Meanwhile, the Russians started mass deportations of Poles to Siberia. In the first group went all settlers, farmers who were given land in the eastern part of Poland after World War I. Usually, they were veterans of World War I or the veterans of the 1919-20 war with the Soviets, when they invaded Poland and then were defeated in 1920.
The first transports left for Siberia in February 1940.
The next mass deportation was in April 1940 and that is when your mother (Iza) was deported with Babcia and Bebe. Dziadzia Kupczyk fled the Russians to Latvia and was arrested by the Reds when they invaded that country. Your mother was deported with her mother and brother to Siberia in April 1940. Her stepfather had to seek refuge from Russians in Latvia, where he was arrested in 1941 when the Soviet Union occupied that country. They were reunited in Siberia after we got amnesty from the Russians. As a child, she had faced problems in life that would be beyond your imagination: hunger, abandonment (her mother had to stay away from her children at the place of work) living alone with her brother who was only 18 months older than her, among Russians. She told me that once when she was returning to her village after visiting her mother, she had to go through the River Irtish which was frozen at that time. Her mother was watching her from the river bank and to her horror she saw a lonely wolf following Iza at a distance. Iza was completely unaware of the wolf. Iza's mother's heart froze from terror but she did not scream in fear that Iza would start running and that would excite the wolf. Fortunately, apparently the wolf was not hungry and did not attack Iza. They had to flee from Siberia to the south of Russia to get to the safety of the Polish Army. She almost died from dysentery during the epidemic there.
After that, came the years in the refugee camp in Tanganyika (Tanzania) in Africa where she arrived at the age of 13 and left for England when she was 18 in 1948. In the camp, it was a very close-knit community, where the residents knew each other and about each other. Since all able-bodied men were in the army, there was almost a complete lack of male companions. Encounters with wild animals and not very civilized natives (Masai) were almost everyday occurrences. And then, in 1948, at the age of 18, she went to England. The camp where Iza stayed with her parents was for young Polish officers preparing for their civilian life by taking all kinds of courses, such as drafting, accounting etc. It may be difficult to understand the difficulties that faced her; overnight she changed from Jane, swinging on lianas in a jungle, swimming in a lake that was very deep, of volcanic origin and playing with her girlfriends into a young woman, whom a young, handsome officer approached, addressing her as "Pani" (Polish equivalent to "Mademoiselle"), with the customary kiss of her hand. She told me that it was very embarrassing for her.
As I mentioned before, sometime in 1940, my father was discharged from his work and we moved to a small apartment in Brzesc. My father's financial situation wasn't that bad because many railroad men knowing my father, called him rather than the Russian woman doctors and of course they paid him. So my father was very busy. I don't know how long this could last, because in Soviet Russia there was no such thing as private practice but, at least, when we were in Poland, we were not hungry.
So this was the situation by the summer of 1941: everything seemed to be quiet and peaceful, and yet, it was evident that the two colossi, Germany and Russia, would soon jump at each other's throats. There were indications that something was going to happen. We were living near the demarcation line between Russia and Germany and were able to observe the increased activity of the army, frequent German planes over Russian territory, and in general there was a feeling of nervousness in the air. Yet, trains full of all kinds of goods, grain, and other provisions were going to Germany every day. Stalin wanted to have the Germans on his side at all costs.
This was also the time when my big odyssey began. It was 21 June 1941.
This time they didn't have to ask anybody to answer the door: they just knocked and came in. I remember my mother woke me up and immediately I realized what was going on. They told us to take what we needed and be ready in one hour. It was the night of 19-20 June 1941.
We were packing our belongings, some potatoes, clothing, etc., when my mother asked if she could take some Valerian drops, which was medicine for the heart. The officer refused. My mother asked if we could take the mattresses which had just been made before the war. To our surprise the officer allowed us to take them. We were the last in their roundup for the night and they had some room on the truck, so he didn't object.
We loaded our belongings onto the truck and they took us to Brzesc Central, where on the side tracks freight cars were waiting.
People were being brought from all over the area. Most of them were from Brzesc proper but they were also from the neighboring villages. This I never understood: the Russians came "to free the peasants from the yoke of the Polish landlords" and yet many poor peasants were deported with us to Siberia. Sometimes you could see entire families, old people, small children, etc., being arrested and deported. In our box car there was a grandfather, age 72, and two of his grandchildren, five and seven. These two lovely children were the center of attention in the car. What crimes against the Soviet Union did they commit in their short lives is beyond me. But this was an example of Soviet justice. Their parents had been arrested previously. It was later on that I heard that after the amnesty, the parents of these two kids came to Barnaul and found their children and soon after that their grandfather died.
Most of the families were without men: they were either arrested earlier or separated at the time of deportation. In our case, we were lucky: my father was apparently too old (at that time he was 61) to be arrested or to represent any danger to the Soviet Union. And yet, when I think about it now, I know of people his age who were arrested or were separated from their families. I guess it was pure luck.
When I think about the reasons for the selection of the deportees, I get lost. There seem to be none. There were people from all walks of life: young, old, poor, rich, educated, uneducated, children, grown-ups, in other words everybody. There was a family of White Russians, two sisters with their children. Their husbands had been arrested before. Their husbands were lawyers. They spoke among themselves in Russian. There was a Russian Orthodox priest with his son. In our box car there were about 50 people.
We were held at the station the whole day 21 June. They let us out a couple of times to go to the station latrines. When I went with my father (men were taken separately from women), we looked at each other: it would have been easy to run away and hide in one of the railroad employees' houses. But mother was on the train and we did not want her to be all by herself. We went back.
People were coming to the train bringing food, clothing, and expressing their compassion. But spirits were good. No despair.
During the night of 21‑22 June 1940 we heard the train moving. We realized that it was departure time. All of a sudden, it became very quiet in the car and then somebody started to sing "Nie rzucim ziemi skad nasz ród" ("We won't forfeit the land of our roots"). Some women started to cry.
I don't think that at that time I realized the seriousness of the situation and how the dramatic consequences of this moment would affect the rest of my life. It was somehow inconceivable to me that I would leave Poland forever. I envisioned myself returning to my native land as a grown-up perhaps, after many years, to find everything the way it was when I was a boy. Just as I read in many of the historical books that I liked so much. I modeled myself right away as one of the characters from my books ‑ a pilgrim coming back to his country from faraway lands after many years of absence. Years have shown that these youthful visions were only in my imagination. The realities of life proved to take my life on a completely different route.
The train was moving quickly, and by morning we realized that we were close to the prewar Russian border. I should mention that the Polish rails had a different gauge than the Russians. Poland's railways were compatible with the rest of Europe. To facilitate the transport of goods from Russia to Germany, after the invasion, the Russians extended their type of rails to Brzesc. So, we didn't have to change our cars on our trip.
When we came to Smolensk, we noticed that the station had been bombed. The party of people who went to bring food to the car found out from the local Russians that there were rumors that the Germans had invaded the territory occupied by the Ruskis. Of course, we were very glad to hear this: at last our two enemies would fight among themselves ‑ so much the better. After a short stop we went further into Russia. The trip became more or less routine for the duration: once a day, at some station, or in the middle of nowhere, the guards would let us out to go to the "bathroom". Women and men together, each car separately. You had to find some quiet place in the bushes to relieve yourself in some sort of privacy. It was difficult because the guards were all over the place, bayonets on their rifles, keeping an eye on everybody. We found out later that all other box cars had a hole in the floor for sanitary purposes. Our car didn't have that vital detail. In connection with this, there were terrible situations. With all fairness, I have to admit that the guards didn't show any hostile feelings towards us. Just indifference. They must have been seasoned workers who escorted many people to their place of exile, and we were just one more. We asked them and sometimes they agreed not to close the door completely so that we boys could urinate when the train was in motion. Women, unfortunately, suffered terribly.
I spent many hours at the window trying to get a glimpse of the countryside. I would deny that I was curious to see it. One could see that it was not a happy land. We were passing villages with small houses with thatched roofs; people going about their daily chores seemed to be subdued, without a smile. At railroad stations there was the ever-present NKVD. We went through Tambov where my father was stationed during his military service before going to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. This was the first time that I was outside of Poland. It was changing from the plains of Byelorussia to the monotonous countryside of Russia until we came to the Ural Mountains. There the train was travelling between rocks that you could sometimes touch with your hand. I think we crossed the Volga River at Saratov. Somehow, it was our destiny that practically every generation had to go to Siberia. My father went there twice: once as a Russian soldier and then as an exile; my great-grandfather died in Siberia; and I went there as an exile. At night I listened to the monotonous sound of the wheels, thinking that every sound was taking me further and further away from my country.
A couple of times, I don't remember where, we noticed that the stations had been bombed and the rumors about the war between Germany and Russia were confirmed. It became apparent that the Germans had started the fighting on the night of our departure from Poland. We started our odyssey in the evening and they attacked in the morning of 22 June 1941. Only a few hours later and how different my life might have been. I don't know which would have been better. From what I heard of how the Germans treated Poles, I might be grateful to the Russians for the deportation. Otherwise, I might not have survived the war.
There was a long freight train ready, box cars with iron bars on the tiny windows.
They came at about 02.30, an officer of the NKVD and two privates.