- Contributed by
- Stockport Libraries
- People in story:
- Helena Zylko
- Location of story:
- Siberia, Khazakstan, Uganda, and Bradford, Yorkshire
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 April 2004
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Elizabeth Perez of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Helena Zylko and has been added to the site with her permission. She fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Reading the book “Gulag” by Anna Applebaum, brought back many sad memories for me from World War 2. I was nine years old, when my family, my parents, and my brother who was eleven, were deported in February 1940 from Poland to exile to a labour camp in Arkhangielsk in Russia.
We lived in a small town called Beresteczko, in the Wolyn district of what was then Eastern Poland. I remember one winter’s day, the NKWD, the armed Russian police, arrived at our home at 5 o’clock in the morning. My father was held at rifle-point, while my mother was told to pack what she could. We were then all loaded onto a horse-drawn sleigh and taken to the local village school, where most of the families from the village had also been taken. We were then taken to the railway station to be put into cattle trucks on a train bound for Siberia. Our crime was that my father was an officer in the Polish army during the Polish Uprising.
We lived on the train for three months before we arrived in Siberia. When the train stopped at stations, people would run to buy food for their families. We were not sure where we were going, or what would happen to us, or if we would ever be allowed to come back.
When we arrived at the labour camp, which was somewhere in Siberia, we were put into a wooden barrack. The barrack was roughly made from round wooden logs, and the gaps between the logs were filled with moss to stop the bitter winds from blowing through. The barrack was a single room, and in the middle of the room there was an iron stove. It was the only heating, and five families had to live in each barrack. For beds we had wooden benches, there were no mattresses. There was one large bench for each family. In this room, we lived together, male, female and children. Children went to school to learn Russian, but everyone over 14 years old had to go to work in the forest that surrounded the camp. That included both my father and my mother. Sometimes, the workers had to walk several miles to where they chopped trees, the work was hard and poorly paid, wages went to buy bread, sometimes soup was available in a canteen. They worked long hours, and the food was very poor, people became thin and weak. We lived like this for nearly two years. Summer lasted three months, then the snow arrived again in October, and it lasted six months.
In July 1941, the amnesty was granted by Russia for all Polish citizens. We were free to go, but no help was given to us by the Soviet authorities. My father left to join the Polish forces, to fight the German Army, leaving us in the camp. Somehow the exiled families bought coaches on a train, which headed south to Khazakstan, a journey of several weeks. It was chaos, whenever the train stopped, people ran to get bread and food, and sometimes the train left and people were left behind. It was during this journey that my mother died, leaving me alone to look after my brother on the train. I do not know what happened to my mother.
It was at this time, I believe, that many Polish officers were executed in a camp called Katyn (crime of Katyn Wood). General Anders, the officer who had been imprisoned in Lubianka labour camp for the previous twenty months, was named the commander of the new Polish Army on Soviet soil, although the Soviet authorities refused to give us any help after the amnesty.
The soldiers coming out of the labour camps were in a very bad state of health, and needed help with medicine, clothes and mostly food. The soldiers were in the same clothes they had been arrested in two years before. The Polish army was based in Khazakstan, in places like Kuibishew, Buzuluk, Buchara. Not many people knew which direction to go to join the Polish Army units. In the chaos, many Polish soldiers and civilians had been left behind, some later joined the Kosciuszko Division, and some had to wait for the end of the war to be repatriated back to Poland.
When so many officers failed to return to join the Polish army, General Anders changed his plan, and instead of marching his army west towards the front line, he won permission to evacuate his troops out of Soviet soil altogether. It was a vast operation, 74,000 polish soldiers and 41,000 civilians. A lot of us were sick and run down, but the hope to be free again kept us going.
We were sent to an orphanage, and I became very sick with typhus. I was not able to travel and was sent to a poor Russian hospital. One day, my father arrived at the hospital in uniform, and he insisted that I had to leave, determined that I should not be left in the hospital on my own, even though I was too sick to travel. Everyone, who was able to travel, was leaving, soldiers and civilians.
We left on trains to the Caspian Sea, and then were put into boats to Persia (Iran), another long journey. Polish soldiers, who recovered in Persia, were sent to join the alliance forces in Europe, travelling via Palestine, and they later fought in Italy, the Battle of Monte Casino and other battles. Although not an orphan, I had no-one to look after me, and I was put into an orphanage.
The civilians were sent to various places in the British Empire. Some went to India, some to East Africa. I was sent to Uganda. On the journey sailing to Karache, my brother became ill and died. I lived in an orphanage in Uganda for several years. Eventually when I was sixteen, I was able to leave Uganda and join my father who had arrived in England in 1946. Because my father was in the war, I had had little contact with him. I had only a few letters now and again. Being separated for such a long time, we hardly recognised each other. Father and daughter, but we were complete strangers, he had got older and I had grown up. We learned that our home, which used to be in Poland, now belonged to Soviet Russia, and we were afraid to return, in case we were sent back to another labour camp in Russia to die. My father bought a house in Bradford, Yorkshire, where I joined him, and where we lived on the small Polish war pension he received. When I was eighteen, I left home to train as a nurse, I learned English, and eventually I would marry and have my own family in England. In 1970, my father died and he is buried in Bradford. My father won some medals in the war for his bravery in fighting the German Army in Italy, but he was never able to return to his home in Poland.
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