S T A L I N ' S E T H N I C C L E A N S I N G
Name: WITOLD SZABUNIO
Up to 1937 I lived with my father, mother and two brothers on osada Niechniewicze, rural district Niechniewicze, in the Nowogródek district. That same year my father purchased another farm in osada Murowanka, rural district Szczorse in the district of Nowogródek.
Following the Soviet’s unexpected attack on the Eastern Borderlands of the Polish Republic on 17th September 1939, father was arrested. All such prisoners were imprisoned in Nowogródek both to serve their sentences and face ongoing investigations. Having been sentenced to serve 10 years in the Gulag father was put to work building a railway station near the White Sea. Two years later he was moved to forest work in the Komi Republic.
On 10 February 1940 the rest of the family was deported to the depths of the Soviet Union near the town of Velsk in the Archangel Province. This was Ramyansky forest station, posiolek Churkha.
We travelled there in goods wagons fitted with a small stove in the centre and with bunk beds fixed to the sides. A hotchpotch of men, women, the old, the crippled and children – some 50 in total – were assigned to each wagon. During the journey we were hardly fed at all so everybody shared whatever food they had. Sometimes for example the whole wagon received no more than a drop of fatless soup with oil floating on the surface plus a smidgeon of cereal and bread.
Fuel and water we sometimes obtained by thawing snow which we acquired when the train stopped either in an open field or the stations.
I don’t remember how long we travelled. However one day we drew up at the tiny halt of Konoska and we were ordered to leave the wagons taking all our possessions with us. After being loaded onto sledges we set off on yet a further journey. The horses and sledges were provided by nearby collective farms. As the day drew to a close we arrived in some village or other where the NKVD divided us into different cottages for the night stop. The inhabitants were invariably hospitable as they offered us potatoes, salted mushrooms and tea, though they themselves were dirt poor and owned very little.
Upon our arrival at Churkha we were placed in three already existing barrack huts. Five people were allocated places in one small room which contained no more than two beds. Our companions were bed bugs, cockroaches, grasshoppers and other vermin. We worked at felling trees, floating the logs and building new barracks. My jobs were loading resin and as the lorry driver’s mate, carting all manner of goods. Up to 5 November 1941 I worked for Les-Khim Soyuz. After that date I left Velsk for Uzbekistan to join the army which was being organized at that time.
When we arrived in the Kuva district of Uzbekistan that NKVD directed us to work on the local collective farms. We were supposed to receive our military call-up at the onset of Spring. In the meantime we were employed digging ditches for field irrigation and planting rice and cotton. We also harvested the cotton which was still standing from the previous year. We were not paid for our work other than being given some cereal and small flat corn cakes or perhaps a piece of horsemeat or mutton directly from a cauldron in the field as and where we worked. By whatever means presented themselves we had to live on our wits so as not to die of hunger.
Eventually the day dawned when the NKVD representative said we could apply to the military board which would post us to appropriate military units. On 19 February 1942 I was assigned to the communications section of the 10th Heavy Military Regiment. My unit left with others by passenger train to Krasnovodsk near the Caspian Sea on 24 March. A full, overcrowded cargo ship transferred us full of joy to Pahlevi in Persia. However the journey itself was ghastly for on that Soviet vessel we were given salted herrings and rusks but – as the boat didn’t have the necessary water tanks – nothing to drink.
Arriving in Persia felt like being in heaven. As we marched ashore the Persians welcomed us wholeheartedly, throwing money, fruit and sweets in our path.
I went through the entire Italian Campaign with my regiment, from Monte Cassino to Bologna, acquiring many decorations on the way. I arrived in England with the 2nd Polish Corps and, after demob in 1947, emigrated for permanent settlement to Canada.
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