Courage to Survive

“Most of us were in our teens or early twenties”, my mother wrote in her essay, documenting her prison experience during what should have been the best time of her life.  Others were “older, maybe in their thirties and forties, who were doctors, lawyers, teachers, college students.”  As mom put it, she “remembers those friends as a piece of blue during otherwise stormy and threatening skies.”

Not all of them had the resiliency of youth and tragically some gave up and died.  Others were convinced that all would turn out well and they would one day be freed from the hell of their existence.  This hope and conviction got them through those dark days and would carry them through even darker days to come.

After Christmas, during the winter of 1941, they were still in the Stanislawow prison.  Not knowing when they would be moved to another prison, they needed to further occupy their time. So their days were divided into sections.  One such section included imaginary cooking classes and other home economic pursuits.  They discussed great recipes, how to properly set a table, color combinations, and flower arranging.  Another part of the day was their book club, where they picked a classic that everyone knew and discuss it.  This way they were able to keep their minds busy and not focus on their reality. In fact the cooking classes were so successful, they could almost taste the imaginary food, mom would say.

Even though they were basically isolated, they found that communication between prisons and prisoners was quite good.  Not long after a new prisoner was processed, outside information penetrated the thick walls.  They were able to take daily walks and could spot a new prisoner and were able to get information from the outside world. At this point in time they learned of their imminent future.  They learned of their impending transport to Russia which was depressing information. Even though they were in a hostile environment, they were still on Polish soil, but soon they would be carted off to the “God-forsaken country”, as my mother called it.  She remembers, one day a guard came in and said, sobrat’ svoi veshchi i byt’ gotovymi cherez polchasa, or “gather your belongings and be ready in a half hour.”  The trucks outside took them to the train station which brought on the feeling of doom.  They felt like “poor sheep going to the slaughter”.  The train cattle car had a round bellied stove in the middle with bunk beds on each side and a hole in the floor of the car for a toilet.

They slept when the train was in motion and woke up when it stopped.  They barely got any water during the passage, and ate dry salty fish.  My mother does not remember how long the trip took from Stanislawow prison to the prison in Kharkiv. On a current map the two towns are Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, formerly Stanislawow, Poland and Kharkiv, Ukraine in the east, a distance of 653 miles, but in 1941, it could take up to two weeks or more to travel.

Once at the Kharkiv prison, their new accommodations were even worse than before, a cell 8 x 15 for 30 women.  It was a challenge to think of how they would all sleep in such crowded quarters.  The first night they all collapsed from exhaustion.  The whole travel experience was a blur in time.


Rosary my mother made from bread in the Kharkiv prison. The cross was from her father.


Once they found themselves in this new environment they had to figure out how to sleep and how to cope. One very basic credo was that they had to prove to their captors that their spirit would not be broken and they promised themselves that “no Russian would ever see them cry”.

Their classes and seminars started again: classes in literature, history, geography, culinary arts, poetry, ancient history, and Latin. Since there was not enough space for all to sleep at one time, half would sleep and the other half would sit with their knees to chins and tell stories. Then in the middle of the night they would switch, which worked out pretty well, since they had no choice in the matter. Those that slept did so like sardines.  The problem was that since they only bathed once a week, there were some smelly feet to deal with. When one person turned over, everyone else had to turn as well.

This miserable existence lasted a few months, when they were then transported further into the Soviet Union. After all, the Poles made for free slave labor for Joseph Stalin and his kovhozes, collective farms and sovhozes, the state run farms.



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