I N H U M A N F A T E by Helena GAŁGAN
[Translated from the original]
My name is Helena Gałgan. I am a true-born Pole and I am extremely proud of that. I come from Kazakhstan and I am a repatriate. How did I end up in Kazakhstan? The answer to that is the long family history.
My Polish roots are both from my father’s side – my grandmother and my grandfather, and also from my mother’s side – my grandfather and my grandmother. We are Poles – all my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and beyond.
In 1936, my grandparents were deported from the previous Polish terrain (today’s West Ukraine) to the steppes of Kazakhstan only because they were Poles. They were supposed to die there, but they survived. Thanks to my grandparents, our entire family preserved our Polishness, our faith, our love for our Country, our traditions and our culture, all of which remained in our hearts. They firmly believed that they would be able to preserve what was the most important to them and hand it down to their children and the following generations. They succeeded, and for this I am eternally grateful to them.
All my grandparents were deported for the same reason – their Polish nationality. As I grew up, I became aware why we at home, despite living in Kazakhstan, spoke in Polish, because we are Polish. Obviously we did not speak the type of Polish that is spoken today in Poland; it was rather an old-fashioned Polish, as handed down to my parents by my grandparents. As far as I am concerned, the most important thing is the principle that, despite everything, we spoke in Polish and not in Russian. My best memories are of my grandfather’s stories, the stories of my father’s father. Grandfather was deported like many others in 1936 together with his mother and sister. He was maybe eight years old at the time. A few years earlier, in 1933 maybe, his father, my great grandfather, was shot for his part in the 1920 war against the Bolsheviks – he was an Uhlan in Piłsudski’s army. And then, in 1936, came the NKVD and gathered up the rest of the family. They were thrown onto cattle wagons; grandfather remembered only that they travelled for a very long time standing up; many people died during the journey. I do not think it is necessary for me to describe the conditions at that time; everything is clear enough anyway – they were inhuman ...
On arrival at the destination, everyone was thrown out and left on the steppes as if they were some kind of rubbish and not human beings. Nothing more. They were to stay there and die. The guards who looked after the deportees, indigenous people themselves, called them enemies. They survived. But, despite everything, they owe much to the locals – the Kazaks who helped them; they shared what they had, they even sometimes gave up their own houses, so-called yurts. Later, dugout shelters were built giving rise to Polish villages.
Antoni, the brother of my grandmother, Karolina, took part in WW II; after deportation, he found his way to the Tadeusz Kościuski army, with which he returned to Poland after the war, as a victor, and settled in Złotoryi.
From 1936, everyone ended up in a labour camp; they were regarded as ‘settlers’. They worked hard, not only the men and irrespective of age and gender. Everyone worked whether the weather was – 48 or + 40 degrees; they had to work; they were starved and starving; they were exhausted. They did not give up; they did not give in; they all kept together. It may have been the fact that they were together that gave them the strength, the fact that they were not alone. That they had common memories, common attitudes, common dreams. Their desire was to live, to live worthily, without renouncing their values, their nationality, their culture or their traditions. They were captive slaves up to the year 1956, when they were ‘freed’ but this did not mean they were allowed to return to their homeland. During these twenty years, they had to work hard; they were prohibited from relocating. Grandfather remembers that, as a child, he was very hungry, and he probably had more than one very bad situation, but this particular one he never forgot and always narrated. One particular day on the ‘special settlement’ he saw a man carting wheat grain; grandfather was hungry; there was nothing to eat at home and, so he decided to take a handful of grain, just a small handful, and for this he was brutally beaten and the grain was trodden into the ground by the man.
Everyone was hungry in those days. My grandparents always spoke of people becoming ‘swollen’ from hunger and dying. My mother’s mother recalled that, over 24 hours, all they would get would be two slices of dry bread, a cup of simmering water and something that could only be described as resembling soup. She would describe how she would always save a bit of bread but then couldn’t get to sleep because she would be so hungry and under her pillow she would still have a tiny remnant of bread. Until the end of her life, grandmother would always have a tiny bit of bread on her. Whenever mother asked her why she carried this tiny piece of bread on her, that there was plenty of bread at home and that she could help herself to as much as she wanted, the answer was straightforward, ‘I know what it is to be hungry’ – this memory from those former dreadful times always stayed with her. Everyone would remember that people were ready to kill each other for a handful of rotten tomatoes, or for potato peelings, which had been discarded.
It was forbidden to speak in any language other than Russian. It was also dangerous to talk about being Polish or German. That is why many people changed their nationality; this gave them some security. Fortunately, my grandparents did not change their documentation, aware until the very end of the risks.
These were really difficult times when it was easier to renounce ones Polishness and have an iota of peace. It was also forbidden to profess ones faith. Despite everything, there were those who never renounced their faith and it may have been their faith that saved them. In the house of my grandparents Holy Mass was celebrated at night to prevent anyone finding out and alerting the NKVD. Very many people attended, seeking group prayer and the presence of a priest. In Karaganda we had Father Władysław Bukowiński who went through a great deal of suffering to minister to the people. His beatification is currently being arranged. He was deported to Kazakhstan in 1946. He ministered to people to the very end. He was imprisoned several times for performing his ministry. The authorities repeatedly insisted that he should return to Poland; he had the choice of imprisonment or return to his native land. He chose imprisonment in order to then be able to return to Kazakhstan to the Poles who needed him. He would explain it by saying that in Poland there were many priests, whereas he was needed by the people here. He went through a great deal but never deserted his people. My parents would talk about how my grandparents would recall these nocturnal Holy Masses. How many times neighbours would secretly inform that there was a gathering with a priest and that they were praying. My grandfather (my mother’s father) would go out to the NKVD representatives who arrived to check whether there was a Holy Mass being said and, aware of the risk, would always say with confidence, “Priest? People? Prayers? Please come into the house and see for yourself that my family is sleeping there”. You could say that this kind of deception was not unusual but, hearing such a confident reply, they would simply leave without checking. Well, if that was not a miracle. So many people could have been sentenced ...
Father Władysław Bukowiński suffered a great deal; in the last years of his stay in Kazakhstan he was very ill; he died in Karaganda. Very many people attended his funeral despite the heavy frost.
There were also camps in Kazakhstan. Fortunately, my grandparents were never sent to these camps although their life during the 20 years was very difficult because they were in an army camp. Each day they had to register their presence and in the evenings they were forbidden to move about. These were inhumane conditions. The work was inhumane designed to destroy these people. Irrespective of time of year, temperature, or weather they were expected to undertake work that was so difficult that there were those who were unable to cope and died from this fatigue. They died from fatigue or, more commonly, from a lack of food and the cold. These people of course did not even have the appropriate clothes. They did everything to survive, such as lighting bonfires which would save them from the cold. The work was hard and it was carried out by children as well as women and men; there was no division here. All had to work. For example, my grandmother at the age of 16 would manually lay railway tracks. Nobody asked her whether it was too hard for her; she simply had to get on with it because she was watched by guards with weapons. They also worked in a coal quarry where there was no mechanisation, none whatsoever. Very many people lost their lives whilst working in this quarry. Today, it is a beautiful place of rest. This quarry was flooded with spring water where now people are able to rest. Not many know that this was a place above all of pain and suffering of innocent people, who were forced to work there, and where some even lost their lives.
After 20 years of captivity, they were released from the ‘special settlement’. This freedom was just on paper. When it came to organising the documentation to leave Kazakhstan and return to their own homeland, the authorities threatened them with exile to Siberia. People were intimidated and unwillingly had to remain. Unfortunately, some stayed for good.
Even after 1956, Poles in Kazakhstan continued to be “captive”. They did not have the right to a better job or better education. My parents remember to this day their years spent in elementary school. These were difficult times for the children of Poles. Almost at each school assembly, my parents and other Poles had to walk out into the centre of the hall where they were mocked by other children only because they took part in prayers and because a priest visited the house.
Despite these difficult circumstances, my grandparents always emphasised that Polish was to be spoken at home. As I have mentioned before, this may not have been the Polish language that is spoken today. I think that the most important are the foundations which my grandparents laid. My parents recall that they were always reminded that they could speak Russian anywhere and everywhere apart from at home; at home, they always had to speak in Polish. Despite the prohibitions and risks, from their childhood my parents were brought up in the Polish spirit, according to the Polish culture and traditions. Above all, emphasis was placed on the preservation and profession of their faith. This is what my parents did later for us, obviously with the help of my grandparents.
I am very pleased that I was able to get to know my grandparents, although not all of them. The father of my father always spoke of his experiences. He always spoke with sadness and pain in his eyes. He remembered these situations to the end of his life ... My grandmother sometimes could no longer listen to this; I remember her saying, “Enough, this has all ended”. I know that he never regretted remaining a Pole in these difficult times. None of my grandparents ever regretted this.
In the year 1990-1991, in the town where I come from – Karaganda – the first Association of Poles was set up and my parents amongst others took part in its foundation. This was very active work of a Polish minority in an at that time already independent Kazakhstan. The Poles very actively and very keenly took part in all the events because it connected them to their homeland and these events provided them with the opportunity to cultivate their Polish culture and traditions. In 1991 my father brought the first Polish schoolbooks to Karaganda which he obtained from the Polish Embassy in Moscow. What is extraordinary is that in 1991 the employee at the Polish Embassy was very surprised to learn that there were Poles in Kazakhstan, arguing that the Embassy did not have any information about this, despite the fact that the first deportations to Kazakhstan were as early as 1897, in the times of the tsar. Evidently, they simply did not want to know that there were Poles there, which is very sad.
I now understand why it was so important for grandfather to tell us all this, to enable us to develop a love for our homeland which I had never seen before. It is exactly as a result of my family’s history and my patriotic upbringing that, at the age of 14, I decided that my home was in Poland and not in Kazakhstan in spite of the fact that I was born and brought up in Kazakhstan. I arrived in Warsaw on my own at a young age to attend a Polish secondary school which I completed and was accepted for university studies. I never felt tied to the other country. Because I was not born there voluntarily, neither were my grandparents or my parents; it was simply our fate. Now I am very happy to be here and to have my family here. Unfortunately, my grandparents did not return; they remained in Kazakhstan, as did the majority of Poles deported there. It is with confidence that I can say that they kept Poland in their hearts until the very end.
Now, my whole family is in Poland. Obviously, it is my closest family – parents and siblings. A large part of the family remained in Kazakhstan, including my grandparents RIP.
I have never regretted my decision to live in Poland, in the same way as my grandparents did not regret their life in Poland. I am very happy that my whole family has been able to return to the country of our ancestors which is above all also our homeland. Unfortunately, I am grievously pained by the fact that Polish society is not aware that there are Poles in Kazakhstan and they did not find themselves there of their own freewill and that they suffered drastic experiences. I would very much like the younger generations to know of this history and for this history to also be part of the Polish history and not just the history of the people who suffered. Memory survives and helps to save lives. Let us remember this. We must ensure that incidents such as the one I described earlier in the Polish Embassy in Moscow do not repeat themselves. These Poles in Kazakhstan are the same as the Poles living in Poland and in other areas of the world. They have Poland in their hearts and cultivate a love for their homeland, their culture and their traditions, even though they are 5000 kilometres away from their country.
I am so very proud to be Polish. I am so very grateful to my grandparents and my parents for their Polishness and their love for Poland. Thank you.
Statutory prizes founded by the Institute of National Remembrance
From the family archives.
Festival of 3 May celebrated by the Association of Poles in Karaganda.
From left, Halina Wierbicka, Konstanty Sławiecki with his mother, my mother – Anna Sławiecka.
From the family archives.
The funeral of Father Władysław Bukowiński.
Attached here is the document detailing release from the ‘special settlement’.
Here we have the grounds for the deportation and a summary confirming that this individual is a victim of political repression.
It is a document belonging to my grandmother on my mother’s side.
From family archives.
Funeral of great grandfather Michał.
From the family archive (my mother’s family).
From left, my grandmother, Karolina, grandfather, Stanisław, at the top is sitting my uncle Paweł (my mother’s brother), at the bottom is my mother, my great-grandfather, Michał, and the brother of my grandmother, Karolina, Antoni
(about whom I write below).
From the family archives.
Girls in Polish national costume.
First from the left, my elder sister, Julia.
From the family archives.
First Holy Communion.
From left, my mother, Anna; my uncle, Paweł; Father Władysław Bukowiński; my father, Wiktor; uncle Anatol (my father’s cousin).
click thumbnail to enlarge
Every deportee could request a certificate from the archives, which was provided by the NKVD, and records who was deported and for what reason;
as an example, I am attaching the certificate recording the deportation of my family,
my grandfather from my father’s side.
All my grandparents have such a document.
click thmbnail to enlarge
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