From Siberia to Arnhem via Scotland
As told to a daughter
When war is declared in September ’39, Franek Zimnowlocki, my dad, is celebrating his seventeenth birthday. His father immediately joins the Polish forces leaving Franek in charge of the rest of the family – his mother, four sisters and two brothers, one a baby. They remain in the village of Stasin, near Lvov at the border with Russia.
On February the tenth 1940 Franek remembers being awaken by the NKVD (one of the predecessors to the KGB) just after four a.m. After searching for arms they give the family an hour to pack and they and the rest of the village are taken by sledge to Vlodzmierz, the nearest railway station. Franek says it was a keen frost, the snow very deep. With hundreds of other Poles they are herded into cattle trucks and set off to an unknown destination.
The train travels mostly by night. Occasionally two men are allowed out to collect hot water. After some two weeks the train stops and does not move on. Hundreds of Poles find themselves in deep forests east of the Urals. These people, old and young, hungry, cold and bewildered are housed in ready made barracks which were built many years ago as prison huts to accommodate Cossacks at the time of the Russian revolution.
There are twelve to fourteen families in each long hut. No partitions, no privacy, no cooking facilities. There are only dry latrines which drain into a stream, the nearest source of drinking water. The Poles settle down to this new and harsh life. I asked dad if felt frightened during all this. “Not frightened” he said, “everyone I knew was there, what I remember most was hunger”.
The able bodied are employed as wood cutters, the women, such as Franeks mother and fifteen year old sister, burn branches. There are no guards – there is nowhere to run. Within two months little Edward is dead. If you can’t work there is no food ration and mother is too malnourished to feed him. He is one of hundreds of babies to die of starvation at this time.
In the spring, due to the unsanitary conditions, typhoid sweeps through the region. Many families are wiped out. Even the Russians officials are not immune. Franek digs graves and remembers burying the baby of one the officials, who stood in tears making the sign of the cross over and over again. Franek himself catches typhoid and is hospitalised some fifteen miles away. My grandmother walks there every week, carrying nettle soup she has made herself. By a miracle, or nettle soup, he survives. On his recovery he is given light duties, driving the bread wagon through the camps. In this job he is able to steal bread and helps keep the family in what can be described as luxury rations.
In August ’41, because of the Russian concordat with the allies, an amnesty is declared. All able bodied Poles are invited to join the Polish army. Franek is faced with a dilemma – should he stay, he is the family bread winner (stealer ?) or join up and fight the enemy. His mother urges him to go and he made a decision that changed his life forever.
The Russian government offers no help to the Poles who decide to join up. With faith and hope, willpower and ingenuity, rafts are built and hundreds of young men and women with no equipment, supplies or by now no physical strength, set off down the river Ob. They dig potatoes from frozen fields and Franek tells of the theft of a pig. On reaching Slverdovsk they travel south, again in cattle trucks, to Tashkent. The new army is overwhelmed with volunteers and Franek’s group is sent by barge on the Amu Darya river to Samarkand. There they spend several months harvesting kapok, rice and maize. Hunger is still the biggest enemy and when local farmers grow angry about missing chickens and sheep, the Poles run away.
In January ’42 Franek is accepted into the army and travels to Kraznodzk and then by oil tanker across the Caspian sea to Pachlevi (Baku). By now typhoid and cholera are taking their toll on these weak and undernourished people. Franek remembers continual burials, night and day, in mass graves. Coffins are re-used as they try to cope up with the death rate. During the month of rest in Pachlevi, Franek is issued with a British uniform. His own clothing is burnt and he undergoes a complete de-lousing process. The survivors of this amazing journey are stunned to find food in every shop and that you can eat when and what you want. This is their first decent food in over two years. Franek says he once ate so many figs that they made his mouth bleed.
His journey continues to Palestine, another two weeks rest and then by lorry to Durban in South Africa. As a British soldier he boards HMS Franconia, guarding Italian prisoners of war and sails to Britain. Franek joins the first battalion of Polish paratroopers and is trained in Ely in Fife where he meets his future wife.
Having been wounded in action at the battle of Arnhem, he convalesces in Taymouth castle and marries his Scottish lass.
Growing up I heard very little of dad’s experiences. Only when my sons became involved in a school project about WW2, some forty years later and asked their papa if he’d “been in the war”, did Franek start to talk about this part of his life. He also told them of his comrade Stanislaw Klapouchy who was killed at Driel (the Polish landing area during the battle of Arnhem) in the same foxhole where dad was wounded. Dad forever felt guilty that he was the one to survive. Mr Klapouchy was buried in the war cemetery at Oosterbeek and Franek paid tribute to his comrade whenever he visited Arnhem. Dad died in 2001 and his ashes are buried alongside his comrade. May they both rest in peace.