“Imagine yourself as a speck of dust in the universe.” That speck is how my mother described herself after being dropped in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia, thousands of kilometers from northern Iran or from the Urals, the mountains that divide Europeans Russia from Asiatic Russia, the area of the Soviet Union referred to as Siberia. They were there, yes to be punished according to the sentence that was imposed, but more importantly to work for the Soviet economy as slave labor.
I surmised based on documents and references that she and her colleagues were there in late spring of 1941, because she referred hearing rumors of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, which occurred in June 1941. This lead to some optimism which they needed. “Let them kill each other and nothing but good can come of it”, she wrote in her essay about her Siberian experience. Her day to day life would not change but with optimism, life was easier to take.
In Siberia, the camps were not like the traditional prisons of Kharkiv or Stanislawow. Since they were in the middle of nowhere, many kilometers from the nearest settlement, if you escaped, as some tried to do, you died from heat exhaustion or starvation, or came back, disoriented and were shot. There were only a few soldiers, a camp administrator, a civilian called the commissar, and “the trusted”, a few trustworthy prisoners. That was all that was needed to keep order.
Different jobs were assigned around camp. The first job was at the stone quarry, which was exhausting work of digging and staking three cubic meters of stones a day. Their diet consisted of a cup of mush and a piece of fatty mutton if you met your daily quota. This was not enough nutrition to sustain strength. Because of the lack of vitamins and sanitary conditions, they all developed big sores all over their bodies, which lead to infections and high fevers. There was no good medical help. So if you got sick, you got sick!
Everyone had to meet their daily quota to get the good mush and mutton. If you did not, you got bread and kiepiatok, the hot water. Many days they were starving and therefore the cycle of not meeting quotas began. A few sympathetic Russian prisoners gave them life changing lessons in proletarian work habits. ” Find yourselves a good size stone sticking out of the ground. The stones that you dig, arrange them around the big one, to form a cubic meter”, my mother recalled. After implementing this advice, their poor skinny little bodies were able to work on.
After the stone quarry, they were assigned to work on the farm, the dream job! They also met their guardian angel, a Polish gentleman named Stefan Sarvitski, from Kavkaz, in the northern Caucases of Russia. He was an older gentleman, in his 60’s and a political prisoner for the last 20 years. His family was resettled in Russia from Tsarist occupied Poland during the years Poland was partitioned. History had repeated itself. Since Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, he deported whole families of Poles as well as political prisoners like my mother into Siberia as slave laborers.
Stefan was the foreman on the farm and as soon as he realized that my mother and her fellow prisoners were Polish, he adopted them and helped them improve their physical health and showed much kindness. At morning role call, they were assigned to his crew. During the day they were able to eat some of what they picked, and he would look the other way. Other times if they fell short of their quota, he would mark it as met. Even though Stefan was born in Russia, he spoke excellent Polish, knew Polish history and would occasionally let them read a newspaper to get caught up on political news. He was like a grandfather to them.
During that hot summer in 1941, after Hitler invaded Russia, his recent ally, Stalin feared he was losing the war. He had been stretched thin after he invaded Finland in 1940 and needed reinforcements. Knowing Stalin’s situation, Polish General Sikorski persuaded him to let the Polish people and POW’s to leave Russia to reorganize an army to help fight Hitler. This agreement was signed in July 1941.