Stefan OLBRECHT

Cadet and Polish 2nd Corps

 

Translation of an interview conducted by Prof. Patalas

in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1989

 

I was born on November 27, 1926 in the village of Sobiesko, near Podhajece. My family comes from the Lviv voivodeship, near Jarosław and Przeworsk. I have already lost my Lviv accent. My friends often laughed at me when I was in Cadet in Russia. I remember that at our house we often used to say "ta joj".

 

I finished five grades of elementary school in Podhajece in the Jan III Sobieski school. We didn't have a high school, so we had to go to Brzeżany. The correct spelling of my surname is "Olbrycht". People had trouble pronouncing the name and used various forms such as Olbracht, Olbricht or Olbrecht. My name was changed to "Olbrecht" after I came to Palestine and I have kept that spelling since then. After coming to Canada, I had no original documents to change the name to its original form and it was left like that with the wrong letter in the middle.

 

I remember the beginning of World War II well. In the school, in the period preceding the outbreak of the war, much was said about it.  We sewed gas masks, collected scrap metal for war purposes, and collected money to rearm the army. The outbreak of the war was a great shock for us children. We eagerly listened to my father's stories from World War I, when he served in the Austrian army in artillery. A few days after the outbreak of the war, refugees from Silesia came to us. Their kids made fun of our accent, telling us we sing, not speak. Some of their expressions were similar to those of my mother who came from somewhere in the vicinity of Silesia. We enjoyed playing with these Silesian children.

 

My first encounter with the war was the appearance of Soviet cavalry in our village. Mother took us all home and forbade us to go to the street. We peeked through the gaps in the  windows, because it was a sensation for us. They were called "Circassians". This name was remembered from the First World War. Their caps were pointed. Their uniforms were torn, their weapons tied with strings. Each soldier was dressed differently, not the way we usually imagined the army. The tattered coats looked the worst. Horses emaciated, infected with glanders. They took good horses from us and left us the wasted ones. I remember that with the boys we caught the horses left by the Russians, they had runny noses, and were not shod. Tanks came behind the cavalry.

 

The first administration under the Russians was taken over by Ukrainians and Jews. We started going to school again. Classes were now co-ducational. In the Polish school, we had separate classes for boys and girls. We began to learn Ukrainian and German. There was a lot of trouble with the Ukrainians. They attacked us. Already on the first night after the Russians arrived, the Ukrainians from the neighboring village were preparing an attack on our village. Our village was Polish with settlers from other parts of Poland. There were large estates of the "landowners" around. As I remember, we traveled through forests belonging to the Poniatowski family. Some of these estates were divided into small farms.

 

My father came here from Rączyno near Jarosław and for all the money he had saved, he bought 14 hectares of land. There were some settlers in our village who bought larger plots of land with money earned in America. They usually had better farms, because they used the experience gained in emigration.

 

Before the war I finished 5 years of elementary school. Then the Ukrainian school started, but we didn't go to it for long. We stopped going to school when it became unsafe due to Ukrainian attacks. There were more of them, they threw stones at us and beat us. Our local authorities sought protection from the Ukrainians from the Russians, who gave us 4 rifles and a certain amount of ammunition. Two guards were organized from each end of the village. Armed with these rifles, they tried to defend the village against the threatening attacks from the Ukrainian side. Mother prepared small packages with clothes, underwear and provisions in order to be prepared to escape in the event of an attack. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that the people with whom we lived together wanted to destroy us now.

 

During the first winter of war, rumors spread that they would take us to the West. Before Christmas, our rifles were taken from us, and there were rumors that they would be driving us away.

 

On Saturday, February 10, 1940, the Russian and Ukrainian militia appeared, with an order that we are to leave immediately. We took what we could on a sleigh and drove us to the train station 3 km from Podhajece. They loaded us into the cattle wagons, and screwed the doors shut. We sat in that crowded car for 3 days before the train set off for an unknown destination. At the border, we were reloaded onto wide tracks.

 

In the center of the wagons there was a hole cut in the floor, which served as a lavatory. There were 28 people in the car, 10 people from our family, the married couple Mroziak, and my sister Bugak with two children. The wagons were ready when we were loaded into them. There were primitive bunks at either end. We were embarrassed to deal with our physiological needs in the middle of the car in front of everyone else. Girls covered one another with sheets. The boys pitted themselves through the door. We tried to take care of "fat" needs at night when everyone was asleep. My sister's children did not go to the toilet for three days because they were very embarrassed. No food was given to us. Everyone had as much as they took from home. Soon there was no bread, because it was customary to bake bread on Sundays, and we were taken away on Saturday, when the baking had just begun. We baked pancakes with the flour we had taken from home on the makeshift stove made of sheet metal. From time to time they let us fetch water at the stations where the train stopped. After a week we got to Jurla in the Omsk SSR in the Urals.

 

We were loaded onto trucks and drove three days in a truck contaminated with oil. The smell of oil combined with the potholes in the road made us constantly vomit. I don't know how we managed to survive this terrible journey. We spent the night at a school and were loaded onto a sled the next day. After three days, we arrived at our destination. Our entire trip took about two weeks. We found another group of Poles there, who had arrived a week earlier and had already started working.

 

They put us in barracks prepared for workers, lumberjacks. There were bunks in the barracks. The Bierozka river, to which we floated the tree, was nearby. The Bierozka flowed into the Kama River and then into Pechora. I was only thirteen at the time and I was not forced to work because I was small in height and physically incapable of working that hard. We didn't have appropriate clothes or boots. In the labour camp where we lived, the commandant was an NKVD man. Nobody even thought about escaping, we were so far away from anywhere. Escape would be remarked  immediately, because attendance was checked every day before going to work. In winter, the trees was cut and stacked on the river bank, and in the spring, when the ice was still standing, the trees were floated. Life was very hard. Massive mosquitoes bitten us mercilessly. We scratched, which caused infections, and our bodies were covered with scabs.

 

For each working person, you got 2 kg of bread, and for a non-working family member, 1 kg. If you had any other food for it, it was enough, but living on bread alone was very difficult and you would go to sleep hungry. In addition, they paid small sums depending on the amount of tree cut. My sister earned less than a ruble a day, which was not enough for even the 2 kg of bread she was entitled to. It was difficult for women to work felling large trees, hence the low earnings.

We lived 8 km from the camp, in two barracks in the forest. Then they moved us to the camp where there was a bakery, a bathhouse where we could wash ourselves and steam. We slept in common barracks. In our barrack there were two stoves that were used for heating and cooking .

 

They forced us to listen to talks every month, during which the NKVD officer made us politically aware. He also urged us to accept Soviet citizenship. At our camp, we were not forced to accept citizenship, and none of our camp took advantage of the "benefits" of Soviet citizenship.

 

In 1940, arrests began among our people. Not everyone realized that you cannot be too open in expressing your opinions. In addition, several local Russians reported on the Poles. At the end of the year, four men were arrested. During the investigation, they had to confess to various "crimes". They received sentences ranging from 8 to 15 years. Six more were taken shortly thereafter. Larger barracks were built and two families lived in each barrack. There was a total of 10 people in our family. Only the older brother, who managed to escape during the deportation, was missing. The Łanuch family lived with us. Mr. Łanucha was arrested and sentenced to eight years in a penal camp. He had been given very high quotas for the production of boxes and it was difficult for him to make them. He suffered from hunger, because for non-compliance with the quota, his already low food rations were cut off.

 

My father and I worked on cutting birch discs which, after drying, were used as fuel for tractors. Apart from us, Belarusians were also deported to our camp. One of them confided to my father that he was a Belarusian priest. They were in much more difficult conditions than we were. After they were brought there, no barracks were waiting for them, they were just dropped off in the forest and told: "You will live here". Quite a few of them died, especially older people and children who could not stand the hardships. From them, my father learned about the impending war.

 

After the outbreak of the war between Germany and Russia, we were told that we were free, that we could go wherever we liked. We got the appropriate papers and decided to go to a kolkhoz about 45 kilometers away from our camp. We found a potato harvest. We were able to eat them at last. In the kolkhoz they cut our bread rations to one kilogram per working and half a kilogram per non-working. It was worse in the kolkhoz than at the camp. They fed us with groats, which was coarse-ground barley, together with chaff, which stuck mercilessly in our gums, causing bleeding. The collective farm was called "Jum". In the meantime, my father fell ill with the flu, and there was no doctor around. My brother bribed the wagon master for a truck, and we drove my father to a hospital in a nearby town.

 

The hospital staff asked how old my father was. We answered sixty. We heard: "throw the old man into the field, it will grow better." After such a greeting, my brother spent the night with our father and the next day he returned 50 km to the camp in a sleigh. There was no help anywhere and, after a week, our father died of exhaustion. For three days, they dug his grave in the frozen Siberian soil at a temperature of forty degrees below zero. You had to hit hard with a pick axe to break off a small lump of earth. For three days they managed to dig only a very shallow grave, barely covering a coffin made of several boards.

 

After my father died, we held a council for the rest of the family. I remember that meeting in the light of the stove in the evening. We didn't care whether we died in the kolkhoz or on the way. However, we decided that we must go. We had no food supplies. We decided to steal a bag of grain from the mill. We divided it into two smaller bags and hid them in a snowdrift. We stayed quiet for two weeks, so that they didn't detect us.

 

We explained that we exchanged grain for clothes brought from Poland. Mother made bread out of it. We bribed a person to take us by sleigh to the nearest town, two days away. There were buses from there. My sister accumulated a lot of tobacco from her rations. Tobacco proved to be a valuable trade for necessities. Thanks to the tobacco, we bribed the driver who allowed us to go on barrel wagons to the nearest train station. After three days we arrived in Tashkent. On the train we met Russians who had escaped from Stalingrad. They told us about the terrible conditions there. People were cannibals out of hunger. We arrived at Guzar to find out that the last shipment to Persia had already departed. There was nothing left but to wait for the next one.

 

Our mother died of exhaustion in a hospital in Kermine. Wew refugees lived in small tents and to be able to move around in them, we dug deeper holes in them. Heavy rains came, flooded the pits, everything got wet. Our weakened organism was attacked by infectious diseases. Our mother was in the hospital in Kermine for several days. I visited her there several times, until one time I saw an empty bed. My youngest sister, Kazia, also fell ill and had to stay in the local hospital. We couldn't find her. She probably died the same night we put her in the hospital. I and my younger brother were assigned to the Cadets, my older brother and sister Honorat were assigned to the Polish army. We were given normal size uniforms. The sleeves and legs had to be rolled up repeatedly to fit our boyish, hungry figures. Diseases, dysentery and jaundice started.

 

My sister visited me in the Cadet camp. Wanting to please me, she brought me a lot of fruit. Ignorant of the warnings, I ate these fruits and, as a result, got dysentery. I was afraid to go to the hospital because it was said that we were to leave soon and the sick would stay behind. Eventually, however, I was so weak that they had to take me to the hospital. In fact, my unit left, and I stayed in the hospital. After a week my sister visited me again. I asked her to buy a bottle of vodka because it supposedly helps with dysentery. It did not help. The hospital was closed down. With the last of my strength, I signed out of the hospital.

 

There was still an hour to register for departure, and my strength was completely draining, and I suffered from night blindness, which made it difficult to navigate in the dark. Suddenly I heard my brother's voice. He made it possible for me to register for departure, he helped me get on the train and on the ship. And so, we got to Pahlavi, Persia (Iran). Father, mother, grandmother, a sister and a brother all died without leaving Russia.

 

From Pahlavi we were transported to Khanaquin, Iraq, and then to Palestine. I entered the junior high school located about 20 km from Gedera. I decided to go to the mechanical school. In the great English workshops near Haifa we were trained intensively. It went on for a whole year.

 

The Carpathian Lancers' Regiment suffered considerable losses in military operations and required supplementation. It had been decided that those born before June would be assigned to the Air Force, and after June - to the Army as supplements. And there, on January 17, 1944, I was assigned to the Carpathian Lancers, stationed in Egypt. The regiment transferred to Italy. The command was bursting with laughter at the sight of us, young, immature boys. They called us mushrooms, because the backpacks were high above our heads. I was sent to a drivers' course in Abacia. After a 6-week course, I became a driver and, in March 1944, we joined the regiment in Italy. I was 17 at the time.

 

We were trained to navigate the mountains in anticipation of the attack on Monte Cassino. On May 2, we went to the front. On May 4 we reached the "Inferno" gorge. Supplies for the front line went from there. We were moved to positions between Monte Cairo and Monte Cassino. I was in the 2nd mortar platoon. The heavy machine gun commander, Corporal Oraczewski, was killed while trying to capture a slowly grazing horse, which he wanted to present to the unit commander.

 

The battle began. The night grew so bright like I had never seen before. I was expecting an order to attack. It wasn't coming. The first attack in the morning broke down. I was supposed to go on patrol, but Lieutenant Polkowski called it off because it was too bright. The next night he "appointed" me to volunteer. We were to draw enemy fire on ourselves. My blood ran cold when I thought we were to be a living target in order to reveal the location of the enemy's machine guns.

 

We were going down the mountain when we came across the 3rd squadron going to attack. I was ordered to join them. You can often see a squad going to attack in films. However, it is completely different when you participate in it yourself. Loaded with ammunition, I couldn't bend too far to avoid the fire.

 

We moved up the hill step by step. One of my colleagues offered to help me. I was very grateful to him because I was at the last of my strength. All I heard was the cry: "ammunition forward!". My strength left me completely. After walking a few steps, I fell. It was my baptism of fire. Older colleagues shouted: "take cover, bend down, don't be a hero!"

 

On the way back I carried a wounded, elderly lancer named Piech, who was hit in the back with a series of shots. He was crying in pain. Finally, they sent the stretcher, and I was relieved. Unfortunately, after two weeks he died in a field hospital. It was not possible for me to rest, because I had to bring water to the uphill positions. In fact, coats had to be brought in because the soldiers were grinding their teeth in the cold. I was hungry because I hadn't had anything in my mouth since the day before. After a short meal in the field kitchen, I headed uphill again with the coats. And so the whole day passed in constant scratching uphill and downhill. Still under fire. It was my contribution to the Battle of Monte Cassino. The fact that, of the many bullets whistling around me, none of them hit me seems a miracle to me. It was the first, large action I participated in. Then I was transferred to a radio course, and then to an instructor's course for cars and other armoured vehicles.

 

The last action in which I participated, this time on an armored car, took place near Bologna. Our squadron and one platoon went on the offensive, and our platoon was the back cover. The Germans let the first two cars pass, hit the third, which blocked the retreat, and then hit the rest of the cars. We had big losses.

 

We participated in the conquest of Bologna and soon after the news came that the war was over! The news of this came along with the second tragic news about Yalta and the fact that half of Poland was turned over to the Soviets! The thought that after this victorious war we had nowhere to go hit us like a bludgeon. Still, there was a lot of shooting. There were even tragic casualties from shots fired while drunk. After the end of hostilities, they assigned us to the tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division.

 

In 1946, I went to England. At that time, the Training Corps for Civil Life (part of the Polish Resettlement Corps) was active. I applied to the recruitment committee to work on a farm in Canada. In June 1947, I came to Canada. My aunt lived in Saskatchewan, and she brought me to her place, even though I was initially assigned to Alberta. I worked well there; I did not miss anything. Only mosquitoes bothered us a lot. That's why I decided to come to Winnipeg.

 

I did not speak English and it was difficult to get a permanent job. For some time, I worked at "Inland Steel", an institution that was known for willingly employing Polish veterans. Due to the lack of orders, I was dismissed in 1951 and, through my friend Gienek Nowak, I got a job on the railroad, where I was paid 1.05 dollars an hour. I already knew my future wife, Lonia Majewicz, and after two months we got married in 1951. We have two sons, Krzysztof and Tadeusz.  My wife was also deported to Russia and wandered around various orphanages after leaving Russia. In 1948 her uncle brought her to Canada.

 

I worked on the railroad for 35 years. I have been retired for three years. The collective agreement provided for retirement at the age of 60. I joined the Association of Polish Combatants in 1950 and I am still a member of the Polish Combatants Association today. After retiring, I became more actively involved in the work of Branch No. 13. I was elected president and a second term of office is promising. I am one of the younger CEOs. When I was not yet 20, I was already a veteran in Canada. I was legally forbidden to drink a beer in a bar, although I had been old enough to fight at Monte Cassino.

 

Our family was scattered all over the world as a result of the war. One of my sisters went to India, to Karachi, and two other sisters went to Masindi, Uganda. One of my sisters stayed in Siberia. My eldest brother stayed in Poland. Another sister served in the transport brigade of the Women's Auxiliary Service. She currently lives in Chicago.

Postscript:

In March 2022, Stefan Olbrecht was awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta by Poland's President.  It is the second-highest order from the country. The Consul General of the Republic of Poland, Magdalena Pszczółkowska, presented Olbrecht with the award.  The award given is given to both military members and civilians for outstanding achievements. Olbrecht received the distinction for his service and achievements in the military and within the community.

 

 

Stefan in Cairo, 1944

Stefan in Italy, 1945

Stefan in Italy, 1945

Stefan in Canada, 1989

Stefan in Winnipeg, 2019

Stefan in 2019, at the 75th commemoration, pointing out his position during the Battle of Monte Cassino