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Tadeusz (Ted) KROL

Part 3 of 6

 A Sovkhoz in Siberia


After the ship docked at Ust-Kalmanka, our group and others were unloaded. Soon afterwards we were transferred onto three or four trucks that took us to our assigned location.

We were not unlike many hundreds of thousands of other Poles over previous generations, who were forced to populate Siberia by the czarist regimes. Many of those captives had to walk there for months. During the early stages of World War II, close to two million Polish citizens of various ethnicities, POWs, deportees, and people that had been arrested on various charges, were scattered all over the Soviet Union. The Soviet goal was two-fold. First, to remove individuals who were judged as unreliable to communist rule in their newly conquered lands and second, to populate the vast expanses of Russia with the laborers they needed in the forests, mines, and farms throughout Siberia.

Groups of Poles ended up all over Siberia. They were scattered from the warmer parts of the former Soviet Union, like Kazakhstan, and other areas farther south, to the frozen areas near the Arctic Circle, and to the easternmost areas of the Soviet Union, such as the Kamchatka Peninsula. There are even churches built by Poles who were forced to live in Irkutsk in the 1800's after the unsuccessful uprisings against czarist Russia. Many perished in the taigas and forests of the north, as well as the vast steppes of Siberia and the deserts in the south.

Fate placed us in the Ust-Kalmansky district of Altaysky Kraj (Altai Krai). Altai Krai is a territory in central Siberia. There, we were assigned to live and work at the Charyshesky Zierno Sowchoz (sovkhoz). The entire region is flat, although on a clear day, some people claimed that they could see the Altay Mountains in the distance.  Beyond those mountains was Mongolia. There were no forests, nor trees, and only brush growing along the banks of the Charysh River.  We later learned that there were a few thickets of trees within several miles of our location, but they were not visible and were not within walking distance.  The climate in this region is continental, with short hot summers and long cold winters. During winter, the temperature could drop to -55 degrees Celsius (–67 degrees Fahrenheit). The soil in the area is rich and it is suited for growing wheat and other crops. This is provided that the summer is reasonable, and that the crops are planted and harvested at the proper time, taking advantage of the longest possible growing period.

The sovkhoz to which we were assigned was a state-run agricultural enterprise, where everyone was supposed to be paid for their work in currency. This contrasted with a kolkhoz, where people did all their work as a collective and divided the harvested crops among themselves. Of course, that division of the harvest only occurred after they had paid a large portion to the State and had settled all their other debts. In a kolkhoz, the collective had to barter with the State or another kolkhoz, which had different products, for the other goods that the people in the kolkhoz needed.   In a sovkhoz, the State was supposed to provide other needed goods and to make them available in the State-run stores.  

The Charyshesky Zierno sovkhoz was located about eight miles from Ust-Kalmanka village in a straight line, but it was on the opposite side of the Charysh River. In order to transport us from the village to the sovkhoz, trucks had to drive and cross at a wooden bridge, which was nearly 20 miles away. All told, it was close to 50 miles by car or horse from Ust-Kalmanka to the sovkhoz. The dirt roads were full of potholes, so it took most of the day to get there. They housed us in a long structure built from logs. It had a long corridor with five or six rooms on each side of the corridor. There was a room at the end of the corridor where a Russian, who was in charge of the structure, resided. We were told to go through him with any concern that we had about sovkhoz operations. He was also in charge of work assignments for the people who lived in our building.

It was the first or second day of August 1941.  Our family and another lady with two children were assigned to the first room on the right as one enters the structure. It was a bit smaller than the other rooms were, but not by much. As a corner room, it was more exposed to the weather than any of the interior rooms. Each of the other rooms also housed two families.

Each room had a cast iron stove, some bare wooden bunk beds, and nothing else. We were told to unpack. Whoever wanted could go to the canteen and get a meal that had been prepared for us, but we had to pay for it. Since most people had already exhausted the food supplies that they had brought from home, they went ahead to the canteen. Although food had been available on the ship, it was expensive and not particularly good. In the sovkhoz they offered to sell us food against our future earnings, and we also wanted to see what the food would be like. After a month of living on bread, water, and some soup every now and then, the canteen food almost tasted good.  The head of the sovkhoz came over, told us what to expect, what the regulations were, and that he would let everyone to settle-in that day, wash our clothes, take a shower, and be ready for work the following day.

There was a public shower house in the sovkhoz, which was regulated as to gender and made available for different groups at different times. A few local Russians also offered private or shared bathhouses along the river for us to use for a small payment of money or goods. The river bathhouses were something like saunas. They provided more privacy, although a lot of fuel and effort was needed to take advantage of the luxury of a private bath.


A large quantity of water had to be brought from the river in buckets. A fire had to be started until boulders and large stones got very hot. Then the person who was taking a bath would use some heated water to wash and pour water on the hot stones until the whole room would fill up with steam. Steam allowed the occupant to relax and to clean off dirt with the help of some soap.  It also helped to get rid of most of the head lice that was, and possibly still is, a huge problem in Russia.

The lady who shared the room with us did not consider herself to be Polish. She maintained that she was a Belorussian, and although she had been deported along with us, and that her husband was arrested as our father had been, she claimed that it was only because of a fight her husband had with a local communist leader in her village. She didn’t want to speak to us in Polish, although she knew our language well. Since she was the only person among us who chose not to speak in Polish, she had no one else to talk to except the local Russians. Mother had many arguments with her during the time that we had to share the room with her and her two children.

A constant problem, evident to us from day one, was the short supply of wood or any other fuel for the kitchen stove and that would later be needed for heat during the long cold winter. Russians usually gathered driftwood from the riverbank after the spring floods, which was an annual event. They also collected dried cow droppings, which proved to be a good fuel source when dry. We had no fuel supply at all. Mother sent us all to look around for anything that she could use to start and maintain heat in the kitchen stove. We did find some small pieces of driftwood, some sticks, and dried weeds, but it was not much. Every day we had to think about what we are going to use for fuel, and what we would eat. A meal in the sovkhoz diner was only an emergency solution. A meal there cost money and it was not always available to non-workers.

On the first day of work, the truck pulled in front of our new “home” and all men and women, including teenagers, were taken to the fields for work. A few people who had some experience with the mechanized vehicles or hospital work were excluded from the fieldwork and were assigned to jobs where their experience would be useful. There was a shortage of workers in the local clinic and in the vehicle repair shop. Because of the general mobilization following Germany’s attack on Russia, there was a great shortage of skilled people everywhere.

Mother left me to look after Danka and George and to look for wood. My assignment did not last long, however. Within a week, Mother was released from her work detail because of illness. I later learned that she was expecting a baby. She was in her third month of pregnancy.

Now, nearly eighty years later, we can only speculate what it would have been like for her, crammed in a boxcar with her three young children on a train of deportees bound for Siberia, with the knowledge that on top of that, she was also likely pregnant with a fourth child.

Since someone from the family had to work, and I was almost a teenager, I was assigned as Mother’s replacement. I worked alongside adults and other teenagers pulling weeds from the wheat fields or other crop sites. A truck would take us into a certain field, we would line up in a row, and walk for miles pulling weeds and leaving them in piles at designated locations.


There were a lot of weeds, since no one in Russia used chemical weed killers. If fertilizer was used, it was used sparingly. One weed that was particularly abundant in the area was wormwood. It grew very tall and thick there. If it happened to be harvested and processed with the wheat, it made bread baked from the wheat, very bitter. The Russians claimed that it was healthy, and maybe that was true, since not many people from our group were sick while we were in Russia.

People were paid in cash for their work at the end of a six-day workweek, and workers were entitled to buy one kilo (2.2 pounds) of bread every two days. People who did not work, and children, were entitled only to half of a worker’s allowance. We did have nearly enough bread for our family, but there was little of anything else available, and the food supply we brought from Poland was pretty much depleted.  

Mother had to start selling some of our possessions for food. On Sundays there was a public market in Ust-Kalmanka. We could go there as long as we told the Russian who oversaw our barracks. In order to get there, we had to cross the river near our sovkhoz. A local Russian would ferry people across the river by rowboat, provided he was paid few rubles per trip. He would load between four and eight people and row the boat across a few hundred feet of river. On Sundays when it was too windy, the crossing was not available, but most Sundays we could cross. From the crossing point, we had to walk about eight miles to the market. There, people from surrounding kolkhozy and sovkhozy would gather to barter their goods for other products. Less commonly, the goods would be sold for cash.

The village, as I recall, was large. The market was located on the grounds of a vacant Russian Orthodox Church, which was impressive from the outside, despite its state of neglect. At that time, it was used as a storage warehouse. Market day was a magnet for people of different classes, numerous nationalities, and even speaking different dialects of the same language.

I remember meeting Poles from different parts of Poland. I had a hard time trying to understand the dialect of one group of Poles. I think they were from the Polish Lake District. There were Germans, Ukrainians, and people from most corners of Russia. Although Mother made some trades there, it was a hard walk for her to make, and the trading tired her out. Mother, and even I, spoke Russian well by then. And as time passed, we mastered this new language to a point that it was hard to distinguish us from the local population.

After a while, Mother would send me to the market with a couple of items and tell me the minimum trade that I should get for the items. For example, this blouse should get at least ten eggs, or so much butter. My other duties, apart from going to work, were to get water from the river, and always to gather as much fuel as possible. Winter was approaching, and we had to stockpile as much as we could.

Necessity made us resort to stealing wood. There was a raspberry plantation not far from where our barracks was located. It had a wooden fence around it when we arrived. The fence did not last very long. Slowly but surely, it diminished from day to day. I did help in that reduction to a certain extent. The Russians knew that we were responsible for it. They caught a few people red-handed, and punished them severely, but what else could we do? We tried to buy some wood from local Russians, but they also needed wood for the winter. As the wormwood dried up with the approach of fall, we would go into the fields, pull it up and carry it home on our backs. Later we would borrow a small cart from local Russians and load it up with wormwood to bring home. Dried-out wormwood was a particularly good fuel. The problem was that it would burn fast, and a day’s work of gathering the weed would not be enough to prepare two meals.

In mid-August of 1941, news reached us that the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Soviet government had signed an agreement to cooperate in the fight against Germany. As a result of that agreement, Russia granted us “amnesty” and promised to release all Polish prisoners within the Soviet Union, to allow Poles freedom of movement, and promised to allow the formation of a Polish Army to fight the common enemy. Nothing much changed for us at first. But eventually we were told that we didn’t have to ask for permission to move around, and Russian officials stopped being openly hostile towards us.

A coal barge arrived for our sovkhoz in September. The coal was intended to run an electric generator and to heat the warehouse where the wheat had to be dried for storage. Russians built a ramp from the barge to the shore and we were all required to unload the barge. Even Danka and George helped. Some groups would load baskets with coal, others would carry them to shore, and still others would pile the coal and then load it into wagons or carts, drawn by oxen.  We were promised a couple of buckets of coal per family, since we had no fuel supply. But two buckets were only a token, a far cry from meeting our needs for the winter.

So, we were forced to find ways to scrape up more coal. For example, we would “accidentally” drop pieces into the water with the intention of picking them up later. Or, we would throw pieces of coal into the nearby bushes. George got into trouble for his role in helping our family. He picked up some pieces of coal and was carrying them home when he was caught. The Russian in charge yelled at him for a few minutes, threatening him with arrest and jail. George was only five years old then. Danka and George also got into trouble when they tried to appropriate some wood from one of the Russians. They thought that the wood near a house did not belong to anyone, and they needed some wood so that Mother could cook a meal.

Overall, we ended up with a little more than two buckets of coal, but not much more.  But the Russians were aware of our shortage of fuel, and eventually started to be a little more sympathetic to us. They promised that as soon as the crucial harvesting work in the fields was completed or else ended by the weather, we would be allowed to cut some trees for firewood from a small wooded area located about 15 miles from the sovkhoz. Meanwhile, we had to manage somehow, because all hands and mechanical equipment were needed to bring in the harvest. This was especially urgent since the sovkhoz had lost many men who were drafted for the war.

On one occasion Mother and I went into the fields where wormwood was growing, and we tried to gather as much of it as we could. Mother wanted us to load a cart that she had borrowed as high as possible. However, that load was so high that I wasn’t able to control it as I pulled. It finally ended up in a ditch, overturned. Both of us were furious and upset that all our work was in vain. Mother broke down and ran toward the river shouting that she couldn’t handle it anymore. I wasn’t sure if her breakdown was involuntary or if she just wanted to impress upon me the need to exert more effort. But I was still only 12 years old at that time.

The school year was delayed by a month or so, so that school-age children could help with the harvest. We worked alongside Russian teenagers in warehouses where the harvested wheat had to be dried for storage.

The sovkhoz had about a dozen harvesters, but only about one-third of these were operational. Half of the harvesters needed repairs, but since no replacement parts were available, they sat idle. Even if they could be repaired, there were not enough operators to run them since most of the operators were now in the army. Our operators were mostly older men who were too old to serve in the army. Harvesting had to begin before the entire crop was mature and ready, so that most of the crop could be harvested before the first snowfall.

When the semi-dry wheat was harvested and brought into the warehouses, we had to shovel it onto conveyors, which ran over heaters and dried the product to a degree enough to prevent mildew and decay during storage. Some of the wheat had to be run over the heaters several times until the agricultural expert determined it was safe to store. Lastly, we had to shovel it back onto other conveyers that were setup to transport the wheat to its designated storage area or into trucks that transported the product to other locations.

We made friends with some of the Russian teenagers while we worked together and we spent our rest periods talking to them, especially to the girls. They were interested in hearing about life in Poland. They wanted to know Polish dirty words. And, since Russian boys over 17 had already been drafted to serve in the army, some girls were looking for boyfriends. After all, we were on the same side now.

There was a Polish boy of about fifteen, whose name was Heniu. A Russian girl took a fancy to him. She was a year or so older, and they started to spend a lot of time together, meeting after work. Their relationship got to a point where apparently, he couldn’t trust himself with her. So, he asked me to tag along on a date that his girlfriend had set at her family’s bathhouse along the river. When the three of us met, she was a little disappointed to see me. Nevertheless, we went inside, but I was asked not to look at what they were doing. Later, they asked me to leave the bathhouse.

By late 1941, we were no longer required to get permission to leave the sovkhoz. And so, we could walk to a neighboring kolkhoz to trade our goods for their food products.  Mother and I took advantage of every Sunday when the weather was reasonable, to walk to nearby kolkhozy in order to barter.


I remember one very hot Sunday when we were so tired, hungry, and thirsty, that we knocked at the door of one of the houses along the way. A woman opened the door and Mother asked if she had anything to trade. The woman was hostile and wanted to shut the door in our faces. But Mother asked if she could spare some water at least, or some bread. She looked at Mother, saw her condition, and let us in. She then gave us water and asked what Mother had to trade. After seeing the items, she knew that they were not made in Russia. They started to talk, and the lady became more and more kindly toward us. It turned out that she was also deported to this area from western Russia after the communists took over. That had been 15 years ago. Then she offered Mother some milk, cheese, and bread for some of the items that we had brought to trade. The milk and cheese were from her cold storage in the basement. It was the best tasting bread and milk I ever had.  The lady traded several other items with Mother. In addition to the bread and cheese, we got butter and even some bacon and sausage, which were luxuries in the area. It was one of our best trading expeditions.

As October set in, we could buy some supplies like sugar, oats, and other grains. Here again, people that worked could buy twice as much as children, non-workers like Mother, and old or sick people. The most important item that we were able to buy was winter footwear, called walonki (valenki). We weren’t prepared to face a Siberian winter. Our shoes were completely unsuitable for very frigid weather. Walonki are boots made of compressed wool. They are very warm, and if they didn’t get wet, they were excellent for the winters there.

Later in October, an older gentleman, who had been deported with his daughter, passed away. His daughter was only a little older than Danka. He was buried in a local cemetery, among strangers. There were two cemeteries in the area, practically adjoining each other. One was for the local Russians and the deportees, and the other was for the Altai people (a Turkic ethnic group) that had perished while fighting the Russians in their several attempts to control the area. The gentleman’s daughter was ‘adopted’ by a lady from our deportation transport who had two other daughters. Her name was Mrs. Przygalinska. Her older daughter was in her late twenties and was a teacher. The younger daughter was about my age. That was probably the best place for a new orphan. Mrs. Przygalinska’s older daughter spent some time teaching younger children in the sovkhoz, including George.

School opened sometime in October. Danka and I went to a school that was less than a mile away. The teachers there reviewed our knowledge of Russian. Although we could speak the language fluently, our reading and writing left a lot to be desired. So, I had to start the fifth grade all over again, in order to improve my Russian literacy.

The school building was a brick structure, certainly not modern, but it was passable as far as classroom size, lighting, and the heating system. Best of all, the toilets were indoors, and children didn’t have to go outside the building, as we did when we were in our barracks. Our school consisted of ten grades. Some grade levels had only two-dozen children. Other grade levels had three-dozen or more students. The main thing that I can recall about that school was that in the fifth grade in addition to Russian, mathematics, and introductory algebra, we had to study German, geography, biology, pre-biblical history, and a national defence course. We took German because the Russians believed that in order to fight the enemy successfully, we had to understand their language. In geography, not only did we have to know about the different Russian republics, but we also all the principal Russian rivers, lakes, mountains, seas, all the peninsulas, surrounding countries, and so on. We also had to be able to identify all the continents, the nations on those continents, and the location of those countries.  In biology, I remember studying about primitive organisms, cell divisions, animal families, and where different animal groups lived. In history, I was fascinated to learn about Mesopotamia, and the other empires that had ruled the Middle East. I was interested to learn of the empires’ time periods, what they achieved, and what was left after they had disappeared. The national defense course we took was about gas warfare, how to protect ourselves in case of a gas attack, the different gases used during the First World War, and the gases that existed during the 1940s.

Since the school year was delayed by the harvest, we had to spend extra hours in class each day as well as on Saturday. Children were provided with a meal during the school day and were given special treats on the Russian holidays in October, November, and even on New Year’s Day, which they celebrated instead of Christmas.

As our sovkhoz officials had promised, in October they provided a truck and a trailer, and asked for two people from each family to go and cut some trees for the winter. This was a special favor, since even Russians were not permitted to cut the trees, simply because there were no forests in the area.  They took us about 15 to 20 miles from the sovkhoz where there were a few acres of a woodlot. The trees were white birches of differing ages. However, we were not allowed to go to an area where there was a stand of older birches. One of the Russians who was with us mentioned that in that area there were some mass graves of people executed for opposing the Revolution.

Mother and I went to gather wood on behalf of our family. However, it was questionable how much wood could be cut and loaded on to a trailer by a twelve-year-old boy and his pregnant mother. Some people felt sorry for us and helped with the cutting, but not surprisingly, we ended up with the smallest quantity of wood as well as poorer quality wood. Nevertheless, we did get enough wood to last for a couple of months, but we knew that we had to use it very sparingly. When frigid nights became the norm, even the water in our room froze overnight.

By November 1941, some people from our barracks started to take advantage of our new freedom to travel and left the sovkhoz for a variety of reasons. A few men left to join the Polish Army, which was beginning to form in the southern republics of the Soviet Union. Two women left to search for their husbands who had been interned in POW camps. By that time, Polish POWs who were being released, were traveling to join the redeveloping Polish Army, or to search for their families.

People who lived in the sovkhoz still had to go to work. During the winter, our work was mainly inside the storage sheds. We were needed to help with drying the wheat, sunflower seeds, and other crops, to sort these harvest products, and to help to load them onto trucks for transport.

Most workers tried to pilfer some of the crops they worked, a handful at a time. A common practice was to put some grain into a pocket that had a hole in it. The grain would slowly fill their lower pant leg and also the boots that their pants were tucked into.

Some workers managed to accumulate quite a supply. It was just a question of time before someone got caught for this practice. There were two men who lived across the hall from us. One of them was a soldier who had joined his family after his release from a POW camp less than a month earlier. Somehow, they were caught red-handed. The police came to their room and searched for more evidence. They found it under some loose boards in the floor and the men were arrested.

Food supplies began to shrink as winter set its grip on the area. No one could walk to the market or to the neighboring kolkhoz in sub-freezing temperatures. Although we could still buy bread, I was now getting the same portions as the rest of the family as now, no one was a worker. However, Danka and I did get a meal during the day in school.

Mother sold more and more of our belonging to the local Russians, since it was dangerous in this weather to walk to the village or to the nearby kolkhoz. She also got some wood from locals who could spare it, naturally for a price.

Early in December of 1941, it was announced that Japan had attacked the United States and that this new ally had also entered the war against Germany. The sovkhoz authorities brought a speaker to one of the rooms and connected it to a wire so that we could listen to Stalin’s speech about the United States' entry into the war and America’s promises to the Russians. Although there was electricity in the rooms, one hanging light bulb per room, we hadn’t known that the building was wired for radio reception.  It was appreciated by most of us.  A week or so later they also allowed us to listen to a speech in Polish by General Sikorski, who was Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, headquartered in London.  Poland was now fighting Germany along with the Russians. It appeared that things would be improving on the battlefront and also for us in our barracks.


Reunion with Father


Christmas was coming and our Russian supervisors promised to provide us with some additional food and white bread. This would be similar to what we received to celebrate the anniversary of their Revolution on November 7. Naturally, we could not celebrate Christmas anything like as we did in Poland, but we did have some white bread that was not as bitter as our regular bread, which was flavored with wormwood.

On Christmas Eve or maybe late on Christmas Day, after we had finished a small but better than our typical dinner, Mother left us to talk with Mrs. Przygalinska. She did this often, since she didn’t talk with the other lady who shared our room very much at all. Mrs. Przygalinska was a very caring woman, who with her daughters, helped many families in our sovkhoz, and helped our mother most of all. She looked after Danka and George, when Mother and I had to go trading or collecting wood. That evening some kids had joined us in our room to play while the adults discussed current developments in other rooms. Our room was the first one on the right, past the front door. While we played, we heard some knocking, which startled us at first, since we weren’t expecting anyone. For a moment, I was frightened thinking that it could be the police. But the woman who shared the room with us opened the door and right away, I recognized our father with two other men in the doorway.

What a Christmas present that was! We shouted in joy, greeting Father, who we had not seen in over six months. The other two men asked where their families were located. We told them and then led them to the room where the other adults had gathered that night. We could see how happy our mother was as she greeted our father. In time, Father recounted his experiences.

After the Germans attacked Russia, Father and the other prisoners of the NKVD were forced to march from Molodeczno to a railway station near Minsk. Prisoners that were not able to walk were shot. Father made it to the train station where they were loaded onto a prison train like ours, and finally ended up in Siberia. However, their train was unloaded near Novosibirsk where there was a large prison compound. There they stayed until their release, which followed the cooperation agreement between the Polish and Soviet Russian governments. Many of the released prisoners traveled directly to southern Russia to join the Polish army that was being reorganized near Tashkent. Father was going to do the same, but by good fortune he met the two ladies that had previously left our sovkhoz to look for their husbands.


That’s how Father found out about us, our location, and learned that Mother was expecting. 

Father joined the two other men who also had families at our sovkhoz, and the three released prisoners traveled by train to the city of Aleysk, which was about 50 miles from our sovkhoz. From Aleysk they went as far as they could by getting short rides on trucks that were going in the direction of the sovkhoz. When the truck rides came to an end, they walked for several miles and then got a short ride on a horse-drawn sled. Finally, they got to our sovkhoz on foot where they asked a Russian where we could be found. That’s how they happened to knock on our door that Christmas of 1941.

It was comforting that the sense of joy felt by our family was also present in the two other families that had been reunited. And other families shared in our sense of relief as well, because our community group was now stronger, and more support was available for those who needed help.

But day-to-day life had to go on in the sovkhoz. After a two-day rest, Father and the other two men reported to the sovkhoz authorities for work. Father was able to persuade the man in charge to allocate Mother some milk and other food that was available to pregnant women. The Russians did try to help mothers and expectant mothers as much as was possible. They even gave prizes and medals to women who had a lot of children.

Despite the additional help we now had, the food and fuel wood shortages were getting worse. Father walked to Ust-Kalmanka across the frozen river on Sundays, when the weather allowed, so that he could exchange some of our remaining possessions for a few eggs, or butter, or a piece of meat. Some fish was available year-round. Fish in the Charysh River were plentiful, and some Russians fished it even during the winter, through holes in the ice. Fish could be bought with cash, but the more desirable species might require a trade for other goods.

In the depth of winter, temperatures reached 20 or 30 below zero. The outdoor latrine became knee high with frozen waste, and any kind of washing or cleaning was difficult. We had spitting contests, where the object was to spit as far as possible, so that our spit froze in mid-air and hit the ground as a small piece of ice. We all gathered clean snow to melt for our water supply, since it was too far to go to the frozen river.

The events that made life most miserable for us in the winter were snowstorms, which could last for several days or weeks. No one would venture out during the blizzard conditions that Russians called a “buran.” Apart from the severe cold, the blowing snow would limit visibility to practically zero, and people could lose their way, even walking to the latrine. During such storms people used buckets as their toilets and at some time in the day, several families would empty their buckets into the latrine through a group effort. The families would venture out and they tied a line of string or rope to the door of our barracks so that they could follow the line to get back.

I remember one day while walking to school, we saw a group of about 70 prisoners and more than a dozen guards walking through the sovkhoz on their way to the railway station in Aleysk. It was 50 miles to the station from the sovkhoz. A snowstorm began that evening, which developed into a buran. It lasted over four days. When it finally cleared out, the prisoners and their guards were all found frozen to death about 20 miles from Aleysk.

On the 24th February 1942, Mother gave birth to our brother Stasiu in the sovkhoz clinic.


There were no complications with the delivery, and after several days he was in our cold room with us. The Belorussian lady and her children still shared our room, which now housed three adults and six children. She complained about the baby crying during the night and tried to get moved to another room in the barracks. Some of the rooms were half-vacant as the result of several persons leaving the sovkhoz to join the army. Winter was exceptionally cold, especially for the baby. Frankly, now that I know what is needed to take care of an infant, especially in the daily supply of diapers, feeding, and scheduling, I really admire Mother for her effort to provide the best care possible for her newborn. 

Father must have complained a lot to the sovkhoz director about the lack of fuel to keep our baby from getting too cold, which would lead to a serious illness or death. He allowed Father to take some coal from the supplies they had. He also promised to let Father cut some wood from the same small woodlot that we cut from at the start of winter. They knew that Mother and I were not able to cut enough wood for our needs. So, when the weather started to improve at the end of March or early April, Father was promised a sled and an ox, and was given a permit to cut some trees from the birch woods. It was a Sunday, the only day Father had free from work. Father and I got up early and as soon as we got the sled and the ox, we started towards the woods. The day was sunny. A thaw in the last few days had melted quite a bit of snow, which formed puddles in the road. The puddles had iced over during the night.


We did fine for several miles, but then, when the sun got a bit warmer, the ox and sled broke through the ice of one of the larger puddles that really proved to be a mud hole. It was deep enough that we couldn’t move anywhere. Father told me to stay on the sled as he jumped into the icy cold water to help the ox pull the sled from the nearly 3-foot deep pool of water. For a while we were afraid that we would be stuck there until someone came along who was willing to help us out.

It took well over half an hour, but Father’s exertion, coupled with that of the ox, was able to free the ox and sled out of the mudhole. We were able to continue on our way. For a while, he considered whether to turn back. He was wet well above his knees, but he knew that he would not get a second chance to obtain more firewood for the family. So, we continued toward the woods, but were more careful to avoid iced-over spots along the dirt road. Father took off his boots and pants, squeezed out as much water as he could, and spread the pants on the sled to dry. He covered himself with a blanket that we had brought with us. When we finally reached the woods, it was almost noon and the sun began to warm us. But Father's clothing was still wet. Virtually barefoot in the snow, Father started a fire from some dry branches we had collected so that he could warm himself and dry his wet clothes. As soon as his boots and pants were semi-dry, he put them on and started to cut the trees and larger branches. We loaded the sled as much as we could and ate the food we had brought with us.


Then Father warmed himself up again and made another effort to dry his clothing. We started on our way back. Father avoided any spot along the road that looked uncertain and we were fortunate to get back without any further mishap. It was almost dark by the time we got back.  Mother was concerned about Father becoming sick from wearing damp clothing for most of that wintry day. So, she paid a Russian family that she had befriended to heat up their bathhouse near the river so that Father could sweat out any potential illness.

Gradually, spring arrived. More men from our building left their families to join the Polish Army. In May, the Polish relief organization sent a representative into our area to identify and help Polish families. He brought some supplies with him, some food items like butter, ham, sugar and canned goods, as well as some clothing. Most of these items had come from American relief organizations that were trying to help victims of the war.

He also tried to restore our Polish pride and sense of identity. He opened a Polish scout group and a school. The older daughter of Mrs. Przygalinska was a teacher before the war, and she became the new school's teacher. We still attended the Russian school, but she taught Polish language and Polish history on evenings and Sundays to three different age groups.

As spring showed its presence, the snow melted and ice on the river began to break up. An ice jam threatened the bridge downstream, which we had crossed in our travel from Ust-Kalmanka. In order to save the bridge, Russians used dynamite to blast the ice that had jammed up against it. A large area of land was flooded during the spring and when the water receded, numerous small ponds were formed in depressions alongside the river. Many kinds of fish were trapped in those ponds and some people, mostly Russians, pulled them out with their bare hands or with small nets. We had more fish than we could eat at that time. And so, all kinds of methods were employed to preserve that harvest of fish including frying, cooking, and smoking them in the smokehouses that the Russians had used in previous springs.

We were told that we would be allotted a plot of land for a small private garden, just as the Russians had. But most of our people were hoping to get out of Russia with the Polish Army. More men were enlisting, and even girls over eighteen tried to join the Polish Army’s equivalent of the WACs. We also learned, through the letters from men who had left earlier, that the Polish Army would soon be moved out of Russia to the Middle East. Stalin concluded that he had given the Polish Army too much autonomy at the onset, and then found it difficult to control that army through Russian command. By early May of 1942, our baby brother was doing well. Father realized that the only way for our family to get out of this place was for him to the join the Polish Army and get a permit for us to travel with the army out of Russia. In early May, after he cut up all the wood that we had hauled in earlier, and supported us as much as he could, he left to join the Polish Army. In June and July about three families received the documents they needed to leave the sovkhoz and travel to civilian resettlement centers for the families of Polish soldiers. They would be transported to Iran from those centers.

The school year ended, but to advance to the next grade, I had to take additional classes during the summer to improve my Russian. From June on, the weather was beautiful. Since Father was in the army, Mother had a baby, and we were now allied with Russia, I did not have to work in the fields.  Most other able people did have to work. However, the shortage of workers increased as Russia called up all men and older boys into their army. Some Russians resented our situation. We had a chance to get out of Russia and we were getting help from our government. A Polish government representative delivered help to us, but as time went by, it became clear that such help would end when the Polish Army completed its deployment to the Middle East. At about that time, I do remember that a group of teenage Russian boys started to harass Polish kids and warned us that as soon as the war with the Germans was over, they would remind us who was in control.

We received a letter from Father. He told us that he was lucky to have met one of the officers he served under in Poland. He was activated for service with the Polish Forces under British Command on May 11th. Otherwise, he may not have been able to join the army because at that time they were not accepting any more soldiers. Russia had clamped down on the number of Polish units being formed under General Anders, the Commander of the Polish Army’s 2nd Corps. The 2nd Corps was established and would serve attached to the British Eighth Army. Subsequently, Russians started to form its own units composed of Polish soldiers who would serve under Russian command. Father also told us that he would try to get us out of Russia, but he could not guarantee it. Naturally we were happy for Father, but we also worried about the prospect of remaining in Russia and facing another dreadful winter there.

I collected more driftwood from that spring’s flooding for firewood and also tried to learn to swim again. The weather was hot, and I would try to swim from one big rock or boulder along the riverbank to another. I nearly drowned again, but finally I could do it and got enough confidence to swim ten to twenty feet in deep water.


We were starting to lose hope about our chances of getting out of Russia as another family left, and we had still not heard from Father again. But then, our treasured Permit finally arrived in the second half of August 1942. It had been issued on the 10th of August and Father was scheduled to leave Russia with his unit on the 20th of August, which was the same day that we received the papers. It was now up to Mother to get us out.

In the period between March and August 1942, despite the effort of the Soviet authorities and the advice of our Allies, General Anders succeeded in moving seventy thousand soldiers, and with them forty-five thousand civilians, out of Soviet Russia. Close to twenty thousand of the civilians were children.


Copyright: Krol family

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