A Polish girl's journey across three continents

By Monica Whitlock
BBC World Service

  • Published
Line of trucks
Image caption,
Polish servicewomen travelling across the desert in Palestine and Egypt during World War II

When Soviet troops marched into Poland on 17 September 1939, it was the beginning of an extraordinary journey for schoolgirl Danuta Maczka.

For Poland, it was the start of a war that would leave millions dead and many more scattered across the world as refugees.

Danuta Maczka, now in her 80s, lived through this time. Her life traces a remarkable odyssey from her farmhouse in Poland, to a labour camp in Siberia, to Iran, Palestine and Egypt - and then her new home in London.

Danuta was born a country girl in Rovne, eastern Poland (now Rivne, Ukraine). She lived with her parents, brother Stefan and sister Zosia in a whitewashed farmhouse surrounded by cherry trees. In September 1939, Danuta was looking forward to starting grammar school - her father had already bought the blazer.

Image caption,
Danuta (bottom right) with family

Then life turned upside down. German troops blasted into Western Poland - and Soviet troops arrived in the East. By winter, Soviet NKVD agents were rounding up the Polish army officers who would later be murdered in secret at the forest of Katyn. Ordinary families like Danuta's hoped they'd be left alone.

The knock came at 06:00 on the dark, snowy morning of 10 February 1940. Danuta remembers the voices at the door as the Russian soldiers ordered her parents out. They took what they could carry - food, warm clothes and blankets and bundled on to a sledge. "I looked back," Danuta says "and there was my little dog, running and running after us, until he couldn't run any more."

Hundreds of Polish families were crowded around Lubomyrka railway station. Some already understood that they were being deported to labour camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan, as civilians potentially hostile to the Soviet Union. No-one knows how many Poles were deported in those weeks, but most estimates reckon about one million.

"We were put on a cargo train," recalls Danuta. "It was full - 72 people in each wagon. There was a hole in the floor for the toilet, and a little stove." The Poles sang hymns and songs as they crossed the border out of Poland.

Image caption,
For a long time, Danuta could not bear to look at her wartime photos and journal

"There were planks to sleep on, like shelves. I climbed up to the top plank and lay looking out through a grating. I saw Russia going by - just empty spaces and snow." All the way, Danuta recorded what she saw in her diary.

As the journey wore on, babies fell quiet and died. "The guard would come and throw the dead babies out of the window into the snow. When an adult died, they'd put the body on a platform by the engine. When the train slowed, they'd put them off. But the children they just threw away."

The Poles eventually arrived at the Siberian logging camp where they would work. It was part of the old Gulag prison camp system - a complex of timber huts deep in the forest. There was no perimeter wire as there was nowhere to run to.

The forest was eerily still.

"There were no birds singing in the forest. No animals, no wolves or bears. There were not even mice. Nothing. There was nothing there. Perhaps the prisoners had eaten the birds, I don't know. But I never heard a sound."

Danuta's job was to strip bark from birch logs and feed them into a saw mill. She and her younger sister Zosia walked along the railway tracks to find tiny forest settlements. There they could trade their possessions for food.

Image caption,
Danuta kept an autograph book in which she recorded the events of her early life - from her schooldays in Poland, to the labour camp in Siberia and in the Polish army. She and her friends drew sketches and wrote poems in it as keepsakes.
Image caption,
Danuta’s friend Jadwiga drew these flowers in Siberia, with pencils brought from Poland. The girls imagined fantasy lives in beautiful places, while working in a labour camp stripping birch-bark.
Image caption,
The Poles arrived in Tehran after two years in captivity. Thousands of Polish orphans grew up in children's homes in Isfahan, speaking Persian as well as Polish. Some have remained there to this day.
Image caption,
Danuta's sketch shows the invalid camp in Tehran. Many Poles fell ill with typhoid and dysentery. Danuta collapsed and almost died of typhoid. Doctors there kept her alive on peach juice.
Image caption,
Danuta learnt to drive a three-tonne Dodge truck in Gedera, Palestine, along with other Polish women. They drove for days across the desert in North Africa. Men were astonished to see the Polish girls behind the wheel.

Danuta's wristwatch went first. "The people there had never seen a shop. They had never seen something like my nightdress - our things were marvels to them. So we had a little food and some seed potatoes."

Danuta's mother grew enough to keep the family fed. "A lot of families died. There was a family nearby, seven children and the parents, and all of them died except one daughter. The mother had no milk to feed the little ones. There was no cow for milk. So they just died."

As the winter of 1940 drew in, Zosia fell ill with pneumonia. There was a hospital, with beds but no medicines. On Christmas Eve, Danuta and her father went to visit her.

"We went to her bed. We saw that she was dead. So my father had to carry her home. On Christmas Day he made the coffin and a little sledge to carry it. On Boxing Day we went to bury her. My father pulled the sledge and my mother and I walked behind, crying and praying. And we put her in the grave."

In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The captive Poles were now Soviet allies. They were given the choice of joining the Red Army or forming their own Polish army in exile, which was to muster in Uzbekistan, in the far south of the USSR.

Image caption,
Men were amazed to see women driving three-tonne Dodge trucks

Tens of thousands of Poles went south. Some boarded cargo trains once again, cramming into filthy wagons for days. Many thousands died of typhus inside - Uzbek villagers recall opening the train doors and bodies falling out like sticks.

Other Poles hitched rides on carts, or lashed-up rafts, keeping alive by eating raw potatoes in the fields.

The Poles marshalled at Guzar in Uzbekistan, under Gen Wladislaw Anders.

Danuta added two years to her age to make 18, and joined up. She embroidered a white Polish eagle on her uniform herself, and stuffed her huge boots with straw so they would stay on.

The Anders army was like no other in modern times. Not only was it formed in exile, but it travelled with all its dependants - husbands, wives and thousands of children, many of them orphaned.

Anders led this huge, diverse population of Poles through Central Asia to the Caspian Sea, where they boarded oil barges and sailed to Iran. British allied forces met them on the beach at the port of Pahlavi.

Image caption,
Danuta Maczka met husband Jerzy Gradosielski while in service under Gen Anders

"It was just luck," says Danuta. "The British made us all walk through disinfection spray - and while we were in there, they burnt all our things. Like my school blazer. What was really lucky was that I took my diary and my drawing book into the disinfection tent - so they came out with me."

The Polish orphans stayed in children's homes in Iran, but the military moved on to North Africa.

Still only a teenager, Danuta became one of 800 Polish women and girls to work not as army nurses or secretaries but as military truck drivers delivering ammunition, petrol and food all over Palestine to Polish and British forces.

"I drove a three-tonne Dodge. I was very small so I folded a blanket and sat on it so I could see over the wheel. The men were amazed to see us girls driving the lorries."

Danuta heard her first English words from the British Tommies. "They called me 'Baby'! I didn't know what they meant. I learnt 'Baby', 'corned beef' - words like that."

Image caption,
Danuta Maczka today, in her London home

Many of the Jewish Poles decided to stay on in Palestine. Others, like Danuta, moved with the war to Italy in 1943, supporting Polish troops at the battle of Monte Casino. It was in Italy that Danuta met the young Polish officer whom she was to marry, and it was here the war ended for her.

Danuta and thousands of other Poles were de-mobbed finally in Britain, where she was reunited with her brother Stefan and her parents. Some did return to their old homes in Poland. But Eastern Poland was now Soviet Ukraine, and they found themselves on trains to Siberia once again. Very few survived this second deportation.

Gen Anders lived in London for the rest of his life. Danuta had six children and settled near Epping Forest. Her house in east London is crammed with plants on every windowsill, her garden overhung with cherry trees.

They remind her, she says, of the farmhouse in Rovne she left 70 years ago.

All non-watermarked pictures courtesy of Gradosielska family archive and Kresy-Siberia. Monica Whitlock's programme A Polish Odyssey is broadcast on Witness on the BBC World Service at 08:50 GMT on 17 September 2012.