Somehow we got on the ship. It was named "Zhdanov" after some communist leader during the Revolutionary War. It was so packed that it was practically impossible to walk on the deck. Every inch on the deck was occupied. Many people were sick.
In Krasnovodsk, we were de-trained on a big, sandy square, completely bare of trees, near to the Caspian Sea.
The Zhdanov, overloaded with Polish Refugees.
Arriving in the port of Pahlevi.
We were lucky, the sea was relatively calm, and after a day and night of travel, in the morning we saw land. The Persian port that we came to was Pahlevi.
Waiting to cross the Caspian Sea.
1) Take me on the train pretending that I am in good health. There was a risk that if my sickness was discovered, since typhus was a highly contagious disease, the Soviets will put me out somewhere, where I will not have any care at all. Mother definitely said that she would not leave me alone, wherever it may be. That would be a disaster. Here, in Gorchakovo, at least there were some Polish soldiers who could help us. Anywhere else we would be at the mercy of strangers. Besides, father being in the Army would have to go with his regiment to Persia and it was doubtful that we would find each other again.
2) Father would go to his commander, explain the situation, and ask for permission to remain in Gorchakovo.
3) Father would go with the Army to Persia and mother would stay with me hoping that there would be another chance to get out from Russia.
I will never forget my first meal from the soldier's kitchen: a good piece of meat, broth with rice that was something that we had not seen for a long time. I also remember the first Mass that we attended in the military chapel. After being exposed to all the anti-religious propaganda, that Mass had special meaning for me.
After a few days' stay in Jangi-Jul, we went to Gorchakovo. In Gorchakovo, we stopped at a Chaihana trying to find transportation to Margelan. At that time I began to feel strange: feverish, weak, symptoms of a cold. In this situation, my parents decided that there was no point going for a physical examination to get into the army. We rented a room from a Russian widow and I stayed there with my mother, while my father went to the Polish camp alone. We knew that Polish authorities did not have any hospitals where Polish doctors would treat patients. Sick soldiers were sent to Russian hospitals where care was next to nil. My parents were afraid that, if they sent me there, I would never come back alive.
My father, who was a doctor, got his appointment right away. Meanwhile, my temperature went sky high. Although there was typhus everywhere, my parents hoped that it was an ordinary cold that would go away in a few days. Typhus takes two weeks for the rash to develop and then you know that it is indeed typhus.
Meanwhile, we got the news that the Polish Army was to be evacuated to Persia (now Iran). We were very excited. Father came and told us to be ready on short notice. Finally, the day of departure came. I woke up that morning, looked at my body and realized the terrible truth: I was covered with red spots - it was typhus! I realized that in these conditions I would not be able to go to Persia. My mother started to cry. Later on, father came with soldiers to take us to the station (his things were already on the train) and he saw the rash on my body. The rest is rather foggy in my memory because of the high fever, but I reconstructed the events from what I remember and what my parents told me. There were three alternatives:
Father went to the train and asked his colleagues for advice. Some of them suggested risking alternative No.1, saying that they will help to hide me if the Russians search the train. We did not know what was ahead of us on the way to Persia and father was afraid that I may die in transport. He went to the commander of the transport and begged that he be allowed to remain with the "liquidation company, " i. e. a company of soldiers who were going to remain in Gorchakovo to take care of the civilians that were coming in in great numbers. To his surprise the commander agreed. He replaced the doctor who was scheduled to stay with the liquidation company with my father. Father came home, opened the box of medical samples that he collected before the war and which he took from Poland when we were deported. He guarded that box like a treasure, and for a good reason. There were all kinds of samples of drugs that were sent to him from all over Europe and not available in Russia. Russia was isolated from the rest of the world by the idiotic communist politics. Father gave me all kinds of injections, drugs, etc. , and I was probably the best-treated patient in the country.
For the next two or three weeks, I didn't know much about what was going on because most of the time I was delirious due to high fever. This is characteristic of typhus that a sick person has high fever and usually it kills him because the heart cannot take it. Mother said later that I was getting up in the middle of the night, screaming and doing all kinds of crazy things that a person with high fever does. With typhus, the critical time is when the temperature drops. If the drop is gradual, the patient usually will recover but a sudden drop is much more dangerous. In my case it was a gradual reduction in temperature. I was so weak that I could not even sit on my bed. I was thin as a stick. Flesh was hanging from my bones. On Easter 1942 I was strong enough to sit in my bed.
I will never forget the Easter breakfast that day. Mother and the Russian landlady decided to have a joint celebration. Father brought some sausage and sugar. Mother exchanged something on the black market for some flour, and our landlady's son, who worked in a slaughterhouse brought bull's testicles. They cooked some kind of soup and we all had a feast.
With the drop in temperature came appetite. In the middle of the night, I had stomach cramps from hunger, and I could not wait for morning to come so that I could get something to eat. I dreamt of a big loaf of bread. Mother was taking things that we had, my coat, some sheets, anything that could be exchanged, to the black market and exchanged it for food.
In Russia, the black market is everywhere. It was there under the Soviets and it is now. It is an institution. One can get everything there from golden rings or the most expensive watches to the most mundane articles of life. We, the exiles, were in many cases in a better position than the native Russians because we brought with us things that were scarce in Russia or not available at all. They did not have anything. Trivial things, such as soap, were in great demand.
When the Polish soldiers left, their tents were occupied by the thousands of Polish civilians who came to Gorchakovo. This was the result of the news that spread rapidly among Polish exiles that the Polish Army was being taken out of Russia to Persia. Some of them came in time to leave Russia with the first transport that we were supposed to join, in March 1942. But most of them did not come on time and they were coming at the limits of their exhaustion and put themselves at the mercy of the "liquidation company" that was left after the departure of the main body of the Polish Army. In Gorchakovo, nobody bothered to have an exact count (it was impossible to do it because people were coming and going all the time) but there were about 4,000 civilians. Father's clinic was always full of sick people.
When I recovered enough that I could walk, father arranged for me to have a job. I was to work as a janitor/nurse in the clinic where he was working with another doctor. My duties consisted of keeping the clinic clean, all medical instruments had to be properly arranged and sterilized and, in general, keep everything in proper shape. Also, it was my duty to escort the sick from the camp to the Russian hospital located in Margelan. It was the most unpleasant part of my work. Twice a week I went with the sick to Margelan, usually five or eight people, and I always thought: how many of them will come back. The mortality rate in Russian hospitals was very high.
For my work I was getting a ration of soup a day from the soldier's kitchen and an allocation of bread. The bread that we were getting came from a Russian bakery. It was dark and half-baked. As a result, it was full of water and heavy as clay. So the 500g. ration did not amount to more than one thick slice. Usually, I was so hungry that I could not resist eating some of it on the way home. I had to restrain myself because I knew that my parents were waiting to have some of it but hunger was twisting my guts... Sometimes, when I stretched out my plate the cook threw on a ration of the second dish, usually some sort of pasta, potatoes or rice with meat. That happened quite often. The conditions in the camp were very bad. The Russians did not provide for the civilians and they had to be fed from the military supplies. I really don't know how our military supply officer managed to feed so many people from his limited means. I suspect that he was bribing his Russian counterpart to get more food because there was no other explanation. But there was hunger everywhere. It was springtime March, April, May, too early for fresh vegetables, people were cooking grass to fill their stomachs with something, people were starving and all kinds of diseases associated with malnutrition were rampant. The worst were typhus and dysentery.
I will never forget that day when we came out from the clinic (I slept on the couch in the clinic with father while mother was still with the Russian lady) and found right by the door a young man dying from starvation. He must have come to the camp at night and did not have enough strength to get any help, so he collapsed right there at the door. There was nothing we could do for him; it was too late. I don't want to think how many cases like this occurred in those days in Russia.
Once we had a feast: somehow the man in charge of food had some extra white bread from somewhere and he gave a whole loaf to my father. Father came to me with a face of a cat that had just eaten a big, fat canary! I gorged myself with good, fresh white bread. Another event that I keep fondly in my memory was the first can of corned beef that we received from the Red Cross which started its activity at that time. Mother divided it into three parts and cooked some kind of soup. It had a taste of prosperity.
The camp was located in a huge orchard of peaches. As soon as the peaches were half-ripe, our people started to go the orchard and pick the fruit. There was a Russian guard, with a gun, and one of the youngsters got arrested for stealing the peaches which were government property. The news about the incident quickly spread among our soldiers. Next day, they sent a group of young boys to get some peaches and, when the guard appeared and wanted to arrest them, our soldiers roughed him up and told him that, if he bothers our people again, it will be worse. From that time, on he was always in a different part of the orchard.
With coming of summer, things got better because some vegetables started to appear. People were still hungry but at least they could put something in a pot to cook a soup or eat something.
In July 1942 we were told that there will be another transport to Persia. We knew that this may be the only chance to get out of Russia. After many days of waiting, the day of departure came. We were assigned passenger cars and we were taken by train through Samarkand, Buhara, to Krasnovodsk, which is a port on the Caspian Sea. The train trip took several days, I don't remember the details regarding food, but I know we were crowded in our cars.
There was a faucet for water and people had to stay in line to get it. The sun was oppressive, and after a few hours everybody was very uncomfortable. There were latrines at a distance that you had to stand in line to use them. I remember one thing that mother took with her from Gorchakovo was a bottle of vodka. In Russia one always carried things like vodka, soap, canned meat or fish because these things were more valuable than money. You could always exchange them for something else, because they were always in demand. So, when we were sitting on that square and everybody was exhausted, mother took out her bottle of vodka and took a good sip from it. An elderly man was sitting next to her and looked at the vodka in such an obvious way that mother gave him a drink. Later on, in high school in Tehran, we met him. He was my teacher's father. When he met my mother in our refugee camp, in Tehran, he thanked her profusely, saying that this drink put him back on his feet. There were a couple of thousand people on that square. Apparently, this was the waiting area for people from all trains. We spent the night there. Next day, in the afternoon, the Soviet NKVD announced that we should be at the ready because we will be moving to the port.
Everybody was very excited. This was the day that we had been waiting for. At about three o'clock in the afternoon, a train pulled up, we climbed on it and went to the port. There, after waiting for about two hours NKVD took us to the ship. We were supposed to march in orderly fashion, after a few moments all the rules were broken and the entire crowd, several thousand people, rushed to the gate of the port. I did my best to stay with mother, not to be separated by the crowd. We dropped practically everything that was too heavy to carry for a long distance and pushed our way forward. There were scenes on that walk that deserve to be immortalized in a movie. Thousands of people, young, old, sick, some at the point of extreme exhaustion, going to the port. One man was carrying a large bag and apparently it was too much for him - he dropped dead right at the gate to the port.
Some people barely made it to the ship. Some could not even move to satisfy their biological needs. They were lying there in their urine and faeces. It was a pitiful sight. The few army nurses were trying to help them but the job was beyond their capabilities. I don't know how it was inside, and whether it was a passenger or freight ship because I never left the deck. As matter of fact, I hardly left my place on the deck except to satisfy my biological needs for fear that my place may be taken as soon as I left it. But I had to go. That was an experience in itself. The Soviets anticipated that the ship will be overcrowded and they provided latrines for that purpose. They were built of wood, as structures attached to the side of the ship. In order to use them one had to climb on a narrow wooden platform outside of the ship and be careful not to slip off. Below was the sea. One had to squat, holding the wooden railing and relieve oneself directly into the sea. Needless to say that due to a strong wind, the sides of the ship were a visible testimony of frequent use of latrines. Using these facilities was an experience one doesn't forget!
We spent the evening on the ship. During, the night we could see flashes of explosions in the distance. Somebody said that it was the bombing of Baku, which was located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.
We left the port of Krasnovodsk at about two o'clock the next morning in August 1942. That was a memorable moment. Somebody started to sing the "Rota", which is a national song describing the sufferings of the Polish people over the more than century of oppression from the invaders. Somehow, in my thoughts I compared our lot with the Jews of the Old Testament that were leaving Egypt after years of bondage.
The facilities were not adequate to accommodate our ship, so we were transferred on small boats and taken ashore. That was a lifting experience to be finally out of Russia, the home of fear and oppression. It was very emotional and people were letting their feelings go. Some were praying, some were kissing the sand on the beach, others were crying.
We were located on the beach, in shelters about 100 feet long and 20 feet wide, that consisted of a roof made of some kind of straw, with a ridge beam that was running down the middle, supported by wooden planks at about twenty feet apart. No side walls. The roof was sloping on each side, and families were residing in parallel, along the shelter. The shelters were arranged in a single row so that they stretched for about a kilometre or more. Latrines were located at one end of the encampment, and if somebody's place was at the opposite end to the latrines, he or she had a long distance to walk. We were requested to shed all our clothing and were given a new one because of the lice that everybody had. Our hair and the private parts of the adults were sprayed with some powder that was supposed to disinfect us. We enjoyed the bathing in the sea which, contrary to the shore on the Russian side, was free of oil.
But the worst thing was the food. For some reason the British, who managed the encampment, did not realize that we had not had regular food for a long time, and our system could not digest heavy fats right away. They gave us fatty mutton and rice and that was a disaster! The diarrhoea that resulted from that was terrible. People were just so sick that they did not bother to go to their places but they lay on the sand by the latrines unable to move. Some of them unable to make it to the latrines on time relieved themselves wherever they could without any regard to privacy. The whole area stank. Mother knew what the consequences would be of feeding me with heavy food, so she mixed our rations with other types of food so that the effect was not so drastic.
Still, in spite of all these problems we enjoyed those first days of freedom enormously. We bathed in the sea, we took advantage of the good weather and sunbathed ourselves and in general; life began to look more enjoyable. Soon I found some friends of my own age and, in spite of our unusual living conditions, we started to behave like normal people.
© Kresy Family
Our material is not to be copied or used in any way without the specific permission of Kresy Family Polish WWII History Group.
For help and advice, please refer to our contact page.
Please note that we have no connection with the Kresy-Siberia Foundation.