A Sketchy Outline of the Events of My Life (1939-1954)
by Teresa (Burek) Oszurko
4 Feb 1991
Translated by B. M. Charuba
Our happy summer vacation of 1939 was short-lived. The fact that Father was recalled from furlough forced us to face the inevitability of war. We hoped that Father would be able to organize the removal of our most essential belongings to the country, in the firm belief that it would be easier to survive the war here than in the city. But the discovery of a spy nest by Polish counterespionage kept the whole staff in the garrison working twenty-four hours a day. All orders concerning national defense had to be changed. It was ironic that the spies were Polish Jews working for Germans, at a time when Hitler's persecution of Jews was well-known in Europe if not the rest of the world.
Mother followed Father, to take care of the arrangements, but before she reached Bydgoszcz, German planes bombarded the city, concentrating on the airfield and railroads. Mother just managed to pack some of our winter clothes, before she was evacuated with other military families. Meanwhile, the war raged around us, with bombs falling a fraction of a mile away and German planes flying low, machine-gunning anything that moved. As soon as anyone spotted a plane we would hit the ground, preferably behind bushes or potato fields, and stay put until the planes disappeared. And all the time we prayed and waited for news of our parents and our grandmother, who was with Mother.
After weeks of heavy fighting, the Polish forces defending their country on two fronts were in constant retreat. The Russians were pushing from the east and the Germans from the west. The situation was hopeless and, with no help from our so-called allies, the Polish Army was forced to surrender, in spite of our soldiers’ heroic opposition. After twenty years of struggle to rebuild our country, which had been plundered by Russia, Prussia and Austria for over hundred years, Poland was again divided, this time by Germany and the U.S.S.R.
After months of anxiety and prayers for their safety, our parents and grandmother arrived one cold winter night. It was one of the happiest moments of my young life. We were staying with father's sister who had a large family, so six extra people for an unlimited time created problems which summer didn't pose, as all the youngsters slept in the hayloft then and considered it fun. With the cold weather approaching, our quarters were really cramped. With little hope for the end of the war in the near future, we decided to return home while it was still possible, but before we could realize our plans, the border was closed.
Many Jews were trying to go back under German occupation, but were refused the entry. (It's beyond my comprehension why any Jew would willingly try to commit suicide, for going back amounted to the same).
So, the Russians closed the border and, a few months later, deported us to Siberia with other war “criminals” like intellectuals, land owners and officers of the Polish armed forces. Thousands of the latter were murdered at Katyn and other yet to be discovered places. In many cases, when the man of the family was in hiding, the women and children were arrested. One woman in our group was seized from a hospital bed with her newborn baby. The arrests always took place in the dark of night, a characteristic of a criminal mind.
At the time of our arrest, I was almost twelve and quite cognizant of the Siberian climate, so my first conscious act, after being awakened in the middle of the night, was to run to the cellar for our winter shoes, followed by an armed guard. Subconsciously, I must have expected our arrest. My parents told me that a few nights before, I had woken and told them that we should run because we're going to be deported to Russia, after which I went promptly to sleep, with no memory of the incident next morning. Father did go into hiding, but as soon as he heard that we were arrested, he gave himself up and joined us.
The amount of luggage we were allowed to take with us was very limited, so each of us put on as many items of clothing as was possible to lessen the bulk of our baggage. At the last moment, Mother grabbed our photo album and her hat. The first item I understand, but the second would make a good subject for psychologists. Even Grandmother, who refused to wear scarves in normal circumstances, tied one on her head instead of a hat, which was her normal headgear.
At the railroad station we were loaded on a cattle train. The wagons were equipped with makeshift bunks for bigger capacity. The toilet was a hole in a floor. Even with a screen made of a blanket, it was very embarrassing. No wonder everybody suffered from an upset stomach. It wasn't until we passed the border that the doors were unlocked and we were allowed to go out to use very primitive toilet facilities. When the train started to move again, we noticed that an elderly Jewish woman was missing. Her much older husband jumped off the moving train and grabbed the bumper trying to stop it, and all the time he was yelling: Ho Maydaly, ho Maydaly! But Maydaly didn't show up. Much later we learned that she returned to Poland. Her poor husband climbed back on the train resigned to his fate. At that time the whole incident seemed hilariously funny to us kids, but for the poor man it was a tragedy.
After we passed Kharkov, a guard brought a pail of some concoction that was supposed to pass for food. Before anyone dared to taste it, the train moved and a small boy sitting on a potty fell off the upper bunk right into the pail of food. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Talk about mixed emotions! Thank God we still had some provisions smuggled to us before the train left the station in Poland, or we would be starving.
We traveled on and on. At one of the small stations, my sister was almost left behind. She left the train to get some bread from a store near the station. She had to wait in a line and prevent others from pushing in front of her, so she didn't notice when the train started to move without warning, as usual. Mother ran after her, and both of them were pulled in while the train was gathering speed. We knew that if she was left behind, we would never see her again.
In Kuybishev, we were loaded on trucks. Before we left on the next leg of our journey, we received a small portion of bread. It looked like clay, and our parents worried that it may have adverse effect on our already upset stomachs, but the drivers - mostly women - declared that it was delicious. So it is true that hunger is the best cook. The open trucks were mobilized by steam, generated by wood fire. (It was one of our jobs in the winter to supply the fuel for them). The drivers maneuvered these trucks with unbelievable ease along narrow twisting roads cutting through the forest. After some trepidation, while crossing a small river on a man-powered ferry and pushing through miles and miles of woods, we reached our destination - Altaysky Kray - or the Province of Altay.
Our housing consisted of a couple of barracks, on a few acres of clearing, in the middle of nowhere. Before another barrack was built and we moved to a room of our own, two families - ten people - occupied one room with two beds taking most of the space.
Early the next morning everyone was sent to work in the woods. (No rest for the damned!). While the men cut grooves in the trees with special tools to make the sap flow into small pots, the women scooped it into buckets and carried the sap to big vats placed centrally in specific work sections.
The pay was laughable, but then there was nothing to buy, except a small ration of bread that varied from dark and heavy, to darker and heavier. To add insult to injury, the Russian government deducted part of our earnings to pay for our transportation to Siberia. Most of the children worked to get extra rations of bread which, otherwise, were very small. At the end of the day's work, it was hard to open the hand that had been holding the sap scoop.
Summers were not so bad, as we could supplement the lack of food with berries and other edible forest growth. Otherwise, we exchanged clothes for potatoes and other vegetables in a nearby village. Most in demand were silk nightgowns, which the wives of local dignitaries sported as an evening wear.
Shortly before winter, as an incentive to increase production, the fastest workers were offered permits to buy a cow, on easy payments, from the government. My father wasn't one of the fastest workers, but our foreman, who was a very decent guy, convinced the officials that we deserved to be included in the lucky group. I can safely say that our cow kept us, and others less-fortunate, alive. We shared the milk with the neediest. Among these was an old rabbi with a very frail daughter and a very young son, who were unable to fend for themselves.
Before the snow fell, our Piastra - our cow - found her fodder in the woods, while we tried to gather as much hay for the winter as possible. But in spite of our efforts, the hay didn't last through the long winter months, so we were forced to supply the need by stealing hay from the sleds of visiting dignitaries. That was my first act of pilfering, but it kept Piastra alive and the officials didn't miss it. We never stole anything from other people no matter how hungry we were, only from the government that had placed us in this position.
Before Easter, a couple of Russian women came over the frozen river to exchange two chickens (probably stolen from the collective farm) for bread, which they hadn’t had since the fall. Neither did they have any footwear. Their feet were wrapped in old rags. Mother, who always thought ahead, swapped our day's ration of bread for a chicken that proved to be a very good layer. An egg almost every day meant a lot to us.
Every ten days we had a day off. That was when we went to the village to get food in exchange for clothes. The nearest village was several miles away. Walking there was nothing, but coming back with a heavy load of potatoes on one's back wasn't a picnic. Nevertheless, we were glad to have something to carry, as it meant a few days less of nagging hunger. It may seem unbelievable that we were allowed to move so freely in the district, but actually there was no fear of anyone trying to escape. After all, there was nowhere to run.
We spent the rest of our free time de-bugging our living quarters, which was really an exercise in futility, but one had to try
One day, Mrs. R., a widow with two young sons, went to the village on a working day and was unlucky enough to meet our commandant, a member of the N.K.V.D. (later called the K.G.B.). The man grabbed the potatoes she carried on her back, threw them to the ground and stomped on them as hard as he could. Well, Hanna wasn't going to let him get away with ruining her hard-earned food supply. She grabbed a heavy branch and clobbered him several times over the head. He was a bully, but unable to defend himself against Hanna's fury. He would have liked to kill her, but his gun holster was just for show.
A few days after that incident, Hanna was charged with absence from work. (He wouldn't dare admit to the bite he suffered at her hands). The case was tried in a small laundry room. After a few questions and some deliberation, she was fined ten percent of her earnings. Before the court adjourned, Hanna dug a tick full of blood from the front of her body and dropping it on judges papers proclaimed loudly: "This is your livestock!" Everybody burst out laughing and Hanna's penalty was doubled, but being a shrewd woman, she put most of her production on her son's work sheet, so twenty percent of almost nothing wasn't much. And our foreman wasn't about to keep checking on her.
Our living conditions were below the poverty level. As finicky about food as I had been before the war, in Russia I learned to eat everything edible and not so edible. I wish that all Americans who take their affluence for granted and believe that freedom means doing what they like regardless of the consequences, were sent to Russia to learn the true meaning of poverty and slavery. Food parcels from Poland, though not numerous, were an enormous help. Alas, not all of them reached the addressees. Such was the case of a parcel sent by the Red Cross to a Jewish family. Mr. M. walked several miles to the post office - no home delivery - only to find that the food had been substituted by bricks. Devastated, he swore to tell the world about the thieves in Russia. He was arrested the same night and never heard from again. When we received notice from the post office in Inya to pick up a parcel, my mother and sister set out without delay, on a cold day, through high snow, with the hope that our parcel had not been tempered with.
In those days, hope was the only emotion that kept us going under those most trying conditions. After several miles of trudging through the snow, a sled pulled by an old nag stopped and offered my sister a lift. With two people already occupying the sled, there was no room for two more. Mother debated whether to keep my sister with her and risk the cold weather, or let her travel with complete strangers. Mother noted that one of them was a woman, and the second option won. As it happened, the driver was a young man with honorable intentions, or should I say that it was his aunt who had the intention of marrying my sister to the young man. Playing the matchmaker, she listed her nephew's assets, which comprised a sled and a horse and two sacks of potatoes, which made him a relatively rich man. On top of that, he happened to be very generous, as he had presented every member of the family they had just visited with a carrot. As hard as it is to believe, the gifts were greatly appreciated. My sister declined the kind offer of marriage, which I thought was very selfish of her. After all, two sacks of potatoes for the winter constituted a real bounty. Anyway, she got safely to the post office, where she met Mother and they rushed home with the parcel.
Grandmother immediately used some of the lard as a base for an ointment we could use for the open sores caused by the lack of vitamins. Before that, the only remedy was one's urine which, while beneficial to some extent, was rather painful.
It fell to Mother to take care of our meager rations and divide them among us. Today, as an adult and a mother, I realize what Mother must have gone through, watching us tired and hungry all the time, unable to do anything about it. Father tried to keep our minds off food by inventing droll stories at bedtime. It was very hard to fall asleep on an empty stomach. In the evenings, whenever possible, father tried to continue our education. His knowledge was extensive, and his presentation of different subjects, especially music which he truly loved, was never boring.
One day a welfare committee - they had committees for everything. though none were ever effective - came to inquire about our living conditions. Mother, ignoring the possible adverse consequences of her action, didn't mince words and told them exactly what she thought of our living conditions. Naturally, they had no answer to her furious tirade so, to change the subject, they urged us to buy some cologne to improve our hygiene. Ha! They were just trying to get rid of a misdirected transport of inferior product. In answer to that, someone brought a kerosene lamp without the glass chimney ~ a non-existent commodity - with the wick turned so high that it produced a ribbon of filthy smoke, to show them what we thought of their idea of hygiene. Someone else asked whether they would like to meet the bugs infesting our living quarters. That brought the meeting to fast conclusion and the commissars departed in a hurry.
In June of 1941 Hitler attacked Russia, which was to be expected. Father kept telling them that it would happen sooner or later. Apparently this statement was reported to the N.K.V.D., for they came to search our quarters in the belief that father must have had a secret source of information. The only thing they found was the plan of our property in Poland, so it was confiscated. Russia was rife with informers. Brother would betray brother, and children their parents. This deplorable state of mistrust was cultivated by the government to prevent any organized rebellion.
In late October, a group of government officials arrived and announced that since we had become their allies we were free to leave, but we had to do so within twenty four hours or our travelling passes would be rescinded forever. We had no resources for traveling, just a desperate determination to leave. So, Mother invited our Russian friends to come and choose whatever they liked from what was left of our belongings, and pay what they could afford. Early the next morning, we hired a sled which we shared with our adopted aunt and her small son, and set on a long journey to the southern part of Russia where, according to our information, the Polish Army was in the process of mobilization. Our future was uncertain to say the least, and hope was the only stimulus that pushed us forward over the snow-covered, unknown expanse of that God-forsaken country.
It was too cold to ride in an open sled, even if there was enough space for our luggage and the rest of us. So, except for Grandmother and the youngest children wrapped up as warmly as possible, we walked or ran all the way, till we reached the River Ob. We crossed the river on a man-powered ferry and then waited all night in a small building by the jetty for a riverboat to take us to Barnaul - the nearest railroad station. The place was packed with people. There was no place to rest one's head, and I was so tired and sleepy at the time, that I was willing to give ten years of my life for few hours of sleep.
The next morning, 20 October 1941, which happened to be Mother's name day, we traveled to Barnaul, joining other families with the same destination. We chartered a cattle wagon, the only transportation available to carry us to the point of mobilization, and were forced to wait several days for it by the railway tracks.
The first night, a good soul locked our Grandmother and us children in the station's waiting room, albeit against the rules. Our parents spent the night outside, huddling together to keep from freezing. The next night, we were lucky to meet a sympathetic Russian family who put us up in their small apartment. Our parents relieved each other every few hours to keep watch over our depleted belongings. On the third day, we finally boarded the train and traveled past Semipalatinsk and stopped at Alma-Ata, where we picked up one lost and starving Pole who was also trying to get to the mobilization point. He was half-starved, for the men who had been released from lagers - war prisons - walked out with just the shirt on their backs. We shared what little dry bread we had, as the Russian soldiers going to the front had shared their bread with us and had asked for our prayers. At the end of our journey, we lived on sugar beets that we had managed to steal from a passing freight train.
On entering Tashkent someone noticed a small market so, as soon as the train stopped, Father ran to buy whatever was available. He was coming back with his cap full of tomatoes, but before he reached the station our train left. We went to Samarkand, our destination point, but it was already so crowded with Polish exiles that the railroad officials forbade anyone to leave the train. We couldn't travel on or Father would never find us. So, we jumped off the train on the wrong side of tracks and hoped to sneak into the city unnoticed. I must say that luck was with us. Grandmother said it was a reward for sharing our food with a stranger.
As it happened a young Pole, who had resided in Samarkand for some time, came to look for his friends. He noticed our dilemma and, not only helped us to get into the city, but brought a pitcher of hot soup from the kitchen he worked in. Father found us the very same night, among hundreds of people sleeping on the street. We stayed there for a few days. Before we left for the collective farm, Mother managed to sell her rings to a government agency in exchange for packaged tea. Money had no value, but tea was a very valuable commodity to the native Uzbeks. When we reached the collective farm, we were again forced to live in one room with another family until we found a one-room adobe that was slowly crumbling. But it was our own, and Father's ears didn't have to suffer listening to our co-tenant's unceasing off-key singing. The first thing on the agenda was to get rid of the lice that we had acquired on the train. They were in our hair, underwear, clothes and blankets - in other words, everywhere. As soon as we got more detailed information about the Polish Army, Father left to enlist while the rest of us stayed behind.
Working on the collective farm in springtime wasn't too bad - we spread manure in the fields with pitchforks. Cotton picking in the summer was a different story. Our fingers were a bloody mass, cut to the core by the extremely sharp points of the dry pods until our foreman, a young Uzbek slightly more civilized then most of them, took pity on us and showed us the ropes. But there was no remedy for our aching backs at the end of each day. It was from our foreman, or rather his mother, that my sister received her second marriage proposal. The bride price this time was to be a goat and a sewing machine. It was the type you had to crank, but still a sewing machine was a very rare commodity in that part of the world. My mother refused the offer politely, for it was important not to offend the natives, and explained that European women don't marry at a tender age of thirteen.
We thought that Siberia had been bad, but it was paradise in comparison with our situation in Uzbekistan. At least in Siberia we had water from the well. Here, the only supply of water was a dirty ditch full of living creatures. It had to be strained through a cloth and boiled to be drinkable. The food rations were negligible and erratic. So, in the beginning, we used the tea as a premium of exchange for food, and then the rest of our clothes. Surprisingly, Mother's Japanese dressing gown fetched more on the black market then Father's woolen army cape that we used as a blanket. We were left with just the clothes on our backs, which we had to adapt to the native style. Under one's dress, one wore pajama pants with leggings tied at the ankles to keep the cold and gnats out, and keep the village girls from lifting our dresses to see what we had underneath, if anything. We would have had a few more items of clothing, if some of them had not been stolen on one of the stops when we spent the night sleeping on a street. One of the items was my first pair of strapless, made to order, pigskin shoes. I really missed them, although they were too small for me at the time, but I guess they had the same connotation as Mother's hat.
Another way to supplement our food was by wailing at funerals. Respect for the deceased was measured by the number of mourners, so the families hired wailers to upgrade the importance of the dead.
As the time went by, the lack of the food increased. Even dogs became the victims of starving men, who dared to catch them. The poor animals were trained to kill, and their owners would not hesitate to let them if they caught the culprits. In that land of abject misery, I learned that a starving person will eat anything, including tidbits found in garbage.
The sharp, cold weather and the malnutrition caused a strange disorder in our system. A feather touch to the skin generated a knife-like pain. On top of that, our rations were stopped for three days, so we lived on a diet of wild, bitter sorrel and potato peels - and not a pinch of salt to blunt the bitter taste. When we finally received few pounds of wild millet, we had to stand in line for hours to have it ground. The mill was very primitive, like everything else in that unfortunate country. While my sister and I waited our turn, getting hungrier by the hour, an old Uzbek invited us to his house for a meal - using sign language, for we didn't speak Uzbeki and he didn't know Russian. Two Poles waiting in line with us didn't trust that guy's hospitality, and insisted on going with us. Our host brought a bowl of watery soup for the three of us and a smaller one for my sister, which seemed strange. But, we were too hungry to question it. And all the time, as he talked pointing to my sister and the soup we would say yakshy - good - as it was one of the few words we knew. We thought that he was asking whether we liked the soup, but were we wrong! When it came time to leave, our host grabbed my sister and made us understand that he had bought her for the bowl of soup. Luckily, our countrymen, in spite of near starvation, proved stronger than the old guy, and we managed to escape. After that incident, we were afraid to go out for some time.
The deplorable conditions brought typhoid fever, and Grandmother was the first to succumb. In her delirium, she kept asking for bread, which we didn't have. But we learned that a temporary Polish outpost had food that had been supplied by the Red Cross, to help people in our situation. So, I decided to walk the seven miles to Krasnodieysk, with the hope of obtaining some bread for Grandmother. I got there hungry and tired, and all I got for my efforts was an end piece that wouldn't make two slices. A Polish woman from a nearby farm who went with me, left empty-handed. On the way back, she begged me for a bite of my bread, and while I had no heart to refuse her the first time, I prayed that she wouldn't ask me again so I could carry that piece of bread to my grandmother.
It was hard to believe that things could get any worse, but they did. Mother decided to move us to the outpost, from which it would be easier to contact Father. The culminating moment came when an old Uzbek tried to pull our only glass window out of its frame. Mother went after him with an ax and he ran away, but we knew that he would return with reinforcements. So, with the help of our neighbor who loaned us an arba (a two-wheel cart) to transport our grandmother, we left as fast as we could.
When we reached the outpost, the representative refused us accommodation, but Mother, fraught with desperation, threatened to throw us under a train and jump herself. After that acrimony, a place was found for Grandmother in the infirmary. My sister was put on the hospital staff such as it was, and Mother in the management. Of course, they expected Mother to be grateful and overlook their corruption and stealing of the funds and food that were intended for the starving civilians whose men were in the army, but Mother refused to cooperate. It is sad but true, that it's always the worst element of any society that manages to obtain positions of trust.
After being bombarded by frantic letters from us, Father managed to get a few days leave and came to take us to the army base. At the time, Grandmother was unconscious, but holding tenaciously to life. We could neither take her with us, nor leave her behind. The situation was heartbreaking. Mother refused to leave as long as Grandmother was alive, but insisted that we go with Father. It was the first and only time that I prayed for someone's death. Grandmother did die few days later, and we buried her in the cold, unfriendly earth. At the railway station we were refused tickets without a government pass, which we had no hope of obtaining. At the time, a train with a few cars carrying armed forces stopped at the station. So, Father gave his ticket to Mother and joined the troops, while my sister, brother and I hid behind the luggage. Somehow, we managed to reach our destination – Kermine - without major disaster. Father's leave was ending, so he had to rush back to his base. He begged a ride on an army lorry, and took with him my brother, who was the youngest and running a temperature, and placed him in the local hospital. The rest of us stayed behind, awaiting some kind of transportation. In the meantime, the army based in Kermine fed us and hundreds of others in the same situation. The food, like all the equipment, was supplied by the British, but most of it was stolen by the Russian government before it reached the Polish Army. With more and more civilians gathering around the army posts, the soup became more watery with every day.
After days of futile waiting for transportation, we decided to walk to Kenimech, where father was stationed. By the time we reached “The Valley of Death”, which is what Kenimech means, Mother had a high fever and joined my brother in hospital. It is surprising how they survived the typhoid fever in the deplorable conditions in that hospital. I was next to succumb, but Father managed to place me in the Army hospital where I was assured proper care and the right diet. I had a high fever and was unconscious for days.
My head was shaved to prevent my hair from falling out. When I finally left the hospital, I looked like a very skinny boy. But, at least I was alive, while thousands around us were dying because they didn't have the physical strength to fight the sickness. And the climate didn't help. The landscape was dry and dusty. You could see the hot air vibrating before your eyes. But we now had a roof over our heads, and food that the Army shared with us. The place was full of scorpions and, every morning, we had to check our clothes and shoes before we put them on.
Our days were spent in a provisional school, and our evenings filled with singing by a campfire, or enjoying amateur entertainment. We were happy for the first time since the war started, but we couldn't wait to get out of Russia. Finally, thanks to General Anders' unwavering endeavors, the happy day came. It wasn't all smooth sailing by any means, for the Russian government put many obstacles in our way. They would not only be losing a good portion of British supplies but, what was more important, an independent Polish Army was in a position to interfere in their aggressive plans for Poland. Our train to Krasnovodsk was delayed long enough to miss the boat that Father’s company boarded, and we were left behind. We were unable to board the next one because it was loaded to capacity with the next group.
Since the Russian government supplied passage for the armed forces only, families had to be added to every consignment of men, or stay behind. We waited for days in unbearably hot weather and short of drinking water, which you could obtain only for food rations allotted us from army supplies. Finally, very angry and desperate women got together and demanded space on the next boat. The only possibility was to divide our group into smaller sections and squeeze us in with the other transports. We were lucky to be in the first group, and believe me, it was a tight squeeze. Everyone sat on the deck with their knees under their chins, and if you went to the toilet and had no one to watch your tiny space, it would promptly disappear.
As soon as we disembarked (in Pahlevi, Persia), all our clothes were confiscated and burned to prevent any disease that we might be carrying from spreading. In compensation, we received a headscarf, a cotton slip or a flannel nightgown and a blanket. Not what you could call a sufficient wardrobe, but Polish women proved to be quite enterprising and naturally handy with a needle and thread.
Soon four scarves turned into a dress, as did the slip, adorned with ribbons purchased from the Persians who came to the camp with their wares. The living accommodations were roofs set on wooden poles. We slept on blankets spread on the ground, with no protection from the elements, but no one complained. The sand was hot enough to boil an egg on it. We had to learn to walk by digging our toes into the sand to reach a cooler layer. It took a long time to get from one point to another. We had plenty of time on our hands, but the trouble started with the change of diet, which caused diarrhea. One had to run to the public toilets to save one’s honor (and underwear, which was a scarce commodity). In spite of the discomforts, we enjoyed our short stay on the shores of Caspian Sea, with all that beautiful, cool water to swim in.
From Pahlevi, we traveled to Teheran. The truck drivers were inebriated most of the time to boost their courage when traveling the mountain road. It was narrow and lacked any safety measures, and one of the Russian lorries ahead of us fell into the ravine. We almost followed it, but our guardian angel must have been watching over us. We skimmed the edge of the road with one wheel hanging in the air, but our driver pulled sharply into the middle, and went ahead without looking back. For us youngsters, it seemed like an adventure, but for the adults who had better comprehension of the danger, the trip was nerve-wracking. So, they didn't relax until we reached the refugee camp that was situated on the outskirts of Teheran. Huge tents were set up in a beautiful green orchard. The food was different, but we hadn’t learned to be finicky yet. Whenever possible, we supplemented our diet with figs and pomegranates that grew there in abundance.
We were on the transport list to Ahvaz, but Mother's eyes become infected and our trip was delayed. There is something to say about communal living. Mother didn't have to worry about us while she was in the hospital, as there were plenty of people to take care of us. Mother's illness happened to be a blessing in disguise, for it brought us a letter from Father, which would otherwise have missed us. That was the first contact with him since Kenimeh.
From the greenery of Teheran, we went to the dusty plains near Ahvaz. At least we were lucky enough to be quartered in a building, even though there were about twenty people in one room. The vast majority was housed in disused stables with wooden berths as the only comfort. The food was worse than it had been in Teheran.
While the private kitchen that provided meals for the administration had a choice of provisions, the rest of us had a choice between noodles and noodles. So, to provide a more nutritional staples for us, Mother went to work as a waitress in the private dining room. The people in the camp didn't tolerate the unjust division of food supplies for long. They sent letters of complaint to Army headquarters, until the head of the administration was replaced and things changed for better.
Our stay in Ahvaz lasted almost a year, so we enrolled in school. Although there was a shortage of teachers, which limited our curriculum, it was better than nothing. Not that I thought so at the time. For me, nothing was better. The only subject I enjoyed was physical education, which included Polish national dancing. The next stop in our enforced travels was Karachi. First, the Country Club Camp and its tents, then Malir, a transit camp for those who were on the list for India. The contingent that stayed in Country Club went to a number of refugee camps in Africa. From Karachi, we sailed to Bombay and from there to Valivade by train. The train trip took twenty-four hours. We stopped at every station to pick up passengers, although the train was already overcrowded. Not that we had anything to worry about, since our compartments were reserved for white passenger only. We were besieged by beggars at every stop, most of them small children. Although we were warned not to give them anything, for they would multiply by hundreds at the first sign of any largesse, we could not ignore them. Not only did we remember our time of starvation in Russia, but we had always been taught to share with the poor. There were so many starving children in India, next to riches beyond imagination enjoyed by the privileged few.
Valivade, with a population close to five thousand Poles, was situated few miles from Kolhapur. There were mostly women and children. All capable men were in the Army, and teenage boys in the Cadets. Boys of our age were so scarce, that we used to call them “raisins”. Our living quarters consisted of two rooms and a small kitchen, with primitive cooking facilities. The toilets were public and placed in a strategic point of the camp, several hundred yards from the living quarters. The lower part of our houses was a stone wall about three feet tall, with the rest of the wall being a plaited mat with openings for doors and windows made of the same material. It was all nice and breezy but didn't prevent the rains in the monsoon season from coming in.
Yet, it did little harm to our mud floors. The more important problem the walls created was a complete lack of privacy, unless you kept your voice really low. With several thousand women with a lot of time on their hands, the camp was a cesspool of gossip, especially at those times when the Polish ship "Batory" was docked in Bombay and the crew came to visit the camp. Every little tidbit was bandied about with relish.
Cooking was rather complicated. It was too hot in the small kitchen, but to cook outside presented difficulties. On windy days, there was a danger of spreading fire and you also had to defend your food from vultures that would swoop down and grab the meat from the pot. The mosquito nets over our beds didn't make the sleeping quarters any cooler, but one got used to it after a while.
To prevent the floors from crumbling they had to be smeared with cow manure every so often. We didn't perform this “pleasant” chore ourselves, for there was a big work force among the poor willing to do any domestic jobs. Soon, they learned enough Polish to advertise their wares. Every morning, you could hear the familiar chant: "Mamusia! Prac! Mazac! Takie swierze krowie gowno!" (Mother, I'll do the laundry and smear the floors with fresh cow's shit!) It was obvious that their teachers were our young teenagers. Tutored by their teachers, they advertised socks in oil, hair accessories for the bold, and other similar absurdities. Although the labor was cheap, the poor working for us made more money than they could ever have dreamed of, and we treated them like human beings, while the majority of the English and the upper caste Hindus treated them like pariahs. In no time at all, the camp boasted an open market, a small plaza that included a restaurant, a café and a movie-house run by electricity produced by a portable generator. Needless to say, the rest of the camp used kerosene lamps, but equipped with the glass chimneys this time.
The most popular place was the post office. The postmaster not only spoke Polish as did all the natives around us, but had the ability to recognize people by their voices, and put the right names to them. There was always a crowd of people waiting for mail from their loved ones who were in the Army. Anxiety grew after the battle of Monte Casino, where thousands died in the name of freedom. The fact that the Polish flag was the first to fly over the ruins of the monastery didn't recompense those who lost their loved ones in that bloody battle. All we got in return from our Allies were a lot of unfulfilled promises. After Potsdam, we knew the bitter taste of betrayal. That was the day we buried our hopes for a free Poland.
My sister and I enrolled in high school. Although we didn't wear uniforms like we would have in Poland, we had a very strict dress code and had to observe a curfew, so it was always early movies. Our social life, if not exactly nonexistent, was female-oriented. Since those were our formative years, it wasn't any wonder that our knowledge of sex was too naive for words, even for those days of sexual reticence. Otherwise, you could say that our life was quite normal, with the natural jealousies and competitions for popularity in school cliques. I was a liaison for different groups. My extrovert personality made me popular with almost everyone. Naturally, we all looked down on the lower graders, but I had friends among them too.
My sister and I joined a dance troupe performing Polish national dances at various patriotic celebrations. My future husband noticed me for the first time when he and his fellow officers stopped to watch our rehearsal. I believe that it was the first time that “Batory” was docked in Bombay and he was acting as the best man to one of the sailors who married one of the Valivadians. It was the first wedding that took place in the camp. For lack of boys, girls had to take the place of male partners. Our costumes were made-to-order, and as authentic as it was possible to achieve with the materials at hand, and so were our high-laced shoes.
One of our memorable experiences was the international show held in Bombay in which we took part. We traveled under the chaperonage of our teacher, but managed to have a good time in spite of the restrictions placed on our movements. We were entertained at receptions at the Polish Embassy and the Yacht Club. Dining in elegant restaurants and visiting museums and theaters was an enormous treat in our limited everyday social life in the camp. One evening, we gave a performance for American soldiers recuperating from war wounds or battle fatigue. After the well-received performance, we were allowed to mingle with the men, and that same evening 1 received my first marriage proposal from a young officer through an interpreter, since my English at the time was negligible. Later that night, a group of guys came to serenade us. We considered it the most romantic experience, but our chaperons' views were different and we were grounded for a couple of days. A few days later I met my future husband at the Polish-Czechoslovakian Club. It was a beautiful place by the sea, surrounded by oleander trees in full bloom. I was on a swing and he offered to push me. He says that I never stopped swinging. After each excursion to Bombay we were forced to come down to earth with a vengeance, for we had to make up for the lost time in our studies.
By the time my brother entered high school, my sister changed her studies to teaching and later to nursing, while I went to an English school run by nuns in Panchagani. I have never before, or since, experienced such idiotic school rules. While we were allowed to invite boys from B.H.S. to our Saturday dances and other gatherings, we were forbidden to speak to the same boys outside the convent, and I had known some of them for years. Needless to say, I wasn't crazy about that specific boarding school, but I must admit that my English improved considerably. I did like some of the nuns. There was tiny sister Cecilia who was very understanding and always kept the side door opened for the late comers from visits to friends. We were allowed to visit one Sunday every month. We used those days to meet boys away from the convent. After all, I was seventeen years old and had never been kissed, or almost never, for I had been kissed once by my future husband when I was sweet sixteen. Mother Superior must have had some suspicions, for one time she sent a kitchen boy to spy on us, but I gave him more money than he could make in a month and he kept mum about our rendezvous. Another was Sister Ludberga, an Austrian who joined the order after her fiancé was killed by the Germans. She used to take us on bicycling excursions to various interesting places. I’ve learned from one of the girls who kept in touch with the nuns, that the convent was demolished in an earthquake. The most impressive moments of my sojourn in the convent was the day I met Gandhi, probably one of the greatest men of our time.
In 1947, after India gained her independence, we sailed to England to join Father, who went there with the Polish Army at the end of the war. We sailed on the “Empire Brent”. Most of the passengers succumbed to seasickness. Somehow, our family was immune to it, and with so many sick people aboard, the stewards needed all possible help. So, my mother and brother did what they could, while my sister offered to work in the infirmary, and I acted as an interpreter for the ship's doctor. He happened to be a very handsome man, so a lot of man-starved women came to him for unnecessary checkups. I didn't blame them for that, but some of the complaints that I had to translate were very embarrassing. Otherwise, I enjoyed the trip very much. It was fascinating to watch as we passed through the Suez Canal, with the ship passing so close to the shore. The Bay of Biscay was the most turbulent part of our crossing from Bombay to South Hampton. Then we traveled to a transit camp, where we lived in corrugated huts. After our travel documents were processed, we went to the army camp to join Father.
I had a couple of weeks to adjust to the new environment and, after that, I was enrolled in a boarding school near Cheltenham, while my sister went to work in a hospital. My brother made friends with local young people and elected to work on a farm. It was a very smart move, as it gave him access to extra food to supplement our rations. I came home for Easter vacations and, on the way back to school, I experienced one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. At nineteen I considered myself the epitome of sophistication. Dressed in the latest style - the so-called new look – an elegant hat with a veil down to my chin, I traveled in a first class compartment. As I very nonchalantly put a light to my cigarette, I set my veil on fire. At the time, I wished the earth would part and swallow me. But, in retrospect, it was more funny then embarrassing.
Shortly before summer vacation, my future husband came to visit me at the school, and a few days later we became engaged. He had his visa and a passage on the “Queen Elizabeth” to the U.S.A. Before that could take place, we had to get married in order to give me priority to immigrate on the Polish quota, which was already full. Otherwise, I would have to wait close to five years. Even so, I didn't join my husband as soon as I expected. I became pregnant right away and, by the time I received my visa, my pregnancy was too far advanced for me to sail. In a way, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not only had I free hospital and medical care, but I had my family to help with the baby.
Jolanta was born on May 15th in London's Paddington hospital around 2:00 am. She was the first baby born in my social circle, so everyone rushed to the hospital with flowers. We even received two bouquets of roses from out of town. We had so many flowers, that I sent a few vases to the dining room so other patients could enjoy them, especially since no other ward patients received any flowers.
Jolanta was about 2-3 months old when we sailed for New York abroad the “Queen Mary”. I had a letter of introduction from my landlady to the chief engineer, so we received very good care all through the voyage. Besides that, Jolanta was the youngest passenger, so everyone made a lot of fuss over her. Between the stewardess and the passengers eager to take care of the baby, I had plenty of free time to enjoy the trip. To tell the truth, I was sorry that it lasted only five days - five days of complete leisure with evening entertainment thrown in.
In New York, we were met by my husband and his uncle, who carried a huge bunch of flowers. My first look at the skyscrapers left me with an impression of claustrophobia and, as much as I liked London, I disliked New York. I was happy to leave it behind when, after two years, we moved to Buffalo. Although Buffalo was far from being a model city, it had a big Polish community and, most importantly, it was close to Toronto where the rest of my family lived. I was able to take a train to visit my parents whenever 1 wanted.
In February of 1954 Daria was born. Being an exceptionally considerate baby, she decided to arrive in this world during the day. She was born around 11 am, in Millard Filmore Hospital, to which I walked from our apartment at 50 Gate Circle. A couple of weeks before the due date, my sister took Jolanta to stay with her grandparents in Toronto. It was our first separation and I couldn't wait for her to come home. When I learned the time of her arrival, I stood in the hospital window just to get a glimpse of her. There were many more separations in the years to come, caused by circumstances beyond our control but, every time, I've missed my children so much that I talked to their pictures. I still do it quite often, but now I include our granddaughters in this strange monologue.
Teresa (Burek) Oszurko (Age 83)
A resident of Suncrest, Washington who passed away at home on June 15, 2011 of medical complications. She was born November 22, 1927 in Bydgoszcz, Poland to Josef and Irena Burek. She met her husband, Christopher, in Bombay, India where she was in a Polish refugee camp in 1943, after being released from a Russian detention camp in Siberia. Soon after, they were married in England. She followed her husband over to the United States in 1949. They located to Buffalo, NY, where she worked, raised her family and retired. While in Buffalo, she actively supported the Polish community as a member of the Polish Union, the Saturday Polish School, the Polish Cultural Society and the Siberian organization. Since moving to Suncrest, WA in 2004, she joined the Stevens County Citizens Action Team (SCCAT) and assisted in the Cop Shop there.
Teresa was preceded in death by her husband, Christopher, of 53 years and her brother Zbigniew Burek. She is survived by her sister, Aleksandra Halko; daughters, Jolanta (Jhamee) Oszurko and Daria Sikorski; granddaughters, Jennifer (Sikorski) Schreiner, Stephanie Sikorski and Amanda Sikorski; and great-granddaughters, Temperance and Ariana Schreiner.
Click on the following link to view a short video of Teresa's life:
Teresa with her parents, in Poland
Teresa's growing family
Teresa and her sister Alexandra