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
District (Powiat) Dubno
After 17 September, we all knew that this was a new partition of Poland. All those fugitives returned to their homes in the west of Poland, by and large, after the Soviet invasion. That was just the beginning of that migration of millions of Poles, those journeys, those flights from the invaders and from battlegrounds, and then the transport and the round-ups.
But I must return to that momentous early morning and to that house which looked more like a place of execution than a family home. You could hear my mother and the younger children crying - questions about where we were going, how long for, what we should take - which no-one could answer. We took warm clothes, eiderdowns, pillows, cooking utensils, documents and photographs. I took my school reports, some books and some exercise books (why?). All six of us were loaded onto a sleigh.
We arrived in Zdołbunów in the early morning. The Strances and the Przanowskis, our relatives from Julianówka met us outside the railway carriages. The news of the deportation of the settlers, of the state officials, the officers and the policemen had spread all round the district. Our country was being stripped bare of its people.
Our family had brought us some flour, pork fat and bread. In Zdołbunów, we were packed into goods trains very hurriedly. In each carriage, there was a space in the middle, in front of the door, and on either side of that there were three rows of boards serving as beds. There was so little room between the beds that you could just about sit on a board - and no more. It was also very cramped, because the majority of us had come under our own steam and so we had quite a lot of things with us (and it was just as well that we did - t was those things which helped to keep many of us alive later).
At that moment, however, there was no thought of the future journey. Outside the carriages, there were families and friends waiting and there were farewells to be made. I could see the tears on the faces of Stanisław and Władysław Stranc (they are both still alive), Bolesław Stranc, Kazimierz Stranc (who was murdered later together with his sister Lucyna by the Ukrainians), all of my mother’s brothers, and Józef Przanowski who was married to Helena Stranc. They were so sorry, that they had brought us so little, but they hadn’t known if they would be allowed to give us even those things they had brought with them. Apart from us, they also supplied the Huszcza family and the Morlewskis of Bortnica with provisions.
Nobody knew where we were going. You couldn’t see anything out of the carriages except what could be glimpsed fleetingly through the cracks in the carriage. People were all crowded on top of one another - adults and children alike. It was overcrowded, stuffy and cold in there. There was nowhere to cook. Only when we stopped at stations were the specially-appointed representatives allowed to go and fetch some boiling water, or kipyatok, as it was known. The carriage shown in the film Dr Zhivago was luxurious in comparison. We weren’t hungry but, as the days passed, we became more and more dirty. There was no toilet either; this was a considerable embarrassment to begin with, until a provisional lavatory with a hole in the flooring and a blanket was made.
Throughout the journey, there was never any question of our being allowed to go out either at a station or in a field. Despite that, the train stopped often, in empty fields as well as at stations. The winter of 1940 was exceptionally severe and long and, if we had not brought warm bedding and clothes, there might well have been cases of people dying of the cold.
The journey lasted a long time, several weeks in fact. One night, we could see we were going past a large town because there were so many lights. We could hear people saying it was Kirov, and now we knew that we were heading north, or north-east.
We were taken off the train at Kotlas which was the last town on the northern line in the Archangel province. Nowadays, Kotlas is a large town of nearly 100,000 inhabitants with an airport, factories, a cellulose industry, etc. In 1940, however, its population was about 15,000. But even then, it was quite an important timber centre, containing saw-mills and warehouses.
In Kotlas, we were put onto sleighs and there followed a journey of several days to a settlement called Yeluga, on the River Yeluga which flows into the Yorga which, in turn, flows into the Dvina. Yeluga was an outpost consisting of some wooden barracks which had been built by transportees from Byelorussia and Ukraine during the 20s and 30s. Apart from the barracks themselves, there was a public bathhouse and a large building which was used as an office building, a store, a school, a warehouse and so on. Each barrack had an enormous stove right in the middle of it. There were beds of boards, each one, two or three metres long, running along the walls. Our family, consisting of six people, spent 18 months, more or less, living on just such a bed of board. It was our whole home. We slept on it, ate on it, and we stored all our things on it. There was no shortage of wood there, so it was quite warm in our barrack, which was shared by the following families: Wójs, Sułkowski, Urban Bortniczak (a forest ranger), Dąbrowski (a gamekeeper), Gołębiowski (a game-keeper), Drewniak, Kalinowski, Proniewicz. People, like Morlewski, Huszcza, Idkowiak, Smoleński, their families, everyone from Bortnica, Gazda from Kraśnica near Dubno, all lived in the neighbouring outpost of Ust Zaruba on the River Yorga, a tributary of the Dvina.
After a couple of days’ rest we were put to work, to the lesozagotovka or logging. The men were employed in felling the trees and stacking them up along the banks of the Yeluga while the women and children were put to the trimming. Throughout nearly the whole of our stay there, I had a horse which I had to use to carry the timber to the river-side. In the summer, the logs would be floated down the Dvina to Archangel. Winter in those parts lasted eight or nine months; the rest of the year it was summer. But it was hard to choose which was preferable: the dry winter or the swampy, mosquito-infested summer.
The work would begin while it was still dark. We used to have to walk several kilometres to our place of work, six days a week or, if the quotas had not been achieved, seven days a week. We’d take bread and kipyatok with us. In the evenings, we would get soup and bread for the next day. In our family, it was my father and I who worked there regularly. My mother worked in the outpost and, in the summer, she would gather vegetables and mushrooms. Besides that, she looked after the youngest, Zbyszek. My sister and other brother would go to school.
There was no time for any entertainments or other pastimes - nothing but work, work, and work. We were constantly being threatened: If you don’t work you won’t eat.
The camp commandant was a Russian party-member called Perogov. The superintendent of the work in the forests was a man called Sławecki. He came from a Polish family and had been exiled there from Byelorussia as had many other Poles during the inter-war years. It was families like this that had built the outposts of Yeluga and Ust Zaruba. They had been in exile for some 20 years and they had begun to lose any faith that they might ever be allowed to return to their homes. We, on the other hand, refused to concede defeat and we would constantly claim that we would get back to Poland one day - to which Mr Sławecki always had one standard response. He used to say: ‘When the River Dvina starts to flow south, that’s when you’ll go back to your homes’. Mr Sławecki was very interested in Poland, and we used to tell him about life as it had been in a free and independent Poland. He had known nothing about it because he had had nowhere to learn it from. No papers, other than Izvestia and Pravda, ever reached the exiled.
Mr Sławecki had the responsibility of ensuring that the quotas imposed from above would be met. But he always used to show special consideration towards the younger workers; he always used to add numbers to our totals. It was vital that we did carry out the quotas because it was that, which determined whether or not we would get our allocation of bread and other food, and our allowance for felt boots and warm caftans. Despite the hard work and the poor living conditions, our family did not go hungry during this period. Not only did we have our supplies with us, but we occasionally received food parcels from the Stranc family and from uncle Przanowski. Those parcels were a real life-saver. They contained port fat, dripping, bacon, sugar and honey. Those families which did not get any food parcels had a really hard time of it.
Apart from long conversations, the evenings were spent singing hymns and, during May, there were also the evening devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
World news was non-existent; there were no papers and no radio there. We heard nothing until one day, in June 1941, Mr Sławecki brought us a copy of Izvestia and showed us an article on the front page about the outbreak of the Soviet-German war. This caused quite a stir in the camp. Mr Sławecki admitted that the situation had changed; he himself was expecting to be called up any day. The older people started to discuss what they should do. But nobody was allowed out of the camp at that time; we were made to go on working.
We heard about the amnesty granted to the Poles and the formation of a Polish army in August. My father and a few other men left Yeluga in September 1941; he told us that he would let us know where we were to go and join him. Unfortunately, no news of him ever came through to us there. The authorities in the outpost were, however, in a position to let us go, and they started to issue the relevant documents.
Our family, the five of us then, i.e. my mother and I, my sister and two brothers, set out for Kotlas in November 1941. Only this time we were not provided with sleighs, nor were we accompanied by guards on our route. We set out on our journey on foot and with a small sledge where the youngest brother, Zbyszek, now aged seven, sat with all our belongings.
We would walk a few kilometres during the day and, at night, we would stop at similar outposts to our own, or in ancient villages. We always managed to come across a house where they would take us in for the night, either in the kitchen, or in their places next to the brick ovens which they would give up for us. Some of those people even offered us potatoes, or gruel, or soup, even though these hosts of ours weren’t actually well-off either.
Eventually, we reached Kotlas. It was purgatory there. There were thousands of people arriving from all points of the compass. And they were all waiting for trains to take them south, to where the Polish army was being formed. There was a Polish office, or mission there, but it could give us no answer whatsoever. They could only advise us to make our own arrangements as far as accommodation, food, and the journey south were concerned. Acquaintances we came across would warn us to be very careful about our belongings because there were a great many thieves in the town: Russians who had escaped from the camps, and Poles who had already been there for quite some time and who no longer had any means left.
The written testimonial from Yeluga that my father had gone to enlist in the army helped our cause and eventually we got onto a train going to the south of Russia. We had to pay for the tickets ourselves; the money we got by selling some of our personal belongings. People were saying that, in the Tashkent and Samarkand regions, we would find an organised Polish life.
We found some space in a goods carriage. Everything in it was in poor repair and very primitive, but there was slightly more room in that than there had been during our journey to Kotlas. The transport train was made up of several dozen carriages. Throughout the journey, carriages would be uncoupled and attached to other trains. Thus, my uncle Gryglicki and his family were in a carriage which was removed from our train half-way through somewhere.
We were making our way south; it was getting warmer and warmer in the carriages. But things were getting much worse where food was concerned. Our supplies had run out and it was almost impossible to buy anything at all. Occasionally, we did manage to get a ration of bread on the strength of our passes, but that happened only vary rarely indeed. So we had to live almost exclusively on bread, hard tack, infusions made out of dried raspberries or blackberries and kipyatok.
There was no chance at all to buy any milk or dairy products and, yet, we had a child with us. Our seven-year-old Zbyszek was getting more and more pale; he’d grown sad, nothing could make him smile, he wouldn’t look out of the carriage, he was wasting away. The train moved on for a couple of weeks; there was filth all over the place, we all started to get lice, rumours began to circulate that people were going down with typhus. We were in a state of constant apprehension about Zbyszek and, somehow, we managed to keep getting food for him, though he no longer wanted to eat anything.
Before we got to Tashkent we were ordered off the train in some small unknown township. We started to wait for the next convoy. Zbyszek was still very sick. There was no hope of finding a doctor or a hospital. And in this unknown place, in some anonymous hut, one night Zbyszek died. My mother and I put him on a stretcher and carried him to the clinic. The local authorities were arranging the funeral, and we were not allowed to participate in it. It was there that we met up with uncle Gryglicki again; he had re-joined the transport by then. His elder daughter, Stasia, had also died on the journey and he had had to leave her as we were leaving Zbyszek.
We moved on a fortnight later. It was getting warmer all the time. During the stops on the journey, we used to climb out of our carriages, take off our shirts and start attacking the lice. On the small stations you could buy something or do a bit of bartering.
We sold off all our warmer things. It’s difficult today to establish what route we took during that journey because the train would keep changing route, or back-tracking and then going on a completely different line. But we did pass through the following main towns: Kotlas, Kirov, Perm, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Karaganda and Tashkent. We reached Uzbekistan at last but, instead of being directed to camps which would be close to the army, we were sent to Kenimech, a kolkhoz (collective farm) not far from Katta-Kurgan.
It was a cotton-growing kolkhoz. Food was as hard to come by there as it had been during our journey south, or in the north. We were quartered in a mud hut without any furniture, and we had to sleep on the ground. There were other Polish families in that and in other kolkhozes nearby. We were driven out to work in the cotton fields. There was hardly any pay to be had, and the rations were no better than starvation level. Rumours of widespread thieving were rife. And it was there that someone stole our last suitcase. It had nothing of any value in it by that time, but it did contain documents, photographs, birth and marriage certificates. Nobody returned those to us and so, from then on, we would have to rely on affidavits.
Cases of typhus became more and more frequent. My mother and sister both went down with it. After they had recovered, I set out to Kermine in order to enlist in the army. Although I was not yet 18, I was allowed to join the 7th Infantry Division. I was issued with a uniform and started on my training. During one of the parades, I suddenly fell to the ground and I recovered consciousness only in hospital. That is how typhus often started its course.
After I’d recovered, I met my mother again - this time in Kermine. When she saw me in an army uniform, she burst into tears. She had come to Kermine to find me and to learn more about the projected departure for Persia, news of which had spread among the Polish families like wild-fire. I left Kermine on 28 March 1942; my mother, together with my sister and brother, left for Persia, through Krasnovodsk to Pahlevi, in April 1942.
The 7th Division was formed in Kermine and it was to Kermine that, later, all the families preparing to leave would gather. And it was there, that thousands of people managed to get with the last ounces of strength. It was there, that people who had only scarcely managed to make their way to Kermine fell victim to various diseases: jaundice, chronic gastric sicknesses and, most often of all, typhus. To begin with, the dead used to be buried in individual graves, but later the bodies would be put into vast communal graves. I can still see the processions of carts full of corpses, or the members of families carrying their relatives or friends on stretchers to those graves. And it was there that, one day, a monument to the Unknown Pole should be erected.
I am quite certain that one could write a whole book, or at least an extensive memoir, about each of the families I’ve mentioned. I would like to give a few details about my own family and friends in much abbreviated form. My mother and sister left Persia for Tanganyika where they stayed in the camp for military families until 1947. My brother remained in the Cadet School Palestine until 1944. Father died in England in 1946, and mother a year later. My sister now lives in London and my brother in Wales.
The Gryglickis (both dead now) came to England with their daughter Antonina; their other daughter, Stasia, died in the Soviet Union. Of the Huszcza family, only one son, Bronisław, is still alive today; he is living in Luton. The father died in the Soviet Union, the mother died quite recently in England, and the brother, Antoni, fell at Monte Cassino. The greatest losses in our family were suffered by the Morlewski of Bornica, near Dubno: three sons, Longin, Józef and Stanisław died in exile. The fourth son Zbigniew, is living with his parents in London.
The Lachowicz family were sent into exile from Lwów. Olga Lachowicz and her sons Zbigniew and Stefan settled in England. Stefan Lachowicz is living in Tunbridge Wells now; his mother and brother died in England.
The following families settled in England: Wójs, Sułkowski, Smoleński, Idkowiak, Swirski, Urban. Józefowski went straight to Poland from Italy. The Wypijewski and Brzychcy families settled in the United States; Paweł Borowiec, only son of Franciszek Borowiec, is living in the Argentine. Of Wawrzyniec Borowiec’s six children, only one daughter survived the Soviet Union; during the war. She and her mother lived in Tanganyika, then she married a Frenchman, while her mother returned to Poland. Bobrowski who used to run the Lachowicz estate was murdered by the Ukrainians. The rest of his family is living in Poland now. Bomba from Janówka did not manage to get out of the Soviet Union with General Anders’ army; he fought with the Kościuszko Division and died near Warsaw; the rest of his family is now living in the Szczecin province.
Those unadorned facts are, of course, merely the smallest snippets of information. I don’t know the fate of all the people who were deported with me in February 1940, but those bits of information are surely enough to convey the extent of the losses suffered by nearly every single family, and to give some idea of our country’s adversities.
Similar tortures, sustaining greater or fewer losses, were experienced by thousands of other families which were deported to the Soviet Union during the last war.
As I’ve already mentioned, I joined the army in Kermine, was enlisted in the 7th Infantry Division, was struck down by typhus and, after recovering, went to Krasnovodsk, Pahlevi, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt to finish up in South Africa, in Pietermaritszburg, where there were about 4,000 Polish soldiers, nearly all of them survivors from the Soviet Union. My stay there lasted from 1 July to 26 August 1942.
I had already joined the 1st Company of the Cadet Training School attached to the 8th Infantry Division in Palestine. This I had done straight from reoperation camp after taking the entrance examination. The school had been formed in Tehran. After that, I had a short stay in Egypt before leaving for Durban aboard a huge passenger liner, ‘Mauretania’. Two months later, my company left Durban on the ‘Laconia’ escorting Italian prisoners. I survived the torpedoing of the ‘Laconia’ and arrived in England in December 1942.
(This article appeared in The Polish Daily in 1979.)
Tadeusz Walczak has also written about life in Janówka before deportation.
Work in the forest (wood preparation)
How does one say goodbye to one’s family home in circumstances like those? My father did it with the sign of the cross and he made us all do the same. Then, he seized the reins himself, shouted to the horses, and we set off. Two guards rode with us on the sleigh. They carried rifles and wore red stars on their shoulder straps. On our way, we met with other families of the army settlers; they, too, were in their own sleighs and being pulled by their own horses…
I set out with my family on 10 February 1940; it was thus we started our journey, or the stage to Zdołbunów the large railway junction where the trains were transferred from the narrow Polish tracks to the wider Soviet ones, using our own sleighs and our own horses. What happened to them afterwards I do not know.