S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
Name: Zofia Repa (Stepek)
Osada Maczkowce, District Łuck
I was deported to ‘the Soviet paradise’ on 10 February 1940 with my mother, 17 year old brother and 12 year old sister, and remained in Archangel Province until October 1941.
Father was not with us. Having been warned by a Ukrainian in September 1939 he escaped to the territory under German occupation. We were then harassed by the Ukrainian gangs as they searched for father just to murder him.
In July 1941 after proclamation of the amnesty I, together with my brother, registered as Polish Army volunteers. I was then 16. It took us about a year – a dreadful 12 months of wandering, hunger and illness before we found the army’s recruitment centres. My brother was drafted to Kermine: my sister with a group of women to Vrevsko where she was accepted into an orphanage. I helped in the orphanage as one of the older girls. Soon by an army command order a group of us girls were moving to Karkin-Batash. I had to go with my sister. This meant that mother had to stay behind without anyone to care for her and without provisions and since up to now I had shared my ration of bread and soup with her, I went to three different lady doctors begging them to look after her. Despite all this happening so very long ago, there is still etched in my memory the various pictures of despair, hope and danger which then flashed across my young mind. So much so that when my sister and I arrived in Karkin-Batash I was overwhelmed with worry. I prayed to God to keep mother in His care though still retaining a great deal of anxiety. I met Janka – tall slender brunette with beautiful eyes and an intelligent look about her. Her self control made a very deep and positive impression upon me. Her bed space was next to mine in the hollowed out depression in the clay floor of an Uzbek mud hut. That was our new home.
The highlight of each day was the hand-out of bread and sugar. One teaspoonful of sugar and a small chunk of bread disappeared in a flash. A plate of pea soup supplemented our menu. We were so hungry we could have eaten and eaten but what was there to eat? The trauma of hunger lasted a long time beyond our leaving the Soviet Union.
I could not believe, as I watched Janka with complete calmness dividing her bread portions into two smaller pieces, that one could be so disciplined. She even went so far as to dry some of it for use at a later date. My interest knew no bounds as I asked her why she did not eat the whole portion of bread. Her answer was: ‘I dry the bread so that if I get the opportunity I can send it to my mother. She is in the Uzbek village and is suffering hunger’.
When I returned from the hospital Janka was not there. She died, I think from hunger. Whether her mother ever received the bread which she so heroically denied herself, I do not know. Of the 300 girls, in one month alone, 92 died.
We were visited by Bishop Gawlina. I was waiting as part of a group and I was writhing in pain. After the Bishop’s departure I was taken to hospital. I had dysentery. Each morning soldiers carried out from the hospital the bodies of those girls who had died from this horrible illness. Our small hospital was no better than a mud hut and there was no medicine. At midday with the sun at its zenith there was no shade as there were no trees but just empty steppe. So we all tried to squeeze inside that mud hut. It was usually the older ones who lay outside the hut on a blanket spread on the ground. Instead of a pillow they rested their heads on a fist.
I remember a little girl panting frantically for air as if she was choking. I managed to push my way to her through the sprawled-out bodies of girls as we all tried to avoid that sweltering beneath the shade of the hut. Having reached her I lifted her head and she quietened down. I was her last comfort at the moment of death. She fell asleep on my shoulder as for the first time in my life I met death face to face.
I also remember a slightly older girl, who was lying not far from me on the ground in front of the hut. During the night a priest in military uniform knelt beside her and recited the Last Rites. In the morning the soldiers removed her body.
As I felt sure my own death was imminent I questioned myself, as to how and when to ask the priest for the Last Rites for myself. In this state of mind I met Halina. This girl, newly-sick, spread her blanket next to mine. She had an upturned nose and intelligent face. As she got to know me with a certain indifference she expressed her outlook. ‘So what, why should I be afraid, when it is time to die, one dies!’ I felt more sure of myself in the company of this brave friend. I thought that with her beside me it would be more cheerful knocking at the Gates of St Peter. Halina did not die. Death passed by both of us. Halina’s fortitude gave me courage. I left the hospital. Outside the camp there was an oasis – one tree. There Mrs Kościałkowska taught us mathematics. This diverted our minds into other ways of thought than just concern over bread and illness. Maths was my favourite subject. Numbers imbued a feeling of stability – as they have a constancy. Our teacher became precious to me, though I doubt if she knew just how much I liked and respected her. Of course we had neither text books nor paper to write on, but that did not stop us from learning.
They moved our camp to Guzar where conditions were much better. Here, there was boiled water to drink prepared in huge cauldrons. It was flavoured with tea and though there was neither milk nor sugar it was available in abundance. I drank and drank, unable to satisfy myself with this heavenly nectar. This calmed down my internal problems which, for I do not know how long, had manifested themselves via bleeding. It is not easy to forget dysentery which, years later, has a nasty habit of reminding you. Just outside the camp groups of Polish children gathered together begging for bread. No one knew where they came from. Quite a few of the girls put aside part of their own bread ration to share with them. Our food was much more substantial. Each day we even received a small cube of pressed dates and everyday I shaved off a tiny sliver of this for myself and gave the rest to the youngest child. I rather expected that God, having noticed my sacrifice, would in return induce someone to give food to my mother. In doing this I suddenly felt morally lifted, because I overcame the craving for sweet things which, in fact, I had not tasted for many months. Judging from the stories which my mother related to me when we met in Persia, it is my opinion that God heard. Naturally I told no-one of my theory of the miraculous transference of material objects – that was my secret, my ‘contact’ with God. I never even disclosed it to my mother.
The day prior to our departure from Guzar my sister fell ill with an unknown disease. She could not get up. She ate nothing. There was no medicine. As the Soviet order stated: ‘Only those strong enough to walk unaided will be allowed to leave the camp’. I was filled with dread. A nurse advised me: ‘Get hold of some grapes and feed your sister with the juice’. There was a market where grapes were available but, as a starter, on the day of departure we were not allowed to leave the camp and the gates were shut. Secondly I had no money. I prayed. The Holy Spirit came with help. I inspected the wall surrounding the camp and discovered a small gap where the wall was crumbling away. I wriggled through. I changed into civilian clothes: a skirt and a blouse, but remained barefoot as I had no civilian shoes. I completely covered my hair with a scarf, as Uzbeks are dark so a blonde would easily have been noticed.
Having overcome the first difficulty the second was to get some money. Bread was ‘gold’ so I had taken my sister’s bread which, in any case, she could not swallow and bought my portion as well. With this I went to the market. My return through the gap was unnoticed. I fed my sister using a teaspoon to pour juice into her mouth. Hoping for a miracle I prayed to God to save her. My sister survived. I have a strong belief in miracles and the power of prayer.
Upon arrival in Pahlevi my sister, fully dressed in uniform, weighed a mere 25 kilos. When the boat reached Persia a soldier carried her down to the shore in his arms. She was directed to ‘those needing intensive care’ for special nourishment, because weakened systems do not accept normal food. I being healthy, acting the part of a brave soldier, with great pride marched with the others fully believing a song which we used to sing. ‘When the cannons roar the mazurka, the skin of the enemy creeps …the young volunteer is the flower of the army, let the whole world be amazed’. I believed there was never an army as brave as ours. That our bodies were covered with ulcers and that a Hindu nurse in sign language was asking why my arms were so emaciated, did nothing to daunt my feeling of pride in being a soldier.
I went looking for a civilian camp into which I burst like a bomb at the news that my mother was alive. My dress, indeed my whole appearance, made such a strong impression on her that my mother only manager to say, ‘Zosia’ and fainted. Maybe it was the miracle for which she was praying? It could even be the second miracle of her life, the first being when – slightly older than I was then – she lived through the 1920 Miracle of the Vistula. She would often recall that event: Warsaw, alarm bells ringing, churches overcrowded, people praying in the street beseeching God for a miracle! And now her 17 year old daughter dressed in the uniform of a Polish soldier stood in front of her. It was all too much for mother, weighed down with worry.
We took an examination in Pahlevi. I qualified for the second form of the grammar school having missed out three years of education. There was an essay to write in Polish: ‘Your thoughts and dreams after crossing the Soviet border’. I just sat down and wrote. Words, coming with ease, and simply spilled out onto paper:
Our thoughts and dreams
Soar mournfully skywards,
Back to our dear Homeland
Where God’s will directs them.
Our thoughts and dreams
Longingly swoop to where
Polish flowers perfume the air
And cornfields rustle.
Our thoughts will stir into action
And we will fall in behind them,
To recover our Homeland
And our precious Soil.
We believed that we would return!
When in Tehran I sought transfer from the military school to the civilian camp, so as to be able to care for my very weak mother. I little realised that I would be back among my friends on Palestinian territory. My mother died. I was not with her – I only saw her empty place in the barracks. She was 40. She became one of many Polish martyrs of Soviet prisons and camps who had no strength left to face a further stretch of exile. I visited her grave in Tehran until I left Persia. With the end of 1942 a new stage started for me. In spring my sister and I arrived at the school for Young Volunteers in Palestine. Being now 18 I took the military oath – I was now a proper soldier. As a diplomaed teacher up to 1945, in the Young Volunteers uniform, I taught English to the Polish Army in Egypt.
Just before an examination in 1946 I received via the Red Cross a letter from Poland informing me: ‘ Father is no longer alive. There is no future for us in our Homeland’.
I raged with anger against the whole world. I felt hatred for all those who robbed us of family life and our home. I felt a blinding desire for revenge! I fully understood all those seeking revenge for sustained wrongs. I am sure I was not the only one who felt like that.
Award of War Medal, 1939-1945
Birth Certificate, 1925
Passport of Zofia Stepek - issued by Polish Legation, Tehran, 4 March 1943
Zofia (on the right) and Danuta Stepek on the shore of the Caspain Sea in Persia, 1942