Witek and Janina in a tent in Quassassin, 1947
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
District (Powiat) Stołpce
Sunday 17 September 1939. Grammar school students’ hostel on the outskirts of Stołpce. The roar of aeroplanes wakes us: air-raid! We dress in a hurry and run off across the fields, then hide in the furrows between the rows of potatoes. The planes drone towards us and gingerly we look up – there are red stars on the wings! Meanwhile the cavalry can be seen on the horizon speeding along so we stand up and go into town. Here the Soviet tanks are tearing up the road surface with their caterpillar tracks and communist sympathisers come out welcoming them with flowers. From overhead a plane drops leaflets written in ghastly ungrammatical Polish and a second one drops a bomb which explodes somewhere near a bridge over the river Niemen. We return to the hostel.
‘Sir’, I ask, ‘why’? Mr Maciaszek, teacher of Polish and a supervisor of the students’ hostel, at a loss, looks unseeing into the distance, spreads his arms in a shrug of helplessness, and remains silent. A day passes by and Mr Maciaszek returns from town.
“Go to the station, Stasiu. You’ll find your father there,” he says. So I rush off. There sitting on the ground are familiar military settlers, unknown military men and some policemen. I notice my father and want to run to him. “Halt” – a bayonet blocks the way. For the first time in my life I saw my father crying. They all were deported to Ostashkov.
I pack my schoolbag and walk along the road in the direction of Mir and Turzec and home 32km away. A squeal of brakes, a large saloon car, and in it a driver and two officers. “Do you know which road we take to Korelicze?” they ask in Russian. “I’m going that way myself. I’ll show you if you want”, I answer. They look at me then open the car door.
“Well, get in”. We set off and they cast their eyes at my cap and grammar school uniform. “And your father – is he Polish or Russian? “Polish” I answer. “Well”, they say, “we came to liberate Poles as well”.
We part company in Turzec. I arrive home to find mother with our neighbour Mrs Michalska and five of my younger brothers and sisters digging up potatoes. Our osada has been thoroughly plundered so there is hardly any livestock left. Worse still, one settler has been killed by an inhabitant of the nearby Belorussian village and the second one shot dead by a Soviet officer.
Very early in the morning of that same Sunday 17 September, the general administrator of the rural district of Turzec, Antoni Świercz, seeing red stars emblazoned on the wings of overflying aircraft said, “There’s something the matter, I’m going to the office”. He jumped on his bicycle and left at once.
This was the man whose position and influence was used for the benefit of the whole community, sometimes to the detriment of his own farm. For example, in that rural district consisting of eleven villages, there were educational foundation scholarships to enable the children of the less well-off families attend grammar and higher education establishments. It was the general administrator’s responsibility to award these. He also heard all sorts of complaints and questions of social grievance; he acted as advocate for those to whom some wrong had been done, even counselled those involved in family disagreements, and donated his two months’ salary to the National Defence Fund. He never returned home from that Sunday cycle ride to his office.
10 February 1940. A Soviet officer accompanied by two armed privates reads a statement that we are to be resettled in a different country and we have just thirty minutes to pack all our belongings. We pass through Turzec where a Jewish acquaintance of ours named Godel secretly slips mother two czarist gold coins murmuring; “Please take them. They could come in very useful where you’re going”. We are brought to Stołpce station and along with hundreds of other families are loaded into goods wagons.
Negoreloye, Minsk, Orsha (we are given some millet here), Smolensk (the name on the station is also in the Latin alphabet). Moscow, Jaroslavl, Vologda and the train stops at Vozhega station, more or less halfway between Moscow and Archangelsk. We are taken 20 km by sledges to our barracks. Here our living quarters are partitioned by boards which reach halfway up the walls and two families are placed in each section. In the space allocated to us there is also Mrs Sałata from Puzieniewicze and her four children. Altogether this makes two mothers (both fathers were deported to Ostashkov in September 1939) and 10 children ranging in age of 4 up to 14 years, plus a plague of house bugs found in both the walls and the bunk beds. They introduced themselves to us on our first night; the pleasure was very one-sided. Besides the families of military settlers from Puzieniewicze, Berezowiec and Ostrogórek there were also forestry administrators, gamekeepers and their families brought to this place of exile, the name of which is Żarowskij posiolek, Wożegodzki forestry collective, County Wołogod. All around us taiga, taiga, taiga …… Firs, sometimes birches and aspens.
The adults were employed in the forest, cutting wood and doing all manner of that vast array of jobs connected with it. A felled tree was stripped of its branches and cut into logs of pre-determined lengths. The nearest cuts from the base of the trunk produced a log of about 2.5 metres – shpala – used for railroad sleepers; the next 4.5 to 6 metres – pilovochnik – used for beams and planks; the remainder just any old wood for anything else. The particularly straight ones without knots – balans – were used in the mines for pit props. Birches were sawn into 10 centimetre rings and then chopped into smaller pieces – churki – used as fuel for tractors instead of petrol and oil. During the winter all these different logs were transported by sledges with the help of zvoshchyki – drivers – and during the summer, because the terrain was very wet and marshy, by volokusha. This contraption consisted of two, about 4 metre long sturdy poles attached on each side of the horse to its collar. The other ends resting on the ground behind the horse was curved to form the runners, to which into the holes previously made, were driven vertically two strong props and across them a thick crosspiece. The end of a log was tied to the crosspiece and dragged away, hence – volokusha – dragger.
Women, a few men and youths worked in the forest. The posiolek’s Commandant used to complain that he had been expecting 400 forest workers, but what he had been sent were useless women and children. Work was compulsory. Mother started work as a woodcutter (lesorub), then a sledge driver (zvoshchyk), then a concocter of soup for the forest workers and later a cook in the nursery. As the oldest aged 15, I worked as a woodcutter, sledge driver and during the summer a haymaker. At 13, Janina burnt the scrap branches in the forest, Witold 11 and Edward 9 went to school, Alina 7 and Jurek 4 attended nursery.
It was not long before the store of food we had brought with us was exhausted and that is when hunger began. What little bread there was in the shop was rationed, and the canteen had nothing more than soup – either cabbage or noodle. Both were very thin, containing little of substance and anyway we could not buy it as we had no money. Illnesses increased and people started to die. Shoes soon wore out and clothing became tatters. In school Stefan Adamski from Berezowiec wrote on the blackboard: “Soviet food is just bread and water. We are hungry and won’t be studying”. The posiolek commandant Romanov, turned up with a militiaman and started shouting warnings while waving his revolver about, and in the end had the boy’s mother brought into his office.
Then something unheard of happened – they brought white bread to the posiolek, what is more, one could buy as much as one wanted. All I can say is that it was a world of fantasy! In fact we bought three loaves and ate them with such greed that we soon became sick. Happy is the man who is not tormented by dreams of bread, cakes and biscuits! I remember once when I was still at home seeing in Mucha (Fly), a political and satirical magazine subscribed to by my father, two cartoons with captions about them. The words for the first drawing read: “A Christmas tree in Russia” and depicted a mother standing in the snow with her children, crying while father was hanging from the tree. The other – “A Christmas tree in Poland” had mother, father and children standing round a tree covered in shimmering candles with piles of presents at its foot. At once I felt a lump in my throat; feelings of grief and sadness swept over me and I felt dread for the future – a dread that stayed with me. What is more, that sinister foreboding proved to be only too correct. I witnessed such startling experiences as noticing what happened following the death from hunger and deprivation of Mrs W, the wife of a military settler from Puzieniewicze. The box made in a hurry to carry her body was placed outside the barracks awaiting transport. Her four year old son Marian came up to the box and started shaking the lid with his tiny week hands and tried to open it, all the while crying “Mama”. This indescribable sight and the dreadful scream of despair in the child’s voice made us all turn cold, the scene was one worthy of the pen of Żeromski ….
A further experience was watching a young mother hardly able to walk with tiredness coming from the forest. Her little son, Staś W, runs towards her, showing her some bread and calling out that he had bought it for her. Overcome by emotion, the poor woman starts crying knowing she is really lucky to see this show of love from one so young. She puts her arms around him, kisses him and together they go into the barracks……
There were also some comic incidents. Mrs S. from osada Ostrogórki near Mir, born in Mazuria, didn’t go to work one day because she reckoned she had a more important job to do in the barracks - laundry. Questioned by the commandant who was making his rounds of inspections, her reply was that since she was working every day in the forest, there was no time to do the children’s washing. Nonplussed when he started shouting at her she, not thinking what she was doing, grabbed hold of a piece of frozen clothing and started beating him with it. As she was dragged off to the cooler she was still shouting. “You Bolshevik, you!”
Yet again, there was a very old man in the posiolek with hair white as milk. He was General Jastrzębski. During one of his disputatious exchanges with the commandant he said; “Back in 1920 I chased off your precious Soviet Cavalry Commander-in-Chief Budyenny, like a cat”. The General was quickly removed to an old people’s home. As a last example let me explain our two methods for getting rid of lice. In winter we put our underwear out in very strong frosts, while in summer those in the seams exploded under a hot iron.
Spring slowly crept on. Sunday was usually work-free but the commandant ordered that the work would be done as usual on Easter Sunday. So it was that on this Easter Day from somewhere from the hidden recesses of the forest there amazingly emerged the sound of an axe being struck upon the blade of a long two-handed saw. The reverberation came a second and then a third time, only to continue sounding like church bells in the Siberian taiga, joined here and there by the yelps issuing from the chests of these paupers with neither country, land nor homes – half lament, half rejoicing for Easter.
Summer came and with it the forest was full of nettles. People gathered them to make soup, and not too distasteful either….if one is very hungry. In the open places there later ripened bilberries and raspberries which the children collected throughout the day. They sometimes even managed to sell them. During autumn, since there were lots of edible fungi we collected mushrooms. Then came the time when after somehow procuring a loan of 600 roubles, mother bought a goat. Now we had milk which we could also add to the soup. Witek and Edzio set out about building a little shed for the animal and gathered a large supply of birch twigs so that she had sufficient food for the entire winter. That was a very hard winter causing many to sicken and die. The doctor called the illness paratiph. By the manner of it spreading it must have been some type of typhoid. Certainly one after another we all went down with it. At long last summer returned and with it the incredible news that Germany had attacked the Soviets. The commandant called a meeting, officially informed us that an amnesty had been drawn up and that from that very moment we were free Polish citizens. He added that now we should be fighting the Germans alongside each other and it did not matter if we were Polish or Soviet citizens. Indeed if we wanted we could now try to avail ourselves of Soviet citizenships and, what is more, he would do all in his power to help us to that end. There were no volunteers and his proposal was met with guffaws of merriment!
Delegates chosen at the meeting, having been sent to the Polish Consulate in Archangelsk, returned to declare that a decision had been made to prepare for the journey, thus leaving the posiolek altogether The direction was south for it was there that a Polish army was being formed. To this end people were drying bread and selling all they could in preparation for the journey.
On 23 February 1942, almost exactly two years from our arrival, all but one family left the posiolek. Luggage and children were piled onto large sledges fitted with three runners and pulled by tractors previously used for transporting huge stacks of wood – all the other people walked.
Once loaded onto goods wagons at Vozhega station we set off eastwards. Kirov, then Perm where mother, wanting to buy something to eat, left the train. While she was away the train moved on taking her children with it. Seeing that Mr Gołąb was stranded as well she grabbed him by the arm, ran to the station master and complained: “I got off with my husband to buy milk for the children and the train left. Please help us”. “Well ok we will help” – he put her on a passenger train and the pair of them caught up with us in Sverdlovsk. From there we turned south through Kurgan, Omsk, and Alma-Ata. During the long journey, once the certificate issued at the posiolek was shown, one could buy bread, cereal and soup from the canteen on the railway stations. Among the trading that was occurring on some stations one could buy sugar, while on others salt, or shag tobacco. In the middle of March we reached Lugovaya, then the HQ of the 10th Infantry Division. Here, directly from the trains, youths were accepted into the Cadets and mature men into the Army. I joined the Cadets camp and was sent to Narpay but, because those born in 1925 were of recruitment age, I was soon allocated to the 7th Signals Coy, 23 Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
The train itself went on further to Barnaul, Arys, Alma-Ata, Tashkent and eventually Guzar. Here was yet another camp which accepted young people into the cadets, so mother first went to make sure what the set-up was then took Witek and Edzio with her to the camp. There she kissed them, made the sign of a cross above them and said: “May the Holy Mother keep you in her care”. In mid-April after two weeks’ quarantine, they were taken to Karkin-Batasz where Edzio, who was too young for the Cadets, was placed in the orphanage and Witek departed with the Cadets to Shakhrizyabs. Having malaria, he was taken by lorry to Samarkand, by train to Krasnovodsk and by boat to Pahlevi.
Extract from the diary of the Girl Cadet, Janina Świercz.
Railway junction Kizyl-Tepe, they tell us to disembark.
Now only part of our family remains: mother, I – 15 year old Janina, Ala 8 and Jurek 5. We are informed that mothers should place their children in either schools or orphanages while they themselves work for a short time on collective farms. I don’t want to leave my mother but, like our Polish friends, she decided to send us 45 km away to Kermine where a Cadet school for girls is being formed. Poor dear soul wishes me goodbye near the train and gives me her last three roubles along with some kind of flat bread. My friends are travelling with me but the train doesn’t stop at Kermine so the blustering inspector shouts at us to jump while it is still moving. Luckily I only graze my knees.
Before we reach Kermine we come across a few mud huts in the middle of the steppe. Here’s where we stay for the night though it is terribly cold. Next morning comes very good news. A lady goes round the mud huts and writes down the names of all the girls saying that evening we are to be accepted into the school. 22nd April and I’m already a proud Cadet, mother, Ala and Jurek arrive to live in tents in the civilian camp run under the jurisdiction of the Social Welfare. They were directed here by Staś who is already a soldier in the 7th Division. I go out to meet mother and together we set off tortoise hunting. The meat and broth are slightly sweet but very tasty. Now comes an order that Ala and Jurek have to attend the orphanage and mother has to work on the collective farm.
Our school is moved to Kurkin-Batash where I meet Witek and Edzio. It is June and stiflingly hot. After a few weeks there are lots of cases of typhoid so the school is moved to Guzar. Suddenly the camp bubbles with happiness; we are going abroad! 11 August we travel by train to to Krasnovodsk. 12 August 1942 we board the boat and that evening leave the port. A nagging thought is in my mind that, only I am on the way, leaving the rest of the family in the Soviet Union. There’s a heavy lump in my throat. Indeed it’s all but choking me. Next day we are in Pahlevi and march outside the town close to the civilian camp. Unexpectedly I spot my mother so we rush to great each other sobbing with joy. Moreover Staś is here with his Division, Edzio with his orphanage, and Witek with the Cadets, so mother is waiting just for the children’s home which cares for Ala and Jurek.
Decades roll by. Now I live in a foreign land but the warbling of a sky-lark brings back memories of a sunny day, of rippling corn, of bees buzzing in clover and, at evening as daylight recedes, of a mist spreading over meadows while from Korelicze sounds the tolling bell, calling all to prayer …. In the restless night something is calling, prodding me awake – “Just why are you calling me when so many years have already passed ….?” There is nothing for it! I have to go.
11 June 1995. Fifty-five years 4 months and one day has been and gone when the forced journey comes back full circle. My brother Witold and I in our bare feet tread the land of our father Antoni Świercz, prisoner of Ostashkov, whose life was stolen by a shot in the back of his head in a dank, fetid cellar, and whose body was buried in a communal ditch in Mednoye in 1940. We sprinkle soil that we have brought with us and gather some that will go with us on our very last journey. Even now there is rye growing on our land and the rustling ears of corn bow ‘welcome’ to us.
Probably we are imagining all this for it is more our roots and this is our soil! My dearest – says the soil – how many such roots are embedded in me, roots which I fed and raised from time immemorial, for me there is no division into different races, tribes and nations. By the command of Everlasting God I have a duty until the end of the world to preserve the human race and all that derives life from me. Dear ones! Even as I welcome you I also have to say farewell. Hasten back to your other roots but know I shall always be waiting. Our land is different, or maybe it is we who have changed ….
Stanisław Świercz has also written an account of life at Osada Puzieniewicze prior to deportation. it can be read here.
His sister, Alina Frost (nee Świercz) has written more about the family's deportation. Her story can be read here.
Ala, Mother, Jurek and Edzio in Tengeru, Africa
The bowing ears of corn say "Welcome"
A "Death List" from Ostashkov - 46: Świercz, Antoni Pavlovich, born 1901 No 7016
Antoni Świercz, rural district administrator of Turzec
Stanisław Świercz being decorated in Italy by General Rakowski, 1944
Military settlers from Puzieniewicze at their Reunion
First Holy Communion of the children from Puzieniewicze in Mir, 1935