75 years ago – the night when everything changed

This is one of the longest blog posts I’ve added on 501 Places, and other than a short introduction, I’ll leave the words to my parents. It’s a travel story in the loosest sense of the term, but one which I’m sure none of us would ever wish to undertake.

My parents spent their early childhood years in what was then eastern Poland (now Belarus and Ukraine). The outbreak of war in 1939 saw the almost-immediate invasion of their homelands by the Soviet Union, and my dad’s father was soon arrested and never seen again. In the early hours of 10th February 1940, their families, and tens of thousands of others like them, received a sharp knock on the door in the middle of the night. Within hours they were forced to leave their homes in temperatures as low as -40ºC. They carried the bare minimum of possessions as they set off on a journey which would see them deported to Siberia. Although they couldn’t know it at the time, they would not return to their home villages for another 68 years.

Here’s my father’s story, told in his own words:

No one was expecting that they would take us to Russia. Maybe one of the local Jewish men had an idea; he called a few times, offering to buy the timber which my father had got ready for the building of a new house. This man would often say to my mother; “I’ll give you a good price for that timber, it will be of no use to you. I’ll pay in zloty or in roubles, whichever you would prefer.”

On the 10th of February 1940, very early in the morning, there was a fierce knock at the door with the cry; “Open the door, I have news of your husband.” Before my mother could open the door we were already on our feet. Four “Red Army” soldiers entered through the door, carrying rifles with bayonets, wearing peaked caps, with big red stars on the front. Behind them entered a politruk, a high ranking Red Army propaganda officer.

The politruk carried a case, from which he took out a paper ordering that we were to be taken to a different part of the Soviet Union, where we would be reunited with my father. He read the order and told my mother to hand over any weapons, and the rest of us to get dressed and packed, giving us two hours to get ourselves ready.

We only had two sleighs, so we couldn’t take much with us. My mother told my sisters to get together that which would be most valuable and useful. Not realising that we would be travelling on the train for over two weeks, we didn’t take much food, which was what we needed most during the course of our journey. Our most valuable possessions, gold necklaces, rings, and brooches, were buried in the garden under some wood. There was no question of being able to dig them out from under two metres of snow. Also some of my father’s clothes such as his boots, his suit, and many other things, had been hidden away in case of a raid, at the time of the Red Army invasion. My mother had given these things to a Belarussian family who rented the farm next to ours. This family had helped us a lot, not least by warning us of any trouble from the locals, during periods of unrest.

After a long conversation with the politruk I was sent together with one of the Red Army soldiers to get things for my father, to whom the politruk said we were going. As I left the house it was still completely dark, the stars were glistening brightly; it must have been a very sharp frost. We could hear the howling of the dogs from neighbouring farms. It was about 500 metres to our neighbours’ house and although the road was covered in snow, we soon found ourselves at the door. We woke up our neighbours and I explained what was happening. The Belarussian lady gave me many of the things my mother had asked for and the soldier and I brought back all we could carry. When we got back the sleighs were already loaded up and we soon hit the road. The howling of the dogs resounded round about, as if they were wishing us well for the journey; it made for rather a gloomy atmosphere.

Dawn was breaking as we arrived at the school building where we found many families from neighbouring settlements such as Adampola, Kosy Dworu, Marysina, and also families from our own settlement of Niechniewicze. There were families of administrators, forestry officials, and families from the more wealthy farms.

We were told to take our luggage off the sleighs and to find a space in one of the classrooms. My mother soon found her sister and nephews, as well as her own mother and her brother. I took a walk to the edge of the school buildings to look in the direction of our farm. In the distance I could see our house and farm very clearly, and I could see smoke coming from the chimney. Someone must have already occupied our house, and was feeding our cattle and chickens. Many of the locals had told my father that they wanted our farm; they thought that then things would be so good for them that they would want for nothing more in life.

I can’t remember exactly how long they kept us in the school, maybe two or three days. They were waiting to gather together all the families of settlers, and all the others who were destined for exile. The next stop on our journey was Nowogródek. Here we were placed in a big building, where they were collecting people from the whole county. In the big hall there was an electric light, and a toilet with running water. These intrigued me, for it was probably the first time I had seen them. We were being gathered from the whole county of Nowogródek to await transportation into the heart of Russia.

From Nowogródek we were taken on sleighs to the station at Nowojelni. The journey took over half a day, and the frost was severe. The Red Army soldiers were on the look out for newspapers, so that they could protect their legs against the cold, they were better prepared than us. Even with their heavy boots they felt the cold, and they looked for extra protection.

To warm ourselves up, the soldiers would tell us to get of the sleighs, and they often pointed to our faces, telling us to rub our nose and cheeks to stop them freezing.

The journey from Nowojelni to Baranowicze lasted a few hours. We travelled in Polish passenger trains, but we had to change at Baranowicze to Russian trains which ran on a wider gauge.

On the station at Nowojelenia, my mother met some people she knew, who sympathising with us and saying goodbye, gave her 50 roubles which she spent on soup and bread at the station.

 

My mother’s story, although it took place over 400 miles away, was eerily similar and is evidence of the coordinated deportations which Stalin ordered to rid these eastern regions of Poles, who were regarded by the Soviets as ‘enemies of the people’.

It was a very severe winter with a lot of snow and frost, so we children spent most of the time inside. There was no school because of the war, so I began to learn to read and write at home. I also helped Mother and Father with small jobs around the house, and of course played with my younger sister and brothers. Father began to work on his loom again, though because of the war there wasn’t much work. I often saw Mother and Father listening to the radio very carefully, and I noticed that Father stayed at home most of the time, keeping a low profile. He did not go out into the city, nor even visit his family and friends in the old village. There were rumours going around that the Russians were going to deport all the Polish people, especially land owners, to Siberia.

As my mother came from a local Ukrainian background, she thought she might be safe, but it was a false hope. On 10th February 1940 I woke up and saw two Russian soldiers in our house. Father was sitting in the corner of the room, and one of the soldiers was stood with a gun over him. The other soldier was throwing things about in the room, looking for guns or pistols. Mother was standing in the other corner with my baby brother crying in her arms. After searching the house, they told us to dress up and pack as much as we could on the cart, including food, because they were going to move us to another town for our own safety.

At that point Mother said to them: “I know you are going to take us to Russia, but could you tell me if we will ever come back here?” One of the soldiers replied, “The time will come for the devil’s fall”, and he took my crying baby brother and said, “He will grow up into an outstanding worker.”

Fortunately, Mother had baked some bread the night before, so she put everything into a sack. The soldiers, seeing that she had small children, offered to help, and one went outside, caught a few chickens, cut their heads off, and put them in the sack for us to take.

The winter was very severe that year and there was a lot of snow and frost. My mother dressed us as warmly as she could, wrapped us in bedding and pillows, and put us on top of the cart, already piled up with other things. When we were packed they drove us quickly to the railway station at Jeznupol. A train was waiting, consisting of a long row of cattle wagons, and there were a lot of other people, with their belongings packed onto carts, just like ourselves.

The soldiers ordered us to move fast and get ourselves and our belongings into those cattle wagons. Inside each wagon there were two or three layers of planks, which acted as bunk beds. They were bare boards, with only just enough space in between them on which to sit up. Our family found itself on the top layer; I can remember looking through the gaps between the boards and the roof of the wagon. In the middle of the wagon was an iron stove, on which we cooked that which was available, and which kept the wagon warm.

The soldiers packed as many people as they could in each wagon, and then they locked the doors from the outside so that nobody could come in or out. When everybody was squashed in and all the wagons locked, the long train started to move east.

We travelled in those cattle wagons for two or three weeks. For the first couple of days the doors remained locked, but after we crossed the border into Russia the doors would be opened at some stations and people were allowed to collect some hot water from time to time. Inside the wagons it was dark, cold, and overcrowded. Everybody took turns to sleep, cook, and attend to necessary personal matters. There was a hole in the floor which functioned as a toilet, and we children used a bucket which was emptied by our parents through the hole. It was very hard for old people and small children, and since there were four small children in our family, my mother and father must have had a very hard time.

I do not remember a lot from that journey, only that I spent most of the time sitting on the top deck looking through the gaps in the boards at the icicles hanging from the roof of the train. I remember that one night we travelled across a very long bridge and people were saying that we must be crossing the Volga. I can recall people standing around the metal stove to warm themselves, and queuing up to prepare themselves some food. At that time I did not feel sorry for myself or anybody else. I suppose it was a new adventure for me, not a great tragedy.

In both my parents’ cases, their journeys would last for almost 8 years and would take them through Siberia, Central Asia, and Iran. My father spent five years in Egypt in the Polish army cadets before arriving in Liverpool in 1947. My mother meanwhile lost her father, sister and two little brothers to illness and starvation, ending up in India with her mother in 1943 and staying in a refugee camp until 1948, when they sailed to England. My parents have lived in the UK ever since.

Although so many years have passed since that night 75 years ago, and they have in recent years made emotional journeys back to their childhood homes, the night of the 10th of February 1940 will always be one which changed their lives forever.

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Freelance travel writer

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