S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
Name: Maria Szuba-Tomaszewska
I was born 25 August 1915 near Warsaw in the village of Wojcieszyn. I married my brother-in-law Stanisław Szuba in January 1935 after his wife, my older sister, had died following an accident.
Back in 1918 Stanisław Szuba had been a volunteer in Piłsudski’s Legion and had been decorated with the Cross of Valour. In 1921, following the Act of 17 December 1920 which granted lands in the east to serving volunteers, he was allocated 18 hectares in the area of Budlowa, near Grodno. During 1935 what was now our farm, was enlarged by a further 25 hectares by our buying property previously owned by the son of General Latour. Our family eventually numbered seven children, the five orphaned by my sister: Stanisław, Wacław, Helena, Edmund and Franciszek, who at the time of my marriage ranged in age from one to fourteen years, and my own two natural daughters Krystyna and Hania.
In our osada we had a Milk Co-operative, a Farmer’s Union and a branch office of the bank Kasa Stefczyka. Most of my husband’s time was taken up in the community arranging meetings and social events. I can recall one little story from the start of our pioneering days in our osada which which concerns the fact that it was a long way to the nearest Catholic church in Kaszubiniec. However in nearby Żydomla there were two Russian Orthodox churches used by the native Byelorussians and a gamble was worked out with them for the possible use of one of these places of worship. This all hinged on a horse race and the climbing of the church tower on which a cross had to be placed. My husband took part in this race, and since he was a fine cavalryman, was the first across the finishing line, up the tower and so placed the cross on the top. This meant that from then on we settlers had our own church. As for the Byelorussians, living amongst them was always pleasant. I cannot recall one major difference of opinion. Indeed we helped each other through the months of food scarcity until the arrival of the new harvest.
Things started changing when the war drew close. From August 1939 Bolshevik agents began infiltrating the area. Their provocation included setting fire to haystacks, barns and even the homes of the settlers. By the start of September fires appeared in the nearby town of Skidel while at the same time our houses constantly filled with people fleeing from central Poland and soldiers from our retreating army. For all those we provided both food and shelter.
During this period, as the number of attacks on the settlers increased, my husband was asked to take control of the local council. Yet from 17 September matters deteriorated further as the Bolshevik agents were now working directly under the orders of the Soviet command since the NKVD had begun their clearing of the district.
With this as background on Wednesday 20 September the Budlowa settlers were directed to attend a very important meeting in the village in the village of Obuchowo. Our men went but never returned. Those were: Stanisław Szuba, Jan Zawadzki, Bronisław Przeraziński. Jan Jagielski, Władysław Anisyewski. Edward Nowak and Piotr Krupa, They were certainly brutally beaten then hurled into dungeons with guards stationed at the entrance. While they were imprisoned we the wives were allowed to take them food. They remained there until Friday. Then on the Saturday when one of our Byelorrusian boys came to collect his wages and he told me that our men had been taken away to some unknown destination.
Thus we wives set out for Obuchowo where it was obvious that the boy’s story was only too true. We could glean no more information as to what had happened so, as the sun began to set, we started for home having discovered nothing. Suddenly we heard shots some distance away and in my heart of hearts I just knew that I had lost my husband for we were already aware that the husbands and sons of our neighbours in Lerypol had been killed earlier that day. These men were: Stanisław Barszcz 41, Jan Czyż 41, Tadeus Górnicki 16, Władysław Górnicki 41, Antoni Pawlikowski 41, Jan Mazalewski 45, Pawel Mroczek 42, Jan Tomczyk 42, Ignacy Zarębski42 and Jan Kraśnik 39.
The next day, on Sunday, a representative of the Soviet authorities informed us that our husbands had been transferred to a bigger camp in Grodno. So we turned for home and then encountered Soviet tanks which started shooting in our direction, though, as luck would have it, no-one was injured.
We continued our enquiries but, though we traversed fields and local cemeteries searching for fresh graves, we came across nothing. By Wednesday we had all but given up hope when my dachshund Aza came along with my husband’s softCap in his mouth. It was following the dog that we came across the dreadful place of execution. At once with our bare hands we scraped away the soil to uncover the corpses of our nearest and dearest. Their swollen bodies showed obvious signs of having been buried alive. Jagielski’s stomach had been slit and only half of Krupa’s head remained. Every one of them was shoeless.
Though we were forbidden to remove the bodies to our cemetery we persisted in our demands and in the end obtained permission. So we hired two local men who with their horses and carts helped us to bury our men wrapped in white sheets in straw-filled graves in the churchyard at Żydomla. It was a day or two later we learned that both our helpers had been shot.
Let me say again that most of the Byelorussians behaved kindly towards us. Indeed a man from Sowołówka had earlier suggested that my husband should hide in his village. Unfortunately we had not taken up his offer and it was only after the war that I discovered that none of Sowołówka’s settlers disappeared.
However in those early war days, since there was talk of creating a hospital and our house was the biggest in the neighbourhood, we were evicted and a roof was provided for us by our kind neighbour Mrs Aniszewska. It was now far more difficult just to exist. Problems confronted us at every turn. We were intimidated by broken windows and persistent rumuors that beatings and death was all that life now held for is. We were short of food. There were nine mouths to feed. Not only the seven children and myself, but also my sister Zofia Ciećwierz who, as luck would have it, on the very day before war was declared had come from Warsaw to stay with us. Thus in December we moved to Grodno to lodge with my niece Stanisława.
It was not long before all the military osadas in our country had been wiped out, their settlers having been murdered or taken to goodness knows what destination. We however knew for certain that the NKVD were drawing up lists of the settlers families so we took care not to register our new address. Anyone who helped either the settlers or their dependants were threatened with dire consequences. Terror and fear reigned over us. From the prison that was next to the parish church in Grodno every day there were corpses taken to be buried in the nearby woodland called Sekret. I heard that any captured Polish soldiers were simply shot in Psia Górka. Loudspeakers were set up in Batory Square constantly announcing Soviet military victories. Fear reigned in the town.
At 4 o’clock in the morning of the 10 February 1940 Soviet soldiers accompanied by the NKVD barged into our apartment. The children were woken up and started crying as the NKVD ransacked the rooms, and ordered me to dress quickly as if for a journey. Thus numb with fear, jabbed with rifle butts and hurried along with much shouting, I scurried about and began dressing the children. Without really thinking I was preparing our step into the unknown, for I was worried as to what would happen to the children, especially since the night was so cold with a particularly heavy frost. I noticed one of the soldiers throw two eiderdowns taken from the house onto the sledges which were standing by and at the last minute, I grabbed a tiny bag of flour and another of millet grains which was all we took to eat.
The soldiers escorted us to the station siding at Ososna, where as yet there was no-one but us. Indeed it was another two hours before we were joined by another group of settlers and all this time the frightened children were sobbing in the biting cold. Then we were loaded into cattle trucks in the middle of which there was a cast iron stove along with a small pile of wood and a rug or two. At once we tried to light the stove. Only when the truck was full – there were about 50 people in ours – was the train taken into the station and once the whole train was ready, we set off for the unknown. We really had no idea where they intended to take us and no one even guessed that we would end up in Siberia.
The journey was dreadful. It was so cold in the trucks that we clung on to each other using or own body heat for warmth. Lice attacked us and bedbugs crawled all over us. The wagon was bolted on the outside and little could be seen through the high, narrow, barred window. We had no option but to perform private necessities in front of everybody using the hole cut in the floor. All around people were dying from various diseases but particularly from hunger and cold. I was feeding the children with gruel but my little stock was rapidly diminishing. Each day as the journey progressed we were given one slice of bread and some water while at some of the stations there was also a drop of warm soup. Since we passed through Chelyabinsk, Omsk and Novosibirsk we realized we were on the Trans-Siberian railway.
At Novosibirsk we had a longish stop and were unloaded to have a bath. This took place in a very beautiful Russian Orthodox church with shower heads attached to the supporting pillars.
As we crossed the Urals we were allowed a little more freedom. Now we could leave the trucks to attend to personal hygiene – though the facilities in all the stations were disgustingly dirty. In March our train went through Krasnoyarsk where at a small station we were unloaded.
We found ourselves in Irkutsk county in the district of Tayshet. Here there were quite a few established labour camps: Toporok, Zolotaya, Gorda, Udachna, Kvitok and Neudachna. We travelled by sledge to posiolek Kvitok and were allocated places in barrack huts. There were sixty families in those huts and my eight member family shared a room just 2 by 4 metres. Here we had bunk beds crawling with bugs and other vermin. In the corridor outside were two kitchens where we could have cooked had we anything to cook. The entire hut was abominably cold: so much so that the water was frozen in the buckets and our breath condensed into hoar frost.
On the day after we arrived we were set to work from which only the very smallest children were excused. We spent eight hours of every day felling trees in the forest followed by more hours in the sawmill heaving huge logs onto the platforms. We regularly scratched our initials onto the logs – sort of our letters to nowhere.
Quite close to the sawmill we noticed in the field little markers with numbers on them and were curious as to their significance. It was the locals who told us that such markers indicated graves of people who had been here before us, for shipments of folk had been arriving here ever since the start of the Bolshevik Revolution. Such people had no names, just numbers. Once we Poles were aware of this we refused to work there since neither flogging nor starvation could deter our opposition, the whole area was eventually levelled and the markers taken away. Nevertheless fatal mishaps continued. In the winter people froze to death outside while inside during the summer swarms of mosquitoes and midges infected us with malaria and typhoid.
My younger daughter Hania, then just two and a half, died in May 1940. I buried her in a little white pine coffin and, since only two people were allowed at funerals, my 14 year old niece performed the burial with me. Hania’s death was followed by that of Wacia, 15 at the time, andthen in July my second child, five years old Krysia, passed away. One realized it made no difference how death came, whether by typhoid, malaria or a whole host of other disease including cholera. I had now lost both my own children and was left with only those of my sister. Strange as it sounds I didn’t despair mainly because I had lost all sense of feeling. Inside me was emptiness, a void, ashes and nothing else except a repeated thought that now three of my children who had entered the next world were better off – for they were no longer hungry, cold and sick.
Our faith was centred in a simple ecclesiastical stole which we had managed to bring with us. It acted as our priest, our church and our fatherland. In moments of despair, when we no longer saw any sense in living, we used to take it out and lay it on a table or, if we were in the forest, along the branches of a tree. Our prayers were momentary thoughts that recalled our Polish homes and by-ways, prayers spoken with the rattling rhythm of the Trans-Siberian Railway, whispered over the graves of our children. We also prayed for Polish soldiers and those nameless ones who had become mere numbers in the land. And we prayed for this land, this beautiful land of Siberia with its scented forests and its fragrant flowers. For how had Siberia sinned to be damned and cursed by us and its’ people? And since praying was forbidden, guards were always on the look-out for any such sessions – we were equally nervous that we might lose our stole.
In June 1941 the news came through of the collapse of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and that Germany had attacked the USSR. We now felt we could expect real changes and it was not long before a new agreement was signed between General Władysław Sikorski and Ambassador Ivan Maisky. Better still we heard that Ambassador Stanisław Kot had visited Moscow which resulted in a main amnesty for Poles. This posed the question just who we were: political opponents, or criminal enemies. And had we gone through all this just because we were Poles.
However these changes did prompt the young people and some of the more middle-aged to start gathering their belongings together: clothes, such as they were, tattered jackets and shoes full of holes, a few potatoes and bits of bread – and set out for Kuybyshev where a Polish army was being formed under General Władysław Anders. From August 1941 our conditions slightly improved as parcels from the Polish government started arriving. These contained medicines, clothes and food. Then one day – a really big day for us – an actual Polish governmental delegation arrived and we burst out singing patriotic song ‘Rota’ and the national anthem!
It was in March 1942 that a few families, my own included, decided to move on. By rail we managed to get as far as Tayshet, but here, because all trust between the Soviets and Poles was shaky, brought about once Anders army had left Russia, our journey came to an abrupt end. After being stuck on the station for a fortnight because no means of transport was available, we were forced to start looking for work, which we found on the collective farm called Krasny Mayak not far from Filimonovo station and some 25kms from Kansk. Thus we became labouring farmhands and with the severing of the diplomatic relations betwen Soviet Russia and the Polish government we were forced to accept Soviet citizenship. When news broke of General Sikorski’s tragic death, all hope of our ever returning home evaporated.
We were part of the thousands of Poles scattered throughout the vastness of Siberia, the Far East and Central Russia who would have paid any price to find a way back to Poland. To this end some took their chances by joining the newly formed 1st Kościuszko Division in Sielce on Oka, while others, who hadn’t managed to join Ander’s army, enlisted under Berling. It made no difference to them, they were still poor, hungry and dressed in rags but it offered just a faint hope of getting home. How many of them did not reach their goal? How many died en route? As for us, left in Siberia, downtrodden, worked to the bone, drained of all strength and at the very end of our tether, we would have tried anything which offered even a glimmer of hope of getting home to Poland. There was only one Poland for us.
Once the war had ended, a Polish-Soviet commission empowered under the Agreement concerning all Polish citizens whether Pole or Jew and dated 6 July 1945, began preparations to get us all back to Poland. Unfortunately it took a long time and it was not until 23 February 1946 that we received our certificate of evacuation, my number being 17651. We finally left Krasnoyarsk on 5 April 1946. I, my sister Zofia and three of my stepchildren: Edmund, Helena and Franciszek were returning to our homeland. We left the other three children behind, their bodies in Siberian soil forever.
From Krasnoyarsk we travelled through Novosibirsk, Omsk, Svierdlovsk and Kazan to Brest-Litovsk, where on the station platform we were welcomed by a priest making the sign of the cross. He invited us to join in a general confession, though what our feelings underwent during the Mass is difficult to describe for he was beseeching us to forgive our enemies, shed all hatred and extend offers of love to all our fellow men. I believe it was only our singing which gave us enough inner strength to endure that experience and the fact that this Polish priest, a symbol of dignified humanity, used calm words which like helping hands drew us back from a bleak emptiness.
We arrived at Warsaw’s West Station on 6 May 1946. Here each of us readily accepted 100 zlotys mainly because it was Polish money. This was my chance to live out a secret dream which, throughout those so long years in Siberia I had kept to myself – that one day I would again taste tea and cakes in a Warsaw café. So clutching my 100 zlotys in one hand and the youngest child Fanio with the other, I trudged through devastated Warsaw amazed by every stone and every ruined building. At each and every one of these people toiling among the rubble I wanted to shout ‘I’m delighted to see you!’ And I think they understood because they smiled back.
I quickened my step to that café near the church of St Wojciech on Wola which I’d known before the war. It was still there and there were cakes as well but I didn’t buy any - they were far too expensive. My 100 zlotys was not enough to buy one for each of us.
So I set off for my own village of Wojcieszyn where everything was beautiful to me. Now my heart thumped excitedly – for this was my Poland.
Raising the commemorative mound of Józef Piłsudski. The settlers from osada Budlowa, from left: Stanisław Szuba, Jan Czyż, Król, JózefJagielski and his wife, Longina and Edward Gold, Piotr Krupa, Ignacy Zarębski and name unknown.
Cemetery in Zydomla. The grave of the murdered settlers from osada Budlowa as it is now.
Maria Szuba-Tomaszewska on the right and Maria Domanska at the Settler's Reunion, Warsaw 1995.
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