Emilia's Story

 

My father and mother in a photo taken in
1919. With my sisters: Katherine, who was away from
home when the Soviets came and spent
time in a German labor camp during the war;
Rose, who died in 1920; Stanislawa, who also
was away from home when the Soviets
came. She spent the entire war in Poland.

I was born in 1924 in Tarnopol, a Polish city in the southeast of the country.


When the war came, my family had moved to Novosulki, a village north of Tarnopol. We had heard of the news of the German attack on September 1, 1939 but the country was not prepared for the attack of the Soviet Union that occurred on September 17.


Our village lay directly in the path of the coming Soviet army. My father had no military connections at all, but they found that he had once lived in the United States from which he’d returned in 1921. That was the pretext used: an NKVD decree issued in 1940 listed fourteen reasons a Pole could be taken from his home. Reason number 10 simply stated: Persons who have traveled abroad.

About 1,500,000 Polish civilian men, women and children were to be imprisoned. Another 220,000 Polish servicemen , including my husband-to-be, Joseph, were also imprisoned. My family and I were part of this enormous tragedy, Stalin’s attempt at ethnic cleansing. It is impossible to forget or forgive the actions of this sociopathic leader and his immoral minions working in response to his brutal orders.

I was fifteen years old when on February 10, 1940, at 2 A.M. we were awakened by the NKVD. Several soldiers and an officer came into our house and told us that we had a half an hour to gather our belongings. We were going on a trip. One of the soldiers ordered my father to stand against a wall and not move. Then I, along with my father, step-mother, brother and sister, was taken from my home which I never saw again. We were forbidden to take even adequate clothing and goods, being told that ‘these would be provided.’ We heard that lie many times in the Soviet Union. Instead of gaining an education and living my life as a normal person, I boarded a wagon and after that a series of trains.


After a weeks spent in the railroad cars we found ourselves on a siding in Moscow where we sat for a few interminable days, watching Soviet troops boarding their own trains for unknown destinations. Then, inexplicably, we continued on our way.


The train cars that we rode in were cars the Soviets used to transport animals. There was a single hole cut in the floor for a latrine. There were seventy people in our cattle car. There were no beds, chairs or furniture. We lived in these dark, stinking places, that is, some of us lived as people around us began to die. The cars themselves are faithfully reproduced in the Hollywood version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. But we could not get off the cars at the end of the day’s movie shoot. Food was poor, only bread and water, and sometimes nonexistent. Sometimes we were so crowded that all of us had to stand, or else we had to rotate positions so that some of us could sit or lie down.

There were hundreds of thousands of us taken in this way.


After a few weeks on the trains, we came to a place called Ozierano Camp. There was no town there, merely a series of shacks and lean-tos that the prisoners had thrown together themselves.

We had great difficulty understanding what it was we had done to cause us the suffering and misery that had befallen us. We could not understand the mind that called for our punishment. Clearly, the only crime was that we were Poles. As we discovered, the Soviets had taken the teachers, many students, priests, the educated people, landowners, aristocrats, industrialists, the national police, the politicals, bankers, any foreigners unfortunate enough to be made captives. We were all alike to them.


I had the good fortune to never be separated from all of my family while in the Soviet Union. After enduring the horrific train, we found that we were to work at cutting down the massive forest and preparing the logs for travel downriver.
If I had been a little older, I would have been considered a woman and separated from my family and sent to a different camp. I might never have seen them again.
The winter was cold and we had very poor clothes that wore out quickly. We were always cold. When the second winter of our entombment came, we were even more cold since the Soviets, not surprisingly, never replaced our old tattered clothes or allowed us to get new clothes.


I was a girl who had the job of picking up twigs and branches from the trees that the men had felled. My brother Anthony was seven years younger and had a similar job. We were often together in the forest but spent our time working because the overseers demanded that we make our quotas each and every day. If we didn’t make our quotas, we wouldn’t get bread.


The food was very poor and some people grew very weak. Many people died in our camp. Our building was near a riverbank where each day, more people would be buried. The Soviets told us that they wouldn't spare bullets for us--they'd just let us slowly starve to death.


The work was very heavy. Without any machinery but the energy in their own fading muscles, our men cut down the huge trees and moved them to the river where they could be floated down to the factories where the Soviets would make use of them.

 

 

Photo from A Forgotten Odyssey, a
documentary
film made in 2001

 

Most of these pictures below are taken from
Ramie Pancerne, the 2nd Polish Corps
photo history

 

The boy on the right has no shoes

 

 

 

There was a great deal of discussion in our camp over what had become of us and what we would do. Since we were together, we began to consider ourselves a part of Poland and that was one of the ideas that helped us live: wherever we were, that was a part of Poland.


We didn’t learn about Hitler invading the Soviet Union until many weeks after June 22, 1941. We had no radios, no newspapers, the camp guards were diligent about keeping information from us. We learned later that on July 30, 1941, Stalin agreed to provide “amnesty for Polish citizens deprived of freedom on the Soviet territory.”

 

 

He never offered any explanation of why we had been deprived of our freedom.


One day, we heard the electric news that a new Polish Army was being formed in the Soviet Union and that all Poles could travel to a central place and join the army. Discussion in the camp was heated over what the right course was: should we stay in this desolate place which had the advantage of being known to us, or should we go and trust that the Soviets would not break their promise and somehow impede our progress or the Polish Army’s progress?


Finally, nearly every Polish person in Stalin's camps throughout the Soviet Union left that camp and went on another train ride with a single shared destination: Buzuluk, a town near near Kuibyshev. For us and for many people, this train journey was terrible in that there weren’t trains dedicated to us, rather, we had to find our way on Soviet trains which sometimes didn’t run for days. We traveled through hungry cities and on the way, more of us died from dysentery, typhus or just plain starvation.

While some people got there quicker, the journey for my group lasted eight entire months, from August 1941 to March 1942. We saw the very worst of the Soviet Union. Often we were near to starvation, often we felt homeless, wayward, without any anchor in our lives, from August 1941 to March 1942, the longest months of my life.


When we finally reached Buzuluk we were told that we had to go to Buchara, Karakul near Afganistan to pick cotton. We traveled on giant barges, four of them, to that place where we worked for three long weeks. We had to earn our keep, following the Soviet ideal, and perform this work which was brutal for the unskilled and weakened. I remember the kindness of the people of Kazahkstan, who helped my sister and me make our quotas. Without their help, I’m not certain I would have lived. At the end of our time there, we reboarded our barges, now only three, for the return trip to Buzuluk.


At Buzuluk there were very few Polish Army officers. Stalin said that most of them had escaped, which we knew to be a lie. Later we found out about the massacre at Katyn where thousands of Polish Army officers, many with their hands tied behind their backs, were shot through the head and their bodies thrown into mass graves. This became another symbol of the horror of our lives, that our ally, the Soviet Union, was in fact as much a devil as our great enemy, Hitler.

 

 

 

By mid-1942, about seventy thousand ex-Polish soldiers had arrived at Buzuluk; another forty thousand non-combatants (my family among them) arrived and our general, Wladyslaw Anders, ordered that sustenance be provided for all of us, combatants and non-combatants alike.


The Soviets, however, provided rations for only forty thousand people and later for only twenty-six thousand. They were sparse with their supply of weapons as well. Finally, General Anders succeeded in negotiating a way for his freezing and near-naked army to get out of the Soviet Union. The Polish Government in Exile found a way to make an agreement with the British, who would support Anders army, which would be known as the Polish 2nd Corps, in Persia.

The evacuation from Buzuluk took place in two stages, one in April and one in August 1942. Records indicated that about 113,000 people were evacuated, a small part of the 1.7 million Poles taken by the Soviets in 1939-40.

 

 

The evacuation took us on ships and barges across the Caspian Sea to the Iranian city of Pahlevi, north of Teheran. This part of the journey holds my one great memory, which overwhelms me each time I think of it. In Teheran, as we arrived, the people set out small tables with flowers, tea, cookies and candy for us children. I can still the remember the colors and the smells, and the feeling that there were still good people in the world, people who did not wish to murder us, people who wished us health and prosperity.

Soon after coming to Iran, I became sick with typhus. I had a high fever for many days and was ill for months. But with the ministrations of the British, Indian and Polish doctors, I became healthy again. But once I regained health, I found that I had missed the beginning of the school term. I had choices, but my choice was to volunteer for the Army.

 

The red star indicates the approximate location of the Ozierano Camp, the start of our
eight month navigation of the Soviet Union, from August 1941 to March 1942
This map is from General Anders' book, An Army In Exile

My father and family agreed that I could go; they themselves were about to move to distant places, my father to Tanganyika in Africa, my brother Anthony to Nazareth in Palestine, my sister the Army.


I joined a group of other young women who were molded into a unit that would guard a prison complex or sensitive facilities in Iran. Then, our unit was moved from Iran to Baghdad.


I was trained to be a driver, a driver of six-ton trucks, primitive Citroen machines with mechanical starters. The driver had to stand in front of the truck and turn a crank, which if done wrong, would bounce back with painful consequences: there were some broken arms in our unit, women who didn’t get the truck started right.

 

At the hospital, recovering from typhus. I am on the right.
My hair has been cut very short.

 

 

Our unit was moved from Iraq to Palestine and spent some time in Egypt. In Egypt, I had another awful moment. We were a group led by our officer. One evening, a movie was playing in the camp that we wanted to see. Our officer urged us to go; when we returned from the movie, we found that she had shot herself. There had been too much tragedy in her life, as all the people that she loved died in distant places.


In the Soviet Union, I’d seen so much death, so many dead people. But my officer’s death was a personal death, more painful than the others.


Italy was our next stop. There we fell into a routine of picking up our truck and cargo in the morning and then driving from our southern port toward the front lines, where battles raged through 1944 to 1945. We were well behind the fighting and felt relatively safe. There was no telling which airplanes flying overhead were ours, but the drivers in our unit were not attacked.

I am third from the right

I met my husband Joseph in Iraq in 1943. He had been a soldier in the Polish Army of 1939. After the September battles, he’d tried to join the 120,000 Polish soldiers who escaped through Rumania and Hungary to France. But he and his unit were betrayed to the Soviets.


He’d had his own terrible experiences. Then, in the Middle East, he was trained to drive a Sherman tank. In his Army career, he had two tanks, one named Bohun and the other named Babinicz, both mythological Polish warriors. He was at the Battle of Monte Cassino, the battles at the River Rapido, Ancona, Bologna and the other frightful events that took place as the Polish Army, the 2nd Corps, pushed its way up the Italian Peninsula. He was never wounded, but men standing next to him were killed. Bullets flashed by him but his fortune was not to die then. His tank did strike a mine and was disabled. The picture of him and his tank is on the right. He is the man wearing shorts, the third man from the left.

While the Army was in Italy, more heated discussions were held as the agreements that had been made at Yalta between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt became public. For us, the most important of these was that Poland, the country we were fighting to free from the hated Nazis, would become a part of the Soviet sphere; hundreds of miles of Polish territory would become part of the Soviet Union. What were we doing, fighting in Italy? We believed that we were fighting for our homes and families, but then saw that the Allies, the British and the Americans, had betrayed us to the Soviets. Didn’t they understand how evil Soviet intentions were?

For some of us, the course of action was clear, we would pull out of the fighting in Italy and prepare for a march to Poland. By then, we were a massive army—perhaps one of the few in history that grew in size with each battle as many German prisoners were revealed to be Polish. These volunteers swelled our ranks and gave us confidence that we could conquer any foe.


But General Anders, a deeply respected figure, dissuaded the Army from its independent march and put us back into line with our British and American allies. These were bitter times for us, who had gone through so much.

When the war had ended, a great victory parade was held in London. There the Allies refused to allow any Polish divisions to march, in deference to Stalin who had broken relations with the Polish Government In Exile over the Katyn Massacre.

We knew we could not return to Poland, where the Communists would shortly rule. In 1948, a communist government came to power after ‘free’ elections and held power until the 1980s when they were toppled by the power of the Solidarity union movement, the Catholic Church, and the spirit of individuality held by all Polish people. In a way, for Poland, World War II lasted from September 1, 1939 to December, 1989, when Lech Walesa became President of Poland. The nation was at last free after a nightmare lasting fifty years.

Joseph and I were married on December 26, 1945 at Loretto, Italy.


Prospects for us were poor but the British, through agreements with General Anders and the Polish Government in Exile, set up a ‘Resettlement Corps’ in Great Britain which would assist a resumption of civilian life for our fighters. Joseph went to England first and I followed sometime in 1946, when I traveled by train with my infant daughter. She cried during the entire journey, as we rode, this time not in cattle cars but in passenger cars, through France, Paris, Dover and then London.


Joseph worked as a handiman in England until 1951, when we, now a family of four, boarded the ocean liner Queen Mary along with thousands of other people, families and orphans, all hoping for a better life in the New World.

So much has changed in the years that have past. I remember a world without computers, jet planes, the Internet. I remember when Tarnopol, the city of my birth, was in Poland. Pahlevi, the gateway city to the rest of my life, is now not found on large scale maps, only the city of Rasht in Iran is nearby. My father, greatly weakened from his time in the Soviet Union, died in Tanganyika, now Tanzania.


It is almost impossible to comprehend the suffering and anguish of those war years, soon to be seventy years in the past. What had become of those millions of Poles killed during the war? They simply disappeared, but their memory must continue. That is why we must write stories like this one.