The family of Antoni Leonowicz at the front of their house at Osada Bolesławice in 1936

A Siberian scene

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​S T A L I N ' S  E T H N I C  C L E A N S I N G​​
Tales of the Deported 1940-1946
ISBN 1 872286 88 7

Province (Województwo) WOŁYŃ


District (Powiat) Równe

I was ten when the war broke out. We lived on the military settlement of Bolesławice, five kilometres from the district town of Równe. The family was made up of my parents and four children; three brothers and myself.

Life passed without a care, full of adventures for us children. Three of us attended the seven-class school in Żytoń-Cukrownia. For their part my parents were most content with each little success and achievement which came their way and, full of optimism, planned a rosy future. That pleasant life stopped with the outbreak of war. From that moment on I can remember a lot of very gloomy stories, indeed some these events are lodged in my mind with the utmost clarity. Amongst them is the bombardment of the town and villages and the multitudes of refugees. But the first days of the war dominate the overall picture. I recall that the weather that September was glorious. In the orchards the fruits were ripening, enormous sunflowers bowed their heads and, here and there, as we approached the potato harvest season, gossamer threads made their first appearance.

The Red Army’s invasion of Poland happened on the 17th September. Since we lived close to the Równe-Tyczyn road we could easily see the passing tanks of our ‘liberators’.

It’s from this time that we began to endure days of nightmarish dread. Father was arrested and we watched as he was taken away to an army vehicle already loaded with settlers. Terror and fear descended on us all. Before long some Ukrainians from the nearest village formed a committee ostensibly to ‘protect’ the military settlers. These were the ones who helped to evict us. Even before that happened they were already dividing amongst themselves settlers’ belongings such as livestock and farm machinery. Let me add that there was an equal number who genuinely helped us. Because mother was local, having been born in Wolyń, she declared that nothing would shift us from our home so we, with families in a similar position, were allowed to stay on our farm exactly as before except that a young family with two children was lodged with us. Added to this, the registration of my parents’ ownership was rescinded. With all this happening Christmas turned into a very downcast affair. In school they started teaching us Ukrainian so I decided that I no longer wished to attend. In this sort of atmosphere January passed by and then on 10th February deportation into the unknown.

That day, engraved on our memories for ever, was very cold and frosty. With no provisions whatever, not even bread, we were loaded onto waiting sledges and moved on our way. Aza, the four-legged sharer of our games and pastimes, lolloped behind us. She was shooed away from time to time by an armed soldier and, until we guessed that he was really soft-hearted, we were afraid that he would shoot her. Eventually he allowed her to join us on the sledge where she whined with delight licking each of our faces in turn. In this way we reached Lubomirka station, where along with other settlers, not just those from our osada, we were loaded onto cattle trucks. From Lubomirka we were moved to Równe, probably to complete the transport. Up to now the wagons were not closed so we enjoyed the benefit of fresh air but at Równe we were loaded onto bigger cattle trucks and, with the doors completely bolted we moved eastwards. Yet, as I say, the wagons were quite spacious.

On both sides were racks of beds made from boards; at the roofline were two small windows; in the middle an iron stove with a pipe up from it through the roof and in one corner a small opening in the floor for use as a toilet. Thus provided we reached Szepetowka. Aza, of course, was still travelling with us, but father, appreciating as the dog was a living creature she needed to relieve herself, decided that we would have to get rid of her. Thus at one of the stops and with the help of his friends, he lifted Aza up to the window and, with a heavy heart, he threw her outside. As the train moved we spied her for quite a long time running alongside but, as we rounded a corner, we eventually lost sight of her.

Travelling in our wagon were the families of Różycki, Balant, Nowak, and Tyrski: 30 people altogether. As a group we reached Privodino where we spent the night in a school. Next evening we were loaded into the wagons of a narrow-gauge train, packed like a tin of sardines with mothers cuddling their screaming infants as we travelled throughout the night. When the train did stop and the wagon doors were thrown open a white wilderness stretched before us. On this snow-white plain under the clear Siberian sky there was just our transport and a few sledges harnessed to one horse. The sledges were of a very low two-part construction specially designed for collecting logs in the forest. Nevertheless they were now used to transport us to our destination. In fact posiolek Kotowalsk was not far from the railway and consisted of no more than two barrack huts, a general kitchen, a small shop and a bath-house. The living quarters were divided into two sections in each of which stood a large brick stove. The walls were fitted with levels of bunk beds on to which we squeezed one after another so that at long last we could stretch our cold, wet legs.

Next day all the men and young people were roused and taken into the forest where, in atrocious conditions, after being supplied with huge saws and axes, they were put to work felling trees. In the snow-covered, frozen forest they worked from early morning to late at night before they returned to the barracks cold, wet and hungry. It was not long before the Siberian winter made life unbearable. Here and there one came across a crying mother clutching her dead child, but the first adult who died was our osada neighbour Wincenty Tchórzewski. For each dead person, no matter what age, we dug a grave between the towering spruce and pines.

However we didn’t stay here all that long. In a while we were sorted out yet again. Childless families were moved to two nearby posioleks – Molodikh and Stryga – the rest, that is the majority, were moved to posiolek Monastyriok, in the postal district of Privodino. The site was very beautiful, built by a tributary of the river Dvina. Here one’s attention was drawn to an old attractive Russian Orthodox Church of which the huge dome surmounted with crosses dominated the entire countryside. However this church had been converted into a shop down one side with a soup kitchen down the other, while its monastic buildings alongside were now used as a school. To this school went the Polish children as well as the locals. As for the posiolek it consisted of a number of barrack huts and the commandant’s office. It had been an old political prison and it was still surrounded by a very high wooden palisade. Bit by bit this fence began to disappear as the Poles, wishing to be sociable, took it down – arguing that it was a shame to let it obstruct the view of the neighbouring villages and their people.

Besides which, with it out of the way, it was easier to sneak out to do some bartering in the village. At this place most people worked stacking timber on the landing stage. My father’s particular job was sharpening saws and other tools, but the majority of the men were formed into brigades and were used to load logs on the rafts or were employed in the saw mills from where they rolled logs down to the river for floating downstream.

We were allocated in one half of the hut which we shared with the Różyckis from our osada. These huts were made out of huge logs of wood with the gaps between sealed up with moss – the perfect hatching place for huge bed bugs while, in any nook or cranny where there was the possibility of food, one could find cockroaches.

Spring came very late in Siberia and it was well into May before explosives were used to break up the ice in the river. Along with the explosions a huge number of stunned fish were thrown into the air and those which landed on the banks we readily collected.

During the spring the commandant encouraged people to create little gardens but, apart from father and Mr Różycki, who dug up a piece of land near one hut for potatoes and vegetables, no-one paid much attention. There were even those who mocked their efforts hinting that they were probably thinking of taking up permanent residence. However the following spring everyone realised the advantage of cultivating their little plots for during the short growing season – the period of white nights – one could grow anything here, even cucumbers. What is more, very early on we discovered that the forest contained its own treasures, and abundance of bilberries and mushrooms. As a complete group, we would go off into the forest where we generally made a bonfire, firstly to keep off the swarms of mosquitos, but also to roast the potatoes filched from the collective farms.

While in the forest we quite often came across cows from the farm, gentle and so tame that it was easy to milk them which is exactly what our mothers used to do. Needless to say we were so eager for milk that we were far from slow in coming forward with our beakers at the ready.

There came the time when the posiolek authorities’ began to renovate and upgrade the barracks so that each family had a room with a kitchen. Our living conditions were thus more comfortable and made more so when my father created a cellar where he stored provisions especially for the winter. In this cellar we kept a barrel of sauerkraut, another of salted mushrooms (a skill my mother learned from the Russian women) and of course our priceless potatoes.

Then from time to time we would receive parcels from our family. A lot of our clothing that we had left with neighbours was posted on by our uncle who always packed with them a bit of fat, tea and tobacco, the last of which, here in the north, was worth its weight in gold. There were also quite a number of villages and collective farms not very far from the posiolek where with our mothers – and sometimes on our own – we would go to barter goods for food. In general the Russians were good, kind-hearted people who sympathised with our misery, so that they quite often treated us to bread made into very large flat loaves which they called myakkoye (softies). In lots of their houses one noticed icons lit by oil lamps, a testament to their depth of faith.

In one nearby village I got to know a very poor Russian woman whose only possession was one cow. I used to take her scraps of food collected from the kitchen by secretly passing it through a hole in the fence and in return I would occasionally get a drop of milk. This reminds me that my parents became the owner of a goat, some people even had a chance of buying a cow, so there came to be quite a few such animals on the posiolek.

Gienek, my eldest brother, helped my father with his different tasks while my job was to look after the house and the two younger ones, Julek and Janek. Julek helped me in carrying water but it was well beyond our combined strength for it was a long way to the well. Winter only increased the difficulties for, covered with ice, the well had only a small aperture down which to lower the bucket which one had to be very careful not to lose completely. This expedition which we repeated many times daily involved dragging the bucket in turn, resting from time to time, only to find when we arrived back that we were covered in ice and the bucket had retained very little water.

Our half of the barrack housed four families, two on each side; our family, the Wojciks, Nowaks and Piotrowskis. Each family, no matter what number of people, had the same space and that means one room and the kitchen. Through the centre of the barracks ran a corridor where there were some stoves which in winter kept that area warm and comfortable. On this corridor all the children, and there was quite a number of us, sort of nested. We would play games, act out little plays, even cry and wail but no-one bothered about us. The over-riding tragedy was that it was the children and the weak who were the first candidates for the journey to eternity. It was a common sight to witness pine coffins issuing from different barracks on their way to burial in the cemetery of Privodino.

On warm days we spent a lot of time where our mothers did both their washing and some fishing. At those times we would cross the river on a raft and sometimes such expeditions ended in tragedy. On the opposite bank we also collected sorrel and chives from the beautiful meadows which were part of the village and collective farm of Skoroduma which was not far from the posiolek. Moreover as we went back and forth to the forest we noticed large fields full of cabbages. During the day these were watched over by Poles but at night there was no-one around so a few of us went off with sacks to gather some. No matter that it was already snowing and the frozen ground was crunching under our feet, as soon as we were among the cabbages we cut off their heads not bothering whether they were big or little – all disappeared into our sacks.

Once Hitler had attacked Russia hope began to blossom in the hearts of the deportees. Rumours spread that because of the “amnesty” we were to be given our freedom. So that – by August, I think – some had left the posiolek possibly to join the Polish army which we heard was being formed.

Thanks to the goat’s milk my mother’s health returned. Then she would occasionally go to the village to exchange whatever she had for food – and sometimes to act as a fortune teller, the involvement in which came about by sheer chance. Because she spoke Russian she would often chat with the local women and would be invited in with them to have tea with prikuska. On one occasion, just for a laugh, she read what was in the cards for one of these women. As it happened, what mother foretold came about – the woman’s son only half-expected on leave from the front, actually turned up. Throughout the village the news spread like wild-fire and mother started a fortune telling career in exchange for food. This food situation was further helped when my eldest brother, though still young, landed a job delivering bread. At the time this meant a great deal since he would manage to put some of it on one side and, in anticipation of a future move, mother would dry it. Gienek was also helping the situation by stealing from his horse. He did this by diverting part of the animal’s ration of oats into the specially concealed pockets stitched in his trousers. Then mother swapped her winter coat for a sack of barley – and all this collected cereal we milled in a hand mill. This was exceptionally arduous work, so we took it in turn to move the heavy stone – but it did mean that we made a fair amount of crushed oats and barley which for weeks on end was our only food.


There we met other groups of our compatriots from different posioleks, all like us intent on moving south. They were all very haggard, wrapped in nothing but rags yet full of hope and brimming with confidence for the future. We managed to negotiate an allocation of bread but, as usual, had to queue for ages. Only those adults who could produce a Document of Release were eligible for the bread ration, but it was quickly realised that by using a crust of the bread the mark on the paper could be rubbed out and then we would go up for another portion.

Eventually the train became available and news spread quickly throughout the camp. Again we loaded our bundles into the familiar cattle trucks, this time as a free people, having to pay for the privilege. So we moved on our way, once more engulfed into this herd of human bodies as we clambered across to our bunk beds. We passed through forests, mountains and steppes. The train would stop when and wherever it wanted without anyone knowing for how long. We trundled through Kirov, Svierdlovsk, Czelyabinsk, and Tashkent. Just two wagons arrived in Alma-Ata near the foot of the Tien-shan mountains close to the Chinese border. Every station looked exactly the same; drab, miserable and covered with multitudes of people. At these stations the dead were taken off the wagons. At one of these halts we were jolted by prolonged screaming and we found out the parents of a child who had died in that particular wagon had decided to hold on to his body so that they might eventually bury him in whatever place proved to be the end of their journey. To this end they had wrapped the child’s corpse in a bit of a blanket, bound this with string and hung this bundle on the outside of the wagon so that it travelled with them but in the cold. Now that bundle had disappeared, so the parents were in the utmost distress. As luck would have it, the bundle was recovered - probably returned by some thief once he realised what were its contents.

On the return from Alma-Ata we reached station Yakkobag and from there Chirakchi in Turkmenia where Polish army units were already encamped. We were pushed out onto a vast open space. Since it was March it was already much warmer.

We were very pleased to be close to the army and many of the men, including my father, first enlisted and were dispatched to other units. Things turned out less luckily for some of our group who had to go to distant collective farms. As for us and a few of our friends we found a quiet haven here, only to fall victims to such illnesses as typhoid and the bloody type of dysentery. First Janek fell ill, to be followed by the eldest Gienek and both were taken into a hospital. Then mother began to feel poorly, but to prevent being sent to a collective farm she and Miss Stefa took work as office cleaners. Whenever mama was too weak with stomach complaints I stepped in, washing floors in her place, a skill I had learned in the posiolek during my mother’s illness. At that time our home was near the river, a small mud hut surrounded by an apricot grove; it was like Heaven on earth. For more food we visited the military kitchens daily where our soldiers shared their rations with us.

One day we were joined by a dog, probably because he was so hungry. I offered him what remained of my soup which he wolfed down and then waited around for more. He would stretch himself out by our hut basking in the sun. He was quite a big dog who eventually repaid my care with a very great favour. You see we used to receive a daily allocation of bread and it was my job to go alone each evening to collect it. Since I realised that the local people were not very amicable towards us, going on that errand for bread made me very nervous, so I would take the dog along with me holding him by his ear. He proved very loyal and would sit outside the shop waiting for me.

By March the sun was warming up the soil and helping mother’s strength to return. All around the huts the trees burst into blossom. We busied ourselves airing the bedding and felt a desperate need to do some laundry but the scarcity of fuel meant there was no hot water. However near the huts there were some toilets, without doors of course, but the door frames remained so, along with Miss Stefa we assessed the situation and in no time at all the site was cleared and the laundry completed.

One day Julek told us that somebody was recruiting for the Cadets and that, since he was legally too young, he had added a year to his age and had already enlisted. It was being whispered that both the army and the Cadets were going abroad within a few days but then we also were ordered to pack. We loaded our bundles onto a lorry, gathered our two sick brothers from the hospital and set off for Krasnovodsk. On the station there was quite a commotion as the Soviets were preventing the sick from going on board. I carried Janek on my back but Gienek was so sick he was unable to walk unaided. He was stopped. I recall ambulances waiting to ferry the sick to hospital.

We were treated to a farewell dinner – a bowl of hot soup and a chunk of bread. That evening we found ourselves on the lowest deck of the ship. Then, because the Soviet authorities had provided dried bread and salted herrings for the journey, it was not long before an enormous queue formed for boiling water and getting to a lavatory became impossible. The sight of that deck was absolutely disgusting with soldiers and civilians crammed in side by side.

Persia welcomed us with warm rays of sunshine. We hesitantly surveyed this strange land and the friendly Persians. In Pahlevi we met up with Julek wearing a uniform too big for him and a smile on his face. We were entranced watching a Persian man selling pancakes, hard-boiled eggs, cigarettes and oriental delicacies. In Pahlevi we underwent quarantine, enjoyed a short rest, and then set off on the tortuous journey along the serpentine road to Teheran.

Once there we gazed in awe at the expensive shops on wide avenues. We were accommodated in the First Camp, incredibly happy at having escaped from Russia. Now we could rely on hot meals and constant care, for here, behind a gate on the other side of Teheran, there was a huge tented hospital, where before long, I ended up. Actually there were insufficient beds so many of the sick lay on straw mats alongside each other. Equally the lack of precise records made it difficult to locate anybody, as epidemics raged and the mortality rate was sky high.

Once I regained consciousness and mother was allowed to visit me I knew I was getting better. My convalescence lasted a few weeks which I passed in a health clinic in the mountains where we again had plenty of food. After returning to the camp I became one of a group of those who had been patients together and we would go for walks which often took us past the cemetery where burials occurred every day. Indeed a great number of our compatriots were left in Teheran; they sleep their eternal rest in very hospitable Persian soil.

Once Camp No  3 was organised we lived there under canvas where, under the greenery of fig trees, there splashed a fast flowing stream only adding to the charm of these beautiful surroundings.

With the arrival of August we were on the next stage of our journey, this time to far-away Africa. On the way to Ahvaz we passed through numerous and sometimes very long tunnels. Whilst we waited for the ship we lodged in vast stables built by Germans. I recall huge eating troughs, tall gates and unbearable heat.

We sailed slowly down the Persian Gulf both banks of which for a few days were embellished with huge ornamental palms. Having arrived in Karachi we were transferred onto the luxury liner “Orion”. On board we had games, plays, cinema, a swimming pool and lots of music and dancing. The entire journey lasted six weeks and it is more than likely that we were the first contingent of Poles to arrive in Mombasa.

Going through Kenya we watched out for wild animals while the local population viewed us with equal interest. As we arrived at the station in Nairobi we were given a royal welcome by people coming to the train windows bringing us mounds of fruit and sweets.

We were now nearing the end of our journey – Masindi – a newly built village in the bush. It was to be our haven for the next six years. The village had four streets and a water pump at its centre. The houses were built out of elephant grass and were equipped with beds, tables and benches. Ten people were assigned to each house; provisions came from the store. Shortly after our arrival more groups arrived, so more houses were built, so that there were eventually five villages and the total population was about five thousand. Offices, schools, a hospital, a scouting facility and places to work were all set up. Education in Masindi was well catered for as there were three primary schools, three grammar schools – co-educational, specialist Humanities, Commercial and Tailoring Schools. At first things were difficult because of the lack of books and other equipment, but the results were fantastic thanks to the magnificent group of teachers.

As time passed by conditions in the settlement improved still further. The villages were smothered in flowers amongst which we planted banana and paw-paw trees.

Through communal effort, as witness of our stay in Masindi and out of the initiative of Father F. Winczowski a church was built. I stayed there with my mother and younger brother Janek. My mother was employed in the sewing workshop; my brother and I attended grammar school.

For a long time now both our parents have been resting in local cemeteries and now we, their children are old. Behind us are the years which taught us to bear difficulties and suffering. Incredibly 55 years have passed since we left our homeland, but it is said that time heals wounds and only the scars remain. I always dreamt that one day I would visit our family home which happened in 1993 when with my eldest brother Gienek and my daughter Ewa and I visited Wolyń, especially that part still very dear to us. It was a memorable occasion, and I am so very happy that I was able to return and gaze upon the land for which our fathers so bravely fought.

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Exit Certificate from the USSR

The next Christmas arrived and along with it a great surprise – a full day free from work and the last of our group receiving a certificate representing freedom. Our joy was boundless but at the same time tinged with uncertainty. We now faced such questions as where to go and what did the future hold. It was common knowledge that in Kotłaś there was an Agency dealing with Poles so when at the start of the New Year of 1942 we were supplied with sledges, disregarding the frost we moved out heading for Kotłaś . 

My father served in the 2nd Polish Corps in Italy, Gienek reached the Air Force School in Heliopolis (Egypt) and Julek, the middle one, the Mechanical School in Palestine. We were in regular contact with each other throughout our stay in Uganda, financially helped by my father. We lived in Masindi until the end of the war not knowing which way the die would eventually fall, but dreaming of returning to Poland.

In 1948 we came to England to join father and our two brothers. Already adults we began new chapters of our lives, together again after an extended separation. In the British Isles we had to overcome a number of difficulties. The climate was different as was the environment. We had to undertake hard and often dirty jobs. We did not know the language; but in spite of everyday worries we set up homes and started new families.

The first winter of exile proved difficult to endure and life was miserable. On two occasions mummy contracted pneumonia, which was terrible especially when she was confined to a hospital many kilometres distant from the posiolek. At such times I found myself standing in the daily bread queue, attending the soup-kitchen for the oat porridge ration, then acting as housekeeper, an added duty with which I found difficulty in coping. 

Father with his sons, Eugeniusz (Gienek) and Juliusz (Julek) 1947

The Leonowicz children: Eugeniusz, Jan, Juliusz and Henryka

Family Reunion in England - Foxley, 1948

M. Leonowicz with her daughter, Henryka, and son, Jan.

 Masindi, Africa. 1947