My father and mother in a photo taken
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
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.
Most of these pictures below are taken from
Ramie Pancerne, the 2nd Polish Corps
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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