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February 2005
"Whoever dropped never got up"
barbed wire
Helena: "This story has to be told. People have lost their lives and even if they are physically alive their lives have been blighted by it."

February 10th 1940 is a very significant date for many members of West Yorkshire's Polish community. This day saw the first of a series of mass deportations from Poland's eastern borderlands to Siberia in the Soviet Union.


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Now some of the Poles who settled here after World War Two, and their children, feel this is a story that should be more widely known.

Helena Danielczuk has lived all her life in Bradford but her father was amongst those who found themselves in Siberia: "The world is not aware of what the Stalinists did and the story is obviously very personal because it is my father's story. It's my mother's family's story. It isn't my mother's story because she was deported to Germany but nevertheless the deportations (to Siberia) which happened are not widely known at all. Very few people know about the Stalinist regime during the war, probably because they were allies of the British, and obviously it's a difficult topic to talk about and the people who experienced it find it difficult to talk about for all sorts of reasons."

Czeskawa Tarnowska
Czeskawa Tarnowska was just 13 when she was deported to the Soviet Union
On 1st September, 1939, the German army invaded Polish territory on several fronts and 16 days later Soviet troops crossed the border from the east. The Nazi-Soviet pact signed in August set the way for the restoration of both countries' borders as they had been before 1919. More than 20,000 Polish soldiers were killed by the Soviet secret police at the start of World War Two and the Germans discovered the bodies of several thousand Polish officers at Katyn in 1943.

It is estimated that by 1941 1.5 million Poles had been moved into labour camps across the Soviet Union.

Helena explains: "The 10th of February 1940 is a very significant date - it is impinged in people's minds. In the early morning, at about 2 or 3 o'clock they heard a knock on the door and they had 20 minutes to get themselves ready. Young children, the elderly - it didn't matter. My Dad says they were taken to some sort of communal hall and then they were marched to the train station, and when they got there they were herded onto cattle trucks and they were transported for months until they reached Archangel and he says the journey was horrific. If people died en route they were thrown out of the carriages. If they didn't have any water they melted the heavy snow. The toilet was a hole in the carriage and they were packed in - the potential for disease would have been very high and that's what happened. People did die en route. They were taken and transported by the thousands to build railways, to build electric factories."

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Helena Danielczuk and Czeskawa Tarnowska talk to Christine from the website.


You'll need REALPLAYER to hear these clips!

Czeskawa was just 13 when she made the forced journey to Siberia. Her father was already a prisoner in the Soviet Union: "My father was a soldier in 1939. He wanted to go through Romania but he was captured on the border and he was sent to Siberia, right to the White Sea and he was working in the forest cutting the trees and sending them back. I was in the second lot of Polish villagers who were sent over there."

She says her father did not know his family had been taken to Russia: "On October 17th when the Russians came, they started moving everybody and brought all their own families so eventually we were moved into one room and stayed there, and that was for a few months because in April they took us to Russia. They came at one o'clock at night and said in 15 minutes you have to go so we went straight out to the lorry and they put us in the animal wagons. There were 60 people put inside - mothers and children - and there were no sanitary (facilities) at all. There was just a big hole inside, and that's why the disease started, and there wasn't anything to eat until we crossed the border and then they gave us hot water and horse salami and at night they came and gave us some soup to eat, never during the day, always at night.

Helena Danielczuk
Helena Danielczuk wants the events of February 10th 1940 to be more widely known

"It was May 1st so they couldn't transport us any further because it was starving desert - if you look on the map it's where they've got the sputniks now. We were waiting there and the river started flooding and we started screaming. An old lady died and she didn't have anybody, she only had a basket so we put her in the basket and next day she was floating like a Moses. After four days they took us right to the mountains (for 200 kilometres nothing grows) and there were no houses, just the barracks. We were living all together on one site. We started working building the roads and railways."

Czeskawa found herself working on an electric station. Her family decided their mother was not going to work which meant she would not be given any food: "We supplied her with bread and she managed to look after the children so they were not sent to (the orphanages).

Helena explains: "There were four dates - February 1940, April 1940, June 1940 and June 1941 when the final deportation happened so, as Czeskawa says, the first lot were foresters and lumberjacks because my Dad was a forester as were the villagers around the Eastern Borderlands. If you can imagine the situation - it was probably a few people in a vast area covered in trees. It wasn't just plains and they were used to that sort of work but they were exploited because if you didn't work you didn't get any food."

"Poland is in the wrong position geographically and politically. And that's why every so often we're moving that way or that way and those people who were under the Germans were Poles and those that were in Russia were Poles and we are Poles just the same and that is awful because you don't know where you are belonging to."
Czeskawa Tarnowska
Czeskawa agrees: "That was the difference between the Germans and Stalin. The Germans killed straight away and Stalin sucked the whole blood out of us because we were dying." Helena adds: "In a court of law Stalin could never say I have killed X, Y and Z because he never did. He just transported them to work and it's the hard work, the cold, the malnutrition and the disease did the job for him quite efficiently."

Despite all this Czeskawa says they never lost their faith: "There was a German man who was sent to Siberia after the First World War and on May 3rd he was playing on the piano, and we told him that May 3rd was our Polish Feast because it was when we had our constitution in 1771 and he knew the Polish music. You know those shavings you have, and because the soil was so coloured, we managed to make ribbons and the Russians came but they were happy because they were thinking it was their first of May but it was our third of May. We had Polish singing and dancing. There was an old man reading the bible and somebody told the government so he was taken to prison. "

On June 22nd 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and things began to change for Czeskawa: "They gave us our freedom so we managed to go away from the place - 10 miles - and that was good enough, a little town, and I was put in the gold mine to work. It was one night in December 1941, and next door they had a radio, and we heard our hymns. It was General Sikorski announcing we were free and Stalin decided to open the camps and prisons and let people go out so we were happy but we still had to stay because we didn't have transport. My mother was thinking how to get out and one morning (it was winter) and my sister saw a Polish soldier who had come for some of his family with a special note…That man was sitting in the prison with my uncle and they said, 'Whoever you find on the way, we will take.' Instead of two people he took 12."

Czeskawa's waritime documents

Helena explains: "They were forming the army and the army were allowed to move freely. They said these are my family as well so they were allowed to go. People adopted anybody to get them out of there and so it was the long trek to God knows where at that stage."

Czeskawa adds: "They only supplied food for the army but we split that with the civilians and the children from the children's home." It had been agreed that the remnants of the Polish Army would go across the border into Persia: "Instead of 100,000 people we had 200,000 because the civilians were going with us."

She left the Soviet Union in August but says: "When I see the film Doctor Zhivago I think myself walking in the storm because it was a line from one place to another. We were holding each other hand on hand, and whoever dropped never got up because we didn't have anything to eat"

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BBC Radio Leeds' Tim Daley talks to a survivor of the deportations from Poland to the USSR in 1940.


You'll need REALPLAYER to hear these clips!

Czeskawa was only 15 when she joined the Polish Army and first worked as a courier: "It was terrible. I was running between the camps and when you came to a house you couldn't open the door because the children were already dead and swollen because they didn't have anything to eat."

Helena remembers seeing images of starving children in Biafra on the TV when she was a child and her father saying, "That was us."

Czeskawa became an army nurse and eventually came to England where she met up again with her family. Helena's father also left the Soviet Union as part of the Polish Army despite being ill with typhoid. He was never to see his sister again but in recent years Helena has managed to get in touch with her cousin who lives in Australia. It was only in 2003 that she found out how her grandparents had died. Her own mother was deported in the opposite direction to Germany to work on a farm. Helena says when her mother tried to escape from the farm she was put into solitary confinement with only rats for company. Her mother was 16 at the time but she says it was not the youth that was taken away from her parents' generation: "I think it was their lives that were stolen." Czeskawa agrees: "You have to fight yourself to go further because otherwise you would be lost. If your mind isn't strong enough then you will be lost."

Helena says: "This story has to be told. People have lost their lives and even if they are physically alive their lives have been blighted by it. A quick death might be better than the slow death they have had. My Dad is suspicious even now. He doesn't like what I am doing yet I, as a teacher, feel that people have no idea about British history or European history, they have no idea what the significance of Europe is which is why when people are saying, 'Do you want to belong to Europe?,' how can they make a decision at a referendum when they don't know the reasons why the Ukraine is clamouring to be part of Europe, why Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics all wanted to be part of Europe. That's what is driving them to be part of this safe place where perhaps people will support each other because Britain has had a history of being fair and trying to accommodate others even if they've disliked it at times. My Dad has also got a document saying, "Don't you think maybe you ought to go back and help rebuild Poland so there are a lot of political issues. Also I want children to be aware that we've got people living who have experienced this."

Czeskawa observes: "The youngsters in Poland, they don't know what has happened to us and they don't care. We were brought up with religion and love for the country and that's why we've never forgotten. My children speak Polish and their children speak Polish."

For Helena, growing up here: "I feel I belong to both (communities) but I feel I belong to neither. I'm not Polish because the Poles don't regard me as Polish and I'm not really English, so who am I in the end? There are thousands throughout the world who feel the same. We're almost schizophrenic and obviously there's issues around that. Monday to Friday from nine o'clock to four o'clock I was English and called myself Helen - I wasn't Helena or Hela as I am now - I was Helen and I wanted to have English friends because that made me belong. Once I got home it was Polish but even now I'm thinking the Polish people don't regard us as Polish. They don't regard my mother and father who were born in Poland as Polish and it's this search for identity as much as anything , and knowing who you are. Now the the bits of jigsaw are falling in place and I suppose I've gone the other way now. I'm striving to make people aware we do exist and we are here and our parents' experiences should be heard as well."

Czeskawa concludes: "Poland is in the wrong position geographically and politically. And that's why every so often we're moving that way or that way and those people who were under the Germans were Poles and those that were in Russia were Poles and we are Poles just the same and that is awful because you don't know where you are belonging to."

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