Deportation to Kulag Poldniewica
February 10th of 1940 was a very cold day. The thermometer registered -40 C. Ala and I had a cold and the clothes we had were not sufficiently warm for the weather. Our shoes and socks would not carry us through a deep snow. It was decided that we should stay at home. Both aunts had to go to work in the orphanage and prepared our breakfast before they left. There was very little food but we shared some bread and some veal paté, which my father brought us the day before. Our drink was something that reminded us of a "herbal" tea made out of "lipowe" leaves. I was finishing my breakfast when I saw my aunt, who left for work just a few minutes before returning home. Following her was a Russian officer and three soldiers with their guns and bayonets. We were not alarmed because we thought that they have come to buy some of my aunt's furniture. She sold many things to keep her family from starving. Only a few days before, an officer took the family piano away. This time, however it was different. The officer asked if he could speak to Janina Lukaszewicz. My surname was Lukaszewicz, but my first name was Maria. We told him so. He lingered, asked many questions and after a while left reluctantly. Aunt Wala decided to stay home. To her it was a frightening experience. In front of the house, she encountered a large truck full of soldiers and she knew that it was a serious matter. For the time being, we all hoped that the soldiers made a mistake. However, after about two hours, the same officer returned again. This time, he had a peasant with him, whose face was familiar to me and who identified me as the person they were after. I was told to put my coat on and leave with them. My aunt's protestations did not help. She told them that she was responsible for me and that she could not let me leave with the strangers. What about my parents? She was pushed aside and told that I would be joining my parents and that I would need only very few of my clothes. That was all.
Since the murder of my friend's father, I learned to expect the worst. Only one thought went through my mind, "They are taking me to see my murdered father". My heart was racing but the rest of my body and my feelings were numb. I felt old. My life was ending. Placed between the two soldiers, I was marched out to the sleigh driven by horses. I felt the suns rays, but not warmth. My clothes were not warm enough to be outside in this weather. The Russians had their Siberian coats on.
The drive seemed to last forever. My feet were cold - freezing. Finally we stopped in front of the railway station. German planes had bombed the building and the windows were missing. Lead into a large hall, I saw my whole family huddled together for warmth in one corner. My father approached me and told me to keep walking back and forth to keep my feet warm. My mother was very ill with pneumonia and was shaking all over. My young brothers were there too. There were also other families, about thirty people altogether. Among them, I noticed a corporal in a Polish uniform. His head had a "cap" made from a bandage. Obviously he was still recuperating from the wounds which he must have sustained in battle.
The people were not very talkative, but from time to time, someone made a curt comment or rather a guess as to what was awaiting us. Everyone seemed to agree that we were being deported to Siberia. However, many did not believe that we actually would get there. Especially men were afraid that they would be separated from their families and imprisoned or executed.
I had a few questions of my own that needed to be answered. What happened and why did it happen? Why was my family in this tragic predicament? Very quietly my father told me that about 12 o'clock at night a sleigh, filled with armed soldiers, commissar a peasant and an anquitance(from a nearby town), drove into our yard. Suddenly there was an urgent hammering at the door. As soon as this was opened all men quickly entered our home. The soldiers told my father to put his hands up and to sit down on the chair, which was quickly surrounded by the soldiers pointing bayonets at him. The commissar than read an "act" was accusing my father and the whole family of being "the enemies of the people". (My nine year old brother Janek, my fifteen year old brother Antoni and I, a fourteen year old student - we were "the enemy of the people!). But the commissar read on explaining that because of these accusations, we could not stay here anymore and we were being deported to live somewhere else. Where? No answer! We were to take with us only few necessary belongings because we "would find all that we need in our new home." The commissar ended his accusations by pointing out that there was no need to deny them, as our accusers were present. The commissar indicated the peasant and the civilian from the near by town. My father helped both in the past, which made it all more difficult to accept. The family was given fifteen minutes to get dressed and get into the sleigh. When my father told them that my mother was very ill, the commissar only shrugged his shoulders and told everyone to hurry. My father guarded by soldiers could not pack any of the family belongings. My sick mother could not do it either. Two young boys, my brothers, frightened for our parents, did not know what to do. One of the soldiers, who knew what our fate would be, approached my older brother and told him very quietly to follow him. After they left the room in which the family was imprisoned, he whispered to my brother to get some bags and to pack as much food and clothing as he could in what little time that was left out of fifteen minutes given at the start of the arrest. This soldier saved one other family's lives and ours. He took a risk of being punished and yet something made him act in a kind manner. It made me wonder if maybe someone close to him suffered the fate which befell our family.
The fifteen minutes were up! The sleighs were loaded, and entered a cold snowy road, which lead to Baranowicze, railway station-a distance of fifteen kilometers. All this operation was done so quickly that neither our neighbors nor our uncle's family could hear or know what was happening at our home. They were tragically surprised when in the morning they found our home completely empty. After some inquiries, they were able to piece together the terrible deeds of the soviet officials. Going to Stotowicze, a small town (at 5 km from Haciszcze Wielkie - our home) they found out that the arrests were still going on during the day and that families of foresters and of veterans of the First World War were the targets. After the initial shock, two of my cousins- Czesio and Aleksander decided to look for us. They arrived at the deportation train the next morning.
Time was passing slowly. The big hall at the railway station was becoming overcrowded with families that were brought from many different farms, villages, and towns. The noon hour came but no one was having lunch although most didn't have even breakfast. Suddenly at about 3:00 p.m., the hall became very quiet. We could only hear the stomping of heavy soldiers' boots. Led by a frowning commissar, a group of soldiers with their ever-present bayonets marched into the middle of the hall. A commissar began to call out the names of the prisoners. The soldiers shoved them into one part of the hall separating them from the rest. Our turn came quickly. We were almost at the top of the list as the earliest arrivals. I heard my name and automatically started to move to join the others, but the commissar shouted, "You! Come here!". As I approached him, he began shouting his questions, "Why didn't you come when our soldiers arrived at the house the first time?" I began to explain about the different name, but he interrupted, "You are a liar!" Forgetting the situation, I reacted quickly, loudly with indignation, "I do not lie! I do not lie!" Then this commissar, the representative of the communists who claimed "to love the children", began to threaten. "You just wait. After you spend sometime at the place where we are taking you, you will not be so brave". He shouted and shook his fist. Only when he began calling out other names, I had time to realize what had happened. The looks on my parents' faces told me how terribly frightened they were for me. The corporal shook his head and asked, "Are you trying to become a martyr before you get to Siberia?" What did they expect me to do, to keep myself quiet? I was not lying and I had to tell the brute the truth. I could not help myself and I was too young and inexperienced to know how to deal with an enemy of my country and everything that I was familiar with. Later on I understood why my parents were afraid for me. The Russians separated many children from their parents and took them to a different "kulag". Most of them died when they became ill and had no one to help them. My parents were afraid that the commissar was promising me this fate when he was threatening. I think God protected me.
The last name was called. We were all lined up surrounded by the soldiers and led outside. Carrying what little baggage we had - tramping through a deep snow, half-frozen and hungry we were pushed into the direction of a very long cattle train. Here the large group was divided into smaller groups of 50-60 people. Our guards stopped our group in front of an open cattle carriage. Big platforms divided the space between the ceiling and the flour. They were packed with snow from when the train was in motion. We were told to climb into the wagon. The men went in first and began to clear off the snow with their bare hands. The guards became angry. They wanted everyone locked up in the car as quickly as possible. They were afraid that someone might escape. Escape? How? Where? It was obvious that women and children could not get in because the snow took up the space. After most of the snow was pushed out (not shoveled out!) the human bodies began filling in the car which up to than carried only pigs and cattle. We spread our clothes and blankets (if there were some) and sat in a very small space allotted to each person - big or small. In the middle of the car we noticed a small metal heater but no fire wood whatsoever. It was -40C! There was a little six week old baby among us. The mother and other people tried to warm it up with their breath while the father was pleading with a soldier to let him bring some firewood from somewhere. His pleading brought no results. For many hours no one could leave the train. The doors were closed and barricaded. In the corner of the floor, the hole was burrowed in haste (in preparation for a long journey) which was to take the place of a toilet. Being a shy person, I could not bring myself to use it and suffered a great discomfort by holding in for three days. Only when we were well inside the Russian territories were we permitted to leave the train to relieve ourselves. To loose one self among the strangers, we crossed the railway crawling under the car.
All this time my mother was burning with fever. She melted the snow in her mouth to quench the thirst. We all did that.
It was becoming dark. The day "a hundred years long" was coming to an end. Suddenly we heard the bolt of our door open. The guard motioned to an older girl, Gienia and me to come out and follow him. Than quickly he locked and bolted the door again. First we were given two pails and led to get some water. After we brought it to the wagon, we were told to follow the guard again. This time we received some firewood. Someone had a pot. The heater warmed up the place and some water, which had to be strictly rationed. Hungry children were given some food by their parents who themselves ate very little or not at all. No one knew when and if at all we would be given some food by our captors. Little food that was brought from home had to be dealt with very sparingly.
As night approached, we were exhausted physically and emotionally. We all needed some sleep. We were packed like sardines. There was no light and we had very little room to lie down. Asked how much room there is in a cattle carriage, the soldiers answered, "Enough for seven horses or forty people".
No one could really sleep well. After the initial exhaustion wore off, people sat up. Some prayed, some cried, some talked. All of us could hear people brought in on sleighs and packed into many other available cattle cars. The arrests went on all through two nights and two days. According to some statistics, 220,000 people were arrested and deported from Poland on February 10, 1940. There were others displaced later.
The next day in the afternoon, the door in our car was opened. The guard called out our family name. As my father identified himself he was asked to point out the members of our family. Each time it happened, we all died a little inside. We were so afraid of separation! Whatever awaits us, we felt we could survive only if we were together. The guard pointed his finger at me, "You! Come here!". As I approached the door, the feeling of relief engulfed my whole being. I saw my two cousins - Czesio and Aleksander. They brought some food and some more clothes that were given to us after close examination. We looked at each other and did not speak. Our eyes communicated sadness and despair. I was chosen to see them and to say our good-byes. The rest of the family was not allowed to leave the train. The stress was too much for my mother. We could hear her crying and saying her good-bye, "Tell good-bye to our whole family and our home. I feel that I will never be back. That this is my final good-bye". The strangers' inhabitants of our "living quarters" identified with her pain and sorrow. Many cried too. For most these words were prophetic. We never went back to see our relatives or our home.
The train began to move forward. Many thoughts and questions raced through our minds. So they are going through with it. They are deporting us all, the oppressors. Why? Why so many innocent people? Why small children who have done no wrong? The train stopped, then started moving back to the station. What's going on now? Maybe they changed their minds and let us go back home? Optimists! The unbearable stress forced people to delude themselves.
As we traveled through towns we only could guess their names. There were no announcements of their stations. Looking through a small window, people identified Stolpce. Up until now, we still hoped that there would be some kind of change of plan and that we would be turned back home. Once we crossed the Polish/Russian border, those hopes had died their final death. I guess we expected a miracle. Illogical hopes, which we began to encounter then, we continued to entertain through many years of exile. Always a hope that the impossible will happen and we will be home in our beloved free Poland once again. This hope kept up our spirit and nourished our lives. Those that lost their hope perished early.
The train jerked forward and back many times. Everyone suspended his or her comments. It began rolling away from the station. Through a tiny window, we could see the snowy fields. There was no delusion. It was time to say our final farewell to our country, our home, families, friends, everything that was dear and familiar to us. Time to say good-bye to my childhood, which was lost to me on this cold, cold day of February 10, 1940. I felt a heavy burden on my young shoulders. I felt a new responsibility toward my family. My mother was so ill. She was not getting any help. What if she died? Who would look after us? We needed her so. What if something happened to my father? Would I be able to cope and help my brothers? What skills did I have? Would my physical strength serve me in our need? All these thoughts raced through my mind making me into a grown up person. I felt my youth slipping away from me. How I would love to be able to go to school and feel carefree. All these were taken away from me and thousands and thousands of other children. All done by "Father Stalin who loved the children so much!"
The train was rolling through a frozen land. Frozen like our hearts. Cold feelings of grim expectancy gripped our bodies. How long will it travel? How far away are they taking us? What is this country like? This land produced by such a cruel government. What will they do to us when they finally stop this horribly jerking and clamoring train? Thoughts, questions, exhaustion! Sleep! Blessed forgetfulness never lasted long enough, short and interrupted. Interrupted by crying, hungry children, worried sighs of grown ups, coughs and moans of my sick mother. Sitting next to us was the Wojna family of five people: an elderly mother, two daughters and two brothers. The soldiers did not allow them to take any food. On the second day my father noticed that they did not eat at all. They never said a word about it. The only thing they had was their ration of warm water. They did not expect anyone to share food because all other families had children. Worried parents did not dare to give away any food at all. The children came first. They were the future. Than I saw my father hand some meat, bread and a few vegetables to the corporal, a member of Wojna family. He began to protest, but my father indicated to the elderly lady, the mother of the family. Shortly the meat, the vegetables were put into a large pot filled with water. It made nourishing soup, which the family had to ration very carefully.
Once deep in Russia, the guards were not afraid that we might get away. The train stopped most of the time in the open country. We were let out to take care of our physical needs. Most of us crawled under the train to the other side to "hide". Crawling under the train was very dangerous because trains in Russia moved without giving a signal. Tony, my older brother was trapped on the railway track by our train that moved suddenly. He had the presence of his mind to lay flat on the ground. Since he had no heavy coat on and the floor of the train was quite high, he escaped injury. When the train passed, Tony began to run after it. Luckily it was still moving slowly. He was able to lift himself on an open platform. It was very cold. My parents were frightened and worried. They were afraid that Tony was lost to us forever. But luck was with us. The train stopped at a small station for a very short time. We heard a knock on the door, which was opened quickly. Tony stood there, half frozen, unable to speak. We could only pray and thank God for helping us to get Tony back.
After traveling for a week, we felt very uncomfortable. Our clothes needed to be changed; our bodies needed to be bathed. There was not enough water even to wash our hands and face. We slept packed like sardines overlapping. Strangers used our feet as their pillows. There was no room to stretch. The uneasy sleep was often interrupted by the crying of hungry children and very worried mothers.
By a stroke of luck, I acquired my space by one of the two very small windows, which made it possible to see the country during the day. It did not bring much joy to watch a frozen, quiet land of unhappy people. For the first time in our lives, we saw stalks of grain still on the fields covered with snow. As it was February, that really surprised us. Much later we found out that people did not care enough whether the crops had been harvested on time. They were not properly paid for their work, leading lives of slavery and half starvation. All their hard work profited the communist regime.
The time was moving slowly, drearily, unhappily. The end of the first week was approaching. Knowing the vastness of the Russian territory, we did not dare to speculate how long it would take to bring us to our new location. No one dared to guess. What difference did it make? At least on the train the families stayed together. No one knew if this would be the case once we arrived at the Kulag.
On February 17th, in the afternoon, the train slowed down and came to a stop in the middle of the forest through which we had been traveling for the last two days. Through my little window, I saw long rows of sleighs, horses and a group of men dressed in huge Siberian parkas and hats. We heard people approaching our door. They were unbolted and slid open. Then we heard an order, "Sabirajties!" Get ready! Carrying our belongings, we left the train and stepped into a very deep snow. It was very cold. My shoes were full of snow. I had no winter boots. Our family was loaded on the sleigh. With the driver, there were six of us. The horse looked undernourished and had a difficult time pulling the load on the poor country road filled completely with deep snow. We huddled together for warmth without much success. The night came upon us quickly and we were going deeper and deeper into the forest. To warm themselves, people decided to walk beside the sleigh. I could not do that because my shoes would only fill with snow and make my feet even colder. Obediently I tried to wiggle my toes continuously to keep them from freezing. My mother and father kept reminding me to try and do that but after a few hours, the task became impossible. By that time I lost all feeling in my toes and my feet. There was no point in telling this to my parents, it would only worry them especially because they were not able to help me.
At first we were too busy trying to keep warm and taking in the surrounding to pay much attention to our driver. After traveling for a long while, we realized that he never spoke to us or try to help in any way at all. That must have seemed odd to my parents. The man did not look like a hardened communist. His appearance indicated that he must have been working hard and that his life was not very happy. We expected some understanding and sympathy from him in our hopeless situation, yet he seemed not to care whether we would survive this journey or not. My father who spoke Russian could not resist the question, "Why are you not speaking to us?" The driver slowly looked around and said, "Since there is no one close by I will answer your question. Before we came to the train to pick you up, we had a meeting in our kotchoz (collective farm). Our pretsedatiel (farm manager) told us not to socialize with you. He told us that you are capitalists, that you hate us and would kill us if we became friendly. But I see that you are the same as us, that you care for your family and that you are suffering now as we have been suffering for twenty years!". He stopped, looked around to make sure that no one heard him. Our sleigh was the only one moving through this stretch of road. After making certain that no one was close, our driver drew the bag, which was hidden under the straw. He opened it up, took out some bread and salted meat. Breaking it into six pieces, he shared his supper with us. After a while, he took an old blanket, which covered his feet and told my father to wrap my feet into it. From then on he asked me constantly to try and move my feet and rub them. Obviously he knew that I was in danger of freezing them. Fighting the cold and hunger, we traveled for about seven hours. Suddenly we became aware that we entered a clearing in the dense forest. We could even see our hard laboring horse, because it became somewhat lighter. In the distance we saw few lights in the very small windows. We were approaching some buildings. There were other sleighs ahead of us. Our driver became very quiet again. In a whisper, he told us that we were approaching the labor camp and these were the barracks where we were going to live.
A policeman who indicated to our driver the barrack to which our family was assigned stopped us. Soon the sleigh came to a halt and we were told to carry our things indoors. Everyone had difficulty moving but somehow managed to stand on their feet. When my turn came, I was unable to stand up. My sick mother needed assistance too. The policeman became impatient but did nothing to help us. He just told us to hurry because more sleighs were arriving to be unloaded. My father could not carry us both into that wretched looking building. The next sleigh carried the Wojna family. I saw Antek (a corporal) approaching our sleigh. He understood our problem and quickly lifted me out of the sleigh and carried me into the barracks. I was placed on the wooden platform, which was our sleeping accommodation. Without delay my father and Antek took my shoes and socks off my feet. "Bring in some snow somebody, quick". They both said at the same time. I saw them put some snow on my feet. They both worked hard rubbing, rubbing, rubbing ... At first I felt only my body hurting from the constant pulling and then I felt unbearable pain in my feet and then nothing. I must have fainted. When I opened my eyes, I was lying on one quilt and covered by another. My feet were hurting badly. I was told that it was a good sign and that I should feel better after a while. This "a while" lasted many days but after that I could walk and there were no visible reminders caused by frostbite. However, from than on, I had problems with my feet, which were bothering me quite often.
Such was our arrival and the beginning of our lives in the kulag Poldniewica located in the region of Gorky in a "Gorkawskaja Oblast". My childhood and my youth were lost to me in this God forsaken place. It left such marks and changes in my personality that I was never able to recapture . A news reporter once said about me, "Maria was fourteen going on sixty". That was me all right! The invasion of Eastern Poland by the Soviet army on September 17, 1939 made an imprint on my mind and in my heart and soul. I can still hear the roar of the heavy tanks and I feel a painful grip in my heart, which comes from an experience of loosing a loved one to death. On the day of the invasion, seeing white, horror-stricken faces of my parents, relatives and friends, I realized that we have lost the freedom of our beloved country. Little did I know that soon we would loose our home to which we would never return; that the graves of my family members would be dispersed over many continents.
The hardships of the Russian Kulag n/r Gorki made me into an adult in a short time. Being sensitive and having a perceptive personality, I saw too much and felt things very deeply.
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