I fell in love with a book. One day my daughter brought home from work a little red book “Journey Without a Ticket – To England through Siberia” by Krystyna. I read it and set it aside. Obviously, I wasn’t ready for it yet.
Then one day I suddenly woke up; I felt an urgent need to hold the book; to read it and re-read it, and I feared and hoped that it wouldn’t be already too late to meet the author. I finally found the book; bought it; read it. The author comes over as kind, tender and sensitive young girl who, with time, matures into a loving wife and mother. Those that came into personal contact with her loved her too.
But it’s hard to speak of “love” in the context of this book when the picture that immediattely floats to my consciousness is one of repulsive horror. In the author’s words:
“The old lady on the straw sack appeard to wish to speak to me. She moved her hands to beckon me. She was covered with a blanket which, at first, I thought was a grey patterned one. But when my eyes became accustomed to the dim light which filtered through the little window, I saw that the pattern was moving. Bending down closer, I saw that the blanket was covered with thousands of lice. They were also gathered thickly on her hair, on her pillow and on the other rags that covered her. I had never before seen anything so horrible in my life. They must have been literally eating her alive. I wanted to runaway but she clutched my hand, and as she did so, I could see the lice passing from her yellow, dirty and half dead hand, onto mine….”
“… you must tell... the world must know… Promiss me… promise… will you? promise…”
But Krystyna’s story so vividly described in the book is also the story of my family, my story. We could well have been travelling to Siberia on the same day, the same train and the same wagon. Fortunately, we both got off this train-to-eternity at the same stop and my mother could well have laboured in the same kolhoz, in the same sovhoz and picked potatoes and melons side by side… while thousands of others continued on… to eternity.
The story shocked me and, at this late stage in my own life, made me appreciate my own mother’s will to survive, to pull her three small children through the abyss ofSiberia; her love, her endurance, her sacrifice. And what better tribute can I make to Krystyna than to visit Novy Pogost, her birthplace, and Sharkowszczyna, the town she describes so tenderly, and Griaznowka in Kazakhstan to where she was deported.
My driver is willing to take the side roads from Postawy to Szarkowszczyna. It's a shorter route but in places the road is bad indeed; after all it's only April and it has been quite a rough winter. But we are welcome - by storks! Just a hundred yards, or so, from the road, high up on a water tower I can see a pair of storks rebuilding an already massive nest - will this siting bring me good luck? We pass a number of horse-drawn open wagons - the men stare at us and in their grey and shabby attire, merge into the greyness of the April morning. A little further we come across the first obstacle - the bridge across a narrow tributary of Disna has collapsed and practically floats on the river. My driver crosses the bridge very gingerly; we can feel and hear its loose planks wobbling under the wheels of the car. But we have made it! Four men on the other side look upon us with grey, blank faces, no reaction, no surprise, no interest, nothing - as if such crossings happened every five minutes but, on this stretch of some twenty kilometres of the road, we had come across only one or two cars.
It's Sunday - market day in Szarkowszczyna and the bustle and hustle that goes with it -police wherever one turns. I leave the driver and walk on foot about town. Krystyna's beautiful river Disna is in full flow, but not yet in full flood, it rips away angrily at its banks and the restrictive bridge. But it's a poignant site on the bridge: the old bridge was destroyed during the war and its girders, still visible, lie in the river bed, rusting. The new bridge constructed after the war right next to the old bridge is now being rebuilt and creates a major obstacle to pedestrians and the little motor traffic there is.
I am looking for the church described by Krysyna - that beautiful old wooden church that tolled the hours - it's gone, taken apart by people for timber, for heating or simply through wanton destruction. But the grounds where it once stood remain sacrosanct to this day. Tall trees around the perimeter guard the site and nothing has been built on it, but new buildings along the street hide its earlier existence and its history from the public - only those who still remeber know that it once stood here. I am looking for the old railway station and people say to me: it's here, here... But I can't find it, only some old buildings that could have belonged to a railway station - it has been moved out of town centre. Instead I find the new church. Suprisingly, its spire is not very visible from the centre of town, but it is of red brick and stands in a prominent location. How life has changed in the past twenty years! Under the earlier communist regime, churches were destroyed, church-going was risky so the Catholics of this town prayed in a little inconspicuous shack - and this green little shack still stands in the grounds of the new church.
As I approach the church it is the end of Sunday mass and people are pouring out of the doorway; the priest waves them a blessing from the steps. Babushkas, children and men quickly disperse along unpaved paths and tracks. They are all Polish and one old man, on an equally old bike is happy to walk with me around the town. I wanted to find the old police station and so we, once again cross the Disna into the old part of town. Yes, this small single-storey building was the police station; it was built of wood but it has since been clad with white brick on the outside and its very long pole-mast and antenna indicate that it is a military object - better not to photograph. Looking around, I can imagine that any one of the nearby houses could well have been Krystyna's, how can I tell. We knocked on several doors but no one answered. And this street, as straight as an arrow, this is where the Jews lived... One the way back we pass a large open space and in the distance I can see the Russian church in the traditional blue and white colours.
And finally the market. The old and the young dressed in their Sunday-best add colour to the scenery crowd the marketplace and I find it difficult to squeeze in-between the crowds and the stalls. I was hoping to find stalls selling old postcards and books but all I could see around me were the usual clothes, shoes, trinkets, food and vegetables for sale. It was time to move on.
Novy Pogost makes a very sad first impression: the one road running through the village is deserted but for one babushka, doubled up and leaning on a stick. One brick building in the village has survived the war; it was the pharmacy then, and now, being the village hall, it proudly displays a small red flag. The village centre is a small triangular section overgrown with mottled grass; a monument to the Russian soldiers fallen in the war stands in the centre with its pillar listing to one side and the red star on its top looks precarious. Just a few yards form the monument a few cows graze in an open field and a listless child is in the background. But just a few yards down the road stands a surprisingly large Russian Orthodox Church looking very fresh in its colours of white and blue with traces of gold, and even more surprisingly, a Catholic Church is its neighbour. It is obviously a very old church with an interesting square bell tower standing to its side; both have been refurbished, at least on the outside in the recent past. The church must have a lot of interesting history behind it but there was no one I could ask, pity.
The sun was breaking through and the village seemed to float in the mist of history. It must have seen much better times in the past... Indeed, Novy Pogost has a long history. It was at first nothing more than a stop-over for travellers set up at the intersection of two tracts just a few kilometres distant from the Old Pogost village on the eastern borderlands of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, later the Polish-LithuanianCommonwealth.
The first church on this spot was erected in 1593 and when it was destroyed by fire, a new church with a two-storey square bell tower was erected here in 1766 and became the parish church dedicated to The Holy Trinity. It was strengthened and refurbished in 1859 and now it is one of the few remaining wooden churches serving a parish in this area. The neighbouring Russian Orthodox church with its blue copulas and white walls was built in 1885 to replace the earlier Uniate wooden church built in1775.
In 1793, these lands fell into the Tsarist Empire and Novy Pogost rapidly became rusified but its growing population of diverse ethnicity, mainly Poles, Belarus, Russians, Jews and Ukrainians lived in peace. The land was poor; people worked hard and showed little appetite for political or other upheavals. Perhaps the best times in its history were the twenty years under Polish rule from 1920-1939. At that time the parish of Novy Pogost counted some thirty-forty villages and settlements.
All this, however, changed with the coming of the Soviets in 1939. The forced collectivization in the 1940’s ruined the land and brought nothing but pain, misery and famine to the people. In 1949 the parish priest, fr. Jozef Ingielewicz was arrested and sentenced to ten years hard labour in the gulags of Kazakhstan. The church was closed and the building converted into a warehouse. Fr. Ingielewicz was released in 1958 at the time of Khrushchev’s “thaw” but he was not permitted to return to Novy Pogost and died in 1973 in exile.
Under “Perestroika” of the 1990’s, the church of the Holy Trinity was returned to the parishioners and religious life. But peoples’ livelihood from the land was destroyed completely. “Rassavet” the local kolkhoz is uneconomical and many of its workers are now redundant, unemployed and console themselves with drink. Younger people are not interested in work on the land and are escaping to towns in search of work. The village is dying. Yet there are people living there now who have returned to the village and will love for ever the land of their fathers....