S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
Name: T Sobierajski
Osada Chylin, District Stolin
The long school summer holiday of 1939 had just ended and I, aged 14, was due to return to Pińsk to start my second year of grammar school. With a heavy heart, I left behind my family, my favourite lake, river and the sprawling hilly forest where I had taken my first hesitant steps. That was the military osada of Chylin in the district of Stolin in Polesie where, besides my own family, had settled those of Jaworski, Staniaszek, Opiłko, Pukacz, Tomczynski, Milczarek, Woźniak, Pietraszek and Stroka. There were also families related to these who had arrived later. Among these were the Danielewski family, my father’s sister and my auntie.
That year Pińsk and its grammar school had changed like everything else. The town was plastered with large red posters, the pupils’ hostel in which I’d previously lodged was closed, while in the school itself there was confusion and overcrowding with few people knowing what was going on so that it was with utter delight I returned home for the Christmas vacation, looking forward to seeing my parents and my three sisters: Lucia the eldest; Jasia who was a few years my junior; and Jagoda the youngest who was only three. These were not amongst the happiest holidays I remember because of the fear and threat we all felt around us. Nevertheless, despite these uncertainties, I returned to Pińsk.
It was close to the end of February 1940 when I decided that I had to go to find out why I hadn’t had a letter from home for quite some time. The train I caught was in a shabby, decrepit state with broken windows causing howling draughts, and with dirt in evidence everywhere. As we approached the station at Udryck, I stood by the door ready to alight but the train didn’t even slow down, never mind actually stop. There was only one thing to do: I opened the door, threw out my small handgrip and, choosing a snowdrift, jumped. That drift was particularly deep, so, having struggled free from the snow, I set off for the osada, three kilometres away.
It was incredibly cold, so I hurried to the nearest farm hoping for a chance to get warm. Even from a distance it struck me that its windows were frozen and that no smoke was issuing from the chimneys; moreover, both the neighbouring farmsteads were in exactly the same state. Taken aback by this, I began walking more briskly and, having reached the top of a small hill, saw my home – smoke was rising from its chimney. Now, all but running, I passed the copse then the little bridge where I turned right and was home in the next fifty steps. I flung open the door and … stood rooted to the spot. There, before my eyes, strangers were sitting around our kitchen table on which stood an oven dish full of scrambled eggs. A moment or two slipped by before a man stood up and spoke. I recognised him as one of the osada’s farmhands. He said that all the military settlers had been deported to an unknown destination during the night of 10 February but my auntie had been allowed to remain. My eyes brimming with tears I looked round the kitchen in which we’d often sat as a family, then stepped outside closing the door behind me.
I spent the next few days with auntie but, one morning a militiaman turned up who, promising that he would reunite me with my own family, took me to the nearby town of Wysock. From there, under escort, I was taken by train to Równe and led into a large synagogue which was almost full of people, the majority of whom were women and children. By a table close to the entrance sat a sheepskin-clad Soviet soldier who wore a strange pointed cap and held a rifle fixed with a long thin bayonet. Each day more people arrived – mainly members of families who had been absent from their homes during that unforgettable night. When there was enough of us, lorries appeared and, under military escort, we were transferred to the railway station. We were loaded onto adapted cattle trucks with wooden bunks on both sides of the door, an iron stove in the centre and with a hole cut into the floor to serve as a toilet. The wagon’s small window was boarded over with barbed wire strung across that. Fifty people were squashed into that wagon. With great difficulty, the doors were forced together and then this coffin set off on its journey east.
We travelled for over two weeks through Kiev, Moscow and Gorky until we reached the station of Sukhobezvodnaya. Here, we pulled into a siding and the doors were opened. We were given to understand that this was the end of our rail journey and realised that it would be something of a miracle if we could all find our families here. Before long we were taken to smaller wagons pulled by a locomotive with an unusually tall and wide smokestack and, in this, we moved to the nearby forests. From time to time, on the way, we caught sight of some buildings. Only when we came to a halt did we fully appreciate what they were. Now before us stood a grim outlook: Forest Centre No. 5 erected in a clearing at the termination of the line.
From the wagon, we looked out in terror at a tall wooden fence surrounding a squared-off area with an observation tower at each corner. The palisade itself was formed from sharp-pointed posts each three metres in height. This wall on which we gazed seemed to be of recent construction and had an open gate at its centre through which people were coming to meet us. From them, we learned that none of us had any family here. It is very difficult to describe just how disappointingly sad was that moment, so much so that even the adults couldn’t prevent themselves from crying.
I think this was possibly the end of March. The snow was still everywhere. With insatiable curiosity, I wanted to discover just what made up this prison. Near the rail line I came across a saw mill operated by a very ancient steam engine. There, I met a number of boys of my own age who had undergone ordeals similar to my own. The majority of them still wore their school uniform. Amongst ourselves, despite the extraordinary situation, we tried to behave as would any group of boys of that age. We never had any money nor enough food but lacked most of all that care and guidance available only from parents.
We all had lice. We all kept our caps on, ashamed to show our vermin-infested hair. One day, I decided to do something about it. As the weather was warmer, I stepped into a nearby small brook, took all my clothes off and weighted them down under water with stones. An hour or two later I retrieved them; it had made no difference, the lice were still alive!
I wrote a letter to my auntie, to which some time later I received a reply containing my parents’ address as they had also written to her from a posiołek near Kotlas. From that moment, at any opportunity, I’d visit the commandant requesting that he reunite me with my family.
In September, I ‘celebrated’ my birthday. Autumn was already in evidence when what I most desired became a fact. A handful of us received permission to travel to Archangel from where we could reach Kotlas, and then disperse to join our individual families in different posiołeks. By the time we reached Archangel, the snows were already falling. From the station, we went to a large port building from where, after a long wait, we managed to secure places on the steamboat which sailed along the River Dvina to Kotlas. The day we cast off, it snowed very heavily and ice-floes appeared on the river. After a few days, the boat could sail no further and our journey by water came to an end. We stepped ashore and by night were transferred to the industrial posiołek complex serving the Vinogradov region. There, I first worked in the brickworks and, later, was employed weaving baskets. It was also here that I lived or, in reality, cried through Christmas.
I prepared myself to await the Spring before starting my interrupted river journey all over again. But then, much to my surprise, I learned that our group was being made ready to complete the journey on foot. This filled me with apprehension for my clothing was not only the same material in which I’d started out but, by now, was worn out in places. Even worse was the condition of my shoes which were falling to bits. But what alternative did I have? I certainly didn’t want to remain in this place all alone. It was January 1941; the snow crunched underfoot and so sharp was the frost that one had to cover one’s nose and mouth just to breathe. We possessed one small sledge which carried our things while we ourselves trudged along from one village to the next. We slept with the Russians in their houses and these folk were very friendly towards us. They always provided something to eat. In most cases this was jacket potatoes with pickled gherkins. Once I was even offered a drop of samogonka (home-distilled vodka).
I usually walked at the rear. After a few days, I felt that I was running a temperature; I noticed that I’d lost the soles of my shoes and that my toes were numb with frost. Next morning, I found some rags and a length of string with which I bound my feet as well as I could. This kept me warmer but walking proved difficult and my temperature remained high. I was almost unconscious by the time we reached the train. It was only later that I learned that my life had been saved by strangers whose names I don’t know. When finally I was strong enough to go on, I wished farewell to those who had cared for me and we rode into Kotlas on Post Office sledges. That night, I slept in a militia building before going on the next day travelling on the same sledges to posiołek Vitunino where my family lived. Nobody was expecting me. Once in Vitunino, trembling with excitement, my mind abuzz with all manner of thoughts, I got off the sledge and asked for the Sobierajski family. ‘Sure’ came the reply. ‘They live over there in that hut at the end - first door on the right’. I ran up the slope and down the other side, fell into the snow, picked myself up and finally reached the door which opened into a long corridor. Gingerly, I pushed open the door on the right, stepped inside and nothing … nobody even glanced in my direction; nobody gave one jot of notice to this boy who had entered and stood, his eyes welling with tears. For a long moment I stared at mummy seated on a bunk bed alongside Jasia and Jagoda and at daddy and Lucia who were getting ready for work, until eventually somebody shouted ‘Tolek’. That was my younger sister, Jasia. Even now, when I recall that moment, my heart skips a beat.
Posiołek Vitunino was situated on a high bank of the River Vyled and was connected by a wooden bridge to the other side where, during Winter, wood was piled up.
The barracks where we lived had rooms each side of long central corridors. Each room had a brick stove for heating and cooking. Along the walls were bunk beds on which people sat, slept and ate. These rooms were never more spacious than six x four metres and, on average, each was shared by three families. With us, for example, lived the Tomczynski and Jaworski families.
The majority of deportees, of whom there more than 1,000, worked as tree fellers for very poor money and even poorer food which, as time passed by, was less and less often supplemented by provisions brought from Poland.
In 1941, before the arrival of Autumn, by some means or other, news spread of the outbreak of hostilities between the Germans and the Soviets and, soon after, it must have been in September, there occurred that for which we had constantly prayed to God. The commandant informed us that we were free and, should we so desire, could travel to Uzbekistan where a Polish army was being formed. The happiness was overwhelming but it was very difficult to decide what was best to do next. Some wanted to move off straight away while others counselled that we should spend the Winter in the posiołek and move the following Spring. Our room decided that we should set off as soon as we had built a raft on which to sail to Kotlas and then take a train south. Most came to the same decision. A good few days passed by before the first raft appeared on the river. As we sailed off, we promised each other to meet up in Kotlas. The journey – with many alarms – took over a week but the majority reached their destination.
We hired a goods wagon using the money gained from the sale of different possessions, and set off south. The journey and gnawing hunger proved very strenuous and only the hope of escaping this domain of hell kept up our determined spirits.
We arrived in Tashkent. There, to our great joy, we saw Polish four-cornered caps – our own soldiers. Our elation was soon cut short because there so very many of us in the same situation. The newly-formed Polish organisation was incapable of coping with these thousands of freed deportees. Our wagon, with others, were sent on further south through Samarkand and were unloaded on the banks of the River Amu-Darya. In the course of time, a steamboat pulling three iron barges appeared on the horizon – once again we were travelling by water ignorant as to where to or for what reason. The days were very hot, so we were very grateful when, at long last, we could emerge from these metal cages while the steamship hauled to by a sand bank. There, new transport awaited us: two-wheeled carts pulled by donkeys, oxen or camels. We jolted along the field tracks through villages where some of the families were put down. Eventually, our turn arrived. We stopped by an old barn, its roof and walls riddled with holes. Cotton plants grew all around. Our work from early morning till late at night was extracting the soft ball of cotton from its hard razor-edged husk. Only mummy did not work. She sat motionless on the beaten earth floor, her eyes deeply sunk in her head and simply desirous of rest.
But, unfortunately, none of us achieved any rest. Before long, we were once more on the move. By the same transport, we returned to the same river and in the same barges sailed back to the same place from which not long before we’d sailed in the opposite direction. Right there on the banks of this vast river we went through a period little better than a term in hell. The nights were bitterly cold, we had no means of lighting a fire and we also suffered from terrible hunger. Whatever we’d once had, we’d already used and, in this place, it was impossible to buy or exchange anything from or with anybody. Very often, the only food was grass and, if it contained a worm, so much the better. This appalling situation came to a head when were again sent out to many different collective farms where we lived in kibitki – sheds made out of clay and probably intended for livestock.
There was neither work nor food but, worst of all, was the feeling that none would ever find us here. Such were our conditions for Christmas 1941. Not long after that, I took heed of some advice and said goodbye to my family – and particularly so in the case of mummy who died there. I left our shed and eventually reached Guzar where, close to the river, stood a vast army camp with a large number of tents, pitched above the cracks in the ground. That camp increased in size daily. A few weeks later, we were moved to another camp in Vrevsk. Here, not far from the railway line, we lived in barracks built among the trees and this is where I and many others contracted typhoid. As there was no hospital, we lay in isolation in the barracks, being cared for by Polish mothers who did all they could do to help our recovery.
On our return to the camp, we were issued with English uniforms but with forage caps displaying the eagle. We began to take on the appearance of people and faint smiles started to light up our faces. These rapidly vanished whenever thoughts of our families flitted across our minds.
How and when I don’t remember, but for us it was a wonderous miracle that we were to quit this damned land to which for centuries our compatriots had been sent as slaves and where their millions of sacrifices lay in millions of graves.
From Krasnovodsk, we sailed across the Caspian Sea and landed in Pahlevi. It was only when we were here that we felt free and knew with absolute assurance that nobody could take us back. That never-to-be-forgotten day was 23 March 1942. Here, thanks to the English, we at long last rid ourselves of lice, underwent medical examinations and were offered food that actually had a taste – then, once more, we were on the road.
We travelled by lorry through the mountains to the airport near Tehran. Here, we were housed in hangars where we spent Easter eating boiled eggs and Polish sausage. There, I also had a bitter-sweet experience. Somebody told me that they had seen my surname posted in a nearby orphanage so I went there suffused with apprehensive hope since, alongside it, there was the girl’s name ‘Jagoda’. It was indeed my sister, but she did not recognise me. I wept like a child.
We left Tehran in military vehicles and drove through Baghdad and the Syrian desert up to Palestine and the Buhshit camp near Gedera. There, we were sorted according to age and education, divided into platoons and companies and, as cadets, transferred to the nearby Quastina camp. Here at long last, we experienced comfort, care and an awareness that we mattered and were needed.
I was assigned to the 5th Company, that of the oldest ones, commanded by Captain Borytan who initially was our educator but also so very much a father to us so that, when he left us, he stood by the door and gave each one of us an individual hug as we passed him. His successor was Captain Bardzik, aided by Sergeant Wilczewski who, from the moment of their arrival, imposed an iron discipline so that the school which up to then we had treated with slight regard, assumed an air of importance and we began to learn. With a fair degree of ceremony, we celebrated our graduation from the junior to the full cadets. To distinguish us from other establishments, we were provided with navy blue epaulettes edged with gold and bearing a badge made up of the letters JSK (Junior School of Cadets). We were also issued with rifles and started different sorts of training and drill. We marched like clockwork soldiers, especially when instructed by Wilczewski, known to us as Lupus.
I think human nature requires youth to have its fling. That’s what happened to us as we tried to make up for the two years lost in Russia. No matter how strict the discipline, it couldn’t snuff out our indulging in constant tricks and practical jokes aimed mainly at our superiors, especially our instructors, who often began lessons with a full class and finished with none. We travelled throughout Palestine because transport was readily available and free.
Towards the end of 1942, I discovered that my sister Lucia was close by in the camp of the Women Volunteers. Until she left on a drivers’ course, we happily met up with each other. Being in the Holy Land, we visited its historic sites. There, were organised excursions with the companies and a guide. Who would have thought it possible that I would spend two Christmases and two Easters in this land? I even stood guard at Christ’s Sepulchre over Easter 1944.
Soon, a decision was made to move us to Camp Barbara. To help us in school ‘military mothers’ were appointed, amongst them my future mother-in-law. Each company had its own dining room where our ‘mothers’ prepared meals as often as not with Polish desserts (doughnuts, deep-fried pastry, pancakes and such like).
As the end of the school year of 1944 approached, marked by the swatting for our secondary school certificates, we were informed that, once the examinations were concluded, those cadets born after 1926 would leave for the Air Force in England.
It was typical English weather with fog and rain with which we were greeted as we landed in Liverpool. We passed straight through there to go by train to Blackpool. Since there was no camp there, we were allocated to those hotels and boarding houses in which the English normally passed their holidays. For a limited period, we really enjoyed ourselves. Then began the selection to our jobs either as aircrew or ground staff – and not everybody could be a pilot. I was sent as part of a group to Locking, an airbase near Bristol, where I commenced training as an air-gunner, completing this in Scotland at Dalcross near Inverness. We received our ‘wings’ as we flew in Wellington bombers and were almost ready for operational flying. Before it came to that ,we went on leave to London and that’s where the end of the war found us.
For many people, these were days brimming with joy. For us, this same happiness was hollow because the state Poland found herself in was far from that of which we’d dreamed and had prepared ourselves to fight for. It was reshaped minus Wilno, Pińsk and Lwów as that same Stalin from whom we’d escaped banged his heavy fist on her. How could my family or I, even for a second, consider returning to my homeland? After all, even our place of birth was no longer in Poland. That territory was now part of the Soviet Union, a name which then, now and for ever will remain … I don’t really have a word for it.
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