They pushed 72 people into each of these wagons making it very cramped and stuffy, the two tiny grilled windows let in very little air and light. There were two levels of wooden bunks called “prycze” on both sides of the wagon.
As I lay on my stomach on the top bunk, I peered through the window-slit making notes in my diary of the stations we passed through. We now shared two iron stoves, screwed to the floor. Beside the sliding door there was a hole cut out in the floor for the purposes of hygiene which my Father screened off with a blanket for privacy.
Along the way we were given coal and water, sometimes potatoes, so we managed to cook meals from our own supplies. Most of the time we were kept in locked wagons until we crossed the River Don. A couple of people were usually let out at stops, to collect water and whatever food they could find - but it often happened that people were left behind when the train left without warning. That was of course devastating for the family involved. Now we started to veer north so the weather was getting even colder.
To kill time during this long journey we sang songs, talked among ourselves and eavesdropped on other peoples’ conversations. The adults were very worried, but we children were beginning to treat all this as a great adventure: maybe somebody would free us or rescue us (I had just read “In Desert and in Wilderness” by H. Sienkiewicz).
We collected snow in all kinds of vessels and after thawing it on the stove we could wash ourselves. One older woman died in our wagon. Her body was left outside on the wagon’s platform. I was very sad when her body was taken at the next station to be buried - goodness knows where, the ground was frozen.
We passed through villages, fields and forests all covered in snow, for winter here was very severe and during the night, my hair froze to the wagon walls. At various stops we were given soup, bread, semolina and some cereal.
Eventually, they told us that we were being sent to Siberia. They told us to dress warmly and to take everything (apart from furniture): food, bedding, tools. We only had an axe because our other tools were back at the farm. We were to be ready in two hours. The sledges arrived at 08.00. There was a great deal of snow and the temperature was very low. I wanted to take the little sheepdog with us, but this was just not possible. We loaded all our possessions on one sledge and we sat on the other. My sister and I were crying; we felt great sorrow at leaving everything we loved and knew so well. The sheepdog followed the sledges, but in the end the deep snow proved too much for his little legs, and my heart filled with grief.
At Lubomirka station, we were ordered to board a cattle truck and were only allowed to keep small luggage with us; the rest was loaded into the goods wagon. Throughout the entire day, more and more families arrived. In our wagon there were 42 people. The train moved out during the night but I could not sleep; we spoke to each other in whispers, wondering what would happen to us.
In Rowne, more families were loaded onto our train. Here we were given water, and coal for the stove in the middle of the wagon. After a two day stop-over we moved off. Soon after, the train stopped at Zdolbunow Station where we had to change to Soviet cattle wagons that were larger and ran on wider tracks.
Now we were leaving Poland and crossing the border into Russia …..
When we reached Gorki, a few wagons were detached and we were sent due north. On 24 February we crossed the frozen River Volga and, at Kirow, we were given fresh water and some small children got a biscuit from a doctor who had come to attend to the sick.
In the morning the train stopped at Kotlas, on the frozen River Dwina. We and our luggage were unloaded. We slept on the floor of a school, sitting on our belongings. The place was packed and it was difficult to sleep as there was much coughing and children were crying. In the morning sledges started to arrive and they called out names so that, one by one, families departed into the unknown. On the second morning, when we woke up, our stepmother Helena was ill with a very high temperature. We waited for a doctor, who examined her and diagnosed pneumonia. She was sent to the hospital in Kotlas. For how long? nobody knew but we were told that we must continue to our destination without her.
* Deportation is the word usually used, but this is not really correct because it suggests that a crime has been committed and the guilty person is sent back to their country of origin. Our families were never accused of, nor convicted of any crimes.
Forced re-location, abduction, kidnapping are sometimes used instead. “Zsyłka” is often used in Polish.
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