Our Journey South-Escape
Although our train was classified as military transport we still traveled very slowly because we were often shunted onto a side rail as transports carrying military detachment and equipment went by. Being classified as military transport entitled us to receive small rations of soup, bread, and "Kipiatok" (boiled water). All these were brought by two men delegated from each carriage. Bread was packed in potato sacks, soup and water were in pails. To obtain rations the delegates had to present identification cards given to each family. Acquired food had to be equally divided among the inhabitants of each car. My father and Olek were delegated from our car. As the train often left the station without warning some people were left behind and were separated from their families never to be found again. No one wanted this nightmare to be a part of their life, therefore very few people volunteered for the job of bringing in food rations.
Our train traveled to Sharya, Kirow, Ural Mountains, Swierdlowsk, Chelabinsk Orsk, Aktubinsk, Oktiabrsk, Chelkar and Aral Sea, Novakaralinsk, Tashkent, Samarkand and Buchara. It went through a desert of frozen land. Quite often it was placed on the sidetracks where it remained for a long time. At these stops we could get out and walk outside. During such expeditions we came by some other transports of human misery. Among those was a long train filled with Germans who lived in a Volga region in a colony. Now when the Hitler's troops were approaching the members of German origin communities were rounded up and packed into the freight trains that did not have a real destination. The doors to their cars were open very seldom. We could hear human desperate cries for food and water. As my friend and I were returning to our train we almost stumbled over the naked bodies thrown out of the cars. The shock made us shake uncontrollably.
In Swierdlowsk I went in search of aspirin. Extreme cold made it difficult to breathe. On the faces of people, that I met despair was quite evident. Hunger as well as cold drew out all the energy and vigor.
There were many beautiful buildings, lining up the streets and monuments displayed in the park, but no one had a will to enjoy or admire them. More refined feelings were almost dead only the instinctive strong desire for living directed human actions. Shortly after we left Swierdlowsk on the way to Chelabinsk my, and Olek's families suffered our own private hell. At one of the smaller stations my father and Olek as usual went out to get some food rations. The station officials were well aware of it and yet it did not prevent them from moving the train without any warning. My father and Olek were left behind and lost to us. For three days we suffered so much. Our family and Olek's parents were devastated because the men were our only lifelines! We were all desperate! What if Dad and Olek get ill? Who would look after them? As we agonized and prayed our two men did all they could to find us. They kept hitching rides on different trains travelling south, following the route given us, which led to Samarkanda, but they were painfully aware that the Soviet authorities could change their mind and direct our transport into a different direction. Indeed they were wrongly informed that we were on the way to Yambul but in reality our destination was Buchara in Uzbekistan. Luckily while Dad and Olek were checking out trains on one of the stations, they saw a woman from our transport. As she reassured them that they found us their relief was unbelievable. In turn our joy, on seeing them was also difficult to describe. We were separated only three days but it seemed like a very long time. Togetherness was our strong force. Shortage of food, complete lack of hygiene; unbathed bodies, unwashed clothes, illnesses during the six weeks journey south seemed to be minor discomforts in comparison to fear of being separated.
The trek was now through a cold part of Russia. Often there was no wood to keep the fire burning. The men went out to scout around the station and often returned with "the firewood", which would land them in prison if the authorities saw their findings. An example of forbidden firewood was the material for constructing the parts of the railway. My father and Olek did again most of the work. Other men were afraid to leave the train in fear of being left behind. We were also very worried and when we complained, my father and Olek reminded us, "Someone has to take the risk or we all will freeze to death".
During our journey south, we suffered untold hardships, but we had a hope that at the end of it we would find help and protection of the Polish army. Therefore, it was impossible to describe our shock when on New Year's Eve in 1942, we arrived in Buchara Uzbekistan. Here, we were told to leave the train and carry our belongings to a small field where we had to camp under the open sky for three days. The weather was warmer than in the northern Soviet Union, but the nights were still chilly because it was winter. There was no sign of the Polish army and no one could tell us of its location. The Uzbec authorities who took charge decided to send us to the collective farms to help in the fields of cotton. Again we became slave laborers. The communication with local people was very difficult because we did not know their language and they could speak very little Russian.
Our transport was not the only one to be unloaded on this desolate station. There were many other people who already spent some time camping in the dusty field. Many became very ill and death had its harvest. Numbness and despair overtook us all. The nights were cold and the days were very hot. Dust filled our eyes, mouths, and noses causing us to choke and cough. There was no shelter and our future was uncertain.
Finally on the fourth day, our field became crowded with native people (Uzbecs) and horses pulling "arbs" (a vehicle with two large wheels). We shared our arb with the Romanko family. On the black top road, a long caravan of arbs was moving slowly. The men had to walk most of the 30-kilometer distance. Only women and children were aloud to ride on the arbs. Horses found the load quite heavy. After a three-hour journey, we were stopped at a teahouse (chihana) where we found additional families. Amongst them, was the Haciski family. I was glad to have my best friends close by. After a simple meal, we walked two kilometers to a village where we were assigned to the small clay huts. At first Olek and his parents were assigned to a separate "Kibitka" (clay hut). I was surprised at being upset because we would be separated. However, I did not betray my feelings. The relief swept over me when, after all, our families decided to share the same accommodation. All these feelings were new to me and I asked myself, "Why would I want to stay in the same room, day and night with someone (Olek) who enjoyed tormenting me?" I did not want to admit that I was becoming emotionally involved. I still wanted to be an innocent child in this respect. It was bad enough to have been forced into shouldering grown up responsibilities in a fight for survival. Why complicate things even more? Anyway, there was no time to dwell on one's feelings. Undernourished bodies made demands and there was no food to satisfy them. We knew that we had to work, but where? Will we be paid? That was the question.
Next morning, few Uzbecs came to our small compound and asked us to follow them into the fields where they explained to us what we had to do. It was winter and the fields had to be evened out for irrigation purposes. Soil had to be carried manually on "nosilki" (a board with handles) from higher places to lower and spread out evenly. These were the cotton fields. The work started at sunrise and ended at sunset. The pay for this backbreaking work consisted of a handful of flour a day, enough to make watery soup. There was no fruit, vegetables, or meat. Sometimes we made "pancakes" using clover and a little bit of flour, just enough to hold the clover together. This was not enough to nourish bodies. Hungry people became very thin and grew weaker and weaker.
Our men were still determined to reach the Polish army, but even after a few months, we could not find out its location. Slave labor was needed therefore Soviets were not going to let us go very easily. They were determined to make things difficult. There were also other complications. The trains and trucks were serving the needs of the Russian army while civilians were left to starve. Uzbekistan was a cotton growing country and no one could eat that. Food had to be brought (but was not) from the grain growing regions. In addition to starvation, the epidemic of typhoid fever and dysentry was taking its toll. Complete families were being wiped out. The only rest from it all a person had was sleep. As soon as one woke up, the desperation caused an unbearable pain in my chest. What was to become of us?
Finally, somehow we learned that the Polish army was formed in Kermine, some 400 kilometers from our kolchoz. My father and Olek decided to take an uncertain and difficult journey to join the army especially when we heard that the plans were made to move it into Persia/Iran. General Anders negotiated with the Soviet government on behalf of the would-be soldiers. The men were promised that their families would follow shortly. However, my father and Olek had no time to notify us or send the certified proof of their joining the army before they left Russia in March of 1942. Both our families were cut off and left behind with no one to help. Without official proof of our men joining the army, we would not qualify to leave Soviet Union! However, we could not allow despair to takeover. That could destroy us.
My mother became very ill and I alone had to work and barter for food. Being responsible for the survival of three people for a sixteen-year old girl was a great deal to bear. How to get us out of that God forsaken kolchoz and get closer to the Polish army where we hoped to get some help?
In April 1942, I decided to travel to Kermine to join the army and arrange for my mother and Janek to join me. Both of them worried about me a great deal. My mother had no strength to get up from the bed and Janek was having black outs from hunger. Often I thought, "If I could only have enough food for them, I would agree to go without it for days". I had no money and did not know how I would get to Kermine, but I had to try. With two of my friends, Ela and Marysia, and an elderly man, we walked 35 kilometers to Kagan. Here, we tried illegally to board a train, which would take us to Kermine. We did that for three days without success.
Defeated, exhausted, hungry, and more desperate than ever, we had to walk back to our families. The thought of giving them disappointing news was very hard to bare. Another night was approaching and we had to go back to a "chihana" (a teahouse of sorts) where all homeless people looked for shelter. Our male companion left us and we felt scared and very much alone. By now, we knew that besides the war refugees, people like us, there were also criminals of all kinds. Three of them surrounded us. My friend had a gold watch given to her by her mother, as a parting gift and we knew that the three robbers planned to take it away from her. The night before, a girl who slept on the concrete floor got up in the morning and realized that her boots were stolen from her feet. The most dangerous time came when the small lamp was extinguished and total darkness fell. Fear was almost paralyzing us and we prayed constantly. It was difficult to imagine our joy and relief when suddenly we saw our male friend coming toward us. He missed his train again and decided to seek us out. With him was another Polish man, (unknown to us) on his way to the army, who joined us. He played the harmonica beautifully and that way befriended the crowd of the teahouse. The night passed safely! God was with us.
In the morning, we began our long walk "home". The thought that another hope had to be abandoned. The hope of getting out of kolchoz Kuybyshef and that terrible country of Soviet Union, weighted heavily in our hearts. Walking in the heat was very difficult. The asphalt was almost melting and shoes felt very uncomfortable. We thought that walking in our stockings would be easier. What a mistake! The soles of our feet became blistered and the skin came off. All this caused unbearable pain. Worse than that, however, was hiding the pain from our families. What do we do now?
Some relatives sent a soldier for two of my closest friends' families to be brought to Kermine. Now I was completely alone as Ela's family and Haciski families went also. Somehow I heard that the Polish consulate probably could help. Again I was not certain of its location, but was determined to find it. For a sixteen year old girl, to walk alone fifty kilometers through the Usbec villages was dangerous. Rapes and murders were quite common. Undertaking this journey would be an act of desperation. I prayed constantly for another solution and this came quite unexpectedly. This fatal journey did not take place.
Sometime in February, Mr. Krycki, friend of Olek's father, joined us. Mr. Krycki was a prisoner in one of Russian Kulags. He had no family and felt very much alone. One day, Olek met him on the road from Wabkient and started a conversation. After exchanging some information Olek decided to introduce himself and was very surprised when his companion reacted to it very emotionally. "Are you a son of Mikolaj Romanko? He is my very good friend. Where is he? Can I see him?" There was a great deal of excitement. The stories of the past two years had to be told. After that, Mr. Krycki felt that he found a new family and decided to stay with us. Our kibitka was bursting at the seams.
At that time, the Uzbec authorities told us that they had no more flour to give us whether we worked or not. Mr. Krycki was trading the civilian clothes, which he brought from the Polish soldiers in Kermine, to the Uzbecs in the village. His age and poor health prevented him from being accepted in the army. He brought the news about my father and Olek's departure to Persia. One day while traveling Mr. Krycki injured his leg, which became badly infected, and he could not walk at all. He was not able to obtain any food and we had none to share. All our mother could offer us was a little bit of watery soup once a day. The Romankos were not better off. One day I asked my mother if I could eat my share a little later and when she left the hut, I gave my daily ration to Mr. Krycki who felt a little stronger and began to walk, very slowly at first. After he became well, he told me that I saved his life and he would do everything possible to get us all to Kermine.
To be able to leave the Kolchoz, we had to obtain special permission from the Polish consulate trustee. It was up to me to secure this document, but the trustee would not give it to me because the Soviet authorities forbade him to do so. Mr. Krycki decided that I should write permission myself because my handwriting was quite legible and if we were caught, the authorities would not send me to prison because I was under age. I knew that it was not so because my friend, my age was jailed for being late for work. The punishment for forgery would have been even greater. However, what choice did I have?
One day in the middle of April, we carried our meager possessions to the highway, a distance of two kilometers. There were six of us: Olek's parents, Mr. Krycki and us. We sat many hours by the road waiting for someone to give us a ride. Again, we had very little money (from selling the last of our badly needed articles of clothing) with which to pay to the owner of arba, who finally decided to take us a part of the way. After four days of traveling, it was necessary to find another arba. We spent our night in the "tea houses" and while Olek's parents, my mother and Janek stayed with our belongings. Mr. Krycki and I went to N.K.W.D. (Russian secret police service) to register at every place we stopped. The N.K.W.D. were often very hostile and made fun of our problems.
Finally we arrived at the railway in the town surrounded by mountains. The only way to get over the mountains was by train, which was usually already very overcrowded while arriving at the station. Hundreds and hundreds of people were stranded. Hunger and all types of sicknesses took its toll. People too weak to walk lay on the street inside the sacks. They tried to catch passersby, begging for food. Not being able to help the starving people was sheer agony.
On the day of our departure, there were only eight seats on the train to Kermine. Out of this Mr. Krycki was able to obtain six tickets for our group. Hundreds of people were in line. How did we end up with the six tickets? It is still not quite clear to me. I knew that even my phony "permission for travel" helped. Mr. Krycki's energy and enterprising spirit were essential, but a miracle was also taking place here.
After securing the tickets, we had some difficulties in boarding the train. The Romankos and Mr. Krycki went ahead and had no problems. My mother and I carried a large box while Janek was left behind to watch the rest of the possessions. The arrangement worried me a great deal. I knew that the train could leave very quickly and Janek could be separated from us, but my mother would not think of parting, with a wooden tub, because it could save us from hunger. "I could use it to earn some money by washing clothes in it." As soon as we deposited the box by the train, I ran back for Janek and if he did not decide to run toward me (leaving the tub), both of us would have been left behind. As we reached the train together, we encountered another problem. The conductor would not let us bring our box on the train. These people thrived on creating problems for others! The train began to move. My mother held onto the box. These were all our possessions! How could we survive without them? Suddenly, two Russian officers (most of the train was taken up by the army) jumped off the train, grabbed the box, and pushed it through the window into one of the carriages. The conductor did not dare to protest! These two soldiers probably saved our lives in this situation. They knew that being left at this station meant death for most of the people. Each member of our group quietly thanked God for His protection. We were also very grateful to Mr. Krycki who showed so much courage and determination in bringing us so far in our difficult journey to freedom. Only two weeks before, this journey seemed so impossible and now it was almost at the end. We knew that our troubles were not over, but we hopped that the train was carrying us to a better tomorrow.
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