Romana (Hanytkiewicz) Wal
Although we lived in constant fear, a resolve grew within our community to protect one another against the encroaching Soviet occupation. Citizens of Bialystok resisted authorities in as many ways as possible through localized efforts. Many of my friends actively participated in more organized attempts, such as the Szare Szeregi (Grey Ranks), a code name for the underground Polish Scouting Association created in Warsaw on September 27, 1939. Scouting units offered an ideal base for the early formation of the resistance movement.
Soviet rule soon dominated our lives. All the important government positions were taken over by Soviets, soldiers were visible everywhere, and the NKVD controlled the secret service and police. Shortly after occupying eastern Poland, Soviet Deputy Commissar for Security, Colonel Ivan Aleksandrovich Serov, drew up plans to deport over a million Polish citizens deemed “socially dangerous and anti-Soviet elements.” The deportees were put in prisons, forced labor camps and enforced settlements in northern parts of Russia and Central Asia where few survived the harsh living conditions. From winter 1940 until June 1941, the NKVD carried out four mass deportations of 1,500,000 to 1,700,000 Polish citizens. Some have estimated that one third to one half of Poles who were deported died by the time Germany advanced on the Soviet Union in June 1941.
With increasing frequency, Soviet authorities detained Poles who they considered a threat to the new regime. Arrests of former government officials, intellectuals, activists, and military officers were often followed by deportations of entire families to labor camps in the Soviet Gulag. A former branch of state security, the Gulag refers to the vast Soviet system of forced labor camps and prisons. Because of their profiles, many of my friends and their families became targets of the NKVD. Feeling more at risk of arrest and detention, my friends and I avoided social gatherings that could draw the attention of authorities.
Nevertheless, my family continued to provide safe haven to fellow Poles who were travelling across divided Poland, often without proper identification or transit papers. The added burden of our visitors meant more time had to be dedicated to meeting daily needs. Food was scarce and we had to wait in long lines to buy bread and other basic goods. We were learning to manage with less and less each day. Luckily, I still had my job at the bookstore and could help support my family, although my earnings were meager. Many of my friends started to leave Bialystok to seek safety elsewhere or to become more active in the resistance.
A Soft Summer Breeze
The mid-summer evening was pleasantly warm. We opened our windows wide to let in the air to cool us. As I glanced out the window, I felt a slight uneasiness sweep over me. I looked outside and thought I caught a glimpse of someone standing on the street. Were we being watched? Although I felt anxious, I did not think we were in immediate danger.
On July 19, 1940, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I was suddenly awakened by a deafening bang on the front door and loud voices yelling in Russian “Open the door!” As I jumped out of bed, I immediately thought the NKVD had come to arrest our lodger, Napoleon, who had arrived the day before. I ran to his room to tell him to get out. I suggested that he should try to jump out of the window but when we looked down, we saw that someone with a gun was standing below. During this entire time, it never occurred to me that they might also be looking for me.
Without a way out, I opened the door to seven armed men who barged into the house and told me to stand still while they searched the apartment. They took away many of our personal belongings and arrested me and Napoleon. We were escorted at 5 in the morning to a lorry parked in front of the house. As I was being taken away, I saw the look of terror on the faces of my mother and sisters. I will never forget their expression. I did not know then that it would be another 23 years before I would see them again.
I was first taken to NKVD headquarters where I was questioned and then transferred with other prisoners to the Bialystok prison. When we arrived, we were taken to the courtyard where we were forced to sit while waiting for our names to be called. After many hours, my name was read and I was taken inside the prison and searched. All of my valuables were confiscated, including my gold religious medallion, watch and some money I had tucked into my clothes.
The first journey to my cell left a lasting impression on me. The day left me feeling humiliated, exhausted and vulnerable. I was totally unprepared for the terror of being put into prison. The sound of the keys turning and gates being opened and closed jolted me. As the door to cell Number 36 opened, I was horrified to see nine women sitting on the floor and on benches stripped down to their underwear. The cell was unventilated and the summer day hot and muggy. There was hardly any room for me. The guards pushed me in and slammed the door shut behind me. I stood in utter disbelief surrounded by my new cellmates. I could not hold back my tears. That night I was overcome by loneliness and anxiety about my family. Would they be deported soon, like the others? Little did I know that my first night in a cell sleeping on a bug infested mattress with other cellmates would mark the beginning of a near 38-month ordeal that would take me to and out of the Soviet Gulag.
The next morning I was summoned out of my cell for more questioning. NKVD agents asked me about the resistance, its members and especially the whereabouts of some of my friends. Although I was not directly involved in clandestine activities, I was viewed by the authorities as an accomplice because of my friendship with emerging leaders of the movement who were part of my social group. I was determined to never betray my friends, denounce them, or tell of any of our activities. I returned to my cell not knowing what to expect next.
On September 18, I was escorted from my cell and taken to an outside courtyard where I met others who had been arrested at the same time. Our arrests coincided with massive deportations mandated by Colonel Serov. In the crowd of prisoners, I saw some of my friends. Eventually, we were herded into lorries and transported to the railway station.
On the way we passed our neighbourhood church dedicated to St. Roch. As the sun was setting the figure of the Madonna on top of the steeple shimmered like gold. The gleaming brightness of the statue stood in sharp contrast to my feelings of despair. The brief passage through a familiar place restored me slightly. I would soon be leaving my beloved city and a familiar past, but to where? If only we could stay on Polish soil. Guards loaded us on the train. We huddled in fear and anticipation. The train departed the station and headed east into the Soviet Union.
Lightly Flowing Air
We arrived in Minsk, now in Belarus, the next morning. I was searched again and taken to a building that must have formerly been a palace or governor’s house. The horse stables had been converted into cells. The door swung open to a windowless cell marked Number 113 occupied by eight other prisoners.
At night we took turns lying on the floor, breathing air that flowed lightly from under the door. The air in the unventilated cell was stagnant. We felt as though we were suffocating. The only source of light was a bare bulb hanging by the door that stayed on day and night. The only time our guards opened the door was to take us either to the uborna (Russian for washroom) or for interrogation. They passed our meager rations through a trap door. Occasionally, a sympathetic guard opened the trap door at night to let in some air, although it was stiflingly hot and humid. Our clothes never felt dry. The walls seeped moisture.
In the morning we received a chunk of bread, the equivalent of a quarter loaf, a few cubes of sugar and weak tea served in individual bowls. The bread was meant to last a whole day. At noon, guards filled our bowls with watery soup and a few grains of kasha jaglana (Polish for millet, typically used to feed birds) and an occasional bone that we suspected was a dog’s. At night we were given another bowl of watery soup.
A few days after arriving, my lengthy interrogation began. I was usually taken out of my cell around midnight, accompanied by a guard who escorted me through the corridor and into another cell. Sometimes I was taken out every night, at other times every other night.
The uncertainty of when I would be called added to the dread that overcame me in the evenings. With every opening of the trap door I froze, closing my eyes wishing that I could become small enough to slip through a crack and disappear, praying that I would not be called. Briefly my heart stood still, waiting, not knowing if I would hear the guards command, “Romana Hanytkiewicz Zygmontowna. Let’s go!”
My interrogator usually started by sitting behind his desk. While he sat I was forced to stand at attention during the entire session, which lasted through the night and into the morning. Occasionally, a different interrogator would question me. They all were young, military in bearing, dressed in uniform, abusive and vulgar. My interrogator’s manner was rough and threatening, his abuse unpredictable and violent. He often would get up and walk around me. Without warning, he poked me in the side with a ruler, punched me in the back with his fist, and slapped me with the backside of his hand across my face and body while screaming obscenities. He shouted the same questions over and over again, “Who else is in the organization?” “Where is the list of names?”
After my sessions, I would come back to my cell bruised and feeling sore all over. My hands and feet were swollen from standing at attention for hours. I was emotionally and physically exhausted.
I could not dwell on my own misery for long because others were mistreated worse than I. Some of my cellmates returned from their sessions bloodied. Throughout the night we heard frightened pleas followed by cries and piercing screams. The sounds disturbed us greatly, making restful sleep impossible.
Not only did we suffer from the pointed abuse of interrogators and guards, we were severely weakened by the conditions of our imprisonment, drained by mounting hunger, malnutrition and sleep deprivation. The uncertainty of our days played with our minds and created an explosive sense of fear and powerlessness. Collectively, we learned to endure. We were young, resilient and deeply patriotic. My religious conviction became a source of solace that filled me with a quiet sense that I would outlast my tormentors. I swore that if I survived, I would make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Poland.
The most disquieting part of my interrogation was my friend Wlodek’s forced denunciation of me. I was brought into his interrogation cell to face him where he identified me as a member of the resistance. I felt betrayed. I learned later, however, that NKVD agents brutalized him unmercifully during his interrogations. Our tormentors played with our minds, forcing us to turn on one another without knowing what we were being drawn into or what else had been said. The mental anguish of this moment has stayed with me until this day. I wish I could have seen Wlodek again to forgive him.
The interrogations ended suddenly after three and a half months. Through patchy evidence coupled with the denunciation by Wlodek, I continued to be considered a threat to the state and subjected to indefinite imprisonment.
In the following weeks, I found that my brutal interrogator had been arrested and imprisoned. I felt this strange turn of events was a personal triumph. Although I did not know the exact reason for his imprisonment, I only imagined that he fell victim to the twisted paranoia that pervaded the ranks of soldiers and NKVD agents in prison. The level of suspicion among the guards was so high that they often turned against one another in desperate moves to ensure their own survival.
A New Space
At the conclusion of my interrogation, I was moved to another building. To my complete surprise, I found that my new cell had an open window placed high on the wall. I could finally breathe fresh air and see daylight. Whenever the trap door opened, I expected to hear guards yell, “Romana Hanytkiewicz Zygmontowna. Let’s go!” To this day, I have nightmares about an out sized guard standing over me, yelling my name. I can’t stand to be in confined spaces, especially small rooms. I always need to be close to a window.
Our diet continued to consist of the same meagre rations. As our hunger deepened, our bodies withered. We talked about food and recipes obsessively, imagining the taste and smell of a full course meal. Daily, we picked lice out of our clothes and each other’s hair. To cleanse our scalps, we often grouped a portion of our tea ration to allow one of our cellmates to wash her hair in warm liquid. Cockroaches invaded our cell, crawling out of tiny cracks in the walls and floor onto our belongings and over us throughout the day and night. Our damp and soiled mattresses were filled with bed bugs that regularly fed on our blood at night.
Each morning, guards led us out of our cell to the uborna. We marched in line two by two, in strict silence, taking turns carrying the parasha (Russian for a bucket without a lid) which served as our toilet in the cell. The uborna consisted of a row of five or six holes cut into a raised platform without partitions or lids into which we emptied the parasha. Spigots on a small pipe near the entrance provided water for washing.
We were allowed 30 minutes to take care of our personal needs. To maximize our time, we stripped shortly after entering and washed quickly, barely able to tolerate the freezing water in our emaciated state. It was now winter. Cold air rushed through an open barred window near the ceiling. Guards continually checked on us through a peephole in the door. What modesty remained had disappeared by this point. We no longer recognized our own bodies. Once a month we were allowed to wash in warm water.
I learned from my cellmates to communicate with the next cell by tapping on the walls and floors using Morse code. I had finally found a way to break out of the confines of my cell. Communicating with other prisoners was strictly forbidden and monitored. To avoid detection, I turned my back to the wall and tapped messages with my hands behind my back. I loved talking to other prisoners by Morse code and became fearless about it, too. Soon, I got to know many individuals and learned what was going on in the prison and outside world.
Often we passed objects and messages to other prison mates through a trap door while walking to the urborna. We also communicated through letters. We devised an ingenious way of securing ink and paper. In the mornings, guards lined up the prisoners in the corridor who complained of not feeling well. Regardless of the complaint, the prison nurse prescribed the same medication to everyone, a red pill that we had to swallow in front of her. We all learned to hide the pill under our tongues. If successful, we were able to mix the red pill with water to make ink. We fashioned pens out of the occasional bone served in our watery soup. We wrote letters on small squares of filter paper taken from cigarettes, which prisoners were able to secure from guards. After folding the paper many times into a small wad, we attached them in the washroom with a piece of bread that was soaked and kneaded into a paste. Since there were few places to hide letters, they were often discovered and confiscated by the guards. Being able to communicate with others lifted my spirits. I often thought about my family and wondered if they escaped deportation. I prayed for them constantly.
Because we faced difficult times together, my cellmates and I forged a strong bond with each other. Despite the toll that the constant deprivation was taking on our bodies, our sprits remained high. We were determined to survive.
During my stay in cell Number 7, I was placed in solitary confinement twice. The first time I was in for five days with Tosia and her daughter Kazia. We had been accused of talking in Morse code and passing letters. To demonstrate our guilt, guards showed us a letter they found in the uborna. Even though we hadn’t written the letter, it was useless to try to dispute the claim. False accusations were common.
We were escorted to solitary confinement at night. The floor of the cell had standing water and the walls dripped with moisture. There was no window or source of natural light. A bare light bulb stayed on all the time. Because we were forced to lie on the floor without a mattress, we used one of our coats to lie on and the other two to cover ourselves for warmth. We shivered the entire time from the cold. In the mornings, we received our only meal of the day---a quarter loaf of bread and weak, lukewarm tea. Five days passed slowly; it felt like an eternity. When we emerged, we realized that it was Easter.
Sometime later, I was punished again while we were being escorted in the morning to the uborna. Talking was strictly forbidden and closely monitored by guards. One of the girls in the line talked while she was passing a message to a friend in a cell along the way. A guard turned to me and accused me of the crime. He yanked me out of the line and told me to stand in a corner. I refused to tell the guard my name because I wasn’t guilty. For this, he brutally kicked and shoved me. Eventually, the guard called his supervisor to report my defiance. As far as I remember, it was the middle of May 1941. I knew I would serve another sentence in solitary confinement.
I briefly returned to my cell where one of my cellmates lent me her warm coat and others filled my pockets with lumps of sugar. That night when I was taken from my cell, guards searched me and read my sentence out loud while I stood at attention: seven days in solitary confinement for talking and shouting in the corridor, writing, and passing letters in the uborna, and being insubordinate when stopped.
I entered the narrow dark cell. It did not have a window or furniture. The only source of light was a bare light bulb that stayed on all the time. I was given a mattress at night to sleep on, but the guards took it away during the day. Feeling I had been accused unjustly, I decided to protest by going on a hunger strike. The next morning, I refused my ration of bread and water.
My passion for talking in Morse code became useful. I managed to contact my next door neighbour, Juchniewicz, who was waiting for another trial to appeal his death sentence. We talked all day long. He urged me to stop my hunger strike.
Each day I grew weaker. My mouth started to swell inside. Toward the end of my sentence, the guards did not take my mattress away during the day because I no longer could stand up. Because I was so ill, I got a reprieve on the sixth day and was taken back to my regular cell. Upon my return, I learned that in a show of solidarity my cellmates had also refused food and water for three days. It took me a long time to recover from my confinement and hunger strike.
As a result of being malnourished, we developed boils all over our bodies that never healed while we were in prison. Some of us were affected worse than others. I fortunately only got them on my arms and legs, especially my lower legs. We never received treatment for our ailments. Our teeth became loose. I expect that at this point we suffered from scurvy and scabies.
No Room to Stretch our Legs
I had now been a prisoner for nearly a year. On June 12, 1941, I was taken from my cell and told to take my belongings. We were given bread rations for three days, taken to the train station and loaded on a special rail car for prisoners. Seeing how hungry and deprived the men looked, we gladly shared our ration of bread with them which left us with nothing to eat for the remaining three days. As the train started to move, we were overcome with joy when we realized that were heading west toward Poland instead of further east into the Soviet Union. Were we being taken back home?
Through the cracks in the walls of the prison car we observed people gathering to watch the train go by. Sensing we were on Polish soil, in unison we started to shout, “Chleba! Chleba!” (Polish for Bread! Bread!) Soon all of the people on the outside started to bring us bushels of bread. We could not believe our eyes. Polish bread, what a joy!
Often prison cars were left standing in rail yards for days while waiting to be hitched to another locomotive. During these times, we were never allowed to leave. To our great disappointment, the train eventually turned east to cross the border back into Russia. We were on the way to Polotsk, now Belaurus.
My stay in Polotsk prison was not very long because on June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in an operation named “Barbarossa.” Hitler broke his alliance with Stalin in a bold attempt to acquire the vast resources of Russia. Prisons in Polotsk and Minsk were promptly evacuated to avoid the approaching German army. However, the Soviets were not able to fully evacuate all the prisons in Minsk and many prisoners were eventually released by the Germans.
We were told to take our belongings and hastily moved to the railway station. Over 50 of us were packed into a single rail car. A big parasha without a lid stood in the middle of the wagon. The air was stifling and unbearably hot. The metal roof intensified the heat. Our only source of ventilation was a small narrow window near the roof, covered by bars.
Packed into a small space, prisoners sat side by side on a raised platform or on the floor below. It was unbelievably crowded with no room to stretch our legs. At night we took turns lying down. Our food ration was a piece of bread and a dreadfully smelly little smoked fish packed in grease, called komsa in Russian (a fish no larger than a sardine) that was meant to last us an entire day. Twice a day we were given water. We did not know if we should drink the water or use it to wash ourselves to cool down.
Often Germans bombed our train. When under attack, guards stopped the train and ran for cover in the open countryside. Of course, we were forced to stay in our rail car. We did not know if we could survive this journey. Oddly, we did not care.
Many people were overwhelmed by the heat inside the rail car and fainted. Others could not withstand the physical ordeal and died. The train stopped periodically, long enough for the guards to throw out dead bodies in a ditch along the way. As we moved further east away from the border, fewer German planes attacked us.
We travelled in such a way for about a month until we reached a river port where we were transferred to a barge. The trip on the barge lasted several days and felt like heaven in comparison to the journey by rail. Our living conditions improved dramatically since we lived in the open air and were fed delicious hot soup. The journey was short-lived, however, as we soon reached our final destination, Tobolsk, located in the western Siberian lowlands at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers. Tobolsk was noted as one of Russia’s principal forced labor camps.
When we arrived at the dock, guards unloaded us. We emerged extremely weak from the lack of proper nutrition and from being confined for so long. The men looked particularly pitiful; their belts and shoelaces had been taken away so they held onto their pants by their waistbands and shuffled their feet as they walked. Their unshaven heads and faces were covered with long hair.
While standing in formation, we were told to head into the town of Tobolsk. Although our walk probably lasted an hour, it seemed like an eternity. In our weakened condition, walking up the hill from the barge felt like we were climbing a mountain. The little bundles we each carried, containing our personal belongings, seemed to weigh a ton. Those who were stronger helped the weaker ones as much as they could. I remember town folk standing along the road watching us struggle past them in a steady column.
The prison in Tobolsk was warm and sunny. It had wooden floors and barred windows. We slept on the floor and were no longer interrogated. Prison guards were more lax, as many were being diverted to the front line to defend Russia against Germany’s invasion. With an improved sense of freedom, the level of correspondence between cells intensified. We tapped messages to one another through the walls using Morse code as frequently as we could.
After Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the Polish supreme commander and prime minister in exile, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, signed a treaty on August 17, 1941, with Ivan Majski, the Soviet ambassador to London, renewing Polish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Under the Sikorski-Majski Agreement, Stalin agreed to declare all previous pacts with Nazi Germany null and void, thus invalidating the September 1939 Soviet-German partition of Poland and releasing tens of thousands of Polish prisoners held in Soviet camps.
Realizing that soon we would be able to leave, my friend, Maryla Goralska, and I started to make plans for life beyond prison walls. Since authorities were releasing us by alphabetical order, Maryla agreed to meet me at the front of the prison the day of my release. She asked me what I would like to eat when I got out. I told her that I wanted a big bowl of boiled potatoes. When authorities called the letter “G”, Maryla prepared to leave. Since my name ended in “H”, I knew I would soon follow. We said goodbye, promising to see each other in a few days.
Turnips for Breakfast
I was quite a sight when I walked out of prison on September 2, 1941. Malnourished and weak, I left wearing a coat, dress and a pair of slippers that someone had given me. Maryla was waiting for me. I was so excited to see her.
She had found a place for us to stay with two Polish ladies who had been deported to the Soviet Union after their husbands were arrested. They were renting two rooms from a farmer who left his wife behind to manage the farm while he fought in the war. They would allow us to sleep on the floor, but we had to provide our own meals. As I entered our new lodging, to my sheer delight I found a big bowl of cooked potatoes on the table waiting for me. Maryla had kept her promise!
To survive the coming winter, we needed to find work. The prospect of finding a job in the middle of the war in a remote Siberian town, however, was not very promising, even for local people. After the amnesty agreement was signed, deportees were no longer forced to work on farms. Most remained in Tobolsk since they did not have the means to return to Poland, which was still at war with Germany. At the local market, we often met people of Polish descent who had been deported as early as the First World War and continued to live in Tobolsk.
The cold weather was beginning to settle in and I desperately needed warmer clothes. I made myself a pair of shoes by sewing together several pieces of a blanket cut to the shape of my foot. One of the ladies with whom we were living gave me a coat with a fur collar.
After my short-lived job at the local shipyard ended, I was lucky to find another job shortly after at a communal farm where I sorted potatoes in the underground storage area of a warehouse. A constant fire kept us warm and allowed us to bake potatoes throughout the day to quell our constant hunger. My only regret was that I was not able to take potatoes home to my friend Maryla.
Not knowing if our jobs would last the winter, we decided to stock up on as much food as possible while we had the means. When we had some money to spare, we bought an extra loaf of bread which we cut into slices and air dried.
I usually left for work in the mornings while it was still dark. Snow was already on the ground and it was bitterly cold. Along the way I passed fields with cabbages and turnips that had not been harvested in time for winter. I used to pull them out of the ground and eat them for breakfast.
Soon, we were again without jobs or hope for finding additional work. Without the ability to buy food, we resorted to eating our supply of dried bread which we soaked in hot water. The starchy soup filled our stomachs and sustained us through the remaining winter months.
Around Christmas, we heard rumors that General Wladyslaw Anders was forming a Polish Army in south Russia. Polish citizens released from camps and prisons in the Soviet Gulag under the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement were being allowed to join the Polish 2nd Corps know as the Drugi Korpus Wojska Polskiego.
Although we couldn’t believe what we were hearing, a Polish army officer passing through Tobolsk in search of his deported family confirmed the rumors. He said that people were arriving by the thousands at the recruitment camp in Kermine, in Uzbekistan. As long as people were able to walk or stand on their feet, he said they were being allowed to join the army.
Realizing we could not survive another winter in Siberia, Maryla and I decided to leave for Kermine as soon as possible. Tobolsk was located a long distance from the closest railway station and the only transport out of town was an open lorry for a fee. Since we didn’t have any money, I decided to sell my coat and Maryla her sweater. With the money, we were able to pay for transport and buy some food for our journey.
You Must Be Hungry!
At the beginning of February 1942, we were ready to start our journey out of Siberia on the back of an open lorry. In a day’s time, we arrived at the railway station which was most likely in Tyumen, about 200 kilometres from Tobolsk. At the station, we met many other Poles arriving from different parts of the Soviet Union, who like us, were hoping to reach Kermine. It was comforting to share their hopefulness. Fifteen of us joined together for the next leg of the journey. We camped inside a rail car that headed south toward Kermine. This was our home for the next month, where we ate and slept.
By the time we reached Kermine, Maryla and I had run out of money and food. We were disappointed to learn that the Army had temporarily halted registration. Feeling desperate in a town filled with refugees who were in a similar situation, we inquired about a safe place for shelter. We were told to seek the army priest, Father Krol. When he greeted us, he said, “You must be hungry!” Looking bedraggled and feeling weak after not eating for the past several days, he treated us to a very generous breakfast. We were shocked by the sight of a table filled with bread, butter, jam, farmer’s cheese, coffee, milk and sugar. I will never forget this meal as long as I live.
Father Krol advised us to seek work at the laundry of the local hospital while waiting for registration to resume. We were glad to seek work, but did not realize how difficult the job would be. At the time, an epidemic of typhus and dysentery was sweeping through the camps. People who survived typhus were susceptible to dysentery because they were so malnourished. This combination was deadly. Maryla and I worked all day washing by hand clothing and bedding soiled by human waste and blood. When we arrived at the hospital in the morning, we often found 10 to 15 bodies laying in front of the hospital ready for burial. Polish men, women and children who died during the epidemic are buried in a large cemetery in Kermine.
On March 13, 1942, we joined General Anders’ Polish 2nd Corps along with other deportees and former prisoners who made the long journey to Kermine. The army furnished us with uniforms, shoes, blankets, beds, meals and a small paycheck. Although our income was meager, we felt we had everything we needed plus three meals a day. At this point, our lives started changing for the better. Now we were living in barracks with other women and started to look forward to being evacuated.
I was never very strong as a child, as I often suffered from colds and pneumonia. The cumulative effect of 14 months in prison and an additional six months in Siberia after my release was beginning to take a toll on my health. I knew that to survive, I would have to leave the Soviet Union very soon.
We were transported from Kermine to the port of Krasnowodsk (now Turkmenbashy in Turkmenistan) on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. From there, we departed by ship to Pahlevi, Persia (now Bandar-e Anzali in Iran). To relieve the strain on the reception camps in Kermine, as well as those in other locations, Stalin allowed the evacuation of a fraction of Polish forces to Persia. The evacuation of only 115,000 people, mostly recruits, took place largely by sea from Krasnowodsk to Pahlevi in two phases, between March 24 to April 5 and August 10 to 30. I was lucky to be included in the first phase.
The sight of our fellow passengers was distressing. Some could hardly walk after their illness. Every effort was made by the Polish Army to evacuate as many people as possible, as long as they could reach the ship for the overnight voyage. Many were still ill with dysentery.
Arriving in Pahlevi was a happy event. It was warm, beautiful and right on the beach. All passengers were taken through a processing tent for verification, and then to another tent where we were told to strip off our clothes, leave behind all of our belongings and to step into a disinfecting shower. In the next tent, we were issued tropical uniforms and cork helmets. One of the first things we did after being processed was explore the beach where we could buy fresh oranges and grapes. I felt like I was in heaven.
After resting a few days, we received orders that the Polish 7th Infantry Division, to which I had been assigned, would be transported to Naft Khanaquin, located in the desert in the Kurdish area of Iraq near the Iranian border. Because of my weak condition, I was left behind in Pahlevi with a few other women to rest and regain strength. I missed my friends and was glad to reconnect with them in a few weeks after my health improved.
Once in Naft Khanaquin, I worked in the office of the Commander of the Polish 7th Infantry, Colonel Okulicki, who had also been released from Soviet prison in 1941 under the Sikorski-Mayski amnesty agreement. Toward the end of the war, he became the last commander of the Polish Home Army inside Poland and eventually oversaw its disbandment at the war’s end. In the months following the Yalta Conference in 1945, when Roosevelt and Churchill turned Poland over to Stalin, the Soviets invited Okulicki and other Polish leaders to the Soviet Union to discuss Poland’s transition. Distrusted because of abiding loyalties to the Polish government-in-exile, in an apparent setup, he and others in the delegation were arrested and accused of sabotage and anti-Soviet activities after arriving in the Soviet Union. He was tried and sentenced to prison in Moscow where sadly he died on December 24, 1945.
Life in the desert was different from what I had become accustomed to in Siberia. The temperatures were hot during the day and cool at night. In the morning, we received a ration of bread, cheese, jam, tea, dates and six cigarettes. Since I did not smoke, I regularly traded my cigarettes for a bushel of oranges.
Because of the heat, our days started early. We worked from 7 to 11 in the morning, took a long break during the hottest time of the day and returned to work until 7 or 8 in the evening. During the break, we often went to soak in the river or covered ourselves with a wet sheet to stay cool inside our tents. At night, we covered our cots with mosquito nets to keep out insects and spiders. Before putting on our shoes in the morning, we carefully checked for lingering scorpions.
In September 1943, our entire division was moved to Rehovot, Palestine (now in Israel located between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank). While we continued to be housed in tents, we found the living conditions far more pleasant. There was more vegetation, such as oleanders, and the temperature was cooler. Since we were close to Tel Aviv, we found it easy to get rides into town where we often met with Polish Jews who had emigrated from Poland.
In the fall of 1943, our division received orders to join fighting units in Italy. Women were given a choice: we could either stay in the army or join the air force in England. Along with many of my friends, I chose the air force because it sounded exciting. The air force contingent was transported to Egypt where we board a ship that took us through the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, and on to Scotland.
The seas were very rough and many passengers became sea sick. We slept in hammocks. Many of my friends were unable to get out of bed during the two week journey. The crew sounded many alarms during the trip after spotting German submarines. A military ship carrying women passengers ahead of us was struck by torpedoes. Most passengers who survived the attack were rescued at sea, but many were not so lucky. Fortunately, our ship arrived safely in Scotland.
We lived for a few months on the Scottish coast where we waited for the next basic course for recruits to begin in Winslow, England, about 40 miles northwest of London. During this time I studied English, toured the beautiful countryside and surrounding towns. At the air force base in Winslow, we were assigned to live in Quonset huts distinguished by their vaulted sheet metal roofs and vast spaces heated by centrally located stoves which warmed us during the night. Shortly after our arrival, we discarded our army greens for new air force uniforms.
The stiff leather shoes we were given were very uncomfortable, especially on our frequent long marches. To soften the leather, we put wet rags in our shoes overnight. The following morning we removed the rags and slipped on our wet shoes. After a few days our shoes fit like gloves.
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) basic training finished in May 17, 1944, at which time we were assigned to different Royal Air Force (RAF) stations according to our professional training. On January 2, 1945, I reported to Wing Commander (W/C) Rolski, the Air Force assistant to the chief of staff of the Polish armed forces headquartered at the Hotel Rubens in London. Although my new job was very exciting, I dreaded the daily task of gathering names of pilots who failed to return from their missions. I always searched for a name I might recognize.
The WAAFs lived together in dormitory style buildings. At night we sought cover in one of the city’s many bomb shelters. Before leaving for the shelters, we put our coats on over our pajamas and took a blanket. We got so used to the routine and noise in our underground bunkers that we were able to sleep through many of Germany’s bombing campaigns.
I was eventually promoted to corporal and transferred to the statistics department at the Polish Headquarters in London. In April 1945, I was told that I had been recommended for the Officer Cadets Training Unit (OCTU). Although the war ended in May 1945, I continued to work with the WAAF.
The OCTU was located in a beautiful setting in an old hotel on Lake Windermere. White bands on our hats denoted our new status as officer cadets. I received my officers Commission on August 8, 1945. After graduation, I reported to Newton RAF station in Nottinghamshire. Before departing for our newly assigned stations, we completed an additional two months of training at the Vivian of Hereford RAF School of Administration and Accountancy. I attended sessions in the morning and afternoon and studied hard to pass exams. We enjoyed our change in status---now soldiers were saluting us first!
Tea and Cheese on Toast
The station at Newton was under the command of W/C Barclaugh and his Polish counterpart W/C Zdzislaw Krasnodembski, who I met in London when I worked for W/C Rolski. I was quartered in a two story house with other WAAF officers. I worked as an assistant to Stefa Zacharewicz who was the Polish counterpart to the British commanding officer of airwomen at Newton. My job was to maintain personnel files of all Polish airwomen, respond to complaints, solve personnel issues, and to inspect barracks.
While attending to my paperwork, I was very pleasantly surprised by a visit of two dashing Polish officers wearing battle dress, white scarves wrapped around their necks (a custom of all pilots), and caps tilted to one side and off their foreheads. After they introduced themselves, I learned that the one who caught my eye was named Roman Wal. He told me that he had just been repatriated from Germany where he was a prisoner of war after his Spitfire was shot down over Holland while on a mission with his RAF flight squadron. He was based at our satellite station in Hucknall.
After I introduced myself as Roma Hanytkiewicz, I could see that he was pleasantly surprised to learn that our names were so similar. It seemed that our attraction was mutual. We often met at the officer’s mess for tea and cheese on toast after work. We traveled frequently on our days off around Nottinghamshire. We enjoyed these trips very much and talked endlessly.
I told him about my imprisonment in the Soviet Union and how I was worried about my family. I was eventually able to make contact with my family in Poland through an aunt who lived in Chicago. From them, I learned of my brother, Zygmunt’s fate. As a member of the AK, he took part in the defense of Warsaw. He survived injuries, but eventually was arrested and imprisoned in the notorious Pawiak prison in Warsaw where he was tortured and died. To this day, however, we do not know the exact circumstances of his death since information about his last days is scant. Roman was very sympathetic to my situation, especially since he lost his parents and most of his siblings before and during the war. By the end of the war, he and his older brother in Poland, Wladek, were the only siblings out of seven who survived.
A Light Grey Suit and Hat to Match
It quickly became obvious to our friends that Roman and I were very much in love. We were married on June 29, 1946, in London. I was 27 years old. Roman looked handsome in his uniform and I wore a striped, light grey suit and matching hat. After a short honeymoon, we returned to our station in Newton and eventually transferred together to Melton Mowbray where Roman took a job with the National Assistance Board, a government entity which assisted Polish refugees to resettle to civilian life. I resigned my commission with the WAAF on November 23, 1947.
The following year, our only child, Danuta, was born. We lived happily in Amersham about an hour’s drive from London. However, life in England after the war was very difficult. Food shortages forced rationing and we knew that Roman’s job would eventually end. With few options remaining, we decided to leave England for Canada, as did many of our friends.
We packed our belongings in two wicker trunks, a few duffle bags and departed from Liverpool on the Cunard Line RMS Franconia on July 19, 1951. We arrived in Quebec a week later where we boarded a train for Toronto. With the help of a network of Poles in Toronto who preceded us, we were able to find a small apartment. Roman found a job with DeHaviland Aircraft Company and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a reserve officer. I worked at the McCloud Publishing Company.
After seven years in Canada, the Boeing Company based in Seattle offered Roman a job. Although initially hesitant about moving so far away, a sense of adventure overcame any qualms and we prepared to move once again. In 1958, we shipped our belongings to Seattle and travelled across country by car.
We eventually settled down in the town of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, since it was closest to the Boeing plant in Renton where Roman worked as an engineer. I found a job with King County Library headquarters in Seattle from which I retired in 1979. Roman retired shortly after. During our retirement, we enjoyed travelling throughout the western region of the United States, visiting many national parks and our beloved vacation spot in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
Roman passed away in 1998. Romana died on September 22 in Issaquah, WA. She was 93. She is survived by her daughter Danuta Lockett, son-in-law Brian Lockett and grandchildren Alexandra and Peter Lockett.
Copyright: Wal family