ZAK Family Odyssey
courtesy of Julian Plowy
My family consisted of:
my father Teodoziusz Zak,
my mother Jozefa Zak,
myself Maria (Zak) Szklarz,
my sister Helena (Zak) Brol.
In August 1939 our address was Osada Bogumila, pow. Nieswiez, woj. Nowogrodzkie, Poland. When the Germans attacked Poland from the west, my father, Teodoziusz Zak, was called to active duty to serve in the Polish Army (his rank was corporal during World War I). He was captured and taken as prisoner of war on October 6, 1939 and interred at Stalag 7-A in Germany. It was there he spent the duration of World War II. He died in 1946, and is buried in Mainleus, Germany.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Army invaded eastern Poland. Due to the fact that Father worked for the Polish government, my mother, sister, and I were arrested on February 10, 1940 at 4 a.m. by the Soviet Army. I was 14 years old, my sister, Helen, was 9. We were permitted to take only clothing and any food we could carry. This was stolen by the time we reached the train station. We were transported by carriage, then by cattlecar (rail) to Archangielsk. (posiolek Zarzygielno, Lipowska poczta, Rowdzienski rejon, Archangielsk oblasc).
In Zarzygielno, no food was supplied and we melted snow for water. Mother worked by cutting trees and branches, and was compensated only enough to buy a small ration of bread (1 kilo for her, 300g for me and 300g for my sister). I worked part time by sweeping snow from the railroad tracks, but was not compensated for this. I also stacked hay into haystacks in the fields. With a horse, I hauled wood from the forest, and got the logs into river ready for transport. After a bout of sickness, I worked by boiling water for workers in the deep woods. All the above listed work was done without compensation. All rations had to be bought, but there was never enough money to purchase anything else but bread and occasionally some sugar. Berries were picked in summer, then mushrooms in the fall. We existed like this for approximately two years.
In September 1941, we were given the freedom to leave under the condition we obtain the proper documents. In January 1942, temperatures were brutally cold and the snow was deep. Mother walked 90km to obtain exit papers in order to leave Siberia and get to southeast Russia (Dzalal- Abad). There, the Polish Army was organizing and looking for volunteers to serve. Mothers with minor children were located at a refugee camp near the Army’s camp (this was our destination).
After obtaining exit papers, we needed to locate a horse and sleigh to take us to the train station. Our journey from Zarzygielno took three days/two nights in the Siberian winter to get to the train station in Vielsk. Here, we needed to wait an additional few days for more people to assemble. This assembly then had to make arrangements for renting a railcar for transportation to Wologda. Since this railcar was part of a freight train, our locations and schedules were unknown. In Wologda, we had to switch trains. Again in Wologda, we had to wait yet for more people in order to make arrangements for another railcar. This time, a freight car was arranged. While we were waiting at the station, our few belongings and papers were stolen.
Our journey lasted two months before reaching Dzalal-Abad. Each time the train stopped, we searched the immediate area for some scrap of food, water and a place to buy bread. Toilet facilities consisted of a hole in the floor of the railcar, sleeping accommodations, too, were the floor of the railcar. In Dzalal-Abad, the Polish Army and Refugee camp looked after the people together with the Red Cross. Jobs on farms (at a kolhoz) in nearby Sakaldat were filled until another transport (to Iran) was arranged. This was approximately two to three months in time. Our next destination was Krasnowodzk (on the Caspian Sea) by freight train, which took several days. During this part of the journey I became sick with malaria. I did not receive medical attention until we arrived in Pahlavi, Iran.
In August 1942, we arrived in Pahlavi, where we received soup and medical attention from doctors and nurses. We were placed in a refugee camp. In Pahlavi, many children died. Because these children were starved and under-nourished, the soup was too much for their bodies to handle, thus killing them.
From there we were transported by army trucks to Tehran (Christmas 1942-early 1943). In Tehran, there were neither tents nor barracks available for us, so we lived outside in the elements. Again in Tehran, many children died because of eating food that was too rich. I recall walking on occasion and seeing dead children’s bodies on either side of me. Both in Pahlavi and Tehran, corpses were loaded onto trucks and dumped into mass graves.
After a few weeks, we were shipped to Achwaz (Iran) on the Persian Gulf. (Please keep in mind the final destination at the time was Africa.) In Achwaz, again we were placed in refugee camps, where we stayed for a few weeks before being loaded onto a British ship. (Details are unclear as I was still recovering from malaria). The ship took us to Karachi; it took two weeks to reach Karachi (Pakistan).
Our stay at the refugee camp in Karachi lasted approximately two months. During this time, Mexico opened its doors to Polish refugees. This was on a voluntary basis; we signed up and left by British ship to Bombay. In Bombay (May 13, 1943) we boarded the American ship, Hermitage, bound for America (the ship stopped in Australia and New Zealand). The voyage lasted six weeks.
Upon arriving in San Pedro, California we boarded trains destined for Mexico City (America was not willing to take us in). On July 1, 1943 we arrived at our camp (and home for the next two years) in Leon Guanajuato. In 1945, at the end of the war, the Polish-Mexican agreement had ended and we were asked to disburse the camp. Our choice at the time was to return to Poland, live and work in Mexico, or find a sponsor in order to go to the United States. We somehow survived and worked in Mexico City. In 1946, we found someone to sponsor us in America. It took another two years waiting for a visa and the proper documents before we were able to come to America in 1948.