Jadwiga, my mother (aged 13) Leontyna and Stanislaw, my grandparents. Gorki, USSR, 1940
- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Leontyna Kwiatkowska, Jadwiga Kwiatkowska, Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, Zbigniew Kwiatkowski, Stanislaw Kwiatkowsi
- Location of story:
- Somewhere in wartime USSR
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 January 2006
The story I am about to relate is written in memory of my late mother, Jadwiga and my late grandparents, Leontyna and Stanislaw as well as for those countless Polish civilains who perished in the USSR during the war years.
Following the collapse of Poland in the early part of October 1939, the Germans and Russians, who had earlier negotiated a five year non-aggression pact, divided Poland into two parts. The west of the country was occupied by the Germans, while the Russians occupied the east.
My mother's family lived in a small hamlet, which was located 15km from the Russian border, as it was then, the nearest town being Berezne. In the early hours of February 10th, 1940, Soviet troops appeared and rounded up as many of the civilian population as they could find. This was to be the first deportation from Volhynia. In all, some 220,000 men, women and children were forcibly removed from this region and further deportations were carried out in this and other parts of Poland. The only explanation given to the people was that they should take enough food with them for a two week journey. They were then loaded onto cattle trains and the exodus into the unknown began. Conditions were, of course, extremely primitive and proper sanitation did not exist. Already, the most vulnerable began to die. If you remember the train journey scene from "Doctor Zhivago", this will give you a hint of what it may have been like. At the journey's end, conditions were even worse and malnutrition, disease, extreme cold and hard manual labour exacted their toll. It was not unusual for entire families to perish and many were never to be found among the living or the dead.
In the second half of June of the following year, 1941, the Germans launched a brutal attack on the Soviet Union. Following on from this, Great Britain and the USA decided to support Stalin in his war effort, inspite of the obvious ideological differences. This decision would prove to be a salvation for those who had survived the Soviet labour camps. Following negotiation with the Western allies, Stalin declared a so called amnesty whereby the Poles were to be granted their freedom. The original plan was to form a Polish army to assist the Russians in their battle with the German invader. However, the idea of such an army on Soviet soil did not appeal to Stalin. Instead, women, children and the elderly were offered protection by the British and were dispersed to East Africa. Men of eligible age were drafted into various Polish army units, under British command, that were being formed in the Middle East.
My grandfather, Stanislaw, was drafted into one such army unit and he would eventually witness the fighting in Monte Cassino. Leontyna, my grandmother was now left with Jadwiga, my mother, and my two uncles, Tadzio and Zbysio somewhere in Uzbekistan. I will add here that the locals had no idea where Polish people came from, until, that is, someone explained that they were from Lechistan! I digress. Fearing that she and her family would become stranded, as indeed some families did, Leontyna decided to go to the nearest Polish army unit to ask for help. I say, "nearest", but it took her nearly a whole day walking. When she got there, to her dismay, the army told her that they themselves were short of rations and were in no position to help. At this, Leontyna approached an army chaplain. "Father, at least if we die here, you will see that we are buried properly". There was no answer to this. A soldier with horse and cart at the ready was summoned and before too long, all were safely in the temporary care of the army. Eventually, they would arrive in the Masindi district of Uganda on Christmas Eve, 1942, along with many other survivors. This would be their home until their journey to this country. I still have my mother's visa which was issued on September 10th, 1942. Our first child was born on September 10th, albeit 35 years later!
Then the war ended. Unfortunately, the Poland that emerged bore no resemblance to its former self. As a result of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, Stalin was granted virtual autonomy over Eastern Europe and the homeland from which my mother's family had been forcibly removed in 1940, was now to be found firmly inside the borders of the USSR. Repatriation to Poland was offered but most people were unwilling to take their chances with a communist regime. Of those that did return, many suffered discrimination and indeed, arbitrary arrest was not unknown. Having travelled half way round the world, in March 1948, Leontyna and her family left Uganda and began a 10 day sea journey to Great Britain where Stanislaw had arrived two years earlier.
Life here was in many ways different to what they had been accostomed. My grandmother was fairly accomodating but by contrast, my grandfather could not let the past go. The two settled in Ardingly, Sussex, where they worked at the well known college until retirement. They lived in one of the farm cottages owned by the college and I still have fond memories of spending a week during the summer holidays with my grandparents. The stories that my grandfather would tell really made life here seem dull. He would tell me that back home, wolves would come right up to the house in winter. Indeed, in that part of the world, grandfather was waging a constant war against the wolves. On one occassion, a neighbour unwisely left his cattle in the forest overnight. Inevitably, they were attacked by wolves. Being awakened by the commotion, grandfather got up and with a battery torch (high tech then) in one hand and a large revolver in the other, proceeded to run towards the noise and managed to frighten the wolves away. A bit of pigeon shooting in Ardingly seemed a very poor substitute! Back then, in the 50s and early 60s, it was not unusual for grandfather to be walking along the road with a shotgun in full view. If the local bobby saw him, all he got was a "good morning". Today you would expect to be shot dead seven times before moving six inches! What a mad world we live in!
Of the five, only my two uncles, Tadzio and Zbysio survive. In 1978, grandfather died followed by my mother in 1987. She was only 59 years old and had a lifetime of endless health problems, very likely a direct result of her wartime experience. Grandmother died in 1995 at the age of 87. We were expecting her to outlive us all but death comes to us all, eventually.
Although born and raised in this country, I myself often feel like a foreigner. I am grateful, though, for the values that my parents and grandparents instilled in me and look forward to our reunion in the eternal world that is to come!
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