Map of osada Budowla including an inset of its geographical position
Three osadas: Budowla, Rokicie and Lerypol comprised one large centre which came into being after World War I on land which had (probably) been part of the Potocki family estate. These settlements were situated at the junction of the River Kotra with the River Niemen. The settlers were soldiers from the same heavy artillery unit, so they all knew each other. Among them was their commander, a major, and a sergeant who was later elected as the chief officer of the group of villages. They all hailed from central Poland and most of them brought wives from there. Only a few married local girls.
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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) BIAŁYSTOK
OSADA BUDOWLA, ROKICIE and LERYPOL
District (Powiat) Grodno
After a difficult start they all farmed very prosperously and built a splendid communal centre in Budowla to serve the whole area. A school, a general store and a branch of the Stefczyk Bank were located there. On Sundays and Holy Days they attended church in Zydomla 6 kms away.
The settlers improved the soil, acquired agricultural machinery and modernised buildings during the period their children were growing up. All this was suddenly and completely ruined with the outbreak of the 1939 war. Then 17 September arrived and the road was filled with tanks, lorries pulling trailers, horses being ridden without saddles, and a length of rope being used as a bridle. The Red Army entered in this manner, while at the same time Belorussians prowled through the villages. They sported red armbands on their sleeves and had in their possession the rifles and boots confiscated from the Polish soldiers who had retreated from the Germans. These peasants claimed to aid in ‘the liberation from the Polish masters’
In fact, anarchy reigned and nobody was sure of even the next hour. Then the news broke that 11 or 12 settlers from Lerypol had been found murdered and roughly buried in the forest by Belorussians from Ogrodniki village. These settlers, who had not been included in the general mobilisation, went to a meeting in the Community Centre where they were arrested by a gang armed with rifles and then imprisoned in a cellar in Obuchowo. This gang then turned to their compatriots from Sobolówka who had stood up for the Poles and said: ‘Where do you stand? Are you going on protecting Poles? If so you’ll join them in the cellar’.
All of us went to Obuchowo – mother, I, my sister, younger brother and the youngest four-year-old child, Stefuś, to visit father and take him something to eat. At my mother’s pleading one of the armed men somewhat reluctantly opened the cellar door and father emerged, but they wouldn’t allow us to approach him. At the sight of father, Stefuś tore himself from mother’s arms and rushed towards father who by then was kneeling so as to embrace the little boy. Then one guardsman pushed the child with his rifle butt. Stefuś fell and mother dashed forward to scoop him up in her arms. Father, sad and downcast, very slowly ate the food we had brought. Then two guardsmen ordered him to return to the cellar. He stood up and for some moments stared longingly at us as he said goodbye. As he disappeared into the depths he turned and his eyes swept across all of us. This was the last time we saw him alive. On Sunday 24 September the cellar was empty and on the 28th someone brought the news that the bodies of the murdered settlers had been found.
We quickly set out by cart and near the village of Obuchowo we found freshly dug soil and large patches of blood. The men started to dig and the first body they brought above ground was father. Mother began wiping his face clean while the ground beneath my feet seemed to tremble. I thought the sky would fall in on us and the world come to an end. Later all the exhumed bodies, amidst much sobbing and weeping, were placed on carts and escorted to the cemetery where a long trench was dug. Straw was laid in the bottom of it, with sheets on top. The seven bodies of the settlers from Budowla were reverently laid to rest here while prayers were said although no priest was present. Next the bodies themselves were covered with sheets and all present came forward to the grave to throw in handfuls of earth. As the soil was replaced the heart-broken crying continued. We buried father in this manner – for me the worst and most dreadful day of my life.
Here is the list of the murdered from osada Budowla: Jan Jagielski, Edward Nowak, Piotr Krupa, Bronisław Przeraziński, Stanisław Szuba, Jan Zawadzki. Here is the list of those settlers from Lerypol murdered on 17 September (I cannot recall their Christian names): Mr Barszcz, Mr Czyż, Mr Goliński, Mr Górnicki and his son, Mr Mozolewski, Mr Mroczek, Mr Pawlikowski, Mr Tomczyk, Mrs Tomczyk’s brother and Mr Zarębski.
On 10 February 1940 two sledges arrived in our farmyard. Two Soviet soldiers with an officer and two Belorussians jumped from them and burst into the house. The officer demanded our documents and the handing over of all our money. Along with our 74-year-old grandfather who, guarded by a soldier holding a rifle, was made to sit in a chair, we were rounded up in the kitchen. Then the officer told us to pack, dress and take something to eat with us. When mother enquired about our destination he bare-facedly lied that we’d be going no further than the community centre. Mother, however, with far-sightedness began packing whatever containers we had – a large chest and a milk churn with such goods as bedding, clothing, food, bread, plus half a sack of millet and some flour.
We were taken via the Community Centre where mothers and children (but not a single man) were herded into the school hall. Our family numbered six – mother, 4-year-old Stefuś, Janek aged 10, me aged 12, sister Olesia then 14 and our grandfather who, at the age of 74, was being deported to Russia for the second time. Towards evening we were taken to the railway station at Żydomla and loaded into the waiting freight wagons fitted with bunk beds and a cast iron stove from which a pipe extended through the roof. This wagon held about 50 people. Next day through a hole in the floor I saw our two dogs under the wagon – they’d come looking for us and found us.
The train started to move eastwards. At the frequent stops the dogs caught up with us and just stretched out under the wagon. Just how did those faithful dogs do this and on what did they feed? When the train started off it always shuddered rapidly. This proved to be very dangerous as it caused people to fall off the bunks and quite often fall lengthwise onto the hot stove. During the stops the doors were thrown open to allow people to get off to relieve themselves: men to one side of the wagon, women on the other, while the Soviet soldiers looked brazenly on. Sometimes the train stopped at a proper station so offering a possibility of buying something. At one such stop mother sent Olesia to seek some milk for Stefuś, and the train moved earlier than expected – without Olesia! At this the family fell into deep despair. Olesia caught up with us on another train having clung to the outside of a wagon as she obviously couldn’t get inside it. As luck would have it she had not travelled all that far by the time the train made its next stop – nevertheless she was frozen through when she caught up with us, in particular her hands and face.
We continued to travel east – Minsk, Moscow, Gorkiy, Kazan, Ufa, Chelyabinsk, Kurgan and then north via Sverdlovsk to a place called Berezniki in the Ural Mountains. Here there was no station but just an open field. We were told to get off as quickly as possible. The guards who had watched us to that stage simply disappeared and it was a civilian who told us to take with us something to eat, covers in which to sleep, and to follow him. Grabbing our bundles we set off with mother carrying Stefuś on her back and something else in her hand. The frost was severe. The rest of our unloaded things remained by the rail tracks in the snow. After a long trek we finally reached some village or other where all of us were led into a large hall. Next morning, after a meal (a bowl of barley porridge with a hole depressed in the middle in which there should have been some jam) we went back for our luggage where, already waiting for us, was a large number of sledges harnessed to small sick-looking horses. Onto one of these sledges we loaded our chest and the rest of our belongings. Mother with Stefuś on her lap sat beside the driver while the three of us, carefully wrapped by mother in eiderdowns and feather beds, travelled at the back. Thus we set off into the unknown.
In the middle of the night we stopped for a rest and found ourselves ushered into a huge hall. Here wailing broke out when it was discovered that in the darkness somewhere along the journey an eight-year-old child had gone missing and was nowhere to be found. One sledge did go back searching, but came back empty-handed. After a short stay, indeed while it was still dark, we set off once again. We travelled all day and it was just before evening that we arrived in a large clearing.
Roofs poked out of the snowdrifts and our sledges came to a halt in front of two barrack huts. Built from round logs they shared a central wall. Ours had bunk beds along the walls with a large stove constructed of unfired brick in the middle. We occupied one of the beds and, exhausted, I fell asleep on it. Then something made me stir, something that was biting me. Mother was examining the crying Stefuś and someone lit a candle. Bed bugs! Around midday they brought along our grandfather and two other old people who had been taken straight from the wagons supposedly to the hospital because they were ill. As grandfather’s legs had become frostbitten while in the wagon they had taken him to some place or other where they had taken off his shoes, greased his legs, bandaged them and the following day put large stiff boots on his feet and then sent him on his way to us.
Towards evening I began to feel pretty ill. I had a headache and breathing provoked a piercing pain in my side. In the morning doctors, both a man and a woman came and took my temperature. They auscultated me and tapped my chest but, other than a thermometer and a stethoscope, they had nothing. I had pneumonia and running a high temperature I lay wringing with sweat, just half-conscious. I do, however, remember that as they took grandfather away he murmured, ‘Józia, look after the children’. In fact, they took away all the unfit to work, supposedly to an old people’s home, but they were later discovered in the hospital mortuary with their hands tied together.
All the adults were put to work. When mother returned very tired from her tasks Olesia had prepared either vegetable or noodle soup or millet porridge. I remained poorly and the doctors used a cupping glass on me. On one occasion I woke to hear the singing of the ‘Song to the Holy Mother’ issuing from the neighbouring hut. It was women who had organised the service in Her honour so I knew it to be May already. In our barracks there were six families – four from our osada and two from Wołyn.
At the next examination the doctor allowed me to get up but ordered that I wasn’t to do heavy work and needed fresh air and better nourishment – especially milk. Mother sold a pillow filled with down to the commandant’s wife, the payment for it being partly in money and partly in milk – one mug full every other day (the commandant had a cow).
Our camp was called the Base and was situated in a large clearing, some 2 km by 3 km, out in the forest. The Berezniki-Dobryanka road passed through it while in another direction it went to the Ucholva base situated by the river of the same name. At the edge of the forest stood barracks and detached houses inhabited by Ukrainians. In the centre there was a canteen, shop, school, the commandant’s quarters and the offices. Timber for floating was carried by tractors to the River Ucholva 20 km away. In this area, hay-making took place and here, during summer, we went to collect berries and, later in the season, mushrooms. The address of the base was: Nikulinskaya Base, Dobranskiy District, Molotov Region. The NKVD commandant who was the military authority always wore a uniform with a pistol in his belt. A civilian manager had responsibility for the day-to-day running of the camp. He assigned work, directed the business of the camp, and paid out wages every ten days.
Mother was employed in all manner of very heavy work: clearing snow with a wooden shovel, felling trees, trimming logs, burning branches and sawing logs into different lengths. In summer she scythed grass, dried it and piled it into haystacks. Of course she was plagued with mosquitoes but far worse were the tiny black flies. Young, healthy men could always manage to meet the quota and so could afford to buy porridge in the canteen, but mother didn’t even earn enough to buy bread, so 14-year-old Olesia applied to do forestry work. Accordingly, during the summer in areas cleared of trees she worked with other girls hoeing the ground, preparing narrow strips of soil for the planting of tree seedlings. She would come home very tired, her palms full of bleeding blisters, her arms and back aching, crying with fatigue but would still get up next day and go off to work. It was then I became the family’s cook and cleaner. It was the cooking which posed the main problem, especially when there was nothing to cook! Perhaps a scrap of cereal with nettles or mushrooms.
All children had to attend school. The worst part was the history lessons where we were fed on stories about revolution. Then came the bilberry season. We rose early, took containers and a bit of bread with us and found berries within a radius of 12 to 18 km. Russian women would exchange a bucket of potatoes for a bucket of these berries. However, collecting the berries did have its problems such as being frightened by bears or getting lost for it was very easy to lose one’s sense of direction while wandering through the forest.
Bed bugs were another problem. We could get rid of lice which covered us from head to foot quite easily by boiling our underwear, clothing and bedding and by very thorough searching over our bodies, but bed bugs appeared impossible to conquer. We poured boiling water into the crevices where they lived, placed pieces of burnt birch bark in the gaps in the bunk beds in an attempt to kill the vermin and their eggs, but to little avail! They seemed able to march up the walls and across the ceiling from where, being above the beds, they simply fell onto the bedding.
What a strange country this was. We’d heard talk of Russian ermine, sable and black grouse; we never saw one of these. I did once spot a hare and once a huge owl while we collected bilberries. But what did that creature live on? We also once found an elk’s antler in the forest. There were certainly no fish and not even frogs in the streams.
A recurring problem was footwear. Work in the forest caused it to wear out quickly and there was no money to replace it. Mother’s wages averaged 30 roubles every ten days and this was money which was needed to buy portions of bread. My friends and I began considering ways of weaving moccasins from the inner fibre of willows. The only person who made them and then sold them at six roubles a pair was the father of the manager himself. So, perhaps unwisely, we went to ask him to teach us the skill at which he became very irate and shooed us away. Then, by chance, I came across a fairly respectable one of these shoes in the forest. Repeatedly I took it apart and put it together again so that in the end I knew exactly how to do the job. Then I started making and selling them at three roubles per pair: the first Pole on the base to accomplish this. Then we got to know that on a collective farm it was possible to earn money by picking up the harvested potatoes so my brother and sister and I unconcernedly went there one morning as part of a large group of youngsters. After tramping for about 30 km, towards evening we reached the collective. The man in charge said our pay for each box full of collected potatoes would be half in potatoes and half in flour but not in money. He showed us into vacant quarters and told us to be ready for work early the next morning. When we turned up he gave us a box each, told us to collect the potatoes which he’d ploughed up and to make personal heaps of them. Just before sunset we secreted potatoes in our pockets and later cooked them in the Russian stove – we had a whole potful which provided enough for us to eat. For two weeks we worked like that. Our family trio had three huge heaps of potatoes piled up. Near the forest we found a lot of honey fungus: the mushroom soup tasted much better than potatoes on their own.
Following an argument with the manager concerning the potatoes we had taken for boiling we said we’d completed our agreed task and sought settlement of the account. He told us he couldn’t pay us in flour at the agreed rate because he didn’t have enough and could therefore supply only half the promised amount, the balance he'd replace with potatoes. So my sister and I said we would take just the available flour and no more than one bucket of potatoes and would accept an IOU for the rest of the potatoes. We then sent my sister and the rest of the group home with the flour and potatoes, while three of us, my brother, a friend and I, agreed to collect potatoes for a widow, being paid at the rate of ten buckets for her, to one for us. We put our backs into the work which the widow appreciated and babbling “Good boys” fed us well and let us sleep on sheepskins arranged at the back of the stove. When we had finished collecting her potatoes somebody else wanted our services, and then someone else. These people had their little gardens at the back of the collective farm. In their homes they had icons concealed behind curtains, and everybody entering the house as they looked in that direction always crossed themselves. The food in the houses and in the fields was always very good, and was always accompanied with a jug of braha – fermented potatoes and barley which contained much alcohol. After a few days we loaded all our potatoes on a cart and the lady for whom we worked, drove us quite a long way from the collective, from which point we had to walk carrying sacks on our backs. We were all done in when we reached the barracks where we found mother, little Stefuś and our sister in good health and pleased to see both us and the potatoes.
Having loads of free time and remembering how in the past grandfather used to carve toys for me with a penknife, I began making wooden toys for Stefuś. I made whatever came into my head – soldiers, horses, even a bird the size of a partridge which flapped its wings when it was pulled along on a little two-wheeled platform. I later sold it for six roubles.
During the winter it was very important to maintain a supply of wood for fuel. The fire in the stove had to be kept alight both day and night as the frost could decrease the temperature as low as –40 degrees Celsius. So I would go with my brother into the forest in waist-deep snow. There we would search for a dead tree, cut it down, saw it into small pieces and carry these to the barracks. I made skis for myself and used them when the snow was soft. We brought back sufficient wood to last the whole winter for our family, but it was difficult to refuse others the use of our wood.
In the meantime, they brought what we were owed from the collective where we had lifted potatoes, but they were all frozen and hard as stones. Even our commandant protested but this did not help. Though the soup made from these potatoes was unpalatable it was still better than just clear water. Our bread ration was also decreased. Such were the gifts we enjoyed for Christmas and the New Year.
At the approach of spring, mother and sister went to the posiolek to the Russian women with six buckets of the potatoes we had gained from our work. They also took two silk dresses and a pair of shoes to sell. They brought back potatoes and 130 roubles. During the summer my brother, sister and I worked ‘building metres’ – i.e. sawing one-metre long spruce logs and arranging them in cubic metre stacks. During the lunch break we collected raspberries in the clearing. Once while collecting them and stuffing myself with them at the same time I thought I heard someone else collecting at the other side of the bush. Thinking it was my sister I jokingly called out ‘Oy, I found this bush’. Since no answer came after a short while, I went round to find her and stood rooted to the ground with fright because there on the ground was a pile of still steaming bear droppings. It was said they did not attack humans but near the base, a bear once killed a cow and badly wounded a horse.
On June 22 1941 the Germans attacked the Soviets. Was this good or bad news for us? Immediately our bread ration was reduced so much that it was difficult to know whether to eat it, lick it, or simply sniff at it. Both cereal and cabbage soup were now difficult to obtain in the canteen. Thefts happened – indeed somebody robbed us of our daily bread portion which was hidden in the chest. Despair! There was not even a tiny crumb of bread for mother to take to work. Downcast I thought that if somebody stole from us then perhaps I could do likewise. But what should I steal, and from whom? A Russian woman in our base had goats. With grass, I enticed the smallest of these into the forest planning to stun it with an axe and slit its throat with a knife. But the tiny goat came snuggling up to me and with its petrified gaze like a dog, looked me straight in the eye. At that moment I remembered our dogs, Aza and Bukiet, and recalling how these poor animals had followed our train, I wept. At this, I simply stroked the goat and together we returned to the base. When she returned from work I told all this to mother. She pondered this for a moment or two and then searched around the bottom of the chest from which she pulled out a piece of bread for each of us.
Sometime before that incident, still during the spring, the base authorities gave us a plot of land for gardens, not far from the forest. We dug them and, after much work, planted potatoes – those which my mother and sister had brought and cared for assiduously. Once they had started growing we very delicately, without damaging the roots, slid out some of the tiny potatoes from below, then replaced the plant, leaving the rest to grow bigger. Once, as we returned from collecting mushrooms, I emerged from the forest and my legs shook under me for there in our garden, knelt a woman stealing those little potatoes and digging back in the stripped plants - and she was our closest acquaintance!! On another occasion, mother returned home very upset and said that there are certain women who chose to select their healthiest children whom they fed while the rest they allowed to die of hunger: the idea being they would save at least half!.
Then eventually came good news: amnesty! The commandant himself declared us to be free and able to leave and do whatever we wanted. Soon it was announced that there would be recruitment into the Polish army. Someone arrived and called a meeting where a list of volunteers was drawn up - they left shortly after. Only women and children remained. For us, nothing changed, as we were still working and still hungry. After some time, two of the volunteers, Mr Królikowski and Mr Pieniążak, returned with the news that they had written authority and a sum of money to lead us from the base. They told us to get ready and take whatever we could carry as no help would come from anybody. Mother sold many of our belongings but only for food such as bread and flour. One day a large number of carts, each drawn by a single horse, came to the base. Each family had the use of one cart and after we had loaded, we left the base leaving a cemetery behind us which sometime earlier, Mrs Kulikowska, my brother, three friends and I had put a fence around and provided with a gate bearing a cross. After three days we embarked on a ship to sail along the River Kama towards the Volga – a huge river where banks were hardly visible from both sides of the ship. We sailed almost a month. The river began to freeze over, the ice became thicker and it was then that the captain decided we could sail no further. The ship having been positioned not far from the bank adjacent to a road to two villages was soon frozen solid in the water. We were very hungry since during the previous week we had only had a bit of flour stirred into boiling water twice daily.
We stepped along the gangway onto the land. Sledges arrived onto which small children and luggage were placed and the rest of us walked the 6 km to the village where everyone was put up in the local houses. Our hostess had her 16-year-old son at home, her husband being away in the army. Both she and the boy were very friendly and hospitable. They set up the samovar, fed us and prepared places for us to sleep. They were not poor as they had a cow, a calf, some sheep and chickens. Mother paid them with a sheepskin coat, an eiderdown and a small sum of money for food. Besides that we also helped with the household chores. After a few weeks we were taken to Kuybyshev 60 km away and housed in an empty school. It was here we spent Christmas and the New Year of 1942.
Infected with a whole variety of diseases people began to sicken and die. Somebody organised departure for Tashkent but, within this period little Stefuś became ill and there was no medical help. Nevertheless we still left and, having discovered the whereabouts of Polish centres on the way, women visited them seeking all available help. It wasn’t long before we were supplied with some kind of medicine for Stefuś. However, when we were unloaded in Tashkent the centre had nothing to offer us, even though we were dying from hunger. One day I went around with a can, and a woman called me over through an open window. She half-filled the can with cabbage soup and told me to come the next day. I actually visited her for several days which allowed all of us to have a tiny meal.
Tashkent was a town of hunger, ruffians, thieves and kind, kind people. Stefuś being very sick was taken to hospital and while he was there the consul informed us that we were to be transported to collective farms near Samarkand. At the hospital mother was told that, because of the overcrowding, the sick would also be moved to Samarkand. By train and later arba (a horse/donkey-drawn cart) we were moved to the ‘Stalin’ collective farm where an Uzbek pointed out to us three walls and a roof. This clay structure was to be our living quarters. Within a few weeks Stefuś was discharged from hospital so we were all together once more. A change for the better occurred in the collective, but unfortunately I contracted typhoid fever to be followed by mother, my sister, then Janek and Stefuś. I shared a bed with Janek, Stefuś with mother – the entire family was in hospital.
After we had all left hospital Mrs B and mother went to the Polish Centre in Samarkand. They were given various provisions, a small sum of money and documents, and told to pack up and bring us all to Samarkand. That is exactly what happened. At the Polish Centre we were told that Janek and Stefuś were to be taken to the orphanage and mother was advised to send my sister and me there as well. She sent me, but kept Olesia with her. We three brothers were happy to be together in the same place where mother and Olesia visited us daily. We slept on a blanket on the floor with Stefuś in the middle. The second blanket we rolled up under our heads and covered ourselves with the third.
Then out of the blue came the order for our departure. We had no time even to inform mother. Carrying our blankets we marched off to the station to find mother and Olesia had arrived before us. Tearfully we waved them good-bye. We reached Krasnovodsk by train, but before embarkation on an oil-tanker were told to hand over all our Russian money. It later transpired that in Persia, Russian money was accepted as readily as the local tumans. Crossing the Caspian Sea took us two days.
In Pahlevi we were loaded onto lorries and taken to the camp. In front of a large tent we were told to strip, leave everything behind and just walk in the tent. This was a bath. Once bathed, we passed through another tent where we were issued with shorts, a shirt, a hat and two blankets between three children. After that we ate thick soup with mutton in it. We were no longer in Russia! One morning lorries arrived, and after a long journey through the mountains we found ourselves in Teheran. Our camp was a little-used airfield. Every so often transports arrived from Pahlevi and in these we would search for signs of mother and our sister. They weren’t there and then the three of us were put on a list for departure to India. As we waited for the lorries which were to take us we overheard a conversation that a large convoy from Pahlevi was due to arrive the next day, so the three of us took to our heels and hid in a ditch just beyond the airfield. We were discovered that evening by a military man with a birch who tried to beat us. The next day the Pahlevi transport did arrive so we ran to search through it. The arrangement was that Janek should search among those who had already left the vehicle while I looked among the lorries and buses themselves. Suddenly Janek ran up shouting ‘I’ve found mother’. We raced up to her, me thinking my heart would jump from my body with excitement. We greeted each other with tears of happiness. Both mother and Olesia didn’t look well, and it turned out that they had left Russia on the very last transport. What luck!
Soon after Olesia was taken to the orphanage in which mother found work. We all spent Christmas and New Year 1943 in Teheran. We wept as we shared the traditional unleavened bread on Christmas Eve, but with happiness at all we owe to God’s goodness and to mother.
She died of a heart attack aged 82 years old.
An account of deportation from osada Budowla has also been written by Maria Sztub-Tomaszewska