Wanda Jadwiga (nee Kochan) Skrobecki
Born on 1 March 1929 in Wilejka, Poland
Father - Wladyslaw Kochan. Mother - Maria Olejnik.
Wanda lived in Wilejka with her parents and younger sister Janina, born in 1935. Her father was an official of the Polish Draft Board (Komenda Uzupelnienia) and her mother was a nurse and served during the war. On September 1st 1939 Germany attacked Poland from the west and Russia attacked Poland on September 17, 1939 from the east. Poland fought all alone two mighty invaders and capitulated on September 27, 1939. Poland was then divided into Russian and German parts according to the secret Molotov - Ribbentrop pact.
Soon after Wilejka was taken over by the Russians, they started arresting people who held government jobs (even minor ones), educators, etc. Wanda’s father was arrested by the NKWD (Russian secret police) and held in prison in Wilejka. Her mother wanted to help her husband with food packages and did so, although she had to go through a complicated process of getting permissions, signatures, and stamps from various officials. Her father later marched with other Polish prisoners deep into Russia, and he recalled later that it was the most terrible experience of his life and even thought of committing suicide.
Soon after her father’s arrest, the NKWD came and told them to allow a Russian family from Moscow to move into their apartment. There was a shortage of housing for the invaders (now the occupiers) and their families, who were coming to Wilejka. Mrs. Kochan then decided to move in with their friends the Krasowski family, who preferred to have Mrs. Kochan and her two daughters share their apartment rather than some Russians. (They later met Mr. Krasowski in the Gulag.)
Wanda, her sister, and mother were visited on the night of April 19 or 20, 1941 by the NKWD and two Belorussian policemen and told they are going on a long trip. This happened at the time that Germany bombed Moscow. The NKWD men suggested that they take as much food as possible and clothing, etc., because they will need it where they were going. The Belorussians on the other hand were shouting to pack and to hurry and seemed more cruel.
They were packed with their belongings into cattle railcars with thousands of other Poles who were being shipped somewhere into Russia. They had approximately 70 people in each freight car, locked in with no water and a hole in the corner of the freight car, which served as a toilet for all.
They traveled for a month, during which they received two hot meals. During stops, which sometimes lasted days, Russian people sneaked bottles of water through the latrine opening to help them survive. They thought that these Poles were trying to escape from the Germans and had no idea that it was the Russians who arrested them and were sending them deep into Russian exile.
They were all unloaded in Barnaul and there they were loaded onto barges on the river Ob and sailed for a week to Kamien. From there they were taken by horse drawn wagons to their destination. Wanda’s mother had pneumonia and an infection of a leg wound and her sister had scarlet fever, so Wanda walked next to the wagon all the way to Sovhoz Svalovsky, and were quartered in Druchicha Sovhoz. Her mother and sister were hospitalized and she alone with 3 other families with their belongings moved into a log cabin of which there were 4 in their sovhoz. It consisted of a filthy large room with a stove and millions of bedbugs. Wanda at that time was only twelve years old – left alone wondering if her mother and sister would survive. Polish people helped each other and a Polish carpenter from another log cabin made some cots for them to sleep on.
In the meantime, Wanda’s mother met some Ukrainians during her stay in the hospital - a medic and his wife who were shipped to Russia some thirty years ago. They spoke Polish with Wanda’s mother and sang some Polish songs among the favorites was “Czerwony Pas” which is a song from the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. This couple helped Maria Kochan and were sympathetic to her and her daughter’s fate.
In Russia, if you did not work, you did not eat! S,o after Wanda’s mother got a medical discharge from working in the Sowhoz, she started sewing for the director of the co-op. She moved into a place some 6km from where Wanda and her sister lived in the log cabin. For the sewing she received food for herself and her two daughters. Wanda was in 3rd grade in Poland, but in their Sowhoz there was no school so she would walk the 6km to her mother to get food for herself and her sister.
In the meantime, Polish General Sikorski after much haggling with the Russians, who were now allies, received permission to form a Polish Army under Gen. Anders who was imprisoned in Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Poles were finally granted ‘amnesty’ for what???- they did nothing illegal – they were just victims of the Russian communist system. Wanda’s father found out that the Polish Army was forming, so he escaped and joined. Soon he found out where his family was, so he sent a letter in which he told them to get to the railway station in Alejsk, where he will meet them.
To leave the area Mrs. Kochan had to get permission, which she received on the basis of the letter from her husband. Mrs. Kochan had to travel to Kamien and there she got help and was allowed to travel in an open army truck to Alejsk. It was March and very cold, and travel in the open army truck was awful. But the Russian soldiers took pity and because they were warmly dressed, they huddled around them to keep them warm.
When they arrived in Alesjk they were permitted to stay in the Sowhoz house close to the railway station (their Sowhoz had a house for officials who came on business to Alejsk).
There they waited from March 1942 to June 1942 for their father and husband- each day going to the station to see if he had arrived. The waiting was very hard, not knowing when and if he would come, but they kept up good spirits and lived by trading what little they had left of the things they took from Poland for some food. At long last Mr. Kochan arrived and took them with 13 other Poles to Shahrezad where he was stationed. They traveled for one week and upon arrival Mr. Kochan reported that he didn’t just pick up 3 people - his wife and two daughters, but 13 other Polish people!
Wanda’s sister had no shoes, because there were none to be had - and some Russians along the way who were most likely from Moscow could not believe that there were no children’s shoes to he had. Wanda’s mother sewed out a pair of cloth slippers for little Janka.
What helped them survive was the fact that Mrs. Kochan knew the Russian language because she had graduated from a Russian high school in Pabianice, Poland (then under Russian occupation before WWI). Also, her father had said that every woman needed to learn how to sew, which she hated, but she did learn how to sew and that helped them as well - because there were no seamstresses anywhere in the area.
They were loaded on unbelievably disgustingly dirty Russian ships and sent across the Caspian Sea to Pahlevi in Iran, where they camped in shacks on the beach until the rains came. Then they were loaded on trucks and taken to Teheran. It was a scary trip through the Elborz Mountains on a narrow very winding road in open trucks.
In Teheran, Iran there were three Polish camps, an orphanage, and a hospital where thousands who survived the Russian Gulag died of dysentery, malaria, and other diseases which they brought from Russia. There were burials every day at the Polish cemetery (which still exists in southern Teheran). Here Wanda went to school again and was a girl scout. First, they were at Camp II and then later at Camp I. She was a brownie leader and had her troop meeting just outside of the cemetery where there were many fresh graves and ones already dug and ready for the next Polish victims of the Russian Gulag. In the Polish school they had a choir and life had some semblance of normality.
Next, they were sent south to Isfahan via Qom, the holy Moslem town. In Isfahan Wanda went to school and her mother worked as a school nurse. They lived in the school dormitory and enjoyed Isfahan for one year. In Isfahan there were also some 5,000 Polish orphans who were later sent to India, New Zealand, Australia, and Africa. In the summer of 1944 (summers in that part of the world are extremely hot) they were taken to the port of Ahwaz on the Persian Gulf where they were loaded on nice clean British ships and taken to Lebanon. Wanda attended a Polish high school in Gazir, 30 km from Beirut.
After WWII ended, they were again loaded on nice clean British ships and taken along the coast of Lebanon and Palestine (now Israel) and up the Suez Canal to Port Said in Egypt. There was an outbreak of cholera there, so they were quarantined in a camp for 2 days. Next, they sailed for England, which took about two weeks or more. Upon arrival, they were taken to Sussex where the houses were so beautiful just like out of a fairy tale. They were given lodging in a camp at Laughborough in Leicestershire, where Wanda went to school and where later she met her future husband Wieslaw Skrobecki who was studying engineering at Laughborough College.
Their three children, Tadeusz, Anna, and Janina were born in England. They immigrated first to Canada, and later to Seatle, Washington in the United States. Wieslaw Skrobcki worked as an engineer for the Boeing Co from 1960 until his retirement.
Wanda died on 27 July 2012.
Wanda in Lebanon
Wanda in England
Wanda in the U.S.
Copyright: Skrobecki family