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My Story - Part 1

by Bournemouth Libraries

Contributed by 
Bournemouth Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs Aldona Zakrzewska, nee Smolenska
Location of story: 
Poland, Uzbekistan, Persia
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 August 2005

I am the daughter of the military settler Josef Smolenski and Irena Owerzarska. I was born on 19th March 1924 in the military settlement of Osada Bortnica in the district of Dobno, Volyn.

Both of my parents came from central Poalnd. My father was born in 1890 in Chrostowe-Wielkim in the district of Przasnysz. My mother was born in 1894 in Modlin, north of Warsaw.

My father from 1911 to 1918 was in the Russian army and fought in the First World War.

The end of the 1914-18 War brought with it the break-up of three mighty European empires. A Peace conference was called in 1919 in Versailles in order to settle the many differences. Eventually it recognised Poland's legal government under Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Within a very short time his government had to face the threat of Bolshevic armies massing on the country's eastern frontier. So started the Polish-Soviet war of 1918. My father was a volunteer in Pilsudski's legion at that time and took an active part in the war which eventually gave us a new independent Poland.

After the war, my father was in Modlin and met my mother Irena. They married in 1920. In 1921, my brother Antoni ("Antek") was born in Ostrog.

From 1921 onwards, military settlers came to the "borderland" in the east of Poland to begin the daunting work on the bare land given to them as reward for their fight for Poland's independence during the years of the First World War. My parents acquired 45 hectares (111 acres)in Bortnica, 12 kms from Dubno.

I, Aldona, was born in 1924.

Life ina the settlement developed exactly as in other places. It started with the struggles that life generally throws up, which eased over a period of time. In the years before the Second World War, the settlers concentrated on building homes for themselves, barns for the animals and acquiring farm machinery.

The children were growing up and went to schools. Antek and I went to primary school in Dubno and after that to grammars. My brother went to study agricultural management near Cracow and I went to Kuznice, near Zakopane.

My father, in addition to managing the farm, spent many years working as a baliff in Dubno.

My mother was a housewife and, although she had a few servants, would make sure that everything was running smoothly. In January 1938, after a 14 year break, there was a surprise addition to the family when my sister Agnieszka ("Asia"), was born.

Then disaster struck. On 1st September 1939 our country was attacked by Germany from the west. On 17th September 1939, Soviet Russia attacked from the east. We then all knew that this was a new partition of Poland.

The Polish army was pushed by the Germans to the eastern part of Poland where they were taken prisoner by the Red Army and wither murdered or taken to hard labour camps.

On the 15th October, 1939, Iwas with my father and sister at home. It was a Sunday and my mother, brother and some friends had gone to church in Dubno to attend mass. Later in the morning four Ukranians came and urged my father to either escape or go into hiding with them because he would be arrested by the Russians. My father said, "Thank you very much but 'no'. My friend did that and his family were tortured and killed." When soldiers from the N.K.V.D. later entered the house he was waiting for them. He was arrested and imprisoned in Dubno until May 1941.

On the 9th February 1940, my mother again was not at home as she had gone to Dubno for a few days to try and find out what had happened to father, alas without success. In the afternoon, 15 Soviet soldiers came to the house. They turned everything upside down looking for guns and papers. Not finding anything, they said, "Stay at home and do not leave it." Two soldiers stayed with us and we were not even allowed to go outside. Early the next day my mother was still away and more soldiers and an officer came to the house. The officer read a "proclamation" that on Stalin's orders they were going to move us on "just a few kilometres" as the population needed to be "exchanged." They then gave us just 25 minutes to leave the house with a few belongings.

Can you imagine the situation? I was just 15 years' old, my parents were not at home and my two year old sister Asia was still in her bed! I will never forget that moment of terror, helplessness and despair. I woke Asia up and quickly dressed her. Antek, my 17 year old brother, argued with the soldiers, saying that they could not take us away without our mother, but they would not listen. The three of us were forced onto a sledge at gunpoint and taken to the railway station about 15 kms away. Two guards, carrying rifles and with red stars on their shoulder straps, rode with us.

At the railway station we saw a row of cattle trucks on the line. We were pushed towards them and 30-35 of us were forced into one. The doors of the truck were bolted from the outside - you could not get out. Fixed to the floor in the middle of the truck was a cast-iron stove on which you could warm up something to eat. At one end was a hole cut in the floor for use as a toilet and, for the sake of decency, was screened off with a blanket. Along both sides of the truck were bunks made of wooden boards arranged in two levels.

While this was going on, my mother was still in Dubno and when she returned home, the house was empty. She found out that the settlers and their families from there and the surrounding districts had been forcibly tken to a place unknown. She was totally distraught at this and went to the local Russian commander and, on her knees, begged him to tell her where her children were. Luckily, he was one of the more humane soliders with a kind heart for he did his best to find out where we were.

The next night there was a loud banging on the door of our truck with the question, "Is the Smolenski family in there?" My mother got in with a few possessions and some food. What joy! We were together again. We also had something to eat, for during the 25 minutes we had to leave our house, neither my brother nor I had taken anything at all.

So that was how our ordeal began. Nobody knew where we were going. There were no windows to look out of and all we could do was to peer through slits in the side of the truck during the journey. We were overcrowded on our board bunks. The heating device was fuelled by coal which was provided infrequently. No food or water was provided at all.

Throughout the journey there was no question of us being allowed to get out when we arrived at a station. Sometimes the train stopped in empty fields and, if we were lucky, the doors were unlocked once a day and we were allowed to get out. The more able people looked for anything that would be of use while the more alluring of the girls tried to distract the guards who were always standing around us with their guns.

The journey lasted a long time - several weeks infact. We passed through villages, fields and forests all covered in snow. Winter there was very severe with temperatures falling to minus 35 degrees C. During the night women's hair froze to the walls of the truck.

Eventually, we arrived at the station in Kotlas which was the last town on the northern line in the Archangelsk province. Here, we were literally "thrown out" of the trucks and goaded into a large hall. This was not the end of the journey however for, after a few days, we were on the move again. With women, young children and personal belongings loaded onto sledges and men and older children on foot, we travelled for several days along the frozen river Dzina. After a distance of 210 kms we reached a settlement called Ust Zaruba on the river Yorga, a tributary of the Dvina which eventually flows into the White Sea.

Here we found some wooden barracks with a big stove in the middle of it, and beds made of wooden boards three to four metres long running along the walls. This was home for 40-50 people. There was a trench outside for use as a toilet.

After a day's rest we were put to work logging trees and stacking the logs up against the banks of the river Yorga. I had a horse harnassed to a short sledge which I used to drag the timber to the river side. In the spring the logs would be floated down the Dzvina to the port in Archangelsk on the White Sea. My brother worked in the forest driving a tractor. The ground was frozen solid in the winter and partly thawed in the summer. Cracks would appear in the land and then when covered over by fresh snow, would be invisible. They were often wide and deep enough to swallow a tractor or truck without trace. It was very hard work for everybody, especially in winter when temperatures would fall to minus 45 degrees C. In the sunmmer the temperature could rise to 20 degrees C with the added bonus of swarms of biting insects.

In the spring of 1941, we were allocated a hut which we shared with one other family. There were 9 people altogether in it. The hut was made out of huge logs of wood with the gaps between them sealed up with moss, which was the perfect hatching place for huge bed bugs. Lack of space, hunger and all manner of vermin were a constant burden to us. In the spring and summer there was the added irritation of mosquitoes and fleas.

It was my brother and I who worked regularly. During the day, my mother looked after my young sister and in the evening I took over. My mother spent a few hours carrying buckets of water from the river to a steam bath. Early in the morning, she helped to prepare what little food we had. Our diet was very poor, especially the breakfast which cinsisted of a pot of boiling water with just flour poured into it. What kept us alive were the blueberries, cranberries and wild raspberries, etc., which we were able to pick and eat in the forest. my mother also sold a few things including a gold ring and some earrings and bought a goat for its milk. We kept the goat in the hut with us as we were afraid to leave it outside in case someone stole it or killed it for meat.

There was a funny incident involving the goat. As my brother worked driving a tractor, he was issued with one piece of soap every 6 months. He left the soap somewhere and the goat ate it. He was furious. It was however the goat's milk that kept us alive in the very harsh conditions.

Work would begin while it was still dark, six days a week, or if quotas had not been achieved, seven days a week. We used to take a piece of bread with us and hide it near our bodies to prevent it from freezing solid. There was no time for recreation, nothing but work, work and work. We were constantly threatened -"If you don't work, you don't eat". I remember the hunger and the cold and the lack of any kind of medecine or medical care. World news was non-existent, there were no newspapers or radio.

One day in June 1941 we heard about the outbreak of the Soviet-German war. Our chance to leave our place of exile came with the signing of the Sikorski-Mayski Treaty in July 1941 and the issuing of the "Decree of Amnesty" granted to Poles on the 12th August 1941. The sense of joy was overwhelming when the camp commandant called everyone together and told us we were free and could go wherever we wished. We were provided with special documents but could not return to Poland as that was on the frontier line. We had to keep to the east and travel south.

When the river Dzwina was frozen my frother, with the help of his friends, made two small sledges. With my three and a half year old sister on one, and all our belongings and food on the other, we set out on our journey on foot. My mother was, however, already beginning to feel ill. We headed for Kotlas, walking between thirteen and twenty kilometres during the day. The snow was deep up to our waists at almost every step, and we trudged through it for nearly two weeks. We spent the nights with people who were prepared to give us shelter. Some offered us scraps of food which was a generous gesture when they did not have much for themselves.

At last we arrived at the railway station in Kotlas. It was absolute hell. There were thousands of people there that had come from the labour camps in the north, waiting for trains. What happened when one appeared is diffucult to describe. Once more we were crammed into cattle trucks with wooden bunks all round the sides. When we set off we passed many dead bodies left because there was no one to bury them. It was one huge nightmare. All the trains were going south to where the Polish Army was being formed under the command of General Anders who had been released from the famous Lubianka prison in Moscow.

As we travelled south it was getting warmer and warmer in the carriages, but things were getting much worse where food and water were concerned. Now and then we didi manage to get a piece of bread or a mug of soup, which we paid for in clothing or anything else of value. But the prices were sky high. My mother, for example, exchanged her gold wedding ring for half a loaf of stale bread. During the journey my sister Asia became ill, first with measles and then with scarlet fever. Many people died as there was no access to medecine or doctors.

The journey took us a dfew weeks during which we passed through Kirove, Sverdlovsk, Chelabinsk, Karagonda and Tashkent. In Katta-Kurgona we were not allowed to travel any further on the train and were forced off it, tired and hungry. Now we were in Uzbekistan.

Here began another ordeal. We found accommodation for 9 people in a mud hut with a floor area of just 4m x 3m. We were on our last legs and very weak with hunger. All our efforts were concentrated on getting some sort of food. One day my brother found a dog and killed it. I am sorry to say but we had to eat it to survive.

My mother begged my brother Antek to leave us and find the Polish Army to enlist, which he did. On his journey, by chance, he met our father who had been released from a prison and hard labour camp in Karabas in Kazakhstan. My father was already an officer in the Polish Army and, while a commander of transport between Tockye and Kitab, he unexpectedly came across our son. This meeting was very brief, just long enough to ask "Where is mother?" to which the reply cme back "Katta-Kurgona". On arrival at Kitab, my father was able to get a three day pass and travel to see us.

What joy as my father, dressed in his Polish Army uniform as a lieutenant, first found my sister and I. He brought with him a loaf of bread. My sister, who was so weak she could not stand from illness and hunger, asked "What is it?" In her short Russian life she had never seen a loaf of bread. Her father was also a stranger to her as she had not seen him for two years. My father then went to see my mother who was ill in hospital with typhoid, cases of which were becoming more and more common.

After a few weeks, my mother came out of hospital still very weak and hardly able to support herself. On Palm Sunday 1942, we travelled to Kitab, which is between Samarkand and Szachryzjabs, where the 16th Polish Regiment was stationed under the command of Colonel Szafranoski. Here we were de-loused and given medical treatment and food by the army. At last we began to feel more like human beings.

At that time, the Polish Army was starting to evacuate to the Middle East. In the autumn of 1942, we set off with them and travelled to the port at Krasnovodsk. There, the Soviet soldiers ordered us to leave all our belongings and money (including all coins) behind. With the help of the army, we were loaded on board a ship as we stood, for we left the USSR without a thing. We crossed the Caspian Sea and the following eveing we arrived in Pahlevi in Persia (now Iran).

Persia gave us a warm welcome. As we surveyed the beautiful land and the very friendly people, a completely new world was opened up to us. We had freddom and food, including a variety of exotic fruits. We were often approached by complete strangers in the street and offered a loaf of flat bread.

Part 2 to follow.............

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