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) POLESIE
MARIAN MARZOJTY (MORZAJEW)
District (Powiat) Stolin
Until 1920 Wysokie, a place neighbouring Dawidgródek, a small town in the province of Polesie, was one of the Radziwiłł estates. Later, in the 1920s and 30s, Wysokie was an ex-servicemen’s settlement. Here, with great zeal and loving dedication, my parents worked on their farm. I was born there, four years after it became a settlement and it is there that I spent my carefree childhood. To this day I have fond memories of Wysokie.
In the osada, there lived 34 military settlers – former soldiers who had joined the Polish army as volunteers and during the Polish-Boleshevik war had so distinguished themselves, that the Polish State had rewarded them by granting them farmland. There were also 10 civilian settlers, who had bought land, paying for it in instalments.
Except for four foreigners, the settlers came from different parts of Poland. The foreigners, of whom my father, Jan Marzojty (Morzajew) was one, came from Ossetia, in the Caucasus. During the Russian Civil War, they had served in General A Denikin’s White Army. When in 1919 he made it known that his objective was the restoration of the Russian Empire and the nations of the Caucasus would have to belong to it, many Ossetians went over to the Polish Army, where they were received with friendship and understanding. My father went through the Polish-Bolshevik war, serving in General Krajowski’s Division. He ended the war as a sergeant, was awarded the Cross of Valour and was still only 23 years of age. As the Caucasus found themselves under Soviet rule, he could not return to Ossetia. Although the majority of Ossetians emigrated to France, he decided to remain in Poland and put his name down for an ex-serviceman’s holding.
My mother, Helena (née Mundziel) was Polish, the daughter of a local civilian settler. My parents met and married soon after my father’s arrival in Wysokie. They brought up five children; Adolf, myself, Albin, Anna and Julian.
I have a clear memory of Wysokie. The settlement had developed into a well-knit community and was integrated into and accepted by the local population. It was well organised and, having taken the initiative, was active in social and public fields, serving as an example in helping to raise farming standard among the local population and, in so doing, reversing the effects of over 100 years of Russification.
In the summer of 1937, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the settlement, of which the high point was the unveiling of a memorial, in the form of an obelisk, with the inscription: “1922-1937”.The memorial was an expression of our satisfaction with the settlement’s achievements and also, of our faith in its successful future. However, what came was the tragedy of September 1939, the outbreak of war and the brutal invasion by the Soviet army into Polish territory. At the settlement, depression set in and all the spontaneous social and public activities ceased. One settler was accused of having hidden rifles belonging to the “Krakus” para-military organisation on the first day of the Soviets’ arrival in our region. All the other military settlers thought that they might also be arrested at any moment, since our settlement was only about 15 kilometres from the Soviet border. We were therefore fully conscious of the animosity that the Soviets held towards those settlers who had distinguished themselves as soldiers in the very forces that had defeated the Red Army in 1920.
I wish to state emphatically that, as a general rule, the indigenous local people, most of whom, were Byelorussians, by nature peaceful and friendly folk, behaved in their usual decent manner towards us in what was a difficult time for us all.
A few settlers ran away ‘over the Bug’. Others planned to do the same, but were held back by the fear of leaving their families unprotected.
On 9 February 1940, on a stretch of road by Wysokie, sledges from the neighbouring villages began to gather. This was taken as a sign of Soviet preparations for retreat. Next day, however, something happened that to us, as yet unfamiliar with Soviet ways, which came as a complete surprise – the NKVD began deportation of the military settlers. One NKVD officer and two militiamen came for us. Hurried along, we quickly loaded two sledges with such things as bedding, clothing, kitchen utensils, family photographs and food. I remember that the NKVD man, having noticed that we packed very little flour as it had almost run out, acting on a humane impulse, advised us to take a sack of the rye grain, which was ready to be taken for milling.
It was still dark and the air was frosty when we set off from our home in a convoy, guarded by NKVD and militiamen. In this way, the military settlement of Wysokie ceased to exist.
Every year the day of 10 February brings back memories, still quite vivid, of the last scenes from our home. My father sitting on a chair, with a militia man guarding him; my mother and Adolf, bundling-up bedding, mother with tears in her eyes, looking out in vain to see if her own mother was coming to say goodbye.
We were taken to Sienkiewicze railway station, where a train was waiting for us. It was long, with cattle wagons and two huge locomotives – one in front and one at the back. Already the wagons held local foresters and their families, who were also being deported.
The train went on its way without our knowing its destination but, looking out through the restricted vision the small louvered windows provided, we soon figured out that its general direction was north-east. A couple of times we stopped alongside other trains carrying people in cattle wagons. From quick exchanges of words with them through the windows, we learned that they, like ourselves, were settlers and foresters from other parts of the Eastern Borderland.
Towards the end of this journey, my family began to feel the pinch of hunger, because by then, the small amount of provisions we had taken from home had been exhausted. Our train journey, which seemed interminable, after lasting for a fortnight, ended unexpectedly at Morzhenga station near Vologda. There, a great number of sledges were waiting for us, and were soon allocated, one or two to each family. Small children, old people and baggage were loaded onto them, the remaining people went on foot. The walk through snow, during which our convoy covered nearly 200 kilometres within 6 days was, for many, an extremely severe experience. However, ever greater suffering was caused by the bitter, Northern Russian frosts because we were neither used to it, nor were we wearing suitable clothes or shoes.
At last we came to Kolbash, a settlement deep in a forest in Vologda province, which was to be our place of exile. When we reached Kolbash we were exhausted and frozen to the marrow, but relieved that the wretched journey had come to an end and that empty barracks awaited us. Later on, the Ukrainian deportees who had built the settlement told us that we were lucky, because they too had started their exile here, also in winter, but without a roof over their heads, just under spruce trees.
My family was allocated a room in a large, two-storey barrack hut. Besides ourselves, some other families from Wysokie were told to remain at Kolbash and a few of these were allocated rooms in the same barracks as us. When we got the stove going the barracks became warm, but it was then that we discovered it was crawling with starving lice, bugs and cockroaches. The remaining people were sent to the ‘Eleventh Sector’ and Sosnova, both of which were settlements situated a few kilometres away from ours.
Shortly after our arrival an NKVD officer, the local commandant, arrived. He told us that we were ‘special settlers’ and that, from now on, we would always live in this settlement. He said that we would not be allowed out without a pass and that all of us, fit to do so, would have to work in the local lumbering enterprise and thereby earn our living.
In our family, my father, mother, Adolf, then 16 and I at 14 years went to work, whilst Albin 13 years, Anna 11 years, and Julian 9 years attended school. Sometimes, the four of us worked together as a small family team. As a family, we were low to average earners, although we worked hard. Our joint earnings were barely enough to buy food for a seven-person family or occasionally, to purchase quilted jackets and trousers, boots with canvas tops and tobacco for my father. Our meals consisted mainly of wholemeal bread, sometimes with watery barley soup and additionally, in summer and autumn, berries and mushrooms. The pangs of hunger never left us.
There were evidently informers within our community. One of our women was arrested and taken away because, as rumour had it, a small group of women had held prayer meetings in her room, and three settlers from Wysokie were arrested and taken away for having made anti-Soviet comments. Information about these forbidden activities could only have come from within the settlement and the effect on us all was a widespread fear of arrest, mutual suspicion within the settlement of neighbours being informers and a reluctance therefore to speak frankly about the Soviets.
Very little news reached us about what was going on in the world. When, in June 1941, Germany unexpectedly – and to the general joy of everyone at Kolbash, even among the Russians – declared war against the Soviet Union, we were certain that fundamental changes would take place, both as far as the situation in Poland was concerned and ours in exile. The change for us was not long in coming. We learned of it when, at a specially convened meeting, and NKVD officer informed us that as a result of the treaty recently entered into by the Soviet and Polish governments,we were to be given amnesty and everybody, according to their wishes, would have their Polish citizenship restored. We were also to be provided with the appropriate documents which would permit us to change our place of residence. The officer also told us that a Polish army would be organised, which we could join and which, together with the Red Army, would fight the Germans. He stressed that we were now friends. However, in practice over the ensuing few months, life changed little. All of us remained at Kolbash and continued working in the forest. The local authorities did not inform us where the Polish army was being organised and we were afraid to set out on a journey to an unknown destination.
In the autumn, my family together with a few others were moved to the ‘Eleventh Sector’. Here, earnings and living conditions were even poorer than in Kolbash. Bread rations, following the outbreak of the Soviet/German war, were considerably reduced. We were becoming weaker and weaker. My mother, therefore, started to go to the nearest village, 10-15 kilometres away to get potatoes. She would obtain them from housewives in payment for building small stoves from bricks and clay for them. Not without being moved, I see her in my mind’s eye, carrying a sack of potatoes on her back for her hungry family – a sack so heavy that I a 15 year old boy, managed to carry only with difficulty.
At the end of November, NKVD men called my father to the commandant’s office for a talk. They asked him why, as an Ossetian he had served in the Polish army, why he had received a military settler’s holding and why he had now chosen Polish citizenship. Around the time of the New Year, my father had another meeting with them, this time with threats. It was obvious to him that, at the next meeting he would be arrested. As a family, we decided unanimously, that we would all leave the “Eleventh Sector” as soon as possible.
On 6 January 1942 when the frost was most severe, we set off on a journey which lasted 62 days. The first 100 kilometres to Galich Station was on foot. From there to Chelyabinsk, with changes in Kirov and Sverdlovsk, we travelled by passenger trains, packed to their utmost capacity with evacuees from the war zone. For the rest of the journey we travelled by goods train in one of the few tyepluszki assigned to amnestied Poles who were going to the south of the Soviet Union where the Polish army was being organised. Our tyepluszki finally managed to come to Dhalal-Abad in Kirghizia, in which region the Polish 5th Division was stationed, and it was here that we ended our journey.
In that winter, many thousands of amnestied Poles migrated from Northern Russia, Siberia and Kazakhstan to the south. The travelling conditions were truly appalling. Epidemics of typhoid and other diseases were rampant. Some, especially those released from the Gulag, were emaciated, clothed only in rags and, for shoes, wore pieces of tyre tied to their feet. Many people did not survive this journey and many were accidentally parted from their families, often with tragic consequences. For my own family, the journey under these conditions ended successfully, although we went through a number of difficult and dangerous situations. Here is an example of how Fortune was kind to us.
In Kirov station, the waiting room was terribly overcrowded, impossible to stay in, so we decided to go to the Polish consular agency. Unfortunately, none of the locals could tell us how to get there and so on a frosty and windy evening, the seven of us, carrying our bundles on our backs, wandered about the almost deserted streets. Then, to our great joy, but above all to my despairing parents’ immense relief a man from the agency, who by chance was passing by, guessing we were Polish, showed us the way.
Another example of our good fortune, on the last stage of our journey, happened in Tashkent. My father and Adolf left he train in order to sell my mother’s shoes and, if possible, buy something to eat. When they returned to the platform, they found that the tyepluszki, with us on board, had gone. Unable to obtain information as to which direction we had gone, they boarded a passenger train bound for Dzhalal-Abad, a few hundred kilometres distant, hoping that they would find our train on this route. They were lucky, as indeed were we, because on their arrival at Dzhalal-Abad, they found us on the platform, standing helpless, not knowing what to do next. Moreover, since for the previous three days we had had nothing but boiled water, we were so weak that we barely managed to stand, and then only with difficulty. To make matters worse, we had no money to buy even one flat loaf, which, for the first time during the entire journey, was freely available to buy. Naturally, we were very glad when my father and Adolf joined us, on the one hand because we were all together again, but also because father immediately bought the loaves for us.
In Dzhalal-Abad Adolek joined the army. Albinek and Julek joined the junior cadets, and a couple of weeks later, went to Persia. My parents, Anna and I took lodgings in an Uzbek hut on the outskirts of town. Soon after, my father and Adolf were both taken ill with typhoid and I with an undiagnosed sickness, from which I recovered after a few weeks.
The longed-for departure to Persia came about in August, when we were beginning to despair of its ever happening. We travelled to the port of Krasnovodsk, again by goods train. I remember the mood of the people in the wagon when we started this journey. We were happy, smiling and the excited children sang joyful songs with gusto. There was only one woman who did not quite share in our delight and, every now and then she cried secretly. Later I learned from my mother that the lady was a settler’s wife, whose six children had all died in the Soviet Union.
We crossed the Caspian Sea on the deck of an oil tanker. How happy we were when we disembarked on hospitable Persian soil, overjoyed that we had succeeded in leaving the inhumane Soviet Union!
The people, both military and civilian, who in March and August 1942 left the Soviet Union for the Middle East into British protection totalled about 120,000. This number constituted probably less than 10% of all the Polish deportees. The rest had unfortunately stayed on in the Soviet Union, in ever-worsening circumstances.
Additionally, the Soviet authorities withheld the amnesty from many political convicts in the Gulag and in prisons, not releasing them, although obliged to do so under the terms of the treaty of 30 July 1941. On top of that, a few months later, the Soviet Union took away Polish citizenship from all the deportees, therefore completely depriving them of protection or assistance from the Polish consulate. A small number of them returned to Poland, as soldiers in the Kośćiuszko Division, which was organised by the Soviet Union, after General Anders’ command had left for Persia. The remainder of those who managed to survive also returned to Poland a couple or more years after the war.
From our settlement, besides our family, only four other families and a few individuals reached Persia from the Soviet Union in 1942.
In Persia, my father joined the army, whereas my mother, sister and I, together with other refugees (as we were now called) went to East Africa, staying over a period of 4-5 weeks, in transit camps in Pahlevi, Teheran, Ahvaz and Karachi. We came to Uganda, then a British colony, to the Masindi settlement situated deep in the jungle and built specially for Polish refugees. For our dwellings we had huts, the roofs and walls of which were made of elephant grass. I stayed in Masindi for one and a half years and then joined the army. My mother and sister lived there for five and a half years.
The 2nd Polish Corps, under the command of General Anders, consisting mainly of those troops who had been evacuated from the USSR to Persia, now re-organised and well-trained, was on its way to Italy under orders to fight alongside the allied British and American armies against the Germans. The 2nd Corps fought in the Italian campaign until the end of the war. For their bravery at Monte Cassino, Adolek and Albinek were awarded the Cross of Valour. Sadly in the battle of Ancona, Adolek received a wound, from which three days later died. In this campaign, two friends of mine from Wysokie also lost their lives.
Soon after the war with Germany had ended, the British government issued leaflets to all the forces under British command, appealing to them to return to Poland. The majority of those who had never met with the Soviets did return. However, almost all of those who had experienced the USSR decided not to.
The British then brought us over to Great Britain and put us up in various ex-army camps. After a period preparing ourselves for civilian life, we were gradually demobilised, at the same time receiving permission to reside permanently in the United Kingdom. Mostly continuing to live in the camps, we took up employment. Most of us decided to settle in Great Britain and to organise our lives here. Some, over a period of time, decided to emigrate to the USA and Canada. My family – with the exception of Albin, who was released from the army earlier in Italy and from there emigrated to Canada – decided to remain in Great Britain.
I was demobilised in 1947 and got my first job at a steelworks near Sheffield. After a few months I joined my father, who lived near London, in Great Bowerwood Camp. This time I got a job in the building trade, together with my father. In 1948, my mother and sister came over from East Africa to join us.
At that time, Poles were allowed to take only the simplest, poorly-paid jobs in industry, services, the building trade and such like. After a few years, these restrictions were lifted.
In 1955, my family moved out of Great Bowerwood, where for seven years, our home had been a hut made of sheet metal. The move was to nearby Slough, where, for the first time in 15 years, we set up a proper family home, in a real house of our own. In 1959, I married Władysława Grabowska, a girl from Toruń. We have a daughter, Anna, married to Martin Nevill, and Englishman. We have a son, Bogdan, and now we also have two grandchildren born to Anna – Luke and Tommy.
My parents grew fond of Slough and their house, in which they lived for almost thirty years, until they died. They retained a special affection for Wysokie and made contact with all the families from there, whom they managed to find, both in England and Poland and were able to visit almost all of them throughout the years, especially when they grew older. Their fondest memories were of the years spent in Wysokie.
After the war, the depleted families of military settlers from Wysokie, having returned from Russian exile settled mostly in the Polish Regained Territories as, of their own free will, did the families of civilian settlers.
At present, Wysokie belongs to Belarus and, by all accounts, continues as a collective farm, set up by the Soviets in the 1940s. One man who visited it in the seventies said that no trace remained of the military settlers’ farms, but that the people of the neighbouring village, with whom he had spoken, remembered it and regretted that the good Polish times were gone.