Mommy, where’s daddy? Why isn’t he here? Why has he gone away? Why can’t we go home...? But what could my sister Mira know - she was only seven, or my sister Ala - only four; what could they know about war, about Germans, about the Soviets..? What could I know about prison, GULAG, hunger… about death? This was September 1939 – and I was only six months old. But mother knew. At 29 she had seen it all twice before, and she so much had hoped and prayed that she shall not ever see it again. She knew; she was a soldier’s wife, mother of three young children; she knew she had to be strong; she owed it to them… She knew, but she couldn’t stop tears welling in her eyes… and they rolled down her cheeks, quietly, as she stood by the window looking out onto the street - Wilenska street in Postawy.
A small girl of perhaps. six couldn’t resist curiosity - she wormed her way to the curb of Lwowska street and watched the spectacle. The Red Army was triumphantly marching towards the town square. People lined the street; some had erected a welcoming gate festooned with red ribbons, others were waving red flags, but most stood grim-faced, sullen and grey in the brilliant sunshine of 17th September 1939. The girl’s father was not there - he too had gone away; her mother pulled the small girl away and they too went away - as fast as a horse-drawn cart would permit – to Wilno. If only those people knew; those that were waving red flags and adorning the welcoming arch; if only they knew of the prisons, of Siberia and the GULAG that would soon be welcoming them in return – they too would have gone away… to the furthest corners of the world.
A few days later, another little girl was tugging at her father’s coat at the railway station in Wilno. As people walked past, they slowed down… Dad, dad… why are these men on their knees going up the ramp into those wagons..? Daddy, who are these men with guns and red stars on their caps pushing them so much? Daddy… Shush… these are Russians soldiers pushing Polish men, Polish prisoners… shush child. Somewhere, amongst those men on their knees… was my father.
Day 1… 2… day 3… and they are still cramming Polish men into wagons. But by now, Soviet guards had a better idea – the prisoners had to squat, put their hands behind their backs and hop – yes, hop - up the ramp into the wagons! And if you think that’s funny - You try it! And if You are not very good at it - don’t worry - a blow, or two, from a rifle-butt about Your kidneys should teach You the trick… and if it doesn’t? Don’t worry - a few more rifle butts around Your kidneys and Your head will fix that – two men will eventually pick You up by Your shoulders and dump Your limp body onto the floor of a wagon. There, You see… Hell! Was my father perhaps amongst this lot..?
He was a soldier with battle scars from the Wielkopolskie Uprising against the Prussians in 1918, then again in the war against the Bolsheviks in 1920 – against the communists, against the “red peril”. What could he expect from the Soviets now..?
In Postawy, he was in police force and, like hundreds of others he was recalled to armed forces grouping around Wilno. But even before they could face the invading Germans, the Red Army overwhelmed them. He, with hundreds of others, was taken prisoner on the approaches to Wilno, and his war record assured him of only one thing – execution, or the equivalent in years of hard labour in the lagiers of GULAG. And that’s where and how his Lagier Trail begun. Who then foresaw where it would lead and how it would end?
But what if, back in 1940, I had found myself on that train; what if You had been on that train? What kind of men would We have turned out to be?
Would I, driven to desperation by hunger and physical exhaustion, snatch an inmate’s feeding bowl and gulp down his meagre food ration… or would You share your last crumbs with me dying of starvation and exhaustion in a GULAG lagier?
Would I, like that young man coughing blood, his lungs being eaten away by tuberculosis, starving, deprived of any medical help, in utter desperation step out onto a sunlit clearing to the side of the column trudging to work and wait for..? He knew well; he had seen it done to others; he had heard it each morning countless times, and as his brain throbbed its last warning - step to the left, step to the right and we shooo… tthe bullet smashed into his head! His body left for three days in the path of the trudging column, there for all to see; for all to remember lagier’s “second commandment” - “step to the left, step to the right and we shoot” - to kill. Sick, he could no longer live up to the “first commandment” - “you don’t work – you don’t eat” and the corollary – you die.
Would You, or I, like that Tatar who at the end of his fifteen-year (15 years!) sentence in the GULAG lagier had promptly another five added on! Would we like he go mad, eat a dead rat and, dying of food poisoning, next day step into the open so as to freeze to death; put an end to our suffering..? Dead of total physical and mental exhaustion and resignation.
Or would You, or I, fearing Tatar’s, or the young man’s end succumb to NKVD’s seductive promise of enhanced “kettle” - a little more food, a few privileges...? Not for free, of course! In return for denouncing or spying on our fellow prisoners!
Would our instinct for clinging onto life be so strong that we would willingly work extra hard - become a norm-breaking worker -“stachanowiec” - just to get some extra soup, a little more bread, a few privileges and applause from the same regime that had put us into the GULAG lagier? Would we have learned in time the one critical lesson - not to be fooled by promises - but to conserve our strength and health to stay alive, if only just. For no “stachanowiec” will remain so for very long – his strength will inevitably be exhausted and he will then be unceremoniously dumped by the regime to suffer and die with others.
And would You take advantage of some of these privileges? Would You, driven crazy by sex deprivation, hold onto your trousers dangling around Your knees and, with Your penis erect and ready, bridle at having to wait Your turn to fuck a line of women lined up to gratify Your deprivations - like hunger, like sex. – Your reward for supporting the GULAG regime? And what would I do when the awful thought hit me that amongst these women-prisoners could be my wife, sister, daughter... innocent of all trumped-up charges, just like me!?
And would You, driven by exhaustion, hunger, desperation… mutilate your body? Like that man right next to you, gone mad, grabbed an axe and, with a wild scream on his lips, chopped half his foot off… or fingers on one hand… to be sent to hospital… if only for a few days away from these unforgiving work conditions in the taiga. But the “first commandment” would still apply – You and I would still have to work to eat. No matter whether minus a foot, leg, arm, or blind… we could still be used as draught animals to push or pull carts laden with rocks, wood or the dead bodies of our inmates to their burial place…
And would I have survived? Or, would I like the man next to me, driven by exhaustion and freezing cold go to the fire by the railway tracks we are laying down… move ever closer and closer… just to warm myself a little… rest for just a minute or two… the front of my body now almost scorched from the heat of the fire while the -60oC cold penetrates the entire body from the back until, suddenly, like he, I sway and fall, frozen rigid, dead.
And if all this sounds shocking, horrible, unbelievable… remember, you are only reading words, only words – my father and others around him… lived them!
Eventually, those men with guns and red stars on their caps could squeeze no more men into the wagons. Doors slammed shut, keys in the padlocks turned, the barking of guards’ dogs stopped, semi-darkness engulfed the men inside the wagons, the train jerked and moved… Where? Why..?
The euphoria of Poland’s independence regained in 1920, the hope for better future, the smile on Polish faces – they were all gone now. It was bad enough facing German blitzkrieg but nobody foresaw the red “tsunami” that was to engulf Poland on 17th September 1939 – it came in the shape of the Red Army and the millions of its men, tanks and guns… Total bewilderment numbed men’s minds: how could it have happened? why? where? Who’s to blame… our government? our politicians? the generals..? The bubble of more and more heated arguments rose: and what about France, England - our Allies - and the promised help? After all, these men fought, as Poles had always fought “Za Wasza Wolnosc i Nasza” - “For YOUR Freedom and Ours”. Remember Poniatowski? Remember Kosciuszko in the American War of Independence? Remember king Sobieski in the battle of Vienna - who halted the Turks from annihilating Europe - if not the Poles? And who stopped Tatar hordes from annihilating Europe – if not the Poles...? You naïve people! Who fights for YOUR freedom?! You “stupid white men” as Michael Moore would have labelled you – don’t you know? Will you never learn? Your freedom is a matter of political expediency, of national self interest to others, of pounds, shillings and pence – never count, or expect, anything more! Didn’t you know that while your country was being engulfed by the German blitzkrieg from the west and the red tsunami from the east, your “Allies” were fighting the “phoney war” as Churchill had put it himself?! Will you never learn..?!
Rat ta tat… rat ta tat... rat ta tat… No, no… it’s not machine gun fire - too regular and too spaced out for that – it’s the wheels of the train, and they go on and on and on…
Day one, two, three… who knows how many. Suddenly someone whispers – Moscow. The whisper erupts; people rush to the tiny window up above, peer through cracks in the timber walls of the wagon; they recognize the skyline, the shape of domes on the Orthodox churches. Moscow! Ah… now it’s clear – they are being taken east - to Siberia!
Siberia – the land of tears, pain and agony; land of exile and heart-breaking yearning for freedom and for the beloved country. Siberia – the destination for how many hundreds of thousands of Polish freedom fighters, politicians, generals, soldiers, intellectuals, students, peasants even… Who can forget: 1794 – Kosciuszko uprising against the Tsar, and the tragedy of the final three-way partition of Poland between its historical foes: Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Or the November uprising against the Tsar in 1830, or the third uprising against the Tsar in January 1863… And after each futile but heroic uprising many thousands of Polish freedom fighters and sympathizers from all walks of life were executed, imprisoned or deported to Siberia. And now? A de-facto fourth partition of Poland between the same two foes - Russia and Germany - and the world looks on and gives its stamp of acceptance. You heroic, naïve… cocky people - when will you learn..?
A feeling of foreboding descends on the souls of the prisoners; hush… men cringe; shivers run up the spine and numb the brain. Suddenly, in this cramped space, a man stands to attention and from the depth of his chest and heart blares out the Polish National Anthem – “Jeszcze Polska nie zginela poki my zyjemy…” Instantly, the wagon is electrified: the national anthem explodes; the sound carries and is picked up by men in other wagons. The entire train lives through a moment of national pride, hope and will. But how long can a song last; how long can it uplift men’s moral when hunger begins to gnaw at your stomach; when all you get to eat is a bowl of piss-soup, no, not pea-soup, a salty herring and 400 grams of black bread; when men around you begin to die and the cadavers are unceremoniously dumped by the rail trucks… But they all ardently believe that “Poland lives on as long as we are still alive…”
Rat ta tat, rat ta tat, rat… no it’s not machine gun fire – not yet, not today… It’s the wheels of the train going on, and on, and on to… Siberia.
They have been marching now - for how many days? Who can tell in this country of permanent nights in the winter months of Siberia. No… not marching – struggling waist deep in snow. Those at the front found this death-walk toughest for they had to tread waist-deep in the virgin snow; those following them compressed the snow even further so that the last strugglers were walking on a man-made white tract. But that didn’t help the strugglers much, really; there was no place for them in these columns; guard dogs would bite at their shins, rip their rugs until, finally, starving, exhausted, frozen, they would drop and stay – a frozen road marker along the way. Only their clothes, their rugs, their meagre possessions would be stripped off them and taken; a bullet perhaps would spare them agony. And that young Latvian - remember..? yes, the one You might have sat next to in the prison cell..? A strong young man - if anyone, he could have survived. Yet when his old father collapsed, he cradled him in his arms; he stayed… the dogs, the rifle butts, kicks… yet he stayed! And the two gun-shots you heard? You know what they meant! What would you have done? Would I have stayed? Or would I have found compelling reasons to live?
Far too exhausted, frozen, starving to look anywhere other than at their feet, the strugglers missed the first glimmer of some lights ahead, but the guards knew where they were and harassed the column to move at quicker pace. As they cleared the trees, a huge gate loomed out of the darkness just ahead of them flanked by a tall guard tower and - there was no mistaking it - a machine gun was trained on them by two men almost smothered in huge coats and head gear while another man focused a powerful searchlight on them; strong search lights in the distance to the left and right of the gate periodically shook hands with the search light on the tower and lit up high barbed wire fencing extending into the distance. On the way from Moscow to here, wherever “HERE” was, they had seen many such lagiers, but this one was different - this one was meant for them, THEM! A foreboding gloom descended on the men - a haunted castle was ready to suck them into its bowels in the day-time greyness of the taiga. Indeed, a barbed-wire castle haunted by living men such as they, themselves, were to become, and haunted by the NKVD as they were soon to discover.
The gates swung open and five abreast they staggered into the holding compound inside. As they crossed the gate the guards counted them: five, five, five… And just a glance around the enclosure was enough to see that their total was much less than the thousand that had set out on this trek. High barbed wire fencing of the inner enclosure surrounded them… Wait! Stand, sit… but still no food, still no drink… wait! Beyond the immediate barbed wire lay the camp proper: long barracks virtually submerged in snow piled high, deep channels dug out in the snow run between the barracks and other points of the camp.
The camp’s procurator climbs onto the podium; men stand to attention. Listen:
- Rule number 1 - you don’t work; you don’t eat.
- Rule number 2 - when marching in a column, remember – one step to the left, one step to the right, the guards shoot to kill
- Rule number 3 – mind the “death zones” Ten meters inside the barbed wire fencing and tem meters outside the boundary; step into it and guards shoot to kill.
- And you can add rule number 4: there is no escape from here; if the guards don’t kill you, you will perish in the taiga!
Any questions..? Go ahead... you, you and you…
… we haven’t had any food or drink for the past two days; we are starving… our feet, our hands, faces are severely frost bitten – we need some clothing, ours are in rugs…
The procurator listens, attentively it seems, just that faintest smile around his lips; takes no notes – he has good memory – or has he heard it all so many times before? But he promises to pass all the grievances to the camp commandant. And the men didn’t have to wait long for his response.
The commandant rushes onto the podium. Short, squat, a bull with horns hidden under his flat-roofed cap, seething with rage, face almost crimson. Men stand transfixed…
- You scum… you sob’s… you mfc’s… you think the procurator will help you! You dare complain! You dare demand! I am the master of your life and death here – you mfc’s! When you leave the gate and walk in a column to your place of work… who do you think is master!? It’s my armed guards, you stupid sob’s! They can kill you, maim you, give to their dogs… kick you to death… and what can your procurator do? F-all! Remember that! – and he whips out his pistol.
- Line them up! – and they all line up.
- Every tenth man step forward! - Who would want to step forward with the man in this mood, but the guards force every tenth man forward.
- Take them out! - and the guards march every tenth man out the way they all had entered… through the huge gate, and outside… How many? Hundred? More?
There was no pretence; no hiding the horror, the enormity of it all… they all heard machine gun fire… a few single shots… No doubt left in their minds now, crystal clear! Dead cert!
Thank God my father was not one of the “every tenth man” – he survived; he lived through it all. Thank God?! An awful thought races through my mind: how dare I say; how dare I even think “thank God”! My father saved - his wife, children, his closest family – five, perhaps ten people, in all - relieved, happy… But what about the 100 other “every tenth” men; what about the tragedy in their families – do we say “thank God” for that too? What convoluted explanations of God’s will must we concoct to assuage the pain inside the families of that one 100 men? What would You say to them..?
But where was this place - HERE - for my father?
Was it the prison of Pawliszchev Bor, or Kozielsk, or Vologda, or Kotlas, or some other transitory camp for the thousands of prisoners? Whichever one it was, he wouldn’t have been kept there for very long; the omnipotent, omnipresent NKVD would have already proscribed his fate and sent him on an “etap” - the journey to his end. He didn’t talk much of those years – hardly ever in fact. Was it because of the scars left on his mind by the horror of his experience; or was it because I had never asked; or was it simply that he died too soon and I was too preoccupied with myself to ask? And as I search my memory I recall that Kola Peninsula and Archangelsk had been mentioned, and now, the story of his three years in Stalin’s “Garden of Eden” emerges.
Just a day, or so, before the 1st September 1939, he would have left Postawy, his home and his family, and moved with groups of other policemen and border guards towards Wilno to join up with Polish regular armed forces in the region. But within the first few days of the war, Polish armies in the north-east of the country were routed by the German armour and my father would have had no choice but to cross the border into neutral Lithuania. There, he would have been interned in a camp, most probably in Rokiszki.
Then came September 17th 1939 – the day the Red Army crossed the Polish border; the day the fate of Poland was sealed between Stalin and Hitler; the day my father’s fate was sealed.
At that time, Lithuania was independent - but not for long. In June 1940 Lithuania became part of the USSR and the Soviets took over the internment camps. The NKVD was ready; the fate of the internees was approved and sealed beforehand. In the next day or so, some 2000 Polish internees were transported to more secure prisons in Juchnovo and Kozielsk. From there, Polish officers were sent to an even more secure prison – to their death in Katyn; but my father and 1000 other prisoners were packed into freight trains and shipped north… And I wonder what that little girl from Wilno would have seen here at the railway station, and what question she would have asked her father, for these were all condemned men now.
They were no longer internees in a neutral country - now they were prisoners, not even war prisoners - for the Soviets entered Poland as the country’s “liberators” to give it an “appropriate” government; Stalin was not at war with Poland! Now my father and the 1000 others became common criminals, or accused of treason! Can you imagine: Polish soldiers fighting Hitler, taken prisoner by the Soviet army, accused of treason - against whom? - against Russia?! Now they were expendable; the penalty – to be worked to death in GULAG camps.
And so the train rolled north – 80 men crammed into each cattle wagon, starving and dying of thirst and suffocation. Seven days later the train stops; men stagger out into the open – Murmansk – end of May 1941. Those who still had the strength, had to struggle a further eight kilometres from the station to a holding place – like cattle inside barbed wire fencing – under open skies. Those who survived to tell the story, remember this place as the “valley of tears” or the “valley of death”. And this was just the beginning…
Two weeks later, the next etap was ready for them – marched to the port of Murmansk, crammed into the ship “Staliniec” and despatched on another “leisure” trip, this time round the nose of the Kola Peninsula to a “welcoming” party at the mouth of River Ponoi. Can you imagine rats, the size of kittens, nibbling at your toes – for they were also starving? The welcoming party could not have been a surprise to my father and the others, not now, not any longer. And so it turned out to be - tut washa moghila - proclaimed the camp commandant. They understood; no need for translation; just look around; “this is your grave”… it’s obvious.
But who wants to remember that now? Who talks about it now? Look up the internet; look up Kola Peninsula; look up Ponoi… what do you see; what do you read? What do tour operators propose? The best in the world salmon fishing in the River Ponoi – see the rich Americans, their faces beaming delight? They will entice you by fantastic skiing on the slopes of the beautiful Khibiny Mountains, or to adventure across the rivers, swamps, lakes and the beautiful taiga that smells and feels, and still is, almost virgin, unexplored territory even today; you will be jostled in 4x4’s and massive x-army trucks, for only such can meet the challenge. They will show you a village of Pomorcy, or rather, what’s left of these coastal settlers who have lived here for centuries. They will show you the desert - yes, desert, yellow sand - in the tundra, north of the Arctic Circle, where the wind uncovers the dead in the graves of the village cemetery and heaps sand dunes on the living! Or they can take you to visit a genuine village of the Saami People - the Lapps – to sleep in their abodes, taste their food, see their culture on display in museums; and if you come in winter, you will see them herding reindeer. And, oh, there’s so much more…
So who wants to hear about the Gulags on Kola; about the spill-over lagiers here from the Solovetsky Islands as early as the 1920’s. Or about the 500 mile long telephone line strung across the Kola from Murmansk to the mouth of the Ponoi where you couldn’t have got lost for, if you couldn’t see the telegraph poles, you could follow the skeletons of those that laid the line… Who wants to hear about the forcible collectivization of the Lapps, about their resistance, about the fate they suffered at the hands of Lenin and Stalin; or about the brutal relocation inland of the Pomorcy people from the Barents Sea coast in the north of Kola to make room for the now-defunct military installations on the coast. No… you will be talking to the second or third generation of the inhabitants of Kola; they too want work, to live in the modern world, not necessarily to be drunk, unemployed, without much hope… simply, to be like you and me, or better still, like the rich Americans… if only they could!
Why would you want to look at the detritus from mining for nickel, or for Apatite in Kirovsk and Apetity? Wouldn’t you rather stand on the summit of the beautiful Khibiny, breathe fresh air, look at the panorama at your feet; or savour the thought that you are well inside the Arctic Circle; or reflect on the uniqueness of this place – you won’t be blown off the summit by Arctic winds, or frozen to an icicle by extreme temperatures; here the winters are milder, the climate not as severe as further to the east.
And if you are in Murmansk you may well marvel at this large, modern city – the largest city north of the Arctic Circle – at its museums and the port of Murmansk that stays open and free of ice throughout the Arctic winter. But ask for the “valley of tears” or the “valley of death”. People will know of it; you will get directions, but not to the “valley of tears” where my father and the others wept from loss of hope… By a very clever subterfuge, Stalin’s regime designated another “valley of death”, a place west of Murmansk, close to the border with Finland, where the battle front between the German and Soviet armies came to a stalemate. You can’t miss it; you can’t miss the expositions of Russian battle hardware, tanks, guns, cemeteries and huge monuments to the glory of the great and brave Russian soldiers. Who, seventy years later, will know of that other “valley of death” a few kilometres from the railway station in Murmansk…
That welcoming slogan tut washa moghila was to be implemented literally for the 3,500 prisoners from Juchnovo and Kozielsk disgorged here in mid June 1941, and so they were driven to work, exhausted and starving, to build a sea-port, a military airfield and a road laid from local stone… It was mid-summer on Kola Peninsula but, not a tree grew here, so the sun burnt one moment, and the next the wind swept the open terrain and rain or sleet battered the emaciated prisoners. The ground remained frozen rock-hard just a foot, or so, below the surface, so what shelter could they have – cairns over pits into which they would crawl in twos to huddle together for warmth.
But then, a “miracle” happened - and just in time too - for how long could they survive on a daily diet of 75 gms of bread (imagine - 75 grams!) and a little soup? A miracle all Polish prisoners had been praying for, for they knew it was their only hope of salvation – June 22, 1941 – Hitler attacks Russia! War between Germany and Russia!
Within a week, or so, Finnish or German planes were seen circling overhead; the prisoners waved their arms, threw their caps in the air, jumped… anything to attract attention to their plight. What was passing through their minds then? Thank you Mr Hitler?! How incredible, how perverse – but, right now, he saved my father and the other Polish soldiers from certain death on the banks of River Ponoi.
Mid July 1941 - the next etap was ready. Men from Ponoi were herded onto “Uzbekistan”. Conditions on the ship were atrocious: men were crammed into the holds below deck to an inconceivable extent: minimal food, minimal water, suffocating stench from the sweat and filth of men unwashed for weeks, of urine, of vomit and lack of fresh air that came only from the gratings above.… and you! in the midst of it all! Four days on the White Sea in such conditions and the boat arrives in Archangelsk. July brought fine, warm weather and abundant greenery to Archangelsk, but for the men from Ponoi conditions were even worse; it’s as if the welcome slogan from Ponoi was stuck on their backs in large capital letters - TUT WASHA MOGHILA. Absolute starvation now; men, refused to go out to work; NKVD brought out machine guns, threats… But even that made no impact; for the men from Ponoi it was now all the same – better die here and now; die quickly.
And what of those left behind in Ponoi? Military installations and the river port still had to be built; the airport still had to be built, the roads… More etaps from the depths of Poland brought more men and women; Ponoi population “flourished”. But that welcome slogan tut washa moghila remained stuck to their backs; neither time, nor rain or wind or inhuman work could wash it off. And with the war won, and construction around Ponoi done, how can you dispose of a 1000, 2000, and more, redundant human elements? Could you dig 2000 or 1000, or even just a 100 moghila, when the ground, even in summer, is still rock-solid a foot or two below the surface? So where have the Polish men and women of Ponoi gone? Yes… that’s the question indigenous Pomorcy had been asking themselves in 1946 - what happened to the Polish people that disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared? There were no investigative reporters then – not in Stalin’s Garden of Eden - but as recently as the late 1990’s, there were men on Kola, still alive, haunted by memories. War was still on in 1946 - cold war, even if no longer red-hot; naval target practice was common on the White Sea – junk boats and redundant vessels were used for targets… A naval rating sneaked onto the deck of his ship during a break in shooting; it was quiet, the sea calm… and somewhere, coming from a shot-up barge in the sea he could hear voices… men, women, crying out for help… it was eerie. He sneaked back – now he knew why he wasn’t supposed to be on deck. Another witness will tell you: we were towing out to see a barge crammed with people; the barge was shot up for target practice… I cut the rope hauling the barge; it sunk with all its “prostitutes and criminals” on board… In 1946, who of the Russian military, or the NKVD would cry over the fate of the “prostitutes and criminals” but, with the coming of Glasnost in the 1990’s, men’s conscience spoke, stories begun to circulate… they pieced the stories together; these men now knew who the “prostitutes and criminals” were; they now knew what happened to the Polish men and women… and now we know.
31 July 1941 – and another miracle! The Sikorski-Majski Agreement! A formal Understanding between Soviet Russia and the Polish Government in Exile based in London envisaged the formation of a Polish army on Russian soil to fight the now common enemy – Hitler’s Germany! Incredible, amazing news and fresh hope of deliverance from Stalin’s “Garden of Eden” for hundreds of thousands of Polish men, women and children held in the prisons and labour camps throughout Russia. Polish people found their Moses! General Wladyslaw Sikorski was to lead them out of the land of the Soviets to free and independent Poland – if only history would repeat itself – and General Wladyslaw Anders was to lead the Armies.
Can you imagine the utter consternation, disbelief and confusion amongst the NKVD in the Gulag system? Could and NKVD officer, brain-washed to despise these “prostitutes, criminals, enemies of the people, traitors…” and made the master of their life and death at will, suddenly, from one day to the next, see them as friends and allies?! But, thankfully, in Archangelsk NKVD relented; the machine guns did not fire upon the refusnik Polish prisoners in the camp. Instead, men were again herded into freight wagons and the echelon went south. But conditions here were even more atrocious. Hunger, heat and, above all, thirst drove men mad; only fresh hope of deliverance with the Anders Army kept them alive.
From the remotest regions of the Soviet Empire – Murmansk, Archangelsk, Vorkuta, Kolyma, Magadan… all roads now led to Buzuluk, Tatischevo, Totskoye… to the Polish Army, to renewed hope, or be it death in their fight to free Poland from German occupation. But thousands of men, women and children couldn’t shake off the fate prescribed by the NKVD - tut washa moghila. They died of cold, starvation, sickness, physical exhaustion, and found their moghila in the bleakness of the tundra, or taiga, or along the railway tracks…
The echelon from Archangelsk stopped at Kholmogorka railway station and the moment the rattle of wagon wheels on the rails died down, a new sound from the wagons erupted: wody, wody, pic… water, water, drink; several arms sneaked out waving through the grills of the windows. The large crowd sitting on their packs along the platform fell silent, listened and was suddenly electrified… to Polacy , Polacy… nasi chlopcy – look…Poles, Poles, our men! Many got up, filled whatever containers they had with water and rushed towards the outstretched arms, but the soldiers beat them back; other soldiers mounted the roofs of the wagons and started banging on them to quell the intensifying cries for help. An old woman, oblivious of the risk, somehow got through the line of soldiers and walked slowly towards an outstretched hand… stop, get back… or I shoot… As she lifted a can towards the outstretched hand a shot rung out; her knees buckled and she fell to the ground; the water spilt but not enough to wash the blood off the stones. The crowd fell silent and looked on in horror… what can they do… what can they do..? What drove that old woman to certain death? Didn’t she hear the warning? Was it perhaps the thought of her son being amongst those nasi chlopcy? Was it courage on the battlefield like that of a soldier pulling his wounded comrade back into safety; was she simply a “deaf old witch” as the soldier would have said? And the train moved on.
In silence, slowly, the crowd settled back on their belongings; a boy, remained standing as if transfixed by the shooting of the old woman. Perhaps fourteen or fifteen - old enough to remember - he could tell you a story not unlike that of tens of thousands of others… His father said goodbye at the end of August 1939 – never to be seen or heard from again. Then in April 1940, he, with his mother, brother and grandmother were deported from their home in Poland to find themselves in Glubokye - a forsaken kolkhoz in the depths of Russian taiga. Here he had to learn fast the first commandment: ne rabotayesh ne kushayesh – you don’t work, you don’t eat - equally applicable to all. And what work was there for a young boy, his mother, his aged grandmother – Glubokye was a logging camp in the remotest part of the taiga! He saw death from starvation, from freezing cold, from sickness, accidents at work… yet such wanton destruction of human life as he witnessed here today he had never seen. He just stood there, hands limply along his side, eyes glazed with tears… that hand begging for water – wasn’t it perhaps his father’s? And that old woman… only yesterday he buried his own grandmother… He was still waiting with a thousand, or more, Polish families, men, women, children at the station… No, not that train! Perhaps the next or the next will take them to Buzuluk…
August 1941 – Buzuluk - a long, long queue. Weak, sick, but their spirit high, they all want to join the Anders Army; all want to fight the Germans. Their hopes are high; there, in the future, glimmers free and independent Poland. Somewhere in that queue stands my father; but how would I know him – I was only six months old when he left. Would his own wife recognize him after what he had gone through in Soviet prisons in the Gulag lagiers of Ponoi and Archangelsk? Would he have recognized his own wife and children after what they had lived through during the two years in Siberia or the steppes of Kazakhstan?
My father survived; he made it to Buzuluk and enlisted with the Anders Army. For him, and some 150,000 Polish people, Buzuluk was the end of the Lagier Trail. It was also their first step on the Trail to Exile. On the way they would pass the milestone of the perfidy at Yalta, of the infamy of Katyn, of the glory on the battlefield of Monte Cassino, and of perversity on the Victory Day in London… all shrouded in the fog of political expediency.
But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it wasn’t Kola; perhaps father said Komi; perhaps from Archangelsk he followed a different route to Buzuluk, with another group of prisoners… via Uhta, Pechora, Vorkuta; or perhaps even Kolyma from whence very, very few returned? If only I had asked!