Prisoners of War
We were now prisoners of war and they moved us into an existing camp. They still kept First World War prisoners there. To make room for us, they resettled the prisoners amongst the locals who, by the way, were descendants of long ago political prisoners. I don’t remember anything from the journey to the new camp as I was mostly unconscious due to pneumonia that I had caught but at least I am still here to tell the story.
The camp faced the river Dvina and the other three sides had very high wooden walls with huts on top for machine guns, which were removed before we arrived to be used in the war. Dense forest surrounded the camp on all sides. One side had huge gates where guards were present 24/7. It was a labour camp.
At first, we slept on the floor, family after family, with only walking space between us as they were converting the barracks into family units. While sleeping on the floor in a huge hall, we were eaten alive by bed bugs. We had special pieces of wood just to kill them. In the morning, we had to wash the floor to get rid of the blood; our blood.
We all had one room per family; the bigger the family, the bigger the room. Father made 2 double bunkers and that took half the room. Just one stool and one small table, made by my father as well, fitted in also. We even got a stove to share between the families. Wood was plentiful, but wet.
All able-bodied people had to work in the forest, cutting down these old, massive trees, cleaning them of branches and sliding them into the river, which flowed toward Arkhangelsk, where they were caught and processed. Workers were counted and marched to their prescribed areas of work, guarded and marched back to the camp where they were counted again. God help the families of the escapees – they were severely punished.
My father, Marysia and Hela (Maria and Helena, the eldest children) had to work, for which they got paid as we had to buy our own food which was delivered daily to the camp. Food coupons, per person, were issued to us. Working person could buy 2 slices of bread, about 3cm each thick. Non-workers were entitled to 1 slice. They certainly knew how to encourage people to work. They worked on a quota basis: the more you worked, the more you earned. Sundays were free.
Locals used to come by the river to sell their produce and whoever had enough money left over after buying bread could eat better. Mothers without their husbands suffered the worst – no main breadwinner, resulting in many deaths.
Children, too young to work, had to go to Russian schools. Russian teacher used to come to the camp to teach us. Russian alphabet is similar to Greek , thus unknown by Polish people. Although Russian was spoken by Poles living in the east, not many could write the language. I believe I went to school in the summer but definitely not in winter; I would have died in the snow.
One warm summer day, my brother made a small raft from logs of wood and we ventured far into the river. A passing boat made big waves and I fell under the raft so my brother jumped in after me to save me, but alas he was not yet ten and not a strong swimmer – both of us were drowning. Fortunately, a boy of about fifteen was nearby. He swam out, put us on the raft and dragged us back to shore. Other people pumped the water out of us and by the time our father arrived, we were already conscious. Shortly after this incident, they took Father away, deep and far into the forest where he lived and worked for about six months… until he got very ill and they sent him back to us. Five children were left alone in that period.
In 1941, Hitler declared war against Russia and suddenly, we were allies. This news filtered down to us some months later and whoever had enough money to pay for the passage back, could leave. But go back to where? Germant occupied the whole of Poland and war raged against Russia. By then we had stopped receiving help from our mother and no letter arrived. Somebody heard that General Sikorski (a Polish military and political leader) was forming a Polish army in the Middle East and was looking for soldiers, young and old. My mother, still in Poland, was selling off our properties and sending us food and clothe parcels in big quantities thus, for a while, we ate better and survived.
Father decided to sell off what we didn’t need for our next “travel”, so in October 1941, he had enough money to buy us boat passage down south, before the river froze up – the only way of getting out that camp.
For many weeks, we travelled by goods train, at our own expense, to where someone people thought the army might be gathering. We could get out of the wagons at various stations, where the goods were being offloaded, to buy, beg or steal what we could, of which was very little. My eldest sister, Hela, got off the train looking to buy some food and, unbeknownst to her, the train pulled away before she got back. We thought we lost her forever… The train lead us to Kazakhstan, where we stayed for three months and then we headed towards to Turkestan.
To be continued…