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) NOWOGRÓDEK
ZOFIA SZYMAN (GÓRSKA)
District (Powiat) Nowogródek
What was to follow in the saga of the military settlers, began the moment the Soviet army invaded the Eastern Borderlands. Up until that time the local population seemed well disposed towards us, for father treated them very even-handedly. For example, he sowed their flax for them in return for which they paid him later with their work. He also employed them to lift potatoes for him during harvest time. However, all this changed when they thought they had Soviet backing. Harassment began, as well as robbery of our property and arson attacks. Two military settlers from a nearby osada were shot. Daylight hours held no peace, but it was even worse at night.
My poor mother endured the situation on her own, with three small children (my younger sister at that time was just two years old), because my father had been arrested immediately and imprisoned in Nowogródek. But night-times were the worst, because one never knew what each would bring. Our possessions – whatever they felt the desire to take – were taken, together with food and work implements. My despairing mother was worried that everything would go, leaving nothing to feed her children during the winter, which that year was particularly severe. More than likely she contacted her family in Łomża for help, because at Christmas my Auntie Zosia, her youngest sister, came to stay with us. We tried to make Christmas as normal as possible, at least for the smaller children, but in every action one could sense the grip of fear and tension.
Perhaps because I was the eldest of my sisters, although to this day I have no idea as to the reasoning behind her decision, mother decided that after Christmas I should return with my aunt to my grandmother’s in Łomża. So I went, but certainly not to enjoy freedom and new experiences, for on 10 February 1940, during the night, along with Grandmother and her family I was awakened by someone barking orders that we were to dress quickly and not to bother gathering things to take with us because, where we were going, we would have everything. We were taken by lorry to a large hall which was over-flowing with weeping distressed people. Here, amidst much inconvenience, but very little food, we spent countless days. Then, again at night, we were loaded onto railway cargo vans to begin a long, painful journey which was to cost many people their lives, to an unknown destination. I remember when the train stopped at a station which was still on Polish soil young people were allowed, under escort, to collect water from an ice-covered well. I also recall that, after stepping down from the wagon, I had a desperate urge to run away and return to my own family, but common sense prevailed: after all, what could I have done on my own, without money, in a strange place and how could I have possibly found my way to my family home.
I returned to the wagon and we travelled on. I will never forget the moment of crossing the Polish border when, although I was very young, some powerful emotion swept through me. Almost everyone in our wagon wept.
Our journey, into the depths of Russia, slowly crawled on and the people, squashed into the wagons, began to sicken and die. Hardly a night passed without some already death-stiffened body, dirty and draped with rags, being taken from, or more likely, being thrown out of the wagon. Death began collecting a heavy harvest, particularly among the old, infants and toddlers. Sometimes the train stopped in open country and would stand for ten hours or more. At such times, we would go off to gather what food we could find, for by then we were all pinched with hunger. A scrap of bread and a drop of hot water was insufficient for our growing bodies. At that time, half rotten or frozen vegetables were a luxurious rarity.
The train chugged on through the wide expanse of empty, uninhabited terrain, nothing but frost and snow, devoid of any sign of humanity. After many weeks, the train finally came to a halt and we were told that right there is where we would be living, with an assurance that all would be right. The rail track ran right up to shabby barrack huts within the snow covered forest – a rail track which, as we later found out, was required to carry the felled trees, which dripped with the sweat and blood of condemned people. This was posiolek Soluga in Barachykha district, managed by the very sinister commandant, Comrade Burygin. Conditions were atrocious. The barracks were filled to overflowing with people, women, children, men all just lumped together. There were too few real beds – even bunk beds – so we slept on the floor. When summer came, we were able to place some of the weeds which grew so profusely alongside a nearby brook around us as we slept, and which thereby served as a defence against the bed bugs which fell from the ceiling.
The forestry work was very heavy, especially for young girls. I used to move already ‘shaved’ logs, helped by an underfed horse, which was blind in one eye. I had very little strength and how very many tears I shed as I did this work! During the winter, in snow almost up to my ears, I would stumble among the felled trees which were hidden beneath the fallen snow. Of course precisely measured grams of bread were received only for those who had completed their quota, a task all but impossible for a young girl to achieve. It was lack of food which restarted illnesses. During one night my 25 year old aunt, who had earlier that day had been working in the forest, died.
Time passed by and, despite the very hard work, uppermost in my mind was my constant yearning for my family. How very many nights I spent sobbing into my pillow made from weeds; I prayed for some kind of miracle, whereby I could learn what had happened to my family. My entreaties to God were answered with the arrival of a family, from whom I discovered that my entire family had been deported in February to nearby Vologda. My relief knew no bounds. I began making applications for me to join up with my family, but for whatever reasons they were always met with a refusal. Nevertheless, I continued with my requests because I longed for them more and more. I was relying on the hope that eventually they would weary of me and something would happen. And so it did because, completely out of the blue, at my next request my mother, sisters and brothers were sent to our posiolek. Unfortunately, in their case, their conditions were worsened, but we were at least together. Mother’s job was to feed two camp pigs. Secretly she brought back bread and other garbage meant for them, and it is probably this which helped us to survive.
Our salvation came with the start of the German/Soviet war. My blind horse went to the army and my replacement work was less strenuous. Then unexpectedly, we were declared free and able to travel wherever we wished. It was only later that news reached us of a Polish army being formed somewhere to the south. After all we had endured all this seemed to be one big dream.
Freedom! What a lovely word! It draws tears of happiness from the eyes. We wanted to travel south at any price. With this in mind, mother sold whatever she could, even my ear-rings, the beauty of which I can still recall. After extensive and very desperate experiences, half dead from hunger and the cold because at times we had to sleep in open fields, we reached the town of Osh, where there was a Polish Centre and agency. There, with two of my friends, Lodzia and Janka (later Sergot), I worked helping the delegate, Mr Aleksandrowicz, in the sharing out of aid or by looking after the sick because there was already a clinic there. Mother worked gathering cotton.
The Artillery School of the 5th Division was about 20 kilometres away from us. Since only military families were allowed to depart from Russia and we knew nothing of the whereabouts of father. One officer cadet, a very upright young man, who was slightly drawn to me, put our names down as his family. It was thanks to him that we arrived in Teheran. There, quite by chance, we met father, sick with dysentery, in the Indian hospital. He later went to Italy with the 7th Division. I joined the army in Teheran and, soon after, towards the end of 1943, arrived in England as a volunteer where, after training, I worked in military hospitals until their closure. Mother, my brother and sisters were sent to Africa where my brother joined the cadets and was then sent to the Air Force College in England.
My brother and parents have already passed away. One of my sisters is in Australia, whilst I and the youngest live in England, but at some distance from each other. This, I think, concludes our war experiences.
An account of life in osada Adampol before the war has been written by Józef Rojek.