Teresa SOKOLOWSKA

 

Courtesy of Julian Plowy

I was 9 years old, living on our family's small farm in Beresteczko, Poland. It was 4 a.m. on Feb. 10, 1940. Soviet soldiers knocked on the door and told me, my mother, stepfather, two brothers and a sister that we had 30 minutes to pack up, leave and get on a train to Siberia.

The kids were crying and my mother, Jozefina, decided to make breakfast — lots of scrambled eggs, which was unusual for us because we were poor. There was a huge pile of eggs on the table, and she told us to eat, but not one of us sat down to that table. We never ate them.  Every time I'm hungry now, I still want those eggs.

Our family’s incredibly sad journey would take us to Siberia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, San Pedro, Mexico and eventually Chicago, where I graduated from Wells High School, met my husband and raised two sons, and I now live in Niles, Ill.

Survival of the fittest

There were no fences surrounding the Ust-Zaruba camp in Siberia where my family were sent. Where would you run? Into the forest and be eaten by wolves? Many people would go to the forest, and they would never return. There was really nowhere to go.

In the year spent in Siberia, our family — who were banished to the camp because we were considered patriotic Poles unlikely to accept the annexation of their lands into the Soviet Union — survived on one piece of dark bread per day and a broth often filled with cockroaches. We removed the cockroaches and ate the soup.

Many people from the city did not survive, but our rural roots and my mother's determination to live saved us. In the two months of Siberian summer, we would sneak out in the early morning hours to pick berries and to fish for eels in a nearby brook.  My mother always kept us busy.

In 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, the Soviets released the Polish Siberian prisoners in an effort to create a Polish army that would fight against the Nazis. Poland and the Soviet Union agreed to have the refugees transferred to Uzbekistan and eventually Pakistan and Persia (present-day Iran). Persia was then controlled by Great Britain, which could provide better resources and weapons for the budding Polish army.

Life for our family did not improve as we traveled penniless, on foot and on trains, to warmer climates. In Uzbekistan, we were forced to kill a stray dog with an ax and knife, eating the flesh and making a soup from it. As children, we would seek handouts at restaurants, begging for pita bread. The smell of pita bread was fantastic when you were hungry.

As time passed, my family was split up: my stepfather, Jan, and older brother, Eugeniusz, joined the Polish army; my mother and older sister stayed in Uzbekistan, while I and my youngest brother, Zdzislaw, were sent to an orphanage in Persia.

My mother strictly instructed me to take care of Zdzislaw in Persia, but the 7-year-old boy soon became sick with diarrhea, was taken to a local hospital, and died.

I had visited him in the hospital when he was alive, and no one told me he died until a boy in the village said something. They buried him without telling me.

When the Red Cross eventually reunited me with my sister and mother in Tehran, my mother knew Zdzislaw had died, but never mentioned it to me.

She didn't hug me, she didn't grab me, and I always feel guilty that my mother never forgave me. I never asked her for forgiveness, and we never talked about it.  This is a moment I live through repeatedly.

A trip to Mexico

While in Persia in 1943, my mother and sister and I were among the 1,500-or-so Poles who were selected to live in Mexico, which offered assistance to refugees.

From Persia, we traveled to Bombay, India, where we took an American warship, the USS Hermitage, on a two-month trip to San Pedro. Despite being under constant threat of torpedo attack from Japanese submarines, we lived well on the Hermitage. We had orange juice, fruit, meat and everything.

I became a messenger of sorts between the U.S. soldiers and the young Polish women, taking "love letters" between the two parties, who were forbidden from direct contact. One of the soldiers gave me a small ivory elephant, which I still keeps in the living room of my home. He brings me luck, and I've cherished it my whole life.

We were in San Pedro for two weeks, then took a train to the city of Leon in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, about 250 miles northwest of Mexico City. Our living accommodations were an abandoned ranch called "Santa Rosa, where I attended school, learned Spanish and was wooed by several potential Mexican husbands. But I wasn't interested in any of them. My sister was swept off her feet and married a Mexican man. They had three sons and remained in Mexico.

I was fascinated by a woman who worked as a bank teller, and was determined to have the same occupation as my first job. That's exactly what happened after the Polish National Alliance found my mother and I a place to live in Wicker Park in 1947, and I became a teller at Manufacturers Bank while attending Wells High School.

At a Polish dance, I met my husband, Tadeusz, an engineer and architect who died 16 years ago and was a survivor of Auschwitz. We were married in 1953, and lived in Humboldt Park before moving to Niles, where we raised our sons, Mark, now 53, and Robert, 51.

I never spoke of my childhood experiences until Mark broached the subject while in grammar school, when he was asked to do an assignment on his family tree. Inevitably, the question of why he had first cousins living in Mexico was asked.

Mark feels it was an eyes-opening moment - the saga of Poland's refugees was just plain ignored. The family's story is probably incomprehensible to many today.

Many of the Polish refugees at Santa Rosa ended up in Chicago, where they formed in 1960 the group: Klub Polakow Santa Rosa.  The club, which started with about 80 active members and met occasionally, is now down to about 20 and will have its last meeting Sept. 13, 2013.

We stuck together, but now, so many people have already died, and we're getting to be a very small group, so we decided to dissolve the club.  Most of the Polish refugees find it "unpleasant" to discuss their pasts, and feel a strong tie to the Poland they were banished from as children.

When you reach a certain age, and you know you're going to go away, this is a life history I can still talk about, so I wanted to make sure to tell my story.

My birthplace, Beresteczko, is now part of Ukraine. Our farm was bulldozed decades ago to create a kibbutz-like dwelling. When I contacted the Ukrainian government about potential reparations for losing her family's land, they told me that land never existed.

I has vivid memories of my traumatic past: the pile of eggs, the Siberian cold, my brother's death, even the smell of the slaughtered dog cooking, which for years prevented me from getting a pooch until my children begged me for one.

In the end, though, I feel I have been blessed to live in Chicago, knowing my life represents the spirit of survival.  Words cannot describe the happiness that I found here.

 

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