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Tadeusz PECAK

Polish 2nd Corps


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.

On 10 February 1940, Tadeusz and his family were forced at gunpoint from their home in northeastern Poland (near Dubno) and taken by cattle train to a labour camp in Siberia. The soldiers told the family to collect some warm clothes and food, and be out of the house by 6 a.m. Tadeusz’s family hurried out of the house and into cold uncertainty, leaving their home, and dozens of farm animals and the family dog behind. Tadeusz has said that this broke his father’s heart, and he never fully recovered. 

 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. Russian troops arrested hundreds of thousands of Poles. Their crime: simply being Polish. It was an act of ethnic cleansing of the eastern Polish borderlands.

Born in 1924, Tadeusz was 16 years old when he and his family were deported.

At the nearest train station, Polish citizens were loaded by the hundreds into cattle trains dozens of cars long. The train car was barely fit for animals. Frigid winds rushed through cracks in the wooden walls as the train chugged eastward.  About 40 people were crammed into each car, with only wooden shelves on either wall to sleep on. The toilet was a hole cut in the floor, under which snow-covered tracks rushed by.

They travelled this way, robbed of privacy and dignity, for weeks.  Their train lumbered deep into the Siberian interior.  During the train’s infrequent stops, a bucket of gruel and some stale bread was thrown into each car.

There was never enough to go around and some people died of starvation or disease. Soldiers heaved their bodies out beside the tracks, where they froze solid, unless the wolves got to them first.

One day, the train rumbled to a halt in a barren, frozen steppe and Tadeusz’s family was put to work in a labour camp.

For 12 hours every day, Tadeusz hauled logs by horse from a forest to a riverbank, so they could be floated to a mill downstream. He and his horse were feasted on by clouds of mosquitoes.

The moss packed into the cracked walls of the workers’ log cabins swarmed with other bloodsucking bugs that tormented them when they got a rare chance to sleep.

In dozens of camps across Siberia, countless Poles worked in similar inhuman conditions, brutally punished for no crime. They worked in freezing temperatures from dawn until dusk.  It is estimated that tens of thousands died. The Poles were being systematically exterminated by overwork and starvation.

Hope came late in the summer of 1941 when ‘amnesty’ was declared for the enslaved Poles. Germany had invaded Russian-held territories, turning the former Russian ally into an enemy. The Poles were told they were free, and those who were able to fight could join the Polish army to battle Germany.

Freedom was a relative term however, since they had no money and no transportation out of Siberia. Tadeusz and his father built a ramshackle raft of sticks and roes, loaded it with the few belongings the family still had, and pulled it dozens of kilometers down a shallow river to the nearest town.

Along the way, they begged for food and accommodation from Russian villagers. Eventually, they boarded a train – no better than the one that had taken them into Siberia – and heated south for Kazakhstan.

Tadeusz’s younger brother Stanislaw was wasting away from malnutrition.  Their mother tried to trade her wedding ring for a glass of milk.  It was too late.

Tadeusz recalls his brother saying, “I’ll never return to Poland, An angel came to me and is going to take me away”. He died on Christmas Day in 1941, in Kazakhstan. The ground was hard, and Tadeusz had to claw at the soil in order to dig a shallow grave for his brother. As he resurrects the memory, he pounds his fist on his knee, as if trying to replace the emotional pain with physical pain. “All these years and I still cry”, he said.

After Stanislaw’s death, Tadeusz’s father’s conditioned worsened, both mentally and physically. He was starving to death.

Once, when Tadeusz and his father were collecting kindle for a fire, a stray dog wandered up to them. His father handed him a heavy stick and told him what to do.  “I did not want to kill it, but we had not had any meat in months”. Tadeusz still recalls how the dog did not try to run away, and how it slumped over when he clubbed it. How his father had skinned it beside a river, and how they shared the meat with another starving family. The meat sustained Tadeusz’s father, but only temporarily.

Three weeks after he buried his brother, Tadeusz buried his father in an adjacent grave, again clawing at the frozen ground. When he could dig no more, he dragged his father`s emaciated body into the grave and covered it with stones. He stared at the graves of his father and brother, side by side in the shade of a tree in Kazakhstan. He vowed to avenge them – and to avenge all his fellow Poles who had suffered.

With nothing to lose, and two lives to avenge, Tadeusz jumped a train heading south, where the Polish army was forming in the USSR.  He evacuated to Persia (Iran) with the army.  After he was nursed back to health, he trained in Iraq and Palestine, and fought battles in the Italian Campaign.

The Allies won the war, but Poland was never the same. Maps were redrawn, the eastern borderlands were now part of the USSR, and the rest of Poland was under Communist rule.

Tadeusz studied engineering in England, where he met a pretty girl named Joyce while waiting for a bus. They married on Valenbtine’s Day in 1953 – 12 years and a day after his father’s death.

Tadeusz has lived in Canada since the 1950s. He has written and self-published a book, in Polish and English, about his family’s Siberian ordeal. On the cover is a black and white photograph of his family. The picture is sliced into several pieces with German swastikas and Russian sickles splitting the family’s survivors from those who died in 1941.

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 Tadeusz tried to do.

Tadeusz died on Saturday, September 21, 2013.

Source:  KPF interview

Copyright: Pecak family

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