Zbigniew ‘Alan’ Helon recalls the night war changed his life in incredible detail. He was three-and-a-half-years-old in the February of 1940 when a Russian soldier and a member of the Soviet secret police burst into his parent's home in Krzywe, which was a part of Poland at the time. "There was a big pounding at the door," Mr Helon said. "My father got up first. "There was screaming from outside of 'open the door or we will break it'."
Accompanying the two armed Russians was a local shopkeeper, who had led them to the house. Mr Helon's father, mother, sister and visiting grandparents were
forced at gun point into waiting sleds and taken through waist-deep snow and temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius to a train station five kilometres away.
"When we arrived, there were already a lot of people in a similar situation."
They waited in the harsh conditions for two days, not allowed to return to their homes and not told what lay in store for them. The baffled and hungry residents were then loaded into train carriages normally used to transport cattle. There were 40 people in each carriage on a train that stretched for more than a kilometre.
"In the middle of the wagon was a hole; that was the toilet. We spent a whole day in the wagon before it started moving. Nobody knew where we were going."
Mr. Helon said the train travelled for two days before it stopped. There was no food, only what people had managed to grab before they were taken from their homes. "A couple of kids died on the train. When the train stopped, dead people were thrown out on the side of the rail tracks. Their mothers were not allowed to bury them."
Mr Helon said the journey took four weeks. They were given minimal amounts of food, which included cabbage soup and a broth made from fish entrails.
"Each time it pulled up they turfed more bodies onto the side of the track. Sometimes the soldiers came to strip the clothes from them in front of their relatives."
After arriving at their destination, the prisoners were marched for a day-and-a-half through snow and grit to a camp that had a large wooden fence and guard turrets around it. On the gate was a sign, which read "Kak nie robatajesz to nie kuszajesz" which translated to "If you are not working then you are not eating".
"The men were given an axe each and told to chop trees," Mr. Helon said. They had to build their own huts inside the camp. Beds were crudely made by laying grass and straw across straps of cows hide, which acted as slats between wooden frames.
Eventually, they began to find out 'where they had been taken. "All we knew at first was that we were 30 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. After a while, people found out that the nearest town was Kotlas, in the Arctiangelsk region." They were in Siberia.
When the sleeping arrangements were finished, the prisoners were put to work. "Each grown person had to cut a number of trees down a day. If you cut the quota amount, you were entitled to 50 grams of bread and some soup."
During the winter months, Mr. Helon said the children would pick the seeds from pine cones to eat. With the spring came grass and a new addition to their diets.
"There were some edible types of grass. We boiled it or mashed it." They ate cockroaches and mice in the warmer months, with the diet restricted to pinecones, bread and hot water in winter.
Within nine months three family members had died from the horrendous conditions. "My grandparents died of starvation. My sister was younger than me; she chewed her fingers and died from starvation as well. How I survived I don't know."
Mr. Helon said the camp was under constant guard by Russian soldiers. "Some of the guards were horrible. I was butted in the back of the head with the butt of a gun a few times.
Mr. Helon and his parents remained at the camp until September 1941. "After that, they said 'you are free, you can go'," Mr. Helon said. ęBut nobody knew where to go."
More than 2.5 million Polish people were taken to Siberian prison camps: there were 603 in the camp Mr. Helon and his family were kept in. "So many people had died, but there were still enough to form an army."
Mr. Helon's family was among those who traveled south on the Dwina River. They built makeshift rafts for their journey. "We got to a place along the river where my father's brother met us. He told us about a Polish army forming on Russian soil. People whose relatives were in the army were entitled to food and help with transportation."
The army was forming in the southern USSR and later evacuated, via the Caspian Sea, to Pahlevi in Persia (Iran). Mr. Helon said he still remembers reaching Pahlevi and bathing properly for the first time in two-and-a-half years. "My mother and I were sitting in the water rubbing ourselves with sand to get the dirt out. We still looked like walking skeletons, but we were clean skeletons."
Mr. Helon said those who gorged themselves on the plentiful amounts of food died because their bodies could not handle it.
His father joined the 3rd Carpathian Division of the Polish 2nd Corps, under the command of the British 8th Army. Meanwhile, Mr. Helon and his mother travelled to a Polish Settlement at Bwanam Kubwa in Tanzania. "We stayed there until 1947. We didn't see or hear from my father. We didn't know where the army was and they didn't know where we were."
The Helons left Africa in 1947. Mr. Helon and his mother decided they would return to their native Poland because they had been told it was free. "We thought we would go back to our own place. But unfortunately, that was not the case."
The Helons' house and land had been annexed by Russia and they were forced to live in temporary accommodation at Przemysl, in the south of Poland. "At the same time we found out that my father was living in England with his brother, so we thought we would go there. But the communists would not let us go."
Mr. Helon's mother got a job at the nearby railway and Mr. Helon continued his schooling. He was 10 years old when he returned to Poland in 1947. "In school I was called a capitalist, traitor, spy and saboteur because I had come from Africa. When they found out my father was in England that made things worse."
Mr. Helon and his mother persevered through the abuse and oppressive lifestyle forced upon them by the communist regime.
"In 1957, things eased up a bit in which made it possible to get a passport." He applied immediately "Once I got that passport I was away like a rocket, but they wouldn't let my mother go as well."
He went straight to England to find his father, who was living in Wolverhampton. "Seeing my father was just unreal. We didn't know what to do. I had changed from a five-year-old boy into a 21-year-old man."
Mr. Helon successfully applied for residency in the United Kingdom but could not organise for his mother to join him. "It was hard but there was not much we could do."
It was during the next few years that Mr. Helon met his wife Elizabeth and started a family. He also studied mechanical engineering and gained employment in the automotive design industry.
The Helons had been living in Swindon for two-and-a-half years when an advertisement seeking engineers and draftsmen to work in Australia caught his attention. "They said if we didn't like it after two years we could go back."
Mr. Helon and his family landed in Melbourne in April, 1970. He got straight into the workforce and spent the majority of his employed life working in the motor industry, designing special purpose vehicles for Ford and Holden. "We had to test the new models. We would take them out in the middle of the night so no one would see them. It was interesting and enjoyable."
Mr. Helon retired in 1991, moved to Bundaberg in 1992 and moved to his current Toowoomba home in 2001. The 74-year-old said the struggles he experienced in his youth had made him stronger in later life.
The Toowoomba Chronicle, Saturday, August ·20, 2011, by Stuart Cumming.