My babcia (Polish for grandmother) and I haven’t always been on the best of terms, but every now and then she’d share a story about her past which left me flabbergasted. How this woman had endured so much and still lived to tell us the tale… Well now I share it with you: this is her memoir. I haven’t edited her work much, so her thoughts may appear disjointed as she would think in both Polish and English. It took her many weeks to write as much as she did but she wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget… This is her story about how she survived World War II.
Poland was under occupation for about 150 years. Prussia took North-West, Austro-Hungarian Empire took South-West and Russia helped herself to North and South and as far as the Bug River to the West. Central Poland remained Polish.
Both of my parents came from the same area (Mielec, south of Krakow) and were under Austrian occupation. Due to mixed marriages, both parties ended with Austrian surnames: mother was Miss Anna Korb and father was Stefan Mytych.
After the first world war, Poland received her independence from her oppressors. A dispute between Ukraine and Poland resulted in another skirmish and Poland getting Ukraine back as a Polish province – Podole. (Basically both Ukraine and Poland fought for Podole but it was returned to Poland where my family stayed). Many Polish soldiers that fought in that skirmish decided to buy farmland and move their families east.
In 1920, the Korb and Mytych families moved to Podole and bought all the land that was offered to them. My father married my mother in 1922 – of said marriage, five living children were born: Maria – 1923, Helena – 1926, Emilia – 1928, Eugeniusz – 1930 (my mother, Eugenia, was named after the only boy) and Teresa – 1932.
My parents, as you can imagine, worked very hard. Land was very fertile and everything grew big and plentiful but it took a mismarriage for my mother to get outside help. My father kept on buying available land and eventually he needed help too – a stableman.
Simple, hard but peaceful life came to an end
On 1st September 1939, Hitler (Germany) and Stalin (Russia) declared war on Poland. Polish army fought for 6 weeks – Poland wasn’t ready for another war. Once again, history repeated itself and Poland was no more… 39 million of us!
We knew the war was on as German planes dropped bombs on schools and hospitals and machines gunned our farm workers – September in Europe is harvesting time as well as school starting their new year – they had to be closed. As a result, I started my schooling for only a couple of days.
Russian soldiers, and their might, marched on us from the east and took over as conquerors.
Siberia: a cold, harsh and unforgiving land. Ideal place – according to Catherine the Great, the Russian Empress – for prisoners, be it political or criminal.
10th February 1940
This day I shall never forget. February, in Poland, is the coldest month.
Russian soldiers came while we were still in deep sleep. Rudely and loudly commanded us to take the barest minimum as where we were going, there was plentiful of everything. Hurry up, Hurry up. They looked at us and, with a pointed finger, selected who was going. My mother, ill after her miscarriage, was not one of them. She should stay at home and look after her parents who lived next door. My father objected because Mother was ill herself and her parents so old, so Marysia (my oldest sister, 16 at the time) should stay behind and look after them all. But Marysia would not let us go without her as she reasoned, who would look after us? Five children? Father eventually saw her point and the six of us packed our mere belongings and left on our own sleigh, with two soldiers guarding us, to the nearest railway station. It was a long journey as it was 8km away… That was the last time I saw my mother. I was seven.
The night was beautiful; full moon shone on miles of flat farmland covered in metres of snow… sheer fairyland. There were no bells on our sleigh, just us six, bewildered, not knowing how or where we were going, people crying silently as no talking was allowed.
A sight to shudder at awaited us at the station. Screaming throngs of people were being pushed into empty cattle wagons; lost children called for their mothers, mothers shouting their children’s names, soldiers pushing us in faster and faster so that they could lock the doors from the outside. There were just not enough soldiers to control the procedure. They tried to stop civilians from escaping.
Inside, the wagons were divided into two sections, centre was for standing only. Holes in the wooden floors were cut out, to be used as toilets. And as for sleeping arrangements, wooden bunkers were spaced high enough so a big person had to crawl in – even a child could not sit up. The only windows, or ventilation, we had were narrow openings near the roof of the wagon (which we used, using one hand, to gather snow for drinking). In the centre of the wagon, near the toilet hole, was a very small hole which, of course, had to burn day and night, otherwise only frozen corpses would have arrived at the selected destinations.
In the morning, the door would open and coal and water were thrown in. In the evening, we got soup and and more coal. Corpses were also removed. We were not allowed off the train to stretch our legs.
Confusion reigned supreme as only a few knew what was going on. They knew who and where they were getting off the train. The rest of us went on and on – by then, some had guessed we were going north-east. For four weeks we lived like that on the train.
At last, it was our turn to get off the train – we were well into March by then. We were near Arkhangelsk (Archangel), White Sea. (This is situated in the north of European Russia). Our means of transport was bobsleigh – driven by man-power. Each family had its own. Our father pulled or pushed us north-east on the river Dvina for a couple of days; Marysia was of great help. We still had a few of our feather-down duvets so we survived the cold nights and Father swapped a few of our belongings for before we started the river run.
We arrived at a place which must have been a valley because when the snow started melting, we were drowning – water up to my armpits. They quickly moved us into an existing camp. We were officially prisoners of war.
To be continued…