I was fortunate to be a member of the oral history project “In War and Peace: Collective Memories of the Poles of Birmingham,” a £50,000 project funded by the Lottery Heritage Fund in the UK. In a little-known story of World War Two, hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to the far-flung corners of the Soviet Union. Many died, others spent years in refugee camps uncertain of their fate. I conducted interviews with some of the survivors about their lives and wartime experiences in preparation for a booklet and an exhibition in Birmingham Central Library.
I tell the story of three of the survivors below.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the deportation from Poland’s eastern borderlands of hundreds of thousands of Poles to the far-flung corners of the Soviet empire in a relatively little-known story of World War Two. Many died, many returned to communist rule in Poland after years spent in labour camps. Others managed to find refuge in Britain, including Birmingham, after long journeys from one transit camp to the next, where some – many were only children at the time – are still alive and have vivid memories of a time that changed their lives forever. This is the poignant story of three of the survivors.
A loud knock at the door in the middle of a freezing night in February 1940 was how it started for many. The vast majority would never see their homes again. As settlers of Poland’s newly incorporated eastern borderlands, territory today occupied by Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, the Soviets annexed the land under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and drew up lists for the deportation of whole groups of the population to the Soviet Union.
The daughter of a Polish military settler (osadnik), Mirosława Golya, who was only five at the time, recalls events with vivid clarity: “It was 3 am when I woke up to the sound of Russian soldiers entering the house. I remember my mother screaming, and my father was pushed against the wall. One of the kinder soldiers told my mother not to cry, and told us to pack up the practical things as we were not coming back. My whole family, including seven siblings, was put on a sledge pulled by horse which took us to the train station where lots of families were gathered.”
For eighteen year-old Jan Maślonka, who had ambitions of becoming a pilot, there was no knock at the door. Instead, in the spring of 1940, he made his way to Białystok to try to reach Warsaw in order to join the Polish army: “I made my way with five others. We needed to cross the border. There was really deep snow so we decided to walk along the railway tracks but we got stopped at a junction with a road by a Soviet border guard.” Interred in a prison for four months, Jan was subsequently sentenced to three years’ hard labour for illegally trying to cross the border and was deported to a work camp in the Komi Republic, west of the Ural mountains.
Packed on to cattle trucks, they would spend weeks in inhumane conditions heading east by train deep into the heart of the Soviet Union. In fact, most deportees ended up in the Archangel region of north-west Russia; some were even sent as far as eastern Siberia. “We travelled on the train for 3-4 weeks”, recalls Mirosława. “Most of the time we had no water and I remember people taking snow from the roof of the train to melt. One morning I couldn’t get up as my hair had frozen to the wall. I also remember a Russian soldier giving me a piece of chocolate which came in a tin. It was the first time I had had chocolate and for a long time I thought that it always came in tins.” And while despair dominated the minds of those heading toward an uncertain fate, Jan remembers that, “We never believed the communists and Hitler could make peace for a long time – we needed something to aim for, something optimistic, otherwise you would just go to pieces.”
Death and Hard Labour
Put to work in labour camps, often out in the forests felling and transporting timber, they were among millions of prisoners the Soviet Union utilised in the war effort against the Nazis. “I was employed in the labour camp drilling for oil”, says Jan. “Often the pipes got clogged up with sand and we had to take them out, clean them, and put them back again. I remember it being so cold that winter [1940-41] that the trees used to snap as the sap froze. I’d be working night shifts at 2 am, the coldest part of the night with a hard frost.” Housed in barracks infested with insects, daily rations revolved around a meagre piece of bread, soup and porridge.
Others were transported further south. Then eight year-old Blanka Kuzminska and her family (except for her father who was sentenced to twenty-five years’ hard labour in the north of Russia) were transported on April 13, 1940, to a kolkhoz in Russia on the border with north-western Kazakhstan. Put to work in the fields, they scraped by on whatever means they could, often relying on the goodwill of the local Russian population: “We all suffered from malnutrition, scurvy, and other illnesses. Everyone had lice and I had to have my head shaved. My mother used to tell the fortunes of the Russian women in the village by reading the cards for them. I remember that quite often she was right in predicting good news that they would soon get a letter or visit from their husband or son in the army. In return, we got milk and eggs which helped us to survive.”
One thousand kilometres north-east of Moscow, meanwhile, Mirosława remembers the exact name and location of the camp her family was sent to: Archangelskaja oblast, Kotlaski rejon, Posiolek Manastyr. “I remember that my father managed to purchase a goat for milk, and that in the summer we picked mushrooms and berries in the forest. We also used to steal potatoes from the locals. But the situation got worse the longer we stayed because of the lack of food. My mother’s eighth child was stillborn and I remember my father making a little coffin.” Deaths were to be common from malnutrition and disease in the appalling cold.
But in August 1941, news of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union reached the camps. They were free to go. “We were told that the Polish government had signed an agreement with Russia. They [the Soviets] appealed to us to go on working as before, but in September we left. 1600 of us from the camp left by train bound for southern Russia where the Polish army was being formed,” recalls Jan.
In the spring of 1942, his unit, which had assembled at a training facility for Polish pilots, was transferred to Uzbekistan, and in August 1942, the Polish army left for the Middle-East. From present-day Turkmenistan, Jan crossed the Caspian Sea to the Iranian port of Pahlavi. From there a truck took the unit to Iraq, boarding the HMS Devonshire to Pakistan where he spent Christmas; he then boarded transports to India and South Africa. Jan was aboard the Empress of Canada bound for England on March 13, 1943, when it was torpedoed by an Italian submarine off the coast of West Africa. “It happened in the night and I was sleeping below deck. When the first torpedo hit, I went up on deck and managed to scramble in a lifeboat. As we were floating on the water, the Italian U-boat surfaced and the Italian prisoners tried to scramble aboard but were kicked off, with only officers being rescued. The U-boat lit up the scene and you could see the whole bloody tragedy.” Of the 1800 people on board, nearly 400 drowned – many of them Italian prisoners.
Blanka and Mirosława were also transported to Iran from Central Asia, where conditions did not become any easier. “I remember being sent to the butcher, and he threw the intestines of a cow into the water and said ‘now you go and get them’,” says Mirosława. Worse was to come when her mother and sister succumbed to malnutrition and disease; they were buried in Tehran. And while the amnesty had allowed them to escape the Soviet Union, others in the depths of Soviet Russia did not manage to leave. By 1943, Polish-Soviet relations had deteriorated again and the window of opportunity was closed. Of those who survived the labour camps, they returned to the new socialist Poland after the war.
Buy while Polish men of fighting age, such as Jan, eventually managed to reach Britain in 1943 via military transports in order to join the war effort, for Blanka and Mirosława the journey was not over. Both spent over five years in refugee camps in what was then southern Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe, and where they first got to know each other. Transports for families to Britain were not arranged until 1948, a full three years after the war had finished – and eight years after having first been ejected from their homes by the Soviets. Growing up in Africa as a teenager, Blanka nevertheless remembers them “as the happiest times of my life, and I had friends my own age”.
Finally arriving in England – others ended up in Australia and Canada among other countries – Blanka and her family settled in Preston in 1949, where she went to grammar school for two years and where a lot of Poles worked in the Lancashire cotton mills. But in the beginning of the 1950s, many of the mills closed down so many Poles came to Birmingham where there were more jobs available. Also settling in Birmingham, Mirosława recalls arriving in England “seeing all this green grass and hedges. It was so green and beautiful after the yellow of Africa”.
In the closing years of the war, Jan trained as a fighter pilot doing his first solo flight on a Tiger Moth. Finishing his training in November 1944, he got a posting in No. 315 squadron with the rank of flight sergeant and flew in three operational missions. In a more amusing episode, he laughingly tells of a flying a Mustang to Castle Bromwich in order to attend a college interview; he was subsequently admitted to pursue a degree in engineering at what later became Aston University.
Yet, more than half-a-century on, the story does not end there. Tears welling in her eyes, Mirosława emotionally recalls a visit ten years ago to Tehran with her son to visit the graves of her mother and sister. “I didn’t even know if the cemetery still existed”, she says. There the Polish embassy informed her that she was the first pilgrim to have made her way back to Iran. Not only was she able to lay flowers and a wreath at the site of the graves, but, remarkably, she was also introduced to the gravedigger who had buried her mother and sister, then in his eighties.
Of his childhood home in present-day Ukraine, “I never went back”, says Jan, “but I know that the house I lived in is still there, but it has been converted into a larger block.” Blanka did, however, revisit Ukraine a few years ago, and while her old house was gone, she managed to track down her father’s relatives.
Seventy years have elapsed since they first embarked on their perilous journeys. They have gone on to lead normal lives in their new adopted countries around the world, and of those still alive to tell their tale, they are now in their late seventies and eighties or older. The memories are still painful for those who lost family and for those who witnessed traumatic events. However, in spite of the dangers and hardships endured, it is also a story of coming to age amidst the backdrop of exotic lands and turbulent upheaval. “We saw the world”, says Jan. And as Mirosława and Blanka enter into their eighth decade of friendship, and where they still today often meet up at the Polish Centre in Birmingham, it is also a story of humanity in adverse conditions and the forging of life-long friendships in what were tumultuous times.