(Part 1 of 2)
by Zbigniew Konrad Wilski
For a while now, I've been pressured by my children and grandchildren. to write my life story, as they often heard of the hard times we, as older generation, went through. I am sure that most of the time they regarded it just as a story. There always will be a slight doubt from those that never experienced rigors of life in a real sense of it, like hunger starvation, loss of freedom and personal possessions.
My grandson tells me that he was hungry too (right on, just few hours or at most half a day). Could he comprehend what it is to have it day after day, month after month?
I have to start from my earliest recollections, as far as I can remember. On February 1st l924 (which I do not remember), I was born in some God forsaken little place called Wierzchnie, in the north east Poland, close to Russo-Latvian border. I've never been back there since. It so happens that my father, a police sergeant was posted there at the time, and soon after he was transferred to another station in the area. This part of Poland, few years back, was wrestled from the Soviets after First World War, prior to which Poland was under the forceful occupation by three neighbours: Germany, Hungary and Russia for one hundred and thirty years. After the end of World War One, Poland regained her independence, and by the grace of allies (France and England) her borders were shrunk. They establish our eastern borders on so called Curzon Line, which gave Soviets vast territory, including old historic Polish towns of Wilno and Lwow. This didn't go well with Poles so in 1920, Marshal Pilsudski went to war with Soviets, and after almost a disastrous retreat right to the Vistula river, Polish troops took better hand over Soviets, and regained her territory. This event went to history books as "Miracle On Vistula".
After World War Two Churchill and Roosevelt again gave it to Soviets.
You see, my father, Stanislaw, was a native of western Poland. He was born in Myszkow, south of Czestochowa (half way to Katowice). His parents were Klemens and Jozefa. He was one of twelve children, which only some of them I ever met. Two of his sisters, Klara and Ludwika, were teachers in Warsaw and were frequent visitors on summer vacations. Another sister Jadwiga also in Warsaw worked in some office, her daughter Zofia came with aunts Klara and Ludwika every summer. For city dwellers our place was like a resort. Another of his sister, Bronislawa lived in Warsaw too, but I met her only once when I went to Warsaw at the age of twelve. One of his brothers, Jozef, after his stint in Canada (he was in Toronto) bought some land not far from where we lived, but in those days was far enough to allow only infrequent visits. Another of his brothers visited us once. I only remember that he was in an army uniform.
Prior to all these events, my father has met my mother Emilia Sniedze (who was Latvian from Vitebsk). When Soviet army was pushing down on Poland, people were escaping from advancing hordes, so did my parents. When they came to Warsaw, my mother felt as an outcast, as she spoke no Polish, only Latvian and Russian.
After a peace treaty was signed with Soviets, Poland had to establish its presence in newly acquired territories. This prompted my father to join the Police Force and move to the north east parts of Poland. First he was in Glebokie, small town of 10,000 inhabitants. There my older brother Jerzy was born in 1921. Then he was moved to Wirzchnie where I was born on the 1st of February 1924.
Then we moved to Zalesie. There were three villages of the same name: one Zalesie municipality where we lived and police station was, then Zalesie village with the post office and Zalesie Cerkiew. (Cerkiew is a name for an orthodox church), and there was a small palace of German noble Mohl.
In Zalesie our family increased by brother Tytus who later died of accidental death. It started as a very playful thing. My father was chasing him playfully around the coffee table, everyone was laughing. Suddenly he tripped and fell striking his head on the edge of the table. Right away he was taken on a 10 kilometre trip to Glebokie, where there was a hospital. He couldn't be helped there so he was sent to the hospital in Wilno, some 275 km. away. Father was with him all the time. Few days later he phoned us with the news that he died.
In 1927 sister Krystyna was born and three years later, in 1930 another sister Barbara was born. Somewhere in between baby Celina was born but soon died (it was a crib death). So there were four of us growing up together.
We lived in a semi detached building. Police Station occupied one half and we the other. Father, being in charge of the Station had to live on premises. In Poland policemen were in uniform at all times. As they suppose to be rendering assistance at all times. Even, when we went on a picnic, father wore his uniform, gun and all.
It was like living in paradise. Fields, forests, rivers and lakes were my back yards. This was an agricultural area. People in the village were all farmers. They spoke White Russian (Belaruss). It is a dialect of Russian.
I chummed up with boys my age and soon spoke their language like a pro. At home I was forbidden to use it. We spoke only Polish. By then my mother mastered her Polish and only occasionally sang us lullaby in Latvian and read us poetry by Russian poets. I remember only that it was a big format book and one of the poems was about an angel flying over the city and softly singing about resurrection of peoples souls. We were all huddled in bed listening, after reading we usually had a pillow fight till we heard father’s steps on the veranda. By the time father entered the house everything was quiet. My father was very strict with no ifs or buts. If you erred you faced the consequences.
My brother always managed to get in to a trouble, dragging me along with him. Over our back yard fence was a cherry orchard. At one time he persuaded me to go along and pick them up. It ended up with both of us getting good thrashing. I mean thrashing, with a willow switch on the bare bottom. He had kind of crooked mind. Before I started school, we used to go to see a teacher, who gave us note books and pencils from school’s shop.
He managed to find out where she kept a key to the cabinet and when she wasn't around, he managed to steal some of the supplies. He didn’t need them, but he did steal them. We chummed with a son of the Forest Rangers manager and frequently went to his house. They had a piggy bank full of coins. My brother figured out that by inserting a knife blade in to a slot he could pull out some coins. It would never enter my mind, but his worked on overtime.
At one time, when I was in grade one; I had a headache, so my mother applied a compress to my forehead. After a while I took it off and put it on the night table on which I previously laid my primer reader. In the morning I found its two pages damaged, so my brother suggested we replace them with hand drawn replicas, which turned out to be very amateurish. When I showed up at school my teacher suspended me from school, till my father had a talk with her. I still can’t understand her reasoning us school books were our own property. We had to buy them ourselves. One thing I have to give my brother credit for is that he read a lot of books and every time he got across a word he did not know, he asked my father for its meaning. He was asking questions all the time.
Later on, when we moved to town, he even learned book binding all by himself and repaired books in the local library. Watching him I picked up few tricks too.
Under the eaves of our house swallows were building mud nests, causing a lot of nuisance. By the time summer vacation came, they had young ones; this prompted the authority (my father) to order their destruction. Hired men knocked them down, nest, chicks and all. This particular summer my two aunts came for vacation, and seeing those little birds on the ground, made us pick them up and get them inside. We made them nice soft carton for a nest and for weeks were catching flies and feeding them and teaching haw to fly. When we were satisfied they were good enough to fare for themselves, we released them.
At one time, in the nearby forest, woodsmen cut some tall trees that held ravens nests with young chicks inside. Most of them died but I managed to get two of them alive. One of them died soon after, but the other one lived and I raised him feeding worms dug out in the garden. He got attached to me and followed me around.
I thought him how to fly and he had a freedom of outdoors but preferred to spend nights indoors. One evening, when it was getting dark I went inside. As I was getting through the door he tried to sneak behind me and I closed the door on him. He wasn't dead but seriously hurt so I had to destroy him by shooting with .22 rifles, which, incidentally we were handling pretty well.
Winters were cold with plenty of snow, but it didn't bother anyone, as there were no cars only horses and sleds that went everywhere. As a matter of fact, in winter roads were made across the fields and over the lakes to cut down on distance. Every so often we had to go to the town of Glebokie for major food supplies, we had to rent horse and sled. It was only 10 km. away but for me it was at the other end of the world. Usually my parents went, but on occasions one of the children went too. In local store we bought only day to day needs.
Village people were self sufficient. Heating was provided by wood stoves. Actually it was sort of a brick structure in the center of the house, usually striding two or three rooms. When it was stocked and fired the heat was absorbed by bricks and kept radiating warmth for 24 hours. In the fall we got supply of firewood that lasted for whole winter. All our wood was brought in all at once in long logs. Usually two men were hired to cut, split and stack it in the shed. Of course we needed it in summer too for cooking. In the yard we had a well with clean cold water which was brought up by pail by sort of a crane structure with long pole and pail on one end and weighted down on the other end. Toilet was outside which was normal for the area and we were used to it.
I remember one day we went on the frozen lake to play, as we often did. Previous day fishermen cut large holes in the ice to set their nets under the ice. In the commotion of the play my brother fell in, but one of the older boys managed to pull him out. In the struggle he lost one of his felt boots, so we had to run to the nearby village to have him dried out before going home. For long time afterwards boys made fun of him, telling that crayfish has good home for the winter inside his boot. In the spring, when thaw came we went on the lake ice full of surface water, by the time we finished playing our boots were soaking wet. Mother had to dry them up in the stove to have them ready for the morning. We had only one pair of shoes at one time. When they were done we had shoemaker make a new pair. When we were still young mother sew all our clothing and linen. She also did a lot of embroidery. With her guidance I learned how to sew, darn socks and even did embroidery.
I did not have my own skates, as I didn't know how to skate, so one early spring, when ice and snow were melting, I borrowed friends skates and in few hours, on the back yard ice full of water, managed to learn , though I was soaking wet. Here I have to explain that those skates came loose, without shoes. We had to attach certain bracket to the heels of regular shoes and clamp them up at the toes. They were very practical and used by all.
At times my father went hunting for hares, which on our latitude changed summer brown to winter white, like snowshoe rabbit here, but they were true hares. At times, when there was a need, he went on wolf hunt, as they were plentiful. We had moose and deer population, but they weren't hunted. Probably by poachers only. Most of the area forests were owned by government and forest rangers took good care of them. Right next to our place was forest rangers headquarters for this district. We were allowed to pick mushrooms and berries in the forest.
When the spring came it came fast. Before we knew it the snows were gone, grass started to grow followed by flowers. On our property we had a garden which my father took care of, so we had own vegetables. If we needed something else, we could buy them from gardener at German noble palace. His gardener ran a hothouse there and sold surplus to whoever needed them.
Milk and eggs were bought locally and delivered to the house. We bought our bread in the bakery, but the village people baked their own, black rye. I always changed my white rye for their black. Both sides were satisfied. Living in the farming community brought me close to their way of life. I've seen them ploughing and sowing and tending to their crops.
I experienced bareback horse riding, with sore results to my back side, pasture of horses and cattle. Cattle from whole village was tended by hired man on public land and in the evening brought back to individual owners. As the cows were moved through the village they knew their barns and went there by themselves. Horses were put out at night with shackles on front feet so they wouldn't stray too far.
Meadows were full of different flowers. Marshes full of nesting ducks, which we foolishly raided. One day I remember we were swimming in the lake in the forest when some boys came running and telling as of big fire. After dressing up in a hurry we run through the woods to the edge of the forest in time to see big ball of fire sailing from one building to another setting it on fire. By the time we got there one farmer’s house and barn were burned to the ground. Another building across the road was on fire. By the time firemen from nearby town of Glebokie came, it too burned to the ground. We were taking all our possessions out of the house, afraid it will catch fire too. Fortunately our house had tiled roof. All houses in the village had thatched roofs. At one time in the distant village one house caught fire and whole village burned out. When I have seen it, only chimneys were standing along the road. In our instance, farmer who's house burned out, had fire insurance, and not only managed to rebuild his house, but build it bigger out of clay and tin covered roof. It had space for store and some offices. Not many farmers could afford insurance.
My mother had a maid to help her out in the daily chores, especially on wash days, as everything was done by hand, including bringing water from the well. When I was about nine, my father was forced to retire as he lost sight of one eye. It was very painful experience for him. We moved to town of Glebokie and rented small place to live. Pension he was getting was nowhere near to his previous salary so he tried to supplement it by becoming sales agent, and also by writing all sorts of applications and requests for people dealing with government institutions and unable to do it themselves. Then came a chance to get concession at the railway station and he opened a buffet (snack bar) of a sort. It was a good move.
At this time my brother found out that neighbour had made some sausages and hung them in the attic to dry and cure. From the outside was only a small window way up near the roof. He figured out that tying a wire loop to the long pole he could reach it and pull down. He needed those sausages to smear Jewish boy’s faces, as they were not kosher. His wicked mind at work again. At the edge of town was Jewish cemetery with old pine trees. It was one big crow rookery. In the spring we used to gather crows eggs so we could toss them at unsuspecting Jews. Another of his great ideas.
In those days I didn't get allowance so I tried to earn on my own, but without my father’s knowledge, as it was unthinkable to him that his son could go and sell newspapers or something like that. Another way of earning money was on Wednesdays, when farmers came to the market. Horses had to be watered, so I got a pail of water selling it to needy farmers. It wasn't much but I could buy ice cream or candy. Another way of earning money was more pleasant. In town was a flour mill operated by water wheel, this required to have series of ponds for sufficient supply of water. There were four large ponds with trees on its edges. Their roots were in the water, and in the holes between the roots - crayfish. I mean crayfish! Size of lobsters you buy here in the store. This was my favourite pastime. I had plenty for sale and for own dinner. One day my mother sent me to buy some meat for dinner. After buying it I had to go home pass those ponds. I could not resist stopping there and trying my luck. In the heat of passion I forgot about meat and dinner till father came looking for me. Fortunately I had enough crayfish to calm his temper.
We had few lakes in and around the town, so we could do some fishing. Fishing gear was all self made. For a rod we had to go to the forest to a hazel-nut tree and look for straight shoot three or four meters long. Then we had to mingle with farmers at the market and when they were busy, pull some hairs from horse’s tails, which were long. Then we had to braid them to certain thickness, tie together and we had a fishing line. For a float we used cork from the bottle of something, shaft from goose feather, and only thing we had to buy was a hook.
On one of the lakes was a marina belonging to the police association. I was entitled to use it. This marina had number of kayaks which I used every time I had a chance. At this time I was swimming like a fish, so we had a lot of fun paddling around the lake or down narrow river to another lake.
Right in the middle of the town was small lake, favourite place for swimming. This lake was joined with another by a river meandering through the marshes, and spanned by a bridge made out of two large beams covered by boards nailed at both ends. One early spring, at Easter time, I was dressed in my new suit and happen to cross it with my friends, when we decided to check out the spring runoff. I came close to the edge of the boards and stepped on one that somehow wasn't nailed and went for unscheduled swim. It was rather refreshing swim.
It was nothing unusual, as regularly, every 3rd of May (which was national holiday celebrating Polish constitution), after the parade we used to go for a quick dip, as then days were nice and warm. Here I have to stress importance of being able to swim. One day there was a commotion on the beach. Young lad had drowned. Despite artificial respiration he couldn't be revived. Then at another time on the other lake, (where marina was located), older boys and girls went for the ride on the kayaks. One of the kayaks tipped over, guy swam to shore and girl drowned. In another incident on nearby lake family went for a boat ride: father, mother and three boys. No one knows how the boat overturned. Father swam to shore, mother stayed afloat held by air trapped in clothing, three young boys drowned.
Meanwhile we moved to another part of town, right across the school I attended. It was very convenient as I could stay home till the bell rung and be in school on time.
At one time, when I was 12, on summer vacations, I went to the railway station to help my father, where I met a lady, friend of ours, who was going to Warsaw with her children. My father suggested that I could go to my aunts if I wanted to. Certainly I would, but I came barefoot, as I always run barefoot when I had a chance. I was told that if I manage to get home and back in time, before train leaves, I could go. Well, it was about two km. one way. I managed. We had a stopover in Wilno so we took a short tour of it making sure to visit shrine of Madonna at "Ostra Brama".
In Warsaw I stayed with Aunt Jadwiga. She had nice apartment in the center of the city. She liked to fish in Vistula River, where she used to rent a boat. She gave me a job of taking caught fish (perch) back home where the maid cleaned it and fried it, and then I took it back to the river so she had her lunch.
I was elated going by street car, in a big city, all by myself. Other aunts used to take me on the tour of Warsaw showing me all the historic sites, zoo, parks and cemetery with magnificent monuments. At this time I met aunt Czeslawa. I spent whole two weeks in Warsaw, admiring big city living.
Few years after my trip to Warsaw, owner of the house we lived in, came back from military service, got married and needed it for himself. We moved closer to the station but further from school.
Soon after came year 1939. Morning of September 1st we learned that Germans invaded Poland. General mobilization. Troops moving to the west. Confusing news from the front. Two weeks of grief. We lived far enough to feel immediate effects of war. But on September 15 worse news of them all - Russians hit us from the back, and are moving in. We were only 30 km. away from the border. Soon came two Russian planes and dropped bombs on the station, burning one of the buildings and killing one railway employee. In another part of the town, Russian tank shot dead one of my school mates. Knowing the way of Soviet operation, all endangered people like police, military and such decided to leave in a hurry. This included my father. On the first available train they left for Wilno. Next day Wilno was taken and there was nowhere to run. Father returned home. Just managed to show mother the ropes of running the concession, and moved us to another house, right at the station and cheaper, when he was arrested by dreaded N.K.W.D. (later called K.G.B.). He was kept in the prison car on the station and then moved to Krolewszczyzna still in the prison car on railway station, fifteen kilometres away. We had to travel there with clean clothing and food. There were no visitations. Soon after he was taken to Siberia, and wrote to us from there. Meanwhile mother tried to run the concession but there was unofficial pressure to get us out of there. Finally someone broke in (which we believed was staged) stealing what was left, leaving us no choice but to abandon it. It was then run by Soviet government.
My brother decided to go over the border, to Warsaw on the German side. It was quite easy if you knew the ropes. Eventually he was taken by Germans to the labour camp, and the last my aunts heard from him was from Essen, which was heavily bombed in later years of the war.
At the same time my uncle Jozef was arrested too and imprisoned in nearby Berezwecze - old monastery and later army barracks, now a prison. We visited him often bringing clean clothing and food. He too, eventually was send to Siberia.
With my father imprisoned, with my older brother gone, I was the oldest left and felt my duty to look after the rest of the family. At first I have done odd jobs like digging holes for telephone poles for new telephone line to Russia, or dig the peat-bog used for heating. We had to walk three kilometres to the site. There was an elderly gentleman walking with me, who at better times had his dry cleaning business, and now had to work manually to keep himself alive. When winter came we had to line up at the bakery in the middle of the night to buy a loaf of bread. To keep us going, we were selling all valuables to buy food.
At this time we were approached by someone requesting us to sublet one room to a militia man (their version of a policeman). We were afraid to refuse, so this guy moved in. We found out that he was a Pole with long standing communist affiliation and even spent some time in prison for his beliefs. After a while he got disillusioned with communism, managed to resign from the force and went back to his family.
On February 10, 1940, first deportation to Russia occurred. Families of policemen, military, forest rangers, high civil servants and political prisoners, were deported. Their destination turned out to be Archangelsk in the northern Russia. For some unknown reason we and few more families were left out. At this time I got to know few guys who worked at the bakery and managed to get a job there. It was a real good luck. No more line ups in the middle of the night, and I had a steady income. I had already quit school. In May came another deportation. This time to Kazakhstan. We were spared again. Knowing that our turn will come, my mother dried every bit of spare bread and packed it in the sacks. By the time our turn came we had two sacks full of dried bread.
Anyway I worked in the bakery for over a year. It was a heavy work for sixteen years old. There were seven bakeries in town working three shifts seven days a week and there was shortage of bread. Before the occupation, same bakeries, worked only one shift each and there was plenty of bread, buns, bagels and cakes. I worked on the relive shift meaning that master baker and I worked the shifts of crews on their day off. It required us to go every time to different bakery which allowed me to learn all aspects of the trade, bread, bagels, cakes. All work was done by hand. In huge vats I had to mixed flour and water, knead the dough, form it into loves and bake in the big oven which had to be fired first with wood. This has to be done twice in eight hour shift.
About this time, family of my school friend was returned back from Russia. Though he was my good friend, he would not discuss their stay in Russia. Knowing all the personnel at the railway station I got informed on June 19.1941 that at the station arrived special box cars that are used to deport people in. They had boarded small windows and bolted doors one of which had five inch opening with wooden chute for primitive toilet.
This was a sure sign of oncoming deportation. We were next on the list, no doubt. I didn't let my family know as not to cause panic. In the evening I went out with my friends and made sure I stay out till two in the morning. It was June 20.1941. Sure enough, when I got back, there was a horse cart in the yard, light in the house and soviet soldier at the door. I had to convince him that I live here before he let me in. Inside two N.K.W.D. men rooting through everything. Then they ordered us to pack what we could carry, put it on the wagon, and drove us whole three hundred meters to the station.
There were already wagons with people and more coming in. They put us inside the box car, which had been converted to two levels on both sides of the door. Center was left open right to the ceiling. At the opposite door was narrow opening with chute and sort of a seat on top. This was a toilet for 52 people for 15 days of travel. We sat on the station all day as they loaded constantly arriving wagons from distant parts. While waiting at the station we could go to the outside toilet under the guard of armed soldier.
Meanwhile people gathered at the station seeing friends off. At one time I got mixed up with those people and soldier wouldn’t let me in to the box car. I had to convince him that I belonged inside. I had plenty opportunities to stay behind, but it never entered my mind to leave my family alone. I felt great responsibility to look after them. In the morning came along secretary from the bakeries and I asked her to arrange my pay to be brought in.
In the afternoon she came with my pay. Oddly enough, man in charge of the deportation was a director of the bakeries. When I addressed him as director, he curtly said "I am not a director now; I am a colonel “(of the N.K.W.D.). It meant that all positions were staffed by N.K.W.D.
When they deported people, they made no exceptions, newborn baby or 90 year old granny, they all had to go. There was a family ( Gebicki), with one of the daughters married and living away from her family. She was arrested and taken for deportation, allowing her husband to stay behind, but he went with her voluntarily.
June 21 we spent on the station in Krolewszczyzna, one station to the south. This was a connecting station with the main line to the north. Next day we crossed old Polish border and in Plock, when we were allowed to get some water, under armed guard, we learned of German attack on the Soviets, and managed to get newspaper from the Russian people, bringing it to the box car. When it was read aloud so everybody could hear it, so did the Russians. Immediately they entered the box car and after searching for it, confiscated the newspaper. But it was too late. We knew the war had started; besides all oncoming trains were carrying troops and war equipment.
If not for dried bread, we had, we would have starved on the way. First meal, which was plane noodle soup, we got after a week of travel, in Jaroslaw. There was no other meal for the rest of the journey which lasted for fifteen days. Only thing we could get was water at irregular intervals.
Occasionally they let us out so we could relieve ourselves as everyone tried to hold on as not to foul the box car. It was pathetic to see people squatting under the box cars, women on one side of the wheels, men on the other. There was no alternative. Now we were curious to know where we are being taken to. Box car was made of wood so I managed to cut a hole with the aid of a pen knife, near the boarded window, so we were able to see the stations we went through. Our train was heading north to Wielikije, Luki, Jaroslaw north of Moscow, then Kirow, Perm, Swierdlowsk, Omsk and to Nowosibirsk, from there south to Barnaul. From the hole I cut in the wall of the box car, on the long bend of the railway line, I could see whole length of the train. I counted over fifty box cars. Our car contained fifty two persons.
From the station they brought us, by horse and wagon, to brick works. When all transport arrived, they (meaning N.K.W.D.) assembled all of us for a meeting. They just said it plainly that we were brought here to work and we should forget that we ever were in Poland as this is the place that we will die in. Plain and simple.
Row of newly erected long huts awaited us. Inside those huts were two level stalls on both sides of long corridor. Those stalls were three or four meters wide. Into each stall they put one family regardless of the size. Four of us were in the lower stall. Water tap was outside so was a toilet serving all huts. As soon as we settled down we wrote to our father giving him our new address. This way we managed to stay in touch.
We were issued papers in place of the passports. I have saved my, in spite of stern orders at the time of departure from Russia, that if any documents not surrendered to the authorities upon leaving Soviet Union will be sufficient reason to cancel exit privileges. On the opposite page I made a copy of the original. In translation it says:
CERTIFICATE (In lieu of passport) Issued to forcefully deported Wilski Zbigniew Stanislawowicz born 1924 year, residing at Kirzawod No.2 (Brickworks No 2) and is limited by law and cannot leave town of Barnaul to another place without permission of organ of the N.K.W.D. Forceful deportee Wilski Z. S. remains under the supervision of organs of N.K.W.D. and has to register each month at 2nd municipal department of R.K.M. N.K.W.D. (Onsowa St. house No 3). Manager, 1st department of U.N.K.S.D. A.K. (Morpachew) 3 August 1941 Year. Town of Barnaul.
On the brickworks property was sort of a dining hall where we could buy some noodle soup. Having some money we promptly bought it. Next day we had to go to work, where they assigned us to different areas. I was sent down to the pit head to load clay on to tram car. We had to undercut the sheer wall of the pit face and let the whole lot drop down making sure no one will get caught in the avalanche of clay, and then the back breaking job began. Shovel by shovel we had to load it on to a tram car, then hitch a horse to it and wheel it to a steel line, hook it up and electric motor pulled it up the ramp to a hopper where it was mixed to certain consistency and extruded in a long mass of clay which was cut in to bricks, from there it was put on wheelbarrows and carted to drying sheds. My mother had to wheel those wheelbarrows full of raw bricks. We were being paid by the amount of work performed. In my mother’s case she was paid for the number of bricks she brought to the drying shed.
I don’t remember how they paid for my work. But I remember that after few weeks my fingers were square with hardened skin from working the shovel. We worked five days and the sixth day was free, then five more days and sixth free. This was Russian five day working week. Summer was hot, so when we had a chance we walked to the river Ob, some two kilometres away, for a swim. At this point, at Barnaul, river was wide and slow flowing with murky water, but it was refreshing. Pay was low, the dried bread had ended, and we had to scrounge every bit of food. Close by was a field from which potatoes were already harvested, so we had to sneak in to salvage some that was left in the ground and would normally freeze in the winter. No such luck in the Soviet system. Police on horseback chased us out and dumped them back on the ground.
We used to go on the railway line in search of some potatoes or carrots that fell of the train. We also managed to pick up some lumps of coal dropped by engine. At this time even one potato could make a soup. Carrot was a bonus. When we had some money to spare we went to cafeteria to buy some soup. Usually it was noodle soup. When they served soup called "shchy z gruzdziami", meaning cabbage soup with mushrooms, it was a challenge in itself to eat it as each circle of fat floating on top of soup had nice fat worm, which probably came from mushrooms. You had a choice, eat it or leave it. We ate it.
Friend of mine, fellow deportee, Antoni Borejko, from village of Dzierkowszczyzna, his family were farmers. Being more prosperous than rest of the villagers, they were classed as "kulaks", Russian name for richer population, and thereby slated for deportation. He worked in the sunflower oil mill, so sometimes he brought some refuse from squashed out seeds, normally given to cattle. It was good for us too. At another time he managed to steal (we call it "borrow") few bars of soap and gave me some. With this bar of soap I traveled on the train to some village and traded it for potatoes as even locals could not get soap. This will bring us to the subject of cleanliness. Everybody had lice. You could not buy a railway ticket without certificate that your clothing had been fumigated (deloused). When you went to the barber shop you could see a big fat louse being cut in half by barber scissors. This was the norm.
Then one September day they picked some men, me included, and send us to the farm owned by the brickworks and called "sowchoz", to help in harvesting crops. Regular farming communities were called "Kolchoz". It was a few hours trip by train to a place called Oziorki. When we arrived there, they already harvested field of oats and stacked the sheaves in a huge heap. Next day there was a big commotion. What happened? The oats just harvested were stacked while still damp, and everything rotted inside the stack. We spent a couple of weeks there. At one time I had a chance to steal whole water melon from the field, and ate it all on the spot, it almost made me sick. I remember them feeding us boiled potatoes with skin and sand on. You could not peel them as it would be nothing left. They were the size of large pea. We just ate them whole.
Their machinery was constantly breaking down, and they had two horses. One was a huge monster and the other little pony. I was placed in charge of them working the field. Imagine my frustration trying to control them. Big one was lazy and had to be prompted with the whip. As soon as I raised the whip he took off and as suddenly as he took off he stopped. It went on like that all day.
One day some people were coming in from the station, few kilometres away, and told me that my father was coming. I could not believe them till he really showed up. You see, we were never told about amnesty for Polish people. My father already was released from prison and found his way to us but I didn't know about it. My father came to take me away from this farm. When we returned back to the barracks, my fathers treated us to a water melon. I could not look at one for a while, let alone eat it.
We weren't slaves anymore, but still could not change the jobs without permission. But after returning to the brickworks I didn't go back to work there. At this time they build new houses few kilometres away. They were solid wood, two stores quadruplets. In our present standard it would be comfortable apartments for four families. But they put one family to a small room and two to a bigger one. We were put up in a common kitchen. Big enough to put a bunk bed so five of us could fit on it, leaving small area for strangers coming in to cook. In a way it was a blessing as in winter we didn't have to heat it all the time, only when there was no cooking done by other dwellers.
There was problem with wood supply. Of course you could buy it but with no money for food we could not afford to buy wood. We had to resort to stealing it any where we could.
It was done always at night, even in the snow storm we went out scrounging. Actually we bought wood once because we had to have some kind of a proof that we indeed are buying it.
Any ways, I found myself a job in newly repatriated from the European Russia, cigarette factory. At this time Russians were moving out everything to save it from advancing German troops. Times were hard for us. Despite two earners now, money was still in short supply. Our mainstay was daily ration of bread. My mother found work sorting out potatoes in huge cold storage cellars. She always tried to hide potato or two in her pocket. Sometimes it was possible to buy extra bread in the city. They called it commercial bread. Any time I had a chance and money I bought it and on the way home tried to restrain myself from nibbling at it. When we had some money to spare I would buy some milk, which in winter was sold in a frozen lump and without container. This milk, by the way, was of bitter taste due to the fact that cows ate weed called wormwood, which grew in abundance. This weed was used in treatment of stomach ulcers and tasted terrible. By the way, ice cream was sold only in winter.
At this time I didn’t work, as I injured my finger at work and have been off work (without pay). Finger was slow to heal due to malnutrition. It didn’t heal till I reached Palestine many months later. Meanwhile I tried to earn some money by doing odd jobs. chummed up with young Jewish man (fellow deportee) and usually cut and split firewood for Russian people, getting paid with money or food.
At the end of February I met a Polish soldier, who came looking for his family somewhere on the farm outside of Barnaul. He needed a team of horses and sled to get there. Knowing my way around town I helped him to find it. From him I found out about formation of Polish army down south near Alma-Ata. He had a railway ticket for twenty people who would like to join the army. He promised to take me with him on his way back
Next two weeks all of us were saving bread from our rations so I have something to eat on my trip down south. My mother sewed a knapsack and I was ready to go. Time was just right, as I had two summonses to court for leaving brickwork’s without permission, and now I received a third one. This meant that now, if I didn't show up in court I will be arrested. On March 19 soldier got back, and I had my clothing fumigated, ready for the railway trip. You could not buy railway ticket without proof of having your clothing steamed. Next day I said goodbye to my family and my father saw me to the station. The day was the 20th of March 1942, the last time I saw both my mother and father.
This was a passenger train but still trip lasted five days and nights. Train stopped at every station, where we could get "Kipiatok" (hot water). Every station had it but you had to have your own container. Usually it was a tin can from some kind of preserve. On this trip, one early morning, I experienced a very impressing sun rise. Multitude of soft colors kept changing in the cloudless sky. Later on I was treated to another nature spectacle. Looking east from the train you could see no end of the horizon, but rising up in front of your eyes you could see a towering mountain covered in snow. It was a part of Tien-Shan Mountains of the Himalayas.
We shared our compartment with a Jewish lady and her daughter, who kept us entertained by singing nice songs. She had beautiful voice. Their name was Dworkin, and they were traveling to Tashkent. When we reached Alma-Ata we disembarked and right on the platform met Antoni Borejko, who came here day before and found out that army enrolment center was moved to Lugowaja, another day’s journey.
When we wanted to board the train again we had hard time convincing conductor that our ticket holder was still on the train. After some arguments we had our way cleared and went to Lugowaja. Next day we signed in to the army. On the second day we had to cast our entire civilian clothing, shave all hair on entire body, take a bath and upon emerging from bathhouse receive (English) army uniform. Civilian clothing was piled up and burned, louse and all. On the third day we were loaded on the train and left for Krasnowodsk, port on Caspian Sea. Prior to that we were told that if someone has families in the radius of fifty kilometres could go and bring them over for departure to Persia. My family was hundreds kilometres away.
We spent few days on the train. At Tashkent we were fed noodle soup. At Krasnovodsk we were told to surrender all Russian documents, failing to do so will result in denying departure. Every one complied. I took a chance and kept one previously mentioned. We were also told that we should leave all Russian money, as it will be of no use to us in Persia, but could be used helping people staying behind. In Persia we found out that Russian money in 10 rubbles denomination (called "cherwieniec") was readily accepted. The ship I went on was very small, and packed like proverbial sardines in a tin can. I found a place on the deck where I spent the night. At the end of the trip I had been smeared with tar. When we reached Pahlevi, in Persia, smaller boats ferried us to the dock.
Our camp was on the sandy beach on the shores of Caspian Sea. First thing we have done, we went for a swim. Then we went to see the town and its market. It was an unbelievable sight for hungry eyes. Markets full of all kinds of food, and fruits. Big, hungry eyes and no money to buy anything. People that ignored the warnings and kept the money had a ball. From all my possessions I had only leather belt left over, which I managed to sell and buy some food. It was a heaping plate of rice with pat of butter on top. It was a sheer delight.
Now we were getting regular meals, but our bodies still called for more. I remember at the meal time getting to the line first, eating my food as fast as I could and get back to the line again for seconds, which we were not allowed.