Jan Siomkajlo (son of Theodor and Wilhelmina Lubieniecka) and Michalina (née Karaś and related to the Świdzinski family) had eleven children - six daughters and two sons, plus three children who died in infancy.
They were one of very few Polish families who lived in the village of Sielec, near Jezupol, in what is now Ukraine. They moved there in about 1910, the year of the expensive purchase of 11.4 acres of land from Count Dzieduszycki’s estate. Their homestead, bordering the river Prut, was located about 15 kilometers from the provincial capital Stanislawów, and two kilometers from the regional capital Jezupol and, in honour of Michalina, they named it “Michalinówka”.
The province of Stanislawoów lay on the eastern edge of Poland. To the north-west it shared a border with the province of Lwów, to the north-east with the province of Tarnopol, and to the south-east and south-west with Czechoslowakia and Rumania (annexed by the USSR after the war, the city of Stanislawów became Ivano-Frankiwsk).
Although home to many nationalities (Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Ormanian) the city of Jezupol displayed the traditions of Catholicism. Two convents cultivated this tradition (the Dominikan brothers and the Marian sisters) as well as the Roman Catholic Church. However, the village of Sielec was populated almost exclusively by Ukrainians - they had a Greek Orthodox church and priest.
In the Sielec grade school (with the seventh grade being in Jezupol) and in the Stanislawów high school, lessons were given in Polish, but students were also obliged to learn Ukainian. Polish children had to study Ukrainian and Ukrainian children had to study Polish. Both sides accepted such a state of affairs, but not without some reticence.
Before moving to this village, Jan had worked in Boryslaw as a mechanic in the oil refineries, thereby making a decent living. Before becoming a landowner, their first children were born in Boryslaw. By the time Stasia, the youngest, was born, her mother approached the 50th year of her life. The age difference with her siblings was also considerable – Jozef was 25 years older, Aniela 21 years older.
In Sielec, the younger children went to school, while the older ones helped on the farm. They were prepared for a challenging and difficult life.
After the hardships of the day, the family gathered in the kitchen to revive their spirit through reading, and games such as chess. At certain times of the year, in the fruit-filled and honey-filled orchard, or by the banks of the river, they enjoyed the magic Sielec evenings. Their musically-inclined father played the violin. The children were blessed with a good ear and strong voices. Tadeusz sang in the church choir in Jezupol. Stasia was most enthralled by cats – she gathered strays from the surrounding area and set up a cat hospital (many years later, her niece Krystyna, in Canada, would do the same).
The family did not have riches, but they were self-sufficient. Their father was a mechanic by trade, but he chose to live the life of a farmer. He learned his trade very well, and his crops became better from year to year. He became renowned in the area – Ukrainians came to him for advice on various agricultural matters. Both he and his son Jozef were sought out to repair shoes & boots. Jan was elected president of the Catholic Action of Jezupol.
On September 1st, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland from the west, and on the 17th the Russians invaded from the east. It is hot in the skies. German planes fly low, shooting up the surrounding area. Bombs fall near the train station. Many are injured.
After a family conference, 22-year-old Tadeusz and 25-year-old Eugenia leave home, to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. They made their way (on foot) to the Hungarian border and beyond – to join the Polish Armed Forces.
Nothing foretold of the coming deportation – no authority figure visited the family prior to the event. Yet overnight from Saturday to Sunday - during the night of the 10 February 1940 – the fateful moment arrived. At 2:30 in the morning, two sleighs arrived in front of their house, filled with armed NKWD members in blue hats, and Ukrainian members of the city militia (with gold and blue stripes on their sleeves). Banging on the door, they told them to dress and pack quickly - they were to be ready to leave within the hour. They were assured that they would be given all that they would need at their destination, so they did not need to take much with them. Nevertheless, the family raided the storage bins and gathered as much food as possible before getting into the sleighs.
In their rush to get ready, each family member donned several outfits and filled the trunks with the most necessary items. Aside from what they managed to carry, they had to leave the rest behind. They had to say goodbye to the house, the animals, the farm implements - they said their goodbyes silently, and quietly within themselves.
At the Jezupol train station, a cargo train waited for people coming from various outlying areas. In -40C temperatures, people were packed like sardines in a barrel, and the cattle cars were kept on a siding throughout the entire next day. The train departed for unknown parts only on the Monday. “They are taking us to Siberia” their father cried, and their self control finally cracked.
In the gritty melody of steel on steel, the biggest luxury was to have some room on a wooden bunk. There were very few of these and they were occupied by those who were first to enter the wagons. The remainder, including this family, sat where they could – in corners and along walls. The holes bored in the floor at opposite corners of the wagon had very different usage – one was used as a toilet, whereas a stove, used both to heat the wagon and to heat food, was placed in the other hole.
Keeping nine members of the family fed was no easy feat. After several days, they had nothing left to cook. The victuals they had taken from home, regardless how they tried to ration them, soon ran out. They did not have enough water. They occasionally were able to get some from a pump at some station along the way, but most of the time they got it from gathering snow along the side of the track. Several times, they were given something resembling cabbage soup in a pail, in which they were able to count the cabbage leaves and the pieces of moulded bread.
From what they managed to take from home there remained only a few potatoes and even these had managed to freeze. Aniela would slice these and cook them on the stove. They had a sweet taste, as is the case with frozen potatoes. To the family and to the neighbours who no longer had any food left, these tasted like the tastiest of menus. From hour to hour, their stomachs shrank ever smaller, and they all became dirtier and colder.
Closed in by wooden boards, time moved slowly. There were no windows, so the passing towns and scenery could only be observed through the narrow slats of space between the boards, by those who occupied the bunks along the walls.
The passengers were slowly let off at various camps in the woods and things became looser within the wagons.
In Chelyabinsk, they divided the transport. Most of the baggage was put into a single car – among other things the family’s two trunks filled with necessities from home, the sewing machine, and the bags of foodstuffs taken from the storage bins – these left for a different destination and disappeared. Luckily, the family were eventually reunited with their sewing machine and a few other items. This miserable trip lasted for a full 20 days.
When they disembarked, they were in the northern regions of Kazakhstan, on the very border of Siberia – a place called Dźetigara. They lived in little more than a hut, and Aniela, Joanna, and Julia, worked in primitive conditions, shovelling stones in a gold mine. Jozef and his wife Michalina also worked in the gold mine and lived in an adjoining hut. Amalia and their parents were too ill to work, and Stasia was too young, so she stood in lines waiting to get bread for the family.
They were given no medical aid, no clothing, or supplies, and only a very meagre bread allotment. This was based on whether they met their quotas in the mines. They had to work for 12 hours a day, with only hand tools to assist them, and they were not even made to clear the mine when explosives were set off. The rocks rained down on them whenever this happened, and many were buried alive.
Their mother died in Dźetigara in March 1941 - her heart failed from continued malnutrition - and was buried in the municipal cemetery.
In late 1941, the family learned of the ‘amnesty’ that was granted to the Polish deportees, and they slowly made their way south to join the Polish Army that was being formed in the southern USSR.
This trip, by train and on foot, took nearly 3 months. When they reached the place in Uzbekistan where the Polish Army was, they were assigned to a collective farm where they had to pick cotton. They soon became ill with typhoid. Their father died in January 1942, and their sister Amalia died in February 1942. The family had to bury them in a field near the hut where they were living.
In August 1942, the remaining family members were evacuated to Persia (Iran) with the Polish Army, but Jozef died of typhoid in a field hospital within 2 weeks of arriving in Teheran - his grave has never been found. After some months in various parts of Persia, Jozef’s wife (Michalina) and the 4 surviving sisters (Aniela, Joanna, Julia, and Stanislawa) were sent to the Kidugala settlement in Tanganyika (Tanzania) to recover from their ordeals.
From February 1940 to October 1942, the family had covered a distance of 20,000 kilometers!
In late 1943, Joanna and Julia volunteered to join the Polish Air Force in the UK, and boarded a ship called "Neu Amsterdam" bound for England. This was at a time when ships were regularly sunk by German torpedoes!
Aniela and Stasia stayed in Kidugala for another 2 years, before joining the Holy Family of Nazareth convent in Rongai and becoming Sister Klemensa and Sister Alice, respectively. Sister Klemensa spent some time in England and France, before moving to the mother-house in Rome, Italy, where she died in 1987.
Sister Alice worked in the community in Salaumines, in Northern France, and moved to the mother-house in Paris when she retired. She was renowned for her beautiful soprano voice, and her talent at playing the organ. She was also very artistic and created many items (paintings, embroidery, various artefacts) that were then sold to raise money for the poor. She died in 2020.
Jozef’s wife, Michalina (nee Kudlowska), stayed in Kidugala until it closed, then moved to the settlement in Tengeru. Her whereabouts are not known beyond the year 1950. Due to her fragile mental state, it is believed that she spent the rest of her life in a mental institution somewhere in Africa.
Meanwhile, Joanna and Julia served in the Women’s Auxiliary (W.A.A.F.) of the Polish Air Force in the UK, working in aircraft maintenance in Sealand, Hucknall and Redkar, until 1946. They were able to reunite with their brother Tadeusz who had escaped Hungary and joined the Polish 1st Armoured Division.
Tadeusz had escaped internment in Hungary and had made his way to France to join the Polish army. When France fell to the Germans, he was evacuated to the UK with the army. He fought in the European Campaign with the Polish 1st Armoured Division, then spent 2 years in Meppen, Germany as part of the Occupation Forces. He returned to the UK in 1947.
Tadeusz married Barbara Lynch, and they had a daughter, Veronica. They had some extremely difficult years but weathered all the bad times as a closely-knit family group. They had the pleasure of welcoming Ted’s sisters into their home on numerous visits over the years, and travelled to Italy, France, Hungary, Canada, and the US, to visit them. They lived in the London area for some years, and then moved back to Salisbury. Tadeusz died in 1995.
Eugenia (Genia) had remained in Hungary, and had joined the community of the Little Servitar Sisters. Throughout the communist years, she lived in the community, hiding the fact that she was a nun. Eugenia had a talent for carving, and she studied the art for some years, before abandoning her studies due to her refusal to carve a bust of Stalin. She worked in a hospital and tended a large vegetable garden in her spare time. She only managed to live overtly as a nun in the last years of her life and died at the convent in Budapest in 1999.
Joanna lived in London after the war, and worked as a seamstress, before deciding to join the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception community and began her novitiate in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, USA, as Sister Dolores. She wanted to be a missionary, so she returned to Africa, where she worked in a clinic and taught sewing to women in the village over the course of 10 years. In 1966, Sister Dolores returned to the US and lived at the St. Joseph's convent in Woodbridge, N.J. She served as a visiting nurse and sewed for the sisters in the convent. At St. Mary's Catholic Home in Cherry Hill, Sister Dolores was a nurse and caretaker of the chapel. She was known for her soprano singing voice and the jokes she had ready for almost any occasion. She retired in 1998 after developing severe diabetes and died in 2006.
After the war, Julia married Tadeusz’s best friend, Michal Szypowski. Their son Zdzislaw Tadeusz was born in Slough, and they moved to Montreal, Canada when he was 4 months old. Their daughter Krystyna was born in Montreal, and the family lived there until 1971, when Michal and Julia moved to Kingston, Ontario. Over the years, Julia had worked outside the home briefly, but for the most part, she devoted herself to raising her children, as well as babysitting several friends’ children. Michal worked in construction, and did many odd jobs for family, friends, and neighbours. Their home was a haven for many new Polish-Canadians over the years, and large weekend parties were a frequent occurrence.
In the end, Julia suffered from Alzheimer's and while she steadily forgot the more recent moments of her life, the horrible memories of the past came flooding back. Therefore, in her last years, she suffered once more the pain and indignity of life as a slave labourer in the USSR, and she re-lived the deaths of her parents and siblings in those inhuman conditions. Michal and Julia died six weeks apart, in 2007.
Summary of the family members:
Jan (born 1876 in Boryslaw, died 1942 in Kitab USSR - age 66)
Michalina (born 1881 in Stanislawow, died 1941 in Dzetygara USSR - age 60)
Jozef (born 1903 in Boryslaw, died 1942 in Teheran, Persia - age 39)
Michalina Kudlowska-Siomkajlo (born 1909 in Jezupol, died 1970s in East Africa
Aniela (born 1906 in Boryslaw, died 1987 in Italy- age 80)
Amalia (born 1909 in Boryslaw, died 1942 in Kitab USSR - age 32)
Eugenia (born 1912 in Sielec, died 1999 in Hungary - age 87)
Tadeusz (born 1918 in Kalusz, died in 1995 in England - age 77)
Joanna (born 1921 in Sielec, died in the USA in 2006 - age 85)
Julia (born 1922 in Sielec, died in 2007 in Canada - age 85)
Stanislawa (born 1927 in Sielec, died 2020 in France - age 93)
See also Szypowski Memoir and Photo Collection