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Polish 2nd Corps + Parachute Brigade

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west, and Russia invaded from the east two weeks later. Life changed completely under Russian occupation.  Then Stalin put into action his plan to ethnically cleanse the eastern borderlands of Poland - he ordered the deportation of an estimated 1.7 million Poles to Siberia.

Early in 1940, Russian soldiers had come in the middle of the night and whisked his father out of Poland. Then, on 10 February 1940, Stanislaw and his family were forced at gunpoint from their home in northeastern Poland and taken by cattle train to a labour camp in Siberia. 

Stanislaw Rybczynski had to think fast.  The Russian soldiers said he and his family had just one hour to pack and be ready to leave for the train station. He collected some warm clothes and food. He grabbed a 1940 pocket calendar and a pen. He did not know where his family was being taken, but he intended to write down everything in the tiny calendar.

It was a particularly brutal winter, with temperatures dipping into the minus 40s Celsius, so the conditions in the unheated cattle cars were beyond belief. He hoped they were being taken to the same place that troops had taken his father weeks earlier.

Born in 1922, Stanislaw was 18 years old when these events occurred.  Stanislaw is now 83 and his hands shakes when he turns the yellowing pages of that calendar now, reading the entries he scribbled as a teenager on a cattle train. The calendar tells a tale that even he finds hard to believe. It chronicles the thousands of kilometers he travelled, the inhuman conditions he endured, and his desperate search for his lost father and brother.

Shortly after the Siberia-bound train rolled out of his hometown of Lwow, his brother had leapt out of an opening in the side of the cattle car. For all he knew, the escape attempt had killed him.

The pocket calendar chronicles the train’s month-long journey deeper and deeper into frozen nowhere. When the train finally reached a labour camp, he was put to work shoveling dried sheep dung that was used for fire fuel. Everyone was hungry. Stanislaw and many others developed scurvy.

Many people died of starvation and disease, and their corpses were piled without ceremony on the outskirts of the camp. For nearly two years, the teenager endured slave labour, starvation, scurvy and frostbite. Even now, Stanislaw finds it hard to believe how horribly people were treated.

In June 1941, Germany invaded Russian-held territories. So, Russia, which had been Germany’s ally, now became its foe.  The Polish government-in-exile negotiated an ‘amnesty’ for the Poles, so that they were freed from the camps. The men were allowed to join the Polish army that was being formed in the southern USSR to fight the Germans. Stanislaw and his mother were on the first transport out of that “hell on earth”.

Stanislaw heard that his father had been seen in Uzbekistan.  A gruelling train journey carried him and his mother to a “God-forsaken place called Urgench,” where they scoured the town looking for any sign of his father.

And his father was there.  After two years of hoping and praying, the family reunited in a long bear hug. But their reunion was incomplete. He recalls that his father asked where my brother was, and they could not answer. His brother could be anywhere, or dead.

The best way to find out was to meet up with the Polish army and enlist. As a soldier he would be privy to information about displaced Poles. Besides, he had been taught as a child that it is noble to shed blood for your country, so he was eager to fight for Poland.

When the army reached Teheran in Persia (Iran), he was made interpreter for a high-ranking officer, since he spoke English competently. He wanted to see action, but was considered more valuable as an interpreter. After a 10-month placement in Baghdad, he signed up for the paratrooper division of the army.

A line drawn map that now hangs in his Waterloo condo traces his subsequent journey. The line loops from Iran to India, then thousands of kilometers of Africa’s east coast, , around South Africa, up to Sierra Leon, and finally to Glasgow, Scotland.

That’s where Stanislaw did eight training jumps with a parachute straped to his back. And it is where he reunited with his brother. He had seen a notice that his brother, then a soldier stationed in England, placed in a newspaper, asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of his family. Stanislaw replied, and the brothers joyfully met in Glasgow.

When the war was over, the brothers paid for their parents to be brought to England. In 1948, eight years after they were town apart, the entire family was together again. They had been through a lot, but they had survived.

Memories like these are burned into the minds of the Poles who lived through the brutal Siberian deportations of 1940-1941.  Wherever they found new lives after WW2, the survivors bore both the physical and mental scars caused by abuse, starvation, and grief.

Many refused to talk about their ordeals in Siberia, fearing reprisal from the same Soviet System that had enslaved them. Others remained silent because they could not find words to convey the horrors.

But now, as the decades pass and the legacy of the deported Poles fades deeper into historical obscurity, more and more survivors are sharing their stories.

Those old enough to remember Siberia are now old. They want to tell the world what happened while they still can.  This is what Roman is trying to do.

Source:  KPF interview

Copyright: Rybczynski family

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