S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
Name: Maria Poźniak (Turzyńska)
On 10 February 1940 we were woken by the dogs barking in the farmyard and a loud hammering on the door. When mother opened up an NKVD man and two Ukrainian militiamen stepped inside. They read out a list and an order which required us to go to the railway station at Klewań as there was a warrant of resettlement in our names, At that very minute sledges harnessed to pair of horses drew up in the farmyard.
Father was away from home at this time because a few days earlier he had gone on foot to my mummy’s family, to look for accommodation for us. Since Christmas a Ukrainian family had been lodged with us. Moreover we now had no horses, cows, pigs or even furniture – because the Ukrainians had confiscated everything in their ‘levelling of the landowners’ policy.
We were allowed two hours to pack our belongings. Mother went completely to pieces, so my sister Lodzia and I began packing – a little bit of bedding, clothing, a few loaves of bread, baked the day before, a sack of flour and some cooked meats. Under my parent’s mattress we discovered a small bag of money – 200 zlotys, in silver coins – and we took this with us. We also packed on the sledges a few cooking pots and a hand sewing machine. Because my father was not there mother deluded herself into thinking we would not be deported and she opened a window to let my brother, Bronek – then still sixteen – to go and look for father. The two of them met some half-way on Bronek’s journey and father told him to go on to Uncle’s, while he himself returned to the osada where he was arrested and sent to the railway station. So it was that five of us – father, Andrzej, mother Antonia and three of us, Maria, Leokadia and the younger one, brother Tadeusz – travelled into the unknown, while the eldest brother, Bronislaw, remained in Volhynia.
The train hurried on but in the evenings stopped at some station or other when the doors were opened and a few men from each wagon went off to collect water and sometimes bread and soup. Up to this day I recall how our fathers, still soldiers at heart even in these circumstances, when they were hemmed in by armed guards as they marched off with their buckets, showed scant regard of the rifle butts and sang, ‘Our hearts and souls are joyful when the 1st Brigade is attacking Russians’ – and other legionnaire songs. Day after day passed, either in travelling or being held up in some sidings.
Lent began – and with it spread the singing of Lenten Psalms which the breeze carried up to Heaven.
After three weeks we reached Kotlas where we were unloaded. We still had to take a further journey by sledge. Women and children were seated, the men walked and we were all surrounded by guards. In that way a few days later we reached posiolek Sorokanda, near the River Ust, Cherevkovo district, Archangel Province. Here were two long buildings, inside which bunk beds and benches ran down both sides with two tables in the middle. There were also two large stoves in which fires were always burning, because the frost outside often registered -40°C.
The first night we were attacked by bed bugs of which there were masses and which bit us unmercifully and left red spots all over our bodies. The Commandant of the posiolek explained to us what our stay there would be like. Every morning men and women went deep into the taiga to cut down sky-high spruce. After being stripped of their branches the logs were dragged to the river bank by horses and stacked in piles. In the spring when the snow thawed and the river began moving – about halfway through June – these logs were pushed into the water and floated down to Archangel. It was very arduous work and my parents when they returned from it in the evenings were very tired and hungry. The wages were just enough for us to buy bread and oat cereal for all of us in the canteen. The cooked cereal was tasteless, but quite useful, in that each portion had a hole in the middle which held a spoonful of oil as seasoning. Out of this we made a soup, made tasty with the oil and this, plus a piece of bread, helped us to survive until summer.
During the very short but very warm summer conditions improved because there were loads of different berries, which were later followed by mushrooms. These treasures we collected. We ate them fresh and dried them for winter, which began here at the end of September. This part of the year was very pleasant but, because of the white nights, particularly tiring to the working people. Though tired the people couldn’t sleep; the bed bugs in the barracks continued to bite, so many slept outside close to the river.
In the barracks we had two bunk beds: my parents slept on the lower one and we three on the upper. Next to us, from osada Rokitnianka, was Mr Zgraja and his family of three children: kazik, Ela, Danka and from osada Szwoleżerów, the Wisniewskis, also with three children: Irena, Henryk and Ludmiła. There was also Mr and Mrs Mróz, with their daughter Krysia and Mr Mróz’s mother and the families Lipiński. Makowski. Wątroba with three children, from osada Szwoleźerów: their names were Tadek, Janka (who, after drudgery in the forest, wrote poetry) and Stefka. There was also a neighbour from Rokitnianka, Mrs Dobek, and her three children: Władzia, Miecio and Niusia; another family from the same osada were the Pacioreks, again with three children: Tadek, Marysia and Stefcio. Other families included: the Krawczuks, Jóźwiaks and Mazurs with a few orphaned children, whose mother had died of pneumonia. On the other side of the hut were Mt and Mrs Osiak, the Długoszes and their daughter Zosia, the Skokowskis from Rokitnianka, with their six children: Wiktor, Albin, Dolek, Gutek, Józio and Fela; from osada Szwoleźerów Mrs Szałaśna, with her daughter Felunia, and the Puc family.
I often wrote to Bronek who stayed with an uncle near Ołyka in Volhynia and to my father’s family in Warsaw.
1941 arrived and with it the amnesty. All the people were delirious with joy for they were free and would be returning home. But in fact return to Poland was impossible, because the German-Soviet war blocked the way. Our choice was staying put or leaving for southern Russia. Having made the decision that we would all go south to where a Polish army was being formed, the only remaining question was how. As part of the journey had to be on water, our fathers came up with the brilliant idea of building rafts. Together, my father and Mr Zgraja built a huge raft. We packed what remained of our possessions, the majority of it having been sold. Altogether, this amounted to a bit of bedding, the clothes we stood up in and a few cooking pots. Our greatest treasure was a sack of dried bread, dried mushrooms and dried potatoes. Thus equipped, on 1 November 1941, with Mr Zgraja and his family, we set off for Kotlas. It was very frosty and snow had been falling for the past few weeks. After two days on the raft, the next part of our way lay through the forest. We took, from the raft, a little sledge, which my father had made in the posiolek. Father tied round his waist the rope which was attached to the sledge and so we moved on, with him leading and mama and us walking behind.
Father had a diagram map, provided by the posiolek Commandant and those Russians who worked in the forest and were well disposed towards Poles. It was planned in such a way, that every night we reached some kind of village where, tired by the journey and cold, we requested lodging. People were compassionate and always accepted us and shared their meager meals. At this time, villages mainly contained old women, a few old men and children. All the young men had been dispatched either to the front or, if girls, to digging the tranches.
On the third night of our journey, we reached an important point, a small wooden hut, which housed the offices of a prison camp. The office workers were prisoners themselves. They were envious that we were now free, while they still had, stretching before them, long years of separation from their families. They were intelligent, kind-hearted people. They accepted us for the night but, because there was little room, only the women and children slept indoors, sitting on benches, while the men dozed outside, around a blazing fire. We left here for Kotlas, using a hired lorry but, because of the resounding frost, the lorry broke down. The driver’s cursing in no way helped and it was the following morning before we got help from a passing truck, which took us to a village near the River Dvina.
That night we were made welcome by a pleasant old lady who had four sons at the front. She put on the samovar and baked potatoes.
Next day, although priority was given to those people going either to the army or to the front, we did manage to cross the Dvina by boat. After reaching the other side, we walked along the river bank, only to have Tadzio fall through a hole in the ice. On hearing him scream, father rushed back and dragged him out but, within moments, all his clothing froze. We stumbled along to a school building, where there was a mass of people. Somehow or other we squeezed inside and after a while Tadzio thawed out. He just sat, hunched up, everything he wore steaming, but he was completely dry by the following morning. They say that this world contains no miracles, but I am sure they do exist – my proof being, after such an experience, Tadzio remained perfectly healthy, with no sign of a cold.
The Dvina froze during the night and people lit fires outside, in order to cook. Mother cooked our first meal for days – broth, with mushrooms and rusks of bread. How good it tasted! We managed to negotiate transport to go on further – a train, with wagons and fitted with bunk beds, but this time with the big difference of there being no guards.
At the start, people had their own provisions but, as these dwindled, the situation became more and more serious and especially as the journey went on and on. When the train stopped in towns, many disembarked to buy whatever was possible, but those with small children and without money went along the passenger trains to beg and nearly always returned with bread or other things to eat.
We never knew when the train would move off. The engine driver lacked all humanity and always set off without warning – maybe he did it on purpose? Mother was left in Chelyabinsk; a terrible experience for us! She caught up with us two weeks later crawling with lice. Conditions in the train had a very coarsening effect on the behaviour of some people. Many quarrels and disputes erupted as the hunger pinched us more and more. People grew sick and died. At almost every stations were taken from the wagons.
We were completely ignorant as to where they planned to take us. We passed Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent and reached Guzar, where we were told to disembark. We were taken along mountain passes on donkeys led by Uzbeks who knew no Russian, until we reached a place with a few mud huts. One hut served two families – we were with the Pacioreks. We arrived at this spot on Christmas Eve 1942. For a little while at the start we were given 400 grams of barley and mouldy millet, but then even this was stopped. In time, the Uzbeks got accustomed to us, especially the Uzbek women, and so father received some flour in exchange for some silver coins out of which they made necklaces.
We were incredibly hungry and it wasn’t long before three of us had night-blindness. Each night seemed interminably long and dark for us and we always dreamed the same dream – lots of loaves and bread Rolls. We overcame the night-blindess wheb father procured a piece of liver, which the Uzbeks had thrown for the dogs. After boiling it, we sat with our heads covered, over the steaming pot and that way cured our eyes. Then we ate a piece of liver and the Paciorek children also underwent this treatment. From then on night-blindness disappeared.
Soon in Dekanabat a Polish Centre and orphanage were opened and in Guzar the military panel decided that, because of his poor health, my father was unsuitable for military service. However, all children were accepted into orphanage. The idea was to get as many children as possible out of Russia. So we were handed over to the orphanage, where, to start with, all our hair was shaven off. Weak children suffered from typhoid, dysentery and other illnesses and many died. Sick children were placed in isolation. The only medicine available was a jar full of ground charcoal, which stood on the table and of which we took a teaspoonful with water. The three of us were soon desperately ill.
Then we were moved to Guzar where we awaited the make-up of transport. We travelled to Krasnovodsk by train and were put on a boat full of Polish soldiers. We sat silently on deck and, petrified, watched the diminishing shore, until it disappeared completely. Indescribable joy! The Good Lord had delivered us fron the inhuman land; it was August 1942 and we were sailing to Persia.
Mat shelters and showers awaited us in Persia. As we passed through to the other side of the hut, we were given a towel and a nightdress and, thus attired, we entered the Free World! Medical examinations and treatment followed.
Our parents also escaped from Russia. We were taken to Tehran and spent Christmas 1942 together. From there we went to Ahvaz and a three week journey to Karachi. Then came the day when we sailed to Africa and in March 1943 reached the shore of the Black Continent – Port Beira in Mozambique. Our stay in the African bush was at B’wana M’Kubwa settlement, not far from the town of N’dola, in Northern Rhodesia. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and we lived in little huts, thatched with grass. To start off with, we had lots of talks about life in Africa. As time passed, we grew accustomed to everything, except for the constantly present malaria.
Life in the settlement gained some sort of order very quickly. Work in the kitchens and bakery was available, policing organised, a junior school set up, tailors’ shops opened and, most importantly of all, we had a temporary church where, on Sundays and holy days Mass was said by our parish priest, Father Staroborski. We received ten shillings a week as spending money. In 1944 a girls’ grammar school was opened in Diggleford, and one for boys, in Livingstone. After completing the first form, the three of us were transferred to the newly opened grammar school in Lusaka. The headmaster was Józef Jarzyński, to be followed later by the deacon, Father Franciszek Dziduszko.
A Marian Sodality was formed and scoutmaster Z.Słowikowski took care of scouting. I gained my grammar school certificate and passed through the first class of the Higher Certificate.
At long last, the war came to an end and father had no wish to return to Poland, so there was only one option: Australia. Then we received a letter, via the Red Cross, from Bronek, who had remained in Volhynia, but was in Italy and seeking us. So came a change of plan – we were bound for Great Britain. Towards the end of May1948 we reached the shores of England. Here, a new life began for me.
Bronislaw Turzyński, Italy May 1946
Pupils of the 1st Form of Diggleford Grammar School
Girl guide group from Lusaka Grammar School
Colour party of scouts, Lusaka
Friends from the boarding house. Lodzia on the left.
We three on a vacation with our parents in B'wana M'Kubwa, 1946
© Kresy Family
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