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
DANUTA BYRTUS (SZUBERT)
District (Powiat) Dubno
When war broke out we lived in Dubno, Wołyń. My father was a military settler, a Piłsudski legionnaire, and that is why we were among the first, quite unexpectedly to be snatched from our warm beds at 2 o’clock in the morning on 10 February 1940. I was twelve, my sister fifteen, the younger girls ten and eight and the youngest, our brother, not yet seven. My mother had died in 1938. That night Soviet soldiers, some five or six of them, woke us with insistent banging on the door. One of them realising we were orphans, ordered my older sister to pack some things. She was at a loss to know what to take with us, how long we should be away, and just why all this was happening. Father was held under close guard by the soldiers and forbidden to help us.
This same pattern was used to gather up thousands of people on this and the following nights. A group of NKVD soldiers accompanied by local militia knocked on doors, woke the victims, allowed them little time to pack and escorted them to the nearest railway station where long rows of cattle trucks were waiting for them. Into each wagon a score or so people were squeezed, then the wagon was locked and sealed from the outside. In these wagons a small grating in the wall served as a window, a hole in the floor as a toilet and four large bunk beds as sleeping places for the occupants. The middle of the truck was covered with bundles which contained the entire possessions of these deportees uprooted from their homes without consideration for age, health and sentenced to be eliminated. Everybody was troubled with hunger and thirst and the trucks echoed with the sobbing and wailing of petrified children.
We travelled for a long time, though every few days the train would stop somewhere deep in the country side and we were allowed to gulp breaths of fresh air into our lungs while we gathered snow which we melted for water. But that journey was only the start of extreme poverty and distress for us refugees. At the end of the journey there awaited us yet more destitution, poverty, sickness and slave labour. For thousands, exile was the sentence of death.
It took us forty days before we arrived in Kotlas, Archangel Oblast where we were unloaded from the wagons. There local farmers helped us to clamber onto sledges they had waiting for us and on which they carried us for four days along the banks of the Vychegeda river to the posiolek known as Lednia (nr 134 on Archangelsk map). These little villages had been built by deportees similar to ourselves. They provided shelter for us in log cabin barracks. All adults had to work felling trees in the forest, and children under 16 years of age had to attend Soviet schools. It was also the children’s responsibility to draw water, collect fuel, queue for bread and soup and during the summer, forage for berries and mushrooms in the forest. The rigour of discipline demanded of the deportees depended solely on the camp commandant. In posiolek Lednia the commandant was considered humane. He was just, understood the needs of children, but firm in demanding that the adults met their quota in the tree felling.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 radically changed the situation for the Polish exiles. Towards the end of August news reached just about all Polish groups that the Premier of the Polish Government in London had negotiated a treaty with the Soviet Government in Moscow and the Supreme Soviet had declared an amnesty for the Poles.
Liberated Poles intoxicated with happiness born of freedom, left their places of exile and headed south where a Polish army was being organised and civil authorities set up for the general population. Yet exhausted, hungry, clad in rags and tatters, not all of them reached Kermine which appeared as a God-given haven, but where lack of water and unbearable sun caused outbreaks of typhoid and the acute type of dysentery from which thousands died. One such victim was my father so we were now complete orphans. Our situation worsened by the day as our starved and exhausted physiques were unable to fight off the illness.
The Polish army was keenly aware of the children’s fate and shared their small rations with us. Working with the army were quite a number of volunteers who travelled from one collective farm to another searching out the Polish orphans from Soviet institutions. But it was thanks to the initiative of the Polish Embassy in Kuybyshev – and General Anders that a kindergarten, orphanage and schools were started in each unit of the army. Whenever possible children were allocated a place in one of these, whether it was under canvas, in animal sheds or dilapidated Uzbek huts. Such lodgings regularly turned into hospitals.
After my arrival at one of these official places in Kermine I joined the cadets and so later moved with others to Karkin-Batash in Uzbekistan. Not long after I became ill with typhoid fever and, with a soaring temperature and severe headache, was taken to hospital by a hired Uzbek on his arba. We travelled along a stony country road with the sun mercilessly beating down on my uncovered head. I never thought I would live through that day. Much later on, after I recovered, one day as I was on my way to school with a group of other children, I remember seeing that same Uzbek leading his arba loaded high with corpses and skeletons. These were Poles from collective farms. The ditch by which he stopped became their grave. Such episodes were an everyday occurrence. Here I must add that no transport was organised for us to leave Siberia. We travelled on goods trains as stowaways. We never knew when the train would stop and for how long. At such halts people went off to find food, or just to beg for food and drink. Very often the train moved leaving some behind. Such people, and this happened to my sister, were forced to work in stone quarries for the duration of the war. Thanks to God’s help she endured to the end of hostilities, returned to her homeland and now lives in Wrocław.
Our departure from the Soviet Union promised us freedom in Persia but sight of the Promised Land in Pahlevi was denied many people. On the ship itself were dozens of very sick people. They were on the deck open to the hot sun, without water, very weak, exhausted and regularly trodden on by those who were stronger. Those that did arrive in Pahlevi were welcomed by our soldiers providing warm food, a change of clothing and words of comfort. Then a swim in the sea. What a luxury!
The years which followed were filled with scouting, education, stays in camps in India, departures to England, marriage, work in a hospital and finally retirement in my second homeland on English soil in Cambridge: how completely different at this stage of my life from the horrific events of my youth!
PART OF A SPEECH FOR THE OPENING OF THE STEFAN BATORY UNIVERSITY IN WILNO
All nations and all countries have borderlands. Ill-starred and precarious is the lot of the towns and villages of any such borderland. When the winds howl their buildings’ foundations are the first to be shaken; when the storm-clouds gather their cornfields the first to be lashed; when the thunderclaps roll their towers and houses the first to be buffeted. Even while back there, at the core of a nation’s culture, the sun may continue to smile on the people, here black night may still hold sway. And when the time comes, when Fate requires that winter shroud the entire state with snow – it’s here – in the borderlands – that frost and ice prove the most severe, right here where people catch their breath, where life-blood freezes in their veins.
Ill-starred indeed are the borderlands. And yet it is also here where rests the truest contentment. A contentment emanating from that certainty gained from long-suffering and sacrifice and not engendered by a boastfulness of having wrestled with fate and won. It is a tender, comfortable contentment, almost child-like in its naïveté, which wells up from sublime depths of the native culture itself. J.Piłsudski, 11th October 1919