OUR SIBERIAN EXPERIENCE
When the War with Germany broke out, I (Iwona), my twin sister (Alina), and our mother were on holiday in northeastern Poland at our country home, which had been in our mother’s family for some 600 years. On 17th September 1939, we heard that Soviet Russia had invaded Poland along the whole of the eastern frontier. Immediately we packed and moved to a nearby town where our mother rented a flat.
Next day the Soviet troops were already in town. Life became very difficult as the Russians started to confiscate various commodities and take them back east to Russia. There were immediate arrests and people started to disappear. Of our friends who remained in their homes in the countryside, many were murdered, tortured, or arrested and transported to the Gulags, mostly in the Russian Far East.
On 12th April 1940, in the middle of the night, Soviet soldiers with guns came to our flat, arrested us and loaded us into cattle trains with thousands of others. We were only 14 years old, but with us on the train there were mothers with babies and even babies without their parents who presumably happened not to have been there at the time of the arrests.
The journey lasted about 3 weeks. There was no water, no cooking facilities, and no toilet – just a hole in the middle of the floor. But we managed to last in this stinking, airless wagon. Once a day we were given water, but for food it was only what people had managed to bring with them. Everybody helped each other and there was no panic or bad behaviour. Many died during this journey and their bodies were stacked in the last wagon and we carried them with us all the way.
We passed the Ural Mountains and into Asia and finally arrived at a small station in northern Kazakhstan, from where we were ‘distributed’ to several units of a large ‘Sovkhoz’ – a Soviet government agricultural property. Initially we had no accommodation at all and all summer we lived either in an empty grain store or outside under the Siberian sky. Everyone had to find their own homes; the buildings were all one room earthen ‘sod’ cabins although there were also some ‘sod’ barracks for more important people. We were treated as Soviet citizens, no longer Polish, but with no freedom to move.
We had to work as “who does not work, does not eat”, as the Soviet maxim goes. And only when working were we entitled to a piece of bread from the small shop. We were working with large herds of sheep, which grazed on the endless surrounding Steppe. The local Kazakhs were actually very friendly and helped and advised us. However, we were never paid for this work or later for weeding the huge fields of wheat in the scorching heat of the summer. The temperature in this part of Siberia ranged from +50°C (+122°F) in the summer to -50°C (-58°F) in the winter. At other times we worked the fields during the night, running ahead of a tractor setting light to the straw using handfuls of lit straw from the previous fire (as we were only given 3 matches to last us the whole night). The tractor was driven by an ancient, totally wild, one-eyed Kazakh! Despite the dust and sweltering nighttime heat, we had nothing to drink so in desperation used to cup a hand into the shallow muddy water left in hoof prints, to try to quench our thirst.
The summers were dry, but the winters had huge snowfalls, which totally covered the huts. We had very few clothes with us and so could not exchange them for food, and there was nothing to buy in the little shop in our village. The only food was wheat grain and, if you could mill it, flour. Throughout our stay in Soviet Russia, it was only grains of wheat that we could eat, either bought or stolen when working with grain towards the end of Autumn (everybody stole in that country – just to survive). Wheat had to be moved constantly from one heap to the next to prevent heating and to keep it dry. Eventually, when the frost came, we were able to get a disused cabin shell with only its walls still standing and we had to construct a roof from twigs with soil over the top. A young Pole helped us with doors and windows and a stove built from dirt and ‘muck’ bricks.
For fuel we had to dig our own peat bricks from the Steppe, and we were allowed to use an ox and cart to transport it back to our cabin. One time, it was snowing heavily and with night falling, we became completely lost. The wolves were howling around us in the dark and it was only the ox that saved us by finding its own way back to the village. There were a lot of wolves in the area and the sheep had to be taken back to barns every day. There were no dogs; they had all been eaten by the wolves.
Our ‘sod’ cabin was very cold – a pail of water would freeze right to the bottom during the night and we had to melt it during the day. Water in the village came from melted snow in the winter, or in the summer from a pool that had been dug deep with high sides and filled with winter snow. When it melted in the spring, there was enough water for animals and people, although it was very dirty as sheep, cows and horses used to drink from the pool.
In the main central village of the Sovkhoz there was sometimes a market where it was possible to buy sunflower oil, soap, matches and horse meat, if one had money. It was when my twin sister and I once went to this market some 5km away, that on the way back, (walking of course), my sister Alina took her mittens off and, in no time, two fingers of her right hand were frozen solid. We were afraid that they would have to be amputated and hurried back, with her fingers getting swollen and terribly painful. Our mother, who had some medical knowledge, saved them from gangrene by applying a potassium permanganate wash and goose fat given to us by local people. Her fingers remained permanently bent and desiccated throughout her life. There were many instances when people were frozen to death and only found in the spring thaw.
Life in Soviet Russia’s Siberia can be summed up in a few words – extremes of heat and cold; a complete lack of even the rudimentary things of life; a lack of food; and the profusion of bugs, lice, fleas, bed bugs and mosquitoes. There were no toilet facilities at all – it was only the big outdoors for everybody – be it winter, spring, summer or fall.
We were extremely lucky to be so near a railway station. When in 1941 the Soviets and Germans were at war, hundreds of thousands of Polish men from the Gulags were freed to form an army; and on the way from Kolyma Kamchatka in the Far East of Russia, many stopped at our village. They were in a terrible condition, many swollen hideously from prolonged starvation, and all ridden with lice; we tried to help them as much as we could. Soon they were being organised for transportation to Uzbekistan, where a Polish Army was being formed by General W. Anders, who had himself been freed from the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. These ex-prisoners were splendid men; they smuggled us on to a train going south and shared their food with us that was given to them once a day by the Soviet authorities. By taking us with them they saved us and changed our future.
This journey lasted about two weeks; we slept on the floor by night and stayed by the windows, looking out at the endless Steppes, by day. We were all incredibly dirty as there was no water on the train – but at least there was a toilet! We arrived in Lugavaya in the south of Uzbekistan. There, the army fed us as well. Then General Anders, despite orders from London, decided to lead everyone out of that stinking Soviet paradise! Many women joined them, either being registered with the army or as civilian family members; we met a friend of our mother’s who registered us as family and so we escaped with them. We travelled again by train, fed yet again by our friends, to the Caspian Sea port of Krasnovodsk.
It was March 1942; Some 2 years after our arrest; Alina and I were now sixteen. From Krasnovodsk we were put on a fishing ship to Pahlevi in Persia (now Iran). There was a terrible storm on the Caspian Sea that night; the ship was crashing through the waves and was so crowded there wasn’t room to stand. Everything went overboard – the vomit, the excreta, and the dead. (A similar vessel with Poles on board sunk that night, with all souls).
It was a picture of total de-humanisation and suffering – but it led us to eventual freedom and our onward overland journey through Iran, Iraq, and Palestine before landing some 3 years later in the fog at Liverpool docks in England aboard HMS Stratheden. It was the 13th of April 1945. We were 19 years old.
Note: Alina’s married name was Byrska, and she settled in Seatle, Washington, USA. Iwona remained in England.
1930 Alina & Iwona in Poland
1945 Twins in Polish 2nd Corps Women's Auxiliary uniforms
Copyright: Wojewodzka family