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
OSADA WOLA WILSONA
District (Powiat) Krzemieniec
I am the son of Franciszek and Joźefa (née Dziuba) Bełda. I was born on the military osada Wola Wilsona near Wiśniowiec. That is where I spent my early childhood, going first to the school on the osada and later to Wiśniowiec. I began my grammar school career in 1938 in the Lyceum Krzemienieckie but didn’t finish it until after the war in the grammar school of the 5th Borderland Infantry in Italy.
War in 1939 interrupted everything and changed the paths of our lives forever. The first indication of this change on our osada came on 10th of February 1940 when, very early in the morning, near the house of our neighbour Mr Samper, there appeared a small detachment of Soviet soldiers. A few minutes later, all covered in blood, Mr Samper, grasped by the soldiers was taken off to heaven knows where. Incidentally let me add that Mr Samper was of Russian descent but a settler through the service he rendered during the 1920 war fighting in the Cossack units on the Poles’ behalf.
Seeing the blood-smeared figure of Mr Samper made a startling impression on me because he was a man whom I not only liked but admired, and never more so than when I listened to him reciting his war-time exploits. The soldiers in their green uniforms soon turned up in our farmyard. The words “Get your possessions together” were barked out. My father was ordered to sign documents for voluntary resettlement to some territory in the Soviet Union. The rest of the family – sister Helena aged 10, Zosia 7 and Henio 2 – had to collect whatever they could carry and balance on the small sledges which were brought round to transport our belongings. One of the soldiers, realising that I spoke fluent Russian, began with gusto to help me with my things. I have to admit that they were very helpful and showed no hostility towards us. After loading everything onto sledges we joined up with the rest of the settlers who were being assembled alongside the Community Centre. As we slowly trundled towards the railway station at Kornaczówka we were leaving behind not just our osada home but also our achievement gained by much hard work over many years.
It was already dusk by the time we reached the station where we discovered hundreds of people wrapped in blankets clustering round a bit of a fire which had been lit by the escorting soldiers. Late into that night a very long train was loaded with its human cargo. Each wagon was fitted with wooden bunk beds, a cast iron stove and an opening in the floor with its accompanying freezing ventilation. The wagons were locked and able to be opened only from the outside by the guards. We spent the first three days on the station. During that time we fed ourselves with what we’d brought with us and shared it with those who had nothing.
When eventually the train did move there was much speculation as to where our journey would take us. Once we’d crossed the border they all came to the conclusion that this was ‘the Eastern Express’, and this belief of the overwhelming majority proved to be correct.
This long train, bearing hundreds of families from the territory, slowly chugged east to ‘the Paradise of the Leaders of Socialism’. After a few days the train headed north, then still later moved east once more. In a while we stopped on some station or other alongside another stationary train. Then came a change; half of our train was coupled up to the other train and half of its wagons to ours. Later we found out that the people who had joined us were from the district of Grodno and, like us were being deported from their osada.
From the moment we were on Soviet soil we were fed at government expense. Once daily the train stopped at a station, wagons were opened, and two people from each wagon went for warm soup and boiling water. We travelled north as far as Kazan and from there east through the Urals, where alongside the track stood great quantities of military and agricultural equipment covered with snow and without any sort of protection. We reached Sverdlovsk in Perm Province and the town of Berezniki where our rail journey ended. After two days travelling by sledge we stopped in the forest base of Nikulinskaya. Here we were to be housed – this was our place of life and work.
After the authorities had mixed together the folk from Volhynia and Grodno we were allocated wooden barracks where each family had one bed space and a stove for cooking. These huts had been built by Ukrainians before 1928. The living space we received for our eight-person family was very skimped but luxurious when compared with that in the goods train.
Following two days’ rest all the able-bodied, both men and women were assembled, divided into work brigades, and under the supervision of the local foreman of ten people, began very arduous, strenuous toil for the like of which no-one was prepared. The norms set for us were impossible to meet. Wages were insufficient to buy our due portions of food so the work was unproductive since it was done on empty stomachs.
As youths, my school friend and I were required to help a forest technician mark trees to be felled. Later we acted as helpers to a tractor driver collecting logs to be floated downstream. My last months there I spent as one of my father’s brigade actually felling trees.
Subsequent to the German invasion of the Soviet Union the authorities issued orders for a working day of twelve hours with just one day’s rest every ten days. Towards the end of 1941 came the news of the amnesty. Officially we were declared to be free and could volunteer to join the Polish army being formed in the south of the country. Immediately almost all (except the elderly) volunteered because this entitled them to free travel – the family members had to wait behind ostensibly because there was insufficient transport.
A month later we – that is father and I – reported to the military HQ in Tatishchevo. Within three weeks I was separated from my father who, with a Guards battalion, went to the south of Russia while I remained with the 13th Regiment of Infantry which, in those early days, lived in snow covered dug-outs. To our intense amusement we used to travel several kilometres just to collect fuel. At the start of December the regiment was moved south east into the Fergana Valley near Dzhalal-Abad. There then occurred a re-organisation of the companies as a result of which I ended up in the Signal Platoon of the 1st Battalion. From this platoon I was sent on a radio technicians’ course and remained a ‘sparks’ till the end of the war. All the companies were involved in concentrated training while in Dzhalal-Abad.
In spring 1942 we left ‘the House of Bondage’ and passed through Krasnovodsk across the Caspian Sea to Persia where we came under British jurisdiction. We went on to Iraq for further training and yet further company reorganisation, all of which took some months to complete. We left Iraq in the late spring of 1942. Upon arrival in Palestine we were readily welcomed by the Jewish population with whom we had a common Polish understanding. At this time the manoeuvres of the 2nd Corps presented me with the opportunity of walking the entire length of Palestine and visiting many places. A month later the brigade moved to Egypt for desert exercises.
Meanwhile our battalion spent a few weeks in Lebanon in high mountain training. The exercises were physically exhausting but, on the other hand, the local people were very friendly towards us. We left with lots of pleasant memories.
Soon after returning to Egypt we left for the Italian front. While sea bound for Taranto, during a change of course, a ship sailing close by and full of soldiers, struck us amidships with its bow and tore a huge opening above water level. This caused immense consternation among the soldiers. Indeed two English gun crew were killed.
After disembarkation in Taranto we were immediately sent off into the depths of the country for rest and preparation for the winter sector on the front near Sangro. For the first time I saw a wounded German, and also for the first time I had frostbite in my toes as a result of which I spent a fortnight in hospital before coming back from that sector. When I heard that our battalion was being made ready for the sector around Cassino I discharged myself from hospital and returned to my detachment in slippers as I couldn’t yet wear boots. I emerged hale and hearty from the action at Monte Cassino, as did my father with whom I met up later. We had quite a few drinks to celebrate the event.
The Adriatic Campaign moved with speed and efficiency. It’s far pleasanter being in pursuit than being pursued. The very amicable Italian people had a large share in our well-being. Time flew and the war ended much to the joy of the army and the whole world.
Straight after the war I enrolled in the newly formed grammar school of the 5th Division of the Borderland Infantry to complete my education. There was no shortage of candidates to be students although the differences in their ages and experiences were sometimes enormous. Nevertheless the atmosphere and attitude shaped up well and the whole grammar school company were very content with one another.
In the middle of 1946 our 2nd Polish Corps, and with it our grammar school moved to England where I finished my schooling and began both work and my civilian life.