We drove through the outskirts of the Kokcetav, a town full of small wooden houses with pitched roofs and smoke rising from the chimneys, along cobbled streets and entered a vast plain. The endless steppe was blending on the horizon with the sky. The first impression of its scale and emptiness was depressing. There was nothing to rest one's eye upon and the bad weather was robbing the landscape of any possible charm. Even the patches of snow scattered over the ground looked grey and dull.
We passed one small settlement which broke the monotony and after a few hours reached our destination: Kolkhoz Zoldubaj. The lorries stopped outside the village and we were unloaded onto the melting snow. Soon after, our miserable looking group was surrounded by strange men, our hosts. They had an Asiatic look with high cheekbones, slant eyes, thin beards and moustaches hanging on both sides of rather thin mouths. They were of quite an impressive posture, wearing well cut fur coats, high leather boots till above the knees, and enormous fur caps. They were Kazakhs.
The NKVD (secret police) officer, our guardian, made a speech, telling us that our future would be in Zoldubaj, where we would live and work in the kolkhoz, together with the Kazakhs. Then he departed with the lorries.
The men looked us over for a while, then after some discussion among themselves, families approached one by one and made signs to follow them. To us came a middle aged, energetic looking man. He called himself Dziesiumbay and he led us to his saray, an enclosure where he had his dwelling. His wife, Kubayla, was waiting for us there and showed us into their house. She was a small and likeable woman, with a nice smile and questioning big brown eyes. She was dressed in a colorful jerkin over many layers of various fabrics, and wearing a white bonnet that looked like a helmet.
Entering their house was like stepping back into prehistoric times. It was located in a corner of a big closed yard called a saray and we entered from there through a small door. It was a square shape dwelling of about 20 meters, divided into two parts. The one near the entrance had a floor of beaten earth and a narrow fireplace with the chimney running to the ceiling and the opening for cooking at floor level. The other half was made of rough wooden planks over a big hole in the center which served as a store.
The walls of the house were over half a meter thick, built in the ancient way of making two rows of interwoven wattle, about two meters high, and filling the void with a mixture of earth and cow dung. The roof was constructed in a similar manner. A small window was facing the door. The walls and the ceiling were roughly plastered with clay and chalk. There were not many furnishings inside, a pile of furs on the plank floor, a small stool by the stove and some clothes hanging by the door.
The first night spent in Dziesiumbay's house was quite unusual and amusing, as we were making arrangements for six people to sleep on the floor. The Kazakhs stretched out on their deep soft furs, and us on thin blankets with the splinters coming through. We did not have enough cover, but the small space soon warmed with our breathing and we slept soundly, although our host snored a lot.
In the morning Kubayla gave us tea in nicely painted wooden bowls, with a piece of flat bread called lepioszka, baked in the hot ashes of her stove. Then we left to explore the surroundings. In the other corner of the saray stood an impressive new house of Dziesiumbay, built of pine logs. It was nearing completion and they were planning to move in very shortly. Other, parts of the yard were occupied by stacks of hay and straw, a cart and the horse and a few chicken running around.
Till recently, Kazakhs were leading a nomadic life, moving with their big tents called yurts, across the steppes. The communist system changed all that and forced them to settle down in organized communities, the kolkhozes. So in the case of Zoldubaj they built along a wide main road a row of fenced yards, the sarays, with a simple dwelling and provision for their animals. Many Kazakhs kept their yurt in the middle of the yard, using it for special occasions.
There were about fifty households along the main road which was sloping towards the marshes and near the other end was a big dairy. Some Kazakhs, like Dziesiumbaj, started building more substantial houses. The kolkhoz was surrounded by steppes, the nearer part transformed into cultivated fields. On the horizon one could see a black line of forest; close to the village were some shrubs and a lovely silver birch grove.
There was no sign of a well and when asked about it, we were shown to the marshes. A little stream of brown water trickled through the soggy ground covered densely with weeds. It had to stand for a long time in various vessels and needed to be filtered, boiled and strained before our mother allowed us to drink it. We were already dreaming of the next winter, when we could have pure water from the snow. Luckily there were cows in the kolkhoz and we were entitled to a ration of milk.
Meeting other members of our group, we asked each other how and when we would adapt to this new reality. Somehow, with the weather improving and the Kazakhs treating us with sympathy, our morale was better and we started arranging our life in Zoldubaj. Two extraordinary events ensued: mother's sister sent a parcel with clothes and some money. Dziesiumbay moved to his new house and we bought his old one. Immediately we started adapting it to our needs and I made a list of the priorities:
My mother found the Kazakh stove most unsuitable and engaged two men to pull it down and to build one in Russian style, with cooking and baking at elbow level, instead of on the floor. They built it with sun dried mud brick and it was an impressive structure, taking a lot of room, suitable for cooking and baking the bread; the space between the top of it and the roof allowed to melt the snow in winter and it warmed the house beautifully. Mama was satisfied.
I worked on the beds and a great problem was the lack of tools. Dziesiumbaj lent us his axe and his saw, but he had no nails nor strings. So came the first improvisation. With my brothers I went to the wood and collected a few fallen and well seasoned trees. Out of these we cut twelve legs for three beds, one for mama, one for me and one for the boys. Laboriously we made grooves at one end of the legs with a knife and the axe, to insert struts forming the frame. We tied them together with flexible birch twigs and stabilized the frame by another line of branches below and with diagonal pieces.
For the mattress we managed to obtain from the kolkhoz big burlap sacks and filled them with dry grass from the steppe. Luckily I brought from Lopocie some needles and cotton, so the sacks were firmly sown. The sensation of sleeping on the bed was fantastic, like lying on a rocking boat.
The table was made in a similar fashion, with the top formed of planks. A set of nicely cut logs was a good solution for the seating. We finished the improvements by giving the walls a white wash with chalk that we dug out from the steppe. Mama baked loaves of bread in her new stove and we sometimes ate the flat lepioszki. We were pleased with our innovations.
The main problem beside drinking water was the lack of sanitation, no latrines, private or communal. I noticed Kazakhs disappearing each morning behind their sarays, with a kettle of water in their hands, returning with a smile and an empty kettle. What an excellent idea, I thought.
However, we could not accept their way of spring cleaning. With the first stronger sunshine they used to emerge from their houses to settle comfortably along the walls. The sight was spectacular. Men started to take off their clothes, one by one from the waist up. They stretched their shirts by the seams between their hands and went with their teeth from one end to the other with the noise of a machine gun ... ta ta ta. This was their way of killing the lice. After a repeated operation at each seam they shook the shirt vigorously and put it back on.
Women were searching each other's heads for the vermin, killing them with their finger nails. We desperately tried to keep our bodies clean which was not easy without soap and the only way was to rub aggressively with a cloth, rinsing it frequently. I had my long hair made into plaits reaching my waist and I washed it with a beaten egg.
The most difficult was washing our clothes. It was done by a little stream in the marshes, where we made a small pool, gathered some sand, with which we rubbed the dirty items and rinsed them in the pool, wondering about the life expectancy of our fabrics.
We suffered greatly from a lack of vegetables. The diet of the Kazakh consisted mainly of bread, cow's or mare's milk, eggs and an occasional piece of boiled horse meat. In the kolkhoz there was no vegetable garden nor any flowers or shrubs. A few onions received in a parcel from Osziniana that we had planted on the roof were dug out secretly during the night and the next morning Dzesiumbaj said gravely: "Victoria, we like you and you can live with us peacefully, but we cannot tolerate any innovations, it is against our religion".
So we were restricted to the surrounding nature and as long as the summer lasted, we enjoyed the stinging nettles, dandelions, sorrel and some shoots on the trees as well as roots from the ground, some of which we dried for the coming winter.
We were supposed to work, but there was very little to do, because the Kazakhs were not trained in agriculture. They were still dreaming of their return to nomadic life, cherishing their precious rifles. Now, a lot of time was spent sitting on the floor with legs crossed, lying on their fur, smoking pipes, chatting and often spitting, which was the sign of appreciation and approval.
They were Muslims, always greeting everybody with "Salam aleykum". The communist system was alien to them and Stalin was considered an enemy, because he deprived them of their sacred pilgrimages to Mecca. Dziesiumbaj showed us proudly his beautiful, richly decorated rifles and the skins of deer, wolves and hares. He spoke Russian quite well, but with Kubayla we communicated with the help of signs and smiles.
At the time of the birth of their child, they asked my mother to be midwife and godmother of the baby. The six previously born children had all died before their first birthday, so now, they were putting all their hope in Victoria, who accepted the honor. Poor Kubayla gave birth in the traditional manner, suspended from a beam, in accordance with their custom, in a vertical position. It was a fine baby boy and a few days later there was a great celebration in the saray. I never knew of the versatility of milk products. There were sweets of different shapes made of it, chewy balls and delicious ayran. A big leather bag full of mare’s milk known as kumys circulated among the numerous relatives of our hosts and Victoria was treated with a special reverence.
The role of a midwife was very important among the Kazakhs and my mother was entitled to a substantial reward, however she did not demand anything. She only asked the chief chairman "predsiedatiel" of the kolkhoz and a brother of Dziesiumbaj to let her borrow a cart in which, with a few other women, she went a few times to a distant Russian kolkhoz, returning with some flour, potatoes and cabbages in exchange for a few items of our clothing. Our dear mother was a very resourceful person.
During the summer we helped clearing the fields of magnificent wheat and after the harvest every worker was paid in an appropriate amount of grain. When it was my turn, Dziesiumbaj, who was responsible for weighing it, threw over my shoulder an enormous sack of wheat which crushed me to the ground. It must have been over sixty kilos, twice what other women received. This happened in the fields a few kilometers from the village. I struggled painfully to my feet and slowly dragged the sack along. It was getting late and my companions disappeared in the darkness. I rested a while in a ditch, then continued at the speed of a tortoise, but I could not leave the sack. Finally my brothers came, sent by worried mother, and together we brought the treasure home. It provided us with food for weeks, but the grinding of the corn presented a problem. Mama persuaded Dziesiumbaj to lend us his old grinder, which consisted of two grooved mill stones, 40 cm in diameter. Through a hole in the upper stone a handful of grain was thrown in and ground by diligent turning. The crushed grain was put through several sieves, to segregate the parts for different uses: fine flour for making pasta and bread, the rough cast so called kasza for a grainy dish, reminding me of pearl barley. It was great fun!
One day, towards the end of October, Dziesiumbaj burst in calling in panic: "Victoria, help us!" Apparently, the NKVD arrived and started to search the houses at the top of the village. He pulled out his horse driven cart, loaded it with sacks of grain and needed Victoria to assist him to drive to the steppes and hide the sacks. While they were away I was helping Kubayla bring a number of sacks from their house to ours and put them into the hole under the floor.. We brought also the rifles and placed them under my mother's mattress. We were working at such speed and emotion that, for a few days after, my hands were rigid and I could not move my fingers.
The return of Victoria and Dziesiumbaj coincided with the arrival in our saray of the officers who went through everything in the saray, poking their rifles into the stacks of hay before entering the house of Dziesiumbaj and turning it completely upside down. Disappointed, they came to our little home with some arrogance, but changed their manners when my mother addressed them in fluent Russian. She spent a few years during the revolution in Jaroslaw on the Volga where she encountered the Bolsheviks and got to know their "soft spots". Our searchers became very polite and did not touch anything. One looked with interest at the few books and when he picked up one, I shivered. It was "Wielki Cham, the great Yokel", which I brought from Lopocie. It tells all about the wrongs of the Russian revolution. The officer tried to read the title and he smiled triumphantly: "aha, the Great Chan!" . . . Uph ... I congratulated him on his knowledge of the Latin alphabet and they left, saluting mother with respect.
Upon completion of their mission they left Zoldubay with a lorry full of arrested Kazakhs and all the grain they had found. This was the punishment for not delivering to the government the required quota of grain. The village was full of sadness. Soon after, snow covered the steppes to my mother's despair, because hiding the sacks in a hurry, they did not leave any vertical mark and she searched for days in vain. Luckily, Kubayla had enough grain under our floor to last her and her nearest family through the winter.
Then came the news of the arrival of a young teacher, Ludmila, and the opening of a village school. All children were called to attend, me included, and all ages were taking the lessons together. It gave me the opportunity to improve my knowledge of the Russian language and to read the poetry of Pushkin and Turgieniev borrowed from Ludmila who became my great friend. It was now possible to read in the evening, because of the unexpected delivery of paraffin to the village shop that was always shut. It was sold by one liter per queuing head, without a register, so we returned to the shop again and again until all the cans and bottles in the house were full. Once there was also delivery of some sweets, little raspberries that were very much appreciated.
The first winter passed without any sad happenings or illnesses. In the spring our men returned and the seasonal activity in the kolkhoz started with the cleaning of barns and dairy. Ankle deep in manure we loaded the stuff on the carts, spreading it later over the fields. I found my clogs very useful for this work, as they were quite easy to clean.
Then came a lorry with potatoes and the order to plant them, but without any instructions. Ignoring our suggestions, the Kazakhs insisted to dig about a meter deep trenches and gave me a basket full of potatoes to put them at the bottom. When they were filled with earth nothing came through and I wondered if this was a premeditated way of protecting their religious aversion to vegetables. While distributing potatoes in a ditch, I stopped, suddenly hearing the phrase I remembered from Zopcie. Dropping the basket I ran to my mother, calling with excitement that some Kazakhs speak Polish. When I repeated the phrase, to my amazement, mother laughed and explained that it was the most dreadful Russian swearing, unfortunately still practiced among the peasants of Northeast Poland. During the hot summer of 1941 we worked in distant fields, to which it was necessary to go on horse back or by oxen. On one occasion, when I passed on an ox along the marshes, the beast turned sideways and stopped knee deep in a swamp, cooling itself for a long time. It ignored my calls and kicks and I was covered with flies and bitten by mosquitoes.
Through mother's sister in Oszrniana we found out that the wife of uncle Bronislaw was also deported with her two daughters to Kazakstan and lived in a kolkhoz near Kokczetaw. I decided to find them and accepted a lift from an agricultural engineer, who passed through Zoldubay, researching the water situation in the area. It was a very pleasant ride in a smart two wheel cart but the most interesting was what I heard on the way. The engineer was a dedicated, even brain washed, communist, who told me all sorts of stories glorifying the Party. I have forgotten all of them, except this dream: "You will witness that life in communist Russia will soon rise to the zenith of perfection. People will be working only three days a week and for the remaining time they will be resting on a pile of straw, from floor to window sill deep, and they will be eating slices of lard." He was an educated man and I could not believe my ears. "Sato satem zakusojet."
In the middle of July, we heard with delay, that the war had broken out between Germany and Russia. At the beginning it did not affect us, only the sporadic visits of NKVD became less frequent. Letters and parcels stopped coming from Poland. Our aunt moved to Kokczetaw and found work in a hospital. A group of Polish women went to the market in that town and with mother's permission I joined them, carrying the last bundle of net curtains, which belonged to my grandmother, rolled into a long red bundle. At about half the way we were overtaken by a Russian kolkhoznik who offered to carry our luggage on his cart. Few kilometers further on I did not see my red bundle anymore. After a frantic run, I caught up with the cart, asking about my bundle. "What bundle? I haven't seen any bundle”, said the man with a curse. It was a great shock, but as we neared the town, I continued, went to my aunt and cried on her shoulder for my loss.
I did not dare to return to my mother empty handed and decided to find some work. Good aunt took me in and I was sharing the bed with my younger cousin Busia. Few days later I was employed in the town garden and received my ration card entitling me to buy bread and sugar, which was sold in big lumps that looked like stones. Because of the acute shortage of everything, there was a popular joke about three ways of drinking tea with sugar:
1. Putting a cube of sugar into a cup of tea, "w prikusku".
2. Licking a cube of sugar suspended on a string and sipping the tea, "w prilizku".
3. Looking only at the cube of sugar. "w prigladku".
I worked for a week, cheerfully carrying buckets of water and giving a drink to miserably looking plants. On receiving my week's pay I was told by the official, that it was a waste of human energy on the garden, when the country is at war and dismissed me.
It was too early to return to Zoldubaj and eat my mother's bread, so I started looking for another job, when I heard of a permanent position in the brick factory outside the town. I hurried there full of expectations, although my aunt strongly disapproved of it. The building was a big brick barn with hundreds of workers sleeping there between their shifts. I was accepted and given three boards nailed together and was told that this was my bed and that it was up to me finding a place for it. I wandered a long time through the designated sleeping areas before I found a tiny place between sleepers on the continuous deck of the huge dormitory.
My shift of ten hours started at mid day. The production area was very strange. No machinery was visible; everything was done by hand. I had to carry the raw bricks to the furnace. They were thrown onto my outstretched arms by two men, four of them were quite manageable, but with six, I was walking on my knees. Finishing close to midnight I dropped half dead on my boards, shivering with cold and not able to sleep, because I did not have any blankets.
In the morning I asked to be put on the night shift, I was afraid I could not support another night like the previous one. It was agreed and I worked during the night, resting in my aunt's place during the day. At the end of a terrible week with a daily breakfast of a plate of boiled barley with a drop of oil on top and a piece of bread with the consistency and color of a wet brick, I collected my week's pay. In a factory shop I bought a pair of sandals made of a piece of tractor tyre, with a string to tie around the ankles. Then I decided to run away from the factory, to finish with this nightmare. It was my first contact with building materials.
It was the end of September, weather was changing, the morning was grey with drizzling rain. The road to town was deserted but for three figures kneeling in the mud in front of a dilapidated Russian church not far from the road. Intrigued I went to them and asked: "What are you doing here in such bad weather?" "We are praying to God for the Germans to come soon, because we cannot go on like that any longer" was the answer. They too were surprised to see me on such a deserted road and I had to tell them of my escape. I left with them a message to my aunt and continued to Zoldubaj. It was a difficult walk in heavy rain with my feet embedded in mud and it took me over eight hours before I kissed my mother. She looked at me with pity, pointing at my muddy feet with a string around the ankles: I could not remember where and when I lost my new sandals.
During my absence my dear brave mother had a serious talk with the seniors of the kolkhoz and convinced them of the necessity of a proper well. Finally, digging was going ahead. During the autumn rains, our roof was leaking and we had to take shelter under the beds, drying the blankets in front of the fire. When the weather improved a little, we were collecting the round, flat slabs of cow dung on the steppes, storing them in the saray as fuel for the winter. Some Polish families left Zoldubay and enlisted for the work on an extension of the railway from Kokczetaw to Karaganda.
The second winter started to look grim. No more parcels and nothing more to exchange. More and more people fell ill with flue and there was no medicine. My mother was hit with a high fever. She remembered a remedy practised between the wars: "banki", tiny , specially shaped glasses applied quickly to the back. This required a swift and skilled heating of the glass by tucking in a burning cotton wad, which had been immersed in spirit. The hot banki was quickly placed on the skin, sucking itself to the back. Since we had neither banki, nor cotton or spirit, I gathered all the smallest glass jars, stuffed them with burning shreds of paper, shocked to see some still burning when applied to my mother's back. But it worked. After removing them about ten minutes later with a whisper like noise, the back of my mother was full of brown circles, the temperature dropped and she was much better.
I started making the rounds to the houses of the sick, perfecting my skill. The Kazakhs noted this practice and asked me to treat them as well, calling me "Jerka Wracz” (doctor). It was a problem to meet their demands, because they were pointing at painful parts of their bodies where the banki could not be applied, like elbows, knees or shoulder bones, caused probably by arthritis. They did not listen to my explanations, I had to treat them and I put the glasses to the nearest fleshy parts.
In return, on our doorstep started appearing boxes with eggs, butter. even meat. I was also invited to join them at a ceremonial meal set out in their Yurt in the middle of a saray. We were seated on the ground covered with colorful rugs and furs around a fire with a big pot hanging over it with simmering food. Before the meal a copper bowl and a kettle with water was passed around for washing the hands and then the lady of the house dished out the contents of the pot with a wooden ladle into nice wooden bowls, passing them to the individual guests. It was stewed horse meat in a thick sauce with pasta. We ate with our fingers helping with flat, round bread. After the meal the kettle and the bowl circulated again to rinse the hands and tea was served in small painted bowls. Men were drinking kumys, a potent fermented mare's milk and, while seated, they were turning backwards repeatedly, to spit to their heart's content.
After the phase of colds was over, we developed a strange sensation of the reduced command of our limbs and the teeth started to be loose. This happened only to the newcomers, not to the Kazakhs. Each day we had greater difficulty in grinding the corn until we could not turn the stone and had to be satisfied with eating boiled wheat instead of bread. Nor could we lift a bucket of water from the newly dug well and carry it home.
By luck we came across a copy of a Red Cross letter, with underlined phrases referring to scurvy. The strong advice was to look for pine needles and eat as much as possible in any form: chew them raw, make a salad or make an infusion. Pine needles contain highly concentrated vitamin C and immediately my brothers and I crawled through deep snow to the nearby birch woods, among which were a few pines. We chewed and chewed the needles and filled our pockets with them for our mama. The second time we came with friends and baskets. The result was absolutely miraculous! Within weeks the change was noticeable and soon the legs regained their normal movement and the teeth stopped being like piano keys. Mother baked a ceremonial loaf of bread after we ground the first few cups of grain.
One day, around Christmas 1941, we heard a great commotion outside our house through the window, in densely falling snow, we recognized a figure like father Christmas on a sledge. At that moment, Dziesiumbaj walked in crying: "Victoria, your husband." A minute later the snow covered figure entered, surrounded by enthusiastic Kazakhs. It was our father, real, not a dream. Overwhelmed with emotion we ran to him for embraces and kisses, bombarding him with questions, while mother was helping to take off his coat.
How? When? Why? We were intrigued by the figure in an unknown military uniform with the insignia of a Polish officer and its great scar around the right eye. After the unpacking came his incredible story: Soon after the German attack of Russia in July 1941, the Polish government in exile in London, opened new relations with Russia, changing the previous status of enemy to that of an ally. General Sikorski, our Prime Minister, went to Moscow and secured from Stalin an amnesty for all prisoners of war and organized the formation of a Polish army in Russia, nominating General Anders to be its chief in command.
At the time of the news, our father was recovering from an almost fatal accident in the taiga of northern Siberia. While cutting timber on swampy ground, a tree fell on him, crushing his head. He was left for dead, but his companions, other prisoners, protested loudly and permission was given to one of them, a surgeon, to carry out an operation. Father recovered and regained his vision, only the lid remained rigid and he was not capable of closing it since then.
He joined the Polish army and landed at its headquarters in Buzuluk where all soldiers received American uniforms. According to rumor, General Sikorski, during his visit to Moscow, said to Stalin: "You have a lot of problems with your own army. So let our soldiers, your starved ex-prisoners, be fed and dressed by other allies, namely the Americans". Father immediately searched for the family and found us at Zoldubay. The week that followed was wonderful, but then came the time for him to say "good bye". He wanted to take us with him, but because of heavy winter and poor health of our mother he decided to organize it in the spring.
Soon after, a group of German settlers that had come to Russia in Catherine the Second's time (end of 18th century), were deported from the Volga region, brought to Zoldubaj and housed with Kazakhs. I was excited by the new arrivals and the next day went to meet one family of two ladies and one girl. I knocked on the door and entered their room. The girl jumped and exclaimed: 'I know you, I saw you in my dream during our journey, sitting by the road on a stone and watching us passing quickly in a cart". "You were dressed exactly as now" she added. It was inexplicable, because there wasn't any road with a stone near the village, as she described. Anyhow, we became good friends and I visited them often, trying to learn a little German.
Towards the spring many of my compatriots became seriously ill and "banki” gave no result. Mrs. Rogowaska, a mother of four, was in a critical condition and my mother forced the kolkhoz to take her on a sledge to the hospital in Kokczetaw. I went with her and her son Ryszard, newly recovered. It was a nightmarish ride in a storm, snow was blinding the horses and penetrating our clothing to the skin. Poor Mrs. Rogowska was in a coma and on arrival in the hospital, late in the evening, she was already dead. The nurses took her body, the coachman went with Ryszard. to his friends for the night. and I went to my aunt arranging a meeting the next morning.
Ten year old Ryszard with eyes full of tears met me at the hospital and at our request to see the body, we were directed to a small building in a corner of the hospital grounds, the mortuary. It was full of stiff, grey bodies, reminding me of trunks of trees with stretched out branches. Looking at them with bewilderment, I noticed in the middle of a pile the red satin dressing gown of Mrs. Rogowska. Glancing at the desperate face of her boy standing in the doorway, I decided to recover that garment and give it to him, not for sentimental reason, but potentially for the bread. Like possessed by the devil I started to move the bodies aside, working with my bare hands through the pile of frozen corpses until I reached the satin gown.
Later in the day we organized the burial and found a carpenter who promised to make a coffin in twenty four hours. For the funeral it was necessary to obtain the permission from the local police and when I went there I had the shock of learning that Mrs. Rogowska died of typhoid. She had already been buried anonymously in a common grave and a sanitary patrol was on the way to Zoldubay, where a quarantine was to be imposed.
Hearing this alarming news I decided to leave immediately Kokczetaw, since I did not want to endanger my cousin, whose bed I was sharing. Ryszard. was under the care of his friend in town, so I was heading home alone. It was a sunny and warm day and walking in the heavy spring snow was very tiring, especially with the new knee high felt boots on my feet. I gladly accepted a lift from two Russians going my way with a cart full of straw. I have no recollection of that ride and was later told that I became delirious, frequently falling from the cart into the snow, then picked up and put back on the straw. Finding the road through Zoldubay barred, men dropped me by the barrier and took the detour.
By the time somebody brought me home, I was conscious and surprised to find my mother in bed. A young woman doctor was bending over her with a stethoscope and holding mother's little gold cross on a chain in her hand was saying: "Where is your God, why is He not helping you, but me, a communist?" The next day both of us were packed into a sledge and taken to a small hospital in a distant Russian kolkhoz. The previous transports went to Kokczetaw and there were no more beds available. My mother was in a critical condition, but she was saved by a gentle, elderly doctor from the German Volga settlers.
I recovered first, lamenting the loss of my waist long blond braids, which I saw being thrown into a furnace in the bathroom, while the nurse was dipping me in a hot bath. I was worried about my brothers, but on return to Zoldubay I found them sound and weft, although for three weeks they had a rough time. At the same time I was very upset learning that Mrs Bozenska died in Kokczetaw hospital, leaving two daughters. The only family not infected by typhoid fever was Wolkowa and her six children. They were an exceptional family. All the time in the same linen outfits, they were always clean and proper. Every evening they were kneeling with their mother praying and singing the litany. They were never complaining.
Our mother joined us a few weeks later and slowly regained her health. Soon I made a trip to Kokczetaw and discovered the opening of a Polish refugee center distributing priceless articles to Poles in need. They had soap, sugar, rice, tea and various preserves. I became the official delegate from our kolkhoz and made regular walks to town, bringing back a sack of these delicacies and sharing them with each family. Once I was given a pair of smart brown shoes and told that s dangerous to walk barefoot. I was covering the distance of forty kilometers in eight hours. It was pleasant jogging through the vast steppe with the wide horizon I liked so much. There were a few small groups of pine trees on the way, so I helped myself to the needles, chewing them and singing most of the way, until I reached a biggish lake on the outskirts of Kokczetaw and plunged into it for refreshment. One day, floating on my back, resting, I heard a frightened fisherman shouting: "A dead, a dead!" and when I lifted my head he took me for a ghost. Once my aunt let me return with my cousin Busia, for her to spend a week with aunt Victoria and her cousins Janusz and Tadzik. The walk took us longer this time as we had to tackle a viper which was curling in the middle of our way.
We had been receiving letters and documents from our father right through winter and spring, but with the illnesses we could not do anything to prepare our journey to join him in Buzuluk or later in Jangijul. I resumed visits to the NKVD in Kokczetaw to obtain a permission that we needed to use the train to leave Kazakstan. The Russian authorities were delaying the permission and we received the news that father was transferred to the Middle East.
In August my aunt left Kokczetaw to join her husband Bronislaw, who was now representing our father in the attempt to get us out. We packed our belongings and moved to town, taking over our aunt's little flat and depositing our luggage at the station. Before leaving Zoldubay I begged Mrs Wolkowa for letting her youngest daughter Zesia to go with us, but she categorically refused. The weeks in town were busy with frequent visits to the police and the station, surveying our luggage. One day I witnessed an unusual happening. A long passenger train was standing on the line and hundreds of people were erecting along it provisory shelters out of boxes, boards and canvas. They were evacuees from Stalingrad. I noticed some elegant women wearing hats and make up, with painted finger nails. They were removing their belongings from the train and arranged them in the improvised shelters. I went to them, hungry for the news and heard stories of great losses on the front. But they were optimistic, believing in the final victory. Among them I met a young Pole and I walked with him for hours, listening to the fascinating tale of the brave battle of Kutno in September 1939. It was a very important military stronghold on his long way to Kokczetaw. The young man introduced himself, but unfortunately I registered his name and the high rank of his father in my diary only (lost later), not in my memory. He was full of enthusiasm, hope and appetite for life, which I wish enabled him to cross the countries of Asia and achieve his aim to reach the free world. Often I wondered about his fate.
At last we received the necessary papers from the NKVD, bought the tickets to Jangijul and took the train to Pietropavlovsk with another friend from Osziniana, Lola, my Latin teacher and her young son Andrzej. Railway travel was very complicated at that time in Russia and before any changes of trains or directions it was necessary to obtain a stamp, proving the validity of the ticket. We experienced it at Pietropavlovsk, waiting in long queues at the station, where we had to change the train to go westward to Ekaterinburg (ex Sverdlovsk) and from there to Cheliabinsk. We travelled west through the Urals mountains in bright sunshine and admired the scenery. (Compasirowka biletow). The train was different from the one two years earlier. This time it was a normal passenger train, although without water and some broken windows.
In Ekaterinburg we changed trains again for the one going south to Tashkent in Uzbekistan with the same complicated procedures. The landscape was now quite different. The Steppes gave place to rich cultivated fields and orchards with fruits hanging from the trees. At the stations, were huge heaps of water melon and cantaloupes for sale and we were able to buy them cheaply from the moving train. The taste of the yellow melons was fantastic, the best I ever experienced.
In Tashkent we faced a real hiccup. Our train was diverted to a depot and although it was a short distance from Jangijul, our destination, we were stranded. My mother's queries and skillful persuasion of officials were fruitless. Before boarding a train going in our direction we had to produce not only the usual stamp but also one from the disinfections center. To get it, my mother and Lola gave me all our tickets and I set off in search of that center. It was part of a public bath, quite distant from the station. After a refreshing shower, I was given back my disinfected dress, rather the remnants of it, as the thin cotton was in shreds. They hesitated stamping all the tickets, but did it after all and I began my return happily. Walking in the gentle sept ember sunshine I felt like a tourist, stopping in front of a huge mosque with lofty minarets. The air was cooling down, the setting sun was reflecting in the colorful mosaics. It gave me a feeling of freedom and I wanted to fly over that wonderful city.
Arriving at the station I was overtaken by panic. No sign of our train or my companions. Apparently, soon after I had left for the bath, the train had been moved on a proper line and left. With six tickets in my hands but without any money I felt lost and desperate. I ran between the trains in search for one going to Jangijul when I noticed two Polish soldiers. They were about to board the right train and hearing my anguished cry they pulled me on the wagon and pushed me under a bench, until a controller left our compartment. My tickets were not valid on that suburban train.
Sitting between the two men in their woollen coats I felt warm and optimistic, but the latest news they were giving me was very disturbing. Russia withdrew the recognition of the Polish Refugee Centers and the army had to be evacuated, otherwise it would be incorporated into the Russian one to fight the Germans on the east. They said that today the army is leaving Jangijul and all civilians there would be taken by force back to the kolkhozes. The only departure camp existed in Aschabad, where they were going, and they advised me to try to reach it with my family.
My heart sank, when approaching Jangijul I saw in the dim light of station lamps a sea of people all over the railway lines. The train was moving slowly along that mass and standing on the corridor with my eyes glued to the window, I suddenly discovered through the window, my jumper on the back of my younger brother and pushing the passengers aside I jumped from the still moving train.
A minute later I was with them. My mother was lying on the ground overtaken by grief, and seeing me she could not believe her eyes. "Thank God for this miracle," she said and I agreed, if not for the jumper it would have been near impossible to find ourselves in the enormous crowd.
The Polish army left Jangijul with banners and an orchestra at the moment when mother and Lola arrived with the children. Someone pinched mother's case with my diary in it, but she found something to put over my poor dress. People around us were crying helplessly, terrified by the prospect of being forced to return to places from which they just escaped. We camped on the lines for the next few days and our mother was queuing every day for hours at the police station, with a bunch of papers and telegrams entitling her to be at the army center. Somehow we were missed by the agents who were dragging people on lorries from the station back to the kolkhozes and one day we heard a whisper, that during the following night a transport of Polish orphans would be passing through Jangijul, our last chance of escape if we could get on it.
It is difficult to recollect how it happened, but the train really arrived. It moved slowly along the line where we camped and all of us, including Lola and her little boy, managed to get some hold on the train and through the windows and we pulled ourselves inside with the help of people already on. What a great relief! The train was packed to the limits, but we were accepted and offered a seat. I was put in a luggage net, mother and Lola found a seat and the boys were on the floor.
The journey to Aschabad lasted four days, a trip to be compared with Golgotha. We had no more food and very little drinking water. Everybody was stinking from the heat and the lack of proper toilets. On approach to the bridge over a very big river, the train slowed to a crawl. I pushed my way to the front carriage, jumped off the train when it reached the bridge, rolled down the embankment, took a big dip in the water and rushed back up the steep slope like with wings, to jump on to the last carriage. It was madness, but I had to do it!
We reached Aschabad in the evening and were met by soldiers waiting with the army canteen. Everybody was given a mug of black tea with the warning not to eat anything the next day, only to drink black tea for the next twenty four hours. Then the lorries took us to the camp and soon we found ourselves under a military tent with beds and blankets. What a luxury! The morning after we received our food rations and a tin opener. It was an impressive display of wealth: canned beef, sardines, condensed milk, cheese, marmalade, drinking chocolate, canned fruit, etc. I forgot the warnings of yesterday and with passion opened all the tins and tasted them to my mothers disapproval. How right she was!
The following day we were back on the lorries and on our way to Persia (modern-day Iran). The sensation of freedom was choking us with emotion and happiness, although I suffered greatly with indigestion. The major part of my School Life was over.
Created on ... September 27, 2003 by Pierre Ratcliffe