The Siberic Gehenna
The Travails of the Poplewski Family
trans. by Peter K. Gessner and Wanda Slawinska
In the Spring of 1940, Mrs. Anna Poplewska and her family were deported to the Soviet Union from their home near Polandís Soviet border, a few miles south of Pinsk. They survived the ordeal and eventually settled in Buffalo which now the fourth generation of her family calls home.
In about 1980, Mrs. Poplewska recounted her familyís travails to a friend and neighbor, Dr. Stanislaw Dabrowski requesting that he set it down in writing, which he did, in Polish. The passages below, were translated by Peter Gessner and Wanda Slawinska from the as yet unpublished manuscript.
At the beginning of February 1940. we made the decision to leave our home. Any day soon, my husband was to seek safety on the other side of the River Bug, that is, in German occupied Poland and then I was to join my sister. Yet we hesitated.
The Soviets put an end to the hesitation. During the night of the 9th of February several NKVD police troopers, the precursors of the KGB, and local representatives of the Soviet authorities broke into our home. Awakened from deep sleep, we were paralyzed with fear. They ordered us to dress quickly. My husband was not allowed to get up from the bed. I handed him his clothes and he got dressed, lying there.
Scared half to death, I did not know what to do, what to grab. I dressed the children. It was difficult to collect oneís thoughts, to consider what to take with one. They did not allow me to move around the house, and they hurried us as if the place were on fire. Had they had at least given us an hour to pack! We did not even know where they were taking us, nor for how long. I grabbed a couple of pillows, not even the best ones, a pot and a kettle, threw a few things into a small suitcase. My husband also took a few things, among them a crucifix and a picture of Our Blessed Lady of Czestochowa. The children were too small to carry much. We had been planning to escape, and hence had no supplies of food in the house, not even bread, for I was to bake it on the morrow.
The NKVD troopers were mean-spirited and heartless. Fortunately, our two employees had enough presence of mind to throw various objects into the bundles we were taking and these later proved useful in our exile.
The temperature outside was far below freezing; it was that memorable dreadfully severe winter. On instructions from the NKVD troopers, our employee got the sleigh ready and drove us to the railway station in Ozenina. Thank God they did not make us walk in the sub-zero weather. The train, that had been readied for us, was enormously long, stretching from Ozenina to Zdolbunow, a distance of five to six kilometers. The Soviets must have been preparing it for a long time. In the course of a single 24 hour period, they collected people for deportation from the whole county and maybe neighboring ones and filled the long train with them.
The Deportation Train Journey
The train consisted of freight boxcars more suitable for the transport of cattle than people. They must have worked hard to prepare it for us. Each boxcar contained primitive beds. Constructed with wooden planks, these looked more like shelves than beds. In the middle of the car, stood a metal barrel transformed into a stove. It was more a nuisance than a help: the way it was made, when the fire was lit, the smoke would back up into the boxcar and it was necessary to put the fire out so as not to suffocate.
The only illumination was whatever meager light managed to enter through two small windows. At the beginning of our journey people still had candles. Soon these sources of light ran out and then darkness reigned in the car. The Soviets had also made some preparations for people's bodily needs. It shames me to even talk about it. In one corner of the boxcar they had simply cut a hole in the floor. Separated by just a blanket from the rest of the passengers, it was to serve as a public toilet. It isn't difficult to imagine the stink that arose from there, not to mention the concerns for social customs and the like. But what did the Soviets care.
As happenstance would have it, my sister, Janina Stepniewska. her husband and two sons, both slightly older than our children, were all loaded into our boxcar. Given that the assignment of people to the boxcars was quite random, to be deported together with oneís family was a stroke of luck. Before we departed, my brother, whom the Soviets were not deporting, was able to bring us bread, bacon, and whatever else he was able to find.
Inside the boxcar, it was terribly cold. So cold that at night oneís hair froze to the carís moist walls. The stove produced more smoke than heat. We were crowded in the boxcar like sardines, not able to determine where we were, even to simply satisfy our curiosity. The long train traveled at a snailís pace, stopping frequently. It was difficult to see anything through the tiny windows. If the train stopped at some station, no one approached it. Probably, the Russians were forbidden to approach the "capitalist bourgeoisie" from Poland.
After two to three weeks, we began to be gripped by fear. The food supplies were dwindling and no one knew how much longer we were destined to travel imprisoned in the boxcars. People began to get sick from the cold and the lack of proper food. Worst of all was the shortage of water. Whenever the train stopped we would call out for water and candles. In this respect, a gamekeeper from our area proved more effective than most. He had a strong voice and knew Russian fairly well. He would bang on the walls of the box car and shout with all his might: "Candles, water!" Most of the time it was all in vain.
The first stage of our odyssey lasted seven to eight weeks. I remember that on Easter Day, which, in 1940, occurred on March 24th, we were still on the train. It was at the beginning of April that the train deposited us in the woods to the north of the town of Sokol in the Vologda Oblast, about 400 km to the north of Moscow in the direction of Archangel.
Our luggage was placed on sleighs which we had to follow on foot into the deep forest. We came to an encampment in the wood, as with all encampments of this type it was called a "posiolek". There they housed us in barracks which previously had been occupied by forestry workers. Immediately, they put us to work. My husband was put to rafting wood. Others were made to dig peat. I was assigned to the felling of birch wood. We became acquainted with another Soviet invention, namely that of the "norm." One was obliged to fulfill these wretched norms. However, in comparison with what we lived through later, the conditions of existence were not impossible.
There was a shop in which it was possible to obtain food and we still had a lot of strength and clothes we had brought with us from Poland. The Russian women were eager to acquire the latter, paying in rubles or favors. I became unwell with chest pains and was examined by the physician that served the camp. She found nothing wrong with me physically and counseled me that, if I wanted to remain in good health, I should try to come to terms with my lot as a deportee. It was easy for her to say that, but the worrying ground me down. In payment for that medical advice, she took a beautiful white suit.
Relations with our guards, or more precisely, our oppressors, were varied. The campís highest authority was its commandant, Suvorov. I can say, unhesitatingly, that he was an evil man, at least in his relations with us. Perhaps he was only faithfully carrying out the orders of his superiors. Some of the "supervisors" pushed us mercilessly to work. However, there were people among them who were considerate towards us. They deserve appreciation, however nameless they must remain. I especially remember one, who, in spite of all the rules relating to us, instead of hustling us to work, suggested that we preserve our strength. Naturally, he did this discreetly. I personally felt his kindness while I was gathering moss which was needed in the construction of the barracks. Seeing that I was working vigorously, he told me not to hurry, because, he believed, I would need my strength for a long time to come. It was said of him that he copied from our people several addresses in Poland. We did not know why this man did not stay with us very long.
There were also women to hustle us. I had unpleasant experiences with one of them. She insisted that I work in the drying house. The wood that Mrs. Czainska and I (and not only we) chopped down went to the drying house. As it dried, the wood emitted a gas that was terribly noxious to me. I became convinced of this when I spent some time there while delivering wood. My head started spinning and I threw up. I told that Russian woman supervisor that I wouldn't work there, no matter what. Officially, only a doctor could relieve me of that work. So, I went to see the doctor, but he, probably in collusion with the supervisor, said that I was fit to work in the drying house. I stuck to my guns. I did not work in the drying house. Because I had gone to the doctor. however, the supervisor docked me a day's pay and my bread ration; this hurt all of us painfully. To punish me utterly and to dishearten us, she ordered that I be locked in the "coop," or detention cell, It was a small shed standing separately in the woods. I stayed there the whole night. I was fortunate that the punishment took place in the summer. On another occasion in winter, because we had not fulfilled our norms, the same supervisor ordered me and Mrs. Czainska to chop blocks of wood in front of Suvorovís office. Because Suvorov was watching us through the window, we had to stand and swing the axes in exemplary fashion. As a result of that the soles of my feet became frost bitten.
Even though we did not present any danger to the Soviet Union, the NKVD spied on us constantly. They had their own spies and informers. It was necessary to be constantly on one's guard and to watch what one said because "the walls had ears." Somehow we came to be suspected of "political activity." A denunciation was made against us by a certain woman from our region. the widow of a settler, who had been deported to Russia along with her husband. The authorities showed their appreciation for this type of spying assistance by assigning lighter work, giving credit for unfulfilled norms, or even extra rations of bread. To a hungry person, who was also of a weak character, the acquisition of a piece of bread was very important.
We were receiving letters and packages from our family in Poland. These were examined by the censors in the regional office before being delivered to Suvorov, yet they caused the authorities to became more interested in us. Other deportees from our region of Poland were also receiving packages and letters from home. We all shared what news we received in this manner and our spirits were uplifted. Some of the letters contained news that the NKVD could have regarded as "political," such as news about the political situation in Eastern Poland. Written with milk rather than ink, these items were hidden between inked lines of a mundane text. We read these letters together by the light of resinous splinters. It was easy to eavesdrop in the barracks. It was enough to stand in the corridor by the door of the person on whom one wished to eavesdrop. The authorities soon found out about our "conspiratorial" letters. Generally they frowned on any groupings or discussions among us.
One day, the NKVD troopers came to the camp from Khabarovsk to investigate. First they questioned my husband. They asked him what political news we were receiving from Poland. Where did we get the newspapers? They wanted to know what our correspondents were writing to us. They threatened my husband, telling him that this kind of "political activity" could be punished with a sentence to a prison camp, or gulag. My husband categorically denied every thing. He explained to the NKVD troopers that politics was not something he concerned himself with, that he was receiving neither newspapers nor any political news of any kind from Poland. He told them that he was thinking only of the work, of fulfilling the norms and sustaining the family. He lied, of course, but the NKVD troopers did not have irrefutable proof of his "political activity."
They called me in also. They wanted to frighten me by yelling:
"What newspapers do you receive from Poland?" one asked.
"We do not receive any newspapers," I answered.
"You lie!Ē" the other exploded.
"I am telling the truth, but you are lying and you would like me to lie. We donít receive any newspapers. There isn't
even any newspaper for my husband to make a cigarette with," I explained to the trooper.
Torn newspapers. it was true, came sometimes as wrapping for the packages and these we read conscientiously, but I did not admit this.
Then they began to threaten me that if I did not tell the truth they would see to it that I would not see my children. By nature I have a gentle demeanor, but when they began to threaten me with taking my children away, I became furious. Now I began to yell at them.
"It is I who works hard, I fulfill the norms, and you are accusing me of taking part in political activity! You are forcing me to lie and you want to take my children away on top of everything else!" I kept talking in this vein until their ears burned.
I donít know if they became frightened of me, or if they really believed everything I told them. Suffice it to say that they let me go, so that both my husband and I got out of a dangerous predicament, because they most certainly could have arrested and imprisoned us in a gulag and no one would have asked about us.
The announcement of the amnesty, like the start of the German-Russian conflict, in no way changed our real situation. Life went on as before. But our status as, quote, "free citizens" increased our self-confidence and gave some basis for efforts directed at leaving the USSR. The Soviet authorities told us nothing about the formation of Polish military units on Soviet soil, nor about the rights and obligations of Poles to join those units. On the contrary, they did everything possible to limit the number of us who would leave the camp. But those who were determined and took appropriate action during the period when it was possible to leave, did depart. We knew that a Polish army was being formed in the south of the USSR and we wanted to go there.
Leaving the camp was not as simple as it might seem. First of all one had to get ready for the long journey. Our journey
from Poland to the camp ai the time of our deportation had taught us that in the USSR one had to travel with one'sí own food supplies. Concurrently, however, the food situation in the camp was getting worse and worse. Towards the end of summer. after the amnesty announcement, we were at the end of our rope.
Here follows a section about how, by trading a pillow, a blouse and other objects, the Poplewskis were able to visit a neighboring cooperative farm where the potato crop was being gathered. By helping in this labor-intensive activity, they were able to lay in supplies of potatoes which Mrs. Poplewski made into pancakes and then dried and saved them for the planned journey.
It was not until the middle of November that we were ready to leave the camp. My husband informed the commandant that we were going to the south of the USSR to join the Polish army. Suvorov tried to forestall our departure, to dissuade us from acting on our decision. If he could have done so, I am sure he would have stopped us from going. In any event, unable to block our departure, he made no effort to help us. In general, the Soviet authorities made no effort to render it possible for Poles leave the gulags and camps as provided in their agreement with the Polish Government-in-Exile. The reclassification of us as "free citizens" guaranteed nothing - at least from the point of view of the Soviet authorities - neither the right to join the Polish army nor the tight to leave the USSR. One had to achieve all this on one's own. This is why it was hardest for single women and those with children to leave the camp commanded by Suvorov.
We piled our meager possessions on a sleigh my husband had made out some boards and we started out in the direction of the railway station, trudging over the snow. We didn't get far. The sleigh, which lacked metal runners, kept getting stuck in the fresh snow. It was not possible to continue further. Had a truck not come along and taken us to the station, we would have frozen to death on the way there. Even so, it was only the next day, after spending the night with some Russians, that we reached the station.
Another Train Journey
Finally, the train arrived. It was a long train of boxcars that came from the north. It was full of Poles from the gulags and prisoner of war camps. Before it proceeded on its way we witnessed a sight that would be a constant at each stop on our journey to Persia, namely, the burying, by the tracks, of people who had died on the train. We were also shown in the adjacent forest mounds of freshly turned earth lightly covered with snow. These were the graves of Poles from the preceding train.
From Khabarovsk we traveled due south in the direction of Moscow. We did not reach Moscow, though, because it was threatened by the German offensive. It was only on the train that we learned of the grave situation in which Russia found itself. I do not remember in which city they spoke openly that we had to bypass Moscow. I think that from Yaroslav we went in the easterly direction towards Gorky, Kirov, and then in the general direction of Tashkent.
We sat huddled together suspended on our bed of boards from time to time eating potato pancakes. We chased hunger away with these pancakes perhaps for two weeks. By not moving about, we found this meager amount of food to be sufficient. Sometimes I boiled some
ground-up oats and somehow we continued our journey.
The train passed stations. the names of which were hard to discern and even harder to remember. The names of the stations themselves were not very visible, but it was impossible to miss signs notifying us that the station bad a toilet and boiling water. The sign, ubornia, kipiatok stuck fast in our memory. The children, jokingly, asked why all the stations were called "ubornia, kipiatok." Seldom did we take advantage of these commodities of the Russian railroad system. If the train stopped for any length of time, it would be in the woods or in the desert, and there the "ubornia" was a different kind and there was no "kipiatok" at all. All these train stops were for the burial of the dead. During the trip both the young and the old died, but, most frequently, death visited the railroad cars of the former gulag prisoners. Perhaps it was because they subsisted on salted herring. In any event, whenever the train stopped, no matter where, the bodies of the dead were removed from the boxcars. The bodies were not buried under-ground; no one had the time nor the strength to dig graves. Emaciated children died in their mothers arms. It was sad to look at the mothers abandoning the bodies of their own children to be devoured by the wolves in the woods and the jackals in the desert. Sometimes it happened that the train would not stop for a long time. Then decomposing bodies would be thrown out from the moving train. Who can count how many Poles were left by the railroad tracks in Russia during this trip to freedom?
As the train journeyed further and further into Kazakhstan and then into Uzbekistan, the number of its passengers decreased more and more. Besides those dying, the young men left to join Polish military units. Families, however, were to journey further still into Uzbekistan. Soon we were left alone in the boxcar. Then, in the middle of January, hence approximately two months after our departure from Khabarovsk, we were told to detrain. The station name was Vanovsk, about 30 km south of Tashkent, in the vicinity of the borders of China and Afghanistan. The train could go no further: the tracks actually came to an end there. We did not want to get off, fearing that if we were to remain there we would never leave the USSR, that we would be made to work in the collective farms and thus would end our journey to freedom. Representatives of the Polish civilian authorities came and assured us that we would remain there only temporarily and meanwhile the boxcars were needed for military purposes. One way or another. we were persuaded that our resistance was useless and so we left the train.
Our fears regarding being made to work in the collective farms came true. Farm workers from the surrounding Uzbek collectives came to fetch us and started to disperse us throughout the region. In this area of the USSR they grow cotton. The climate is hot; in January, when we arrived it was approximately as hot as during September in Poland. We were housed in a barrack and once a day they fed us rice. At least one did not freeze as in the northern part of Russia.
At first they made us clear the cotton fields of the stems of the previous seasonís cotton plants and various dried up weeds. These the Uzbeks used for fuel. Then they found harder work for us. We had to level the fields. They assigned a couple of women to each earth-carrier and we had to carry soil from higher to lower ground.
In his search for a way to leave the USSR, my husband managed to make contact with a Polish military post in Gorchakov. Near the end of March. almost two years to the day of the date of our deportation, he returned on foot from Gorchakov, exhausted, and ill. His feet were raw and full of scratches. He had walked all night, for the matter was urgent.
In Gorchakov, they told him that if he had youngsters that he should bring them immediately because a transport of scouts would be leaving any day for Persia. Bearing such urgent news, my husband had not dared to wait for a train which who knows when might have come our way. There was no problem with sending Czesio to join the Scout transport, for he was a boy, but what to do with Genia? We decided to pass her off as a boy. We dressed her in Czesioís school uniform and a boyís cap and instructed her to pretend she was a boy.
Later I found out that Genia encountered certain difficulties in joining the scouts. She presented herself as "John Wisnieski"Ē a name in our prayer book. Who she really was came out only in the baths. Our "JohnnyĒ"started crying and would not go in and bathe with the boys. A woman working there took an interest in her. Genia confided to her who she was and thanks to this woman, our Johnny became part of the transport of scouts to Persia.
It was three days after the departure of the kids that we could set out for Gorchakov. There my husband joined a military unit while I and my
sister sat down in a field full of people. A large area was occupied by tents which housed the army. We, the civilians, on the other band, sat on the sand under the bare sky like so many hens. As always, hunger was our lot. No one made any effort to feed this mass of people. Also, there was no medical care, though people were sick, primarily with dysentery, malaria and typhus.
We did not remain long in Gorchakov. My husband would bring us leftovers from the military kitchen. In fact, all the civilians survived on such handouts. One day he bade me to be on guard, for the army would soon be leaving. I went to the station. There, a transport officer announced that this train was only for army personnel and that civilians should not try to get on. However, since the decision whether a non-army woman could board the train was that of the Russian train conductor, my husband "fixed" it so that the Russian would, quote, "not see" my getting on. The train was moving already when my husband pulled me into the compartment.
Here Mrs. Poplewska continues with the account how the train deposited them the next day in Guzar. During their stay in Guzar both civilians and soldiers died like flies from typhus, dysentery and malaria. Later, another two-day journey took them to Kermine where her husband came down with jaundice. Here they learned of a transport of civilians to Persia via Krasnovodsk and the Caspian Sea. In spite of her husband being seriously ill, they decided to separate and for her to take advantage of this opportunity. They were determined that at least one of Czesio Ďs and Genia Ďs parents should leave the Soviet Union alive. This was paramount in the decision to separate
The journey from Kermine to Krasnovodsk lasted at least a week. For a long time one could see on the left side the range of mountains that divided the USSR from Persia. On the right: a sandy desert. Our transport was not in a hurry, the train moved at a snail's pace. For unknown reasons it would stop in the middle of the desert. It was the hottest time of the year and the temperature reached 120 degrees. The train was terribly crowded, the passengers - living ghosts. I am not sure whether in that whole train there was anyone who could have merited the term, 'healthy individual,' in the normal sense of that word. People lay on the straw on the floor, some on the benches, The toilets were occupied the whole time. Yet dysentery was raging. The toilet spilled into the car. The results of the dysentery were to be seen everywhere. Just remembering this bring tears to my eyes.
In Krasnovodsk - hell on earth. So hot that it was hard to breathe. We detrained at a bay, and onto an open area covered with pebbles roasted by the sun. One walked across it barefoot as if on glowing coals. We had to stay on those pebbles for a long time before being allowed to get under a roof held up by a few uprights. From the heat, the hunger, the physical exhaustion, I became too weak to stand. I sat down by one of the uprights and for a long time I could not move. That roof sheltered us from the rays of the sun which baked us unmercifully. In these conditions we waited two days for the ship.
The water near the shore, at least in the areas accessible to us, was heavily contaminated with crude oil, so one could not refresh oneself or wash something. Further away from the port there may have been clean water, but no one had the strength to walk along the shore.
Since the port did not possess an installation permitting people to board ships, we were taken out to the ship by tender. Whoever was healthier, helped the weaker and the sick board the ship. People crawled on all fours so as to get out of this house of slavery.
The Final Leg of the Journey
When the ship left the Soviet shore, I began to believe that I would get out of the USSR. The breeze of
fresh sea air revived us. People were lying so thickly on deck that one could not pass. Some become sea-sick as if there were not enough sickness to go around. The dysentery forced people to soil the deck. Some relieved themselves over the railings; people had become inured to shame. Everyone was hanging on with the rest of their strength, to make the further shore. It was, however, not everyone's destiny. Those dying were tossed overboard without any weights attached. Their bodies, pulled along by the shipís wake, followed the ship, some even to the Persian Port of Pahlevi which we reached on August 14, 1942. I had survived!