"My War"

Danuta Zdan Michajlowicz

The road to exile

It was 16 July 1941 and I was 16 years old. I was merrily walking down Wielka Streeton my way back from Zakret where I had been taking an examination in PE for my School Certificate. We had had to run both a 100 metre and a 500 metre race and despite my heart murmur I had come first in the 100 metres.

I tumed right into Wingry Street and right once again into Zdrejew Street a cul-de-sac. At the top of the cul-de-sac through an open window I heard my friend crying. But I did not take much notice because that morning we had quarrelled. I then turned left between two chalets and walked towards the house. At the door-step I came face to face with an armed soldier. Taking no notice of him I tried to go in but he barred the way with his rifle. I wasn't upset in the least and said ," I live here ". He let me go in and I walked down the corridor leading to the kitchen. But even before getting there I could hear Krysia and her cousins crying. They like me had been living with Krysia for some time.

They were holding a large hessian bag which they were filling with my clothes, personal belongings and food which Mme. W. had bought with great difficulty on the blade market. We four young people (our ages were 16 to 18) were alone in the house with no adults to help us. The two soldiers stood calmly waiting. In fact Mme. W., a nurse, was at our school, transformed temporarily into a hospital, looking after a group of typhoid victims.

Faced with the gravity of the situation all I could do was to put on as many clothes as possible as I knew how cold it would be in Siberia. I made sure I didn't forget my fur-lined coat. We then said our good-byes. I'II never forget them - the sad faces of the people who also lived in our small street, the owner of the sweetshop where I used to buy 'halva rachatlucum' a sort of Turkish Delight and other sweets. Thus it was on a beautiful sunny day one July that I found myself sitting in a taxi between two armed Soviet soldiers being driven through the street of Vilna (Vilnius).

Despite all my preparations I still thought I'd be taken to prison for recently even school children had been imprisoned. I wasn't really frightened although it was a question of deportation. I felt proud to be suffering for my country. How heroic one can be at 16 !

We drove along either Sierskowiege or Gera Buffaewa Street (I can't remember which) near Zygmunt August, my secondary school. A little later we arrived in front of the house where my father was lodging, not far from Zwierzymiecki Bridge and Adam Mickiewicz Street.

Chaos reigned in the large sun-lit room : objects were scattered around, cases were wide open and in the middle,soldiers and other people were milling around. My father visibly disturbed and anxious about our future came towards me hiding a bottle of valerian. One of the soldiers stopped him, saying "No, no ". My father said, "It's a sedative". The soldier gestured towards me and said "She doesn't need one !", so calm did I appear.

My brother, who'd been working in other people's gardens to help us survive, had also been traced and brought to the house by soldiers. They forced all three of us into the street. I suddenly realised that my father had given them our addresses because he had been told it would be even more distressing if we were to be deported separately. Someone with a spark of humanity had ordered us to be deported together whereas usually members of the same family were deliberately separated. We received the order to climb into the lorry. It was just like a nightmare.

Neighbours gathered around to say goodbye. Among them was my father's landlady. She was a really skillful dressmaker who during the German occupation had miraculously transformed old dresses, coats, aprons and American-donated clothes into pretty dresses. She gave us a packet of sugar - a rare commodity in a time of scarcity.

Standing up in the lorry we drove along Adam Mickiewicz Street. Passers-by raised their hats to us. A long empty goods train stood waiting at the railway station. We were made to climb 60 at a time into a wagon. The heavy door was locked behind us separating us from freedom.

We didn't waste time thinking about our tragic situation. We had to get ourselves organised. There were 58 of us and my father's natural authority led to him being chosen as the 'starosta': the leader. His first task was to enable us to move around and also to find a place where we could sleep.

There was a small barred opening enabling us to breathe fresh air and three shelves one above the other. The fittest people could climb to the top shelf and the oldest had the bottom shelf. We the youngest lay down on the shelf in this way. me, my brother, another boy, his sister, another girl. From my position I could see light through the small opening. Before we left, someone by hoisting himself up had given us some sweets a rare luxury because there hadn't been sugar in the shops for some time. This last gift from Poland I accepted gratefully and with great emotion.

We arrived in Moscow, 21 July the day war broke out with Germany. We'd heard this news from the station loudspeakers even though our train was stopped some distance outside the station. Several poor people came to our wagon begging for bread. Then our train set off once more on a journey that was to last several days ; I could see through the narrow window, telegraph poles speeding by. I realised that each one of them took me further away from my beloved country...

In our wagon en route for the unknown, day followed night. Nothing changed: the same limited living space, the persistent half-light, the unanswered questions about the future...

In a corner of our prison on wheels was a hole in the floorboards. It was crude and uncomfortable but we were able to relieve ourselves. There was always a lack of privacy despite a draped blanket.

During this long and difficult joumey which must have lasted about two weeks our guards only came three times to bring us a bucket of pearl barley sprinkled with a little fruit juice. Fortunately we'd brought some provisions: bread, salami and other cooked meats. We weren't yet experiencing hunger pangs.

The train stopped only once on our ]ourney. We were allowed to leave our wagons and found ourselves in a bleak wilderness. This was the tundra - the vast expanse of land we speak of when studying the geography of Russia. In the distance we could see a forest of stunted trees. I had one thought on my mind: escape. But where to go and how ? It was unthinkable and above all impracticable. In fact I think everyone was keeping an eye on the train to see it didn't leave without us. The guards were supervising us and whistled when anyone wandered too far away. Soon everyone went back to their wagons and the train left once more.

After about two weeks we reached our destination. We stopped at Alejsk a small town between Omsk and Tomsk having left behind us Novosibirsk and Barnaoul.

We were directed towards an empty barn that appeared to have been used as a joiner's workshop. We made sleeping bags from our blankets. But what we really needed was a good wash. We were allowed to use the public showers known as 'bania' and we really enjoyed them. After two weeks of being confined we felt much better. Our damp hair floated in the wind as we were driven back to our barn on the back of a lorry. We were almost happy especially as the sky was blue and the sun shining. Later we were ordered to have official photographs taken. My father, my brother and myself were photographed along with five other Poles. We were later to find ourselves together doing forced labour in the Kiedrowka tai`ga. All I saw of this small town (Alejsk) were the public baths for almost straightaway we and several other families were taken to an unknown destination. We were driven about 70 kilometres by lorry towards the steppe: a large peaceful plain. The potentially rich pastures appeared to have been left to run wild.

We forded the river Czarysz. We could see the same state of abandon along the riverbanks - sacks of salt lay around waiting for a hypothetical loading. We were to miss this terribly through-out our stay in the mountains as we had nothing to navour our food with. Our journey through the beautiful and high Altaj mountains took us to the village of Cranjskoje. There we were directed to 'a house of the people', what we would call an inn. In appearance it was clean but the walls and furniture were infested with bugs which ruthlessly bit and ate us. We were completely defenceless. It was here I made our last appetising canapes and sandwiches - they were too small and too few in number to satisfy our hunger. A hunger which would be a constant companion for many long months.