Our quarters in Khanaqin
Meeting with my father after a year's separation. 2nd Polish Corps HQ in Kzyl Ribat, November 1942
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
OSADA BATORÓWKA (originally Zbyszów Nowy)
District (Powiat) Horochów
My father Piotr Barut was born in 1899 and volunteered to Piłsudski’s Legion where he was assigned to the 1st Brigade. He fought as a sapper near the river Piave where he was wounded and captured. After his demobilisation he was recalled once again to the army in 1920 to fight against the Bolsheviks.
The plot of land in osada Batorówka was actually given to my father’s brother, Jan Barut, but as he was a teacher and wanted to be a headmaster in Stawiska, having no use for the farm himself, he prevailed upon my father to abandon his proposed career as an army regular and, along with his fiancée Zofia, to undertake the rigorous life demanded by the settler's farm.
My mother came from Odrzykoń near Krosno. In 1923 they were both 24 years old, and patriots brimming with ardent zeal to help build the ‘New Poland’. Thus my father completed his course at the Agricultural College in Suchodole, accepted a loan to buy timber and some live-stock from his father-in-law and, together with my mother, set off to try his hand on the farm. The initial heaviest work was the ploughing and breaking-up of the soil for cultivation because during the Bolshevik war a battle-front had cut right across this land. In an early incident my father, whilst out collecting water, fell into a 12 m deep well from which he was rescued, cold and bruised by our neighbour Stanisław Urban.
My mother used to say that this osada was a ‘God-forsaken place’, yet, despite this, she endured all the hardship and drudgery involved in building up the farm. She was a good hard worker and, quite often, very early on summer mornings, she would be out with a sickle, a hoe, rake or some such tool, despite the fact that the farm was run under the direction of a specialist adviser, and there was always other help available. Mother stinted nothing in making the property prosper. Then, on top of all this, she instructed us in singing and every evening insisted that we always recited long prayers together.
Yet the settlers found time to organise fun events along with their required hard work. They kept all the festivals and planned all manner of social gatherings, for example, dancing during the Season of Carnival (Shrovetide). They put on dramatic plays and celebrated both the national holidays and the religious holy days. Sundays, however, were always solemnly observed by going to church in Beresteczko. On market days they went to Hrubieszów. They formed an Agricultural Association and the Union of Reservists, and ran a Veterinarian Pharmacy and a travelling library. My father’s positions included being the Settlers’ Chairman, Commandant of the Reservists and overseeing the Vet Pharmacy. Our own orchard grew in size to about 300 trees of various fruits. The number of bacon pigs was increased, as did the amount of land given over to the cultivation of sugar beet which produced a sizable profit.
The number of children was out-pacing the availability of schools and as there was no provision for education above standard five in the settlement, parents arranged for our attendance at a school in Beresteczko, where I completed my primary school education. In 1938 I went on to Tadeusz Kośćiuszko Grammar School No. 703 in Horochów, a district town of some 8,000 inhabitants. Close to the church belonging to the Legion, was a four-storey house, the ground floor of which contained shops, a savings bank, a bookshop, a presbytery, flats for office workers and a boys’ dormitory. The settlers were already building a second school in the area and through their own co-operative and the Kasa Stefczyka, were overseeing the building of roads and many other projects, for example, the production of concrete flags for this road scheme.
A paved road from Horochów already existed but during the school holidays I used to drive a cart pulled by two horses delivering sand for other new roads under construction. Along the main road there lived six local Polish families. Their family names were Zwierzański, Skawiński, Młotkowski and Łozowski. All fell as victims of the Volhynia massacres after the Soviets entered Poland in 1939. Only Cecylia Mucha’s family escaped.
Co-existence between the village people and the settlers generally went along fine, though one cannot point out any special friendships being formed. Certainly the settlers had a difficult time taming Kresy, the Eastern Borderlands and their achievements were outstanding. By their perseverance and sheer hard work they produced more in the short interval between the wars than the Russians ever managed during the entire period of the Polish partition. The osada’s settlers flourished and had it not been for the new war, the attack on Poland and then the forced deportation to Siberia, the Eastern Borderlands would be a shining example of how to construct a peaceful and prosperous way of life.
On that never-to-be-forgotten dawn of 10 February 1940 we loaded up two sledges and left our family home. The morning’s silence was only broken by the crunch of snow as the horses shuffled forward. Only then did it really strike me that I was seeing my childhood home, those buildings, livestock and other belongings which were my parents’ property for the last time. I clenched my fists in youthful revolt and with a lump in my throat, felt, “Why, and what have we done to deserve this misery”. I knew that at that precise moment I was powerless to avert this violation of the law, but swore that one day I should avenge all this hurt, injustice, and our being rendered homeless. As we mounted the crest of the hill I looked back on our farm for the very last time and noticed our faithful dog standing guard to the bitter end. He had about him an air of amazement that we had deserted him, and I am sure that he also felt that we would never return. In my mind, I began to make a list of all the events which had made up my years as a youngster. I remember father telling me after the Italian campaign, nursing a wounded knee, how he had helped to free Poland and defended her against the Bolshevik invasion. Then as one of Piłsudski’s troops he had colonised the frontier by farming around Wołyń. Indeed he had built up his farm on what had been a battle field between Russia and Austria and now was leaving 18 years of his life’s work behind him. I recalled how I had first heard the word “War” early one morning in the corn mill and froze with fear as the women started crying for those who would be called up. A few hours later radio bulletins confirmed news of the war.
Refugees, further doom-filled bulletins and eventually three of my uncles who had cycled from Krosno confirmed that war had broken out. When my uncles learned that “the Russians are coming” they felt that they preferred to die in a German prison and left with other similarly minded refugees.
Since it was September, I had been getting ready to start in the 2nd form at grammar school in Horochów where, incidentally, for a few months that spring, Wojtek Jaruzelski was a pupil. There was a month’s delay before I could attend. When I did attend I found that the education mainly consisted of political indoctrination and meetings, and it made me sick having to put up with all that stuff. The place reeked with wasteful administration. My uncle, a teacher, a soldier of the nationalist legion and the whole school governing body were arrested. During Christmas all was calm and while it is true that we had bread and a roof over our heads, it took us a whole month to find a glass globe for the kerosene lamp. We were showered with propaganda about the ‘Soviet paradise’ but, as for current events, only the war in Finland was ever mentioned.
When my parents came from town bringing things belonging to me and my sister with them, father said that the increased police activity could only augur bad news. Sure enough within hours there came a knock on the door. The first part of a roll-call check of the inhabitants of each house which came as an order from the Supreme Soviet demanding our removal and that we were to pack all our possessions. The order was signed by ‘The National Commissar of the Western Ukraine - ‘ Nikita Khrushchev’.
We made the short journey to the neighbourhood school which acted as the collection point for 12 families of deportees. We were all ushered into just two rooms along with everything we could carry. It is not easy to describe this scene of families wrenched from their private nests. For stripped of their dignity, the men were trying to unload everything from the sledges, while the crying mothers and frightened barefoot children stood about amongst a chaos of bundles.
In the afternoon, a long line of sledges moved off to Haliczany Station where six or seven wagons were drawn up to form the transport. We were herded into one of these. After entering the wagon mother placed herself on a bunk bed and for the next few days just sat there immovable.
How different from the way I could remember her as a younger woman striding off into the fields at daybreak, carrying a scythe and openly reciting her prayers. Hard work never scared her, indeed she would openly say that she was afraid of nothing and had enough energy to produce that little bit extra to put by for a rainy day. As far as she was concerned hard work cancelled out rainy days. Now, as she sat there, I could only presume she was trying to find something to comfort her shattered soul by offering herself to Divine Providence. Settlers were brought from all around the district until they filled six wagons. While this was going on, local people brought potatoes and someone produced half a pig. All this different food was strewn about in the middle of the wagon – but no one even considered eating.
On 3 March we found ourselves near Kotłas and the river Vychegda in the Solvychegda District of the Komi Republic. We were allocated one room for two families, some 15 people altogether, and only avoided being moved further because Lila had contracted pneumonia, as her hair having been frozen to the wall alongside her sleeping place. The Kopytowo settlement had been built by Ukrainians – deportees of an earlier period. Our men were organised into brigades and used to free logs frozen into the ice of the river Vychegda which joined the river Dvina close to Kotłas before flowing by Archangel into the White Sea; our women spent their time shifting about one metre of snow in order to reveal buried wooden rafts. As for me and my friends, our time was taken up either delivering firewood with Bolek Opiola or hauling water from the river, or standing in queues waiting for bread, or oat cereal. I got my mother and sister to take over my duties while I joined the river brigade which brought in another two roubles daily. The workers here included many civil and political prisoners as well as us.
Before the ice broke up the whole brigade was transferred to Charytonowo on the other side of the river to a spot near the sawmill which employed most of our Polish neighbours. Once the river became navigable for the little motor vessels, our fathers took the chance to bring some money across so that families could buy bread. With the coming of spring the building of a rail track was started, the young people and the women were employed for shifting sand to be used as a base for the sleepers so to prevent their sinking into the swampy land. On the road to Koryazma there was a camp for political prisoners with whom we occasionally managed to barter. Also, we received eight parcels and 160 roubles from Poland.
In season we were sent out hay-making. We were taken down to a not very wide river with very steep banks, overhung with trees. There we were given a rowing boat loaded with some goods and nothing else. To start off with, the rowing wasn’t too bad but as we continued round bend after bend the banks still as high as before, we became hungry and badly bitten by mosquitoes. However towards sunset we found the landing place and started a fire just to keep away the insects.
There we passed the night with the smoke stinging our eyes, and the mosquitoes our bodies. The following morning a guide arrived who led us to where we were to do the hay-making. There, most of the workers were political prisoners, but there were also a few girls whom I recognised. As we worked, food was cooking in a big pot slung over a fire near to which we were served some supper. I recall the pitiful sight of the bleeding mosquito bites on the girls’ legs which they tried to keep covered up by the way they sat, and that someone from the company expressed dissatisfaction with the difficult conditions.
Before returning to the village by the river, we slept on the haystacks and it was while I was lying in the barn a group of prisoners came by who had spent the whole of one day tramping back and forth in the swampy forest. They were ordered to place bundles of hay under their feet during rest before they were marched further. That morning one of the prisoners complained that his shirt was in tatters and he was not going any further. At this the guard pointed his rifle at him and barked “We’ll see whether you’ll march or not”. In reply the prisoner bared his chest and yelled “Go on, shoot”. On another occasion I slipped away to the ferry point on the main river and from my hiding place noticed a boat appear. I called out to the ferryman who seemed quite pleased to have me about, probably hoping that I would help him to row. I discovered my brother and sisters housed in a different barrack from when I’d left them, the original barrack having been allocated to newly arrived Jewish families. My brother and sisters were being looked after by our Polish neighbour Mrs Strumiłowa along with her own six children, while mother had gone off to Solychegodsk looking for better work. And so my younger friend and I took a boat to the same town. At that time Solvychegodsk consisted of some 300 houses, a cathedral and four Russian Orthodox churches. The two closest to the river had been turned into warehouses, a market hall, a storeroom for the health clinic and an eating place. Some of my compatriots were in the middle of demolishing one of these churches so as to use the materials to build a school close by. We two lads were offered work in the sanatorium which, because it was a government institution, gained us loads of privileges. It was the kind of place used for rheumatism sufferers for whom there was a special dining room in which my mother worked. There was, of course, a quite different eating place for the ordinary workers. Anyway, our main job was chopping up wood for the boilers. My partner was a puny 15 year old who, after a week decided to return to the camp. Just for a few days I quite enjoyed myself as I was asked to bring up the wood to burn in the kitchen. However before long my mother had to leave, suffering from ulcers, but my father came to join me and throughout that summer we cut wood together, spending our free time sharpening the huge saws. At the end of 1940 we were moved to another settlement, Korekino-Nizhnaya Luba where a new double-storeyed barrack was built.
Here were stables, a bakery, a shop, eating room, bathroom, delousing area as well as the commandant’s home and administration offices. Then there was the episode of accompanying a pleasant Russian on a sledge to Kotłaś in order to bring back a herd of goats. While we waited for the transaction to be completed we lived for two weeks as lodgers in the home of an accountant with his delightful wife and two charming daughters. Then early one frosty morning we were on our way herding fifty unruly animals. I can tell you it’s a good job there were five of us, for we had our work cut out keeping them under control. However, after three days without any incidents we did arrive back at the camp all intact, for it’s quite certain that, had we lost any of those goats, we should have ended up arrested and punished. My family rounded off the story by buying the best of those animals for 720 roubles, which was to be paid in instalments over five years.
Then there was the time I was employed as a horse-handler. After harnessing a wreck of a horse my job was to walk out to the collective farm and then use the horse to drag logs of wood from the river bed. Let me add that just like me the horse was under contract with his own quota of daily work to meet. My own pay was seven roubles. That year at the end of March, all we younger ones were sent to work in the forest.
There we met up with groups of people from the villages and collective farms whose job was cutting wood which was then placed in the river bed; statutory work done as part payment of their taxes. My own particular job was with specially selected wood which was made into rafts. What is more the work was considered skillful enough to warrant an allowance of clothes coupons so that, much to my mother’s delight, I was able to purchase a piece of material. My Russian supervisor used to boast that he knew lots of Europe’s capital cities, that he had worked with Lenin and now Stalin had sent him to work in these forests. Of course we passed on among ourselves whatever news came our way via letters from relatives. Rumours of Auntie Anne (England) and Aunty Fran (France) and how in the spring we should be rescued by a sikorka (coal-tit, an allusion to General Sikorski) were constant. In our hearts we knew they were only stories, but in our condition they gave us hope to keep going.
The summer time was much better mainly because there was more food – goat’s milk, berries and mushrooms from the forest, but also because there were white nights. It was also at that time that we heard of the amnesty. We were buoyed up with the idea of common cause against the enemy, and hearing that a Polish army was being formed. Straightaway we sent off our applications. We sold the goat for 900 roubles and made ready for the road by preparing dried bread and living off boiled potatoes and potato soup. By 1st October 1941 with three days’ bread rations in our packs, we left Korekino. At Kotłaś a group of families hired a train for 700 roubles, and we were on our way. Direction – Buzuluk: aim – the Polish army.
If the stay in the north was misery the departure for supposedly better regions was disastrous. At the railway stations were thousands of refugees, both our own people and those fleeing from the approaching Germans. When after nine days we stopped in Perm, I straightaway set off in search of food, bought a few sandwiches at a restaurant and then went back for some more. Coming back in a hurry I jumped onto what I thought was our moving train only to find that we were heading for the Ural Mountains. The wind and cold pierced me to the bone and eventually, thinking I would freeze to death, I curled up on the floor of the open truck. There, only half conscious, preparing myself to leave this world, I pictured myself back home propped against an old leaning fence behind which were beautiful sunflowers and a fine crop of beetroots. It later emerged that one of the guards noticed me and stopped the train.
I was placed in the guards’ van, given hot water and dry bread then, covered with a mound of hay, eventually reached Sverdlovsk. I never did find my original transport number 148 and it was seven whole years before I met up with my mother and sisters again in England. Travelling with a group of compatriots on their way to join the army, I passed through Chelyabinsk, Ufa, Kazan and Kuybyshev. I took any job I could to get food – for example, humping sacks of coal – and ate in station eating halls, along with swarms of mainly women and children refugees – until eventually making it to Buzuluk. Here at long last, I felt safe, and was informed that my choice was either to join the army or travel with other families being directed to Tashkent. So within a few days I was on the route south; Orenburg, Akyubinsk, by the Aral Sea, alongside the River Syr Darya, via Tashkent and Samarkand to Kermine.
Kermine station was one huge refugee camp. Here I met families and individuals like myself separated on route. The open desert stretched all around while chaos and blatant abuse dogged the lives of this congregation of the homeless. The Kara Kum and Kzyl Kum deserts were hostile places while the raging tropical diseases during the next few months claimed the lives of 45% of the people from our osada alone; for example 28 out of 62 people died there. It was a place of starving and misery and a real achievement just to manage to get hold of a bowl of soup - while getting a slice of bread was to deal in dreams. So we set off to find provisions in Bukhara only to discover that things there were even worse. While in Narpay I earned 12 roubles working with the Russians, and with these started bartering for a place on the convoy, when news came through that Poles were being shipped to either India or possibly Persia.
The outcome of all this was evacuation to Chimkent where, only later did I learn, my whole family was, including my father, who at that time was amongst the first forming the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division. However in Chimkent I was still on my own and within a few days moved on with my friends and their families. We travelled through the steppes riding camels. Our first short stop was in a village of mud huts where we had a bowl of gruel and a pancake, and then moved off again. That night we spent in some kind of cattle stalls where I slept cuddled up to a wonderfully warm calf. In the morning we were handed some bread before being back on the road until we eventually reached a larger village where we stayed for a longer length of time. The women in our group employed themselves sewing trousers for the army, so by way of exchange, there was no shortage of mutton. There was also a ready supply of flour and sometimes even a drink of milk. Yet more families arrived and we celebrated Christmas Eve with some pasta, milk and bread baked in the smithy.
On 20 February 1942 I pretended to be two years older than I was and, after a medical examination was registered as a soldier. There was then quite a wait to 3 March before 16 of us ended up with the 8th Division in Chok Pak, where beyond the railway sidings under canvas in a good one metre of snow there were thousands still awaiting call-up.
On 13 March I seemed to be running a temperature and reported sick while we were involved in unloading a train. Someone took my temperature, gave me a tablet saying “Look here, my laddo, just try to save yourself any way you can” (typhoid was all around). Within a short time I was in the infectious diseases block of Mankent Hospital. My temperature was sky high, I was hallucinating and it felt as though someone was holding my neck trying to choke me. I came to one afternoon and it became obvious that I had been unconscious for a few days, and that only injections had saved my life. All this was told me by a very kind nurse. Nevertheless I was so weak that I had to learn how to walk again. Only after a satisfactory X-ray was I told I was completely clear of pneumonia. A week or two later, kitted out in a British uniform, I was discharged from the hospital and passed through Chok Pak to Kermine where I joined the 7th Company of the anti-tank regiment, then learned with utter joy that all my family had already been despatched to Persia. That was a load off my chest I can tell you! Within three months, along with my company, we embarked at Krasnovodsk and via the Caspian Sea arrived at Pahlevi which struck me as being like the Gates of Heaven. There then followed medical examinations, baths, disinfection routines and a change into tropical uniform before we left for Khanaqin in Iraq. It was there on 11 November that I met my father in, of all things, the middle of a football match.
He had just come from Teheran where he had left my mother and sisters from whom, a few months later, we had a letter postmarked Kidugala, Tanganyika, where they remained for the next six years. On the occasion I went to Cairo to collect military vehicles I called in to see my brother Władzio, then in Nazareth.
The rest of my story is tied up with that of the 2nd Polish Corps. There was the Italian Campaign, schooling with the 3rd Carpathian Division and then on to England in an attempt to put my health back together again. In the autumn of 1948 all seven of the family met up in Rednal Camp near Oswestry, England. Now on the wrong side of 70 I still feel well and immensely grateful for my good luck, but know that, at the bottom, I owe my salvation to my mother’s prayers said on my behalf, for I always felt her sheltering wings.