They made it to safety and into the hands of the Polish authorities in Uzbekistan. My mother and her companions could finally hear their native language spoken everywhere. The civilians arriving at the recruitment centers would be conscripted and put to work. This indeed became a way for as many women and children to get healthy by receiving regular meals, shelter and clean clothing. The new Polish Army to be organized would need help from support jobs. Such jobs were either in the motor pool, where they would learn how to repair and drive vehicles, provide office support for all the paper work, or be trained in the nursing corps, which is the for which my mother registered. She would later train to be a practical nurse. The women that registered became known as the Polish Women’s Auxiliary Army Service or the PWSK.
In theory, the above plan for civilians to be safe, receive food and shelter was a perfect plan for these people who had suffered so much. The reality was that my mother and her companions arrived to the recruitment center but tragically into a typhus epidemic. These sick people were everywhere and were so seriously ill that many died trying to get to the hospital. There were dead bodies scattered all around the town, collecting in the streets and in ditches. The disease was decimating many of those who fought so hard to get to freedom. It was nothing unusual to see mule-drawn carts with corpses piled high. These poor forsaken people would be buried in common graves.
Not long after my mother arrived, she succumbed to typhus. The disease is quite common in crowded unsanitary conditions. Typhus is not to be confused with typhoid fever as they are each distinct and caused by different species of bacteria. Typhus was common in prisons where lice would spread easily and would occur when prisoners huddled together in dark, filthy conditions. Typical symptoms are high fever – up to 104º F, delirium, low blood pressure, severe headaches and muscle pain.
The first course of action was to shave the head of the infected patient to rid the body of lice. Outbreaks tend to be more prevalent in the winter months when blankets are shared and more clothing is worn, and my guess is that my mother suffered from typhus in the winter of 1941/1942. Sanitation was still an issue because the word hospital, which suggests sanitary conditions, was a term loosely used for this facility. The gravely ill people were warehoused in a building, lying on the floor with nurses stepping over patients to care for the ones who needed care the most, with what little medical supplies they had. My mother said this went on for months.
When mom’s fever broke, she was a shadow of her former self and it took her weeks to get enough strength to even walk across the room without getting out of breath.
Back at the camp everyone talked about their transport to the Middle East where the Polish Army would be organized and where their training would begin. The evacuation of Polish nationals from the Soviet Union took place by sea from Krasnovodsk, Turkmenistan to Pahlavi in Persia, now northern Iran (today called Bandar-e Anzali) noth west of Tehran. A makeshift city of over 2000 tents were provided by the Iranian army for the refugees. About 41,000 soldiers and 74,000 civilians left Russia from March to August 1942, totaling 115,000 people evacuated.