From the left, Frania, Ola and Czesia Nowicka, with their mother. Kidugala, 1943
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
OLIMPIA (OLA) BARTON (NOWICKA)
District (Powiat) Wołożyn
The new year of 1940 had the same feel about it as the previous year. The settlers continued to live in such a way as not to provoke the local communists, whose attempts to rob – and even their threats to murder, were, in part, restrained by the Soviet authorities. Of course, the apprehensions and uncertainties tended not to filter down to us children, but there was no way of not feeling the gloom and particular changes in the household. As I drifted to sleep on the evening of 9 February, I reluctantly pondered on the fact that I had to go to school the following day. I had stopped enjoying school, with the exception of one teacher, Anna Mendela from Trzebina, who had not been able to return. The rest of the mostly new staff were mainly Byelorussian and Russian.
On the morning of 10 February, mother woke us up just before she started to make breakfast. Through the half open door to my parents’ bedroom, as they were dressing, we heard mother relating her dream to father, saying that she had been dancing ……
At that very moment, there was a very loud knocking on the kitchen door. Mother went to open it and we heard men’s voices demanding, in Russian, the immediate presence of my father who, half dressed, came into the kitchen. We followed. One of the soldiers stood father against the wall and, brandishing a rifle, demanded he hand over any arms. When, eventually, they believed there were no weapons, they allowed him to get dressed, and then, taking him with them, told mother to pack everything she might want to take with her and load it onto the sledges, which were drawn up in front of the house. They informed her that we were being taken to some other town for interrogation, after which we should be returning home. They left a young armed soldier behind to guard us. Mother started to cry and, despite the soldier’s urging, could not force herself into action. Once the soldier had taken in the situation, he said, “Listen Madam, they are taking you a long way from here and you won’t be coming back. Feed the children well, put a lot of warm clothes on, and take all you can manage”. In the end, when mother still didn’t react he went to the larder, found some sacks and began filling them with food. When mother regained her composure she made us some breakfast and even fed the soldier. My two young sisters Frania and Czesia and myself didn’t cry because we didn’t fully realise what was happening. Czesia, for example, didn’t want to leave her cat behind.
After some time, father returned, escorted by different soldiers. We prepared to leave. Before we left the house, father told us to kneel before the picture of Our Lady of Ostra Brama and together we recited “Into Thy Care”. In front of our home there already stood a small crowd of inhabitants of the nearby village, some of them our former employees, waiting to loot the place following our departure. Seeing them, mother went back into the house, from where shortly emanated the sound of breaking glass and crockery, and the whiff of kerosene, which she had poured over all the remaining food.
We travelled towards Pierszaje to be joined on the way by the rest of the 17 settlers. We were assembled in the school, from where, once our names were checked, we set off further. We spent that night sleeping on the floor of the school in Zabrzezie. Next day, we reached Połoczany, where we were loaded onto railway goods wagons. During the evening, we set off in the dark, sitting on our bundles. In Mołodeczno, we were moved into other wagons which had been adapted for a long journey. The train jerked along dreadfully, but usually stopped in the evenings at some station, when the doors would be opened and a few men called out to collect water. We lived on what we had brought from our homes and prepared this food on a little stove. At one stop, after two weeks’ journey, we were led to a bathhouse. We crossed the Urals, stopping in Ufa, and continued further into the depths of Asia.
Three weeks passed following our departure, until we eventually drew to a halt in a forest and were told to leave the wagons. We were divided into groups and travelled through the forest on sledges. It was already dark when we were led into a barrack house. We were given one room without a door. Towards the end of the room was a single window, on the right side, storeyed bunk beds meant for four people, the bed for the fifth being near the window, a dirty table and two stools. Despite my being very hungry, the sight of that dirty furniture and rugs took my appetite clean away. We took over a camp which had been used by Russian prisoners, who had hurriedly been moved elsewhere just prior to our arrival.
Being tired, we fell asleep. We could not turn off the light and were forbidden to unscrew the bulbs. Sleep did not last long – we began scratching ourselves and jumped to the floor in great panic. The bed bugs fell upon us: we had started the battle against them, which lasted throughout our exile. We were doomed to failure, since the creatures were even found in the forest, under the bark of trees.
In our barrack, the rooms were placed on both sides of a long corridor. Altogether, there were 24 families. Cast iron stoves in the corridors served for heating. Right from the start, we were given our new address which was posiolek Zolataya Gora, postal area Kvitok, Tayshet district, Irkutsk Province. The commandant called a meeting and explained our situation. We were to remain here forever and, going by the principle “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat”, he encouraged us to do our assigned work. Although no barbed wire surrounded the camp and the guard towers were empty, leaving it without permission was not allowed.
Frania and I tried to get some food for the whole family by joining the queues, both at the shop and the canteen. Czesia started school, where she sat at the same desk as a daughter of a Russian, “Auntie Marusia” a shop assistant. This acquaintance became very useful. Mother regularly worked with Mrs Dryguniewicz, usually felling trees, building barracks or hay making. Mrs Dryguniewicz was bitten by a poisonous snake and spent a few days in hospital.
Spring came late and with a rush. We were surprised by the profusion of beautiful flowers, bilberries, black and redcurrants and raspberries which grew by the streams, deep in the forest. However, to penetrate the taiga was very dangerous, not only because of wild animals, mainly bears, but also because wandering in the forest caused disorientation and one ended up going in circles.
We did not always comply with camp orders, but the authorities turned a blind eye. Nevertheless, I was once given three days detention, at a time when father, who worked with horses, was sent to Toporok and mother was ill with dysentery and had been taken to hospital. As there was no news from her, I decided to check on mother myself. I went to Kvitok and found the hospital. They wouldn’t let me in to see her, giving the excuse she was in an ‘infectious’ ward. I sat in the waiting room until I was shown outside and told to look up at a first floor window, where she appeared. The posiolek commandant was informed but, in view of my age, he did allow me to return to the barracks during the night.
On the hill behind the posiolek, the graves grew in number. If, to our young minds, the deaths of children were difficult to accept, so was the anxiety caused by the sight of orphans whose mothers had died. Amongst ourselves, we never discussed such matters, but all of us, whenever we came across some food, ate only a little, so as to save as much as possible for our own parents. They, for their part, quite often brought back bread from work to divide among us, with the explanation that lunch had been brought out to the forest. On one occasion, I don’t remember why, father took me to the doctor’s where I fainted. The doctor diagnosed anaemia and sent a note to the Russian kitchen staff to supply me, for two weeks, with a daily portion of milk, with rice or semolina.
Even in what appeared to be a hopeless situation, hope itself was the last thing to be abandoned. People sought hope everywhere and, in particular, from the overheard gossip of supervisors when they chatted in whispers among themselves, for they in their turn were the descendants of former deportees. War with Germany definitely increased such hope. Then came the day when the commandant called a meeting, declared us to be free and allowed to leave the posiolek. Because of the battlefront we couldn’t return home. All that was asked of us was to sign a particular document, which would act as a passport. This however presented its own problem, since people were wary of being tricked into becoming Soviet citizens. It was certainly true that the authorities tried to exploit this fear in order to instil even more distrust amongst us. We were so isolated that, though there were occasional rumours of agencies controlled by the Polish government, nobody knew for certain what was what. In the end, by some means or another, acceptable information reached us and everybody applied for the document. Requests for us to remain, with promises of improved conditions, were then put before us. Photographers were brought in and group photos were taken. Our group consisted of two families: Mr & Mrs Dryguniewicz, ourselves and one of our neighbours. My parents presented themselves just as they were, straight from work and, when told to change, answered that they had nothing else to wear.
Towards the end of November, or the beginning of December 1941, along with Mr & Mrs Dryguniewicz and Mr & Mrs Justynowicz, we set off for a small railway station, 6-7 kilometres away. Dragging the quickly constructed sledges, which bore all of our possessions, we walked through the forest in deep snow. We took a short journey by goods train to Tayshet, where we stayed for a few days in rented quarters, waiting at first for the payment of my parents’ final wages, and then to buy a railway ticket. With this, we travelled to Alma-Ata on a passenger train. We changed trains in Novosibirsk, where once again we waited and contacted a Polish representative.
After many setbacks we were rescued from this hopeless situation by the Polish Army, who took us onto their train which was so overcrowded that I fell asleep standing up. We passed through Tashkent and got off at Andidzhan in Uzbekistan, where we waited a few days for the next train, sleeping on our bundles in the fields. Then followed a fairly short journey to Dzhalal-Abad and another of less than 20 kilometres to a small station at the foot of the Tien-Shan Mountains – Blagoveshchanka, in Kirghizia. In the spring we were supposed to start work on a collective farm there. Meanwhile we were beset by hunger, in an empty clay hut, which did not create pleasant living conditions.
Here we met two families from our osada; the Stomal and the Przezdziecki families, who lived in a ‘proper’ building, not like us in our clay hut. My parents set about trying to change the situation, and before long, we too settled into that building. All the families slept on the wooden straw-strewn floor. We even had a stove and a table. Later on we were joined by two others – the brother of Mrs Justynowicz, whom we met by chance, and his friend. It was there that little Januszek Justynowicz died, as did Mrs Stomal and Apolonia, one of her four daughters.
All the men were soon called up into the army, with the exception of Mr Justynowicz who had been wounded in the hand during the First World War.
One day as we trudged along the main road from the house to the centre of the collective farm, we were passed by two horsemen in uniforms we didn’t recognise. They stopped when they heard Polish being spoken. They turned out to be an army chaplain and another officer looking for Poles scattered in the collective farms. We agreed to prepare a list of Polish names to take to their HQ. We did this the next day and in exchange got a tasty dinner, a loaf of bread and a pot of soup. On our return we found Ewa Dryguniewicz running a very high temperature. At the sight of the bread, she insisted that she would be immediately better, were she to eat just a little of it. She was indeed cured, but not immediately. It was, of course, typhoid to which we all succumbed, despite having been vaccinated in Zołotaya Gora. From time to time we were visited by the army chaplain, who brought dry bread, sometimes sugar and once even butter! Finally he came and told us that the army was leaving Russia and that permission was granted for civilians to be taken out, but only those families with someone in the Polish Army. It was difficult to believe that all our hopes were coming to fruition and that we should leave this ‘inhuman land’. However, new problems began to pile up. How and by what means would we get to Dzhalal-Abad? The army were apparently unable to help and those in charge at the collective farms categorically refused any aid. As we were all terribly weak, following typhoid – indeed mother and Czesia still had high temperatures – our new happiness slipped into resignation and despair.
Then, along the road, somebody noticed a line of carts travelling in our direction. They were Polish soldiers sent by the chaplain, whose name I don’t even remember, but to whom we owe our freedom. We travelled from Dzhalal-Abad to Krasnovodsk in such an overcrowded train that movement was almost impossible. We went through a Soviet control point for the last time, at the port, by the entrance to a ship. As the names on the list were checked, we discovered that my name had been omitted. Permission for me to board the ship was refused and my mother was even suspected of attempting to smuggle out a Soviet citizen. Upon the refusal, mother declared that if I were to be left behind, then we would all stay. Fortunately witnesses were found and upon being convinced of my true identity, the Soviet authorities relented and we were allowed to leave Soviet Russia.
We reached the port of Pahlevi on the evening of the next day, and spent the first night under the stars. Later we passed through baths and disinfection, received clean clothes, and moved to a camp outside the town. This was the beginning of April, on the Saturday before Easter Day. It was there by chance, we met father just before his departure to Palestine.
After a few days, we too left for Teheran where we were placed in Camp No. 2 in tents outside of the town. Mr Justynowicz joined the army and his sons, Marian and Bronek Dryguniewicz, joined the cadets. Mother helped in the camp kitchen, while we girls started school and joined the girl guides. There were no school buildings, so the teacher and the classes just sat on the ground. In Teheran, I made my Girl Guide promise.
After a time, we and Mrs Dryguniewicz, with Ewa and Weronika, moved to Camp No. 3 from where we soon left for Africa. The journey from Teheran to Ahvaz, on the Persian Gulf, was by train, and then by ship to Karachi, where we spent almost two months: the first few weeks of which were in the English military camp, in town. Later, we were in tents out in the sands of the desert, where sometimes at night we were visited by jackals. Whenever there was a group of children and a few teachers, lessons and Girl Guide meetings started at once. In Karachi, we even organised a show of folk dancing, singing and recitations, although without costumes. I had to memorise ‘Ode to Youth’ which was not very easy, but which I remember to this day. The next part of our sea journey was somewhat longer, as we crossed the Indian Ocean to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika.
Upon our arrival, small boats, rowed by Africans, approached the ship, to take us ashore in groups. This was our first contact with black people, at the sight of whom many elderly women took fright and somehow gingerly boarded the boats. After a few days, we were once more on the move. We did this final two-day journey in covered lorries, stopping for the night in a monastery. At the end of October 1942 we finally reached Kidugala, where we stayed until the end of the war.
Kidugala was the site of a former Protestant mission. There was already a church and a few brick buildings. Behind the church was a large cemetery. We were told that it contained the graves of missionaries murdered by the local people. The camp’s commanding officer was English but the manager was a Pole. The camp was inhabited by 1,000 people. The junior school began almost straight away, but we had to wait until the arrival of suitable staff for the founding of the grammar school and lyceum. Once they were opened, a hostel was built to house young people from other camps. The church was consecrated and a priest appointed. The campus also had a hospital, staffed by a Polish surgeon and Polish nurses. We had our own bakery and tailor’s shop and, later, even a farm. There were two community rooms, one for the general use and the other dedicated to scouting. In school we had magnificent teachers and scout leaders. We worked very diligently, so as to compensate for the lost years of education. The lack of exercise books and textbooks was overcome by those sent by our fathers in the army in the Middle East. The education of the young people was monitored by a representative of the ministry of Religion and Public Education, based in Nairobi.
All this had one main goal: preparation for the re-building of Poland after the war. Although this war did come to an end for many nations, Poland, even at the conclusion of open warfare, was in exactly the same position as when it had started – a Nation in bondage – the only difference being the invader. Our brave soldiers who fought and died so heroically, following the legend ‘For Your and our Freedom’, realised with disillusionment that their fight had only been for ‘Yours’.
The fate of most of the settlers from Bałaskowszczyna is unknown. Mrs Dryguniewicz, Ewa, Bronek and Weronika are in New York; their father having died. Two of the Stomal daughters, Hania and Ziutka are in England; their mother and sister died in Russia, another sister died in Teheran and their father in England. Mr and Mrs Waszkiewicz died in England, leaving two daughters, Walentyna and Irena. Their son Czesław, died in Canada. Mr and Mrs Justynowicz died in England. Their daughter Joanna lives in London and their son Marian in Canada. Mrs Łukaszewicz, who was already a widow with four children when she was deported, returned from Russia to Poland after the war. She has now passed away, but her children Weronika, Janina, Zygmunt and Frania, still live in Poland. Mrs Daszkiewicz died in England, as did our own mother. My sisters, Frania and Czesia, live in England.
The Dryguniewicz family to the left, with the Nowicki family on the right, A barrack neighbour stands between the two groups.
Posiolek Zolotaya Gora, 1941
Our camp also boasted a Marian Sodality, a church choir and an amateur dramatic group. However the foremost after school activity was scouting, the principles of which we tried to pass on to those younger than ourselves. I led one of the Brownie packs, and eventually became the Chief Leader of all Brownie packs.
Later, we learned that two other posioleks, Toporok and Udachna, lay within several kilometres reach of us. This explained why not all our settlers were in Zolotaya Gora. Kvitok, a small town some 6-7 kilometres away, had a few shops, a post office, hospital and administrative offices. Before the Soviet/German war began, we did receive a few parcels from relatives back home. I certainly received two money transfers from my former teacher. Then malnutrition began to reap its harvest – children began to fall sick and die, mainly from dysentery.
Ola Nowicka (third from left) with a group of guide leaders. Kidugala
We lived, two families together, sharing a thatched, clay hut. The main family room had an unglazed window, which was covered with a wooded shutter at night. Our beds, draped with mosquito nets, ranged along the walls, while a table and chairs took up the centre. Over time, we made a ceiling out of sheets and for carpets used straw mats, which we purchased from the local people. Everything was very primitive, some of our furniture, for example, being made from wooden fruit crates. The communal kitchen was shared by a few families.
Alexander Nowicki (on right). Palestine, 1943
Anna Nowicka with her daughters, Frania, Czesia and Ola. Teheran, 1942