Their home “Kwatery” was in the hands of the Germans since early September and their father, Adolf, was arrested in Słonim while attempting to get the family further east.
Eventually, we ended up at some big railway sidings. I remember how dank was the morning air, and how overcast the sky as dawn was just breaking. The whole atmosphere was foggy and chilling even if there was no actual frost. There was something unreal about it all. We drew up alongside a line of railway cattle trucks; the engine of the train was already under steam and we six families were roughly loaded onto a wagon that already seemed full to overflowing. ‘How could all of us fit into that’? I wondered. Inside, the truck had been roughly made to hold about 30 or so people. I thought there were more like 40 or even more, maybe 50, in our carriage. Our Soviet guards from Słonim travelled on the same train as we did, but presumably they would have had more comfortable living quarters than the crudely-adapted cattle wagons given to us deportees. We were driven away, and the profound significance of our departure was lost on me at the time.
Rough wooden partitions running horizontally the width of the wagon had been constructed on both sides of the entrance sliding doors. The arrangement was to provide sitting and sleeping space for the people. There were three or four men of about sixty, who slept and sat underneath the partition and were in almost permanent darkness, as there was no natural light. Most of the lower area was taken up with trunks, suitcases and big cloth bundles of clothing, held together by a knot tied in the cloth. The people above the partition had the doubtful luxury of two small windows covered with barbed wire. A large number of the families in the wagons were mothers, daughters and the young children of the intelligentsia. Some were landowners, or people who had participated in civic affairs, or who were overseers, or managers or agents - in fact, those who would be unlikely to convert to communism.
Both sides of the wagon had sliding doors, but those opposite the entrance were kept permanently locked and barred from the outside, a sort of travelling prison. Near to this set of doors, a hole had been cut in the floor from which a pipe ran straight outside to the ground. A bucket was placed over the hole and was used as a lavatory. The women organized a screen for the sake of modesty, but the screen only served as a partial cover so that the head of anyone using the lavatory was still visible. This whole arrangement was beyond awful, a terrible deprivation for many of the women. They had suffered so many losses already - sons, fathers, husbands, and now this latest loss of dignity was intolerable. They did not even know where they were supposed to be going. None of us did. Some of the older people, remembering the 1917 Russian Revolution, realized that they would not survive. Sometimes conditions that had to be endured became almost overpowering in that crowded wagon, and people would reach breaking point. Arguments would arise and accusations would be made about something that might seem quite trivial under different circumstances. Pilfering was a constant problem, mostly food as we were always hungry.
Twice a day, the train would stop and we were given three buckets of boiling water for tea or whatever. Twice a day, food was distributed, as one would give it to animals - from buckets. Usually, we were given cabbage soup, which was not too bad; of course, any food whatsoever was not too bad. Once a day, we had a supply of bread which was never enough but, if prudently managed, would just about hold body and soul together. Often, nerves would be stretched to the very limit, and I, like everyone else, tried to get used to feeling hungry all the time, every hour of every day. And always, the journey seemed to stretch before us, for ever and ever. Nevertheless, we must have travelled on that train with a particularly courageous group of people who made valiant efforts to dispel the misery and the very real fear. Sometimes, singing Polish songs dispelled the gloom and lifted our spirits for a time; at other times, readings from a Polish book someone had brought with them would help break through the despondency for a while. Evening prayers were also a source of great solace, for the women at any rate. At first, a couple of the men objected to the prayers but, after a few of the more determined ladies threatened these gentlemen with what I think looked something like a soup ladle, evening devotions became part of the daily routine. Those who did not wish to participate were advised to remove themselves to the far end of the wagon.
I don’t remember exactly, but I think the journey must have taken more than three weeks on that dark windowless train of utter wretchedness. I do not know the stations we passed through [i]. At one point, when we were already deep in Russia, our train was stopped at a station to give priority to the train ahead which was carrying troops and armaments to the West. Another train like ours, full of people, was stopped on the adjacent line and some in our train started shouting across and found out that these people had been deported from Kobryn which was about 30 miles from Słonim. Later, we learned that 320,000 Poles were deported to Soviet Russia in April 1940, most of them were sent to Kazakhstan to work in agriculture [ii].
It was around 3 May 1940 that we were told to disembark and unload our belongings, once again in railway sidings, some distance beyond Pieuchowo (changed to Petukhovo) Station. But, despite the hunger and everything that had been endured on the journey, I found it was simply glorious just to be outside the wagon on a lovely spring day and, for a change, breath fresh, clean air, and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin.
We were told that we were being sent to a “collective” called Kazanka, a small village about 50 miles away. While waiting for our transport to come and collect us, mother met up with the two families from Slonim: the Rudlickis and the Letowskis. We were so delighted; what a blessing and a real comfort that was to us. When our transport arrived, we all managed to get into the same lorry together and set off from Pieuchowo via Pressowska to a collective in Kazanka, north Kazakhstan. We were now over 3,000 kilometers from Kwatery and, although we didn’t know it then, we were never to return.
[i] Michal Giedroyc in ‘Crater’s Edge’ describes how he and his family were also deported from Słonim on 12-13 April 1940 at the same time as Ryszard’s family, and arrived at Petukhovo Station. His route, as did Ryszard’s, passed through Baranowicze, but Rys could not remember any other station until arrival at Petukhovo. Giedroyc recalls his train, which could have been the same one, went through Minsk, Borisov, Orsha, Smolensk, passing the little station of Katyń on 15 April, crossed the Volga near Kuibyshev, on to Kaluga, Tula, Penza, crossed the Urals, Chelyabinsk, Kurgan to arrive at Petukhov Station. In any case, this is the most likely route for Ryszard and family.
[ii] M Hope: Polish Deportees in the Soviet Union [Page 25]
“A Song For Kresy”
1 The Last Harvest Festival