On the land of settler Ignacy Gawroński in Wąsowicze - a cross dedicated to Marshal Piłsudski where festivities were performed on 12 May, the anniversary of his death
Zofia Gawrońska - the 90 year old settler from Osada Wąsowicze pictured in Australian with her daughter, Regina, and her husband Mr Krozowski, 1992
The laying of a corner stone for the church in Wąsowicze, 1938
Passport issued to Zofia Gawrońska in Samarkand on 6 June 1942 the expiry date of which was 31 December 1944
S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
Name: Regina Krozowska (Gawrońska)
Osada Wąsowicze, District Włodzimierz Wołyński
My father as a military settler lead a life similar to those described in the book entitled Z Kresow Wschodnich RP (‘From the Eastern Borderland of the Polish Republic’). It was a life which had its difficulties but was contented, bursting with enthusiasm and it lasted up to the time of deportation to Siberia. Who among Poles doesn’t realize the full significance of those words? Especially those Poles who with their own feet measured out the taiga of Siberia – that land of hunger and misery.
10 February 1940 is the date of the exiling of thousands of Pole sinto the depths of Soviet Russia. Just lik emany other places, osada Wąsowicze, 12 kilometres from Włodzimierz in Volhynia, my birthplace and for me the pleasantest spot on earth, at 3.30 that morning was surrounded by the NKVD. At that time, my mother, a 36 year old pregnant woman with five small children, was beset by two soldiers and two Ukrainians from the nearby village. They questioned her about my father but he, before this time, realizing that he was facing a hiding to nothing, had arranged his escape.
Once they understood that she had no idea of her husband’s whereabouts they ordered her to gather up some belongings, some food, and the children as in short while we would all be leaving. ‘To where?’, asked mother. I have no husband, I’m pregnant and I’m going nowhere’. At this one of them flew into a rage and rushed about demanding we get a move on. The situation appeared deadlocked but we were soon all dressed: mama, Jadzia 15, Regina 11, Heniek 8, Zbyszek 5 and Edzio 2 years old. We packed a few personal items and food products such as flour, cereal, pork fat and bread. The land deeds and the documents asserting our ownership of the property were snatched from mother’s hand. Then, in convoy, along with other osada inhabitants, we set out on the few hours journey to Bubnów station where there was already a crowd of people – all deportees exactly like ourselves. By the rail wagons stood guards with rifles who ordered u sinto the trucks. We faced crying mothers hugging their children, wagons with bunk beds one above the other, an iron stove, a hole in the floor,the bitter cold and gloom. We took up a place by the window and soon the whole wagon was full of petrified people. The doors were locked and bolted with an iron bar and an armed guard was positioned outside. The train moved. Through their tears people strained their eyes to watch the crossing over the border. Echoes of prayer drifted through the crowd.
We travelled in those locked wagons for about three weeks. On the stations we received some boiled water and a piece of bread. The rest of our food was what we’d brought from Poland. When in that distant wilderness the engine started slowing down it was possible to see from the wagon show the dead had been thrown out from previous transports. After those three weeks we left the wagons near Archangel. The impression it gave to everybody was that there was nothing but forests and in the distance, barrack huts covered in a thick layer of snow. Mother carried all her belongings on her back and, surrounded by us five children, in a snowstorm with the stuff up to our knees, we reached the barracks. We took over one bunk bed in the corner of the hut. The walls were rimed in Frost and there were bed bugs everywhere.
Thirteen people shared that room on the hard boards on which we slept through the night while bed bugs covered our bodies with itching red patches. Next day we all went to the banyo (bath house). It was built of wood with stairs in the middle down which, naked, because our clothes had gone for disinfection, we stepped into a very warm steam bath and scooped up warm water with a bucket from a large wooden barrel.
That morning we were all given a work assignment. Mother being pregnant but husbandless and knowing Russian was given the task of ensuring the camp had boiling water which each waking person could acquire both before and after work. My sister Jadzia was sent to cut wood in the forest and my brothers and I were sent to school where from the very first day we were forbidden to speak Polish.
The most hardy were assigned to forest work but it was equally shared between both sexes. My sister was provided with a horse and sledge. She cut trees with a saw and, helped by a length of wood which she used as a crowbar, rolled the felled log onto the sledge. When she had a number of these on the sledge she dragged them to a place set aside for their collection. Those who worked in the forest were issued with a quilted jacket and trousers and felt boots. From what mother has said I know a day free from work only occurred when the whole camp met the production quota but, without cheating, this was all but impossible to accomplish.
Working persons received 600 grams of bread and those not working 200 grams. For supper it was possible to buy in the canteen fish soup thickened with pasta, although one portion contained only a strand or two of the pasta, and it all tasted of dishwater. Sometimes one could get oat cereal perhaps even with oil. Hard work coupled with hunger caused an increase in the incidence of heart problems. The fiancee of a young sailor died in her sleep. In despair and because of his hunger he took i tinto his head to run away from Siberia. He left his clothing in the forest, pretending that he had committed suicide. Nobody knew how he manager to reach Poland but it was thanks to him that we received food parcels and the Soviets who delivered them to us were unaware that they came from the very man for whom they were searching.
It was in that cold barrack hut in full view of small children and strange men that my mother gave birth to a daughter. She was allowed one day off work. She used to get up early amd generally took the baby to work with her. As the months passed our supplies dwindled away, mother ran out of milk for the child and the rest of us had nothing to eat. I went down with pneumonia and as aresult of constant lying on the hard boards, had bed sores on both sides which opzed with blood and matter. The thought of death from hunger constantly ran through our minds. For a piece of bread mother gave away her wedding ring and her skirt fora few potatoes. Because her system lacked both fats and vitamins she suffered with scurvy and night blindness.
I was taken to a hospital. A girl was brought in who when she was returning from work and had slipped as she jumped onto the ice-covered steps of a train and fallen under its wheels. Her screaming was intolerable and it was in terrible torment that her life came to an end. My mother, completely exhausted both physically and mentally, accidentally upset a bucket of water which splashed over the infant’s body. There was no way of getting to hospital. I recall mothers asking God to end the child’s misery. She was christened with ordinary water and died a few days later. Her open little coffin rested on our bunk until it was put to rest among a few sore of other Polish graves.
Summer came and cranberries grew as the sun warmed the forest marshes, as did mushrooms in the forest itself. Heniek and I gathered these berries, sold them to the Russian people and then used the proceeds to buy more bread.
In 1941 we were called to a meeting in the canteen at which the ‘amnesty’ was announced. What blessed freedom! For the first time we heard music in this place as somebody played an accordian and people sang as they dashed from one hut to another. Today it is very difficult to believe that mother was the very first to set out on the road to Poland. The commandant stopped and asked her ‘Sonia, where are you off to? You have small children. Wait for the end of the war and you’ll all go together’. It was all to no avail, Mother was intent on walking home. We pulled small sledges on one of which sat my youngest brother while mother carried the next yougest on her back. Though hungry and cold we managed to cover the 8 kms to the railway station Ivaksha. Here Poles from other camps were already waiting for a train. As we were supposed to leave the next day my sister went back to the camp to collect the last payment of wages. It turned out that we were never to see her again in this inhumane land, but she later travelled to the south of Russia as well, joined up with a lot of similarly lost people which, as a group, after five years in Uzbekistan, successfully returned to Poland. We’ on the other hand, boarded a goods train carrying timber and set off in the direction of Tashkent where as part of a group of grimy, hungry, lice-ridden Poles, we slept on the bare ground at the station. Nobody bothered us and nobody asked us for tickets. We went up to the arriving trains begging for bread. In the end, more than likely just to get rid of us, we were allowed to shelter in one of the wagons, the train set off and took us to Uzbekistan.
At the station where we disembarked Uzbeks loaded us onto arbs and took us to the collective farm station. A little donkey was led out of its stable – and this was now our living quarters. Next day mother and Heniek were sent to pick cotton. In return for this work mother received a few potatoes and apiece of lepyoshka. Within a few days she learned that in Samarkland, 19kms away, there was a Polish Centre where Poles were being registered. So, accompanied by Mrs Kempińska, she went there and following registration, received powdered milk, eggs, some soap and a dressing gown which served as a dress.
We were moved to another collective farm where, helped by dirt and hunger, typhoid raged and was caught by my mother and my younger brother. After my urgent pleas for help, an Uzbek came and took them by arba to hospital. When I next returned to the hospital my brother was already dead. Because I wanted to see him I was allowed into the mortuary where hundreds of bodies lay on the floor. I was hit by a choking stench and just could not look. I went back to mother and gazed through the window at her.
Next day we children were sitting outside when a man was riding a bicycle asked about our surname and our parents (he was the carer from the orphanage). Blessed moment! Somebody had registered us and so we were taken to the orphanage in Samarkland. We arrived by arba in front of a huge building. There our hair was shaved off, our clothes burnt, we were bathed and then received other clothes – although too big these were clean. One hall housed about 200 children. We slept as best we could – the fitter ones on the floor, the weaker – two in a bed. We were fed soup and bread and sometimes a meatball which we put on the bread and moved it about with our lips so as not to bite it. (The idea being to retain the meat for the next piece of bread so prolonging the taste of it).
In the orphanage we were visited by bishop Józef Gawlina who confirmed us.
From Samarkland we were taken to Krasnovodsk and then across the Caspian Sea to the port of Pahlevi in Persia. There we underwent quarantine, slept on the sand under mat awnings and the hot air scorched our thin bodies. In spite of wholesome food we hungered for family life as we awaited parents or relatives. The orphanage consisted of children of different ages: some had become lost in transport, some whose parents were in the army – really orphans and half–orphans.
In Pahlevi nobody warned us that we had gradually to accustom our stomachs to meals containing fat and, as a result, dysentery just spread. The hospitals were full to overflowing and it is impossible to number the graves that remain in that soil.
From Pahlevi we went to Teheran, from Teheran to Ahvaz where we lived inhuge military blocks. Here some kind of eye infection broke out causing us to sit in a clinic for hours on end waiting for eye drops. The eyes suppurated overnight so that by morning it was difficult to open them as our eyelids had glued together. After a few months fate ordained that we go to India to a camp in Karachi. Was this our final haven? Not yet! Before us still stretched the road to Africa. From Karachi we sailed to Dar-es-Salaam. Here for the first time we met people with black skins. We were then transported by lorry to Abercorn camp in Northern Rhodesia where we stayed from the end of 1942 until 1948. Here began the second stage of our life. Plagues of mosquitos spread malaria and we were afflicted by little fleas which burrowed under our nals where they laid eggs. Mother suffered badly with asthma - helplessly we watched her suffering. The school was short of teachers and the lack of books affected the young people. Ths situation occurred because our camp consisted of just 700 people while others housed thousands. Our priestwas father Waligóra. He was followed by an American, Father Wierzbiński, and it was through his efforts that school books began to arrive. A small group of youngsters were sent to boarding schools in other camps. We spent the idyllic parts of our youth in Africa.
Plan of Osada Wąsowicze and list of Gawroński family
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