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4. Life in the camps in Siberia
by Danuta Mączka Gradosielska
My Father went to see Helena in Kotlas so we were left on our own for a week. Helena was very weak but better and they were both very tired after their journey. I was terribly upset on hearing that someone had robbed my Father in Kotlas as he stood in the canteen queue - he lost all his money. What was even worse was that some friends had given my Father money for shopping. Father worked hard to earn the money to repay them.
Here, I celebrated my 15th birthday and a few days later it was Easter. We managed to buy one egg, we missed having a priest present but, with a little drop of holy water I had from home, my Father blessed that egg, cut it into minute pieces, said a prayer and shared it amongst us. We prayed to God and the Holy Mother of Czestochowa asking for a change in our lives. Our faith gave us hope, to never give up.
That day we were moved to another camp, “Stacja Molodyk” ("The Station of Youth”), which turned out to be a better place. We had a smaller hut, shared by three families, 16 persons. As we now had a family bunk-bed, we no longer had to sleep on the floor. I had to start work since I had turned 15. We girls had to clear snow from the railway line. I worked all day, my hands and back ached. I was paid 3 roubles - my first-earned money. Later, I worked in the forest, removing branches from felled trees. It was a very cold winter with temperatures around -40oC, I had frostbite on my toes. On my day off, I went for a walk with a group of friends and discovered violets, which reminded me of the small forest on my osada - my eyes filled with tears.
Moving camps again - Monastyrok
There was a sawmill (birza tartak) outside the camp and we now worked with timber (which we had cut at the last camp) brought from the forest to this mill. There was an electric generator, which powered the woodcutting machines (and also made it possible for us to have electric lights). The men cut railway sleepers or building materials, while our brigade of seven girls stripped the bark and then cut the logs into blocks for the power plant and pit-supports.
There were 92 families, roughly 600 people at the camp. Each family had separate quarters in the barracks. My family had a large room with two bunk beds, a separate small kitchen and beneath, a tiny cellar. We collected hay for mattresses; luckily, we had taken down quilts and pillows with us from Poland. Young children went to the local school; the older ones worked. Mother had poor eyesight, so didn’t work; she took care of the hut and did her best to provide us with food.
Those who did not work, did not get a bread ration. The canteen served a soup of boiled water with either fish heads called “ucha” or pieces of cabbage called “szczi”. There were also oil-fried pancakes but these were too expensive for our pockets. Workers were paid a small sum of money and had to buy their own food to cook, but this was mostly too expensive, so we had to live on what we could find in the forest or grow ourselves. We were always hungry, many people died of starvation, as well as of the extreme temperatures, illnesses and hard work.
My sister Zosia and my brother Tadzio were attending a local school. They reported that the teacher asked them if they believed in God. Only the Polish children raised their hands. The teacher then asked them to pray for bread. After a short wait, the teacher said “no bread, no God”.
“Who believes in Stalin?” The Russian children raised their hands. The teacher asked them to pray to Stalin for bread. Immediately a woman entered the classroom carrying a tray with slices of bread, given only to the children who had prayed to Stalin - in this way, they learnt about the advantages of the communist system!
A tragic time for the family
The camp Commandant treated us relatively well. People worked either on the collective farm, in the saw-mill or in the forest.
On days off from work, in the summer and autumn, I was allowed a pass to go into the forest to collect berries and mushrooms. Below our window, we had a small plot of soil where in the middle of June we planted potatoes, onions, cucumber and beans. Due to the long hours of daylight, by the 20 August, we were eating new potatoes from our small plot! People were starving and sick; many died, some families were completely wiped out, especially those with small children. People with farming backgrounds, like my family, managed a bit better. As long as we had work to do, time passed fairly quickly.
In October, Tadzio broke his leg at school and ended up in the hospital in Kotlas and, later, Zosia was in bed with flu. We were very happy when we received a parcel from our grandmother in Poland - especially since it contained “opłatek” (Christmas wafers), honey, sugar, biscuits and vegetable seeds - in the spring, Helena would sow the seeds in our garden to provide the vitamins we so badly needed.
Towards the end of our time in Monastyrok, Father managed to buy a cow (the best one) that had a calf. So, for a while, we had meat, milk and butter. I had had sores on my arms and legs caused by vitamin deficiency which soon got better with the improvement in our diet.
Danuta's Diary + route map
1. History of Kresy
3. Deportation to Siberia
5. The "Amnesty"
6. Joining the Army in southern Russia
7. Evacuation to Persia
9. The Italian Campaign
10. Post-war life
On 15 April 1940 we and a few other families were moved to a new place, Monastyrok. The enormous gate at the camp entrance frightened me. It was surrounded by a tall wooden stockade with guard towers at its corners. It looked like a prison; however, I soon discovered that the towers contained no guards and the gate was only locked at night.
This camp was close to Priwodino on the River Dwina, just south of Kotlas. The name of the “posiolek” came from the Orthodox Church, and was now used as a storeroom, canteen and shop.
But on Christmas Eve 1940, I was far from happy: for the last two weeks Zosia had been in the hospital in Priwodino. I was going with Father to share “opłatek” with her. It was 15.30. When the nurse saw us she said “Zosia is already covered”. I had no idea what she meant, but my Father started crying. I had never seen him like this before, with huge tears rolling down his cheeks. When the sheet was lifted I saw Zosia’s pale face and realised what had happened and then I also started to cry. We were told that Zosia had died at 14.45 – if only we had arrived a little earlier!
My Father took her home with us and made a coffin for her. Christmas Day was very sad for us. We gave Zosia a simple funeral. My Father himself (with tears in his eyes) buried her in the fir forest, in the cemetery at Monastyrok. Poor Zosia, she only lived to be 14 years old.
After almost three weeks of a nightmare journey, we arrived at Kotlas in the Archangelsk Oblast.
After sleigh rides, long walks in a huge snowstorm, temperatures of -40oC, then a train ride on the narrow gauge railway, we arrived at our first camp – Kotowalsk on 1 March 1940. About 200 people were packed into one large barrack. It was very stuffy but we couldn’t have the door open, as there was a snowstorm blowing outside. The old people and the children were going down with illnesses and there was no doctor.
The camp commandant announced, “All men must go to work”. They were given saws and axes to work in the forest. They were paid for their work in roubles.