His Second World War story
Written by Zbigniew and his daughter Isabella
My father Piotr, and mother Jozefa (nee Stranc), owned a tobacco plantation in the small village of Bajanowka, Poland (now in the Ukraine). There were other farms around ours. My Uncle Rydzinski and Uncle Stranc also had farms quite near to ours. As a toddler I remember a swing in an outbuilding next to a barn, and playing with my sister Antonina (Antonia), who was born in 1922. I remember my sister Marysia (Maria) aged about 5 years old and I was about 6 or 7 years old. We played with the foals and horses. Franek, my brother was born in about 1923/24, and died before I was born. Tadeusz (Teddy), my younger brother was born in 1933.
I remember Mam being in labour. We kids knew why Mam was in bed, she was having a baby. A girl was born, Jadwiga (Jadza), it was 1934/35. Jadwiga kept crying a lot. Mum nursed her all the time. I came in from school one day and saw Mum crying. I went into the little bedroom where Jadwiga was. She was lying on the bed. I cuddled and kissed her, her lips were very cold.
I went to school in Wawro. The school was one of the houses with a large front room. These were happy days. The walk to school was about a quarter of an hour, through a forest full of blackberries, raspberries and very tasty wild strawberries (poziomki). Soon after I started, they built the new school – The Red School. I went there until the age of 10 years. On the way to school I would walk though Uncle Rydzinski’s farm. This was my father’s sister, Maria and her husband Czeslaw. They had three children, a girl called Lusia, and two boys, Henry and Albin. Then I carried on through Uncle Stranc’s farm. This was my mother’s brother, Janek and his family. After that I went to a secondary school in the next village, Hallerowo, about half an hours walk away. I stayed there for the rest of my schooldays. I had some nice times, until the war, and used to fancy the girls! They were happy days, playing with my brother and sisters, and helping father and mother with the tobacco plantation and all the other farm crops and animals. I used to graze the horses, mostly at the weekends. I used to mount my favourite horse, Gavat, and the other horses would be strapped to him. I would ride for about a mile on our land to a semi-swamp area to graze them. The other lads also took their horses to graze. We used to race regularly without our fathers’ knowledge. There were other things we kids kept from our parents. The winter months, in Poland, were very cruel. The snow would be about 2 to 3 metres high. Even so, we still went to school. In school I was about average. I remember I got caned once because I commented on a girl with a significantly showing bust!!
The happy hours were quickly coming to an end and the rumour of the war was all around. Then in 1939 the war came. I was 14 years old and in school. Lads of my age wanted to enrol, but were denied because they were too young. We carried on farming our land. Our Ukrainian neighbours seemed to be less friendly. There was more indifference. Then, one day in 1939, I could see soldiers coming from the east. I thought they were our soldiers, but no, they were Russians. My father knew because he had been in the same situation in the First World War.
The Russians ordered us to leave our farm, because dad was a land owner. Uncle Rydzinski and Uncle Stranc also had to leave their farms. We went to live at grandad’s (Franciszek and Wictoria) house in Rowno, Poland (now in the Ukraine). We stayed there a few months. I remember one day we were out skiing and there were some Russian soldiers, who were on skis. I said to come over to where we were, because there was a big slope and a jump. We went down the slope and off the jump and the Russians followed us. But, their skis were different, and came off. They fell over. They were angry and shook their fists at us. We thought it was very funny.
We kids went to school in Rowno. Rowno was a town and the kids there were very unruly, not like us quiet country kids! – I started to become an adult.
On 10th February 1940, there was a knock at the door, and we (Mam, Dad, Marysia, Tadeusz, Antonia and me) were given half an hour to pack our belongings and get in a carriage. We were taken from Rowno to Zdelbunow, Poland. We were then moved on again. We travelled in cattle trucks to a settlement at a place called Poludniowica in Siberia, Russia. My father’s sister, Maria Rydzinska, and her three children, Lusia, Henry and Albin also came. I don’t know where her husband Czeswuw was, possibly already in the Army. We were all together. We sold father’s tobacco, and father and I worked as lumberjacks and also in a brick yard. There were about 13 barracks here. Barrack 13 was made into a hospital because Typhoid broke out. Lusia died there, most probably from typhoid. Typhoid got out of control and there were many deaths. The overcrowding was appalling; there would be about 4 families in the average room.
After this we were moved on again, to a place called Dravatka, in Siberia, Russia. It was a small camp with only 1 or 2 barracks. In the winter is was minus 40/50 degrees. We stayed a very short time. We could see the Northern Lights. Nothing was more spectacular. The old people prayed that it was a sign from God.
Soon we were on the move again. This time to Wicigorsk in Siberia. We worked through the summer and winter as lumberjacks. The timber was sent down river to Lake Onega. Dad and I used two horses name Jozyk (which translates to hedgehog in English) and Bunczuk, who was a smart, tall black horse. Jozyk hurt his back. Father had an argument with a Russian Foreman, after he had accused father of hitting the horse. Father was taken to court and fined. After this we used Bunczuk. He once saved our lives when we were chased by wolves. F ather and I held fast to the sledge and the wolves could not catch us.
In the spring we transported timber on the River Yaliga, from Andoma to Lake Onega. We had no social life. Everybody was working. I was aged 15. One day, whilst on the boat, father had a row with a Russian Foreman called Popov. I sat behind Popov and I planned that if it came to a fight I would stab the Russian and put him to the bottom of the lake. Whilst at Wicigorsk, I hurt my foot and was in hospital for a short time.
Time goes on and I am growing, always chasing the girls! Father and I were living away from the camp in huts (palatki). We were transporting chains which were then used to bind logs together, before transporting them by boat. (I cannot swim). Mother was working across the river. Father and I were together. It was a more friendly camp. Soon after the Russian/German war broke out. Overnight we are friends with the Russians.
We move on again, by boat to Arkhangelsk, still in Russia, and through rivers, down to the south through the Dwina River, down to Kuybyshev. Then onwards by train. The family panic when my sister, Antionia, could not get on the train and was being left behind. My father got the train driver by his neck staying – “STOP AND WAIT” I stepped off the train and helped Antonia onto the train with her little wooden box, which contained her belongings. From Kuybyshev we went south by train. Again we travel vast Russian distances. We travel and travel. It was a long journey. T he train was packed. Some women were with their children, but without their husbands. They did not have a little snack like the others. They watched people eating. I will never forget that!!
The long travel continued through Kazakhstan to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Then further south. The train stopped at the side of the Amudarja River. We were loaded onto barges and travelled down the river. After two days we were unloaded at a deserted place. There were some horses and carts waiting. We travelled day and night and slept in the desert. The next day ,we arrived at a village called Takhtakupyr. There was another family there with two daughters. In the village, the people were very friendly. Mother cooked a meal and a guest sat and enjoyed it. Then to his horror he found out it was pork. He was a Moslem. He ran outside and tried to make himself sick! Father worked in the local garage. Life was tolerable. Soon after the local military arrived and said that we had to move on again. We got back on the horses and carts, spending a night in the desert, and then went back on the barges up the river all the way to the railway. Father fell in and almost drowned. A little boy fell overboard. The bloody tug did not stop. In anger I tried to jump from one barge to the other, like that boy, but fortunately I succeeded.
We then travelled by train again and, at the next station, Kizeltepe, the train stopped. We were taken by horse and cart (arba) to a collective farm called Kuibyszew, (named after the city), to settle in 2 clay huts. The only food we had was turnip and a couple of handfuls of grain. We had arrived at HELL!! THE HELL – There was no food – we were given only 400 grams of wheat per person per week. We were a family of 4. Sadly Antonia became ill and soon died of a starvation-related disease. She lay on the mortuary shelf without any clothes on her body. She was buried by father and myself in the large cemetery. We dug with our hands and found someone else’s grave, so we dug in another place. We put her naked body in the grave and covered her with an old coat. We covered her with the hateful Uzbekistan soil. We made a little cross with two sticks.
The Hell continued. We had our own compounds, but the Uzbekistan people were not very friendly, but not aggressive either. By chance, whilst in a store room where the food was given out, I discovered a mouldy substance on the floor was cheese, so I took it. There was a Lithuanian family with two kids. The husband was called to the Army and his family left to its fate. The Hell continued; people were starving. Poles, Lithuanians and Russian refugees, we were all aliens in the face of a Moslem unfriendly state. I had them tapped. Young and strong like them, I carried a scarf like a belt and the largest knife I could steal. I had mastered their language and their customs, but there was no way to obtain any more food. Father was called to the Army. The Polish Army under British Command in Kermine. Mother walked for three days to see him. I stayed in our ‘so-called’ home, full of jumping flees, so that I could visit my sister Marysia and brother Tadeusz who were in an orphanage in a town called Zarmitan. Mother came back all swollen from walking for three days. When I went to Zarmitan to see Marysia and Tadeusz, although Marysia was more settled, Tadeusz was out with some lads scavenging for food. I suppose that’s where he picked up dysentery. We stayed in this repulsive accommodation for a few days. Then we received notice to leave this terrible place and go to Kizeltepe, and wait for a train. We did, mother and I waited with Maria. We pulled up lots of kids who were joining our transport, but there was no Teddy. They would not let him leave the orphanage. He and 3 girls and 2 other boys had to stay there because they had dysentery. We were told he would be sent on the next train. So we left Kizeltepe. We arrived at a place called Krasnovodsk. Everything was shitty as before. We waited but Teddy never arrived on the next trains. Then there was an announcement; all Polish citizens could leave the USSR. So we left, to my regret, leaving Teddy there. Here my brother could have been saved, but for red tape.
From Krasnovodsk we were to travel by boat on the Caspian Sea to Tehran. We all sat there queuing for a boat, everybody was relaxing. We were leaving Russia!! My mother and I had made a terrible mistake – we could have put Teddy in a suitcase and smuggled him out. It was not to be. Sailing through the Caspian Sea, the cabins and decks were full of people. It was an amazing experience, toilets were a real luxury. We arrived at Pahlavi in Persia (now Iran). It was the first time we had met the British, they were very strict. We got off the boat, we were all in pyjamas, and it was very humiliating. After we were given various clothing we regained our dignity.
After arriving in Pahlavi, we were taken to camps. In the camps 90 per cent of the people were women. They were frustrated at going to different camps and travelling through Russia. Most of the men were in the Army. From Pahlavi we went to Ahvaz, then we went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then Karachi, India (now Pakistan). We stayed in India for a little while, then we went to Africa. From there we went to a big Polish camp in Tanganika. From here my mother and Marysia went to Rhodesia, Africa to join my father, who had been wounded. He was taken to a civilian camp in Lusaka. I continued to Uganda, and then Kenya, to join the Polish Army. Myself and some colleagues set off to Makindu. We assembled camp, which was fun.
My next stop – Oh My God!! – Two younger lads and I set off from Makindu to Tengeru. We were walking through Savannah Masai Mara and The Sarangetti. As night fell we saw a light – it was a fire burning. We stopped. It was the Masai Camp. I spoke to them and asked if we could stop for the night. They said we could. They told us to go to a hut to sleep. I stayed awake and could hear them talking – “I will have his shoes”, and another said “I will have his trousers or jacket”. My hair stood on end!! I woke up both lads, my hand over their mouths so they were quiet, and we slipped out of the tent by lifting the bottom up. We ran off up the road. We had more chance of survival with wild animals than certain death with the Masai tribes! As we walked we could hear the roars of lions and laughs of hyenas and other strange noises. As though by miracle we could see in the distance some car lights. In those parts a car may appear about 3 or 4 times a day. The car stopped and the man said “what the hell are you doing out here?"
From Africa I went to Egypt. At Qwassasin Camp there were soldiers of all nationalities – English, Polish, South African, Australian and Indian. We all fought for one cause – FREEDOM!! We all fought our enemies. I took part in the Desert Campaign under the command of General Anders. I was a “desert rat” driving a tank. I also fought at Monte Casino, where many of my friends lie. I was lucky not to be amongst them. I was wounded twice, once in the arm, and in my leg. In Italy I fought all through the campaign. I served in the Polish Army (the Polish Second Corps) under British command from 1942 until 1947. I was finally demobbed on 16th February 1948, after serving my time on reserve.
After the Second World War ended, I sailed from Naples, Italy to Liverpool, England on 8th August, 1946. From Liverpool, I and many other Polish soldiers serving under British command were taken by double-decker bus to various camps. I, along with my best friend Adolf Kaczmaryk, went to the Polish Resettlement camp at Cawthorne, Barnsley. All the soldiers there were Polish. It was here that I met my English Rose, Joyce Weaver. She worked in the Naffi. Joyce lived in Naffi quarters and went home occasionally by bus. From Cawthorne, Adolf and I went to work at Knottingley Colliery and lived in the miners' hostel there. Soon afterwards we went to Askern Colliery and lived in the miners' hostel there. Joyce was posted to the RAF base at Finnningley. I visited when I could.
In the spring of 1947 Joyce fell pregnant. I loved her and asked her to marry me. She accepted! She finished work and went to live at home with her parents. On 20th September 1947, Joyce and I were married at Doncaster Register Office. Her brother Eddie Weaver and friend Margaret Lindley, were the witnesses. At first we lived with Joyce’s parents. Marie was born shortly afterwards, on 28th December 1947. I was finally demobbed from the Army on 16th February 1948 after serving my time on reserve.
I had already decided that I wasn’t going back to Poland, because I wanted to make a home here in England with Joyce and Marie. Not wanting the family to be split up again, my mother, father and Marysia decided that they too would settle in England and make a new start. On the 30th May 1948, they arrived at Southampton Docks, from Rhodesia. They went to a Polish Dependants Hostel in Ludford Magna in Lincolnshire. Myself and Adolf visited regularly and, shortly afterwards, Adolf and Marysia started courting. They were married on 24th December 1949.
My mother and father lived at various addresses in South Yorkshire and father worked on a farm for a time. But he was unhappy. After owning his own farm in Poland and doing things his way, he did not like having to work for someone else. He left and got a job at Askern Colliery with me and Adolf.
On the 17th March 1949, Joyce and I moved to lodge with Margaret and Herbert Lindley. On the 30th of May we went back to stay with Joyce’s parents, Horace and Edith. On 2nd January,1953 we finally moved into our own place, a newly-built rented flat. This has been the family home ever since.
Our second daughter, Isabella Jayne was born on 18/12/62 and our son, Andrew, was born on 12/2/64. Now at last my life was settled and happy, with the atrocities of the war behind me. A bombshell came in August 1965, when Joyce was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had a hysterectomy, but seven years later the cancer returned. After emergency surgery and months in hospital, two years later on 18th June 1974 she lost her battle. The family were devastated. I had an English Rose; I have lost her but will always love her.
Nothing was ever found out about my lost brother Tadeusz. I have made several enquiries with the British Red Cross to trace him, without success. To this day the family are still searching to try and find out what became of him. Whether he died in Uzbekistan or survived and settled somewhere in the world. I have some relatives, an aunty (my mother’s sister) and several cousins, still living in Poland.
Bajanowka, our family village, does not exist anymore. The borders of Poland were moved during the war and the land where I grew up is now in the Ukraine. In August 1992, I made my first trip back to Poland. Whilst waiting for a train into the Ukraine at Warsaw Station I overheard a woman talking about the town of Rowno. I struck up a conversation with her and told her why I was there. Her name was Lena Pudlik. Astonishingly she lived quite near Rowno. I ended up staying with Lena and her family for four days!! Whilst there she helped me find the village of Bajanowka. After leaving 54 years ago, I made my first and very emotional trip back to what was Bajanowka.
There is nothing there. No farms or houses, not even the church where we went as children. Just fields and crops. The Russians had demolished everything. I could picture in my mind's eye where our house was, and the other farms where we picked damsons and other fruits and where I grazed the horses. I wept, as happy childhood memories came flooding back; working on the farm, my brothers and sisters all playing happily together, and grazing my horses, before the nightmare of the war began and Poland was invaded. The heartache and losses my family and I had suffered for more than 8 years. It was overwhelming.
A year later in July 1993, I fulfilled my promise to my children and grandchildren, and took them to see where I was born. 11 of us made the journey; my daughter Marie and husband Jimmy, their daughter Gail and partner Adam, their youngest daughter Michaela and her partner, Stephen. My daughter Jayne and her husband Allen with their son, Ben, who was only 6 months old at the time! And my son Andrew (his wife Kim could not make the trip because she was having a difficult pregnancy with their second daughter Amy). My good friend Lena, from the Ukraine, made all the arrangements for our journey into the Ukraine. It was an eventful holiday to say the least, with no end of problems along the way!! But finally my children and grandchildren stood on my land. I showed them where our house used to be and the farm buildings. Where Uncle Rydzinki and Uncle Stranc farm had once stood. Where I used to walk and graze my horses. We also went to Rowno, which is still known by this name. The house where my grandfather lived is still there. It’s painted blue. We walked around the garden. A couple of years later, I returned again with Jayne and Andrew and Andrew’s wife Kim and their two daughters Anna and Amy.
I remain friends with Lena and will always be grateful to her for helping me find “My Land”. I have the original deeds for the land, which my father always kept with him. One day I hope my children or grandchildren will get some kind of compensation for the land which was stolen from us.
Copyright Isabella Groves