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15 October 2014
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Warsaw to Liverpool

by Jan krawczuk (jnr)

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Contributed by 
Jan krawczuk (jnr)
People in story: 
Jan Krawczuk, Born Przemysl, Poland 22/02/1912. Died Wrexham, United Kingdom 20/10/1998
Location of story: 
Poland, Russia, Iran, England
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A8943212
Contributed on: 
29 January 2006

Photo Taken At Cammeringham 01/09/1946. My father is 2nd from the left.

This is the story of my father's experiences during the Second World War.

My father was born in the town of Przemysl in south east Poland in 1912, although this was not Poland in 1912 but part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. He actualy lived through two World Wars in his lifetime, but during the First World War as a child he was evactuated from Przemysl to a village in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains where his grandparents lived. Przemysl was actually the scene of fierce fighting between Russia and Austria during this conflict.

When the Second World War broke out, my father was working as a toolmaker at an aircraft factory near to Warsaw at a place called Okencie, which is where the Warsaw International Airport now stands. He remained in the Warsaw area through the siege of Warsaw and into the Nazi occupation. He always said that the bombing and shelling were terrifying but the worst of all were the Nazi dive bombers, Stukas, which made a screeching noise as they attacked their targets, a noise he would never forget. He spoke of how many Polish aircrafts were destroyed on the ground and how many of his fellow workers were killed and injured in the bombings.

When the Nazis occupied Warsaw, my father's house was commandeered for the use of German airmen. My father was an accomplished gymnast and had constructed some apparatus in his garden which the German airmen used and still allowed my father to use. For whatever reason, when there was a sweep of the area of young men for slave labour, my father was warned to leave by the Nazi airmen. He wondered why they had warned him but never knew the truth. Maybe it was just the respect one sportsman has for another or maybe just pure and simple humanity; he did not even remember their names.

It was at this point he started a journey which would take him across continents and oceans, eventually ending in England.

The first part of the journey was from Warsaw to his home town of Przemysl which he managed safely, although he had to walk, get lifts in horse drawn carts, use trains and, at one point, steal a boat to negotiate part of the River Vistula. When he arrived in Przemysl he stayed in his parents' flat. This part of Poland was occupied by the Soviets who were already starting to deport people into the Soviet Union for slave labour.

My father's intention was to leave Przemysl and travel south to an area known as the Biesczady Mountains where he had family in the village of Lipa and Bircza. He was put in a covered horse drawn wagon by his father (this was the last time he ever saw his father) but as he left Przemysl the cart was stopped by Soviets, not soldiers but the NKVD (the forefunner of the KGB). My father was taken prisoner and eventually transported to Dnieperpetrovsk in the Ukraine where he was put in the prison built by Catherine the Great in the shape of a star to house Cossacks. He was held in solitary confinement for, he thought, two weeks being fed on bread, water and thin soup. During his time in solitary confinement he made up his mind that if he was not shot he would be sent to a hard labour camp in the North of Russia or Siberia.

He was eventually taken from solitary confinement and put in a large cell with many other Poles but also Russians and Ukranians who were either criminals or political prisoners. My father was accused of being politically undesirable (for no reason) and eventually sentenced to 25 years hard labour in a Gulag. He was then transported from Dnieperpetrovsk to Northern Russia by train, on river barges and on foot with many others. He believed he passed through Kharkov, Gorki, Kotlas, Uchta, Pechora and eventually Vorkuta.

The transport used was desperate, the trains were cattle trucks and the barges were open to all the elements. There was no sanitation and if someone died, the body was either thrown on to the side of the track when the train stopped and the doors were opened or they were thrown over the side of the barges into the rivers.

It was not just men who were being deported but also women and children. Many died of disease, starvation, the terrible cold and violence meted out on them by the Soviet guards.

By the time my father arrived in Northern Russia, it was deep winter and he was now with many other Poles. There was no shelter but they were given tents which were suitable for twenty to thirty people. Their first job was to pitch these tents. Some of the people in my father's group, including my father, had experience of extreme cold from living in the mountainous areas of Poland and rather than just pitch their tent, they dug into the snow first to protect the sides of the tent and then erected it. They survived the first night above the Arctic Circle. The tent next to them was occupied by some 20 Polish Jews who didn't dig into the snow and froze to death on that first night.

At first my father and his fellow prisoners were put to work in the forests cutting wood. At some point the Soviets found out that my father had engineering experience and he was transferred to work on oil drilling platforms.

My father and his fellow prisoners endured many hardships during the time they were forced to work in Northern Russia and many did not survive. My father was released when General Sikorsky negotiated the release of all Polish forces and civilians with the Soviets, and so another journey was about to begin.

They travelled south again by train and barge and on foot to a camp which was set up in a place called Koltubanka as a gathering point for the Polish forces. This was where General Anders set up the Polish 2nd Corps and I think it was here that the authorities asked for volunteers for the Airforce. As my father had worked on aircraft, he volunteered. I have two photographs, the first of my father and written on the back in his hand, is Koltubanka, Rosja (Russia) 5th October 1941. The second is of a group of men in a snowy forest. They have Polish Eagles on their caps and I believe my father is in the centre of the photograph. The back of it is again marked in my father's hand Koltubanka 15th January 1942. This means that he was there for at least three and a half months.

My father and his fellow prisoners were then transported across Kazakstan to a place called Kermine in Uzbeckistan and then to Tashkent. From here they travelled west to the Caspian Sea to a port called Kranovodsk in Turkmenistan where they were put on a ship which took them to Persia (now Iran). This day was etched in my father's mind as a momentous occasion. He did not remember the date but the fact that he had left the Soviet Union alive was enough for my father and his fellow prisoners to celebrate, although they had no idea what the future would hold.

After crossing the Caspian Sea, they arrived at the port of Pahlevi and were then take via Tehran, Isfahan and Ahwaz to the Persian Gulf where they were put on a troop ship which sailed through the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean to Bombay. From here they sailed to South Africa, stopping at Durban and then Cape Town where they changed ships. They were then transported to the United Kingdom; I believe one of the ships was called the Avetavia.

They eventually arrived in Liverpool during June of 1942 from where they were taken to Scotland by train to be quarantined. My father was stationed at a number of RAF bases including Bramcote Hemswell, Cameringham and Sealand near to Liverpool. When he left the RAF in 1948 he settled in Liverpool and then in North Wales. We had to drive past the Sealand Camp regularly and nearly ever time another story of life in the forces would emerge.

My father often spoke about his wartime experiences but it was mostly to tell a story about somewhere he had been or something he had seen but rarely about his personal survival. He did tell a tale of how on their journey out of captivity through the eastern states of the Soviet Union, they had to scavenge for food or steal it where they could. At some point during the journey my father and a friend were looking for food and came across a flock of sheep. They were going to steal a sheep but they were attacked by a large dog which was guarding the sheep. They had to kill the dog to protect themselves so they took the dog for food instead of a sheep and, making it into a stew, managed to feed approximately 20 men. On another occasion they were in a town with a market. The traders all had donkeys so one of my father's companions distracted a trader and my father stole the donkey which they slaughtered and again fed a number of men.

These stories were always told to guests after we had eaten a meal. What the guests didn't realise until they were told was that this was a matter of survival and that these men were literally being starved to death! There were many other stories but he never really touched on the suffering they all endured.

But one particular conversation with my father stands out in my mind. I was having a meal with him one evening. The raido was on, Radio Four to be precise. Somebody was talking about the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis. I said to him 'you must have seen the Northern Lights when you where in Northern Russia, what were they like?' His reply was not what I expected because he normally explained what he was talking about with some sort of scientific explanation. What he actually said was 'I suppose I saw them but when you are cold, starving and under constant threat of being shot, you do not notice the beauty of nature'.

As he grew older he thought and talked more of what happened to him and his countrymen during the war, particularly the ones that were left beind in the Soviet Union and, like many people who had survived when others hadn't, wondered why.

My father was eventually allowed to return to Poland for a holiday in 1969, thirty years after he had been deported and he visited many times taking my mother and myself. When martial law was enforced he never went back and was never able to visit a free Poland due to age and ill health but he was always proud to have been a Pole and to have served in the Polish forces.

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