"I never knew what it was to have no bread or fruit. I never saw anyone go hungry"
On 10 February 1940, the Soviets took us to Archangel region. The work was very hard and the earnings very small. The wages were so small that they were not enough for the necessities of life. So we resorted to selling our clothes and whatever we could to survive.
Everyone had to work from the age of 16. Being late to work was a criminal offence, punishable by law in a court. Not only were the earnings small, they still took 10% for the commandant. They were cheating us as much as they could.
We were in the labour camp at Charotonowo from 1 March 1940 until 16 October 1941. (The "Amnesty" was signed 30 July 1941). We headed for the south in November.
On the way there, we started to suffer hunger, not having food for three days in a row. The cattle train drivers would stop in the wilderness on purpose so we couldn’t get anything to eat. Without telling anyone, they would set off again leaving people behind. So there were lots of children on the cattle train without their parents.
Hungry and tired, after a two months' journey we arrived at Polit-Oddiet in Kazakhstan. We received 200gm of flour and a half-litre of milk for the family each day. At the beginning, we got 200gm of dried apples. We were so hungry it was difficult to forget about food and we even dreamed about it.
After two weeks, we were moved to another collective farm. This entailed a two week journey during which we were given nothing to eat, nor could we buy anything. We arrived in the Kazakh collective farm called Polito. We were given 200g of flour each day until 10 February 1942. When my brother left to find the Polish Army, the Kazakhs were very angry and from then on would not give us anything. Then we had to save ourselves from death by hunger. So I went with my sister to another collective farm to dig the fields looking for potatoes, carrots, and onions. Because of this, we were insulted and even beaten.
Soon after, we had to stop because there was nothing left so we cooked grass and, when that finished, I went with my sister to the market and sold my brother’s last pair of trousers. We got 70 roubles and bought 5kg of rotten husks of wheat. We went back happy to the house because we had something to eat for the next few days. But we couldn’t do anything with it as we couldn’t cook it. So we made pancakes but these wouldn’t hold together.
After a few days mother [Janina] became ill with stomach pains from eating that food. We couldn’t get any medicine. The nearest doctor was 7km away. The locals wouldn’t give us the use of a farm horse so we couldn’t take mother to the doctor. They didn’t give us food either. She was becoming worse, swollen up to her chest, lying ill from starvation. She couldn’t walk.
I had to look after my mother and younger sister who was very weak. I was 17 and I learned how difficult responsibility is. Being hungry and tired all the time, I couldn’t see any way out of it. I thought I would go crazy. Death from starvation was coming nearer and nearer. There was nothing to do in the collective farm, no work for us, so they told us to dig up the earth full of old roots after the cotton harvest was done. I went to work; we were digging with heavy forks to try to achieve daily targets. It was impossible particularly as we didn’t have the strength.
One the first day, I received 150gm of flour which was supposed to be enough for three of us for the whole day. Later I managed to get a little more; sometimes I managed to achieve their target, with help from my sister, and got half a kilo of flour. We were always hungry and always pushed to the limit.
Later, they told us to dig canals for water but I didn’t go to that work because I knew I wouldn’t earn anything. We started selling our clothes and shoes for practically nothing, to buy potatoes. They cost 15 roubles a kilo. We were also going to fields digging for potatoes, carrots and onions in a farm four kilometres away. We were called names, and one time a man came to our collective farm to tell the Poles about work. I went along, and he told us that the collective farm wouldn’t be giving us food because we were lazy and didn’t want to work. Later, he started criticising the Polish government, especially Pilsudski. At that, I just left the meeting.
In February 1942, we received help for the first time from Polish embassy officials. Someone from the farm brought aid to us after he went to Saragaczu. We received 2kg of flour for a month. We left the collective farm on the last days of April 1942 and travelled to Jangi-Jul. Before then, I had travelled four times to Saragaczu to the Polish embassy’s centre there, for help. Usually it was for food: wheat or corn which I had to carry more than 30km.
People from the collective farm didn’t help us at all. We had to make that journey to the town in one day, leaving at night and returning at night because we had nowhere to sleep. I have no idea how I managed. The thought of trying to save my nearest from death gave me strength.
After one trip, I walked 15km in heavy rain carrying 12kg of wheat. For three days afterwards, I couldn’t walk because I didn’t have the strength to get up. I looked like death.
I, Danuta, to save myself from starvation, went [with a group of Polish women] to the army. I was happy there but I was always hungry.
When we [Zosia and Janina] were leaving the collective farm we had to carry everything 10km to the station because the farmers wouldn’t give us the use of the horse. We took only what we needed most. Luckily we got to Jangi-Jul where mother got some help and started to feel better. After one month, they moved us to Wrewsko where the Polish Army took care of us. In May I left for Guzar.
We had to collect 20kg of cotton each day, but this target we never managed to achieve. The best I achieved was 8kg. For that I got 100g of flour and half a pancake.
We were working collecting cotton and received dinner, which was water with a few grains of rice, a sort of soup. I was going to work with my brother and sister; mother was ill all this time. The nearest town was 30km away. To buy anything was very difficult and, anyway, we had no money. This was from November 1941 till February 1942.
Written Statement from Zofia Stepek, aged 17, and her sister, Danuta Stepek, aged 15, to Polish Officials in April 1942 on arrival to Persia/Iran
We lived in a 16-hectare farm in Osada Maczkowce (near Luck, Wolyn) with two hectares for orchards and the house. My parents lived there from 1921. With a big effort, they built the house and bought machinery for farming and planted the orchard from which in the last few years we had plentiful harvests. I never knew what it was to have no bread or fruit. I never saw anyone go hungry. We were doing rather well. People who passed the house were always welcomed and offered food and rest.
Danka at Pahlevi within days of her arrival in August 1942. 15 years old and weighing 3st 12lbs (25kg).