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 5 – After nearly a year and nine months of struggle - LEAVING SIBERIA
One cold morning our group assembled by the railway line with all their possessions. The train was already waiting and we loaded our luggage onto one of the open platforms. We said goodbye to our friends, clambered aboard and the train pulled away. I think it was about the beginning of November 1941. After nearly a year and nine months of struggle for survival we were leaving this dreaded land of Siberia. Yet, at that time nobody knew whether they were doing the right thing, or what it would be like in the days and weeks to come. After all these years I still remember the address of the camp. Translated into English it is something like this:-
Region of Sverdlovsk,
District of Irbit
Post Office, Town Khudyakov,
On the way to the nearest town and the railway station we were all very quiet, perhaps a little apprehensive. On arrival we were going to board a passenger train, but there was a problem; we had so much luggage between us – all our possessions, and they would not let us take it all aboard. After some arguments and some pleas, the station master agreed to give us a goods wagon. We loaded most of our belongings into it which was coupled to the rear of the train and we set off. We went back to the town of Irbit and then to Sverdlovsk now where we had to change trains. Our problems started all over again as we had to unload our luggage and then go begging the station master for another wagon.
Every time we had to change trains the same thing happened over and over again. At one station we had to wait all night for our train. We piled our luggage in the middle of a big waiting room and we all, except for small children, stood around guarding it. Anything left unattended for a few minutes used to disappear. That was a terribly long and cold night.
We realised that we had lost almost everything, all our clothes and bedding, all the food that we so carefully prepared and packed away. I do not know what the other families had left, but I do remember that we had one suitcase, a sack of dried bread that my mother saved, some pots and a few other items. This was very little for seven of us and the future was beginning to look very bleak for all of us. To make things worse we were not allowed to travel on passenger trains. After some discussions the station authorities reluctantly provided two goods wagons, the same sort in which we travelled to Siberia. Internal arrangements were as before – beds of boards, a stove in the middle, and a hole in the floor for the toilet. The only difference was that we were free and there were no guards, but we had very little else.
Eventually, we left that place, but the thought of having lost practically everything made us very bitter. We had to go on – but where? Our wagons were coupled to the rear of a goods train and we were on the move again. The next stop was the town of Orenburg, and there we were left on a sideline. It was time to go looking for some food and it was always my father and I who had to search for something to eat. Most station buildings had taps with boiling water which the Russians call kipyatok. The first thing we always did was to get some hot water so that we could have a hot drink. We had precious little else. We left Orenburg coupled to the rear of a goods train and travelled a long way to the next stop.
Although it was the beginning of December the weather was getting better as it was warmer, but we were getting more and more hungry. Besides dried bread and water we had very little else to eat; food was very scarce. Sometime later even the dried bread was beginning to run out. Another problem was lice. It was terrible as they were everywhere and everybody was walking around scratching, but we could not do much about it being cooped up on the wagon without any washing facilities. At the time I think we were more concerned about how, or where, we could get something to eat than anything else.
I shall never forget as our train stopped at one station. I went to get some boiling water, but there was a long queue. By the time I got the water and started walking back to the wagon, I heard the whistle and saw our train pulling away. I ran spilling most of the water, but I got to the wagon and was pulled in by somebody. I was lucky! We were now travelling south along the bank of the river Syr Darja stopping here and there in small towns. It was a very long journey.
Our next long stop was at a place called Arys in Kazakhstan. It was not a very big town, but there were big railway workshops and also a marshalling yard. Our wagons were left on a side-line and we went looking for food. Mum gave me some money (I did not know that somehow she had managed to save a few roubles while we were in Siberia) and I and another lad went out trying to find something to eat. Not far from the station there was a small market with only a few stalls. There was food here and there, but it was very expensive. On one stall we found what looked like small white balls and on asking we were told that it was dried goat cheese and as it was not very dear we bought a few each. It was so salty and hard that it was impossible to bite, and all we could do was lick it – but it was food.
After two or three days we were on the move again, as usual at the rear of a goods train. It was late afternoon when the train stopped at Tashkent. Our wagons were shunted onto a sideline and we stayed there through the night and the following day. By the end of the day we were at the rear of another goods train going along, but when we woke up in the morning we were back on a sideline in Arys.
I went to the market that afternoon to get something to eat, but did not buy anything. On the way back I saw some people waiting by a little kiosk, and when I asked what they were waiting for someone whispered “bread”. Soon the kiosk was open and there was bread, white bread (we had not seen white bread for months). As soon as the kiosk opened, people appeared from nowhere, all pushing, trying to get to the little window. I managed to get a loaf (they would not sell more than one per person) and was nearly trampled to death trying to get out of there. I was very happy as I ran back to the wagon, happy that I managed to get a loaf of bread which would have to last us for two or three days.
A day or so later, we were travelling again arriving at the town of Lenger. Some hours later when our wagons stood by some buildings, a man came over with a piece of chalk and wrote something on the wagon doors. We all spoke Russian very well, but we could not make out what it meant. The next morning some men came and told us to leave the wagons and take all our clothes with us. We protested and said that we had already lost most of our possessions, but were assured that the wagons would be locked and that everything would be safe. They led us to a building nearby and as we entered we could see that there were sort of communal showers. Then came an order – women and children on the left, men and boys on the right. There were some rails or wooden poles on stands and on these we hung all our clothes, and they were taken into what they called a delousing room, which I think was like a high-pressure steam chamber.
For us, after more than a month on the move, it was like heaven being able to have a good wash. An hour or so later we went back to the wagons feeling clean, even our clothes felt clean and free of lice. It was a very nice feeling but it did not last very long, as after a while we were lousy again.
We departed from there on the third day, but nobody knew where we were going. Then after a few hours, the train stopped and we were back again in the town of Arys. We were very hungry and I went to the market looking for some food, and this time I bought a few handfuls of flour and a few cubes of sugar. As I came back to the wagon another train pulled up on the next line with a load of foodstuff. I climbed into our wagon and told the others about the train on the next track. There were other lads in the wagon, and we decided we would try and break into the train wagon carrying the foodstuff and take some. Firstly we had to make a plan of when to break into the wagon. We decided to wait until the station was quiet, usually it was the end of the day, before attempting our daring raid. Each lad carried containers; we managed to break in, fill them up, hide them under our coats, slowly walking away. The other lad who was the lookout did the same as us, and started to walk away as well. There was no one on the station platform, and so this time we got away with it.
Christmas was not far away now, but all we could think about was how to get some food, and how to survive. Just before Christmas we were travelling again. When the train stopped at one station some of us went to look around and also to get some boiling water and there we found one of our neighbours from Poland. He was very ill, just lying there, unable to walk (they left Siberia with the first group). We could not leave him there so we carried him back to the wagon; he was so very thin, just skin and bones covered in rags. Someone tried to feed him, but he could not eat anything, and just had a few sips of water. He needed hospital treatment, but how could we look for a hospital when we were on the move all the time. After a stop-start journey, we arrived in the town of Dahambul [Ed. note: renamed Taraz in 1997] and we stayed there for several hours, then it was back on the road again.
It was the end of December 1941, New Year’s Eve night and we were asleep when the train stopped. On waking up in the morning we realised that we were back in the town of Arys. This town became like a base for us, from here we were sent in different directions to different towns, and yet we always seemed to end up back in the same place.
It was New Year’s Day, 1942. Someone opened the sliding wagon door, it was a beautiful morning; the sun was up in the cloudless sky and it was very warm. This time our wagons were not at the rear of the train as there were some wagons behind us. Suddenly we heard a whistle and then we felt a jerk and the train started moving. After a while it stopped on a slight incline; we were not quite sure what was happening and then someone looked out and said they were sorting the wagons. They were uncoupling one or two wagons at a time and letting them run down the slight slope through the points onto different lines. The wagon before us went past the points on the line to the right, but as we found out to our horror it was stopped too close to the points. Our wagons were uncoupled next, we were in the first wagon, and as we were nearing the points one man looked through the open door then pulled his back and shouted “hold tight, we are going to have an accident”. Then he looked out again and at that moment our door caught the wagon standing on the next line and slid shut trapping this poor man’s head. The door buckled then broke and he fell back, but somebody stopped him from hitting the floor and laid him down gently, but he was nearly dead.
There was a lot of crying and shouting, workmen came running down and a little later the station master and some militia officers came over and took some details; then a horse and cart appeared. This man and the one we found were carried to the cart and taken to the hospital. The one who was in the accident died soon afterwards, leaving a wife and five children. Three of his sons now live in England, one in Manchester, one in Leicester and one in Derby. The other one also died sometime later. That day our wagons were separated; we were shunted to the railway workshops and the other wagon was sent somewhere else and we never saw it again.
That was the beginning of the year 1942. It was about ten days before repairs to the wagon doors were completed and by now we were beginning to look like walking skeletons in tatters and we were lousy again.
Soon after the wagon door was fixed we found ourselves at the rear of the train speeding out of Arys. With short stops here and there we travelled for about two days and at long last, the train came to a halt and we had arrived at the town of Frunze [Ed. note: renamed Bishkek in 1991] in Kyrgyzstan. As usual, our wagon was shunted onto a sideline and we stayed there for a week. Frunze was a nice big town, and in the distance we could see very big mountains, but our first thoughts were how to find some food.
Soon two of us lads were out on the town and we later came across a very big open market and found food there, like fruit and vegetables. That day we managed to get some bits of food. Occasionally we succeeded in exchanging some salt for other food items. One day I found some rough cut tobacco (it was called kooryshki) and it was very cheap so I bought three or four packets as we could exchange it for food in other towns. Times were very hard and the future, if we can call it that, looked very bleak. We managed to stay alive, but only just. At times when I went to the market on my own, I used to beg for food, sometimes I was lucky, other times I was told to get lost.
We left Frunze after a week at the rear of yet another train and we thought that we might end up in the town of Arys again, and we did! It was morning on 22 January 1942 when the train came to a halt. We were unsure if we were going to stay there or whether they might send us somewhere else. Some lads went to the station, brought back some boiling water and we remained in the wagon.
In the late afternoon, a passenger train stopped not far away and I took a packet of tobacco, and together with the other lads went across to see if we could get some food from the passengers. When we got closer we realised that they were soldiers, Polish soldiers, some in uniforms and some in civilian clothes. So it was true, there was a Polish army forming in the region. We asked them for some food and asked whether they would take tobacco for whatever they could spare.
They gave us bread, sugar and other items. In one coach were young lads like ourselves wearing rags. A sergeant opened the door and said “come and join us, join the boy soldiers”, then added “Take all you have to your families and come back and bring the other lads with you, but hurry, because we are not stopping for very long”. We took all that the soldiers gave us back to the wagon, and I remember saying to my mum and dad that I am going to join the boy-soldiers like army cadets.
I shall never forget what mother said to me, “Go, maybe you will survive, maybe you will get out of this hell”. After short goodbyes we left the wagon and our families (there were four or five of us), climbed aboard and joined the other boys; within a few minutes later the train pulled away. It was 22 January 1942 and I was only fifteen at that time. I sat in the corner of the carriage feeling very lonely and the thought that I might never see my family again kept coming back to me. At one point I thought that when the train stops I shall get off and walk back along the track, but the train just kept going. Night fell and I was beginning to feel very tired. I closed my eyes and a little later I was asleep.
I woke up when the train stopped and at first I did not know where I was; then it all came back to me. I looked out through the window, day was dawning and we were in Tashkent. After a short stay, the train pulled away and we were travelling again. It was well into the afternoon when the train stopped at a little place called Vrevskoje [Ed. note: Click here for history of Poles in Vrevskoje. Also referred to in texts as Wrew, Wriewskij or Wriewskaja, renamed since as Olmazor or Almazar] quite a long way from the town of Yangi-Yul in Uzbekistan. It was here we left the train.
After leaving Sverdlovsk we went to Chelyabinsk. From there we did not go through the Ural Mountains, but took a different way. Sometime later we stopped at a station (I wish I could remember the name of the place) and we had to change trains. The train we wanted was waiting, ready to go and there was no time to unload our luggage from the goods wagon and load it onto the waiting train. We pleaded with the station master to give us a few minutes, but he refused. We were assured that our belongings would follow on the next train and we believed him. Instead of staying with our luggage we departed leaving most of our possessions behind in the goods wagon, and that was our biggest mistake!
A few hours later the train stopped at the station in the town of Orsk where we got off and there we occupied a corner of the waiting room, waiting for the remainder of our belongings to arrive. Every time a train stopped at the station some people from our group went to enquire if there was anything for us, but the answer was always the same – a simple ‘no’. A day went by and then another and we began to lose hope. Then I think on the third day we were told that there was not much chance that we would ever see our belongings again and that we might as well move on.