This is a true story about the life of one of many thousands of Polish families taken from their homes, from their country and forcibly transported deep into the Siberian forest by the Soviets in February 1940.
CHAPTER 4 – Those who do not work, do not eat - LIFE IN SIBERIA
Ours was the first room on the left. It was about four yards wide and five yards long with a small window in the outside wall, with a partition wall on the right, part of which was cut out, and there stood a round cast iron stove. On the left, there were three-storey wooden bunk beds the full length of the room. I know it may be hard to believe, but there were three families, I think eighteen of us, squeezed into this room.
All the other rooms were just as basic. We worked out later that nearly a thousand of us were brought to the camp on that day. It was freezing cold so somebody got the fire going in the stove. That one stove was our heating and cooking facility for both rooms. I do not know whether we had anything to eat that evening, but eventually we got some water boiling so that we could have a hot drink.
Early next morning we were assembled together – women with small children were told to stay indoors, and the commandant made a little speech, telling us that we were brought here to work. He also told us that in the Soviet Union those who do not work do not eat.
Then all the men and older boys were divided into what the Soviets called brigades; each brigade having a different task. Some were issued with axes and wood saws, and their job was felling trees, clearing them of branches and cutting them to size. Others were given horses and had to drag felled trees out of the forest to a certain point by the machinery line.
My father was working with the loaders; theirs, I think, was the hardest job. They had to load those massive tree trunks onto the wagons. There were no cranes or other lifting tackle. Everything had to be done by brute force. Young lads like myself were given a shovel each. We had to keep the railway line clear of snow. There were a few more Russians in the camp, an administrative worker and also some who were sent to Siberia for criticising the Communist system. They were made overseers. We were told that we would be paid for the work we did, but they set production targets, and if we did not achieve these targets money was stopped.
Looking around we could see more buildings. There were two by the railway line, one was quite tall and housed a steam-driven water pump. The other one was a small sawmill powered by a steam engine. A little distance away there was a canteen and attached to it was a little kiosk where from time to time they had bread to sell.
Some weeks later my father was involved in an accident when a tree trunk rolled back trapping his leg, badly bruising it and he could not work for more than a week. Later he was put to work in the sawmill. Times were really hard and winter was still with us. I remember one day somebody asked one of the Russians how long winters last around here. He looked at him and with a big grin on his face said, winters last only nine months and the rest is summer, which was not far from the truth.
Then came spring but it was nearly the end of April before the snow started melting. It did not take very long for it to go completely as the days were getting warmer and everything started growing fast.
In the late spring the first death occurred in the camp; a young girl of about six or seven. She was the first of many who left us. Not far from the camp on a little hill, amongst the trees we buried those who departed from us.
Some of the men were taken off their normal jobs and given the task of building more barracks. By the end of the summer they erected three more, then each family had a room to themselves. They also built a school and a primitive sauna.
Food usually was very scarce. Once or twice a week some bread was delivered from the nearest town. As soon as someone said bread was to be delivered at such and such a time, queues started forming. Nobody knew how much would be available or whether there would be enough to go round. Many times when I got to the counter there was no bread left – all sold out. At times if we managed to get an extra loaf, mother used to slice it, dry it and put it away. It did come in very useful, but more of that later.
In the summer wild berries started to ripen; first came the bilberries, then cranberries. We used to go picking them nearly every day. Some of them my mum dried, some we sold, and some I used to take to the village about eight, maybe ten miles away. There I exchanged them mostly for vegetables. It was a long walk through the forest, but I did it a few times with, and sometimes without the Commandant’s permission. In late summer we used to pick the mushrooms growing among the trees. One kind we used to sell to the Russians and they packed them into wooden barrels and covered them with salt. A few weeks later they were very tasty. My mother used to dry another kind of mushroom to make soup in the winter.
The train from the nearest town came twice a day to the camp. In the morning it brought empty wagons, in the later afternoon it took away wagons loaded with all sorts of timber.
During that summer there was a forest fire not far from the camp. We all worked well into the night before we succeeded in putting the fire out, but it was not the end of it because with it being a very dry summer the fire went on underground. Then heavy rain one day put the fire out.
The end of summer was in sight and all the children of school age were ordered to attend school. School lasted all through the winter and into the following spring when it was closed. I learnt to read and write Russian and still remember some of it. In early September it started getting cold and then came the snow. Winter was with us again. The Russians were right – summers in Siberia do not last long!
My dad was still working in the sawmill, but he hurt his right hand which became swollen and bigger, then his forearm started swelling. It was so bad that he could not do any work. As he was not working there was no money coming in. The little money that I was earning from the sale of tree bark shoes was hardly enough to keep us all going. There was a Latvian doctor in the camp, but he would not do much to help. He eventually convinced the Commandant that my father would have to go to hospital for an operation. After receiving the necessary written permission to leave the camp together with a little note from the doctor, dad was on the way to the hospital at Sverdlovsk. The situation was becoming more and more desperate for our family. The significance of the words – those who do not work, do not eat was now very apparent.
A fortnight or so later my father returned from the hospital with his hand bandaged and in a sling. He was off work for about three months. I will never forget how people rallied round to help us; some brought us money every week, others gave us some food. Lots of men used to buy shoes off me whether they needed them or not at the time, just so that we could get by. Even now, after all these years it brings tears to my eyes when I think of all those kind people without whose generosity our family would have been in great difficulty. It was not much of a Christmas for us that year.
In January we had massive snowfalls, and it became unbearably cold. At nights we could hear loud bangs, like explosions. At first nobody knew what it was, then one of the Russians told us that the tree sap was freezing solid causing trees to split with a bang. On two or three occasions it was so cold that we were told not to go to work and to stay inside.
The end of February came; it was a year since our arrival in Siberia. In the evenings, as we sat talking, the conversation always seemed to turn to the subject of, ‘are we ever going home?’ But it was not to be. Dad went back to work and things improved slightly.
One thing that started worrying everybody was that we were all lousy. Lice were everywhere; there was even a kind of blood-sucking wound lice. It was horrible, but there was not much anybody could do about it as we had no soap to wash our clothes with. Everybody did their best to keep clean, but we were fighting a losing battle.
The hard winter started easing off a little. Spring and early summer were very warm and dry. One day a group of four or five Russians arrived with some equipment. We were told to take whatever food we had and some clothes and leave the barracks. They then put some tape around the windows and some of them put, what looked like gas masks on, and went back inside. I think they put some kind of pellets or pumped some gas into each room and then shut and taped each door. On the way out they also sealed the outside doors. We had to camp under the stars for about three or four days before all the doors were opened for a day and we were allowed back in. It stank for a few days, but they got rid of most of the woodlice, though some time later it was just as bad again.
One day an eight-year-old girl got lost in the forest. We were all looking for her for two days without success, but on the third day a workman found her hiding in a small stack of hay in one of the clearings in the forest. She was not hurt, but she was very frightened and hungry.
One evening at dusk I went outside to fetch some wood and I could not see properly, everything seemed blurred. I kept rubbing my eyes, but it did not help. It really frightened me as I thought I was going blind. I could see alright during the day, but not in the evenings. Lots of people suffered from the same complaint which I think is called night blindness, and is caused by a lack of particular vitamins.
During that year our people had extended the railway line by about two miles deeper into the forest. Then one day an order came to fell and send away as many silver birch trees as possible. When somebody asked why, the answer was to make rifle butts.
Early in July rumours started going around that war had broken out between Germany and the Soviet Union. [see http://www.kresyfamily.com/5--amnesty-.html] There was a lot of whispering, but nobody dared to say it aloud for fear of being sent to prison. Then it became official and everybody was talking about the war. Sometime later more rumours spread through the camp, this time people were saying that we are going to be set free. It seemed too good to be true. Some believed it, but some were sceptical and did not want to raise their hopes too much. Life in the camp went on as normal; everybody carried on working as we had to have money to buy food. Many people started saving and drying whatever food they could save, mostly bread just in case something was going to happen.
It was an evening in late July when we were asked to assemble at a certain point, then the Commandant with two or three other Soviet officials came over to us. After a short pause, one of them said “as you probably already know the Soviet Union is at war with Germany. After being attacked by German forces, the Soviet Government came to some agreement with the Polish Government. As allies fighting a common enemy you are being released – you are free to leave the camp – free to travel anywhere in the Soviet Union”. After answering a few questions one of them said “the Commandant will give you all the details”, then they left. We just stood there bewildered, not knowing if it was true or whether we were dreaming.
We never thought that we would ever get out of that place, and yet now we were told that we were free again. The next few days were rather hectic, besides having to work people were meeting in the evenings, discussing the possibility of leaving the camp, but it was a big step, and we were not sure what to do. About a fortnight later a Polish priest and two other delegates arrived and with the Commandant’s permission they stayed two or three days in the camp trying to advise people on what to do and how to arrange everything.
Until their visit we did not know that there was a Polish Government in exile, based in London. They also told us that General Sikorski had signed a treaty with Stalin, so that all the Polish people who had been taken to different parts of the Soviet Union were to be released. They thought that there would be a Polish army forming somewhere in the south of the Soviet Union and were advising everybody to leave the camp and head south; but the decision was left to us.
After the delegates left, life became sort of normal again, but there were still a lot of activities going on. The camp authorities were trying to dissuade us from leaving as they did not want to lose their workforce. They could not really stop us from leaving, but they did their best by telling us that here we have a place to live and a job, and are being paid for working. But if we left we would not know where we would end up, or what was waiting for us or how we would manage.
But nothing was going to deter us. We wanted to get out of that place and go somewhere where it was warmer. Soon some families started making preparations to leave. We were well into September by now. The first group of several families – after obtaining written permission from the authorities left the camp, but our family was not amongst them. For a time things seemed to have gone back to the old routine, but most people were still talking about leaving the camp.
It was about the middle of October when the second group started organising itself. Soon there were half a dozen families – ours included, prepared to take a chance, then another four or five families joined the group, and as before we received written passes and we were ready to leave. By now winter was with us again, and there was a lot of snow, getting colder by the day.
One day I was shown how to make a kind of shoe from young lime tree bark. From then on I was a shoemaker. I used to sell these shoes for one and half roubles a pair in the summer and for two roubles in the winter. There were no other shoes to be had. I think they were called bast shoes.