In the summer of 1941 the Polish government in exile in London received permission from the Soviet Union to release several hundred thousand former Polish citizens from labor camps, prisons and forcible resettlement in the Soviet Union, to organize military units among the Polish deportees, and later to transfer Polish civilians to camps in the British-controlled Middle East and Africa.
As we had no “educated leader, mostly farmers and sundry, we wandered from place to place looking for the army. Eventually, near Tashkent (the capital city of Uzbekistan), we found a base, and to our sorrow, our father took his only son (by now 11 years old) and joined the army. He had no choice; had to do it. The army, in return, fed us a little of their leftovers but not for long as they had to move on, gathering other bases, going towards Iraq. When we were strong enough, my little cousin and I would walk to the army base, 10 km away, for some leftovers but one day I couldn’t return. I simply fell down and couldn’t move. Late in the afternoon, when Marysia came back from work and heard what happened, she came looking for me and had to carry me back.
Miraculously, after 5 weeks and extreme hunger, Helena found her way back to us.
The four girls, left alone somewhere in the Middle East, together with some 50 other mothers and children, slept in a hall, but this time picking cotton in the heat of day. Again they were paid but they had to buy their own food of which there was little for sale. No shops or bakeries; just a cotton picking community doing the same job. We lived in mud huts, cooking outside in unhygienic conditions, no running water, just mud holes, no toilet facilities – just one huge whole for everyone’s perusal. I still could not work as I took ill; drinking mud water from the “well” (from which all animals also drank) as well as all the vermin eating us every night, gave me typhus. No medicine, no water, nobody to look after me during the day, but I survived. Could not walk; just crawled and had to be lead around like a baby for a few days.
I had not had a bath or brushed my teeth since I left Poland. By now, I had no changing pair of clothes or shoes. I did not even have a comb for my long blonde hair, could not cut it short as no scissors. No cutlery or crockery at all. Hands, not always clean, were very useful (I hadn’t seen soap since Poland). But these were the least of our problems; our will to survive was strong.
At last, word got to us that the last convoy of soldiers was leaving the area by train on their way to Iraq and were willing to smuggle us and drop us off in Iran. (They knew our fathers and brothers had joined the army.) One soldier had hidden me in his duffel bag and put me up on the rack. After the inspection by the Russian militia for any civilians leaving, he let me out. He also fed me his ration of dry bread.
In Krasnovodsk (Turkmenistan), we waited for about an extra 2 days for some boat, or barge, large enough to accommodate 1500 people. It was scorching hot, no fresh water to drink; we were waiting next to the ocean but could not even take a dip because crude oil was floating on top – the smell. We slept on the beach, all we had was what we were wearing, and no shoes (for the last 2 years). The hunger you eventually don’t feel but the thirst! The tongue gets dry and swollen; so does the throat – often delirious and hallucinating.
We left from Krasnovodsk (only a large cattle barge available), crossed the Caspian Sea and disembarked in Pahlavi. (The last ruling shah of Persia’s surname). The voyage was slow and very long; we were 1000 people over the limit. Again, not enough fresh water (we were fed salted dry fish) and not enough sleeping space or toilet facilities.
We were beyond caring as long as we did not make a hole in the bottom of the barge. WE WERE FREE! Our train was the last one out of Russian territory. (This all pertains to the Grand Alliance and other factors regarding the war).
As we were the last to reach Iran, the Red Cross had already set up a network and provided us with food and transport to Tehran, the capital.
An army of Polish soldiers, of both sexes, set up huge army tents to accomodate 7000 people, mostly mothers and children (mainly girls) with a few old men. The airfield was the most ideal place for it. All they did was dig enough trenches, screened them off with their ground sheets and, Bob’s your uncle, we had latrines.
Soldiers made showers with disinfectant soap and water; they even washed our bodies for us. Shaved us all and everywhere, de-liced us, took all the scabs off our bodies, and those were everywhere. Soldiers cried like babies while doing all of this for us. One cried over me because I was so skeletal. I still, nearly 70 years later, have scars on my hands. (My grandmother always used to cry when she told me this part. In order to get a lot of the bugs out from under the skin, the soldiers had to scrub until the children bled.) They also had a pile of clothes for us. We stood around them as they picked up a garment; they would look around to assess who it might fit and threw it to us. No underwear or shoes were available.
Soldiers cooked and fed us for a couple of months, even gave us their canteens (well, half). First, we ate (with fingers and all) and then we got something to drink. Everything was washed with sand, but who cared. We ate and drank enough but I remained skeletal.