|Straws in the Wind
The Betrayal of Poland and One Family's Incredible Journey
By Eugene Krajewski
Copyright 2002 by Eugene Krajewski; All rights reserved.
JOURNEY BY CATTLE TRUCK TO THE FROZEN NORTH
After having spent the first night in the Parish Council Offices in Piaski with twenty or so other families crying all night, the next day at mid-day a long string of large horse-driven sleighs collected outside the Council Building. Each family in turn was ordered to board the nearest vehicle. When all were loaded, the whole train moved off down the road in silence. Not one of the inhabitants of Piaski who had been lucky enough to remain dared venture out for fear of being shot on sight.|
As the sun was setting we arrived at the railway station in Wolkowysk. In front of us stood a battered goods train. The large sliding door was opened in the front wagon and the deportees started transferring their wares from the sleighs into it. Eventually it was our turn. As we entered, we discovered that these were no ordinary goods wagons. Our Russian hosts, no doubt anticipating this moment, converted the vehicles for "passenger" use. As I said, the middle part of the vehicle wall was taken up by the original and unmodified sliding doors. Directly in front as one entered, was located a cast iron stove with a sheet metal flue running straight up and through the roof. On either side were added two intermediate floors, thus making it possible to pack the unfortunate travellers on three levels. There were no windows.
The sleighs soon departed and we were left wondering what was to happen next. Clearly, keeping the Detainees informed was not a top priority item for our Guards. The train remained in the siding for the next three days during which time a continuous stream of transports of Polish families kept pouring in, each being promptly loaded into the next vacant wagon on arrival. To keep us alive during this period of waiting, a Guard would come down once a day with a bucket full of slops which he laughably called cabbage soup, followed by another, carrying dark brown bread cut up into small pieces. Each passenger's daily sustenance was a bowlful of the so-called soup and a small piece of bread. A starvation diet.|
All the doors were sealed and the train set off on its journey. None of the travellers had any idea where they were going, how long their journey would be or even, how long it was to be before the next stop. In fact this last item soon proved to be the source of serious problems. The train kept pounding on hour after hour. After some time `calls of nature' started making their needs known to the occupants. With their arrival dawned the knowledge that the vehicle had no provisions for dealing with them. Initially, parents used whatever pots they brought with them to allow their children to relieve themselves. Soon, however it became apparent that this short-term solution was insufficient. In the end, somebody came up with the clever idea of cutting a hole in the wagon floor to allow desperate passengers to relieve themselves and dispose of any refuse. (The main sliding doors were locked from the outside.) A hole was promptly cut behind the stove. (There was no shortage of wood - saws and axes on board.) The facility was very inconvenient and offered no privacy and so it's use was limited to extreme emergencies. After many hours of travelling the train finally stopped and the prisoners were allowed to come out, The train didn't halt for the convenience of the travellers. The only reason it halted was for the locomotive to replenish its water supply. While the engine was taking on water from the tank, the whole of the train emptied as each occupant rushed out to attend to his call of nature. A pattern was quickly established. All the men crouched on one side of the train, while the women used the other side.
Eventually we arrived at the main railway junction in the town of Baranowicze and the train was yet again parked into a siding. The wagons were unlocked and, uncharacteristically, our captors chose to impart some information to us regarding our current circumstances. Apparently the train was to remain in the sidings for some days, and was in any case not going to move again until our Guards received further orders. The feeding regime from our previous period of waiting in Wolkowysk was resumed. The contents of the slops they called soup varied a little. Sometimes we could even find odd pieces of potato peelings in it. Our Guards became slack and people started to make long excursions away from their wagons. A couple of young men from our wagon decided to take advantage of the situation and run away. One day they both disappeared and we never saw them again. Many years later I discovered that their escape was successful. The story was that they both made their way across the Russian/German border and finished up in Warsaw. In fact they both later died defending the Capital from the Germans during the Warsaw uprising.
Some of the people came back with some incredible tales. Apparently the whole of this International Junction was being filled with prison trains like our own. Hundreds of trains were already amassed and new ones were arriving all the time. We stayed there for over a week, white other trains kept coming in. During our stay we continued to be fed the standard diet. The food was, of course not sufficient and we supplemented it by dipping into the supplies we brought along with us from home. This we did very sparingly for we still had no idea what was ahead of us.
Suddenly, early one morning Guards started shouting as they walked down the length of the train:
"All that belong on this train; get on board and settle in. We are setting off straight away."
As they went the enormous sliding doors were closed and sealed from outside.
We all sat anxiously in the dark waiting. After what seemed like an eternity, the train suddenly jerked violently and we were off.
Again the train run on at a break-neck speed into the unknown. The occupants of our compartment started to get more and more uneasy.
"Where are they taking us?" people stared asking no one in particular, "Are we really being resettled? Are they going to take us out into some desolate place and kill us? What is this all about anyway?"
As time went by, some people on the top deck, having discovered gaps in the wall panelling, sat at their observation posts and occasionally shouted out their comments;
"We are travelling East into Russia," one would say.
"We have just passed Minsk," would call another.
Later a despondent voice would whisper, "We have entered Russia. I've just seen the sign of the Smolensk railway station."
After we passed Moscow, the train changed direction and continued northwards. The towns we passed were less familiar to Poles. However as the names were called out, "Jaroslaw. . .Wologda. . ." it became obvious that our destination was to be the region of Archangel in Siberia. The train left the main track after the town of Wologda and proceeded northwards on a side-track. We travelled on through desolate snow-covered countryside for a long time. In the end the train run out of track and we came to a halt. The whole journey took three weeks.
As the wagons were unlocked, the travellers started to emerge and survey their surroundings. It soon became apparent that the rail terminated in the midst of a small village or a hamlet. All around were endless forests.
Our guards dispersed into the settlement. After a couple of hours we were told to alight from the train. As we came off, the guards took individual families and ushered them into one of the houses. We were thus foisted onto the poor villagers and told that we were to spend the night there. The next morning we were to continue our journey.
It must be said that in spite of the fact that our host's huts were suddenly filled to the brim with uninvited guests, their attitude towards us was friendly and hospitable. They raided their own meagre supplies to give us all warm and nourishing meals. Truly, this behaviour was in the age old and ancient tradition of Slavonic hospitality. The evening in our hut went by very pleasantly with our hosts quizzing the arrivals about life in "the outside world" and then, after sharing some home made vodka with the new corners making music and singing. In our misery it didn't occur to us that these apparently free people had experienced isolation equivalent to long-term prison confinement. They listened with wonder, and sometimes with disbelief, at the description of the life in Poland we left behind.
In the end all agreed that it was time to get some sleep. After all, we still had no idea what privations we were to face the next day.
After only a few hours' sleep we were woken by our Russian guards and ordered to get up, get our belongings together and come out. We were all confused. "Surely, the sun hasn't even come up yet!" somebody said. The NKVD officer in charge responded, "We have a long journey ahead of us. There is no time to waste on idle chatter if we are to reach our destination by nightfall. Hurry up."
Outside, we found a row of sleighs with the local Siberian ponies harnessed in at their heads. The equipment and the animals obviously belonged to the inhabitants of the village, and were now being arbitrarily commandeered by the Red Army soldiers for their own purposes. It seemed to us that the "free Russians" were no freer than us.
We settled in on the vehicles and the next phase of our journey began. The group travelled further north throughout most of that day, stopping only to rest and feed the horses and, of course to dish out our meagre daily ration.
On the horizon we saw a large lake, and soon discovered that we were in fact heading towards it. Arriving at its bank we saw a row of long barracks. The buildings were constructed of rough timber logs and appeared to have been there for some time. We could see no sign of life in or around the buildings. The horses came to a halt alongside the nearest building and the leader of the convoy shouted out:
"This is it. This from now on will be your home. Come up to the front one family at a time and you'll be allocated your accommodation. Remember. This is not a holiday camp. You are here to work for the greater glory of the Soviet Union and the Revolution. You will earn your food by working."
"Remember; He who does not work ,does not eat."
After this speech was over, one by one, the bewildered groups started alighting. Eventually it was our turn. The Guard directed Mother to the top of the next building and we all followed, dragging our belongings with us. The room we entered was split into two by a makeshift screen. Our part, for we soon discovered that only one third of the room was allocated to house our whole family, was neglected and dirty. In the far corner stood a crudely constructed wooden bunk bed with nothing but wooden planks and thin straw-filled mattresses to lie on. In the middle we saw a stained table and alongside it a crude bench. A tiny window provided sparse daylight. We were surprised to note that the opening housed a glass pane. A small brick-built stove, now cold and unlit, stood against the corridor, midway between our accommodation and that of our neighbours behind the low screen. It's chimney extended through the sloping roof.
"So this is to be our home." Mother said, despair in her voice.
While we all unloaded our belongings, our captors prepared our evening meal. The usual thin hot soup and a small piece of brown bread of course.
Hungry, we all ate the offered food rapidly and then, exhausted by the long journey, fell upon the bunks as we stood and fell fast asleep.
The next day at dawn, we were woken by one of the guards hammering on the door. On entering he loudly announced:
"All adults and youngsters over fifteen are to get dressed and gather outside in ten minutes. Today you're starting your work in the forest. Children will stay behind."
Our first day in exile started with Mother gone and the four of us left alone, cold, frightened and hungry. One would have expected my eldest sister Stasia, who was then almost in her fifteenth year, to take charge. In fact it was my brother Romek who more quickly rose to the occasion. Saying nothing, (Romek was never much one with words), he got dressed, put on his shoes and overcoat and went out. After a while he returned carrying a big bunch of twigs. From his pocket he produced a handful of dry moss, he must have found outside, and placed it in the oven. He then built a small stack of twigs and lit the lot with a match he must have cadged from someone outside. As the flame developed, he added more wood until, before long a cheerful fire was established and the room started getting warmer. Later that day, another officer arrived at the camp accompanied by two Russian women and all the children were told to gather around them outside.
Firstly, the officer told us that one of the women has something to say to us. As an incentive, and to ensure our attention, he added that hot food would be brought for us all immediately after the speech.
The head teacher stepped forward and delivered her well-rehearsed speech. Most of the words went straight over our heads. For a start the delivery was all in Russian, a language most of us had no need to acquire up to now. After discarding the unintelligible propaganda and communist slogans, what it all boiled down to was that, we were all to attend school every day starting the following day. Next, followed instructions how to get there.
"If you take a path along the lake to the left of the camp you will eventually reach the Administration Compound. There you will find the School Building, a shop and the Camp Commandant's Office," she said.
"Truancy won't be tolerated," she continued.
"Your parents, who will be responsible for your attendance, will be severely punished for all your transgressions."
Her final incentive was to say that no food would be distributed in the camp in future, except on Sundays. Adults would be given their rations at their place of work during the week and children would be fed when they attended school.
After the assembly was disbanded we were left alone to our own devices and proceeded to settle in and investigate our surroundings.
As I said earlier, the camp was sitting on the bank of a large lake. At this time of the year, with the daytime temperature hovering around minus thirty degrees Celsius, its surface was frozen solid. The settlement comprised thirteen identical barracks, all in a row alongside the lake, like an army platoon. The unlucky number was not lost on my sister Stasia who saw gloom and doom everywhere. Each building contained six rooms, which were in turn divided in two by screens. In that way twelve individual chambers were formed. If you then plant three families into each area you get a barrack housing thirty-six families.
All around the camp was a deep, seemingly impenetrable, dark, virgin forest. It appeared to be mainly made up of tall and ancient spruces and fern trees, but it also contained a variety of bushes and some isolated groups of leafy trees like maple and birch.
We tried to make friends with the group of children behind our screen but to our surprise, the response seemed to be indifferent or hostile. Not accustomed to such behaviour, we did our best to keep our distance from that time on.
That evening Mother returned, visibly exhausted. She told us that she was put to work cutting down trees and chopping branches off felled logs alongside men. When she complained to the guard in charge of the unit, she was reminded of the slogan she heard on our arrival to the camp,
"If you don't work, you don't eat," he said. "If you want to get a full ration, and something to take home to your children, you must do the work of a man. Lighter tasks mean smaller rewards."
Hearing this, Mother realised that she had no option. Families with men and grown-up children would have it comparatively easy. If she was to keep her children alive, she had to compete with men felling trees.
Next morning, bright and early, we all marched off to school. Stasia and Romek were assigned their places in classes relative to their age. Zuzia and I, being below school age, were guided into a Kindergarten.
After lunch we were all allowed to return home where, with our parents still away at work in the forest, we were left to our own devices.
It's surprising how in spite of all the adversities, the force of life, curiosity and sense of adventure overwhelms children and young people generally.
Before long some kids decided that the lake was perfect for skating. Obviously nobody brought such luxuries as skates with them. It was time to innovate. Some young man came up with an idea. From a piece of wood he whittled out a skate, which he fastened to his boot with screws. To give his gadget "glidability," he attached a thick wire along the underside. The skate worked perfectly, and he soon found himself the envy of all boys and a few girls. Soon others set about copying the invention. Others found yet other ways to entertain themselves. In spite of the depravation and hunger we were beginning to have fun.
At the end of the week Mother discovered how the system worked. She was awarded an income based on her output. It fell far short of the "norm" set by the Commandant and her income was reduced accordingly. From that money the administrators deducted the cost of food dished out to her as well as all of us children. After the whole thing was reckoned up she found that her earnings didn't cover the cost of basic food and she started the following week in debt to the authorities. There was nothing she could do about it. She couldn't allow for her children to starve to death. Mother had to accept that her indebtedness would continue to grow. She also realised that even this inadequate income relied entirely on her continued effort. She certainly couldn't afford the `luxury' of falling ill.
Stasia gained little from her attendance in school. Torn away from her beloved father and familiar surroundings, her thoughts and emotions were in turmoil. She didn't concentrate at all and allowed all the lessons as well as the propaganda to go over her head. Romek's response to this time of trial was very different. He quickly picked up the Cyrillic alphabet and rapidly developed his ability to read and write Russian. As his comprehension grew he discovered that a lot of the propaganda they were fed was fiercely anti-Polish. He found some songs so insulting that (at a risk of severe punishment) he refused to join in singing. Luckily the teacher pretended not to notice and my brother's demonstration brought no wrath upon him. Zuzia and I, as toddlers, were spared the more intensive attempts at indoctrination. No doubt this was reserved for us when we grew older and more able to absorb and believe the lies and double-talk of the communist system. We spent our time playing and learning "patriotic" songs. I can remember some of them even now.
One of the first items the older children were taught was our new postal address. This was:
Szamp Oziero (nearest English translation would be Lakeside Camp)
The location was a far northern region of European Russia and strictly speaking not Siberia, which is the name of the Asian expanse to the east of our location. This minor detail was ignored by all at that time, as well as in all future references I know of. The name of Siberia was for ages synonymous with exile and slave labour and any other description of our location would seem inappropriate.
Our parents were then informed that, if they wished to contact their relatives. They could write letters and were assured that these would reach their destinations. Should people back home wish to send letters or provisions to us, this would also be permitted. On hearing this, Mother proceeded to write a letter to each of her sisters, her brother and Jania, her sister-in-law, telling them something of what things were like, (of course, one had to be circumspect as all letters were censored) and asking for help with food. While she was at it she decided to write to the Soviet Authorities enquiring about the whereabouts of her husband.
It may seem strange that, although we were, in some ways, treated like convicts, according to the Communist Propagandist double-talk we were free citizens of the Soviet Union resettled to live in a more appropriate location. As such we were allowed to communicate with other citizens as freely as anyone else.
Hence the, to us surprising, permission to write and receive letters and parcels.
The first to respond was my uncle Stas. Just before Easter we received a parcel. To our hungry eyes, the contents were delicious beyond belief. There was a large leg of cured ham, a big chunk of speck and a couple of rings of Polish sausage. Our Easter celebrations that year were a feast never to be forgotten.
Some time later, Mother received an official communication from the Authorities. It was brief. In response to my mother's enquiries about her husband Leon Krajewski the letter simply stated, "The person described is not known to us."
The reply seemed strange to us, but there was no more that could be done about it.
My big toe had healed up long ago. Slowly I explored my new surroundings and became acquainted with other kids of various age levels. There was one little girl in particular I befriended. She was a year younger than me, but seemed quite bright. She wasn't tall. In fact she was definitely shorter than I was, and I wasn't very tall myself. Her head was covered with a mass of curly blonde hair. In general she gave the appearance of being frail and delicate. The two of us spent a lot of time playing together.
Some adults made skis for themselves. With their aid, some of them ventured far away across the snows to outlying villages, where they would trade some of their belongings in for food. The local Russian inhabitants weren't much better off than we were, however they readily traded their modest supplies for Polish clothes. They certainly had no prospect of buying items of such design and quality through normal channels, even if they had the money to pay for them. The only clothes available to them were the drab and utilitarian products of the Soviet State factories.
Amongst my other adventures, I remember being fitted out with someone's skis and making my first, terrified attempt at making use of them on frozen snow. I never did master the art.
After some time I didn't notice my hunger. The thing, however, that I found disturbing was an abnormal development in my mouth. Stage by stage, I found my teeth were becoming looser and looser. Then I found that something even more disturbing was happening to my gums. Flesh around my teeth started to come off in slabs. Next, unsupported, my teeth started dropping out one by one. Soon I finished up with no more than three or four teeth left. What I didn't know was that I was suffering from Scurvy - a disease borne out of malnutrition and vitamin deficiency.
Children can be cruel. Instead of showing concern for my condition, my siblings made fun of me, calling me a " toothless old man". This annoyed me intensely, but I was too small and weak to do anything about it. My visible anger only served to encourage them to taunt me even more.
Although she couldn't really afford it, Mother visited the camp shop and took on credit some essential implements. I remember being particularly fascinated by the painted wooden spoons she brought home with her. I've never seen anything like it. To me they looked beautiful and pleasant to handle. Not at all like the normal metal utensil we all knew.
At the beginning of May, winter started to show signs of abating. The temperature rose to only a few degrees below freezing, and ice on the lake started breaking up causing loud reports, like cannon fire.
The vast majority of Poles practised. the Roman Catholic faith. In Poland traditionally, the month of May was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Back home during that month, most women and quite a lot of men would gather in church every evening to pray to Our Lady and sing hymns in adoration of the Mother of God. It wasn't surprising that at the beginning of that month, almost out of habit, a group of women in our barrack got together and started saying (to them familiar) prayers. They had to be very quiet, for they knew well that such activities were forbidden by the Soviet Authorities, and that transgressors were normally very severely punished. Unfortunately for them, one of the families living in the same building was that belonging to my little blonde friend. The family by the name of Wasek comprised my friend's father, mother, two adult brothers, a grown-up sister, two brothers in their early teens and a girl a few years older than my friend as well as my little playmate. With so many people of working age the work output of the family was a lot higher than most of the others. The parents hoped that the Camp Commandant might recognise this and that he might commend them to the Authorities as "Heroes of the Soviet Union". Success in such an endeavour would confer upon them great wealth and many privileges. "If only the Commandant could be persuaded..." thought the girl's mother.
One evening as she walked down the corridor, she heard strange group mutterings emanating from one of the cubicles. She came closer and put her ear to the door. Through the wall she could hear a group chant of;
"Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee..."
"I've got them!" she must have thought. "I'm sure the Commandant would be pleased to hear about this blatant breach of regulations. I wonder how he would show his gratitude to the person who would help him in exposing the culprits! He might even put such a person's name forward to the Committee for decoration."
Having made her decision she kept a close eye on the goings-on in her barrack for a number of days. She discovered that most of the women from her barrack and some from the one next door attended every night. The group gathered in a different cubicle each evening at eight and conducted their devotions for about an hour. With this information she made her way to the Commandant, also secretly and under the cover of darkness. The last thing she wanted was for it to be known where the Russian had got his information.
The following evening the Commandant entered our building and told all the women to gather in one of the rooms. Pointedly, he did not invite his informant Anna Wasek.
He cut straight to the reason for his visit.
"You all know very well that religious gathering is strictly forbidden in the Soviet Union and breaches of this regulation is punishable by imprisonment, and maybe worse. Your neighbour Anna Wasek told me that you make it a habit to gather together and perform various religious ceremonies. You are all grown women with children to look after. I can't believe you could be so stupid as to risk your lives and the welfare of your children with such foolish activities. I must admit that I haven't personally observed any of it and assume that the story amounts to no more than a malicious lie. I warn you, however. It'll be the worse for you if you should prove me wrong." Having delivered his speech the Major turned round and quickly departed.
The women were dumbstruck. When they recovered their wits silence turned into a loud babble. Over the general noise could be heard occasional exclamations, "How could she!".. ."What sort of monster is this?".. ."May she burn in hell!" In the end some women decided to confront Anna. They walked down the corridor, knocked and entered. The woman leading the delegation stepped forward and faced Anna Wasek.
"We've just had a visit from the Commandant," she said. "He told us that you informed on us, and said that we gather for prayers. How could you have done such a thing? Have you no conscience whatsoever?" she continued, "Are you not afraid of God's vengeance?"
Anna stood there in front of them. She went as white as a sheet. Her hands started to tremble. In her eyes appeared large teardrops.
A long and heavy silence followed. In the end Anna spoke: "The man lies," she said. "I don't know why. I know that he was eyeing my eldest daughter, and she told him where to get off. I can only assume that it's his way of taking revenge on us."
Seeing that the gathering remained unconvinced she added, "I swear to God on the lives of my children. May they all die if I'm not telling the truth."
At such a profound oath the gathered women had no reply. "We'll take your word that what the Commandant said is a lie. We hope for your sake that your vow isn't false. Remember. God sees all and hears all. We don't wish your children any harm." After that, the women, rather subdued, quietly dispersed.
Until that time the whole family boasted remarkably good health. The fact that they always had more (and better) food than most of us might have had something to do with it.
A couple of weeks later however, Anna's youngest and best-loved child, her little blonde Angel, was suddenly taken ill. The child had suddenly developed a high temperature. Her mother put her to bed and used every remedy she could think of to break the fever. In spite her every effort the child's temperature kept rising. Only a few days after she fell ill, the girl, under the influence of very high temperature, started hallucinating and calling out the names of her dead grandparents. Before dawn the next day, my little friend lay dead; her final sufferings were at last over.
Needless to say, her mother, together with the rest of her family, was beside herself with grief. As was our custom, a couple of days later the child was laid out in her coffin. Everyone in the camp came to see the little girl lying there in her best dress and to say their final respects and farewells. Nobody mentioned the recent incident or the terrible oath uttered by the dead child's mother. I remember being paraded alongside the coffin myself. At my age the gravity of the moment didn't seem impressive. I wasn't even particularly shaken by my little friend's death. After all, death was something I saw around me all the time in this place. No. What stuck in my mind was my impression of the girl as she lay there in front of me. Suddenly, she looked a lot taller in that posture than she was only days ago when we played together outside our hut. I could have sworn she seemed taller than me. "How could that be?" 1 thought.
Soon the incident passed and was forgotten. Other, more urgent matters attracted our attention.
We discovered the secret of the camp we now occupied. Apparently, Ukrainian peasants had built the settlement some years ago.
In the early thirties, Stalin decided to "collectivise" all agriculture in his Empire. This wasn't too difficult to accomplish in the central regions of Russia, as traditionally, most of the peasants in those areas earned their living before the Revolution by working on the vast estates of the Russian Aristocracy and Nobility. Most of them owned little or no land of their own. It was a simple matter to convert the country estates into collective farms and employ the local peasants as farm workers.
Unfortunately, for our "Uncle Stalin," the Ukraine, known as "the bread basket of Russia" used to be organised differently. For centuries, Russian Tsars granted parcels of land in the fertile steppes to their soldiers, released from service after some particular campaign was over. The plan had many advantages. It ensured that the area, previously peopled, not by Muscovites, but a different Slavonic ethnic group called Ukrainians remained loyal to the Tsar. In addition, the supplanted Russians were obliged to present units of cavalry during time of war or civil unrest. These fierce horsemen were known as the Cossacks.
Cossacks, by then well mixed with the indigenous Ukrainians, proved to be highly independent in spirit and refused to be "collectivised". When the Ukrainian peasants found their land confiscated under Stalin's orders, they simply refused to work on State farms.
Stalin's plan wasn't working. The collectives in the most fertile, and traditionally, most productive part of the Soviet Union were failing to deliver their wheat harvest. Something had to be done. Determined to crush the people's resistance, Stalin ordered more prominent families to be deported and resettled in Siberian regions. Of those that remained, only the ones that worked On the collective farms were to be fed. The result was the infamous Genocide of the Ukrainian people. Over five million died of starvation in a land famous for it's production of food. Hundreds of thousands were deported to far away northern regions. There, they had to build their own dwellings and eke out a miserable existence by working in the forests, felling trees.
Stalin had succeeded, but the Ukrainian people had paid dearly for their resistance. His cruelty wasn't forgotten. When the Second World War broke out, Ukrainian divisions allied themselves with the Germans, against Stalin. "We will even join the Devil himself to fight this Monster" they used to say.
jThe rate of mortality amongst the displaced Ukrainians was also high. After a few years not many survived. When the time came to deport us Poles, there was plenty of spare room left in the camps built by the Ukrainians. The Soviet secret police NKVD simply re-located the remaining, still living Ukrainians into a few camps, leaving the vast majority of the original settlements vacant and ready to receive the wave of Polish transports.
We later discovered that the previous inhabitants of our barracks didn't take all their belongings with them. Behind them they left us their legacy - BUGS.
As winter started coming to a close, all the horrible creatures started surfacing. We soon discovered that our bunk beds, mattresses and the very fabric of our accommodation were completely infiltrated by bed bugs. Unaccustomed to this lack of hygiene, we all found this invasion impossible to cope with. The creatures would attack us in our beds at night and suck the blood out of our anaemic and under nourished bodies. In the morning they could be seen trying to scurry away. Enormous, bright red and so pumped up with our blood, that they could hardly move. You could easily squash and kill a few, but you knew well that a whole regiment was waiting to replace them. We tried every trick we could think of to rid ourselves of the pestilence, but to no avail. When the temperature outside improved sufficiently, we would drag our bunk bed outside and pour boiling hot water over the creatures to kill them. Next morning we would find ourselves bitten all over again. The pests still remaining in the crevices of the cabin walls would climb onto the ceiling and dive down onto our sleeping bodies. As if this torment wasn't sufficient, we soon found our clothes and our scalps alive with lice. Again, all attempts of trying to kill them off, with our limited resources were doomed to failure. We simply had to accept that being infested and at the mercy of those creatures was simply part of our existence in this living Hell.
The month of May was the harbinger of spring in Archangel. By the latter part of that month Nature, abruptly awakened from its long slumber, immediately commenced its frantic activity. It was as though all the plants, trees, animals and insects knew that there was no time to waste. Abruptly the temperature rose causing all remaining snow and ice to melt. The result was mud everywhere making walking along the old paths just as difficult as it was before when they were covered with slippery ice. With the rising temperature, and to accelerate the thaw, came torrential rains. Even before the thaw was over, the grasses and forest clearings became suddenly covered with spring flowers. This was followed by the springing up of grass as well as leaves on the forest shrubs and bushes to add to the few existing leafy trees. Instead of the (until now) predominant colours of white and grey, the whole area became bright green, with patches of riotous reds, blues, and yellows.
On the heels of plant life followed insects. Soon the riverbanks, forests and meadows became alive with every kind of crawling flying and biting creature. As was the case with flora, the Arctic bugs seemed to have a genetically in-built imperative to feed, develop and reproduce as quickly as possible. Time was short. Unfortunately for us and to our cost, most of them found human flesh to be the easiest and most rewarding source of sustenance. The most vicious were mosquitoes. They normally concentrated along the banks of the lake and inside the forest. Northern mosquitoes should not be compared to the midges of moderate climate. They are much larger, bolder and more persistent. The prospective victim would find himself or herself attacked by several insects simultaneously. On landing the mosquito would proceed to extract the person's blood at an amazingly high rate. What remains after is a maddening itch that lasts for days, or until the next attack, after which things get even worse.
Seeing our discomfort, the Russian guards would only laugh and say;
"Don't worry. You'll get used to them."
Surprisingly, in the end, as our hosts predicted, we got used to being drained of our meagre blood supply at night by the bed bugs as well as being bitten by mosquitoes during the daytime.
Rapidly, spring turned to summer. The days became surprisingly warm, considering the Northern Latitude. Days started getting longer and longer until, in the middle of summer the sun never quite set and we experienced life in perpetual daylight. It was very strange and difficult to get used to. The sun would dip low on to the horizon and hover there for some hours, only to start climbing again eventually. We had to establish an artificial "night time" for ourselves, and go to bed pretending it was pitch black outside.
In spite of our miserable existence, the summer warmth lifted our spirits. Some young people, (not children like me, of course), took to swimming in our lake. One morning, a young man came running up to the camp with terrible news. A young woman was caught out by cramp some distance from the bank and, before others could come to her assistance; she had drowned.
When the name of the victim became known, a feeling of foreboding spread like wildfire throughout the settlement. The young woman was in fact the eldest daughter of Anna Wasek.
"A second Wasek child is dead," women were whispering. Could it be the result of Anna's foreswearing?
Imperceptibly, summer changed into autumn. Ripening berries now covered the forest shrubs, instead of the recent flowers. Many were known to us as edible fruit. Some of the others, we soon discovered by trial and error, could also be eaten. All children and youngsters below working age started making excursions into the nearby forest. In the first instance, the fruit supplemented our inadequate diet and became a vital source of vitamins. Having gorged ourselves, we would start filling our baskets to bring something home for our parents, still hard at work in the depths of the forest. Our mother, thinking ahead, instructed the elder of her children, Stasia and Romek, to go a little further away from the buildings and other people and bring home as much of the summer fruits as possible. It was in her mind to make as many fruit preserves as possible and store them for use in the wintertime when food supply was bound to be meagre.
One evening, Mother came back and as usual intended to prepare and stow away that day's fruit harvest. She saw Romek's basket full of berries. Of Stasia's container there was no sign.
"Where are your berries?" she asked, turning to her daughter.
Stasia replied, "I didn't bring any to day."
"Where is your basket then," Mother said.
At that Stasia, never very good at concealing the truth, went beetroot red and blurted out the whole story.
"I went alone deep into the forest," she began, "because most of the bushes nearby were all picked out. I was doing very well. My basket was almost full of blueberries, when suddenly I heard a sound of movement behind me. I was frightened. I thought it might have been a bear. I remembered people saying that a big brown bear was seen recently not far from the camp. As I watched, the bushes were pushed aside and a man appeared, I think it might have been one of the soldiers from the Commandant's barracks. He was going straight for me. As soon as I saw him coming, I panicked and started running. I didn't stop until I got home."
Mother listened to the story without interruption. When her daughter finished she simply asked,
"And what happened to the basket and the berries?"
Stasia stopped short, embarrassed again and admitted, "When I started running I must have dropped the basket. I didn't even realise it was missing until some time after I got back. I'm sorry."
Mother looked at her daughter for a long time, an expression of tiredness and exasperation on her face.
"Listen," she finally started. "You know how hard things are. If we don't make some provisions for the winter we will all die. You are my eldest child. You're almost fifteen. If I can't rely on you for help, I don't know what to do. Surely you knew how important it was to bring the fruit home?"
Feeling helpless and alone in her struggle she started weeping. After only a moment, however she regained her composure. Moments of weakness like that were very rare for my mother.
"Right," she said. "Tomorrow you will go back berry picking. Don't come back until your basket is brim full."
Stasia wasn't known for responding positively to Mother's orders. On this occasion however, she took Mother's strictures to heart. She immediately applied herself to building up the stocks of berries, making sure that each one of us also contributed. As a result, by the time first frosts arrived, Mother bad stored up one sizeable wooden barrel of blueberries and another of other mixed berries - a substantial supply with which to face the oncoming winter.
Mushrooms were another traditional forest crop. We all did what we could to pick them. This northern forest however, wasn't ideal for them. We found few traditional types inside the forest itself. Typically a clearing would have been a better bet. There we sometimes found a profusion of white mushrooms, a type not known back home, but established to be edible. These would be dried or marinated (if you could get your hands on some vinegar), and stored away for the harder times to conic.
People better placed than my mother, cleared parcels of land on the edge of the forest and having saved some potato peelings planted them with the hope of a crop of potatoes before winter came. Their success very much depended on the seed material used. Most failed completely, however some people succeeded to recover an impressive amount of potatoes in the dying days of the short Siberian autumn. Unfortunately, as I said, this exercise required a substantial input of labour. All of Mother's effort was directed towards achieving her allotted norm in her forest employment. She had no time or energy left to work on the clearing of fields or planting of crops. Needless to say, we were all to young to carry out such tasks in her place, and so we had to do without advantages available to others.
Before we knew it one day in early September, steely heavy clouds gathered above us and it started snowing. Once it started, snow continued to fall for several days and nights without respite. When we eventually surfaced we discovered the whole countryside covered by a thick blanket of snow. The nearby trees were also affected, with their branches bent to near breaking point under the weight of snow and ice.
Another winter had arrived.
The rhythm of life changed yet again, this time to a familiar cycle. After all, it was winter when we first got there almost a year ago.
Grown-ups continued to work in the forest felling trees and lopping off branches, while children carried on with their schooling. We no longer made excursions into the forest. There were no pickings left, except for dried boughs and twigs for the furnace. The children, ever resourceful, soon rediscovered skis, toboggans and skates that had been put away for safe keeping at the end of last winter.
Although I, by then fully recovered from scurvy, thanks to vitamin-full forest fruits, my general state of health continued to be fragile. In spite of the respite from starvation occasioned by fruits of the land, a lot of people's resistance started waning. Some would collapse in the middle of their work in the forest only to be carried back home by others; others succumbed to frostbite and found themselves developing gangrene. That winter we lost many people from our camp. Many more than in the previous year.
It was just a few days before Christmas when Anna's eldest son was caught by a falling tree. The poor soul didn't make it alive back to camp. Yet another funeral for the Wasek family.
Just before Christmas we, on the other hand, had a pleasant surprise. Another food parcel had arrived. This time from my Aunt Jania Wysocka, my father's sister. Needless to say, the contents helped us all cope with the daily starvation diet. It also helped us celebrate Christ's Coming with a spirit of renewed hope.
Before we knew it, spring of the year 1941 was upon us.
This time Mother was given a new job. Together with other women and older men she was assigned the task of mowing wild meadows and gathering hay. As suitable lands were located some distance away, Mother, together with the rest of the contingent set off, initially by boats across our lake, then continued on foot until they reached the banks of the Great Onega river. There, often waist deep in water, they hoed the tall and wild riverside grasslands. As could be expected, and as was in fact anticipated, the area was full of particularly nasty and aggressive mosquitoes. Without protective clothing, the work would have been impossible. Mother like the others, was issued with tall, waterproof boots, and an overall and jacket to suit. For her head she was given a hat with a large brim, to which a long screen of netting was attached all around. The group stayed on site throughout the week and slept in a makeshift camp. No money was paid to reward them. Instead they received something they regarded to be even better. It was good food. In addition to regular hot meals, they received better quality bread and dried goods.
Every Saturday night we would anxiously await our mother's arrival. To tend to her children she was allowed to knock off earlier each Saturday and set off back to our camp. She would be given a ride part of the way and walk the remaining few miles until she reached the bank of our lake. There alone she would board a small boat and row it right across to the landing at the foot of our camp. With her she would bring the supplies she was issued and share them out amongst us. In my memory all the food she brought was welcome and tasty. The one item that still stands out in my mind is a yellowy dried fish the Russians called "treska". To my hungry pallet this was a delicacy beyond description. I could never have enough of it. On occasion Mother didn't have the time to change into ordinary clothes and arrived in her working apparel. The gear was certainly impressive. With her tall boots and hat surrounded by long netting she looked like something out of this world. Sunday lunchtime Mother would board her little boat and set off on her long journey back to her work camp, only to repeat the exercise in a week's time. She was half starved herself during the whole period, but she kept us all alive.
Younger and more able-bodied men stayed behind. Their task was to transport all the logs cut down and trimmed in the previous months to the side of the lake, float them on the water and tie the logs into enormous rafts. When the work was completed a couple of tugs arrived to tow the timber to the other side. From there, by canal and river, the produce and result of Polish slave labour would be transported all the way to the port of Archangel and abroad. I wonder how much of it finished up in English furniture factories.
To man the rafts, only the fittest and most agile men were selected. Anna Wasek's husband, together with his eldest remaining son, was amongst the chosen few. It was some three weeks before the team returned, having discharged their cargo. Young Wasek was not amongst them. It seems that in the middle of the lake some logs got loose. The young man tried to repair the damage, fell between the masses of floating logs, disappeared under the raft and drowned. The others watched horrified. There was nothing they could do to help him.
The spring tasks over, the work teams were returned to the forest felling trees all over again.
During the latter part of that summer, strange rumours started circulating. Some said that The Soviet Union had fallen out with its ally The German Reich and that the Germans had already crossed Russian occupied Poland and were attacking Russia itself. Later there was even talk of Polish armies being formed again on the Russian soil. It all sounded to us like fairy tales and wishful thinking. Mother, however with her ever-practical approach to life, decided that we must rapidly gather what supplies we can in case we were to be released.
What actually happened on the European Continent, far away from our Siberian exile was that the Germans really did attack the Russians. Hitler, having failed to subdue Great Britain, found his armies more and more heavily engaged in Southern Europe and North Africa. With the British exercising effective control of the seas, he found himself relying more and more heavily on the oil the Russians doled out to him.
Before long, he snapped. "Why should we have to beg to get meagre supplies from these Slavonic savages, when their stores of oil in the refineries of the South are overflowing?" he must have thought to himself. "Why, let's simply go out there and get it. While we're about it we can clear out the large expanses of fertile land for our farmers to occupy. They'll soon see what kind of output can be got out of that land with our German efficiency."
Without any warning, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin on the 22nd of June 1941 and attacked along the whole of the new Russian-German border. Russians, unprepared for this act of treachery, pulled back rapidly.
Stalin, under severe pressure quickly switched allegiances and joined Great Britain to form a United Front against the common German foe. By then Poles had firmly established themselves as part of the British Fighting Force. With Polish Forces clearly overwhelmed by the invading German Armies in 1939, Polish pilots grabbed old biplanes and anything else they could get their hands on and flew across to England to continue their fight against Hitler. Their contribution in the Battle of Britain is generally acknowledged. With the Polish armies crushed one by one, the Government moved down south and later moved to Rumania. As Army units were being broken up, some soldiers and many officers made their way South in their effort to evade the twin enemy of Germany and Russia. They crossed over to Hungary and Rumania and then, with varying success, tried to make their way across to France.
At the time the Second World War broke out, a major Polish statesman, General Wladyslaw Sikorski found himself in France. Due to political differences of opinion between himself and those in charge in Poland before the outbreak of the War, the General chose to leave his Homeland and settle in France. This proved to be a very fortunate turn of events for the battered Polish Nation. As the dispirited members of the Government and others started filtering through to the free world, Sikorski took charge. Soon foreseeing the collapse of France he moved "The Polish Government in Exile" to London. With him came the few Poles he had managed to gather around him on the other side of the Channel.
It was when Hitler's invasion of Russia commenced that General Sikorski, by then acclaimed as the new head of the Polish Government, saw his chance. Stalin, as a price of his joining of The Alliance, demanded military and material assistance to help him resist the onslaught. This was when Sikorski made his masterly move.
As a member of a British delegation he arranged a private meeting with Joseph Stalin. After brief formalities the Pole said:
"Marshal; I hear that you are making urgent demands for the British to come to your aid. You must understand that their human resources are limited and you may find yourself disappointed." Seeing that Stalin was showing signs of impatience he quickly continued,
"I think I have a solution to your problem the Allies might go along with." Having at last captured the Georgian's attention he asked,
"Who do you think hates the Germans the most?"
Seeing the puzzled expression on the other man's face he offered the answer, "Why, the Poles of course. Now, how many good Polish fighting men do you have languishing in your prison camps? I think you'll agree that these people, if properly trained and equipped, could make a much bigger contribution towards defeating the German foe than digging salt in the mines of Ural Mountains or felling trees in Siberia."
"Now this is your master stroke;" he continued, "You demand that the Allies take those people across the border to Persia or Iraq. There they are to feed them, clothe them and generally prepare them for war. Once the units are ready to fight you can demand that they be brought back to face your enemy. Now, this whole business won't cost you a penny and the Allies will be glad to get you off their backs. Remember; they are short of fighting men, not food or equipment."
Having set the trap he waited with bated breath. Stalin was a wily old dog, not easily fooled. He sat there for a while and turned the proposal over in his mind. "I can't see anything wrong in it," he thought. "Those Polish dogs would certainly fight the Germans more fiercely than anyone I know. As he says, I'll gain a crack Army, eager to fight my enemy, and it'll cost me nothing. If I don't do this, who knows when the English will come up with any effective help."
His cunning countenance lit up with a smile and he roared, "Sergeant, bring a bottle of good Polish vodka immediately. My friend General Sikorski and I have an agreement to seal." The general heaved a mental sigh of relief. All he had to endure now was a binge of vodka drinking with this monster. Not to worry. He had a strong head for alcohol. The charade of friendly drinking with Stalin wasn't something he looked forward to. Still, the sacrifice was worth making.
So it was that on 12th of August 194!, the Soviet authorities issued a decree announcing an amnesty for all Poles currently on Soviet soil. The official news didn't reach our camp until the end of that month. On the last day of August the camp Commandant gathered all the adult population and read the Decree out loud. All assembled listened to the announcement in stunned silence. "So its all true" they thought. "God works in mysterious ways..."
After he finished reading, the Commandant looked up and waited for a response from the gathering. When after some time none came, he started,
"As of to-day you are all free people. Papers to that effect will be issued to each family in the next few days. This means that you'll be able to go wherever and whenever you please, without asking anyone's permission. If any official tackles you, all you need to do is to show him the document and he'll leave you alone." Having regained the people's interest he went on, "As I said; you are free to go, but where will you go. There is no point in trying to make your way back to Poland. As you well know, the Germans now occupy your Country. On top of it all, we have no facilities to transport you away from here."
He let it all sink in and then continued, "Think about it. I've treated you fairly and as well as I could. Why not stay here and earn your living as free men. In future your pay will be doubled, the camp store will be supplied with good cigarettes and other quality goods. You could build yourselves houses to your liking in the clearings around and your children would continue to benefit from our school. If you still insist on leaving, let me know of your destination so that I can make arrangements for your journey. You must remember, however what I said earlier. Transport is not easy to organise. You may have to wait for some time before arrangements can be made."
He let the notion hang in the air and finally added, "Think about it. Meantime, as from now on, new conditions will apply. Thank you."
The gathering dispersed quietly. It was all too much to absorb. The notion of staying on in this hellhole was out of the question. Little groups started forming to discuss the situation. "Where to go?" they would say. "The Commandant is right that return home is out of the question, but where else can we go?" Various suggestions were floated. One woman said, "Yugoslavia is an attractive place. I once knew a girl from Sarajevo. I think I'll ask to be sent there." A man, clearly with a background in classical education, followed, "For me it's got to be Greece. The climate is beautifully warm, and what about the culture! If I can't go home, that's the place I'd like to end my life in."
After some days of animated discussion, groups would go over to the Commandant's office and register their chosen destination.
Time went by. Things went back to normal. True, the food improved, the pay was better and the store had large supplies of good cigarettes and other useful items for sale. As the weeks passed, the occupants of the camp started to get impatient. The Commandant's staffs were fobbing off all enquiries about travel arrangements. We were beginning to despair. "Was this newly won freedom to be only a mirage? How are we to get out of this pit of death?"
The name of "Pit of Death" was no exaggeration. Ever since the last winter, the lethal effects of malnutrition, cold, exhaustion and poor hygiene were becoming more and more apparent. At first it started with chills, followed by persistent coughs. Later more and more people seemed to develop diarrhoea. With time the awful realisation started to dawn on the camp occupants that they were witnessing major illnesses within the settlement such as Tuberculosis, Dysentery, Night Blindness and others. With no medicines or let up in the regime, the infections continued to spread. Before the arrival of summer, the first death occurred from T.B. This was soon to be followed by other fatalities from infections of the lungs as well as Dysentery and other illnesses. By the time the Amnesty was announced, a third of our number had perished.
People were getting very nervous. In spite of the improved conditions, the death toll was accelerating. The small patch of open ground at the back of the camp initially used to bury the first few casualties had quickly grown to a large expanse filled with wooden crosses. If something were not done soon, none of us would survive.
As everyone knows, `necessity is the mother of invention'. Out of desperation a scheme emerged. A small group of men, on some pretext or other, made a journey to the town of Wologda. There they discovered a Consulate of the newly formed Polish Government in Exile, set up to process and take care of Polish ex-prisoners. They told the Consul their story and asked for his advice.
The elderly gentleman, a Polish Officer from the First World War, thought for a while and told them';
"I think official representations will get you nowhere. Your problem is how to get from your camp to Wologda. Once you're here they can't touch you. What I'll suggest may surprise you, but remember that I've had a lot of experience in dealing with our freshly baked allies. Get as many good quality cigarettes as you can and make a deal with the Station Master. I suggest four hundred should do it. Give him half to start and the other half when he gets you here. Be sure not to part with the final payment until you arrive in Wologda. Remember. Those people can't be trusted."
The delegation saw the man in question and after some protracted haggling struck a deal. They promised to send one of their number back with two hundred and fifty cigarettes within a week of their return home. The Station Master would then make the necessary arrangements to divert an empty train down our siding.
The emissary went off as arranged and on return told his group;
"The Station Master promised me to send the train over in the next few days. He couldn't be specific. It'll all depend on the circumstances. I think we should tell all who want to leave to get their belongings together, get themselves over to the rail terminal and wait."
A couple of days later the trek to the railbead began. Amongst the travellers was Anna Wasek. It didn't escape other women's notice that just before departure her only remaining daughter had died of tuberculosis. She still remained the subject of much gossip.
The whole camp, without exception, gathered at the Rail Terminal. There was no sign of any trains. By then, in the month of October 1941, the Siberian winter began to establish itself in its full splendour and severity. To protect ourselves from frost, numerous bonfires were set up all round. As their warmth represented a matter of life or death by freezing, the campers organised regulars forays into the forest to keep adequate supplies of wood and ensure that none of the fires were ever allowed to go out.
Days were passing and still there was no sign of transportation. One day the Camp Commandant came to visit the bivouackers. "What are you doing?" he said to groups huddled round campfires. "I told you before. There are no trains to be had. Come back to your warm barracks where hot soup is waiting for you. Mark my words. If you don't return soon you'll all perish here." Seeing that his words were having no effect, he turned around and made his way back to his quarters.
On the fifth day of waiting, when some were beginning to voice their suspicions of betrayal, a train appeared on the horizon. The Station Master of Wologda had kept his promise. The train comprised one locomotive and six converted goods wagons. By now, we realised that our mode of transport from Poland wasn't particularly noteworthy; all passenger transportation in the Soviet Union was by then arranged in that fashion.
Quickly, we clambered in, closed the huge sliding doors against the frost, and waited. The train started moving. At long last we were leaving this God forsaken place. Almost unanimously, a song left the breast of each of the travellers. It was the ancient hymn known to all Poles, that speaks of deliverance and offers heartfelt thanks to the merciful God.
Yet another journey had begun.
EUGENE KRAJEWSKI, was born in 1935 in the northeast region of Poland. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the peaceful life of the author's family was shattered once and for all. Soon after the invasion of the region by the Soviet Army his father was "arrested", never to be seen again. Deportation of the remainder of the family to a Siberian slave labor camp soon followed. After battling against starvation, illness and death, the author, his mother, brother and two sisters, eventually found themselves in the care of the British. After time spent in Persia and India, they finally arrived in England in 1948. Having become a qualified engineer, the author lived and worked in England for many years; called upon to employ his skills abroad, he has worked in Russia and, more recently, in Poland.
First Published in 2001 by Cromwell Publishers, London
Second Edition published in 2003 by WritersPrintshop
Price $12.99 Excerpt reprinted by permission.