this was done before they felt confidant about bringing our belongings inside. We boys were sat down and given a long talk about the terrible typhoid and dysentery raging in the locality. We were told that it was affecting the Polish Military and many of our soldiers were dying from these diseases. It was impressed on us not to eat anything outside our house but to bring all food home to be thoroughly washed or cooked before consumption.

Shortly after moving into the mud hut, we realized that we were not very far from the tents of a detachment of the Polish Army, a transport company who did not have even a single vehicle. The big army field kitchen became a magnet for us boys and, lounging around the area one day shortly after our arrival, a sergeant came up to us and asked if we were Poles. He wanted to know how many people were in our group. When we told him he said “Listen, you boys come over here at meal times and we’ll serve you first. Then you can take away some smaller portions for your folks. I know that the Russians give small, miserable portions and they don’t even like doing that “. We did as the sergeant suggested and for the remainder of our stay there we were fed from the soldiers’ meagre rations and none of them ever complained or showed any resentment, but on the contrary they looked after us and were always welcoming, friendly and helpful.

Rumours were rife regarding the move of military personnel to the Middle East and the soldiers advised us to stay where we were and to refuse to go to any outlying village or collective. They promised to get us out at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of our temporary accommodation the women were able to barter with the local Uzbeks for their home baked bread, which had similarities with the Indian nan bread, except that the Uzbek bread was made with yeast. It was about an inch thick and twelve inches in diameter. It was such excellent bread, tasty and substantial.

Within a few days of our arrival in Guzar, Krystyna found herself a job as a nurse in a hospital. She had some previous experience and training in Poland but was unable to keep the post because of ill health due to severe and debilitating migraines. However, here in Guzar the authorities were hard pressed to obtain the necessary trained personnel to cope with the raging typhoid, dysentery and malaria epidemics. The situation was exacerbated by the arrival, day after day, of people from north and central Russia. The newcomers were in poor physical condition due to being half starved and having been subjected to hard and relentless physical labour. Some had to labour under inhuman conditions, even worse than those our group had endured. The field hospitals were overflowing with patients and so many civilians and army personnel were dying.  Our rented hut was situated just by the main exit road from Guzar to the outlying villages. Day after awful day, I would watch the funeral processions headed by a Polish military band and followed by a platoon with full arms. In the wake came the pitiful trail of horses and carts trudging wearily past our hut, and stacked high on the carts would be the pitiful pile of dead bodies on their way to the cemetery. The corpses were covered by thick bed sheets that sometimes were not secured properly, and there were always so many bodies.

Up to this point in my life I do not remember anything that shook me to the core of my being with such force as watching these daily processions of death. Despite all that had happened over the past months, I had felt secure enough in the care of my mother and Amcia, and I was surrounded my other families just like ourselves. I was hungry all the time but so was everyone around me. We were all in the same boat. My main daily preoccupation usually centred on whether the bigger boys would let me go around with them. But now, here in Guzar, in February 1942, I was being made to witness, day after day, something that filled me with such a deep sadness, and even dread, as I watched the unceasing spectacle of corpses passing our door. I was nine years old and just beginning to appreciate what death was. One occasion was particularly dreadful.  I stood by the door of the hut and watched the daily procession of three horses and carts where the bodies were as usual, piled high on top of each other on the way to their mass grave. Again, there were no coffins just the thick bed sheets. As I watched, mesmerized, the carts rumbled unsteadily over the rough road, and one body became dislodged, and a single and pathetic dangling leg was exposed. I was completely overcome with horror at the time, and this picture of death is one that is forever imprinted on my mind.

People coming from all over Russia to join the various Polish army units under General Anders, were always debriefed on arrival at a particular unit. The place and date of their deportation and the destinations were noted for the records, as were details of other people whom they had travelled with or met while living in Russia. This information was communicated to every Polish unit in Southern Russia where Polish people were congregating. It was on looking through these records in Guzar that my mother saw that her younger brother Stanislaw Grochowski died from typhoid in Southern Russia, in Kitabe, Uzbekistan. He had died in a place only about 50 miles away from where we were staying. Stanislaw was the uncle who had lived with us at Kwatery for a year, learning from my father how to run an estate efficiently. He is one of the few males in our family that we know how he met his death. My grandfather, my mother’s father, Stanislaw Grochowski, was arrested together with his youngest son Julian. They were imprisoned in Ostrolenka, never to be heard of again. We never found out how they met their deaths, or where they were buried. My mother’s other brother, Roman, was a major in the Polish army. He died in 1939 somewhere at the front, fighting against Germany. In this war every one of the adult male members of my family were killed.

One evening mother returned from town and announced that the Polish Army was being evacuated from Russia to Persia. The first of two phases of the evacuation was to start the following morning, and the second would be sometime later. Everyone in the house quickly reached a decision that we would go to the station the next morning, although mother had not been able to register us for this first evacuation as she had been told officially that no civilians were to go on this particular one. Transport for this first stage was strictly limited to army personnel only, according to the authorities that is. However we decided we would take our chances and would present ourselves at the station the next morning to try our very best to board the trains with the Polish Army. Mother then set about arranging the hire of a horse and cart from the local Uzbeks to carry us, and our possessions. These had greatly diminished in any case. Those things we could not take with us we sold for money or food, mostly bread and dates.

 

The belongings that we were taking with us were loaded onto the cart, and, still in the middle of the night, we set off for the station which like all the other Russian stations was strategically placed well outside the town. The air was misty and dawn had just broken as we neared the station around 7am. On reaching the brow of the last hill, we could see there below us, in the valley, stood a train. A few NKVD with rifles and bayonets, were there guarding it, and detachments of the Polish Army were loading it. We hurried the horse, and as we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by two or three NKVD privates ______we couldn’t see the N.C.O. They started shouting at us, “No, we are not boarding you. Get away! Get off with you!” Then, as if from nowhere, I remember five or six young men, wearing Polish Army uniforms, came up and completely ignored the NKVD men despite their rifles and bayonets and with no little determination, proceeded to load our possessions on to the train. One of them swung me up in his arms; the other, further along, took Janusz, and both of us were passed through the train windows to the occupants of the respective carriages.  They told the two Letowski boys who were with us, to run to the train and get in. They then turned to the women and, in Polish, said, “Only take the stuff you really need. And walk, slowly, to the train. Do not run. Walk!”

I could see that the cars on the train were proper passenger cars, not cattle trucks this time. From the window I saw my mother, Amcia, the Letowski and Rudlicki families and the soldiers bringing the remainder of our stuff to the train. The cart which we had arrived in, just turned around and went back empty! On the train I was happy and excited. Things were happening. I was given a piece of chocolate, a wonderful experience for me, for I had not tasted chocolate for ages. The soldiers started asking me questions: where was I from. And I was very content just munching away on my chocolate, oblivious to all that was going on around me. At that time I wasn’t worried about anything, I never questioned whether my mother had got onto the train or not, or where the others were. I was young, only nine, and I was too engrossed in the chocolate given to me by the soldiers! Five minutes later Janusz nosily burst into the compartment saying, “Good!! Oh good, you are here, you are fine. Mother couldn’t find you” The others had not seen what had happened to me in the scramble to get on the train and I had not realized that I had become separated from my group.

It was an old fashioned passenger coach, with a corridor running the length of it. The coach was full, so any extra possessions had to be left in the corridors. To walk from one end of the train to the other, one had to negotiate a two foot six pile of cases and boxes with people’s belongings. At one time I looked out of the window, and saw Krystyna running along the road to the station. She was perhaps three hundred metres away from the entrance. Just then however, the train started to move, and I wasn’t sure whether she would be able to catch it or not.  She did miss our train in fact, but managed to join up with us later.

Suddenly, I saw mother’s face at the door. She was so happy that Janusz and I had made it onto the train. The soldiers said, “Oh you know, if you want to travel up here then we can make a space for you.” And mother said smiling, “No, we are managing well up there. I just need to get someone to look after him.” “Oh yes,” they said, “We will look after him.” The next thing I remember, it was getting towards the evening and they had cleared everything from the luggage racks, and since I was small, I had a perfect place to sleep up on top. Needless to say, throughout the whole journey, our soldiers fed us from their own rations. We had plenty of water and real fruit juices, different kinds of fruit juices at that. I had not had fruit juices since I left Kwatery.       

                                         

I had a good sleep overnight and we travelled almost all of the next day and night. On the second morning we saw a huge expanse of water, and people around me were saying, “Oh this must be the Caspian Sea. This is it!”  It must have taken us nearly three days to travel from Guzar to Krasnovosk, a fishing port on the Caspian Sea. The train went deep into the port and we were offloaded in the area where they would normally offload fish from the boats. It had obviously not been used for several months as the floor was clean, and it did not smell of fish.

Polish personnel arrived with kitchens and they gave everybody a very good meal. I must say that the food was in plentiful supply and, my goodness, they actually encouraged people to go up and get a second helping! This was all so good. I don’t remember exactly what food we had, but we had plenty of it and it tasted simply superb. Everybody started asking, what next? Where to now? Eventually, we found out that we would be taken by sea to the Persian port of Pahlevi.

Suddenly, some NKVD men who were everywhere, marched over to where we were sitting and in their usual intimidating manner, demanded “Right! Throw down all your roubles onto the blanket. You are forbidden to take any of our money outside of the Soviet Union. Please deposit all the money here. Be quick now”. They had spread a blanket before us and pointed to it with their rifles, repeating over and over.”  Quickly now!  Quickly!” Some in our group started to rise to go over towards the blanket, always when the NKVD said jump, no question about it, you most certainly jumped, and through hoops of fire, if necessary. We were almost free now but not quite yet and people were still afraid. Krystyna and the Letowski family were just about to go up and give the soldiers the money. However, it was Amcia who surprised all of us when she decided she had enough of these gangsters, and spurred on by Mr. Letowski, defiantly declared. “ Never! No! Not ever again will I give this lot anything. I would rather burn the money or throw it away’. Breaking the stunned silence that followed, Mrs. Letowska pleaded with her husband. ”Ah Gugcio, please, you will get us into terrible trouble,” she said. I don’t remember what Mrs. Letowska did in the end, but Krystyna looked very pale and was fearful until they started loading us on to the trawlers. Mother still had a fair number of roubles left over from the contributions towards the rail transportation when Tadeusz went to Akmolinsk. She held on to them now. Lo and behold, when we eventually got to Tehran, the banks were exchanging roubles for the local currency at a very favourable rate. We didn’t have a lot, perhaps three months salary for a civil servant. I had little idea at the time, but I knew money was money! It made it possible for us to go to Tehran and buy the things that we desperately needed, things that we previously had to burn because of the vermin sitting in them. None of the other evacuee groups that we later met up with were asked to deposit their possessions in this way.

At last, the trawlers started coming in. They had been used previously for fishing purposes. Of course they stank of fish and were filthy but still we couldn’t wait to board; to wipe the dust of Russia off the soles of our feet forever, was our greatest wish. On board there was only accommodation for, at most, twelve people, with one toilet resembling the proper design, not the ones we had been used to. There was a tap with running water where you could wash your hands and face. When the loading started, the Russians decided that there would be no less than sixty people per boat. They were never designed to carry more than twelve people so they squeezed in 60! The pressure on the lavatory facilities was huge and there was no drinking water. Having said this, a lorry arrived and they handed out bottles of water, one litre of water per head. Amcia was trying to get us a place in the cabin, which had sleeping accommodation but we were not first in the queue and so we sat with our belongings at the aft of the ship. There were two Russians, but the rest of the soldiers were Poles. For food they gave us very salty herrings and the usual Russian ration of 200gms bread per head for non-workers and 400 gms for workers. This was shared around as 300 gms per head.

And another journey started. Thankfully, the sea was fairly calm. People started eating the herrings and drinking the water, and then got diarrhea. By the late evening, when Amcia was trying to take me to the lavatory, there was a queue of about ten people, and when we got nearer and Amcia looked at the state of the toilet, she said, “No way are you going to sit on that.” The scene before us was a shallow lake of swirling human excrement. Amcia led me to the rail of the boat, took my trousers down, and with my bottom facing out to sea, I did my business. She and I then walked around the boat and what I saw that night was brought back to me many years later, when at school we started studying ‘The Inferno’ from Dante’s the ‘Divina Commedia’. I believed I had already seen visions of Hell on that boat that night.  At the time it was as if I was having an out of body experience, standing on the outside looking into the very depths of unimaginable vileness, things so ugly, I could never bring myself to describe them. I was just nine years old.

Copyright Helen Bitner-Glindzicz

We invite you to read the rest of this amazing story in the book titled "A Song for Kresy" - the story of one of the thousands of Polish Families who were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan by the Soviets in 1940. The Glindzicz family had their roots in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland known as Kresy. The family held their lands in this region since before the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1648). The Glindzicz men supported all the major Polish uprisings against Czarist Russia. Mieczysław Glindzicz was a local commander in the 1863 Uprising.  It is a fascinating story of an extraordinary family, and the hardships they endured during WW2.  You can order the book by going to the following link:  http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=4063