S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
STALIN’S ETHNIC CLEANSING in Eastern Poland
Tales of the Deported 1940-1946
ISBN 1 872286 88 7
Province (Województwo) Wołyń
Once the Soviet Army invaded Poland in September 1939, my husband, Kazimierz, was certain we settlers of the Eastern Border would be deported, but nobody believed him.
However, early in the morning of the 10 February 1940, I heard strings of sledges passing below our windows and it was not long before there was loud knocking on our door and shouts from outside demanding that we get up and dress. My husband learned from a young Ukrainian, the son of a council worker, that we were to be deported deep into Russia so we should put on as many clothes as possible and take whatever food we could carry. At this, I went to milk the cow while my husband killed a few chickens which we stuffed into a sack. As for the milk, it froze immediately it was poured into a bucket.
Once outside, we covered our daughter and two sons with the feather-bed and, in this fashion, we travelled to the council offices where all the neighbouring settlers were assembled. Then, in convoy, we were escorted to Karnaczówka where a train was already prepared for our arrival. Just before we were loaded into a cattle truck, my mother who lived in Kołodno arrived having managed to spot us in that upheaval of sledges. When she realised that we had almost no bread, she set off home again to bake some for us. While she was away, the loading into the trucks continued and now, locked inside, we despaired of her ever finding us again. Then, amazingly, through a tiny slit we caught sight of her. We started making a lot of noise and, for some reason or other, the guard allowed the door to be thrown open and the bread – that life-saving bread – thrown inside to us.
My husband’s sister, Anna Mazur, her husband, Franciszek, and sons, Jan and Franek, with his wife Marcelina, were also brought to this same train. The family bewildered by their unexpected deportation and desperate that at least one of them might be saved, had left their few months' old son Tadeusz with Marcelina’s parents whom they had unexpectedly bumped into in Kołodno on the road to the train. (This child was later murdered by the gangs of Ukrainians). My husband was utterly distressed that the Mazurs had met with the same fate but consoled himself with the idea that at least the whole family was together.
Only after standing for two days came a terrific jerk and our part of the train started moving. However, a lot of the trucks were left behind and, in one of these, was the entire Mazur family.
It took two weeks before we reached the last station in Komi – called Murasha. There, we were loaded onto lorries and journeyed for a further 24 hours through the forest to posiołeks and labour camps. They were huge barracks which awaited us, fitted with plank bunk beds against the wall and each family was allocated one plank for each of its member. There was not a moment to catch our breath before all the adults were put to work in the forest and the children packed off to school: our daughter, Halina, was 10 and the boys, Tadzio and Edzio, eight and seven.
The forest work was long and tedious. My husband and I were up at daybreak and toiled late into the night felling pines and firs, using a large saw. Once down, the trees had to have their branches and bark removed and that work was mainly mine. They were then measured into required lengths, smoothed, stacked onto large sledges and then tractored down to the river in Noshul where they were floated.
In the forest, we were fed with very watery hot soup to which was added a chunk of bread for anyone who managed to complete his work quota. Occasionally after school, the children would join us in the forest in order to get a small bowl of soup for there was none available in the posiołek. Should we come across wild bees’ hives which contained honey then, we had a real feast.
My husband managed to contact our family back in Poland and we learned from them that our elder daughter, Bronia, had also been deported. We tried to arrange that she should join us, but that never happened, so our only contact was by correspondence.
For all of us, life was very hard and food almost non-existent despite the fact that our family used to send us some food parcels and, by using coupons, we were allowed to buy bread. Inevitably, serious sicknesses started and I was the first to suffer, followed by Hala. Both of us were struck with typhoid while Edzio contracted pneumonia and then TB. The poor boy spent a very long time in hospital all alone without any visitors, since none of us was allowed to leave the posiołek. Then, one day, we were notified to go and fetch him back. Somehow or other, we managed to get the use of a cart and Hala went to bring him. He was incredibly thin and obviously very seriously ill and, within a few days, he died in the poky sick-bay of our posiołek. My husband knocked together his little coffin and, on a cross, burnt out his full name: Edward Bieliński. Then, we were allowed to use a big hay cart pulled by a horse and, without any further help, took the coffin to a cemetery where we dug out his grave and left him there forever, alone beneath the silver birches.
Ironically, when we arrived back at the camp, news of the amnesty had broken, and we learned that we were no longer prisoners. Changes happened rapidly; for example, we were given cows and allotments, and lots of men decided to join the ranks of the Polish army, thus leaving their families behind. On the other hand, my husband decided that he would join the army only when we could leave this place together as a family. Certainly there was no question of any transport to get to the railway station some 100 kilometres distant, which meant going by foot. Accordingly, a plan was drawn up that we should wait until snow had fallen. Meanwhile, everyone who planned to make the attempt was made responsible for constructing a sledge, preparing the necessary provisions, such as dried bread, mushrooms, fruit and butter and be ready to haul their sledges all the way to the station at Murasha. And, indeed, that is how it happened.
Our family led the way with Hala and Tadzio pulling their own sledges immediately behind us. We found the snow to be so deep that we were up to our armpits at almost every step, and we trudged in this way for a whole week spending the nights in the hamlets of the good Komi people. Eventually, completely exhausted, we did reach the station only to be confronted with a daunting sight. There were thousands of folk already there spread out on their tatters of luggage, completely covering the station. For us, there was no place even to crouch down and no sign of a train.
My husband searched out the station master to ask what might be done. His suggestion was that my husband should determine which people really wanted to travel on and collect from them sufficient money to hire an engine, trucks and driver. And that is what happened. Those who could afford paid for a place. It was only in cattle trucks, but this time we did have bunks and, moreover, this time the trucks remained unlocked. In this way, we trundled south to Kazakhstan. Our journey took an enormously long time before our train was allowed to move when the line was free from other scheduled traffic. There were times when our stops kept us for days, idling on the track sides while others lasted a few brief minutes. Since we were never sure just how long those stops would be, it was quite common for those who chanced going off searching for food to be left behind – the train moved on and, for them, that was the end. This almost happened to Hala who was 12 years old at the time. She started running when she heard the whistle blow and somehow someone caught her by the hand and hauled her onto the very last truck. My husband was not so lucky but managed to board the next train on that line and joined up with us again some two days later.
While we were aboard, Tadeusz also suffered a pretty unpleasant incident. He was just sitting by the little window when he was struck, more than probably accidentally, by a hammer thrown by a wheel-tapper. The lad was covered in blood but there was no chance of dressing it for the train started off at just that moment. It was only at the next station that a lady doctor confirmed he had a broken nose.
When we arrived in Tashkent and Guzar, we were allocated to different collective farms. We were put on the furthest one right on the Uzbekistan-Turkestan border. To get there, we travelled a full 24 hours on asses and horses. On arrival, we were given space on the bare floors of the local school and then the world entirely forgot us. It was there we spent Christmas and, from there, my husband set out (he may have walked, I honestly don’t remember) to find those authorities responsible for us, just to remind them that we still existed. Their answer was to make him a spokesman for the Poles and send him out to various collective farms distributing financial aid. On the journey and before returning to us, he was attacked by Uzbeks who beat him, took the money and left him for dead. He did survive but was then required to open an office from which he was to organise an orphanage. From there, he sent a messenger with horses for us to join him, which we did some six weeks later. When we reached him, Hala immediately ate a whole loaf of bread and drank a full jug of milk. We watched her bemused but knew that she’d really forgotten how such things tasted.
About this time, the army convoys started for abroad so my husband decided that he must now take it upon himself to fetch Bronia from the far north of Russia. He arranged for us to be accommodated in a private house in Dekhanabad. He left some food with us and obtained a promise from the people there that they would take good care of us during his absence. He was actually away for about three months during which time the food ran out, the promise was ignored and the departing transports from Russia were dwindling to an end. Then, all at once, we were together again. My husband turned up not only with Bronia, but also Stasia Śmietana who had been with her in the children’s home and for whom he’d acquired permission to leave as well. Within no time, we left for Krasnovodsk and across the Caspian Sea to Pahlevi and Tehran.
Once again, illness struck: this time malaria. The children enrolled in the Polish school but, since they had missed out two whole years of their education, had to start from the beginning.
Now my husband enlisted and left with the colours for Iraq while we travelled through Ahvaz to East Africa and Masindi camp. During our five year stay there the children continued with their education, and I worked in the bakery.
It was 1948 before we joined my husband in England where we all settled. The Mazur family came as well but without their son, Jan, who had died in his 20th year in Archangel County.
My husband passed on in 1977 and I now live with my daughter, Hala, and close to Bronia, Tadzio and their families. I have six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and am now 88 years old.
Anna's story, wife of Kazimierz Bieliński a settler from Reymontów, because of her poor health, was written by her daughter, Halina Bielińska.
Anna Bielińska has also written about life in Reymontów before the war here.
Certificate issued in Guzar by the
Biuro Opieki nad Rodzinami Wojskowych
to Kazimierz Bieliński
granting permission to evacuate to Iran.
Soviet certificate issued by the KGB
allowing Kazimierz and two children, Halina and Tadeusz, freedom from the labour camp,
dated 26 August 1941.
Kresy Family group
The rescued Bieliński family in Tehran, 1942.
Anna Bielińska (in the middle)
on her 85th birthday,
surrounded by her family, in 1994.
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Kazimierz Bieliński and his wife, Anna (first from the left),
on the collective Uzbek farm in 1941.
Anna Bielińska raising a flag at a reunion of settlers' families in Fenton, England.