Lucy was living in Warsaw, and from all accounts was engaged to a wealthy young chap when rumours of war broke. Lucy headed to the farm that her sister Zofia lived in with her husband and three children. Lucy’s mother had come to live with Zofia some time around 1932 and had remained there. Now with the outbreak of war imminent, it was time for the family to be together. The farm was located in a small hamlet called Ostrów, in which lived about ten families. Zofia had married Ignacy Ferenc, an officer with the Legion who was given the land after Poland’s success against the Bolshevik’s in 1920. These soldiers were named ‘osadniks’, meaning settlers or colonists and they were given land along the kresy (eastern borderlands of Poland). At that time Ostrów was contained within Polish borders and these landholdings were generally lands that were unfarmed and untamed.
It was from here, in the early hours of a freezing cold morning on February 10, 1940, that the family were awoken with banging on the door. My cousin Ala, who was eight years old at the time, recalls the events that changed their lives forever.
It was about six o’clock in the morning, we were woken by very loud knocking on the front door. When my father went to open it he was confronted by 2 Russian soldiers with guns and 2 men from the village. They put my father in one corner of the room, my l5 year old brother Richard in the other corner of the room. It was very cold. My mother was sitting in bed with Bogdan in her arms shaking with fright. In another room was Granny (Babcia) and me, also shaking with fright and cold. The soldiers told us to dress and pack because we were going to another county. The 2 village men helped us to pack, they told my father in a whisper to take everything we could and they helped to pack. They took us by sleigh to our nearest neighbours house where there were our other neighbours. Every woman was crying, children were shaking with fright and cold. We did not have anything to eat. It was Saturday. No one was allowed to go outside. On the floors they put some straw for us to sleep. My granny (Babcia) was sad because our aunty, Lucyna, was not with us because she was on the farm of our cousins near the next village, Rogoznica and we did not know what was happening to her. By the time it was one o’clock, my father asked the soldiers if he could go to our farm and milk the cows. After they talked (each family had two soldiers) they let my father go with the soldiers and milk the cows. So we had warm milk, all the children. The night came but no one could sleep, it was very cold.
In the morning they told us to get ready. In that moment my aunty Lucyna found us. Soldiers came to our cousins and took them like us, but told my aunt to go find us. She walked 7 kilometers in the snow. When she did not find us in our farm she came to our nearest neighbours. We could hear her shouting because the soldiers would not let her in. My father had to explain that she was part of our family.
Then came people from the village with sleighs. We were given 2 sleighs. My father and mother were in the bottom of the sleigh, they put us two [Bogdan and me] on it and covered us with another eiderdown. They were sitting on the back, in the other sleigh was granny [babcia] and aunty Lucyna were with Richard. Other families followed in the same way. It was very cold (minus 4O degrees) and the snow was very deep. Our dog [Burek] started to follow us so Richard threw him some bread. On each farm we could hear the animals. No one was looking after them. It must have been very sad for everyone like my father and mother, leaving everything they had worked so hard for. After travelling for a while we started to cry because we were getting very cold. Mother told the soldier to stop in the nearest village to give the children something hot to drink. So we stopped at the village school and good people from the village brought us some hot soup and milk. After an hour we were put on the sleigh and started again. I do not remember how long we travelled and I do not remember to which town they brought us or the name of the station. I do however, remember being put on the freight wagons. The wagons had been made to accommodate people. They were set out as follows…In the middle was a round stove with a long pipe to the roof. On two sides there were flat shelves that were used for the sleeping areas and living areas see diagram. There were 8 families in a wagon and as a result there were 2 families on each of the levels – there were no partitions between the families. At one side there was a hole in the floor that served as the toilet.
It was a very long train with 2 locomotives. It was a train of sadness, hunger and hopelessness. We did not know where we were going. I cannot remember how long we were travelling, but we were hungry and thirsty. Some people were praying, some were cursing the Russians. The people in our wagon made my father responsible for our wagon. At one time someone said we are crossing the Polish border into Russia everyone was crying. Goodbye to our dear Poland!
We asked Ala to come with us to Belarus, but she declined. I think she was perhaps too sad and a little afraid to return. So it started, on 4 August 2018, our journey back to where it all began.
But first, we have somewhere special to visit – the Memorial Museum of Siberia. I wonder if Ala and her family knew that the ‘new country’ they were headed for was Siberia? I mean, what do most people think of when they hear the word Siberia. Frozen? Exile? Death? From what I have read, I don’t think the interpretation has changed much over the decades, but the family was certainly abou to find out first hand.
The museum opened especially for us, something I was grateful for. We spoke with Bogusław Kosel from the Research Department to find out more about the journey of the Sybiraks.
It’s a story that is still relatively unknown – that of the Poles forcibly removed to Siberia from their homes in the eastern borderlands at the beginning of the war. They became known as Sybiraks. Many didn’t survive, and of those who did, many never saw Poland again. Most never told their stories, out of fear or embarrassment. And now time is running out to put the pieces of the puzzles together as each year, more Sybiraks are lost to time. The Museum aims to show that story from its temporary location. A new building is under construction and scheduled for completion in 2021.
With visas, passports and more than a little hint of trepidation, we piled into Zbigniew’s hire car and headed for the border.
At the border, we watched as car after car was unloaded of all its goods and thoroughly checked before being let through or turned around. We had nothing to declare, but we were nervous all the same. Safely through to the other side, we re-route the GPS to follow a back-road to Ostrów. The countryside was fairly flat. Very quiet and very lonely looking.
Finally though, buildings started to appear on the horizon, one being a miraculous looking church with spires that I can only describe as looking like the Christmas ornaments my grandmother used to hang on the tree.
On the outskirts of Wolkowysk there was a tank commemorating the period. I believe Wolkowysk may have been the station the train to Siberia left from.
Passing the tank, the roads became rural once more. We passed old farm vehicles and one street towns with pretty little homes lining them, an almost strange sight to see out here.
Finally what was once the hamlet of Ostrów, came into sight. I was surprised that anything was there at all and from a distance it still looked very much like a clump of trees in the middle of nowhere. Closer still, there seemed to be nothing left. Except for one little house at the end of the road. And would you believe, someone was there. Wladimir didn’t live there permanently but he just happened to be there tending to his bee hives at the moment we had chosen to arrive.
This house, the last standing in the hamlet, belonged to his family. His mother was born here, although the house was not here at the time of the deportations. Although built in the 1970’s, the house fitted the descriptions Ala had given us, which served to bring the story to life.
Zbigniew explained our purpose and Wladimir kindly offered to call some people in his village who might remember that time. He called numerous relatives and ended up talking to someone who remembered the hamlet and its inhabitants, even down to the location of Ala’s family farm, which was exactly where Ala’s notes described, save for an additional crossroad which had since been removed.
Our house stood on the-corner of three roads. We had a big apple orchard and a garden with plums, cherry trees and soja fruit. The house was surrounded by lots of flowers because my mother loved flowers. There were three other buildings making a sort of square, there was a barn, a byre and a big shed for farming tools and our carriage. We had 5 cows, 2 horses (sometimes three). We had some pigs, lots of poultry and of course our dog “Burek”. We were looking forward to the Spring, when everything started to get green and grow. There was a little wood on our land and some Walnut trees. My Mother and I went to look for the first flowers of the spring, violets, primroses and cowslips.
We walked up and down the dirt road, tramped in and out of bushes and stood surmising scenarios for some time. I photograph as much as I can and pick up a small stone to take away with me, a token connecting myself back to my Babcia’s journey decades before. An acknowledgment. I understand.
Before leaving Belarus, we stop in Rohognica, which seems to have been the next largest town from Ostrów.
In “Rogoznica”, where the school was, we had many friends, like us on small-holdings. One of the couples did not have any children, and the husband was Bogdan’s godfather. They said that I could stay with them and go to school. It seemed a very good solution and they were very good to me. But I missed my family. Near to their farm was the wood that was used by the villagers who passed by my home in Ostrow on their way to gather hay by the river. I was sitting by the wood and I was homesick, so I asked one of the men to tell my father to come and take me home. In the evening my dad and mum came and took me home. But what could we do to solve the problem of going to school? One answer was that my father rented a room in the village of “Rogoznica” and granny stayed their with me and Richard. I was staring school and he was finishing primary school. Dad and mum came every Sunday, coming to church, and brought provisions for the whole week. Granny cooked our meals and looked after us, but at holiday time we went back home. It was wonderful to go home, and be home again. My father had to work very hard, but because my mother had a ‘bad’ heart she could not do any hard work to help. We had a manservant to help my father, and granny helped a lot. She would milk the cows. For main cleaning and for washdays, women came from the nearest estate. There were many people there and they were glad to have some work.
Our purpose for visiting Rogoznica was the church. After some time knocking at the rectory, the priest answers the door. We are grateful, cause its stinking hot outside and there’s hardly any shade in this part of town. He brings us water and…of all things…icecreams. It’s one of those things I never imagined doing – eating icecream witha priest. Unfortunately there were no church records for the period we were researching, but the priest was happy enough to show us inside the Church of Our Lady Queen, lamenting at the ‘disco’ ceiling the parish had recently replaced. He was horrified by it.
We looked through the church graveyard but the graves were all post WW2. It was getting towards the end of the day, time to head back to Białystok. We just had to endure the border once more.