Through the Mists of Time
Copyright Anna Mineyko @ 1999
It was all such a long time ago and my recollection of past events is often hazy. Before my memories fade, I want to write them down. Some of my earliest memories are very vivid. They are all very varied.
I remember very clearly the triumphant entry into Minsk of the famous regiment of Krechowiecki Lancers with their first commanding officer, Colonel Boleslaw Euzebiusz Moscicki (1877-1918), riding at the head. Soon afterwards, I saw him lying on a catafalque with two young cavalry officers, E. Chrzanowski and Z. Podhorski, standing guard over his coffin.
It was Zygmunt Podhorski (1891-1960), affectionately known as Zaza, who spared no pains to have the body of Colonel Moscicki exhumed so that it could be taken from Minsk to Augustow. Later, it was moved to Warsaw.
General Podhorski died in London on 12 September 1960. He was buried in Brompton Churchyard. His portrait on horseback, painted in 1952 by Mikolaj Wisznicki, is in the Sikorski Institute in London.
I remember also the galloping horses of an old-fashioned fire brigade wagon as well as horse trams and men lighting the street lanterns with a hooked rod.
I recall seeing a plough drawn by a woman for want of horses. A picture comes to me of polish prisoners of war from the little town of Brzostowo breaking stones and building a road in the direction of Grodno: it was probably 1919.
About that time, I used to play with other children in war-time trenches. We searched for bombshells to make ashtrays and vases: some, I remember, were unexploded.
I remember, in 1929, seeing the body of Marshal Ferdinand Foch lying in state in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.
But, to start at the beginning....
In 1960, while on holiday in France on the Mediterranean coast where Sophie (Zosia) lived, I took a walk from Antibes to Juan les Pins. Suddenly I saw, through a wide-open gate, a big villa, almost a palace, nearly identical to our huge country house in Brzostowica.
At first I was deeply affected, but as time went on I forgot all about it. The one day, my nephew, Andrzej Kossakowski, during a conversation in Warsaw, asked whether I knew that his great-grandfather had been so fascinated at seeing this residence in a distant country that he had imported an architect to build an almost identical one.
The country house was completed in 1900, the year my brother Stanislaw (Stas) came into world: he was its next and last owner. It was sumptuously furnished with everything that had been in the townhouse in Warsaw. This latter was the Kossakowski town house at Nowy Swiat No. 19. On the sale of the town house, the proceeds were divided between all my grandfather’s descendants. The furniture and pictures went to our country house, where the pictures filled the drawing rooms as well as the big hall. These pictures were sent to St. Petersburg for safe-keeping during the first World War. Later, in 1924, Zacheta Sztuk Pieknych, a sort of public gallery, on Malachowski Place in Warsaw where artists could exhibit and sell their work, arranged to bring them back to Brzostowica for us, in exchange for one of them. In 1939, when arrested, I saw these same pictures, some reproductions but others originals by Durer, Rubens and others, thrown onto lorries from 1st floor balcony by the Russians, together with mirrors and other things they had stolen.
We also had some mementoes of Napoleon. I remember his uniform and his coffee cup which we had because my great-great-grandfather, General Jozef Antoni Kossakowski (1772-1842), was his aide-de-camp.
In the Louvre hangs a picture by H. Vernet entitled “Farewell to Napoleaon”, depicting his abdication at Fontainebleau on 20 April 1814. It shows Jozef Kossakowski standing with other officers, bidding farewell to the Emperor.
These mementoes, together with some silver, were lost in Russia during the first World War.
In 1914 we left Brzostowica for Minsk where we lived through the 1917 revolution. A few years later, we returned to Brzostowica, living first at the presbytery of Fr. Biesiekierski and then in the annexe until the Germans left our house and Poland.
My father’s sister lived with her husband in St. Petersburg. During the war, my father went to visit them, caught pneumonia on the way and died.
1920 saw us flee Brzostowica to avoid the invading Bolsheviks: we went to Wrecza, near Warsaw. I was suffering from pleurisy and the carriage journey was agony. With me in the carriage was my sister Lili’s child, just a few weeks old. In Minsk, Lili had married a member of the Polish army: the baby was Christine (Krzysia) Niemcewiczowna who was later married, firstly, to Fudakowski and secondly to Erdman.
When our carriage came to a halt, I could hear voices asking whether I was still alive. In one cottage at which we stopped, a spy was shot before my eyes. I remember this incident very well, although I was only nine years old.
In 1920, the Miracle of the Vistula took place. We were awaiting the arrival of the invading Russians, but for some unknown reason they stopped at the River Vistula and we were safe.
My mother returned to Brzostowica which was empty but still standing. I had left at Szymanow, in a school run by nuns of the Order of the Immaculate Conception where my sister Sophie was also a pupil. In class, I listened to the lessons but took no active part: I felt very unhappy, lonely and sick. Nobody knew that I had inflammation of the middle ear. Because of this, I stayed at home for the next few years and had private tuition from successive teachers. The time passed in lessons and playing with my beloved dog, Borsik.
We lived in the big house until Stas were married. Then, Mother and I moved into old part of building: this was the original house had been constructed some two hundred years earlier and which was joined to the new residence so that they appeared as one.
There was areal gathering of woman in there. I remember Mother with Adela Slugocka, her former teacher, both terribly intelligent, sitting at the table in the dining room. Also, there were Aunt Maria Brunow and Miss Maria O’Keefe, Lili’s companion who continued to live with us after Lili’s marriage. Zofia Ksiazkiewicz, my nanny, did not sit with the guests. The daily squabbles in French were constant fun. In separate rooms, never coming out, lived an old woman Witkowska (a former nanny who supervised the servants) and Bielak who was a Tartar. She was a Moslem and smoked a hookah: she came to live in the house because my mother liked to help people.
In various nooks and corners of the old house, different poor people from Wilno used to spend the summer, invited by my mother. Among them were girl students from the Teacher Training College and Seminary. They were addressed by my brother Stas as “Blizni” (“Neighbors”).
Later, I was sent to successive convent schools. I spent one year in Nowy Sacz (up in the mountains) with the nuns of the Order of the Immaculate Conception: I was not happy there, even though Sophie was also a pupil. Two more years were spent in Stamiatka with Benedictine nuns - even less pleasant as we were in a thirteenth century convent and it seemed to me that everything dated from the Middle Ages. The Headmistress came to visit us every few weeks. I remember her in a fur hat, carrying a crozier. Only when I was in the Sacred Heart convent near Poznan I realized how cramped we had been and how ill-at-ease we had felt in the previous boarding schools. I was a good pupil because I liked the school. The next year was my last: I spent it in Antwerp. Christmas and New Year were spent with several classmates in Paris, and at Easter I went to Switzerland and Italy in the charge of one of my teachers. We visited an endless stream of museums and historical buildings. I was tireless and quite fascinated for I had spent the last few years studying History of Art, with special interest in Italian and Flemish painting.
The next winter was spent in Lwow with my aunt and uncle Chodkiewicz, learning to cook and paint but wanting all the time to go home. Later, while in Warsaw, I devoted my time to studying horticulture because I wanted to have a profitable apple orchard in Ludwikow to help in the future to pay for good schools for my children. I had a few good and close friends but I used to go to the cinema alone. I stayed with my aunt Marylka Chrapowicka at 19, Czacki Street. The house was destroyed during the war, when the whole of Warsaw burned: later I went back and with great affection I looked for it only to find the rebuilding was in a very different style.
Holiday time of the following winter saw me at the house of my uncle, Prince Franciszek Radziwill whose family used to chaperone me. His daughter Mary was my closest friend and later became godmother to my son Michas (Michael). The life I lived then now seems totally unreal. I lived at Sopie’s in Nowy Swiat and I was very much in love. At my mother’s house, there was a permanent gathering of woman. At Stas’s country house, however, there was a constant stream of visitors, dances and flirtations, jokes and gossip. During summer holidays I did a lot of horse-riding, mostly with Juraz Kempicki or Jurek Komorowski. We played tennis and went mushroom-picking by hay wagon. I turned down some boys and adored others...and this happened so often. Today, however, I do not even recall their faces.
In the spring, I began gardening. I went to stay at the Krasickis’ house in Tykocin. They had a wonderful garden and I learnt a lot whilst being there. I also became engaged to Count Jerzy, their eldest son, who was a judge. He was a very intelligent, pleasant man, and he asked me many times to marry him. I always refused politely. One evening, at a ball held in their residence, he sang gently as we danced together: I was repeating the words of the song, and when I said the word “Yes” (which had formed part of the song) he threw open the doors to an adjoining room and announced to his family that I finally agreed to be his wife.
I was not happy because I knew that he was not really for me. Sophie encouraged me to break the engagement, even the family was very happy with the match. When I agreed, she said she would sit under the table, to encourage me to go through with it. I later learned that my whole family was sitting outside the room, in every available space including the stairs, to hear me tell Jerzy that I could not marry him. The stairs creaked so much that they were frightened the noise might put me off.
Some time later, in 1933, I married Tomasz, the man I had chosen. We lived in Augustow. In 1934, I gave birth to twins, Michas and Marysienka (Marys). A long, serious illness followed. Then, on 1 September 1939, the war came. Soon after, Alek was born.
We were deported to Siberia, as I record later, and we went to Persia and Lebanon, where I found employment, and afterwards through Palestine, Egypt and Italy to England.
Today, Looking back, I think that in my early years I was an innocent yet serious child. I remember that while in Szymanow, being ten years old, I confessed the grave sin of reading and obscene book. I gave a detailed account, saying that it was in the chapel that I read in the hymn “Child’s Mother” in my prayer book, the following: “Show Him your breast and bowels and easily you persuade Him, Mother, to be merciful”.
Naturally, I immediately crossed this out with my pencil and, at my suggestion, all my classmates did the same. My confessor, on hearing this, covered his face and the confessional shook all over. Driven to despair, I shed bitter tears for having scandalized the saintly priest, who must also have cried, I thought.
My father was born on 12 October 1866. His family called him Jozio or Jozieczek.: we, his children, Papiusieczek. I know very, very little about him because at the time of his death on 4 June 1916, I was only five. He died of pneumonia in St. Petersburg, where his two sisters, Zinka Meysztowiczowa and Marylka Chrapowicka, lived with their families at that time. After the first World War, his mortal remains were brought from St. Petersburg and laid to rest in the crypt of the old church in Brzostowica. It was there that Tomasz and I, kneeling by the window in front of his tomb, exchanged our engagement rings.
All I remember of his death is my mother and Lili coming back from the funeral in St. Petersburg. Both ladies were plunged into deep mourning, their faces covered with black veils. Sophie and I, at that time, knew nothing of what it meant nor why everyone was crying nor why other people were cuddling us and calling us poor, orphaned children. However, we knew we had to cry, so we shed bitter tears with enormous zeal, while the elders nodded towards us.
Later, when grown up, Sophie and I happened to talk about his, but we did not remember which of us cried longer - only, that we had tried to outdo each other with our tears. It is rumored that after the second World War my father’s desecrated remains were thrown around in the market square of the little town of Brzostowica.
My father was very hospitable. He loved travel and playing roulette. He would always sleep covered with heavy quilt. He loved music, played the piano beautifully and had a perfect ear. When young, he had a crush on Countess Zdenka St. Clair who later became his second stepmother. I can also recall his collection of pencils, and that he was colour-blind.
He was religious, shy and had a heart of gold. His jokes were gentle. My mother told me that in Paris, coming out of a restaurant, a struggle in the street attracted his attention: it became evident that an old woman had stolen some bread and been caught. He asked that she should be freed to go on her own, saying that he was her host. He also ordered that she be given plenty food and he paid in advance. To my mother, he said that to steal bread was a sign of real misery, deserving of help - had she taken cakes, he would have ignored her. I think that today everyone would help the old woman, but in those Dickensian days the gap between the social classes was enormous, and the fact that my father could overcome it, shy as he was, seems to me be a heroic action in the psychological sense. As a family man, he generously provided permanent support for his sister, Alka Lempicka, and her husband, and he pledged Stas to carry this on.
Once, somewhere on the Mediterranean coast of France, at the time when men wore a hat “de rigeur”, a strong wind blew his away. His sisters, who were strolling with him, were very embarrassed, so he pretended to be their manservant and walked about three paces behind them: when they went into a shop, he would stand by the door. Exasperated, they bagged him to stop, to which he replied, “As you wish, my lady, I am at your command”.
My parents were very much in love, but my father always made my mother overdress, although she grew very bored with doing so. His favorite child, it seems, was Lili (his first-born, but crippled), though he dearly loved the younger ones, too. He used to play hide and seek with us - I, being the youngest, would be put behind some piece of furniture or in wardrobe and then he would look for me, guessing out loud where I might be. I can still remember his head in my mother’s wardrobe, and have a clear recollection of my parents’ bedroom, indeed, the whole apartment in Minsk.
On another occasion, when he was lunching alone with only me for company, he put a small piece of steak on his fork and left it on his plate: suddenly, he pretended to fall asleep. I decided to eat it, then he “woke” and was very surprised that the meat had disappeared: he searched for it everywhere and I laughed, so he repeated this several times.
He would send me postcards from his travels, the last of which was framed and hung above my bed. Travel attracted him so much that when at home he gradually grew restless: my mother would suggest a journey and he would immediately come back to life and be ecstatic by departure time. When, after several months, my mother longed to be home and with her children, both of which she sorely missed, my father would propose returning. My mother was then overjoyed, and so “da capo”...
Once, they were travelling with Helenka Morawska, aunt of Janio Kossakowski, surgeon and professor, and she bought special sweets she liked. Knowing they were unobtainable in Poland, my father explained that they multiplied, so Helenka experimented by locking up the sweets two by two in various well-hidden places and told my mother the secret. During the night the sweets would increase in number: the rate of increase, however, gradually fell until, after their return to Poland the sweets ceased to multiply at all. My father said the climate was not favourable!
In Cologne, the maid who always attended my mother on foreign trips filled bottles with water in the belief that, on returning to Poland, they would smell of “eau de Cologne”.
My father studied agriculture in Louvain and our grandfather leased Brzostowica to him. Once a year, Father had to give him an account of the administration and financial situation. When everything was verified, the whole profit went to my father as a present. Eventually, he became owner of Brzostowica and the following “folwarki” (estates): Ciecierowka, Ludwinow, Brzostowiczany, Iwaszkowce, Pelazyn and Tetrawka, plus “ordynacja” Lachonicze (“z laskami” - with dense forests) on the Polish-Russian border.
My father was fond of playing roulette and was often lucky. Apparently, on one such occasion the winnings funded “Murowany” - New Church - and a presbytery in W. Brzostowica. In the time of the Tsars the Russians had closed the old church, the one in the little town, and Mass and other services were celebrated in the cemetery chapel. It seems that a drunken Russian dignitary, delighted with a large back-hander, cheerfully burbled “Potentaten hotentoten” and signed a petition to St. Petersburg to open the church.
These are all little, varied recollections of Father, but have remained very vivid to me.
My mother said it had been fashionable to have a white complexion (cera) and white hands. Often young ladies, before a guest could reach the drawing room, would raise their arms and wriggle fingers as if overjoyed, calling loudly, “Guests have arrived, guests have arrived and we will get “jam”. In a few moments, they were shaking their exceedingly white hands with them.
Aunt Alka Lempicka (Father’s sister) told me that when she was young she used to go out, with a maid who walked three steps behind. My aunt would carry, in her gloved hand, an elegantly wrapped tiny packet suspended on a small piece of string: all the shopping was carried by the maid or sent home by the shopkeeper.
Once, as she was fainting (either from shock or being scandalized) she cried, “Water, water... but with raspberry juice, “ she added in a low voice.
Lack of appetite, too, was in fashion: young ladies would eat in secret before and after dinner. The code of good conduct required one never to take offence - sulk and quarrel, yes, but do not be offended. One always used the same perfume, the same writing paper. Only flowers and sweets might be accepted from a man: “Ca ne se fait pas,” or “This is not accepted,” were the excuse.
In the presence of servants, one had to speak French. It was a mixture of French and Polish (“Donnez-moi de la capuste,”, just as, regrettably, here in England we Poles say, “Ide na bus”).
When I was already a grandmother myself, I confessed to my mother that I had never dared to kiss her other than on the hand. My mother was very surprised, and we kissed each other cordially.
Young ladies’ hands were not for kissing: a woman would give her hand to a man to shake, as would an older woman to a younger. A man had to give up his seat to a woman, and must stand whenever a female acquaintance entered the room or was standing up.
A young woman’s appearance should be so as “ne pas se faire reamrquer”. One was expected always to laugh discreetly and sit elegantly in the drawing room and have beautiful table manners in the dining room. We never entered the kitchen. It was the same in the homes of all our acquaintances. The fashion of young ladies showing off their skill at the piano or, even worse, singing, did not last long. It was enough to dance well and know the art of conversation and thus be able to entertain guests. One had to eat and “enjoy” all the food on one's plate, even the food one did not like, without comment: when drinking wine, on the other hand, one was supposed to leave a few drops in the glass. Above all, however, one had always to remember that “noblesse oblige”. These and other rules governed our public behaviour and influenced our view of life.
From the wood edge of Pelazyn, there was a vista of arable land. Jozio de Virion was a good runner and something of a boxer, too. Dressed for sport, he was running along the roads round the fields. It was harvest time. All of a sudden, we noticed - a shocking as well as a comical sight - all the peasants running, with scythes and ticks, and shouting to stop that mad, insane, possessed man. Jozio escaped, but this time he was running for his life.
I knew many people who were fond of horsemanship. In Warsaw, I used to go to Lazienki Park to watch equestrian competitions and to Mokotow for racing. In Augustow, I saw hundreds of horse shows and races. Tomasz was a well-kown rider. He rode his own horses, three of which were called Jazband, Mrzonka and Zegluga. He rode in his regimental colours - red (amarantowo) and white. Janusz Komorowski and some others I knew rode in the Olympic Games. At Widze Lowczynskie, Tomasz’ family estate, all conversation centered on horses. Riding was the only sport of interest to the landowners, and to participate one must be properly dressed. Of other sports I heard practically no mention.
My mother sometimes called Stas “Bijounet”, Zosia was “Rufka” or “Atlasia”, while I was “Dobre Mzimiu” and Wladyslaw Boniecki “Zloty Pudelek”. The twins were “Usmiechas” and “Grymasienka”, Teresa was called “Tarantulka” and her son Adam Sulimirski, “Adamaszek”. Jurek Komorowski was, for her, “Hania’s Nanny” because he was always looking after me: he even took care that I did not hear dirty jokes or bad language. Mother allowed me to go anywhere if he chaperoned me.
During the summer of 1939, some ladies came to tell me that war seemed to be imminent. There were many rumours at that time. Some of the silver was sent to Tomasz’ mother in the Old City of Warsaw: to have hidden everything would not have been patriotic and would have indicated panic, setting a bad example to others.
Half milion francs, deposited by the Mineyko family in Swiss banks, were transferred to Poland that very autum. Was this true patriotism? Tomasz was reprimanded when he objected, and was accused of being unpatriotic for saying it was too little to help the war effort and would be of greater benefit later to the family.
As usual in the summer, I had sent the children with Niusia to stay with my mother. I then arranged for our possessions to be packed in trunks and stored in the house for later collection if need be. Then, on 25 August, Tomasz came home for a short while from the border with East Prussia, to say his farewells before leaving for an unknown future.
Later, Sophie, my sister, came from Suwalki and we left together for Brzostowica. It seamed a safe place and we did not think that the war would reach that far. If it came to the worst, there would be a sufficiency of meat from our cows and pigs. We also had flour, milk, eggs and fishes well as fruit and vegetables. We only had to buy sacks of sugar, batteries for torches and embroidery silks to avoid boredom.
Stas, my brother, was already absent from home; he was called up to join a garrison in Lomza. Every day we listened to the news in his study. And then, on 1 September we learned of the outbreak of war. Feeling faint, and accompanied by Miss Zofia, I felt the room unobserved. I was seven months pregnant and it was my twenty-ninth birthday.
I think at that time there was only one radio station broadcasting from Warsaw. We heard an announcer tell us that the war had started. Suddenly, unrehearsed, she exclaimed that she could see a missile approaching the studio: it seemed to be heading straight for her. There was a loud explosion and the radio went dead...for good.
My mother sent horses to Ciecierowka to fetch Lili, my sister, and her daughters (George and Joe having gone hide in the forest). On the way, Lili’s horses were taken by communist elements. Meanwhile, German aircrafts were flying over the house, shooting particularly if they saw anything suspicious. During that time, Sophie and her children set off towards Grodno. They went by cart with their belongings. Tied to the back of the cart was the stallion that had arrived from England before the outbreak of war. She left in a thunderstorm and my last memory of her departure is the stallion rearing up behind the cart, startled by a flash of lightning. On the nearby estates, landowners were being murdered: M. Krasicki, Mr. and Mrs. Wolkowscy, Boretti and Mr. Lesniewicz. A horde of bloodthirsty villagers was coming towards the big house. We heard a roar like ocean waves. We thought of shooting from the windows and defending ourselves to the end. I had a gun ready, determined to protect my children: had it come to the worst. I would have killed the children and myself to avoid capture.
However, the local people defended us and the assailants returned to their own homes after a few days. Then the Russian army came and arrested us in the middle of lunch. At first we were kept in the big house and interrogated endlessly as to where we were hiding a spy. Later, it came to light that someone was informing our people on the whereabouts of the Bolshevik army. He was hiding in the church tower.
Then we were transferred to the Old House where we were often searched. After constant requests I was granted permission for walks in front of the house, as exercise was necessary because of my pregnancy. Forty-two paces, there and back, guarded by five armed soldiers! At last someone, maybe the forester, who swore at me and called me names, was allowed to be my only guardian. While swearing aloud he murmured in my ear words of information and comfort. He was my friend. The commander living in the residence turned out to be Prince Orlow who, as a spy pretending to be a French officer, had been our guest a few years earlier. After some time we were expelled, empty-handed, to face the world and die.
I walked out as though deaf, without aim, with five-year-old twins of delicate health and expecting another child. I was met in this state by Miss Tenia Malenicz (Buba) and, in the name of God, she invited me to her home. With the greatest gratitude I said, “God rewards you” and we stayed with her. Her little house had no electricity, gas or coal: cooking, heating and lighting were with wood from the forests. There was no bathroom and no lavatory. We used bring water in buckets from the river. But, we had a roof over our heads and security, more or less. We were, of course, extremely grateful for everything, especially for the generosity of such a good and courageous friend.
Niusia Kozakiewicz, our children’s nanny, was a very beautiful and good girl. The Russian commanding officer fell in love with her and she ordered him to bring us a cow for the children’s milk and masses of food from our house. She spoke fluent Russian like all local people, for that part of Poland was under Russia until the revolution in 1917, and use of Polish was forbidden. Landowners and aristocracy spoke Polish among themselves, or French.
Alek was born at dawn on 11 November, a large, strong boy. It was the day of the Polish national feast. The doctor was not allowed to visit me in case of a conspiracy. A light was seen in our window before midnight. Soldiers with rifles and bayonets kicked the door open and shouted, “Ruki wierch” (“Hands up”). They were pointing straight at me giving birth in the dark. When they saw a baby was about to be born, they backed out silently and closed the door.
More or less at the same time, Marysia and her family and Krzysia started off with a guide for Warsaw. I spent the days with my three children. I sang nursery rhymes and told them fables. From time to time I underwent searches but nothing was found as I hid Tomasz’ papers under the baby’s mattress. We heard all sorts of news. I was terrified when I heard of arrests and deportations. Then, on 13 April 1940, our turn came. When they came for us, I was feeding Ale but when they entered I had my back to the cradle and the twins were sheltering at my side.
When I was being sentenced to deportation for five years’ hard labour in Siberia, I had a letter from Michael Jaczynski in my pocket. I managed to pass it on in order to have it destroyed. Michael was hiding: he was wounded in both legs. Later on, the Germans murdered him in Aleja Szucha.
When I was arrested, I was asked how many children I had. On the spur of the moment, I decided to own up to two. I said that the youngest had died. I stared at Kolesnik as I said this, and he confirmed my story. I was given the order, “Go off, with your things”, and I was closely watched to see whether I would look at or say goodbye to the baby lying there, but I ignored him. And so, I left Alek that he might live: I knew that my twins might not survive the journey we were to undertake, and that a five-month-old had no chance.
We were driven in manure carts through the market town. I rode with my head held high, almost in triumph, for we were following in the footsteps of our ancestors who had been exiled to Siberia, in chains, for fighting the Russians. My mother reminded me of Marie Antoinette. As we passed, people made the sign of the cross in the air and I realised how well loved was my mother. They were crying and saying their farewells to us. We, too, said our farewells to them, but without tears. I looked back once more to see the “palace” of Brzostowica. Halfway to the station, our carriage passed us, carrying some Bolshevik officials. They pushed the cart into the ditch.
We left the railway station of Brzostowica in cattle trucks, heading east all the time. There were bars on all doors and air vents: one could not see out unless one climbed up and squinted through the tiny windows. We had no food or water. In my sleep, I felt with my hand for Alek because my breasts were swollen with milk. Then I woke to the grim reality. I was going to an unknown country, somewhere far from Poland, far from Bialystok.
Sometimes, by jumping up and holding on to the grate, I saw the gloomy mountains of the Urals, then the river Volga. On one occasion, I saw a huge sign that said in Russian “Europe”. On the other side it was written “Asia”. We spent twenty-eight days in the cattle trucks: how we survived it I shall never know. The temperature was often minus twenty degrees centigrade on this nightmare journey. The bodies of the children who died were simply thrown out of the train. I thought of Alek and rejoiced that he, at least, was safe with Buba.
We travelled by train from 13 April to 8 May 1940. Many thousands of people were off-loaded at Pawlodar. We all knelt down and sang with all our strength. We sang a hymn for the month of May called “Praise the May Meadows”. The Russians were cross because we were singing. They asked who started it and we all said, “I did, “ pointing to ourselves. We were then taken in lorries to the gulags (camps). We crossed the river Irtysz by raft and went on to Ekibastos No 1 and then by ox-cart to the “hungry steppes”.
From the moment I heard my sentence of deportation, I knew I was responsible for my family of four persons: my mother, my sister and the twins. This was a new and heavy burden that I had not previously encountered. I knew that my mother and sister would not be able to help in any way and my twins were only five years old. I became porter and quartermaster, and was soon to be the only one who could earn a living. My mother, Lili and the children were my dependants and it was a well known saying that “He who does not work does not eat”.
Four was brought - this was by camel, and only in summer - we had bread. I was allowed to buy two hundred grammes a day for me and sometimes for each of us. For this, I had to stand for hours in a queue after work. In the small local shop, one could buy only mustard and violin strings! We lived in a black barrack which I have described elsewhere.
At first, I looked after seven hundred grazing calves. I had to chase them on the steppes and I fed the youngest from a bucket when they sucked my fingers. They had no fear. Every evening, I brought my family a bucket of milk, which was illegal, although I did it openly. We lived thus until Nomads drove the cattle to the distant steppes. The summer was short and terribly hot.
After that, I worked on construction, I worked during the summer heat wave when the bottom of the river cracked into furrows large enough to bury huge lorries. I dug clay or I mixed it with chaff or chopped straw, trampling on it with bare feet for several hours a day. Then we made bricks from the mixture and baked them in the sun. I built the walls of enormous cattle sheds and renewed with clay bricks buildings that had dissolved after downpours of rain. All the work was done with bare hands, in summer as in winter, without tools such as trowels, etc.
In winter, we poured boiling water on the clay as it froze all the time. Then snow covered everything and our black and frozen barrack had to be dug out from the white ground from which nothing stuck out or was visible. We were eaten by bed bugs and millions of lice: the fumes and smell of the boiler filled our lungs: we had chronic indigestions from lack of nourishing food.
While I was in Siberia, I described in a notebook entitled “Kazakstan”, not only the black barrack but also a snow storm called “buran”. This was so fierce and brought so much snow that it created a complete white-out. When it stopped, we found that we were buried beneath many meters of snow. It took almost two weeks for me to dig a hole for us to get out and get fresh air in. We also had terrible floods that covered everything. I sketched some scenes of normal daily life on scraps of paper off parcels that occasionally arrived.
And now when I relate some of the incidents of those days, I feel that I am pulling out threads from the material of my life. I had various jobs but most of my days were filled making clay. Our settlement was mainly concerned with making butter that was sent out into the interior. We never saw butter, but buttermilk called “abrat” was plentiful except in winter and we lived on it illegally. We made “ajeran”, a bit as sour milk thickened by boiling, like gruel.
The Nomads drove herds of many thousand heads of cattle, never counted, across the dried-out steppe, sometimes to a very distant country. Someone went every night for milk. On such an occasion, I saw wolves and drank feremented “kumys” (mare’s milk) which was called champagne. It was a long way to go every night to get milk. I used to stay in a clay hut where all the Kazaks of both sexes slept on the ground, totally naked and with no coverings.
When the steppes were on fire, we extinguished it by beating with sticks. One, after doing it for a whole day, I was so weak that I was left behind. It was only by chance that a traveller on camel found me, lying unconscious, and took me back to my people. I was told that I had fainted from hunger and I was given a few drops of liquid. I had not eaten for nine days and I had not even noticed. The I returned to work which was always hard.
Another time, three steppes burned at the same time, on three sides of us. Dirty from smoke and flames, the horsemen (wild but marvellous riders) were saying that the hamlet was already burning and nothing would stop the fire. The sea of flame came very quickly and roared like ocean waves. My mother ordered me to throw the bread of St. Agatha in the direction of the fire. Then we fell asleep without undressing. The morning was completely silent. We were surrounded on all sides by black, smouldering land. My mother was not surprised. Today, I am sure we owe our lives to Mother’s prayers, as her faith was boundless.
Praying was forbidden. Nonetheless, every evening we said our prayers with children kneeling down, and with feeling. We did not stop even if someone stood behind our backs. An old Kazak woman asked us if the prayer was to God: she asked whether we realized that she could denounce us. When I said that we did know, she admitted that she, too, had faith and prayed. She was a Muslim.
On another occasion, Kyryllo, our overseer, went away for a few days as his wife, Natasha, gave birth to her third son. Natasha came to us asking if the “old holy woman” (my mother) would christen her child with the same name as the baby I had left behind in Poland. She said that she believed in God, but her husband did not, and that if he found out he would denounce her to the Party. But, when Kyryllo came home, he came ashamed and cap in hand to ask my mother the same favour, requesting that we should not tell his unbelieving wife!
One day, a crowd of workers saw children gathered round the well. They found that my little son, Michal, was being drowned by the others. The children lowered him deep into well in the bucket, threatening to drown him unless he would steal things from our home for them. He was lowered and pulled back up, but he did not agree to anything. After being rescued, he lost his speech for a long time. Another time, a gang of children threw stones at mine who had to take refuge in our barrack.
The well was deep, with a sweep (a counter-balanced bucket). In winter we melted snow or brought water from the well in buckets the rest of the year. To use buckets in winter was useless as the whole bucket full froze before it could be got indoors. Often, fellow-prisoners cut the bucket off the well rope. It was one sort of class hatred. When they saw me going to the well, they would say I had drunk sufficient wine in Poland.
I once fell while carrying water, and the bucket cut into my leg: because I was so thin, it broke the bone. A large wound formed and went septic because of the dirt: it swelled up and turned green. I had to limp on the other leg and Mother and the children brought half buckets of water. I was saved from gangrene by an old peasant woman who applied a hot brew of dung ash to my wound. We heard the same woman howling with grief on the steppe when her eldest son was found dead, frozen in the snow.
The greatest power was held by Prorab (i.e. Upawlajuszczy). He often accosted me after work and offered flour and gruel in return for information about the people I was writing to in Poland. He would taunt me by eating a juicy steak in front of me, or by smoking. I was also persecuted by some of the other prisoners because of my class, and they could be as cruel as the frost and hunger of Siberia. They even tried to persuade the authorities to stop us having the right to buy bread. Once they attacked me when I was in bed with pneumonia, but on that occasion Mrs. Zimma, a peasant woman from Brzostowica who recognized me, defended us.
One time when, as usual, we were digging the hardened clay during a heat-wave, Prorab came and laughed aloud at me, saying that the “white hands were not used to holding a spade”, etc. The others joined in, and soon there was a roar of jokes and laughter. Finally Prorab ordered them to be quiet. Bowing to me, he said, “pardon me, Madame Anna,” and he shouted obscenities at the crowd - such obscenities that only the Russian language possesses - that they deserved to die and rot on the earth, that instead of helping and shielding a compatriot in misfortune they denounced and oppressed her... Then he thanked me for “the effort” when working and for my loyalty, and asked me to take over the supervision of their work, as of that moment, to which, of course, I said no.
A Kazak resembling an animal often guarded us with a whip in his hand (he never beat us) when we are digging clay. The Kazak wore coats of sheepskin with the wool inside, even in the heat of summer, and they stank! Sometimes, when I lacked strength, I stopped work and leant on my spade. But the Kazak did not swear at me as he did at the others, nor did he threaten nor shout at me but turned away, pretending not to see. And then he approached my mother in the black barrack, sat on his heels and declared he would like me to become his wife. He said he would give Mother a cow and something extra (he was a herdsman) and that I would not have to work and he would provide for my children. Mother explained that I already had a husband although he was very far away, upon which the Kazak promised that he would return me to him after the war was over.
I also worked with a spade, demolishing ruins and carrying whole bricks to an appointed place. The oxen would transport them beyond there. The bricks were enormous blocks, very heavy to lift, which wore out the clothes around my abdomen. Sometimes I found human bones such as ribs and skulls in the ruins. These ruins had been the bones of tribesmen who had been reduced to obedience by starvation and siege. On the way to these ruins, I saw mirages, several times and very clearly, and often enormous whirling chimneys of sand reaching up into the sky.
A young peasant boy known as “without a hand” was also there with his grandmother. A German bomb had torn off his shoulder and killed both his parents. The old woman died as soon as she arrived in Siberia: I personally buried her and five small children. Nobody helped me. The boy tended five enormous bulls that obeyed him. He survived the war.
Some inexplicable things happened. While I was rationing out a small quantity of millet (prano) for the daily meal, using a small bowl, we saw with anxiety how the stock was diminishing. Soon, there remained enough for one more day. I made the sign of the cross as I undid the little sack - this tiny quantity had to last many more days. Then a woman came to buy our sheet and we had sufficient food for the next few days.
Money had no value: everything was bartered for food. The natives were poor and primitive. Sometimes they set dogs on me: one of them bit me quite hard when I went to sell my goods in the village. Bartering was odd: for example, for one needle I received one glass of milk for a month, but I was refused two eggs for my pearl earrings. I was told the earrings were worthless as they were colourless, i.e. ugly, I now wear them every day.
For long periods we were very tense, especially when we had nothing to eat for several days. Some days I returned from the village empty-handed, for I had “sold” nothing. For a second, four pairs of eyes would concentrate on my face and hands and then turn their gaze discreetly to the wall. No-one said a word, commiserating, loving, hating each other.
Usually, obligatory work stopped during the winter. Severe frosts came after intense heat waves, apparently more severe than in the Arctic because we were farther from the sea. Once a day we ate watery bran stolen from the cows. There was no salt. We managed to get an enormous sack of bran in exchange for a pack of playing cards belonging to my mother whose only comfort, apart from prayer, was playing patience. I brought back the sack from far away, during a hard frost and in the dark, but at least it did us the whole winter. I fell on my back a few times carrying it because it was heavier than me.
Unfortunately, our reserves of fuel ran out before the end of winter. I had to melt the snow in boilers belonging to others after they had finished using them. The fuel consisted of dried cow dung. I was not always welcome. Sometimes, I was filled with despair when I found human excreta in the melted snow because then everything had to be done again.
During the worst frost, I slept on my back with the children on top of me: that made it warmer and cosier. I tucked in the three of us with blankets and animal skins, but poor Mother and Lili froze separately.
One night, wolves tore to pieces a bitch which liked us and had taken refuge under our window. The struggle was bloodcurdling and very noisy. It was horrifying and also very dangerous as the window was at ground level and a small missing pane was stuffed with rugs. The next day I inspected the signs of the struggle outside the window - blood and hair.
There were days when we were entirely covered by snow and we lay in darkness day and night. There was no electricity, oil or candles. My family hardly got up from beginning of Autumn until Spring. I had to teach the children to walk as if after a long illness. While we were lying in the darkness and hunger, I used to tell them never-ending tales and they forgot for a time about reality and hunger. My mother used to call me Szeherezade. Some sketches and descriptions of mine are in a separate book.
Once, Mrs. Newman, our neighbor, had a dream in which she asked an old Rabbi about the future. That Rabbi looked in his thick book and told her to notify Mrs. Mineyko without fail, that on 3 July... Mrs. Newman’s child started to cry and the dream came to an end so we did not find out what the Rabbi wanted to say.
One day during the summer of 1942, I was returning, tired, from work. Some people ran out to meet me, telling me in a gabble about some newcomer. A man wearing a uniform who was not known to me was waiting in our abode. He saluted me in an unfamiliar manner, explained who he was and that he had searched for me for a long time. He handed me a letter from Andrzej Czajkowski and asked me if I would risk an escape from Russia. Without any hesitation I agreed. Then I exchanged a quilt for flour and cooked a delicious gruel and we all ate our fill. It was a real feast.
The news about the new arrival, Mr. Leonard Tarczewski, wearing an English uniform soon spread to everyone. “Uprawlajuszczy” demanded my presence and threatened me with dreadful consequences, should I think of escaping. He roared that it would be he who had to get us back should we escape while he was in charge. Then he added in a soft voice that he was leaving next day for a few days and... ”God be with you” (Bog z toba).
Luckily, an old Kazak was just about to go 40 miles to Ekibastos Farm 1. After a lot of persuasion, as he was terribly afraid, we made a deal that he would take us with him for a payment of 100 rubles, 2 sheets, and one hair ribbon belonging to Marys. Very quietly, after midnight, we heard the squeak of a wooden cart harnessed to two thin oxen. This was at a prearranged place.
So we set off to freedom. Mr. Tarczewski and I walked behind the cart, in full moonlight, while the rest slept on the bare boards. We started on 3 July, the day that Mrs. Newman had dreamt about. Before we entered Ekibastos, we hid in some ruins and the old Kazak went there on his own. At last, after a few days, the driver of an enormous truck agreed to take us to Pawlodar. He was terrified of having any visible contact with us.
He did not stop his truck for us, so as not to betray himself by the sound of the engine coming to a halt in order to help us, but he slowed down as he passed the ruins. Mr. Tarczewski and I threw Mother, Lili and the children onto the lorry that had raised sides, then we jumped inside. Thinking of it now, I am amazed that we managed it.
After days of travelling through the steppes, without food or water, in intense heat, we reached the suburbs of Pawlodar and hid in an open garage, under the lorries. The next day, I went to town. I looked like all the other woman as we went together in a crowd. When I heard Polish being spoken, I followed those people. We reached a house where a beautiful young lady, Dzunia Pawlowicz, who later became my friend, was giving out bread and soup. I shrank from approaching this beautiful woman, like a beggar asking for something.
When the others had been served, she approached me. Taking my hand, she sat me down and I talked to her. I found out that her father, Mr. Zacienski, was a consultant lawyer for my uncle, Mr. Chodkiewicz, acting for the properties of Mlynow. I was graciously fed and given soup and bread for my family which I took back in tin containers.
My brood was lying quietly under the lorries, waiting for me. They greeted me as if I were Father Christmas. Dzunia and her father and Mr. Lickindorf, a deputy and later on husband of Teresa Giedroyc, and others looked for ways to help us on our way. A butcher agreed to transport us for a very large payment: he was going to hide us in his van under piles of raw meet (brrr. the smell of blood and flies, flies, flies). Even my mother agreed to it, but the man withdrew his offer as he was afraid.
Only rail transport remained, the most dangerous of all. Mr. Tarczewski produced the necessary documents for the children and me. I was supposed to have called to do some special work to do with the railway tracks. But, we were short of two passes so we could not all travel. Desperate, we left Lili in a Polish nursing home. We gave her almost all our things - treasures like a bucket, and axe, a basin and fur coats. Leaving Lili was my second heart-rending decision.
We witnessed at Pawlodar station the arrest of a Polish family of four the same place as us. However, their son was in the army and came to fetch them. Thenceforth we had to pretend that we did not know them nor Mr. Tarczewski.
Many years later, I visited him in Loretto, Italy. I learned that Tomasz, while in a German camp near Munich (Offlag VIIA), wrote to all sorts of places in the world, imploring help for his wife and children. One of these letters reached Kubyshev, and as a result Mr. Tarczewski volunteered to find us in Siberia, which he did.
The train was going south. We were in a compartment with layers of plank beds, one above the other. The N.K.W.D. (Russian Secret Police) checked our documents several times and since I did not have sufficient passes each time they came I made sure only one twin was visible on the top bed. Even so, Mother’s and my hearts stood still every time.
At the stations, one could only get “kipitok”, boiling water. As we approached the station in Tatarsk, we prayed very earnestly. It was a notorious place for people being caught. If anyone had managed to get far, it was here that they were caught, and punished accordingly. Everyone had to get out and go, one by one, to a fenced-off square, red with the insignia of N.K.V.D. officers. There was complete emptiness - no buildings visible on the horizon. We followed a narrow lane guarded by hundreds of police. Suddenly, Marys bounded over to Michas and quickly pulled out his tooth that must have been loose. Michal screamed as the blood splashed on his chin and clothes. Everyone was taken aback and I, imitating an actress or a peasant woman in distress, started to lament in a loud voice, shouting and swaying. The Russians started to comfort Michal and were indignant at the horrid little girl. So we stayed and no-one interrogated us, perhaps out of sympathy. We went back to the train and occupied the same place. When we had recovered our composure, I asked Marys why she had done it, to which the answer was “to divert attention”, and this had saved us.
Then there was Nowosybirsk and a few days spent mainly on the platforms with crowds of people fighting to buy tickets. The ticket office was open for a short while when there was the sound of an approaching train. The trains were full of wounded soldiers returning from the front. All the trains were overcrowded, everything was in total confusion.
At last, kicking and using fists, we threw Mother and the children into moving train, again through the window. They landed on the heads of other passengers. We joined them somehow, Mr. T. and myself, and off we went at full speed. We passed Alma-Ata and Tashkent, and on 24 July we arrived at Jangi-Julu.
Just on that day, the Polish army of General Anders was forming up. The Amnesty had taken place, and the general had been freed from Lubianka. The glorious cavalry, Pierwszy Pulk Ulanow Krechowieckich, of which my husband was an officer, had re-formed, and was celebrating the regimental Feast day with a solemn Mass. The heat was intense, and so were our feelings.
We were the guests of General Anders, together with other Army families and we were given a tent for four people. It is owing to General Anders that we were taken out of Russia. When Tomasz’ letter had arrived, asking for help in finding us, he had called for volunteers, and it was Mr. Tarczewski who was permitted to go. I thanked the general the following day and he told me his own tale and experiences.
Here in Jangi-Julu, everything was different - the climate, location and spirit. There was regular food out of a cauldron, rice and bread. My first earthquake and my first scorpion! Above all, there was the hope of freedom and the enthusiasm for the resurrection of the Polish Army. New Polish songs were heard, such as “General Anders is our Polish Moses”.
The last detachment of Polish families was to leave for Persia in August: so started our last and hardest journey to freedom. I lost my children in the crowds of humanity and then found them, crying and as terrified as I was. We were piled into enormous high cattle trucks, and started for the West. The train stopped in between stations and anyone who wanted to and was strong enough jumped out of the train to stretch their legs and relieve themselves. It was a risky business as the train started slowly, stopped, the trucks collided with each other, tugged, started again and then suddenly shot off and sped without stopping for many hours. Somewhere past Bukowina, when we stopped yet again, I jumped out and “modestly” went a bit farther from the wagon. Suddenly the train started and accelerated fast. Hundreds of hands were stretched out towards me from the open wagons which were rapidly passing. I ran alongside the track, and at last, miraculously, I was pulled inside. The train was already at full speed. The floor of the wagon was higher than me and while I was being pulled in I was hanging by my arms, bouncing against the wagon with my breasts, then my abdomen, the weight of my body pulled under the wagon. Next day, I was black and blue in one piece and with my family.
We reached Krasnowodsk during the night. I took my mother to a hangar and we slept in the one for mothers and children, throwing ourselves down on the “threshing floor”. Suddenly, we woke to the command to board a train that was going to the Caspian Sea. In the dark, people stampeded, swore and raced blindly not to be left behind in that hell. The last part of our journey was starting.
I could not manage to fetch my mother. I could not wake the children, so I grabbed them roughly in my arms and ran in the general direction. I had the strength of an enraged lioness, fighting for her cubs. Someone in uniform helped me to carry the children and then we travelled by train to the port. The ship was already waiting there. I made constant enquiries about my mother and was consoled that the old people would reach us in time.
Then we embarked: the ship was dangerously overfilled when it sailed, without Mother. We lay close together, under a lifeboat. I went on looking for Mother. Someone died and was thrown overboard. Many were seasick. We reached Pahlevi, on the Persian shore of the Caspian Sea, where we disembarked. We were welcome by an English orchestra, playing our National Anthem!
From now on, we were free. I woke up on Persian soil, in an enormous tent and suddenly heard my name called by someone leaning over me. It was Stefan Tyszkiewicz (Funcio) who had come to meet the Polish refugees. He was sent by the Red Cross, and had been looking for me in the tent. I thought that we had only been there a short while, but was laughingly told that I had been lying three days and nights. Stefan took us in his car to Teheran, to Sophie who worked in the Polish Consulate and had lived there in a lovely place for some time. To get there we travelled through the narrow passes of the Elburz mountains. The “road” we followed was barely a track, only one vehicle wide. The precipices were kilometers deep and there were no barriers. I was still very ill. We had one stop in Quasvin. Here, I was offered a pork chop to eat and I cried. It was the first time I really understood we were free.
Sometime later, Sophie got a telegram from Colonel Alec Ross who had been placed in charge of the evacuation of the Poles and who was in love with her, that our mother had pneumonia and she was under his personal care. Sophie went to see Mother and I was taken to hospital. My children were taken by Mrs. Bakunowa.
I slept non-stop for many days and nights and was woken up only to eat or by the doctor, Dr. Witkowski. I had malaria and general exhaustion. Each time I woke up, there was someone different next to me, and I was told that the patient before him had died. As there was a shortage of crockery, I had to share a mug with a neighbour who had typhoid. Patients were lying on blankets in the corridor: many died, but nobody really cared what was happening.
Then I was told that Marys was also sick. I do not remember how I found her and brought her to hospital. Her head was shaven and under the skin there was pus and millions of lice. Without getting permission, I took her to the operating theatre. She returned all bandaged up like a snowman. The surgeon was shocked at her condition. Then both of us stayed in the wards where the old and the children died like flies.
After leaving hospital, the children and I spent a few weeks in Shemlan, enjoying being free, clean and not hungry, but suffering from severe attacks of malaria. Then Mother came to Teheran and lived in the House of Catholic Action. Thanks to Stefan’s help, the children were placed in an Italian convent and I started to work. I sewed curtains for the Hotel Imperial, then nearing its opening.
Then I worked in a private bar. Our manager was a pleasant Frenchman, Monsieur Bour. Soon the American Army arrived and filled this hotel with high-ranking officers. A group of us, Polish ladies with daughters of my own age, was selected to work for them, as cleaners and waitresses. The small bar was my domain for the next 18 months, for I became the sole barman. We were all treated with great courtesy by the Americans.
I went on working in the bar in Teheran, and later in Amirabad, in an American camp. I earned a pittance: all my earnings were paid to the convent but they were not sufficient. I lived under the treat that the children would have to leave. Finally, I appealed to Archbishop Maryno, a Papal Nuncio who solved my problem beautifully. He asked how he could help, so I said it would help if he told the nuns that I was paying them all I could afford and that I could find nothing extra. He told me that he had money for special cases like mine, and after there was no suggestion of the children’s having to leave.
In the meantime, both of them were ill - scarlet fever, typhoid and small pox. They had both had measles in Siberia. The convent sent them back to me: the hospital would not admit them, except Marys when she had smallpox. So Marys with scarlet fever and Michal with typhoid shared my bed where I hid them and fed them in secret. I was then living in the Hotel Imperial, sharing a room with four other women.
On Sundays, I visited my mother in the home for the elderly in Teheran or the children: my life was filled with contrasts. I often visited Darbent and I saw Gom and Hamadan. On the way I experienced a horrific sandstorm with whirlwinds. Whenever I had the opportunity, I did some sightseeing.
I was invited to visit the palace of the Shah by a 77-year old minister, Mr. Blahador, an ex-ambasador to Warsaw. He spoke Polish and was enchanted to see a white lady again. Now, he was in charge of protocol, rules, parades, etc. He invited me to see the Peacock Throne room. Treating the servants as dirt, and me as a queen, he explained the beauty of the carpets, huge, heavy, gold samovars and the collection of eggcups made of large stones. I stopped for a long time in the throne room looking at the pictures, touching the treasures and the gifts from kings and other heads of state given as presents and collected over many centuries.
The Peacock Throne, laden with precious stones and pearls, was very imposing. I was even invited to sit on the throne and remember it for the rest of my life but, of course, I refused. Another day, Mr. Blahador told me that he had spoken of me to Favzia, King Farouk’s sister and the Shah’s first wife, and that she had invited me to have coffee with her and her lady-in-waiting, but a few days before we were to go, Mr. Blahador died of a heart attack.
Later, I saw Favzia in the royal box in the theatre. She was wearing a necklace and earrings of splendid emeralds and pearls. I saw the Shah in an open car in the street, just a few yards from me. I also met some of the Persian aristocracy, princes, educated at the Sorbonne and Oxford. They had lovely manners and wonderful brains. Some of their wives were also educated, some came straight from the harem. I was once a guest in one of their strange palaces.
All this time, I was working in the bar. I slept without sheets and the children and I had no underwear, soap, stockings or towel. It was different in the camps, but I did not know it at the time. The antique shops were full of exotic treasures, marvellous things that I could not afford but I was allowed to touch them and was given detailed information in French while being plied with Turkish coffee in tiny cups. As soon as they saw any American, the prices shot up and bargaining was a must.
Most people arrived in Amirabad and many Polish girls came to work there. The whole atmosphere changed and the morale standards became lower, so I returned to Teheran because there was more work there. During the last year in Persia, I worked for the Board of Education. My earnings were much higher. I lived privately and the children were transferred to a Polish school, newly established.
I took every chance to see everything and everywhere. Sometimes, when invited, I could include my mother and the children. Once I went with and American to a nice cafe: walking home, he sang for me in the middle of the street that embarrassed me terribly. I was later told he was an opera singer from New York and it was a great honour that he had sung for me.
The transport of Polish refugees to Africa started and the House of Catholic Action was closed. I arranged a flight to Cairo for Mother, via Damascus: Sophie was now living in Cairo. Michal, Marys and I flew to Damascus where I was almost run over by a plane landing when I ran onto the tarmac to retrieve a dropped parcel. Then we took a taxi to Beirut. We were in time for the wedding of Teresa Giedroyc and Mr. Lickindorf - the same one from Pawlodar.
Soon after that, I left the children with friends in Gasir and went with a few Red Cross ladies to the Holy Land. We visited many famous places. In Nazareth, I lit a candle at the cradle of Christ’s Nativity, praying that Alek would be returned to me. I also tried to float on the surface of the Dead Sea that was very amusing. Returning to Beirut in the scorching heat of summer, I decided to go up to a small village in the mountains.
We had a wonderful summer, the three of us, in the hills of Lebanon. Our life was a bit wild. The people were friendly and simple. We enjoyed every minute of this primitive life, but soon my savings dwindled and the school year started. We returned to Beirut and the children went to school and Marys to a convent as a day pupil. She lived at home with me.
I got a job with the British Headquarters, North Levant, as a Polish liaison officer and made graphs and drawings after instruction by the Royal Engineers. My boss was Colonel A. P. Hodges.
I was in Jerusalem, sightseeing Palestine, when the war came to an end. Tomasz was freed after years’ imprisonment in Murnau Offlag VIIA and started a perilous journey to join us in the Middle East, rather like Ulysses. One day we answered a knock at the door and there he was. We were together again.
At Christmas time, Mrs. Allan, a friend of mine, invited several high-ranking British officers and us for a long visit. Her husband sent her money and she enjoyed buying houses and entertaining. We all had a wonderful time. After a few weeks, Tomasz left to join his unit in Italy and wait there for us. I visited everything I could.
Once, I saw an old, dilapidated school packed with small girls, 6 to 10-year olds. They wore rags and had bare feet: they were slave labour, used for treading silk cocoons. Another time I saw an old man making pottery jugs in the open air. During the Spring, I left for Egypt with the children. Our luxury train ticket was a present from my colleagues in the office. My mother and Sophie were already in Rome. The aim of our next journey was Italy. The Polish Army was there and with it Tomasz was waiting.
We lived in tents in a military camp in Casssin, near Cairo. Everyone was in uniform. During this period of waiting, we went sightseeing in Cairo. We visited the Pyramids and the Tutankahmun museum where the children had a fight as to which sarcophagus was the most beautiful and worthy for me to be buried in! One night in the desert, I heard the Warsaw Concerto played by German prisoners of war, many of whom were professional musicians. A full moon and bulrushes completed the fairy tale atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Victor Emmanuel III, the Italian king, died. Umberto replaced him, the monarchy was abolished and the frontiers were closed. We waited a bit longer. The ship that was going to fetch us was diverted to Cyprus but when it got there it was blown up by the Jews. We waited again.
And so weeks went by and summer finished, as well as our money. Scypio del Campo of the Cairo Red Cross had promised to give me my back pay in Italy but I never got it. I failed to get help for our food but the children had the bright idea of getting a job in a Polish cafeteria. They took the dirty plates to the kitchen and were given food in return. They were also given chocolate and tins of sardines. This was our food until the end of our stay in Egypt.
On 1 September 1946, exactly seven years after the outbreak of war and on my birthday, we sailed from Alexandria to Naples. The sight of half-sunken battle ships in the Bay of Naples is something I shall never forget. There were many Polish troops stationed in the South of Italy, some of whom had taken part in the Italian campaign, including the battle for Monte Cassino. I was met by the Red Cross who told me that the Marys thumbed us a lift in a jeep with Polish officers by darting into the road and asking if we could travel with them.
When we got to Rome, the driver of the jeep found us a lodging where we had a very small room. Soon after, the lady who owned the house gave us a great bowl of spaghetti. A little later, a note pushed under our door, from the driver, told us that our lodging and food had all been paid for. Although I did not speak Italian, I said the name of my cousin, Monsignor Valeriano Meysztowicz who worked in the Vatican as a senior official. The landlady recognized the name and immediately telephoned him. I asked whether he knew where my mother was staying and he said that she was standing beside him at that moment. I spoke to her on the telephone, and it was arranged that we should take a taxi to her convent.
After such a long time apart, on 8 September, on my parents’ fiftieth Wedding Anniversary that was also Mother’s Name Day, all her three daughters joined her - Lili from Siberia, Sophie who was living in Rome and me.
Lili’s story was remarkable. We had had to leave her in a polish home in Siberia. After the Amnesty, Lili went to the railway station to try to return to Poland. The train she got on suddenly stopped. Lili got out and saw it had no locomotive: it was a cattle truck with only corpses inside. She set off walking towards Poland. How she survived we do not know but she eventually found a station with a train going west. She finally arrived in Warsaw to find the city totally devastated. She sat down and a woman spoke to her: she turned out to be a nurse working for our uncle! Such are the coincidences of life, in war and peace.
Tomasz was in England. He had written to me about it in Lebanon but I was already in Egypt and I wrote to Italy when he was already in England! So I had to find him there. First we went to San Giorgio and waited there: after a few months we all left by train for Ancona and then to Dover and a new country.
I have written at long length about short episodes in my life and then I have only briefly mentioned that we spent “x” amounts of time in some country: sometimes it was a very long time. It seems to me that while I was in the Middle East my time was so varied and flashed by so rapidly that even now I am unable to select what to narrate and what to leave out.
Should it be funny or interesting happenings during my office work in Teheran and Beirut, or encountering Americans and their view of life? Or maybe the deep-rooted culture of the East for example, such as the pink Palace of Persian aristocracy? Or perhaps the severe illness of my children, or the time spent by the three of us in the mountains of Lebanon? Or the sand storm in the desert and the treasures of the crown room of the Shah that I saw privately? Or about the visits to my mother, or pleasant evenings with Polish friends as well as English ones? Or perhaps something else?
There are some things impossible to relate. After long years of negotiations with Russian authorities in Warsaw, they allowed Alek, our younger son, to leave Poland and be reunited with his family in England. On 7 December 1956, at last we met him. Our joy and emotions at that wonderful meeting and the fact that our beloved son had been returned to us are still impossible to describe.
I am alone in my old age, but I am not lonely, as what I have lived through is mine and remains always with me. Everything I have written may not be perfectly exact but it is as I see it now, through the mists of time. I quote from some words I read somewhere:
“It is not healthy to let yourself collapse into nightmare of the past. I prefer to be positive, to think about the good side of life. I certainly didn’t think of it as being brave. It was just something I had to do. It is only when I look back that I think “Did I really do that?”. I am horrified now to think of the risks we ran. But, when you are young, you do not think with caution, you simply launch yourself into the storm. You do not imagine you might be the one to die. I never doubted that I would make it.”
Did I read these words or did I write them? No matter. They say what I want to say and explain how we all felt.
Facts And Comments
I was deported with my children on 13 April 1940 to Siberia, to Pawlowskaja Oblasc, in Kazakstan. We crossed the Irtysz river by ferry boat to a bare steppe covered with snow. Soon, the ice on the river melted suddenly, casing a few people to be drowned. Labour camps were formed from the deported Polish families (a minority was Belarusians, Jews, Russians, Tartars, Grusians, Ormians and others). One cannot say that we were treated as equal to the locals. All the inhabitants of the camps were deportees, treated as prisoners.
We were not compelled to check in, as we were constantly supervised by the N.K.W.D. and “kapusi”. A photographer arrived who took pictures of us for the records held in the camp office. They wanted to force us to take out Russian citizenship but the majority of Poles refused, in spite of being threatened with five years’ hard labour.
Earning money was out of the question: work was obligatory: those who did not work did not receive bread coupons. The pay was minimal, we were starving. I do not think the Poles became acclimatised: we were all waiting for freedom, the end of the war and of this stagnation.
When, in 1939, eastern Poland was occupied by the Russian army, it was after a few months of arrests that they started the deportation into Russian interior, past the Ural mountains, to the Kazakstan steppes and farther. The victims were mainly of prisoners and those under arrest but in reality no-one knows the main reason for the deportations. The majority were woman, children, the elderly and the sick. From time to time, an able-bodied man was included.
How they managed to survive a three-week journey in cattle trucks, nobody knows. Some dead bodies of children were simply thrown out of the windows. And then labour camps: small girls tending bulls, woman and children making bricks, felling trees in forests, etc. One writes about it, but never adequately. It is an exceptional chapter of the last war.
“At the end of the voyage, the whole ship “Molotow” was painted with the excretions of suffering stomachs. It was on 11 August, in the morning when the ship stopped, well out of Pahlevi port. We were afraid that the ship might be sent back to Russia with us on board. We were afraid that the ship might be sent back to Russia with us on board. Perhaps the captain was ashamed to show the Persians his soiled ship. They stood at the quay together with polish and English military personnel. They wanted to sympathise with us as we disembarked from the large vessel.”
I felt totally drained and fainted on the shore, whilst some were deliriously happy, ready to kiss the land of freedom, and marched along the Caspian Sea, singing, with tears of happiness. We forgot the Soviet lice. We were truly drunk with freedom, crazy with happiness that we had left behind the life of people enslaved by the Bolsheviks. The Persians threw fruit to us and the eagerly desired cigarettes: they greeted us as if we were their friends. Before stepping into bath houses, we threw our clothes, infested with lice, onto an enormous burning pile. We left through another door, clean and clad in clean underwear, trousers and jackets, wearing shoes called “komisniaki”. We left behind two years of hell: we still dream about it often, we, the lucky ones.
O should like to remind you of another crime that is seldom mentioned but ought not to be forgotten. According to the agreement between Molotow and Ribbentrop, eastern Poland was seized by Moscow, including Vilnius and Lwow. The consequences were sad and even tragic, as already in 1939 and 1940 eastern Poland was purged of Poles who were deported to the interior of Russia and on to Siberia.
The exiles were children, women and old people. They were transported in railway trucks with barred windows and doors, without water, food or sanitation for thirty-five days to Siberia for hoped-for annihilation. A few families at a time sent to tiny villages, so separated from their mothers in order to “Russianize” them. Elsewhere in the world, there was a war, but in Siberia the victims of the frosts and hunger disappeared without mercy.
In 1942, the prisons and camps opened up. A polish army was formed from emaciated soldiers who had survived two years of imprisonment. Some others joined them, including starving children who were taken under the wing of General Andres. Some of the soldiers and civilian deportees managed to leave this inhuman land, but they were few in number. Those who were in the depths of Russia knew nothing of this “amnesty” and were unable to reach the meeting points. They were trapped and therefore fated to remain in Siberia.
From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1936-1941
Friday, 1st September.
There is a war on as from the morning. Hitler occupied Gdansk. Our Parliament is meeting tonight at six o'clock. Yesterday evening we learned of the conditions dictated to Poland. We had some hope then. As things stand I shall do my best to be at home at one o'clock to hear the announcement of the formal declaration of war.
The Germans announced sixteen points which were to pacify the conflict with Poland. They were quite impossible to accept and were really an ultimatum. Hitler declared the occupation of Gdansk but omitted to mention that a Polish detachment at Westerplatte was defending it and fought the Germans until 7 September.
Saturday, 2nd September.
Chamberlain tried to end the conflict amicably. But Arthur Greenwood, standing in for the leader of the Labour Party, said that it was no longer possible for a compromise. England’s duty was to honour her guarantee of aid to Poland.
On Sunday, 3 September, at eleven o'clock, the ultimatum for the German army to withdraw, issued by Great Britain, lapsed. And thus at 11.50 a.m., the British Prime Minister in his speech to the nation declared war on Germany.
On the same day, the British liner “Athenia”, taking 1500 passengers to Canada, was torpedoed by a German submarine 250 miles west of the Hebrides: 120 people lost their lives.
Virginia Woolf made a note in her diary for 3 September. “I suppose that bombs are falling in Warsaw on rooms like mine.” On 11 September she writes, “After conquering Poland our turn will come”. On Saturday, 23 September, she notes, “In the meantime Poland has been devoured, divided between Germany and Russia”.
In fact, Warsaw was not occupied until 28 September, and the battle in the region of Kock (Lublin County) between the Germans and Poles led by General Francis Kleeberg did not end until 5 October 1939. Tomasz who was in the last group of General Kleeberg’s Polish army was captured near Kock and imprisoned by the Germans and then taken to Murnau.