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The Ice Road

by Barry Ainsworth

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Archive List > World > Poland

Contributed by 
Barry Ainsworth
People in story: 
Stefan Waydenfeld
Location of story: 
Europe Poland
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 January 2006

Most people in Britain and America cherish a simple view of the Second World War in Europe.
They remember a struggle of Good against Evil, where the Allied powers gained a famous victory over the malignant forces of Fascism.
Stories of survivors and heroic adventurers are all concerned with people who pitted their wits against the Fascist enemy.
Such, after all, was the western experience.
Yet it is a view of the war which ignores events in the larger, eastern half of Europe.

There in the east, the scale of the fighting was much larger; and the ideological struggle more ruthless. Individuals did not count.
Millions of Europeans were faced not with one totalitarian enemy, but with two.
They saw their homelands invaded and destroyed by Stalin’s Communists as well as by Hitler’s Nazis. In the case of the Poles, they saw their country overrun first by Hitler and Stalin acting in unison, then by Hitler’s legions triumphant over Stalin and finally by a resurgent Red Army victorious over the Nazis.
To survive in the successive waves of that maelstrom required rather more complicated strategies than anything encountered in Western Europe.
These memoirs of Stefan Waydenfeld, therefore, grip the imagination not only as a stirring tale of human endurance, but also as an illustration of wartime conditions in very unfamiliar parts of Europe.”

Stefan was born in Otwock (pronounced Orvotsk), 30 kilometres south of Warsaw, a health resort specialising in lung diseases, where his father was a doctor specialising in the treatment of TB, having trained in Moscow in 1914, later drafted in the Russian Army.
His mother was a specialist in bacteriology and both were born in that part of Poland that was governed by Russia. until the end of World War 1.
His parents had met at university and at the time of the Revolution escaped back to Poland.
Stefan’s brother Jurek was sent abroad in 1936 as signs of war gathered on the horizon.
Stefan was 14 when the Germans invaded on 1st September 1939 followed by the Russians on 17th September.

His father and uncle left to report to Brzese for Army duty.
Stefan and three friends walked and travelled with refugees, sometimes they were strafed by German planes, to join them, aiming to join the Army.
As the army collapsed, they moved on to join relatives in Pruzany and enrolled in school.
When the Russians invaded on 17th September his father had been captured, but escaped and walked for 3 weeks to Pruzany.
He and Stefan moved back to Brzese, and his mother heard they were there and managed to join them.
So many people were on the move, leaving messages on café walls, that they were lucky to be reunited. Fellow officers of his father were imprisoned in Katyn.

There were large scale deportations in March 1940 and Poles in the Russian area had to choose either to have a Russian passport or to be deported by the German Repatriation Commission set up at the railway station for would-be returnees.
The family registered to do so but the first train was full and they were told to wait at home for the next. 1.5 million Poles were transported during that time.

His father saved $1000, for which there was a huge demand, and changed this into 35,000 roubles, which proved a life-saver in the coming years. It had been hidden in the house and the housekeeper knew of its whereabouts, when the militia men knocked them up at 3am on 29th June, she rescued the money, and passed it to my parents in a packet of sandwiches as they left.

They were taken to the railway station, where they understood they were to board a train taking them back to the German area. This was a goods train with the wagons, each marked for 40 people or 8 horses, with sleeping shelves, and a primitive toilet in the floor.
It was a very hot day and the train, full of people, didn't move. The doors were locked all day.
Luckily the officials needed a doctor.
His father volunteered, but only on condition that everyone was allowed out of the wagons and given boiled water.
At night the train began to move, but at sunrise Stefan could see from a tiny window near his bed that they were travelling towards the sunrise — they were going east.

They travelled for 7 days, with bread available only from the third day with occasionally soup.
They were told that the German Government had refused to have them back, and as they had declined to have Soviet passports they were an unreliable element and had to be moved from a border area for re-education. “Here you shall live”.

The 1500 people were taken in the train to Kotlas, where the family were moved in a lorry fuelled by wood gas - when fuel was needed the women drivers chopped down kindling from the forest.
While their luggage was transported by narrow boat they had to walk 42 km to a tiny camp at Kvasha deep in the forest.
There were six long barracks.
Breakfast menu was oat porridge for 30 kopeks, or millet porridge for 1 rouble.
The slogan was “He who does not work, does not eat”.

Stefan was assigned to the forest brigade, in place of his mother, stacking timber at the edge of the river, which was brought out of the forest by horses.
As the winter began, sledges were used and Stefan assigned to maintaining the ice road — a track of 11 Km with two deep ruts that had to be refilled each night with water to keep the icy surface hard. Temperatures were down to 40 below, the water obtained by using a pick to break the ice on streams and lifting it by buckets into a big sledge filling the sledge tracks along the road.
In the spring the timber was tipped into the river to float down to join the River Dvina and then down to Archangel.
This had to be completed just after the thaw but before the river flooded.

On 22nd June 1941 the Germans attacked the USSR. Churchill met Stalin and an amnesty arranged for all Polish prisoners and deportees.
Everyone had to choose a destination, and the family and friends chose Asktrakan.
This amnesty document served as a family passport to the destination of their choice.

The parties in the camp then made rafts for themselves and their luggage and floated off down the river. They were floating down the river for 8 days.
One terrifying incident was when their raft got stuck on an underlying pole and several of the men and boys (including Stefan) had to dive into the icy water and saw through it.
Many of the rafts did not complete the journey (whirlpools were a hazard where the raft just floated in circles) but everyone arrived as planned.

The next stage was by boat to Kotkas, and then 500 kilometres by train to Gorkiy, and another boat to Asktrakan.
Every railway station was packed, with so many refugees all trying to travel.
The reducing stock of roubles was invaluable in bribing officials.

They found that many refugees were stranded in Astrakan, and the family had to backtrack by boat to Kopanovka, then by train to Saratov where there were Polish soldiers assembling.
His father travelled to Tatishkova, but found the army a rabble, no discipline and many of the soldiers sick.
Very few officers were there (it was discovered later that most had been massacred at Katyn by the Russians).

They decided to travel the 4000 kilometres to Samarkand. Boarded another goods train, and travelled for six weeks.
Again there was little food, and boiled water had to be snatched quickly at the stations. When the train stopped no-one ever knew if or when the train would next moving.
Stefan nearly lost the train at one point, but managed to travel on the buffers overnight.
At one point the train stopped and the crew left.
After several days a small delegation of passengers got a lift on a train going in the other direction, to the nearest town and negotiated for a crew to return to get them moving again.

They travelled via Chernak, Turkestan, Tashkent and Samarkand, though always avoiding the cities themselves, and then to Chirakchi, where his father was able to get work in the local hospital.
After a few months the orders came to move on again as the border zone with Afghanistan had been widened and Chirakchi was now out of bounds to the 'unreliable element'.

They were moved on to Kazakhstan and Kentau, and ordered to assist on a collective farm.
This meant walking over the mountains with an escort of local militia.
They eventually arrived at Chimkent.
His father got a post which involved a lot of travelling but contracted typhus, and Stefan had to find someone who could supply the necessary drugs to treat him.
These were available at a huge price on the black market but Stefan managed to get some from the local hospital at the official price of only 6 roubles.
The family then moved to Kzul-Orda and Stefan enrolled in the local Technical Institute to study car maintenance, this was to avoid being picked up off the street to take part in haymaking.
By now it was the autumn of 1942.

To move on his father needed a permit but as the family passport only covered travel to Astrakhan this proved to be a problem, with all the officials refusing to assist.
Luckily Stefan and friends had met a group NKDV men swimming in the local river - he taught them new swimming strokes. With these connections they was able to reach their Commandant who was willing to put the rubber stamp on their documents and allowed them to travel.

They found Yangi-Yul to be a garrison town, full of Polish soldiers in their new British battle dress, and his father enlisted.
More box car travel for Stefan and his mother, to Krausovska, a port on the Caspian sea, another 2000 kilometres journey back through Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Budhan, Ashivotal (capital of Turkistan), and then by the Kopel Dug mountains and Kara Kum desert.
The train was only for Polish refugees, here was one stop and a sudden crisis.
Officials questioned whether the family Waydenfeld were genuine refugees, they didn't have a Polish name. Their new passports obtained in Chimkent saw them through, with a spirited response to the NKVD from Stefan.

At their destination, the train stopped 7 kilometres from the port, and everyone was forced to walk, leaving their luggage behind, but the family traveled by ship to Persia.

Stefan had met Danuta on his travels, and they were married six years later.

The story in “The Ice Road” book ends there, except for a conclusion by Danuta

Stefan joined the Free Polish Army in Persia and trained there and in Iraq and Palestine before being sent to Italy where he fought at Monte Cassino.

At the end of the War the members of the Polish military brigades were given the choice of returning to Poland (now in Russian hands) or settling elsewhere.
Only 1% wished to return.

Stefan was offered training as a doctor at Bologna University and after a year moved to the Sorbonne in Paris for next two years.
Money once again got very tight, and he then explored the possibility of continuing to train in Britain for which he was entitled, having fought for the British, and continued his training in Dublin.
He wanted to become a surgeon, but was too old to take on the necessary long years of training, and became a GP insted, settling in Kentish Town where he practised from 1959-1993.

Stefan wrote the book because he felt that the huge movement of Poles by the Russians was unrecorded and more importantly, unrecognised.
Some people had far worse tales to tell.
For instance on the train journey, a mother of a young family got off the train to look for food.
She was left behind when the train moved off.

He and Danuta were married in 1948.
Their daughter Alice now lives in Washington and has two sons.
His parents opted to return to Poland with his older brother. Unfortunately his father died on the journey in Venice.
After a few years his brother and mother returned to Britain.
His brother went on to South Africa but died of cancer in his early fifties. His mother lived out her days in Britain.

Stefan was a greatly respected and much-loved family doctor,
and Danuta - She became an analytic psychotherapist.

This story is a very short version of Stefan's book

'The Ice Road.
An Epic Journey from Stalinist Labour Camps To Freedom'
Published by Mainstream Publishing Co. (Edinburgh) Ltd. 2002
(ISBN 1-84018-652-6)

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