From Poland to Siberia (summer 1939-april 1940)

In the memorable summer of 1939, I was fourteen years old and for the first time I was spending school holidays away from my family. It was in the nice country estate of my mother's brother Jan, with vast fields of golden wheat, rye, barley and a blue flowered flax swaying in a gentle breeze. The undulating terrain was dotted with small woods of silver birch trees and bordered on one side by a magnificent forest. A small river was running through meadows covered with sweet scented flowers and the bees, butterflies and larks were circling above.

I was charmed by the scenery and fascinated by country life, with its everyday activities and various seasonal events. It was idyllic.

Most exciting were night expeditions with torches to catch crabs, as were early morning excursions to the forest, to pick wild strawberries and to look for mushrooms. On Sundays we drove in a smart cart pulled by two horses to the parish church in Grauzysziki and sometimes returned with the vicar, invited for dinner and a game of cards.

Once I waited till midnight, hiding in a hammock under the sky full of stars, because I wanted to drive the vicar back, but my offer was met with great disapproval. I was sent to bed, reminded kindly by my aunt and less gently by my uncle Jan about the rights and duties of a young girl.

The harvest was a great event in the area and farmers were helping each other by sharing labor where necessary. I tried to master the sickle, which was still in use, beside a newly acquired mechanical harvester. Upon completion, a procession of girls, garlands crowning their heads and with bouquets of flowers in their hands, came from the fields singing, all going to the garden for the celebrations. The tables were loaded with various delicacies and a whole lamb and a calf were roasting over a big fire. The air was saturated with the smell of charcoal, herbs, cakes and home made lemonade and beer. The roasted lamb was delicious and from that moment it became my favorite dish.

An amusing incident happened one day, when I was sent to the so called "cold house" for a bucket of ice cream. It was a sizeable mound of straw and earth in the shape of a flying saucer, sitting in a corner of the kitchen garden. I entered it through a low door and moved quickly in darkness in the prescribed direction, when suddenly I fell waist deep into the hole of freezing water with big blocks of ice floating around me on the surface. It was not easy to climb out and to present myself to my aunt all wet but without ice cream. Yet, the mystery of cold drinks and ice cream was solved.

I loved Gabralowsczyzna, the old timber house with a handsome porch and a wide flight of steps, the farm yard with a barn, dairy, stables, kennels and a dry store housing the rows of cured ham, salamis and cheeses. The smell of fresh bread baked on maple leaves and of rye blinis, served with a thick sauce from lamb or pork ribs is unforgettable. I was so preoccupied with outdoor life that I did not pay much attention to the interior of the house, except for the big central hall with antlers on the walls. Equally interesting were the servants' quarters with bakery, larders and workshop with various domestic tools and machinery, as well as the dormitory with double bunks. From the front porch to the entrance gate ran an alley of linden trees, which I crossed for the last time at the end of August.

It was time to return to my family in Grodno and to school. Uncle Jan took me to Oszmiana, where I said good bye to the other relatives and took a bus to Wilno. This beautiful town was in a great upheaval. Along the streets people were digging trenches and soldiers were marching. General mobilization had been declared.

I was worried about my travel, because all the trains were reserved for military transport. Somehow I softened the heart of an official and I boarded my train. It was a new experience, travelling with men and taking part in their serious discussion. Suddenly I felt a grown up person with my childhood left behind in Gabrialowszezyzna.

The train arrived in Grodno at a beautiful sunset. The sky was rich in shades of red and purple. I took a horse driven cab to Jerozolimska street and was met by my parents with relief and joy. The next morning, the first of September 1939, while I was hanging the washing on a line in the garden, suddenly appeared a group of heavy planes, passing overhead with a thundering noise. Instantly the electrifying sound of town sirens was calling people to take shelter. Germany had attacked Poland, the war had started. My father was called up to join the army, the atmosphere was very tense. Between the alarms of bombardments and the dash to the shelters, we grouped around the radio, listening to the news. On the 3rd of September came the most welcomed news: Britain and France had declared war on Germany, honoring their commitments to Poland, which lifted our spirits.

My mother decided to leave our beloved Grodno on the banks of the lovely river Niemen for the safety of our small estate near Smorgonic. Its name was Lopocie, it was leased for a number of years to Mr. Pietraszko and he gave us the use of one room where my mother, myself and my two younger brothers arranged our temporary existence. Because of its isolation, I was sent to my aunt in Oszmiana to continue my education. Her husband Alexander was teaching mathematics in the local gymnasium.

On the fatal but sunny afternoon of 17th September, I was in the grounds of the hospital of Oszrniana, walking with Bronislaw, the brother of my mother and director of the hospital, when I was surprised to see him stopping suddenly. Like struck by lightening he became very pale and a nervous twitch appeared in the corner of his mouth. Through the gate of the hospital we could see a column of Russian soldiers slowly moving in from the east, along the route Napoleon, named after his march on Moscow in 1812. The Russians had invaded Poland under a secret treaty between Germany and Russia.The partition of Poland between Germany and Russia, the fourth in its history, was to follow.

I watched shabbily dressed Russian soldiers and cavalry on thin small horses, with the feet of the riders dragging on the ground. They made their overnight encampment on the outskirts of town and the following morning they had left a few dead horses behind. This Russian invasion was felt as a tragic blow by the generation of my parents, who had lived through the First World War. But, for a short period of time, life was almost normal and school continued under the directorship of a Russian military officer. This didn't last for long though, because a few weeks later I was called to the office and told that I was expelled. "Why I asked", shocked by the spectre of ignorance awaiting me. "There is no room for educating unwanted elements in the communist society", I was told. "You have no right to do this", I cried, "education is like air and water, free for all, especially in the communist system!" I was ashamed of not controlling tears in my eyes; then I was pushed out of the room.

I continued to live with my aunt, because we heard that my father had been arrested and that he was imprisoned in Oszniiana. We wanted to pass him a parcel of warm clothes, the winter of 1939/1940 was extremely severe. One day I was waiting with many others at the prison gate for a chance to handing our parcels to the guards. But the gates were kept closed, I lost the feeling in my hands and feet, turning into an icicle in a temperature dropping to –18°C, when suddenly the gate opened to let a car out. The crowd pushed forward and being in the front row, I skidded, loosing my bundle, which rolled past the closing gate. The only one that day. Later we heard that it had been delivered.

My frost bitten fingers bothered me for a long time. Around Christmas I returned to Lopocie. Inactivity was very depressing, so I started to explore the surroundings, made new friends in the nearest village and listened to the stories of the peasants. Some were very depressing and troubled my conscience, they were not complimentary to my idealized vision of Poland. I felt great sympathy for these people, whose life was hard and merciless.

One man old me about the visit of the sequestrate, entering his house and taking away the only pillow from under the head of his dying mother, because he could not pay his taxes. A family of seven was living together with their farm animals in one cottage, the five children were sharing one pair of shoes, going to school in turns. One man described the fire in a neighboring manor, where villagers gathered to look and help, while the lordship appeared with a tray, demanding that everyone give some money for the restoration. What a monster, I thought. The girls were telling of their Sunday walks to the church, carrying their shoes on a stick over the shoulder, putting them on only at the entrance of the church.

But beside sad events there were also happy moments of social life in the village. I was invited to different houses to join in singing and dancing. I danced polka in their fashion with spread out elbows and a vigorous stamp of the feet. I also shared their food, eating from a common big dish with a wooden spoon. I watched young men, some of them very handsome, with blond hair and blue eyes. The ones with the military service behind them had easy manners and were not shy talking. Their mothers were proud of them, as they returned home with a tooth brush, an implement not generally found in the village. I imagined that if the situation would not change, I should marry one of them in a few years time and work hard on a farm with the help of modern machinery, sent by wealthy American cousins.

My brothers were spending their time in their own way. One day they came home behaving strangely. They were drunk! Apparently, while watching the men making vodka in the forest they were given to drink some of the first drops, to the amusement of the onlookers. One day we noticed that the boots of the boys were leaking and I went with my mother to a shoemaker in a distant village with a sack of worn out shoes. He examined them carefully, scratched his head saying: "I cannot repair them, and he pointed at the holes in the sandals; I don't have the right leather to fill the holes". So we left with four pairs of wooden clogs and a can of paraffin from the village shop. The four kilometer walk through the snow covering the plain and a dense pine forest, which was so pleasant in the morning, changed into a spooky affair after sunset. We walked with the can and the sack of clogs suspended from a stick between us. It was getting cold and the snow was crunching under our feet. In the darkness we noticed two lights moving parallel to us behind the nearest trees. It was a wolf! I was petrified by fear. The terrible stories heard about an encounter with wolves passed through my head, but mother calmed me down. She picked up some broken branch lying in the snow, poured some paraffin on it an after lighting it., we ran madly from the woods into the open, leaving the wolf behind. The next day passed getting used to the clogs, which required some practice. When we mastered it we had great fun of cracking the frozen snow crust, for in the second part of February the mid day sun was melting the surface of deep snow, while the night frost was forming a brittle crust.

The situation under Russian occupation was getting from bad to worse. The withdrawal of Polish currency from circulation was critical. Mother tried to give variety to our diet, which was based on potatoes, carrots and beet roots beside the milk from our cow and bread made from the sack of flour bought on arrival in Lopocie. I learnt milking the cow and it took some practice for the milk not to run into my sleeves.

Rumors about deportations to Siberia started to circulate and the atmosphere became ever more depressed. At the beginning of March 1940, mother decided to go to her family in Oszrniana to ask for help. One night, while she was away, a strong banging on the door woke up all the household. A few minutes later the door to our room opened and two armed Russian soldiers entered with the order: "Gather your belongings and be ready to leave in one hour". They lit the lamp and looked at our sleepy and terrified faces, disregarding the absence of our mother and not asking about her. One dashed to the cupboard full of papers and books, starting to meticulously turn the pages. The other hurried me to get dressed and to stop the boys crying. I was in a shock and did not know how to console my younger brothers still crying helplessly in bed. Janusz was just twelve and Tadzik nine. The soldiers urged us to start packing and added that we would need warm clothes for the long journey. We had nothing special, only our school coats and the boys’ boots were at the shoemaker’s. I looked greedily at Mr Pietrasziko's sheepskin coat hanging in the hall, but I did not dare to ask and he did not show any understanding.

Gradually my panic faded away and a feeling of responsibility took over. I helped the boys to get ready and packed a few cases, leaving all my mother's clothes in the wardrobe, while tying a bundle of bedding in a blanket. Then I looked around for a bag of salt, remembering somebody saying that salt is a very important item in human existence. The soldiers watching me asked for the reason of my anxiety and after the explanation, burst out with hearty laughter. "Don’t worry, we have plenty of salt in Russia, only we don’t have anything to put it on." The one, not finding anything suspicious among the papers and no money, gave me a ten rouble note. "You cannot go on a long journey without any money." He said. I was surprised by this unexpected generosity and touched with a sign of the Russian soul.

They made a list of things they confiscated on a scrappy piece of paper in pencil and gave it to me. "For the record", they said. By the porch a big horse driven cart was waiting and we were packed on it together with our bundles. I ran back to our room for more rugs and newspapers to wrap our feet and also took some plates and kitchenware. The dawn was breaking when we were leaving Lopocie, giving it our last glance. The Pietraszkos were in tears, making the sign of the cross over our heads.

On the way to the railway station in Soly we passed two villages. Somebody must have alarmed the people, because they were standing in front of their houses in the dim light of early morning and were waving to us, sending their blessings, some throwing loaves of bread on the cart. It made me feel very, very sad. Suddenly in the distance, appeared a horseman galloping towards us through the fields covered with melting snow. On his approach we recognized Anon, the young Pietraszko. He put a sack of partly repaired shoes on the cart, which he had fetched from the cobbler. We thanked him warmly for his thoughtfulness and my spirit was rising.

At the station a long goods train was almost packed and we were added to one wagon with about half a dozen families. People were sitting beside heaps of luggage, big cases and chests, even a sewing machine. In comparison to this our luggage was minute. The three of us were completely dispirited and felt lost without our mother. We were quite indifferent towards the new companions who measured us with interest but did not show any affection. The train remained stationary during the night, with doors fully closed. In the morning we heard a violent agitation coming from outside; then the door opened and it was like a dream: our mother was standing on a cart by the door, waving her umbrella, crying and shouting with joy! She looked victorious!

After our ecstatic outburst of emotion, mother told us about her dramatic ordeal: "I learnt in Oszmiana, of the deportations in the area and immediately hurried back to Lopocie. I found the room empty except for my umbrella standing in a corner of the wardrobe. I picked it up in a hurry and also took a few pieces of hidden silver and an old samovar. I implored the coachman to hurry to Soly. On the way villagers told me of you being taken the previous night. I filled the samovar with vodka, took a sip of the liquor now and then for encouragement, and arrived at the station in a boisterous mood. I was enchanted to see the train, which I was prepared to follow even to Vladivostok. Standing on the cart which was moving along the train, I vigorously banged with my umbrella on the door of each wagon and ordered the guard to open it for my inspection. That was what happened in the last twenty four hours." She smiled holding us in her arms. Our mother was a wonderful person.

Soon after, we heard a rattle of the wheels and the train pulled out. Each wagon was locked from outside with an armed soldier standing on a small platform projecting at one end. Inside there was a deep wooden deck and a tiny barred window high up in one corner. The occupants were the families of Polish officers and policemen, also farmers and to my surprise a game keeper's wife with six children between three and eleven years old, all dressed in heavy linen outfits. We made arrangements for the night with half of us sleeping on the floor, the others on the deck. I settled close to the window for the view and the air. Luckily, my mother was warmly dressed and the lack of her belongings seemed not very important to her, although I had a guilty feeling of leaving all behind in the village.

The train was moving slowly across the plains of Belarus, with sporadic stops at small stations, where we were allowed to get a bucket of boiling water from huge barrels standing on the platform. Permanent fires were burning underneath them, which at the time was general practice along the Russian railways. We called them the Big Samovars.

The problem with the so-called "call of nature" was solved by stopping the train once a day in a completely isolated locality and encouraging the passengers to go under it. The only man in our wagon, Mr. Sturlis, had an axe and he made a hole in the floor for emergencies. Sometimes we were allowed to walk for a few minutes along the train, to meet old friends or to make new ones. I did not meet anyone I knew. But friendship started to develop between the occupants of our carriage, children were playing in one corner and women exchanging their life stories and making prophecies for the future. Whenever possible I tried to be at the window to see the outside world which I was leaving behind. From time to time the train was passing a nearby village, still buried in the snow, with streaks of smoke rising from the chimneys. Quite often people were running along the train, begging for bread.

I was recording all my observations in a diary, writing in the dim light of a paraffin lantern. Near Moscow we crossed a big river which looked like a lake. It was beautiful, with masses of chunks of ice floating on the surface. Afterwards the landscape changed from the flat country into a hilly one with occasional woods as we rose towards the Urals. We crossed the mountains during the night in a full moon. The bars in the window were icing my fingers, but I stayed hypnotized by the beauty of the mountains, the first ones of my life. The snowy ridges glittered like sparkling diamonds and the peaks resembled the towers of imaginary castles, perched above dark gorges. The tall pines covered with snow swayed gently in the wind. The air was sharp and pure. It was magic.

At about 380km east of the Urals (Cheliabinsk) after Kurgan, our train left the trans-Siberian railway line at Pietropavlowsk and went into Kazakstan to the south. Then, in a misty morning it stopped in Kokczetaw and we were ordered to transfer on to waiting lorries. It was drizzling, the snow was slightly melting on the half frozen ground. The smell of spring was in the air. It was the end of April 1940.

Created on ... September 25, 2003 by Pierre Ratcliffe