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A Stolen Childhood from Poland

by A. Szmid

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Contributed by 
A. Szmid
People in story: 
Kazimiera Szmid nee Wyszynska
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Contributed on: 
16 September 2005

This is a photograph of my mother in Tengeru, with other girls in the orphanage as Polish brownies. She is kneeling down in the second row, second from the right.

This is the story of how the war affected my mother and her family from information given to me by her as well as name places, from my uncle, written by A. M. Szmid.
I was born in Orlopol, Wisniowiec, in Poland. My earliest recollection was my eldest sister running into the garden crying saying our mother had died, she had earlier been taken to hospital. I was still very young at this time and didn't really know what this meant. This left my father alone with six children. Two months after my mother's death he brought home another woman and informed us that she was to be our new mother. My step-mother brought with her two children of her own. After they were married we all moved to Krzemieniec for a short time.
I was seven years old when I started school in 1939. Two days after I started school war broke out, and the school was disbanded and that was the end of my education for a while. It was not safe to go to school, we could hear planes overhead and hid for safety underneath trees. The consequences of the German invasion of Poland was not really felt by us, but the Russian invasion was felt very quickly. The Ukrainians were really happy, and we waited for the worst, we gathered our belongings, guarded them and waited for the worst! There started to be arrests, interrogations and searches, which eventually led to the decision in December that my father distributed some of the family to relatives. My eldest brother and sister went to my auntie's, and the rest of us stayed with our step-mother. My father left that month, with a couple of friends, with the aim of reaching Hungary and then France,where the Polish Army was reforming under General Sikorski. This was the last time I ever saw him. In February 1940 armed Soviet soldiers came for us and we were arrested. My father had fought against the Soviets in the war of 1920, they had long memories. We,as well as all the Polish families living in the east of Poland, were now to pay the price. We were being deported, or as you would now say "ethnically cleansed". Siberia was waiting for us. We were taken by sledges over the deep snow to the railway station and held for three days. After that we were loaded onto empty cattle trucks and sealed into them. Each truck held upto fifty people and the conditions afforded no one any privacy. We travelled over endless plains and forests, hardly ever stopping, and not for long at unknown stations where we were not allowed to get off, in the direction of the north-east. After four weeks on the train we finally arrived at our destination at a Lagier called Suchobezwodni on the river Unza. We lived there for four months in lice infected barracks. In July we were transferred to another Lagier. It was here that we first started to feel the pangs of hunger and it was here that people started to go insane. All the families were placed in massive barracks, where together adults lived with children, all sharing the same insect infested beds, people started to steal and there were arguments and fights everyday. In January 1941 we were transported to the village of Vetka in Wologodskaia Oblast. This was not a Lagier but by its nature a village, where to obtain food you had to work. I was too young and was sent to school ,where all the lessons were in Russian, which I had to learn. Food was short other than what my eldest brother earned, who should have been at school but wasn't as at 13 years of age he tried to be the father-figure. My step-mothers health was not very good, and she couldn't work, so we couldn't find enough to obtain food to sustain us like other families. Over a period of time whilst others managed to get by we started to go hungry.
In July 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and so we were given an amnesty arranged by Stalin and General Sikorski. Formal knowledge of this was not received by us until September of that year. This gave us the right to leave and head for Southern Russia, where the Polish Army under General Anders was forming. We started to prepare for this journey. Those who could started to store provisions, made and bought goods and equipment and exchanged valuables. We unfortunately could not buy anything as we had nothing to buy it with or exchange anything. It was with good fortune that after nearly two years we were still in good health.
When it was time to leave a huge barge arrived, which we sailed on towards Kujbyszew. We sailed down the Bialomorska-Baltycki Canal south in the direction of the Bialego Lake. Then towards Bielozierska, before continuing by canal to the Rybinski Sea. This was very stormy, full of logs which floated alongside us. The waves threw the barge about, and we sat under the decks ill, starving, knocked about and fighthened. We journeyed on down the River Volga. The hunger was indescribable, until we reached Kazan, where we had to tie up as we could not penetrate through the ice anymore. Here we were loaded onto cattle trucks again into scenes that I cannot describe as everyone fought to get onboard. We travelled by rail for six weeks always south, until we reached Samarkand and we disembarked ar Zirabuluk.
The journey was a nightmare. We travelled over bridges and mountains. Winter was advancing, but after a period of time we started to feel that it was becoming warmer outside. On almost every station that we stopped at, we threw out corpses, mainly children and old people, because burying them was out of the question, due to the frozen ground, and also because of the lack of time to dig even the most primitive of graves. When we stopped at stations people went off to look for food as the train would suddenly pull off without any notice leaving them behind. People started to become suspicious and cold-hearted to one another. All of our belongings were robbed in front of us, in the abscence of a strong male figure.
When we got off the train at Zirabuluk the sight that greeted us made us freeze with fear and horror, because we were glared at by Asiatic faces who were Tartars. We started to demand to be returned from here and we were scared that they would murder us. The powers in charge did not want to know, as they had their orders and they looked at us expressionless. When the train was eventually unloaded there were piles of corpses lying abandoned and unnattended to on the platform. They were not organised neatly but left in piles, the sight horrified us. Over the next weeks dogs and vultures helped themselves.
We were taken to a small villge Chatyrczy, where we were placed into a mud hut, whose roof was covered in straw. There was no window, no furniture, stove or even food. For heat we had to find animal dung and throw it into a small hole in the centre of the room. The whole family sat around this hole. To eat we were given small portions of grain or rice.
Drastic steps were taken to help us survive. My eldest brother left to try and join the Polish Army. He was our sole provider of food and with him gone we would have little chance on our own. My step-mother was going to leave my sister and younger brother and myself with the Polish Orphanage, where it was hoped that we would have a much better chance of survival. She and her only daughter were to try and make their own way.
I don't know how long we stayed in this orphanage, but one day I noticed that they were starting to send people away, until it was our turn. We were put onto lorries and driven away. We didn't know where we were going. Eventually we reached Krasnovodosk, and put on board a huge ship, which was packed full of Polish people. At this point my youngest brother became seriously ill, and when we arrived in Pahlevi, Persia(Iran), the Red Cross took him away to hospital. To this day we don't know if he survived, the chances are that he probably didn't, as there was a high mortality rate at that time, due to the conditions that we had been forced to lived under, malnutrition and disease were rife. Despite trying to search for him after the war through the Red Cross, we can only assume that he died in Persia.After our arrival we stayed at Ahvaz near Teheran, just my sister and myself, with other groups of orphans. It was here that I sufferd dreadfully with an eye illness, which caused blindness in the evenings and my eyes to stick together. I was very frighthened about this. It was caused by through the extremely poor diet we had been on and the lack of vitamins, the dirt and desert conditions. We lived in barracks and slept on the bare floor, with insects and scorpions crawling about.
One day we were again loaded onto lorries and driven to another port in southern Persia, before boarding another ship and sailing to another destination which we were not informed about, which ended up to be Africa. We landed at the port of Dar-Es-Salam, and travelled across Tanganyika(Tanzania) by train to a village called Tengeru. As we travelled across the country, I marvelled at the wildlife, giraffes, elephants, antelopes and game animals, as I had never seen them before, not even in pictures. You can imagine the impression they left upon us. It was here that I was to spend my formative years, from 1942 to 1948. The orphanage was horrible, the living conditions were primitive. We lived in huts built out of clay/mud with straw in the roof, with open windows. We were given mosquito nets which you had to climb onto the roof to attach. I still managed to catch malaria.There were no men as they had been despatched to join the Polish Army. Activities were organised to keep us occupied. In Africa we had a carefee life with no worries. At first the food in the orphanage was awful. We had red beans every meal, every day. I haven't eaten them since. At 4.00pm we had a meal and that was to last us until the same time the next day. We never expected much. The orphanage was like being in hospital, everything was ordered. I had one dress and that was it, no shoes at first, and we walked everywhere barefooted. It was here that we had our first proper education, and the schools were run in the Polish style with examinations.
Our first sight of natives was an attraction, the Masai. They were extremely primitive and used to appear and walk along completely naked, both males and females. You can imagine what impression this left on us young, moral Catholic Girls. We were told to be careful with the men as they might abduct us and take us into the jungle. There was also a very kind English family who frequently entertained us and took some of us to see big game.
After a while my step-mother arrived looking for us on her own. Her daughter had joined the WAAf in Nairobi. The Red Cross had located us for her and we were overjoyed to see her. We had been on our own for so long, that we wanted someone to belong to. We just wanted to be like other children and have someone to want and love us. Before we looked after ourselves, now we had someone who could look after us.
When the war finished, I thought that we would return to Poland. My father had returned there after the fall of France, where he found my brother and sister. She was later killed by a German bomb. He was waiting for us, and I thought everything would return to normal. This was not to be the case. Poland had replaced one occupying force for another, and now the Soviets were in charge and I knew what life had been like under them. Besides our old home in Wolhynia, was now part of the Soviet Union as Poland's borders had been moved westwards, so if we returned ther we would be Soviet citizens. Father had been relocated to western Poland.
We were kept at this camp until 1948, when we had to wind up our carefree life. We had no choice in the matter and were informed that we were to start new lives in the United Kingdom. we boarded another ship, the Georgic, and were to spend three weeks on board. It was a big army troopship and there must have been about 500 of us Polish civilians, mostly young females.Also on board were about a 1000 soldiers returning home. We all adopted two soldiers each. They loved it and couldn't believe their luck. They entertained us with English songs, and we entertained them with Polish songs. When we crossed the equator this time it was different, lots jumped into the sea, showing off. We sailed through the Red Sea into the Suez Canal and the into the Mediterranean, stopping at Gibraltar, where we were allowed to disembark. Throughout it all I suffered badly through seasickness. On board we were rationed to an apple each, but nobody wanted to eat it, after being spoiled with the superb African fruit we were all used to.
In July 1948 we landed in Southampton, we were all very cold and wearing our coats, having arrived from the tropics. All the English people looked at us funnily as they walked around in their summer dresses only. We then travelled to our transit camp in Stafford, where we stayed for a month, not doing much just getting used to a different way of life. My brother who had left us in Persia joined us in England. My sister and I together with our step-mother were then sent to another camp in Bedlington, Northumbria, which were just barracks. Then in January 1949 we were transferred to Husband Bosworth in Leicestershire. It was here that I met my husband who had served as a Polish Paratrooper,married and started a family. We eventually settled in Manchester, became British Citizens and I am now retired having worked all my life.

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