The Bitner-Glindzicz family travelled for more than three weeks from Station 91 on the Akmolinsk–Kartaly Railway where they had been assigned to work as labourers. They reached Guzar in March 1942. This is Ryszard’s story.
Shortly after moving into the mud hut, we realized that we were not very far from the tents of a detachment of the Polish Army, a transport company that had never been supplied with as much as a single vehicle. The big army field kitchen became a magnet for us boys. One day, shortly after our arrival, as we were lounging around the area as usual, a sergeant came up to us and asked if we were Poles. He wanted to know how many people were in our group. When we told him, he said, “listen, you boys come over here at meal times and we’ll serve you first. Then you can take away some smaller portions for your folks. I know that the Russians give small, miserable portions and they don’t even like doing that.“ We did as the sergeant suggested and for the remainder of our stay there we were fed from the soldiers’ meagre rations and none of them ever complained or showed any resentment but, on the contrary, they looked after us and were always welcoming, friendly and helpful [i].
Rumours were rife regarding the move of military personnel to the Middle East and the soldiers advised us to stay where we were and to refuse to go to any outlying village or collective. They promised to get us out at the first opportunity.
Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of our temporary accommodation, the women were able to barter with the local Uzbeks for their home-baked bread, which had similarities with the Indian naan bread, except that the Uzbek bread was made with yeast. It was about an inch thick and twelve inches in diameter. It was such excellent bread, tasty and substantial.
Within a few days of our arrival in Guzar, Krystyna found herself a job as a nurse in a hospital. She had some previous experience and training in Poland but was unable to keep the post because of ill health due to severe and debilitating migraines. However, here in Guzar, the authorities were hard-pressed to obtain the necessary trained personnel to cope with the widespread typhus, dysentery and malaria epidemics. The situation was exacerbated by the daily arrival of people from north and central Russia. The newcomers were in a poor physical state due to being half-starved and having been subjected to unremitting and often brutal physical labour. Some had to work under inhuman conditions, much harsher than anything our group had endured although these had been bad enough. The field hospitals were overflowing with patients and so many civilians and army personnel were dying. Our rented hut was situated on the main exit road from Guzar to the outlying villages. Day after awful day, I would watch the funeral processions headed by a Polish military band and followed by a platoon with full arms. In their wake, came the pitiful trail of horses and carts trudging wearily past our hut, and stacked high on the carts would be the pathetic pile of dead bodies on their way to the cemetery. The corpses were covered with thick bed sheets that sometimes were not secured properly, and always there were so many bodies [ii].
These daily processions of death shook me to the very core of my being. Despite all that had happened over the past couple of years, I had felt secure enough in the care of my mother and Amcia, and I was surrounded by other families just like ourselves. Of course I was hungry all the time, but so was everyone around me. We were all in the same boat. My main preoccupation usually centered on whether the bigger boys would let me go around with them. But now, here in Guzar, in March 1942, every day I was being made to witness something very terrible. The spectacle of death filled me with such a deep sadness, and even dread, as I watched the unceasing mountain of corpses passing our door. I was eight years old and just beginning to appreciate what death was. One occasion above all others was particularly gruesome. I was there by the door of our hut, as three horse and carts trudged by on the way to their mass grave, the bodies as usual stacked high, one on top of the other. Again there were no coffins, just the thick bed sheets. As I stood there, transfixed in the doorway, the carts rumbled unsteadily over the rough, unpaved road. One body slipped and a solitary and pitiful dangling leg was exposed. I was completely overcome with horror at the sight, and this is the picture of death that is forever imprinted on my mind.
People came from all over Russia to join the various Polish army units under General Anders. They were always debriefed on arrival at a particular unit. The place and date of their deportation and the destinations were noted for the records, as were details of other people whom they had travelled with or met, while living in Russia. This information was communicated to every Polish unit in Southern Russia where Polish people were congregating. It was on looking through these records in Guzar that my mother saw that her younger brother Stanislaw Grochowski, Second Lieutenant 1} 21120ppor.2.bn.KW (Cross of Valour) of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, 2nd Rifle Brigade and veteran of the Soviet-Polish War of 1919-1921 died from typhus in Kitabe, Uzbekistan. He had died in a place only about 50 miles away from where we were staying. Stanislaw was the uncle who had lived with us at Kwatery for a year, learning from my father how to run an estate efficiently. He is one of the few males in our family that we know how he met his death. Later, we learned that Stanislaw had helped our distant cousin Janina Raciborska and her daughter leave Kazakhstan for the Middle East. My grandfather, my mother’s father, Stanislaw Grochowski [iii] was arrested together with his youngest son Julian. They were imprisoned in Ostroleka prison, never to be heard of again. We never found out how they met their deaths, or where they were buried. My mother’s other brother, Roman, was a major in 3rd Carpathian Rifles KW (Cross of Valour). He died in 1939 somewhere at the front fighting against Nazi Germany. In this war, every single one of the adult male members of my family was killed.
One evening, mother returned from town and announced that the Polish Army was being evacuated to Persia. The first of two phases of the evacuation was to start the following morning, and the second would be sometime later. Everyone in the house quickly reached a decision that we would go to the station the next morning although mother had not been able to register us for this first evacuation as she had been told officially that no civilians were to go on this particular move. Transport for this first stage was strictly limited to army personnel only, according to the authorities that is. However, we decided we would take our chances and would present ourselves at the station the next morning and try our very best to board the trains with the Polish Army. Mother then set about arranging the hire of a horse and cart from the local Uzbeks to carry us and our possessions. These had greatly diminished in any case. Those things we could not take with us, we sold for money or food, mostly bread and dates.The belongings that we were taking with us were loaded onto the cart, and, once more in the middle of the night, we set off for the station which, like all the other Russian stations, was strategically-placed well outside the town.
The air was misty and dawn had just broken as we neared the station around 07.00. On reaching the brow of the last hill, we could see there below us, in the valley, stood a train. A few NKVD with rifles and bayonets were guarding it, and detachments of the Polish Army were loading it. We hurried the horse and, as soon as we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by two or three NKVD privates. We couldn’t see the NCO. They started shouting at us, “No, we are not boarding you. Get away! Get off with you!” Then, as if from nowhere, I remember five or six young men, wearing Polish Army uniforms, came up and completely ignored the NKVD men, despite their rifles and bayonets, and promptly proceeded to load our possessions on to the train. One of them swung me up in his arms; the other, further along the platform, took Janusz, and both of us were passed through the train windows to the occupants of the respective carriages. They told the two Letowski boys who were with us, to run to the train and get in. They then turned to the women and, in Polish, said, “Only take the stuff you really need. And walk, to the train, slowly. Do not run. Walk!”
[i] The Polish Army rations were cut by the Soviets from rations for 70k to 26k. This was then negotiated up to rations for 44k.
[ii] According to Michael Hope: Polish Deportees in Soviet Russia [Page 48], there were 120 Polish deaths a day in Guzar.
[iii] Stanisław Antoni Grochowski, Ryszard’s grandfather, is on the Belarussian Katyń List No. 224