“We were more hungry than when we were in prison. The bread was gone, the money was almost gone,” my mother stated. They drank water from irrigation ditches and picked crumbs from cattle feed at railroad stations. They were free at last, but barely alive. This was the price of freedom in the Soviet Union.
When they were set free, they each recieved a new t-shirt and jacket, twenty rubles, a loaf of bread, discharge papers and a hug from Stefan Sarvitski, their adopted grandfather and savior. But what does a speck of dust do when in the middle of nowhere and left to find its way?
The Sikorski-Mayski agreement, signed on July 30, 1941 between General Wladyslaw Sikoski of the Polish government-in-exile and Ivan Mayski, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom, got them their freedom, but now they had to find a way to where the Polish Army was to re-organize. They knew they had to go south and did by mule carts, trains but mostly on foot. Traveling through Siberia out of the Gulag going south, they were still in the Soviet Union, but what kept them focused was to travel to a collection area where the Polish delegation was recruiting for the Polish Army. The goal was to reach Bukhara, Samarkanda or Taskent, in Uzbekestan SSR. Mom never did say how long they traveled or even where the journey started, but looking at the map below, I have to think that it took months. Along the way they would meet fellow countrymen, traveling in the same direction, for the same purpose, having experienced similar hardships, so they compared news and would ask the standard questions about knowing the whereabouts of family members and relatives. So many people were separated from fathers, mothers, husbands and brothers while scattered throughout the Soviet Union. My mother’s standard question was, did anyone see or hear anything about her dad? The answer was always no.
From September 1939 through June 1941, roughly 1.7 million Poles were either deported, arrested, or captured by the Soviets during the invasion, which forced them to leave their homeland, from which only a few would ever return. Families deported included the elderly, pregnant women, and children of all ages. It is estimated that by 1941, 760,000 had died, mostly children due to poor sanitation, starvation and lack of medical attention. Many children and elderly did not even survive the transport out of Poland. Their bodies were thrown off the transport trains between stops without any burial. Over 25,000 Army officers, political leaders, intellectuals and government officials were executed in the spring of 1940. This incident is referred to as the Katyn Massacre. These people were unable to experience the so called ‘amnesty’ that was granted as a result of the Sikorski-Stalin agreement. The word amnesty suggests that a crime was committed. The irony is that the crime committed was against the Polish people, not by them.
Former Polish soldiers released from POW camps and the civilians released from labor camps were all trying to find their way to recruitment sites. Many families stayed behind as others left the Steppes of Kazakhstan to follow their brother, husband or father that was hoping to enlist. Those left behind waited for their soldier husbands or fathers to come to them after amnesty so they could travel together to freedom. My dad’s sister waited to hear from her husband Adam so she and my grandparents could travel out of Kazakhstan in the fall of 1941, but that did not happen. Even though they did not know what had befallen Adam, they were afraid to travel because winter in Kazakhstan was approaching and could be too harsh. The steppe is considered to be semi-desert with fluctuating temperature throughout the year. Highs can reach 108 degrees in July and -62 in January. This migration to freedom contributed to so many dying in the process, or contracting diseases which then lead to death.
My mother and her fellow travelers reached Bukhara, Uzbekestan where they registered with the Polish delegation. They were fed and thought their anguish would be over. As with much of my mother’s journey through hell since she left her home on April 17, 1940, there was more pain and sorrow to come.
Autor: Barbara Sipe