Extract from a personal memoir titled ‘Three Uniforms' that combines his personal recollections with an analysis of the international contexts of his experiences during World War II
Earning a Living
Earning a living, the minimum necessary for survival, was difficult, especially in the winter. Mother did not have a job she could go to every day. Leaders of the collective farm assigned people to do the necessary tasks, so she, as did most of the other deportees, performed odd jobs to which she was assigned. I helped her as much as I could during the summer months when I was not in school. The easiest and most “lucrative” job in the summer was helping with the harvesting of the proso (millet). Machines would mow the proso and the farmworkers, mother and I included, would then gather the millet into bunches to be transported for storage in the kolkhoz barns. The low wage work, paid mostly in kind, was doable, but the lucrative part of it was that after all the harvested proso had been carted away, we were permitted to return to the field and pick up for our own use all the millet that had been left on the ground. Naturally, all of us would leave as much grain on the ground as possible, always being careful to not make it too visible to the eyes of the overseers. When the workday was over, all the workers and their families would make their way back to the field to gather the leftovers.
Several times we were assigned to work in a samany pit, a job that was much too hard for mother and me. Saman was a large brick, about two feet long, foot and a half wide, and foot and a half thick, composed of mud mixed with straw and used as a building block. Twenty or thirty workers would work in a pit, a hole in the ground about one hundred feet in diameter and eight to ten feet deep, where they would first carry water in pails to wet the dirt on the bottom, throw straw on top of the mud, and then march barefoot around the pit bottom until the mud and the straw were thoroughly mixed. The workers would then be given wooden forms with handles at each corner, told to pack the forms tightly with the mix, carry the wet saman out of the pit, and deposit it gently on the nearby field to dry. Each such tray weighed about forty pounds, and the minimum norm for a day was forty samans. If you fulfilled the quota you were paid by the kolkhoz the usual, in kind and some money. The work was backbreaking, especially for a woman and a young boy, and the rations were far from sufficient on which to live.
To supplement our diet mother and I resorted to stealing whatever was available in the fields. I remember we would go to pick up pinecones for heating in the nearby pine forest, which ended just where the potato field belonging to the kolkhoz began. We would gather some pinecones into our sack, then mother would stray into the potato patch and, while I sat on a tree branch as a lookout, fill the middle of the sack with potatoes. We would then fill the upper third of the sack with pinecones and head home. On one such occasion, while lugging the heavy sack, we were stopped by a one of the kolkhoz functionaries. “What are you carrying there?” he asked mother. “Pinecones we picked up in the woods,” she answered, putting the sack on the ground. I could see that she was shaken but somehow kept her cool and answered the man in a friendly tone. He picked up the sack and, looking at mother said, “Sort of heavy, isn’t it?” Mother did not reply; he smiled knowingly and walked away. While it may have been a close call for us, the practice itself was well known and accepted.
This irregular and impossibly hard work in the kolkhoz, exchanging articles we brought with us from Poland for food or housing, and the occasional stealing were not enough to live on. There were times when our situation was desperate, so mother resorted to desperate means to remedy it. Under the communist system all commerce, especially the sale of alcohol from which the state derived a large portion of its yearly revenue, was reserved to and controlled by the government. Private buying and selling for profit was called “speculation,” a criminal offense in the Soviet communist system, and subject to severe punishment, including being sent to a labor camp.
Since there were no liquor stores in Kanonerka, and the nearest city, Semipalatinsk, where alcohol could be easily bought was sixty kilometers away, local drinkers, which included almost every adult, were constantly short of it. Mother decided to fill that need by hitchhiking on the occasionally passing trucks to Semipalatinsk, buying a suitcase full of vodka there, and selling it at a good profit in Kanonerka. This was a dangerous move on her part because, as a young woman, she was always in danger of being attacked while on the road. Furthermore, if caught “speculating,” she could be sentenced to a labor camp for a long time and I would be left alone. On top of all that, she faced the dilemma of whether to sell the vodka to the local NKVD officers or keep it secret from them. If she kept it secret and they found out, which they probably would since it was a small town, they might punish her for hiding it from them. If, on the other hand, she offered to sell them the vodka, they could arrest her on the spot. She gambled and won. The NKVD officers may have been harsh, but they were also selfish and loved their vodka. As mother’s good customers, they gave her assurance of safety. Mother’s enterprising spirit had its roots in her family’s history. Her father had a long career in trade, owned a successful general store in Łużki. Her recognition of the opportunity to make money on vodka may have come naturally to her, but the risks she took were very high. Ironically, along with the risk also came mother’s popularity in Kanonerka as the only reliable source of the much sought after “fire water.” Most importantly, mother’s desperate daring saw us through our ordeal in Kazakhstan.
A Thief in Less Than a Year
Stealing gradually became a part of my life. While adults could make the distinction between stealing as such and stealing to survive in this inhuman, upside-down system, children like myself, then only nine years old, absorbed the practice into their ways of looking at and reacting to the world around them. I remember very clearly when I began to size up my surroundings and instinctively wonder, “What can I steal here?” How far this process went with me is well illustrated by two escapades that could easily have cost me my life.
In late summer 1941 mother asked the local NKVD office for permission to travel to Barnaul, about 400 km west of Kanonerka, to bring my sister Terenia and grandmother, who had been deported there in June 1941. In that part of the world you traveled by cattle car trains that arrived and departed at unpredictable times, and it was not at all unusual that you would wait at the railroad station one, two, or three days before you could get on one. On the way back we were waiting at the Barnaul railroad station for three days before the four of us could find a space in one of the cattle cars of a train going southeast to Semipalatinsk.
While at the station I wandered around the area and, at one point, saw two Soviet soldiers with rifles beside them sitting on the ground and leaning against a ripped-out door laid lengthwise along the wall. The two looked drunk and asleep. Hidden between the door and the wall stood a half-full bottle of vodka. The thief in me, adrenaline spiking at the thought of this daring challenge, decided to steal this half-consumed bottle of alcohol. I slowly sidestepped along the wall toward the door, making myself seem part of the scene, then lowered myself to the ground and, as quietly as I could, crawled in between the door and the wall and came out on the other end with the bottle in hand. Keeping my cool, I made sure that I distanced myself from the scene as quietly as I had approached it. The two soldiers, apparently too drunk to hear me, did not even stir. As I recall this scene now, I shudder at the realization that had one of them awakened and seen that I was stealing away with their vodka, he would have shot me like a stray dog. Still, I did not escape punishment. When I went back to mother and proudly showed her the bottle and described my “heroic” deed in some detail, she gave me a beating so painful that she herself started crying. “We steal to survive,” she admonished as she spanked me, “not to get drunk; remember that.”
I remembered, but applied her teaching very narrowly. On the way back to Semipalatinsk the four of us shared the cargo wagon with about fifteen to twenty fellow travelers. Russian trains, even those traveling long distances, often stopped, for reasons unknown, in the middle of empty fields or on the outskirts of towns. Since this was summer, the doors of the wagon were slid open and some of us kids were riding sitting in the doorway with our legs dangling. At one point, as our train stopped some distance from a nearby town, we noticed directly opposite our wagon a huge pile of makuchy (pressed oil seed cakes used to feed cattle or as fertilizer) guarded by an armed soldier, walking continuously around the huge pile of the cakes, which to us looked like food.
Since we were always hungry, we decided to steal a couple of these cakes, which were too large and heavy for us to carry more than one. We timed the guard and concluded that we could cover the fifty meters or so to the pile, each grab a cake, and be back on the train before the guard would come into view. I did not tell my mother about my plans because I was hungry and, since this stealing fell under the category of survival, I thought I could justify it. I knew, however, that it was the thrill of it that drove me to do it. We sprinted to the pile and made it back to the wagon by the time the guard reemerged from behind the pile, but only by the skin of our teeth. We did this on the spur of the moment and did not even think about what would have happened to us if the train had moved before we could make it back to the wagon, and left us standing exposed in the field with the big, round cakes in hand. As I look back at these thieving escapades and the risks they involved, they seem like a dream, as replays from another lifetime.
My thieving habit was dealt with for the second time some years later, in 1947, after we had arrived in England and were reunited with my father. While attending a Polish high school there, the principal picked several of us to help move the school library to a different building. I came home that evening with four what I thought were interesting books under my arm. Since Polish books were not available in stores and none of us knew enough English to read English books, I explained to father, just taking these seemed like the logical thing to do. Teenage boys don’t accept advice from their fathers very readily. Nevertheless, to his lasting credit, my father reached out to me and spoke to me as if it was our problem, not only mine. “We stole in the Soviet Union to live,” he said. “In a normal, civilized society we study, we work to earn a living; we do not steal.” The care and the serious tone with which he spoke to me told me that, for him, this was not an academic or disciplinary lecture; this was about his son’s future. He had only one try at it, and he made it perfect.
Pulled Back From The Brink
As a young boy I was required to attend the local school, where I completed my first two grades. One morning, our pudgy and always good-natured and smiling homeroom teacher, Viera Spiridonovna--for some reason the name has stuck in my mind for all these years--came into the classroom with a bunch of red ties in her hand and announced that every boy and girl who volunteered to join the Young Pioneers would receive a free krasnyi galstuk (red tie), go to summer camps free and have all kinds fun. To me all of this did sound like lots of fun, so I raised my hand and was given one of those ties. Somehow, the news of what I had done in school reached my mother even before I returned home.
As I came home, I noticed that my mother was unusually serious and attentive. She told me to sit down on a chair and sat opposite me. As if it was yesterday, I remember her looking deep into my eyes, as if she wanted to see deep into my soul. Without even a hint of admonition in her voice, she began to explain to me the meaning of what I had done earlier that day in school. She poured out her heart into what she was saying to me.“Wituś, when you agreed to accept the red tie and join the Young Pioneers it meant that when you become older they will expect you to join the Communist Party, because the Pioneers are the party’s youth organization. Don’t forget that the communists invaded our country, they took us away from home and brought us here, to this wilderness. We are Polish, we are Catholics, we must never forget our traditions or who we are; they are our enemies and cannot be trusted. You have to remember this.” Even now I can see myself sitting and listening to her, almost transfixed by her effort to reach me, by her warmth and her sincerity, and by the things she was saying. Then I remembered that scene in Łużki when the Russian troops were pouring into our town and throwing their coins at us. I now saw the connection between what she had told me then and what she was saying to me now. Mother warned me that what she was telling me had to be kept secret because, if the Soviet police found out about it, she would be arrested. I remember feeling that I was again being drawn into a grown-up conspiracy, a feeling which brought me closer to mother than ever before.
From that day on my schooling became more intensive. Along with public school, there were also lectures at home. Mother would tell me about my father, about our life back in Poland, about Polish customs and history, about all these meaningful things, big and small, that parents want their children to know when they find themselves in circumstances such as those in which we at that time. After mother finished, my grandmother would take over and, from her prayer book for older people printed in large letters, would teach me to read Polish and about the Catholic religion. There was no guarantee that my mother and grandmother would succeed in their efforts to keep me out of the Soviet clutches, and there was also the danger that the young boy would inadvertently fail to keep their efforts to reeducate him at home secret. Isolated deep in the entrails of the communist empire and with no visible chance of ever getting out of there, the two women took on the challenge of fighting the Soviets for the mind and soul of the young boy, and they won. Communism was an evil, perverted system that, like its Nazi counterpart, slaughtered people, starved them, or worked them to death. Both were equally criminal. However, while both were mass murderers, communism also sought to warp the character and pervert the morality of those who struggled to survive under it. Had it not been for my parents’ timely and wise interventions, I might have become a thief, a communist, or both.
The Intangible Bedrocks
From time to time our morale was lifted by the arrival of packages from our families in Łużki. I remember that we received three packages from mother’s older brother, Kazik. Other Polish families also received packages from their families. These packages usually contained clothing, linen items, nonperishable food, and sweets, which they shared with other children. I still remember how happy I was when one of our friends, who had received one of those packages, gave me one beautifully wrapped candy. I ran home and showed it to my mother, because it came from home, from Łużki. Each such package was proof that we had not been forgotten, that our families back home remembered us, and that people in Łużki had not given up on us.
Our religion and faith in God was the source of our strength, which we needed to keep on believing in our eventual liberation from this exile. Grandmother’s prayer book and the large medallion of Our Lady of Ostra Brama (Matka Boska Ostrobramska), which mother took with us, traveled wherever the winds of war tossed us. The medallion hung on the wall wherever we happened to live, whether in a ziemianka in Kanonerka, in a tent on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Pahlavi, on the mat wall in the barracks in Valivade, or on our living-room wall in our first home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. We prayed together every day, and on Sundays and religious holidays the whole Polish community gathered to pray in groups wherever there was sufficient room. Such joint religious observances not only lifted our spirits but also kept the group together, helping us maintain our separate identity and, especially important for children, provided strong periodic reminders of our distinct language, culture, and traditions.
We celebrated Christmas in groups of five or six people and, despite the shortage of food and sparse Christmas decorations, we somehow managed to generate the festive spirit, the solemnity of the traditional Wigilia, including the breaking of the opłatek that we received in the packages from Poland. However, if opłatek was not available we broke bread with each other and, as is customary, wished each other health and speedy return to our homes in Poland. That last wish was always painful because, while we fervently wanted to return home, there were no visible signs on the horizon that this was ever likely to happen.
Then came June 22, 1941.
Polish families in Kanonerka, USSR, summer 1941. Mother leaning against the railing; Witold in front of her.
Photo taken on school steps; the Kazakh family was included for authentication purposes.