Having arrived in Kermine after travelling through Tashkent and other large towns of the region, I remained in the transit camp for four weeks. We were supposed to receive our uniforms after a fortnight, so I sold all my clothing on the black market. All I retained was a pair of trousers and kept my money in one of the pockets. I gave father half the money and from him learned that mother with Danuta and Krzyś had already left for Persia, as had Witold but, in his case, with the cadets.
S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
Name: JERZY KUCIĘBA
Osada Radziwiłłów, District Dubno
The night of 9-10 February 1940 began similar to any other night. From the time of the Soviet army’s occupation of our little town, life had settled down again and nothing pointed to further very significant happenings. I was awoken at six in the morning by a loud voice issuing from the kitchen and got up to see what it was all about. By the kitchen door which led out to the farmyard stood two Soviet soldiers, their rifles by their side and their bayonets glinting. Their peaked caps gave them, in my eyes, the appearance of Genghiz Khan warriors. Judging by the amount of red on his coat, it was a high-ranking officer who was standing by the table near the window. His greatcoat which almost touched the floor made him appear very tall and slim. He held a pistol in his hand pointing downwards. As my eyes followed the same direction, to my horror, I saw father lying on his stomach with his arms outstretched. For a while nothing happened and, only when the voiced distress of mother and our servant girl, Antosia, subsided, did the officer place the gun in his coat pocket as he did so taking papers from his other pocket and, leaning towards the light, read out the sentence and other instructions. It was at that moment I realised that some kind of journey awaited us. As mother listened to the officer, she began to cry. When he had finished reading, Antosia began talking very animatedly to the civilian representative who was there as an interpreter. As I listened to Antosia, I realised that my suppositions over past few months had been correct. Mother had become very stout, especially around the waist, because she was expecting a baby. What’s more, her delivery was due in the next few days and the instructions had indicated that our journey would last two weeks. ‘Please don’t worry. There will be full medical care available throughout the journey’, said the interpreter. ‘You’d better start packing’.
The officer exchanged a few words with the interpreter who, in his turn, told father to get up from the floor and start packing. While this was going on, a difference of opinion arose between mother who spoke Russian and the officer. This concerned the sewing machine which the officer ordered them to take with them. Mother, on the other hand, told the soldiers who were helping to carry our bundles to the sledges, to take the machine back into the house. After a short confrontation, the officer ordered the soldiers to leave the machine on the sledge. Only months later did we realise what a great service had that officer rendered us.
The journey passed slowly. As I lay on the top bunk bed looking down upon the life of the wagon, I noticed that all our neighbours kept an anxious eye on mother and were being very thoughtful in their dealings with her. They were fearful for what complications might arise when she started delivering. But, I thought, pregnancy is not an illness. One night, as I slept, I suddenly heard a scream of pain. Like a mortally-threatened animal, I was immediately fully alert and aware of everything going on around me. Slowly, I turned my head in the direction from which the moaning was coming. By the flickering light of the candles, I discovered a small group of women forming a half-circle around something in the middle of the lowest bunk bed. Their shadows jerked up and down on the wall and across the ceiling of the truck. The whole scene looked like some occult night ritual but, in fact, my mother was just at the point of delivery.
From school friends and a bit from books I more or less knew how a baby was born. What I did not expect was such drama, pain and moaning. My first horror of the situation was replaced into an understanding that this was an incontrovertible natural process. What was happening had to be. It didn’t even occur to me that all this was taking place in a cold railway wagon, on a plank bunk bed, in a moving train lost somewhere in vast empty fields covered in snow. I was rather embarrassed that mother was the source of all this trouble. I buried my head in a pillow and tried not to move so as not to draw attention to the fact that I was a witness to these events. As the wheels of the truck rattled on the track, so the pillow over my face grew wetter with my tears. My mother’s moans became a little fainter and more distant. I fell asleep.
The next morning, when I was awakened, the atmosphere in the truck was close to triumphant. Excitement was mixed with relief and somebody said to me, ‘You have another brother’.
Not far from me, mother lay in a drained state and, beside her, was a little bundle from which issued a whimper. In truth, I wasn’t too pleased that a yet additional problem faced my family. The train was standing in a station. Outside, by the open door of the wagon, stood two men. From what I could make out, they were talking about what had happened during the night. After a while, they moved away only to reappear some fifteen minutes later accompanied by a woman in a white overall. The woman clambered onto the truck and went towards mother. After a brief conversation and an examination of the baby she left. One of the men took out a pen and a list of passengers. To this list details of new passengers were added: ‘Krzysztof, born 20 February 1940, town Orel, nationality Russian’.
At this point, father intervened, ‘Polish nationality’. ‘Your son was born in Russia and a fine little Russian boy he is’ , answered the Russian.
Father made no reply and my only thought was that my brother had been born in the open fields and not in Orel. One of the men suggested that mother should leave the truck and go to hospital. He promised that, once she felt stronger, she would re-join the family. Mother turned down the offer, fearful that separation from her husband and her other three children would be inadvisable in these circumstances.
After almost three weeks’ journey, we reached our destination in a posiołek of the Archangel district. A certain group, mainly the old people, didn’t withstand the journey because of the cold and hunger. They remain in cemeteries along the route.
‘Consider yourself lucky’ - in that way the camp commandant began his welcoming address. ‘When your capitalistic misdeeds against the proletariat are taken into consideration the Workers’ Authority has treated you very leniently. Here, through productive effort, you have a chance to compensate for your offences. Forget about ever returning. Here you will live and here you will die'.
He was right as far as the dying was concerned. Right from the beginning, with increasing regularity, more and more ‘went under the fir tree’, as the local manner of expression had it: meaning, as it did, that somebody was buried beneath the fir trees. Hunger was our inseparable companion while each night we served as feast to multitudes of bugs. Amidst such misery, we now had proof of the thoughtfulness of our arresting officer for mother was earning life-sustaining money by running up caps on her sewing machine.
When, in the summer of 1941, I learned that the authorities were organising hay-making work parties some distance away through the forest and for which the food ration would be doubled, I put my name down straight away. Since I was only 14, there was some question as to my eligibility for the work but, somehow, I managed to convince the organiser. In truth, the portions of bread and cereal were much more substantial and we even received two teaspoonfuls of sugar each day on top of that.
I’d always had a sweet tooth and, so, I wrapped the first sugar ration in a rag savouring the anticipation of future bliss. At that moment, there sprang before my eyes an image of my brother. I had witnessed with what pleasure he had drunk very weak tea sweetened with a little sugar brought from the canteen. This present sugar, I told myself, really ought to be for Krzysio. But why? I asked myself. My heart began to beat very fast. I untied the rag and peered at the sugar. Maybe I could eat just the teeniest bit, I thought to myself. But, as such an idea occurred to me, I knew that, were I to take just a pinch, nothing would stop me eating the lot. That’s crazy! What must I do? It was then I remembered a very similar unpleasant situation with sugar in the past. On that occasion, I was to take my very first Holy Communion in Radziwiłłów Church so, from midnight, eating anything was forbidden but, in passing by the table, as was my custom, I picked up some sugar from the bowl and popped it into my mouth. By the time I had realised what had happened, it was too late. I still went to communion and told no-one of my sacrilege. In my present situation, antipathy towards the sugar in its twist of rag welled up inside me. But then, I thought to myself, here’s a chance to recoup my past losses. What nonsense! sneered my second self, all this is of no importance for God will forgive you. Once more, my hand hovered near the sugar and, again, in my imagination I saw Krzysio. Though he was already 18 months old, he was still not walking. I very much loved my little brother, especially when I sat on the edge of a bunk bed with his little hands clasped about my neck, squeezing hard and uttering, ‘Hmmmmm – Lulek’ – instead of ‘Jurek’.
My indecision solved itself. Right through to the end of hay making I didn’t touch sugar. I drank unsweetened tea. The rag which I carried on a string round my neck bulged more each day and on returning to the camp, I gave all the sugar to my mother. At her first opportunity, she sprinkled sugar on Krzysio’s cereal. He, unaccustomed to sugar and despite his hunger, refused to eat it.
One morning, instead of going to work, we were all called to a meeting. With visible satisfaction the camp commandant who had a Polish name read us a document about an amnesty. During the next few days, a delegation went to the district town and, with the local authorities, negotiated that every few days we would be supplied with one passenger wagon for departure south to the Polish Army. Our goal was the 5th Division in Tatishchevo near Stalingrad. After a journey lasting two months, we took up quarters in the village of a collective farm. The battle front was coming sufficiently close for us to hear the guns of the heavy artillery. However, we remained in this place because the front came to a halt.
Now we had more food. One day, four of the fathers from our group bought a calf on the black market but it turned out that killing it was another matter altogether. No suitable knife was available and no-one knew the first thing about butchering. With much interest, I listened into the men’s deliberations. Eventually, one of the foursome went off somewhere to return 15 minutes later with a scythe.
‘That should cut its throat’ , he said.
Others agreed with him. After yet more discussion, they led the little calf behind a shed. To start with all, of them including the calf behaved, calmly but in time excitement grew once the four partners started to manhandle the animal. The calf sensed something untoward and started tugging away, bellowing. One of the four sat on the beast, another held its head, a third its tail while the fourth placed the scythe at its neck and began sawing back and forth, but the tool wouldn’t pierce the animal’s skin. The scythe exerted more pressure at the neck whereupon the calf’s eyes clouded over with a kind of resignation. Then, without warning, the scythe sliced the furry skin and a fountain of red blood gushed out onto the white snow. The calf keeled over, twitched, kicked a few times with its hind legs and then lay motionless.
In January 1942, all the young boys from our Radziwiłłów group of military settlers enrolled with the Polish Army in Tatishchevo. The goods train on which we travelled without ticket was stopped in open country and all my friends, except one, who hid behind me were thrown off onto the snow and frost. I managed to stay aboard because, when the soldier ordered me to descend the wagon steps, I told him I was staying where I was as I was on my to the Polish Army. When he started jabbing at my legs with his bayonet, I told him to back off or I’d kick him where it hurt, and he simply went away.
Within two days of our arrival, I was dressed in the uniform of the cadet battalion. In the next week my family joined me. One of my jobs was the remodelling of forage caps, making them small enough to fit my friends’ heads. For this I was paid in bread which I sold on the station to the wounded coming from Stalingrad. On that station, the white coats and overalls of the doctors and nurses looked out of place. There, also, I often heard someone playing and singing to the accordion. It seemed to me that their merriment was the result of their no longer having to dodge flying bullets.
Almost every day I visited my mother, sister, Danuta, and little Krzyś. My father was already serving in his unit and my brother, Witold, with me in the cadets. One day I gave my mother some money and to Krzyś and my sister a box of chocolates which I took from the army emergency ration. Krzyś was overjoyed with it and, on our saying goodbye, hung his arms round my neck as he said: ‘Bye, bye, Lulek’.
At that moment, I had no inkling that this would be our last meeting. Next day, male nurses carried me on a stretcher to hospital. ‘Spotted typhoid’ – declared the doctor.
It wasn’t surprising when you consider I’d spent two nights alone in a dug-out on a wooden bunk bed crawling with lice as big as flies. They were the root cause of my illness. Had I been thrown off the train, like my friends, then two days later, also like them, I’d have gone straight to the units.
After a month in hospital, seven days of which I was unconscious and remember nothing at all, I was as thin as a taper but had a roaring appetite. I spent most of my time searching for additional food to supplement the soldiers’ very small portions. Quickly I regained my health. Meanwhile, most people left Tatishechevo - there being left behind only those convalescing like me and enough service staff to care for us.
Our time came in June 1942. The journey to Kermine near Tashkent lasted two whole weeks and we saw a great deal on the way. One morning the train stopped by the shore of a huge lake from which, since it was very early in the day, a great bank of mist was rising. The sheet of water stretched to the horizon to the opposite shore fringed with mountains. About the mist was a beautiful blue sky. As I turned round, to my utter amazement, I saw, stretching into that blue sky and almost over my head, yet more mountains with their summits draped in snow. Looking about, I realised that the mountains formed a horseshoe. For a moment or two, I had the sensation that I was on a different planet and either the Moon or some other heavenly body was approaching us and about to collide with Earth.
‘What do you call these mountains?’ – I asked a local.
‘Tien Shan’ he said, with pride.
The reason I wasn’t short of money to buy additional food was because I had, by sheer chance, come across a group of young men, older than me (they were all in their twenties) playing vingt-et-un in one of the wagons. At their invitation, I joined in, fearful that I’d lose the money I’d saved from selling bread to the wounded. As luck would have it, I cleaned them out and, in fact, to this very day they still owe me three times more that I won because they played the last two hands on credit.
The information about the issue of uniforms proved false and, as a result, for the next two weeks I slept on the hard-baked ground on which there was only a mere scattering of straw, barefoot and naked from the waist up. Luckily it was summer.
One of our pastimes in the transit camp was guessing how many dead on any one day would be carried from the hospital in Kermine to the nearby cemetery. On one particular day, the coffin which was used to transport the corpses passed by my tent forty times.
After quite some time, we did enlist with the cadets in the nearby locality. The food provided wasn’t bad but, for some reason, the majority of us went down with diarrhoea and some with dysentery. That made us very thin and sapped our strength. I even began to think I was becoming lazy when I found myself forced to crawl on all fours on my way to the cookhouse. But nothing stopped me eating loads of fruit which I bought outside the camp.
One day I discovered, to my horror that all my money had disappeared. It was my practice to conceal it under the blanket which I used as a pillow. I stayed very cool as I turned over in my mind the character of every friend whose sleeping place was close to mine. I decided that the money had been taken by a small, dark-skinned boy. Absolutely sure of myself, I strode straight up to him and quite peremptorily said: ‘Give me back my money!’
Without flinching, he took a wad of banknotes from his pocket and, as he handed them over, said, ‘I’d no intention of stealing, I simply wanted to warn you to be more cautious’.
It was only later on he told me that, before joining the cadets, he’d learned his thieving skills with a band of rogues who always shared the proceeds. His final test with them had been to steal from a railway safe.
In a few weeks we were once more on a train. This time, our destination was Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea in order to embark on a ship which was to take us to Persia. We arrived during the night. The following morning, I went down to the shore so that, for the first time in my life, I could see the sea. It seemed weird not being able to see the further shore and with the water apparently meeting the sky.
After breakfast we began loading. We were told that all money had to be handed in as we passed through customs. I was pretty downcast as my money was appropriated, but I relinquished everything except the two largest denomination banknotes which I concealed in my breast pocket. As it turned out, the exchange rate was very favourable so I again had money for my expenses.
I tried to discover something about my family. I knew my mother, my sister and Krzyś were already in Tehran. One day, as I walked along the beach, I saw some tents which I learned were used to house new arrivals from Russia. In one of them was my father, looking like a skeleton, as he had just shaken off typhoid fever. His appetite was every bit as ravenous as mine when I’d left the hospital after spotted typhoid. One day, as well as eating his soldier’s ration, he devoured eighteen eggs and a whole duck which I’d bought from a Persian.
On another day, as I strolled along the shore, I spotted a familiar face. My heart skipped a beat when he told me he had just arrived from Tehran. On the other hand, he was more than surprised to bump into me.
‘I heard that you’d died of typhoid in Tatishchevo. Your mother paid for masses to be said for you in Tehran’.
‘Have you seen my mother?’ I asked.
‘Yes, both she and your sister have gone off to Africa’.
‘And what about my brother, Krzyś?’
‘Don’t you know? He died and is buried in a cemetery in Tehran’, answered my acquaintance.
With that, the proverbial water wheel, hung about my neck. I parted from him too shocked to speak. I saw many deaths but this one was different. I will never see Krzysio again. He went through so much in so short and cruel life, I thought. Now, when you managed to reach a better life, you died, I said to him in my thoughts. I loved you, my little brother.
After a while, I decided to go and give the news to father. It was evening. The sun, red and large, was sinking towards the water and was staining the clouds crimson which appeared to me like the colour of blood. There was not a soul on the beach as we walked along the water’s edge.
‘I hear that mama and Danka have left for Africa’, I said, ‘but I have also bad news. Krzysio died, and is buried in Tehran’.
We stopped. Father said not a word but turned toward the sea. In a little while, he stepped in the water up to his knees. His silhouette was outlined against the red sky of the setting sun and his shoulders shook with spasmodic sobs. I sat on the sand.
My mother and sister by Krzysio's grave. Polish Cemetery, Tehran, 1942.
Younger brother, Witold, in the Cadets, Palestine, 1942.
Father and son in Pahlevi, Summer 1942.