Siberia

Weddings and Anniversaries – a Tribute

Recently I attended two weddings. The first one was my own daughter’s wedding, my youngest, which was in the planning process for months and the other one was  my niece’s wedding. Both were well organized and each was a distinctive celebration. Each wedding had a beautiful weather day, with a striking setting, and both receptions were good parties. But I must admit my daughter’s was by far the best. I may be a bit partial, however.

Anniversaries are time honored milestones in a marriage and recently my son and daughter-in – law celebrated their 8th anniversary. Remembering my own wedding 46 years ago feels like it was not that long ago. Then I recall the day my parents celebrated their anniversary every year, October 3rd, which is today. They would have been married 74 years had they lived. My dad predeceased mom by 30 years and every year when October 3rd rolled around, mom would count the number of years they would have been married had he lived. Many people seem to revel in the numbers as if it were a badge of courage they wear surviving so long with their partner.

Getting back to the two weddings I recently attended, I can only speak to the preparations for my daughter’s wedding. She painstakingly made sure all her details were nailed down. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. Her wedding was perfectly orchestrated and simply lovely, a fairy tale wedding. She was a radiant bride who also had fun at her own wedding.Samantha and Braden 162

The wedding planning process seems to change over time as new concepts and fun activities for guests or wedding party members enter into the planning. Being married almost a half a century, at the time of my wedding, there were no bachelorette parties. Comfort items for guests now include goody bags at hotel check in for out of town guests.  Receptions are usually elaborate to keep guests entertained and well fed.

My thoughts now go back to when my parents were married. It was October 3, 1943 in an army tent, in the Palestinian desert. Their life was in the middle of World War II. They were both in the Polish Second Corps which was the reorganized Polish fighting force made up of both men and women, many of whom were once exiled to Stalin’s Siberia. In Stalin’s Soviet Union they were slave laborers deported out of their homes, political prisoners, or POW’s following the invasion of Poland in September 1939. My parents each had their horror stories from the invasion of their country and all the repercussions that followed.

They had met each other the winter before the war started in mom’s home town, and somehow miraculously found each other during the war, after each was released from captivity and then struggled to make it to where the army was forming. My mom was able to join the protection of the army by becoming an auxiliary support person, a nurse. She received nurse’s training in Tehran, Iran and my dad became a fighting soldier again, as a light artillery specialist, which was his training before the war. Many of their stories I share in my upcoming book, “Letters from the Box in the Attic, A Story of Courage, Survival and Love”.

Their many post-war struggles kept them together for 36 years, until my dad died in 1979. It amazes me that I’ve been married 10 years longer than they were. I am very fortunate to still have my spouse and to keep clocking up those years. Wedding vows usually say, for better or for worse and my parents kept their devotion to each other alive during their married life, even though some of the time their relationship was rocky. Here’s to devotion and for better or for worse!

Happy Anniversary, Mama and Tatuś! I hope you are able to celebrate 74 years on this your anniversary.

Let’s Never Forget

Kresy siberia banner

“If I forget about them, then Lord, forget about me.”     Banner Caption.

The banner goes on to say that those deported from occupied Kresy fought for their lives and their freedom. Attending this conference was the best thing that I could have done.  At first I thought I did not belong with these people at the conference, the survivors who were deported to Siberia in 1940-41 and those of us who were the second generation. From my family only my grandparents and aunt were deported. Into the second day, I realized that my family was touched by all the tragedy that could have come from the Soviet invasion and occupation of the Kresy region, as well as subsequent Nazi occupation.

The conference began on the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion and occupation of my parents’ homeland region.  My dad fought in the September Defensive Campaign of 1939, attempting to defend his county, while my mother and her underground network got Polish officers out of Poland while it was occupied by the Soviets. Each parent was arrested and imprisoned. My dad’s brother-in-law, Adam also fought to defend Poland. As a Second

My Uncle's entry in the list of victim of Katyn.

My Uncle’s entry on the list of victim of Katyn.

Lieutenant he was captured by the Soviets, imprisoned in Starobielsk prison, then executed in the Katyn Massacre in the spring of 1940. He was one of over 14,000 officers executed.  Since my dad’s family had two fighting soldiers involved in the war, and one was executed, dad’s parents and sister made the deportation list of undesirable families. Families of soldiers and especially those who fell victim at Katyn were deported to Siberia in April 1940, and forced into hard labor. Dad’s parents and sister were in several locations in Kazakhstan for six years.

Then there is my mother’s family. She and her father along with their underground network were arrested and shipped off to a couple of prisons before being sent to a Siberian Gulag. She never saw her father again. Survival was all she could think about during the gruesome and grueling time while imprisoned. A few years later her mother was murdered in the streets of Kosow, her hometown, by Ukrainian Nationalists, whose violence was fueled by the Nazi’s as they retreated in advance of the Soviet Red Army. The reign of terror and brutality inflicted by both aggressors in the region directly impacted my family which created a wound that was slow to heal.

The second day of the conference was held at the Polish Military Museum, which is home to the temporary Katyn Exhibit.  A permanent Katyn Museum is being built with its opening scheduled for spring 2015. The massacre involved the murder of over 14,000 Polish officers captured and imprisoned by the Soviets following the defeat of the Polish Army and the September Campaign of 1939.  These officers were in three separate prisons in Russia and were led away from each of the camps into the countryside, shot execution style by the Soviets, then buried in shallow graves. Some remains were unearthed by the advancing German Army in 1943, which started the blame game between the two former allies.

It was only after the fall of Communism that the Soviets admitted that they were responsible for the executions. Many items from the excavations have been recovered and preserved.  Katyn Museum2These soldiers thought they were being moved to another prison, so they had on them all of their possessions, which included razors, matches, cups, eating utensils, rosaries, combs, scissors, coins. Unearthed were buttons, wedding bands, dog-tags, uniforms, coats, even grain in a leather pouch.  That soldier thought he might get hungry during the transport.

After hearing the curator’s presentation and seeing this exhibit, I knew I belonged at this conference and among this group of Siberia survivors.                                                                                                                                       Katyn Museum 3

My aunt never received formal notification of what happened to her husband back in 1940, never receiving a death certificate. She was however able to file documents declaring her a widow 10 years after her wedding date. My dad informed her that he saw Adam’s name on a list of deceased from those three camps, while dad was training in Palestine. That was the only concrete information she received. According to the curator, it was not until 1990 that formal notification went out to families, but then only if they inquired. By 1990, my aunt was dead, my father was dead. Maybe from Adam’s side of the family, there was someone who sought formal notice.

There are few people who know about Katyn and the horrors of what Polish soldiers and citizens suffered at the hands of Joseph Stalin.  As with all horrors of war, human lives are lost, families separated and many of them victims of atrocities. More needs to be written and publicized about the Katyn Massacre and the human suffering and loss in Siberia, so we don’t forget.

Katyn Museum1

The Price of Freedom

“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.

The vastness of the former USSR is intimidating.

The vastness of the former USSR is intimidating.

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.

uzbekistan_bukhara

 

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

Barbmsipe@gmail.com

A Speck of Dust

“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.

Such Sad Information

Many of the letters that are read to me have been about everyday news, how the family is doing, thanks extended for the packages received from my parents in England.  There was so much poverty in resettled, post-war Poland that simple items, such as shoes, blankets, sewing needles and stockings were greatly appreciated, especially by those returning from Siberia with nothing.  In fact care packages came with one shoe at a time because if a pair was shipped together, the shoes were stolen.  Blankets were used to make warm coats for the winter.  It took until 1947-48 for my aunt to make a comment that she finally felt human again, since she could go out in public and look somewhat descent.

Every once in a while I would come across a few letters that contained some good nuggets of information.

Letters from my mother’s beloved uncle Franek, the priest were exceptionally informative.  They were from early in 1947 which enlightened my mother about the fate of her mother who was left in Kosow.  What Franek wrote must have made my mother sob while she read these letters.  My mother may have received notification of her mother’s death since I a have a very small piece of paper that certifies Magdalena’s death as 3/30/1944, stamped 1946, since there was no formal death certificate.  When she actually received this notice, is uncertain.

My mother, as a little girl with her mother in the white blouse and her beloved uncle Franek, as a very young man.

My mother, as a little girl with her mother in the white blouse and her beloved uncle Franek, as a very young man.

Franek, the priest spent the war in Kosow, when they were invaded by the Soviets in 1939, then taken over by the Nazi’s in 1941, then in 1944 again by the Soviets.   The post-war letters  from him gave my mother clear details about those years after my mother and grandfather were arrested and taken away.  My mother spent some time in a prison in Stanislawow, which was close enough for Magdalena, my grandmother to go to, to bring packages but not to visit wich must not been allowed.  Magdalena kept the scraps of paper that my mother signed to receive these packages as relics.  She lived alone in her house in Kosow, while her brother the priest lived with their mother.  In January 1944, Franek fell ill with pneumonia, and Magdalena cared for Franek daily.  Even though their mother fell ill as well, it was Franek who needed the most care.  They did not want him to go to the hospital, because he surely would die there.

In February or March 1944, the Nazi’s left the town, because the Soviets were on the horizon.   In early March there were rumors that there were going to be mass murders of Polish people by the Ukrainians Nationalists, where if you did not flee the area, you were in danger.  Franek felt so guilty because Magdalena was there caring for him and she could not and would not flee.

Then came the two days of mass murders in March, the 29th and the 30th.  Franek wanted his sister to go to the Polish leader’s/organizer’s home where she would be safe, and not return to her own home.  She did not want to do this, but he firmly insisted, for after all she would be back the next days as usual.  In tears she said goodbye to her mother, said nothing to Franek, and begrudgingly left.  Within minutes he could hear gun shots, then shortly after saw a big ball of flames, which turned out to be the Polish leader’s home, and other homes going up in flames.  He thought that his sister was burning in one of them.  She actually fell victim to the gun shots that he heard shortly after she left his house.  Her body was brought back to the house the next morning.  Apparently she was surrounded by Bandalaria’s/bandits, the Ukrainian Nationalists when she was walking.  They encircled her, shot her four times in the chest and left her body in the snow.  78 people were killed that night.

Common Grave Kosow

Cemetery in Kosow, honoring those that lost their lives during this murderous time

Franek and their mother survived  by not going anywhere.  The guilt he carried because he insisted that she leave for her own safety, must have been so heavy, so heart breaking, and here he was recounting all the details to my mother in a letter three years later.

After those murderous days, every Pole in town lived in fear.  People did not want to stay the night in their own homes for fear of violence, so they hid in the cemetery at night or the church attic.  By the end of April another wave of murders occurred in Kosow, similar to what happened in March.  The Ukrainian Nationalists were responsible for the violence, since they saw the opportunity to control the land they felt was theirs and clear it of Polish people.  After all there was no governing power in the town at the time.  This nationalism was fueled by the Germans, since they were not the sitting power any more.  The war front was surrounding them as well.  Since the Soviets were closing in, there was fighting in the vicinity with the Nazi’s and towns people were evacuated to a near-by town for 2 ½ months.   After they returned home, they were evacuated two more times.

I was so excited to learn this information, some concrete facts and dates.  Anther nugget of information was to learn that my grandmother did hear from her husband who was shipped off to Siberia with her daughter.  The last time she heard from him was in 1941, from somewhere in Kazakhstan.  Did he get released after amnesty? Did he perish while traveling out of the Soviet Union or did he simply not see the day when he could have been set free?

So many documents.

My dad and his Jeep.  Circa 1944 or 1945.

My dad and his Jeep. Circa 1944 or 1945.

Excerpts from my diary:

December 5, 2012:

I have been working on his project even though I have neglected to journal.  Yesterday, December 4,  was the 33rd anniversary of my father’s death in 1979.  My day was dedicated to working on his history.  I actually did learn something.

Since I could not find anything about his first encounter in the Polish army from his papers, I started to question whether he ever was in the Army at the outbreak of the war.  I did see some evidence that he was in the reserves and today I read a journal of Mama’s that said that he was called up before September 1st, 1939.

There is also an entry that indicated that he was in a POW camp in Lithuania.  I had heard stories growing up that he was interned in a camp in “Litwa” which if you translate that into English it refers to Lithuania, even though Latvia did have Polish soldiers in camps.  Lithuania did open its doors to fleeing Polish soldiers and they were in camps that were not harsh and allowed family communication.  Eventually neutral  Lithuania was annexed by the Soviets and those soldiers that did not escape were taken to Russian labor camps.  Those stories that I heard also indicated that Tatus escaped from a camp in Lithuania,  but the timing of events do not make sense and I am not sure how to prove or disprove whether he escaped or not. Clearly the findings say that the Lithuanians were not wanting to retain the Polish soldiers if they had a mind to escape.  There were enough of them; they let them go.   Although the reference to the escape may have been his escape out of Poland without being arrested by the Russians by going to Lithuania, since Mama does refer to her fiancé being in a POW camp.

Today I read some of Mama’s journals, written in English, about her early war days, which must have served as practice for her essay about her Siberian experience.  The entries were more detailed than the eventual essay and they have served as more information about those early years.  There are so many journal entries on various pieces of papers, on backs of calendars, family record books.  She did not waste anything.  As long as she could write over other printed material, she did.  I have to read through all those various finds and see if they are pertinent to the history, or if they are just a expressions of her haunted life, which are in of themselves valuable.  Those expressions explain who she was after her trauma and why she was the way she was.

Then there is the issue of her hand writing, or as I like to call it ‘chicken scratch’.  Her writing in Polish – forget it!  can’t read it. Her writing in English, close to being the same.  The entries in the beginning are rather readable, but close to the end, not so much.  I will have to keep re-reading them and hope to grasp more.  There are some important references, which I will have to keep reading to see if I can figure out what she is saying.