(Wacek's story was originally published on the Canadian Polish Historical Society of Edmonton, Alberta website
and is repeated here with their permission.
Wacław (Wacek) was born on July 27, 1919, in the village of Jadwipol in Eastern Poland. He was the youngest of four children whose parents were Ludwik and Stanisława Maj. Wacek's father was a forest ranger and worked for Prince Janusz Radziwil, and had a small farm. For his first four years of schooling Wacek attended school in Jadwipol. He finished his schooling in Rowno, where he attended the Mikolaj Kopernik School. After finishing school in 1935, Wacek returned home to work on his parent's farm. In 1936, he was registered as an apprentice forest ranger and began working with his father. In anticipation of war, an army was mobilized in 1939 and on September 4th 1939, Wacek was conscripted. He was sent to the outskirts of Rowno to guard the bridges and viaducts. When the Soviet army invaded Poland on September 17th Wacek, along with others, left their posts and very cautiously returned home. They found Jadwipol and the surrounding areas crowded with Poles from western Poland, who were fleeing from the Nazis.
In the early hours (3 A.M.) of a very cold February 10th 1940, the Maj family were roused from their sleep by a loud banging on their door. Wacek's father opened the door to find an NKVD officer (Soviet Security Service) and two Soviet policemen standing there. The house was searched for weapons, but none were found. They had previouslybbeen hidden in the hollow trunk of a yew elm. The NKVD officer then read out a warrant for the arrest of the entire Maj family. No reason for their arrest was given, and they were informed that they were to be "resettled" in the U.S.S.R.
By sheer coincidence all members of the family were present! Wacek's parents, his eldest brother Antoni and his wife of six months, Wanda, had just arrived for a short visit from another town, his sister Jozefa had returned to her parents' home while her husband was away in the army, Wacek, and his brother Kazik.
Everyone was accounted for, but Wacek's sister-in-law's name was not on the list and no amount of pleading could get her name added. The pleas fell on deaf ears. Wanda never saw her husband again. He died in England before they could be reunited. Nor did Wacek's sister ever see her husband again.
One of the police officers quietly told Wacek's parents to pack as much food and warm clothing as they could. They packed sacks of salt pork, flour and a variety of grains. All of which they would eventually share with others. The remainder of their belongings were left behind. When Wacek visited his aunt in Poland in 1975, she told him that shortly after they had been driven away in sleighs, some of the people in the area descended on the Maj's property like vultures.
The family was driven to the train station in Zdoibunow and, along with hundreds of others, were housed in a school for two days while the NKVD arrested more people for "resettlement". All these deportees were referred to as "enemies of the state".
All these "enemies" were loaded into cattle cars that had ledges made of planks against the walls. The elderly and young children mostly occupied these. The remainder of the people sat wherever they could find space on the floor. There were two small windows up near the roof that had bars on them, but no glass. There was a stove at one end of the car and, while the people had been waiting for the train to arrive, they had been told to gather firewood and coal for the long journey ahead. On the side opposite the stove there was a hole in the floor: this was the toilet. Because of the lack of privacy, everyone was embarrassed to use this facility during the day. Eventually a blanket was hung around the hole to give some semblance of privacy. Once a day the train stopped at a railway station, the people were given a small portion of bread, and some watered-down soup. Each car had a designated man responsible for ensuring that each person received an equal portion of the food. This man was also responsible for notifying the authorities of any deaths. The walls of the cattle car were covered in frost and the small stove gave off little heat, or none if there was nothing to burn. Therefore, whenever the train stopped a few young men would leave the car and go in search of wood or coal, with the hope the train would not leave without them.
When the train had crossed the border into the USSR the first stop was the border town of Shepetovka . After that, they stopped at Gomel, Bryansk, Orel, Yelets, passed near Moscow, then on to Ryazan, Gorkiy, and finally, after a two-week journey, the train and its passengers arrived at the city of Kirov. All along the way, people had been given just enough food to keep them alive.
In Kirov, they were loaded onto sleighs for a two-day journey through dense forest until they reached their destination, the District of Gorkiy, in the Region of Shar'ya, at a place called the Poldniewica Resettlement Camp. There were a few wooden barracks, but more had to be built to accommodate everyone. Each barrack had ledges like the cattle cars and, depending on the size of the family, it was one ledge per family. The Maj family of six were allotted one ledge. This was now their home. Each barrack housed about 14 families. There was a brick stove with a steel top in the middle of the barrack. The communal stove.
Everyone from the age of 14 to 65 had to work. The Soviet motto was "no work-no bread". Women with children, whose husbands were not with them, had to work as well Brigades made up of five or six people were formed, and each had a quota to meet each day. Most of the work consisted of chopping down trees for railway tracks. If the work quota was met, workers were given coupons which entitled them to make purchases in the camp store, but only if they had money. The workers were paid in rubles. However, they were only given a small amount - just enough to buy a meagre supply of food staples.
Shortly after their arrival in Poludniewica, each person was called into the commandant's office and given a form to complete. On this form, they were to give the reason for their "resettlement". No one knew the reason and the authorities would accept only one answer - "enemies of the state". There seemed no alternative but to sign, at which point they were sentenced to 25 years in Siberia!
There was a wire fence around the camp and although it was not guarded, no one was allowed beyond it, aside from the workers. People from the collective farms in the surrounding areas began coming to the fence to exchange food for clothing. During one of these trading days in June 1940, and old bearded man heard the name "Maj" being called. He went to the commandant to ask permission to see "prisoner Maj". He was looking for Wacek's father. When he found him in the barrack, he asked, "Do you remember me?" When Wacek's father replied "no" the man said that they had fought side by side on the Dzwina River, in Tsar Nicholas's army in World War I. They had last seen each other in 1917. From then until the fall of 1941, when the Maj's left the camp, this old friend came as often as he could. He always brought a small amount of food along with a copy of the newspaper, Izvestia, that contained news of what was happening in the world. This paper was always left in the outside "john".
The barracks were infested with lice and bed bugs, and nothing that was done helped get rid if these vermin. A typhus epidemic broke out in the camp and there were many deaths each day. The commandant ignored the situation until his son died. He then notified the authorities and a medical team was sent to vaccinate everyone. Wacek and his brother Kazik were not spared, and were both very ill.
Christmas 1940 arrived and, since the Soviets did not celebrate Christmas, it was a workday. Some of the work brigades took some time out and sat around a fire singing beautiful Polish carols. When Wacek and his brothers returned to their barrack at the end of their workday, they found a feast waiting. Wacek's uncle had sent a parcel from Poland that contained lard, kasha and dried fruit. Bread was used for "oplatek". After their meal, they went to visit neighbours to share oplatek and sing Polish carols. New Year's Day was a holiday. The workweek was six days of work and one day of rest. However, the day of rest did not necessarily fall on a Sunday, but the Maj's always found time to pray. Their faith gave them strength and hope.
In July 1941, a high-ranking NKVD officer arrived at the camp to inform the people that General W Sikorski (Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army and Premier of the Polish Government-in-exile in London, England) had signed an emancipation pact with Jozef Stalin. The people were stunned - they were free! Tears of joy flowed freely. The people were told that they would receive documents stating that they were free Poles - and they did.
In November 1941, both Antoni and the commandant (of Poldniewica) were notified that it was time to transport those who wanted to leave. Horse-drawn sleighs were sent from collective farms in the area. Seven hundred Poles left Poludniewica. They were taken to the nearest railway line in the middle of the forest. There was no station. About three days passed before the train arrived. The days and nights were spent out in the open, it was very cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground. Since there was an abundance of firewood, the campfires burned continually. Once they had word that the train was on its way, the people gathered wood to be loaded onto the train. They would need a lot of warmth as they travelled through the Ural Mountains. A few hundred Poles from Camp Dorovatka, near the railway line, joined the group from Poludniewica. When the train departed, there were tears and confusion. Once again a journey into the unknown.
The train travelled south to Shar'ya, Kirov and Perm, and then crossed the Ural Mountains to Sverdlovsk. From there it stopped in Chelyabinsk, Orsk, Aktyubinsk, Oktyabrsk, Emba, Chelkar and then Aralsk by the Aral Sea. The next stops were Novokazalinsk, Tashkent, Samarkand and finally Bukhara, where the railway line ended. It was a few days before Christmas 1941, and much warmer than the part of the country they had left weeks ago. The trainload of people was taken to a park, to camp under the stars again.
Christmas Eve was celebrated in the park. An Uzbek traded a bag of rice and a bag of raisins for Wacek's jacket. Wacek's sister put these ingredients into a pot with water and, as the rice and raisins cooked, it expanded until many people were able to share this Christmas Eve meal. There were campfires everywhere and once everyone had eaten their meagre festive meal, the air was filled with the lovely sound of Polish Christmas Carols. On Christmas day, the people were divided into groups, and transported to work on collective farms. Wacek and his family were sent to the Wapkiet area and were housed, along with another family, in a donkey shed. Wacek and his brother Kazik, did a variety of work. The people they worked for were not overly friendly; however, their attitudes changed when Wacek informed them that they were Poles and not Russians.
Army headquarters had been opened in Wapkiet on February 10th 1942. Once Wacek and his brothers registered at army headquarters, they were sent to Bukhara then on to Guzar to undergo medical examinations by Polish and Russian doctors. On February 15th 1942, Wacek and his brothers were officially enlisted in the Polish Forces in the USSR. However, they all went into different units and were sent to different camps.
Wacek was in the Wilenski Reconnaissance Unit and was given a British army uniform - not knowing that, ultimately, he would be part of the British Eighth Army. In Guzar, Wacek was again stricken with typhus and was in a makeshift hospital that had once stored cotton bales - there were no beds, just floor mats. After about ten days, Wacek's fever broke and his condition was less critical. The head nurse was from the camp in Poludniewica and, whenever she could, she brought Wacek extra food to build up his strength. One day she mentioned to Wacek that his unit was preparing to leave for Persia (Iran). On hearing this news, he and a fellow soldier from the same unit, snuck out of the hospital in the evening. It was a 7km trek to reach their unit and they had not realized how weak they were. They spent the night in a donkey shed and reached their unit the next morning, just as it was ready to leave. Since they could not have managed the 12 km march, they were put on a wagon to ride to the train station. The train going to Kagan was waiting and, for this train ride, they were not in cattle cars.
From Kagan they went to Ashkhabad then on to Krasnovodsk. Two days later, Wacek boarded the ship "Kaganovich" for the 24-hour sail across the sea to the Port of Pahlavi in Persia. After disembarking, Wacek was sent to a camp on the coast, and again had to undergo medical examination by British doctors. From here, he was sent to a camp near Teheran, where he spent two weeks. In April 1942, Wacek was sent to a delousing station, after which he was issued a complete British army uniform.
Wacek's next destination was Port Abadon, where he boarded a ship that sailed down the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, then down and around the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Aden, up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal to the Port of Said in Egypt. He disembarked there and traveled by train to Palestine, where he was to receive his basic training.
In April 1942, Wacek was assigned to the Commander-in-Chief's (Middle East) Reserve. A few months later, June 1942, he was transferred to the 9th Carpathian Rifle Battalion of the 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division. Wacek's regiment left Palestine for Iraq in October 1942, and were camped near Quizel Rabat. This was where he completed his training in every field of combat. While there, he learned that his brother Kazik was in the same camp. A tearful and joyous reunion for both of them. His brother was able to tell Wacek that their parents and sister were in a camp near Lake Victoria in Kenya, as well as the whereabouts of their eldest brother.
In November 1942, Wacek was transferred to the Carpathian Lancers Unit, a unit he was very proud to serve in until he was discharged.
On December 1st 1943, Wacek's regiment left for Egypt and camped at Quassassin; it was here they began training with live ammunition. Then, on January 2nd 1944, the regiment set sail from Port Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea bound for Taranto, Italy. After leaving the ship, the armoured cars, one of which Wacek was driving, set out for San Basilio where the regiment would be camped. They had now entered the war zone.
Wacek took part in the war campaign in Italy from June 18th 1944 to May 2nd 1945. He saw action on the Rivers Sangro and Rapido, in the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Gustav-Hitler Lines, the Adriatic Coast, Ancona, the Gothic Line, Northern Apennines, on the River Senio, the Battle for Bologna, and the Plains of Lombardy.
When the war ended in May 1945, there was overwhelming joy. Wacek spent a year in Italy before going to England on July 30th 1946. He spent a year in the Welsby Camp, doing odd jobs, including helping farmers with their harvesting. Occasionally some English families would invite the Polish soldiers to tea. The Polish soldiers were constantly being asked why they did not return home now that their county was free. Wacek eventually decided to apply to immigrate to Canada. He was accepted, on the condition that he sign a two-year contract to work as a farm labourer.
On June 12, 1947, Wacek arrived in Halifax aboard the S.S. Aquitania. From Halifax he went to Kingston, Ontario for a few days, then on to Woodstock, Ontario where he was picked up by Mr. Leo Brackenbury - the farmer that he would be working for. He began work early on the morning after his arrival. This was essentially a dairy farm but had other livestock as well. The workdays were long, 12-15 hours, and the work was hard. Nevertheless, Wacek was treated well and fed well. There were many Polish soldiers that were ill-treated. On the Sundays that Wacek had off, he would get up and help with the chores so his employer could have some free time as well. Each Sunday Mrs. Brackenbury would tune the radio to a Polish program, broadcast from Buffalo, NY, for Wacek to listen to.
When Wacek's' ship docked in Halifax, a representative from the Polish paper Zwiazkowiec came aboard and distributed copies. He told the soldiers that should they want to find a relative in Canada, the paper would print an ad free of charge. Wacek remembered that Nadia and Bronek Solkowski had emigrated to Canada in 1929, and decided to try and locate them. My uncle was a subscriber to the paper and when he saw the ad, he immediately notified my parents. My mother was born and raised in Jadwipol and my father was from Kamionka. My mother wrote to Wacek immediately and encouraged him to come to Edmonton, which he did in the summer of 1948. He was allowed to finish working off his farm contract in the Edmonton area.
Upon arrival in Edmonton Wacek worked for a construction company. However, since the work was seasonal, he spent the first winter felling trees for a sawmill in Northern Alberta. After working in construction for a few years, Wacek and a friend started a painting company. In 1963, the company was dissolved and Wacek went to work for the Edmonton Catholic School Board as a painter, until he retired in 1984.
Wacek was a member of the Polish Combatant's Association from its inception until his death. He became a member of the Holy Rosary Parish upon arrival in Edmonton. He was involved in volunteer work for Holy Rosary Church when it was being built. Over many years, Wacek continued to volunteer his time if there was painting to be done in the church or rectory. Wacek also volunteered his services at the old Polish Hall and then the New Polish Hall. When Mr. T. Kiryczuk became the organist at Holy Rosary Church in the early 1950's, he organized a men's choir and Wacek became a member. The choir always sang for May 3rd celebrations.
Wacek and I (Irene Solkowski) were married in the Polish Church in 1952. We were blessed to celebrate 56 years of a wonderful life together on June 21st 2008.
"My husband's health continued to decline during the last few years of his life" - recalls Mrs. Irene Maj. "He was always in a great deal of pain, but coped with it very courageously. He died peacefully on August 8th 2008."
Waclaw Maj received the following medals and crosses:
The Cross for Valor
The Army Medal
The Cross of Monte Cassino
The Cross for the September 1939 Campaign
The Medal for Acts of Achievement in Battle by Polish Forces in theWest
Souvenir Medal for the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino
The 1939-45 Star
The Italy Star 1944
The Defence Medal
The SPK Cross
Text by: Irene Maj on behalf of Waclaw Maj