A Polish Prisoner In the USSR
1939 - 1942
Memories of a Polish pilot in the World War II
T.Kuniewski - departure from Wejherowo station just several days before the war started.
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( The background of this page represents the blueprints of a Polish airplane PZL P37 Los which was used by the Polish Air Force in 1939. )
In the year 1939 I was an officer cadet in the military college for the reserve of the Polish Air Force in Sadkow near Radom in central Poland. We finished our flying course in August and in normal times we would have been relegated to the reserve and returned to civilian life, but the times were not normal. The world was waiting for war. We were temporarily suspended in time, awaiting further developments.
We did not have to wait long. In the morning of the first of september we were awakened by the roar of approaching planes. We ran to the windows expecting to see our bombers which had recently participated in frequent maneuvers. The sound which resounded and reverberated was different and unfamiliar, someone who saw them first shouted that they were Dorniers - German bombers! There was some confusion, and we ran out of the building heading for trenches which were dug only a few days before. Due to our lack of experience, they were about six feet deep but unfortunately, only about two feet wide, which had tragic consequences for some of our colleagues, as was later evident. The bombers of the Luftwaffe in four groups of three planes each, made three approaches aiming at the airfield, hangars, and other buildings. They were flying at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, in the direction perpendicular to our trench. It was a harrowing experience. With the passing of each formation of three, the explosions of the falling bombs came closer and closer and, just as we felt sure that the next one would annihilate us, the explosions began receding. When all four formations passed, we had a little breathing period while they were turning around to start a new bombing run.
(Photo by courtesy of P. Nann)
PWS-26 used by Polish Air Forces in 1939 for trainig purposes. The author had his first flying lessons on a PWS-26. Click on the photo for enlargement (80 KB).
One bomb fell so close that it tore out the roots of a nearby tree, closing a portion of the trench containing three of our men, and dropped the rootbound soil on top. While the planes were turning around between bombing runs, we tried frantically to uncover our friends, but each time the falling bombs chased us back into our trench. At last we reached them unscathed, but dead - suffocated through lack of oxygen. They must have been some of the first victims of the second World War. Had it not been for the unfortunate dimensions and configuration of the trench, most probably they would have been saved.
Our anti-aircraft battery was firing valiantly but without results. The aim of the Luftwaffe was no better because, apart from a few holes in the airfield, there was no damage. Maybe the fire from our anti-aircraft battery distracted their concentration. During that air raid, we had an example of how the behavior of one man can boost the morale of a whole group. One of our officers, a little older and more experienced than the rest of us, was also in the trench. During breaks in the bombing, he calmly left the trench. Unruffled, he watched the maneuvers of the enemy planes, even as the bombs already began falling. Only then, unhurried, did he re-enter the trench and slightly lower his body. It is hard to describe what a calming influence his demeanor had on our shattered nerves.
Polish bomber PZL P37 Los.
The following day horse-drawn farm carts with local farmers
at the reins appeared in front of our quarters. Our evacuation
to eastern Poland had commenced. We were informed that there we
would be supplied with planes by our allies, England and France.
After a short additional training period, we should be ready to
join the battle against the enemy. During this evacuation, if
our commander had any information regarding the progress of the
war, he did not share it with us. All the time we were under the
impression that the "front" was far behind us and we were waiting
impatiently for news about the heavy losses our allies, England
and France, were inflicting on the Wehrmacht and anxious to
participate in the action. Imagine our shock when, in the
vicinity of Lublin in eastern Poland, we learned that, with the
exception of Warsaw and Westerplatte in Gdansk, the rest of Poland
was under German occupation. As an equal nightmare came news
that we were in a zone which, at that very moment, was being
occupied by the Red Army. We knew nothing, at that time, of the
secret Ribbentrop-Molotov pact which divided Poland into German
and Soviet Union "spheres of interest."
Our commander gave orders to abandon most of our equipment and personal belongings, with the exception of guns and ammunition, hoping that by marching at night and resting in the daytime, we should be able to approach and cross the Hungarian border and escape to the West. All those who wanted to try their luck, either alone or in small groups, were given permission to do so. Not being familiar with the topography of eastern Poland, I opted for staying with the main group.
A few days later, not too far from the Hungarian border, we arrived at an abandoned rural estate, where we intended to stop for our daily rest. Early in the morning, Red Army tanks appeared on the road leading to the estate and started moving in our direction. Our commander deployed us along a stone wall, facing the approaching enemy with loaded guns at the ready. After some consideration he must have come to the conclusion that our guns looked a little feeble against those of the tanks and he gave orders to put up a white flag.
A few minutes later we left the enclosure of the estate singly, between two rows of very nervous soviet soldiers with fixed bayonets pointed towards us, and dropped our guns on a heap as we passed the gate.
The most painful and humiliating moment I remember from that incident was when during a search a Red Army soldier confiscated my ceremonial dagger and shoved it into his boot top. These daggers were worn by officers of the Polish Air Force, but as officer cadets we were also granted the privilege of wearing them. We had received ours only a few weeks earlier, and I had paraded with it proudly in the town near the base and in my native Wejherowo on my last leave of absence. At that time I was only twenty years old and, probably because of that tender age, this relatively minor incident remained deeply embedded in my memory. But, "There is no time to feel sorry for roses when forests are burning," said our great Polish national poet Krasinski.
Tad with his ceremonial dagger in Wejherowo, August 1939.
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The unit of the Red Army that took us prisoners marched us to an assembly area where thousands of Polish officers and men from the army, air force, and cavalry (yes, there were still cavalry units on horses in Poland in 1939) were already gathered. There we met some officers from our military college who had also been evacuated East by another route. However, our reunion with them did not last long because the following day the soviet authorities started separating the officers from the men. When our turn came, puzzled by our uniforms, which were neither those of the officers or of the other ranks, they started arguing among themselves, some of them wanted to put us in with the officers, others with the non-commissioned officers and the enlisted men. The latter won out, and we were indignant as we thought that our place was with the officers. In our annoyance little we knew that this decision saved our lives. These officers were later murdered in the Katyn* forest in Western Russia by
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*The majority of those officers, called up from the reserve, were professional men, businessmen and intellectuals, Stalin who must have been planning even in those early days, to incorporate Poland into the U,S,S.R., probably decided that they would have been an undesirable element from his point of view and gave an order to eliminate them. Later, when the Germans found the mass graves and publicized the fact, the soviets feigned indignation, called it Nazi propaganda and an insult to the Soviet Union. When the Polish Government in exile asked for an internationally sponsored investigation, the soviets broke diplomatic relations with and formed a Polish Communist government on its soil. It was not until well into Gorbechev's "Glaznost" that the soviet admitted responsibility and only now, at the time of this writing, one 87-year old former K.G.B. official has talked about his participation in this mass murder.
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the N.K.V.D., the predecessor of the K.G.B., and we would have been among them, as were officer cadets in other areas who did not share our luck of being separated from the officers. The non-commissioned officers and men were divided into groups of several hundred men each and marched separately to different prison camps. For the next few days our group was conducted from one improvised stopping point to another to spend the night. Two of those stopping points were most memorable. One of them, in a secondary school in a little town, looked as if it was abandoned by the students and school staff only a few hours earlier, with everything in its usual place. Throughout the night the school office was operated by a few of our slyboots, some found the school certificate forms and official stamps. From existing documents one learned to forge the signature of the principal. Another one filled in the certificate forms in a beautiful, professional looking script, while others were stamping and issuing them. Thus, anyone who wished was furnished with a brand new certificate, pursuant to his ambition and wishes, from completion of a few grades of high school to a full high school certificate. Here it should be pointed out that studying in the secondary school in Poland, called "gimnazium," was very difficult; one was promoted from one grade to another strictly on merit, and a steady lack of progress constituted grounds for dismissal. The high school diploma, called "matura," was even more difficult to obtain and guaranteed almost certain admission to college. It would be interesting to know whether anyone ever profited from the academic achievements obtained under such unusual circumstances.
The other memorable stop was at a cigarette factory where we slept in piles of tobacco as if in stacks of hay. Before leaving, we loaded up on tobacco wherever we could find room for it. We filled our kit bags, our gas mask containers (after discarding the gas masks), the pockets of our uniforms, even the sleeves of our shirts. We must have presented a strange appearance upon leaving the following morning, but our soviet escort did not seem to pay any attention. As a result, those among us who smoked were able to satisfy their addiction for a long time and the rest of us who did not had a reserve capital for barter. At that time I witnessed for the first time how strong was the addiction to smoking, some prisoners, hungry as they were, were prepared to give up their last piece of bread for a cigarette.
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After a few days we arrived in a small village close to the city of Lvov, named Jaryczow (pronounced Ya-ri-chov), which proved to be our destination. We were herded into the stables and cow-sheds of the local estate, which were converted into barracks by installation of the typical, two-tier prison sleeping enclosures. There we started our lives as prisoners of war.
Whatever we wore, or had with us, was to last for the duration of our imprisonment. We were not issued anything else. For example, if someone did not have a blanket to sleep under, he either had to barter it from someone who had two, smuggle it in from the outside, improvise and use something else as a cover, or go without, all according to his means, wits, and ingenuity. As a result, towards the end, the majority of us wore shirts that consisted of collars and cuffs held together with a few strands of ragged fabric.
Polish airplane PZL P23 Karas that distinguished itself in the battles of 1939. Click on the photo for enlargement (44 KB).
Improvisation was the rule of the day. For instance, if an individual had a cap that did not protect his ears from the cold, he sewed the shoulder pads from his uniform to it to act as ear muffs. It was possible to smuggle various objects into the camp from the outside, using either friendly or corruptible guards. Payments were in form of watches, wallets, rings, and products of the camp's internal industry (more about that later). The already mentioned tobacco from the cigarette factory proved very useful in this respect and, although the soviet guards preferred their own "makhorka", the outside population did not. "Makhorka", native to soviet Russia, was a very crude and lumpy mixture made mostly from the tobacco stems and not the leaves. It was, according to our smokers, twice as strong as our shredded leaf variety. Ready-made cigarettes were very rare in soviet Russia, so nearly everybody was making their own, using "makhorka," paper (not tissue), and saliva as glue.
Our daily food ration consisted of 400 gms. (14 oz.) of bread; a tablespoon of sugar; a mug of black, tasteless fluid, which had only the name and nothing else in common with coffee, for breakfast; a mess-tin of thin soup with a couple of cabbage leaves chasing a slice or two of turnip and a fish head or tail - if you were lucky - for lunch; and a similar soup for dinner. That was absolutely all. Consequently we were hungry all the time, so preoccupation with food played an enormous part in our lives. The most popular subject of our conversations was anything connected with food. We tortured ourselves with detailed descriptions of our favorite dishes, restaurants with exquisite menus, and fabulous feasts for which our mothers and/or wives were famous. There must be something perverse in human nature that permits one to talk about things which, taking the existing circumstances into account, common sense should make one avoid like a plague!
Every day each work group received its allocation of bread and sugar. Considering the value of these two articles of food in our eyes at that time, I promised myself that, if ever I found myself in freedom, I would buy a loaf of bread and a pound of sugar and consume them both on the spot. Needless to say I never carried out this promise. Returning to the bread and sugar allocations, each group leader received the ration for his 25 men in bulk; then it was up to him and us to ensure that everyone received his just portion. This distribution became the most important function of the day, almost like a ritual. It was conscientiously attended to by all, with perhaps only the exception of those mortally ill. First, with the aid of an accurate balance of our own construction, the individual portions were deliberately made slightly underweight. Then, what was left - to the last crumb - was most carefully divided into 25 even parts. Everyone had the right to point out a portion which he considered unfair. After that we drew lots, to determine in which order to pick up this additional treasure. Obviously we all wanted to be among the first so that we could choose that particular piece that appeared to be a little better than the others. The ethics of this division and the respect for the individual allocation, once it was made, were very high. I remember that, when one luckless prisoner was caught stealing bread from his neighbor, the indignation and reaction were so severe that the thief was lucky to walk away from it alive. In my observation generally the high ethics, solidarity, and respect for other's property were more common among the more humble people than among those who had pretensions of belonging to a "higher class."
It is common knowledge that when men are separated from women for an extended period of time as, for instance, in prison, on board ship , or in other similar circumstances, they are inclined towards homosexual acts. In our camp, however, there was no manifestation of this phenomenon, not only in my immediate surroundings, but I did not even hear of a single case of homosexuality during my entire stay in the prison camps. One wonders why? It is difficult to imagine that Poles are different in this respect from other nationalities, so maybe the nourishment, or rather the lack of it, prevented any inclination in that direction.
Medical care was conspicuous by its absence. Although there was something called "the sick quarters," it consisted of one Russian nurse who was assigned two elderly prisoners to work as aides. It lacked the most primitive medications and medical equipment, and anybody with a serious complaint had little chance of being cured or even surviving. Only when someone was close to death was he, according to what we were told, evacuated to a hospital in Lwow. What really happened we do not know because we never saw any of those people again. I was lucky to have had an operation for appendicitis only three months before capture. Had it happened in the camp, I do not believe that I would have had the opportunity of writing these lines.
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The soviets had decided to use us as a labor force for the construction of a strategic highway between Lwow and Kiev in the Ukraine. To accomplish this, they located prison camps at regular intervals along the route between these two cities. As I already mentioned, we were divided into work detachments of 25 men, each under the leadership of a prisoner appointed by the soviet authorities who was responsible to them for the group and its work. Our group was lucky, because our leader happened to be one of the street-wise inhabitants of Warsaw who were famed for their wit and ingenuity. He had a great sense of humor and personality and knew how to deal with the soviets to satisfy them, at the same time acting in our best interest.
Every morning at sunrise we were assembled in front of the barracks, a guard on each side of a work detachment. One of the guards would say: "The guard gives a warning: a step to the left or a step to the right and the guard will use his firearm. Forward". The gate was opened and we were off, on our way to work.
The work experience was our first eye opener showing us the utter confusion and disorder of the Communist system. As far as they were concerned, the prison labor force was cheap and expendable, so they did not respect it or worry about efficiency. One day we were unloading stones from trucks into the roadside ditch. The next day someone decided that the ditch should be deepened by six inches, so we had to move the stones from the ditch to the highway bed where, with a bit of foresight, they could have been unloaded in the first place. The whole day's work was completely wasted!
On another occasion one group was building a bridge and another the highway. When the bridge and the highway met, there was a little discrepancy. It turned out that the bridge was nine feet higher than the highway and nobody noticed it until both were completed. The bridge engineer was doing his job and the highway engineer was preoccupied with his. The guards, if they noticed, did not say anything, because it was none of their business and they could not have cared less. We noticed it, but after having a good laugh about it, we waited for the results. The row was considerable. All the high officials arrived and, after scratching their heads, started swearing at one another as only the Russians can. In the end they made a decision. It was necessary to tear off half a mile of the highway surface and reconstruct it at an appropriate grade which allowed it to meet the bridge.
Some time later we completed another stretch of the highway, and when trucks started rolling on it, the sight was unfor- gettable. We watched in amazement as they moved like boats on a rough sea bobbing up and down about two feet in a sinusoidal motion. It turned out that the terrain was marshy and the road bed insufficiently drained. Again it was necessary to rip off the surface, provide adequate drainage, and re-surface, such examples were innumerable.
During the work day the most embarrassing and humiliating experience was attending to one's natural needs, especially when the local women were passing in the vicinity on their way to the market. The guards did not allow us to go too far afield, the terrain was flat, and there were no bushes to hide behind, so there we were, in plain view, as on a theatre stage, squatting with our heads down, wishing that the ground would part under our feet and swallow us. There was no paper, of course, only grass and weeds, and no possibility to wash hands afterwards.
Hygienic conditions were deplorable. There were no showers or other bathing facilities and only partial body ablutions were possible in - cold water, of course. We were issued one small piece of smelly, yellow soap per month for body and underwear washing and nothing for oral hygiene. Only a few very lucky ones among us had a change of underwear, so the majority had to wash the only pair in the evening, hoping that it would dry before it had to be put on in the morning and, if it was not, that was their tough luck. Not surprisingly, in a very short time we were covered with lice. It was a shock and disgusting at first but, apparently, human beings can adjust to anything with time. As a typical evening scene, half-naked prisoners would sit on their sleeping platforms and, in the dim light of candles and kerosene lamps, search for lice in the pitiful rags of which their clothing consisted.
As I already mentioned, paper was a commodity hard to get and the small amount that was available was used by those who smoked for making cigarettes. We were told by civilian workers, who were employed on the highway project, that the works of Marx and Lenin were available in the book stores, even at a quite reasonable price. "A reader", while purchasing a book, seemed mainly interested in the quality of the paper and would be feeling it for the texture rather than examining the text.
Being a non smoker, I was trying to find something to read in Polish. After an extended business negotiation with one of the guards, which cost me my wrist watch, he supplied me with eight paperback novels. My supplier learned to read in his native Cyrilic alphabet and, being unfamiliar with ours, could not notice any difference between a Polish and a French text. To my great consternation, all eight novels turned out to be in French! I knew a little French from school but not enough to read novels in that language. My guard would not rectify the error, insisting that, as it was, it cost him enough trouble to locate these books and, if they happened to be in French, it was not his fault.
Thus, I was stuck with my desire to read and the French books, so I decided to do the best I could under the circumstances and started reading them! There was no French dictionary and none of my companions knew any French, so, after careful reading, when I reached the end of the first book, I did not have even the slightest idea what it was all about. In subsequent readings, however, from the syntax and knowledge of some words, I began to guess the meaning of others and I started making some sense of the theme of the novel and its characters. Progress was painfully slow, but I persevered and, after having read each book several times, to my own amazement I learned to read French! In the following years, after regaining my freedom, I read French books but I could not speak the language, sometimes this lead to an awkward situation when people, seeing me reading a book, started talking to me in French and ended up suspecting me of deception. Much later I learned to speak French and my knowledge of the written language assisted me considerably.
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The soviets "enriched" the Russian language by coining the word "Prembloodo" (Premium meal), which provides an excellent example of the injustice and cruelty of the Communist slave labor system. Upon arriving in the morning, each group leader was assigned a norm of work which members of his group were expected to complete in that particular day. The following day at lunch time the "prembloodo" cart arrived, a break was declared and all those who had fulfilled their norm the previous day, were called to line up at the cart and were dished out a ladle of soup. This soup was thicker and more nutritious than the one we were given in the camp. Now the lucky ones were sitting down to eat, while the others, mostly older, weak, or sick were watching them with envious, starved expressions on their faces. Many of those eating would have gladly shared it with those unfortunate men but that was forbidden. The slogan was: "If you do not work, you will not eat".
The soviets were using a psychological approach based on deceit or outright lies. They kept telling us that new supplies of food were coming from Russia and that our nourishment would improve; that a new doctor was coming from Moscow and would take care of our health; that a cargo of underwear was on its way and so on, endlessly. The most common one was: "When you finish building the highway we will let you go home". It worked to a large extent. Like a drowning person who would grab a razor to save himself we, like fools, believed them in spite of constant disappointments.
Members of the local civilian population also worked on the highway project as free employees. Among them was a Polish highway engineer, who had a shapely and pretty daughter of approximately my age. From time to time she accompanied her father in his work rounds. There must have been some mutual attraction because gradually a little romance, at a distance, of course, started flourishing between us. Under the circumstances, it consisted only of eloquent looks and a word or two exchanged furtively while she was passing by.
After a little while she was successful in persuading one of her father's assistants, a very obliging fellow, to help us in an exchange of correspondence. He carried it out very discreetly without arousing any suspicion of the guards. Our correspondence was so prim and proper that, even if it had been discovered by her father, he could not have had any objections. This friendly and affectionate liaison, which lasted until our departure from the camp in Jaryczow, helped in upholding my morale enormously. In my humiliating situation as a prisoner, forced to live life at a level not much higher than that of an animal, my conception of my personal worth was at its lowest ever. It was almost beyond my belief, that here was this attractive, young woman showing an interest in my insignificant, lousy (literally!) and dirty (physically) person. This encounter left a very pleasant and moving memory for the rest of my life.
The enterprise, inventiveness, resourcefulness, and skill shown by my prison companions were truly amazing and difficult to describe adequately. Only a few weeks after our arrival in Jaryczow, complete workshops were built equipped with lathes, drill stands, and other tools, primitive but functional and all self made. Objects in our possession and others smuggled in from the outside, were used as materials. After the evening meal those tools were put to work until late at night. The products of these efforts were decorative boxes, chessmen, jewelry, toys, religious statues, musical instruments, and a multitude of other objects, most of which were very skillfully and artistically made. The majority of these products were used for barter with the guards and, through them, with the outside world. The civilian employees on the highway were also involved in those deals. The guards were almost always paid a "commission" on anything smuggled in, some things were made for internal use. For instance, we had a camp orchestra whose instruments, even the violins and the guitars, were made in the camp. The band played quite well, and even the guards used to come in to listen. I wish to stress again that many of these products were of good quality - and it would have been hard to guess under what primitive conditions they were made.
Encouraged by this example, I also wanted to come up with something. After long reflection, I decided to make a model of the camp. On sunday, a day free from work, I wanted to make a sketch on which to base my model. Being young, inexperienced and naive, I went outside with a pencil and a piece of paper and started sketching in plain view of the guards. Predictably two -minutes after my re-entering the barracks, several guards rushed in, searching for me. They did not have to search long, because in all my innocence, I did not even hide. They arrested me, confiscated my sketch as a corpus delicti, and took me to the guard post. The commander of the guard accused me of spying and of having contacts with outside, subversive elements, and ordered me put in solitary confinement, awaiting further investigation.
The solitary confinement cell was an unheated former pigsty with a constant draft blowing through large cracks in the walls. The only object inside was a bare prison bed nailed together from a few wooden boards. There I spent the rest of the day and the following night, marching from one end to the other just to keep warm. It was late November, and I did not even have a chance to put on anything warmer when I was arrested. In the morning I was visited by the civilian commandant of the camp. He was a Russian with a very jovial character and a heart of gold who, to the best of his limited jurisdiction and influence, was trying to make our life easier, protecting us from the harsh political and military authorities. One day, when we complained about the insufficiency of our food, he told us with great compassion that, with the exception of half a liter of vodka, he himself had nothing to eat since the morning! Going back to my predicament, the commandant interrogated me carefully to find out what had happened and he determined that there was nothing more involved than my plain naivete. Immediately afterwards he intervened with the commander of the guard and managed to persuade him to drop the charges and release me. It is not difficult to imagine how grateful I was to him. Of course, this experience discouraged me from further interest in the project of constructing a model of the prison camp.
We talked frequently about the possibility of escape, but there was not much point in attempting it. The local population was mostly Ukrainian and hostile to the Poles. Escaping to the Western Allies was almost impossible, and trying to get to the zone occupied by the Nazis seemed like the proverbial falling from the frying pan into the fire. There was only one attempt, and that ended tragically.
Three of our comrades sneaked out of the camp in the darkness after the evening meal. About half an hour later they were brought back by the guards with bullet wounds, unconscious and bleeding. They were thrown on the tables used for food distribution at the entrance to the barracks. They were not given any first aid and we were not allowed to approach them, probably as an example and warning for us.
Soon our civilian commandant arrived. He looked very worried and depressed. He stood over the still bodies of the unlucky trio and, partly to us, partly to himself, started a monologue. He was asking the questions and answering them himself, not realizing the irony of what he was saying: "Were they warm?", "Yes, they were."; "Were they fed?", "Yes, they were"; "Why did they run away?" and left the last question unanswered. Obviously his whole life spent under the Communist system did not provide him with an answer. The wounded prisoners remained lying there without regaining consciousness until the following morning. Their moaning was becoming weaker and weaker as hours passed. In the morning they were loaded on a truck, and we were told that they were taken to a hospital in Lvov. It is doubtful that any of them survived.
Shortly after this unsuccessful escape attempt, we were assembled on the square between the buildings and subjected to a thorough search. All our documents, personal papers, and photographs were confiscated. This action was accompanied by the usual soviet lies that, upon our release, they would be returned to us. At the same time another group of guards searched our living quarters thoroughly, collecting and confiscating all of the workshop tools, so ingeniously and laboriously created.
As a result of this search and confiscation, after the liberation, when I found myself in Great Britain, I did not have even the smallest scrap of paper on me, and all of the data on the documents issued to me by the British was based solely on my verbal statements, taken on trust. It was exactly as if I were born again with a new identity. I could have rejuvenated myself by a few years, for instance, had I so desired. On the other hand, young people frequently wish to appear older than they are, so I was lucky that I was not tempted to increase my age. As for the tools, all the workshops were reconstructed after a few weeks, and production was in a full swing as if nothing had ever happened! We speculated that the purpose of this search and confiscation was intended as an impediment to the planning of any future escapes.
The latrine in the camp consisted of an open ditch, about 20 feet long, with a wooden plank on its edge and a beam slightly above and over it. It was a precariously built contraption and utmost care was required to avoid slipping while attempting to sit on the beam. Having to use this "convenience", or more truthfully inconvenience, was a harrowing experience, especially at night, as it was fairly distant and there was no light. It was even more distressing when one was suffering from diarrhea, which was a common occurrence. Needless to say, there were some pitiful accidents, which are best only mentioned without going into any gory details.
As for our guards, they varied a lot among themselves, from hostile and cruel to friendly and obliging. Even the most friendly among them, however, would not talk to us frankly if another guard was within earshot. When there were two or more, the conversation was very official and limited to what was proper in the eyes of the authorities. This indicated a fear of each guard that his companions might be denunciators who would report his fraternization with the prisoners to their superiors. This was another eye opener for us in our continuous practical education about the intricacies of the Communist system. There were a few pre-war Polish Communists among us, who in the beginning, were trying to defend the soviet system. As time went on apparently they were getting an education also, because they gradually became less and less vocal and in the end they tore up their party membership cards in disgust. Returning to the guards, there was one in particular, who stuck in my mind. His name was Zolotarog and he almost considered himself to be one of us. He believed that the war would end in the defeat of Communism and he was planning on settling with us in Poland, when it was all over. I sincerely hope that Mr Zolotarog is still alive and that he has witnessed the present collapse of Communism!
Every camp had a "Politruk" a word coined from "politichesckoy rukovoditiel" in Russian, which in translation means "political leader." His task was to spread Communist propaganda and to ensure that everything went according to the party's ideology. Early in our imprisonment, our Politruk was making valiant efforts, trying to convert us to Communism. He started by telling us wonderful fairy tales about the achievement of the Soviet Union in every field. Everything was "bolshoy ee mnogo" (big and a lot of). In most cases his approach was naive, amusing and childish. He used to say, for instance, "Do you know what a gramophone is?". To goad him on, we said we did not, pretended to be surprised and asked him to explain it to us, so he was telling us that it was a great invention of the soviet scientists, which was mass produced in the soviet Union and owned by almost all citizens, who used it to listen to songs about the glory of the soviet Union and its beloved leader, the great Stalin. Then he proceeded to describe the gramophone and to explain how it worked, and how to operate it. It was obvious to us that, in his understanding, in Poland only the land owners and bourgeois capitalists were surrounded by luxuries while the rest of us, the "subjugated masses," were not only deprived of possessions but also ignorant of their existence. In the end it must have dawned on him that somehow things were not quite as he imagined them to be and that, apart from not believing him, we were making fun of him and laughing behind his back, so after a while his efforts to disseminate the propaganda came to an end.
On one occasion two work groups were sent to work in the local, recently "liberated" mansion house, - which probably meant that the family who owned it had been sent to Siberia. Their task was to clean out the cellars. In one cellar they came across several tons of onions. For the next few days they were coming back from work loaded with onions, which they were generously distributing to the rest of us. Thus, over that period of time a significant supply of onions accumulated in the camp. Hungry and longing for fresh produce we began stuffing ourselves with onions. As long as this supply lasted we were eating onions raw, boiled, baked, with a few crumbs of bread or with our soup, but mostly without anything else. We would have loved to have them fried but there was no fat! The odor in the barracks, and especially of our breath, must have been overwhelming, but nobody complained or even noticed it as we were all gorging ourselves equally. Hopefully this godsend windfall alleviated our lack of vitamins and minerals a little, at least for a short period of time. I am surprised that after this experience I still like onions.
About the same time, our unauthorized underground sources provided us with news about the behavior of soviet civilians in the city of Lvov. They were brought in from Russia by the soviet authorities to organize the management of the city according to the Communist pattern. We were told that they were washing their feet in toilet bowls; men were wearing lady's coats in the streets; women were wearing lingerie and night gowns to dances, taking them for evening dresses; also they climbed the stairs in high rise buildings because they were afraid to enter an elevator. One eye witness swore that he saw a Russian soldier who bought several rolls of fly paper, left the store and attempted to eat them, taking them for candy. Apparently they were not to his liking because he threw them away in disgust, bitterly complaining about the perverse taste of the Poles and swearing as only a Russian can (one of the guards wanted to bet with us that he could swear for a full five minutes without repeating the same swear word twice). I do not know how much truth and how much malice are in those tales. We got that information second-hand, or rather "second-mouth," but, from my personal knowledge and observation of the soviet civilization, I would not be surprised if every single word were true. Many jokes circulated in the camp about our soviet invaders and their Communist system but, unfortunately, only one stuck in my mind. Question: what is the difference between the two main soviet papers Pravda (The Truth) and Izvestia (The News). Answer: there is no Izvestia in Pravda and no Pravda in Izvestia!
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From the beginning of our captivity we were trying to establish contact with our families. For those who had families in the part of Poland under soviet occupation it was relatively easy, and we watched with envy those fortunate individuals whose relatives began visiting them. For the rest of us whose families were under the German occupation it was much more difficult. In the end, however, we started receiving cards stamped KRIEGSGEFANGENENPOST (prisoners-of-war-mail) with a limited number of words, probably to save the censors' time. Most of the news was not good. In my own case our family lost absolutely everything, and my father was missing. (I learned after the war, that he was taken hostage as a civilian by the Nazis, executed and buried with 10,000 other victims in mass graves, in November of 1939 in Piasnica near the Baltic sea). Also, germanized names of Polish towns and stamps adorned with swastikas on those cards were very depressing to see. A little later real letters started arriving, and they were a great joy to us. In our hopeless, monotonous life, the arrival of a letter was an event of monumental proportions.
On Easter day, which obviously was not recognized by the soviets, we were taken to work as usual. On our way to work everyday we used to pass the village of Jaryczow and at that time of the day the road was usually deserted. This time, however to our great surprise, both sides of the road were crowded with the people of Jaryczow, all dressed in their sunday best, with jars and baskets in their hands. As we approached, women and children tried to come close to us to offer us muffins, cakes, fruit, and other traditional Easter treats. Unfortunately, the guards with fixed bayonets did not allowed them to come close, brutally pushing them away. Realizing that they would not be able to approach, they began throwing the food in our direction over the heads of the guards. We managed to catch some, but most of it ended in the mud out of our reach under the boots of the guards, who were deliberately squashing it into the ground. Pandemonium ensued. Women and children were crying, men were shaking their fists and swearing at the guards who, provoked, started firing shots in the air above the heads of the crowd. It was a heart-rending experience for the village people and for us.
A few months later at Christmas time, the people of Jarychow, having learned from this sad experience, made arrangements with the authorities of the prison camp and sent a horse-drawn cart which was allowed to enter the camp. Their cart was loaded with a sumptuous - especially for war-time Christmas fare, which was generously distributed among us. We were enormously moved and grateful to those people for such a manifestly sincere proof of their compassion and friendship. Also it must be taken into account that the population in that part of Eastern Poland was in great majority Ukrainian. Before. the war these people felt a resentment toward the Poles, justified in most cases, viewing us as invaders and occupiers of their land. At the same time this occurrence was a kind of a rebuttal to our "Politruk". In his talks with us, he constantly referred to the prewar maltreatment of the Ukrainians by the Poles, unfortunately true in many cases, and pointed out how that made them hate us and admire the soviet Union for liberating them from under the Polish yoke. -Their show of friendship towards us was indicating that, having experienced the results of the "liberation" by the soviets, the Ukrainians may have concluded that, after all, even the Polish yoke might have been better than the soviet "liberation".
Captivity was a tough school of life which formed my character for the rest of my days. Our family had not been rich, but we were not poor either, and as a child I had not experienced the slightest deprivation, so, I was truly spoiled and preoccupied with my own importance. I was under the impression that I was someone special and that the whole world should be at my command. My military service, and especially the boot camp period, lessened this conviction a little, but the prison camp was the real eye-opener. Only then did I realizehow insignificant'was my person and how unimportant my existence. For the first time I experienced hunger, cold, and lack of the most essential requirements of civilized life. I understood the meaning of freedom, friendship, solidarity and coexistence with others. I learned compassion for others, appreciation of their needs, and understanding for their weaknesses.
I also found a rational way to control my personality and to respond to external situations and occurrences. One example should be sufficient. At the very beginning of my captivity I was filled with an overpowering hate for the soviets. For hours I would contemplate what I would do to them if suddenly they found themselves in my power. I was using my entire imagination, deliberating in great detail the most elaborate tortures to which I would like to subject them. In the end, however, I asked myself why I was doing it and where it was really getting me. It was obvious that my thoughts were not causing them any harm and that I was only poisoning my own mind. From that moment on I started employing my thoughts in a more rational and effective manner.
To sum it up, I started my captivity almost as a child and I grew up in a hurry to become a reasonably balanced human being. As a result, even in my present life, I have a strong respect for food and it hurts me to see it wasted; I have a great compassion for human and animal suffering; I do not have a prejudice against people, whatever their origin and circumstances; and I try to collaborate with others and live with them in peace and friendship. This may sound boastful, however, in my own mind I am honestly describing the effects of imprisonment on the development of my character. At the risk of being accused of conceit, I believe that the painful and degrading experience of being a prisoner made a better man out of me. Was it worth it? It is difficult to say. Maybe it was.
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When we finished the highway construction, in spite of all the promises about letting us go home, our guardians told us: "Very well, you have finished the highway and we would like to let you go home but - we are sorry - now it is necessary to build airfields." They transported us and other groups of prisoners from other camps to a new and larger camp. There were approximately 2,000 of us assembled altogether, assigned to the construction of an airfield. We were taken to a large empty stretch of land and given the task of clearing and leveling the ground. However, we were not destined to see the end of this project.
The work lasted only a couple of weeks, thus not a lot of our perspiration soaked into the soil of the prospective airfield. One fine morning, instead of leaving for work, we were were told to assemble on the camp square. We realized that something unusual was going on. There was a table in the center, the military and civilian commandants and other functionaries were present, and so were all the guards with the exception of those on duty in the watch towers around the camp. One of the "politruks" climbed on the table and started delivering a speech.
He said that it was not true that the relations between the soviet Union and Germany were deteriorating, as the propaganda of the Western Allies would like us to believe. This was just the envy of the capitalist countries, which were spreading those rumors to cause trouble and disturb the sunny and friendly relations between the two countries. There was not an iota of truth in these rumors; the whole thing was purely and simply an invention of capitalist propaganda, and there was still great friendship between them and the German Reich. Hitler and Stalin had just exchanged their most cordial greetings! This lifelong friendship would outlast all the treacherous attempts of a hostile propaganda to disturb them. His diatribe went on and on.
While this "politruk" was speaking so eloquently, three Messerschmits approached in a low flight, circled the camp, and sprayed the watch towers with machine-gun fire. The "politruk" cried "Lie down!" disappeared under the table, and that was the last time we saw him. (From that day on, when I hear strong denials from a government, I am immediately on my guard.) The date was June 22, 1941, the day the soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany. That was the news we awaited and desperately hoped for.
The following day the guards entered the barracks shouting: "Assemble outside with your belongings." This phrase always meant that we were leaving the camp for good. As I have already mentioned, there were prison camps at even intervals along the whole highway between Lvov and Kiev. The soviet authorities decided to evacuate us deep into the country, moving us daily on foot from one camp to the next which was vacated the same day by the group ahead of us.
This was, literally, a death march. As we were weakened by malnutrition and work, many older men and the sick were falling down on the road from exhaustion, not being able to march any further. The guards had orders to shoot and kill everyone who could not be forced to get up and continue to march. From time to time we heard a shot, and we knew that another of our men had lost his life.
I remember one particular man who, during his whole stay in Jaryczow, was heavily engaged in internal and external camp "commerce" and managed to amass a considerable fortune in valuable objects. When we left, he took this treasure with him and was carrying it on his back. The majority of us discarded most of our possessions to lighten our load and save our lives. Every one was advising him to do the same. He could not force himself to abandon that precious cargo, however, and paid for it with his life. There was among us a doctor who was over forty at that time and who suffered from a heart problem, some of us, much younger and stronger, took turns two at a time to hold him by the arms and help him along. That was one life we succeeded in saving.
The Germans must have been just behind us all the time. We heard their artillery at close range and sometimes the shells exploded ahead of us. The Luftwaffe was flying overhead all the time. In the beginning we were told to lie down in the ditch by the highway when the planes approached, but soon it was obvious that they did not pay any attention to us and, in the end, we marched without stopping, regardless of the overflights.
On one occasion, a couple of miles away there was some movement at the edge of a forest on our left side and a few shots were fired in our direction. The guards ordered us to lie down on a meadow on the side of the road facing the forest, while they positioned themselves in the ditch on the opposite side and returned the fire over our heads, soon machine-guns joined the fray on both sides. We were in the open field, and it seemed to us that the bullets were whistling only a few inches over our heads. Never before or after in my life was I trying to make myself so flat and so close to Mother Earth as at that particular time! After several minutes, which seemed like an eternity to us, both sides began to fire signal rockets and suddenly all firing ceased. It turned out that both sides were soviet! It is a real miracle that there were no casualties, at least on our side.
In one of the camps where we stayed for the night, a few men among us decided to fall into German hands rather than continue this infernal march. They concealed themselves wherever they could: under the floorboards, in the chimneys, in the firewood, and other places. Unfortunately for them there must have been an informer among us. The following morning, after assembling us on the road, a detachment of guards was sent back to the camp. They must have had precise information because they went straight for the hiding locations and started shooting and killing those luckless victims exactly where they were, some of them noticed what was going on and tried to run and join our ranks. They were shot while running, like rabbits. All the bodies were left where they were shot, so probably the next group of prisoners to arrive at the camp had the unpleasant task of dealing with the bodies.
We were allowed to drink only in the morning, in the evening, and during the night. We were not permitted to drink during the march. Perhaps the soviets thought that drinking might take away our strength, or what remained of it, and make us more sluggish. As a result, we were so thirsty during the march that, if there was a smallest pool on the road left by the rain, or even a little horse dung-water, we were kneeling down to wet our lips at least.
On one occasion a well with a sweep and a bucket could be seen ahead of us next to a curve in the road. The guards, anticipating what might happen, sent a small detachment ahead. They surrounded the well, with bayonets at the ready, to bar access to it. As in a trance, we left the road and marched straight in the direction of the well. We were moving on, in spite of the outstretched bayonets, not paying the slightest attention to them or the menacing posture of the guards. The latter ceded the ground under our pressure, reformed behind the well in a single file, and started firing warning shots over our heads. Even this action did not seem to deter us, and we kept marching forward with an unshaken determination. Those, who first reached the well started pulling up buckets of water and pouring them into an adjacent trough. The rest of us rushed forward, drinking from it like cattle, urging and pushing those in front, not paying the slightest attention to anything else. Finally the commandant of the guards, understanding that there was no reasonable force which would stop us, announced-a short break and allowed us to drink to satisfaction.
I am fully convinced that even if had they had started shooting at us that would not have made the slightest difference. We would have gone just stepping over the bodies, marching forward, seeing nothing but the well in front of us. To this day, the image of it remains vividly in my mind. I was so separated from the reality that I felt as if this was happening to someone else and I was merely a detached observer. It was like watching a movie without personal involvement or participation. The idea of danger and fear of death were completely absent. I still see it in my memory as a picture on a screen, but with too much brilliance and in exaggerated colors. I am sure it must have been a case of mass psychosis.
At the end of this long march we arrived at a railway station whose name I do not remember or, more likely, never even knew. We were loaded into cattle cars and the train started moving slowly and with frequent extended stops. During this journey, which lasted several days, our food ration, already minimal, deteriorated further. The soviets must have had supply problems because our diet became very strange, to say the least. One day we would get a few pieces of boiled candy and nothing else for the next twenty four hours, the second day a spoonful of marmalade, the third a herring, and so on every day. The only daily addition was a little drinking water.
The results of that kind of a diet were not surprising. When we arrived at our destination, the railway station of the town of Starobielsk, and the guards opened the doors of the cattle cars to let us out, we were so weak that, after jumping out, we were falling by the railway tracks without being able to move. Our guards were trying to persuade us to get up and go, telling us that the barracks were only a short distance away and there was a hot meal ready, waiting for us. These words, however encouraging, were falling on deaf ears and in the end the guards must have realized that the effort required was beyond our capabilities. It was then that they brought in a field kitchen and cooked soup for us, the first real meal we had since leaving the camp at the airfield three weeks earlier.
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The attitude of the soviet authorities towards us now changed somewhat. It must have been the result of a change in the political climate, created by the invasion of the soviet Union by Nazi Germany, and negotiations with the Western Allies whose help the soviets desperately needed. They began to treat us better, did not force us to work, and the food situation improved, although it was considerably below the standard to which we were accustomed in the Polish forces. It must be remembered that the soviet Union suffered from a chronic shortage of food products. Also, for the first time since the beginning of our captivity, we were provided with war news bulletins, strongly tilted towards the soviet point of view, of course. Until that time all news was scarce and inaccurate from underground sources, and we had very little information about the progress of the war.
At Starobielsk we were quartered in an old orthodox church, which had been converted into barracks by the installation of three-story, prison type, sleeping platforms. Next to these platforms there were pencilled messages, scribbled in Polish on the walls. The majority consisted of the first name, the surname, an address, and a brief message, asking the reader to inform the family of the writer that the latter was imprisoned there between the dates given. Many of us recognized the names of the authors of those messages. They were the names of our Polish officers who were kept there before the massacre of the Katyn forest. I copied some of these messages but lost them unfortunately, under circumstances which I do not recall. The text of some of these notes indicated that many of the writers had a presentiment of the fate which was awaiting them. Looking at those names and signatures, we had no idea that those men were no longer alive and that we were looking at messages written by martyrs whose lives were taken in such an unjust and cruel way.
I do not remember how long we waited in Starobielsk before news arrived that our captivity had ended and that we were free men again. Our release was the result of one paragraph in the agreement which the Soviet Union signed with the British government and the Polish government-in-exile in London. Soon after, accompanied by Soviet guides, we started a "pilgrimage" to the assembly area where the Polish army was being formed.
The Soviets paid us a "compensation" in rubles for our imprisonment. It sounded like a fantastic sum of money but, in practice, did not mean much as there was absolutely nothing we could buy with it. We were also supplied with coupons for a daily ration of food which continued to be poor in quality and inadequate in quantity. The civilians in the villages and the little towns which we were passing were very friendly and hospitable. I am convinced that, had they had an adequate supply of food, they would have been willing to share it with us, but it was quite obvious that they were half starved themselves. Sometimes when they would offer us food, it was really painful to accept, seeing that they could hardly afford this offer, and that it was a sacrifice on their part to make it. In private conversation most of them did not speak well of the Communist system and were most anxious and interested to learn about living conditions in the non-communist world. We were not averse to supplying them with that information and, may we be forgiven, even exaggerated a little. After all, we learned a lot about the art of exaggeration from masters of that art, the "politruks" themselves.
One fine day we arrived at a collective farm where, at last, we were able to buy something for our compensation rubles. Unexpectedly, there was an incredible abundance of watermelons, and the price in rubles seemed to us ridiculously low. Needless to say, we started gorging ourselves on that fruit as only hungry people are capable of doing. Taking into account that about 95% of a watermelon consists of water, we did not derive much nourishment from that feast but at least we filled our empty stomachs, and for a short while we had a feeling of satiety. This was a repetition of the story of the onions in Jaryczow but of a little shorter duration. However, the result was not the same, because I still like onions but cannot stand the sight of a watermelon!
In that journey through the Russian landscape as free men promoted to the status of "allies", we had a chance to attend two or three dances in small towns. Most of the local girls showed a lot of interest in foreigners, seen for the first time in their lives. At one of those dances, the Russian young men, annoyed and prompted by jealousy, began demonstrating hostility towards us. They made some derogatory remarks about us and pushed us with their elbows, as if by accident. To increase the provocation, they found a record with a song in which "Polish lords" were abusing their serfs and started playing it repeatedly. Our patience was wearing very thin and it appeared that the situation might result in a major conflict, if not in a full scale battle between the new "allies." Fortunately the management of the cooperative that organized the dance noticed what was going on and averted the disaster. They confiscated the offending record, had a serious talk with the young Russians, and smoothed things out in general.
Finally, we arrived in the assembly area where the Polish forces were being organized. Our authorities were making lists of the arriving former prisoners, allocating them to newly formed units, and appointing commanders. Most noticeable was the complete absence of officers. Not knowing at that time about the Katyn* massacre, we were puzzled that not a single officer was present. Senior noncommissioned officers filled all the key positions. Polish liaison officers who arrived from Great Britain were equally puzzled and kept raising the point with the Soviets who were giving evasive answers. We arrived at the conclusion that our officers must have been delayed on the way and that they would show up later.
After a heartfelt and emotional farewell to many of our companions from the memorable prison camp in Jaryczow, we found ourselves in an Air Force Unit. There we encountered some of our colleagues from the military college in Sadkow who had separated themselves from the main group during the evacuation to the East and who also did not avoid Soviet captivity. (As we later learned there were a few enterprising and lucky ones who made it all the way to Great Britain). We also met some non-commissioned officers and men from the ground crew in Sadkow who were evacuated separately.
Soon after, our unit left the main assembly area for the Air Force camp. The only problem was that there was no Air Force camp. We were led to a deserted clearing in the woods with absolutely nothing but undergrowth and the trees around and we were told to build a camp. We were given some tools and supplies and were left to our own devices and ingenuity. It was late in the day when we arrived at the location. It was getting dark and large flakes of snow were falling. It was much too late to think about preparing any kind of shelter, so, a little dismayed, we settled for the night the best we could on the bare ground.
A group of former prisoners of war in the vicinity of the Polish Air Force camp in Russia
Even this rough experience did not dampen our high spirits and enthusiasm for long. After all we were again in the Polish Air Force, under our own command, and in contact with our own Polish Government in London. There is a tremendous difference between slave labor and working for yourself. So the next day the ground was cleared, tents set up, and a cook house built. Within the next few days a latrine was built, primitive but much more sheltered, comfortable, and much safer than the memorable one in Jaryczow. Also, drainage was provided, alleys between tents were paved, and a fence around the camp was erected with a magnificent gate. (Poles love decorating gates - remember the one in Gdansk, seen on the TV news all over the world, during the birth of Solidarity in 1980?). Even some attempts at landscaping were made and with great pride we erected a tall mast from which we flew our national flag, accompanied by flag raising and lowering ceremonies. There are still a few small photos of that camp in my possession which I cherish as souvenirs.
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It was a great event for us when a liaison officer from the Polish squadrons in the R.A.F, arrived from England. In his elegant uniform of a Royal Air Force major with "Poland" embroidered atop his sleeves, Polish and English pilot's wings, and a Polish eagle on his cap, he looked like a demigod to us, who saw so much of the communist squalor. We followed him about like shadows and were never tired of listening to his stories about the Polish fighter squadrons in the R.A.F., their participation in the Battle of Britain, and the achievements of individual pilots, many of whom were our colleagues or known to us personally. I was especially proud of my schoolmates, from my home town, Wejherowo: Jeka, Blok, Socha, Semmerling, Woroch and others who had several enemy aircraft to their credit.
According to the major, there was a great demand for airmen and sailors in Great Britain and, because of it, we were going to be transferred directly to that country, as soon as possible. The army and the cavalry were to remain on Russian soil to fight the Wehrmacht alongside the Red Army. However, when relations between the Soviet Union and the Polish government in London deteriorated over the crime in Katyn, they were moved South, first to the Middle East and then to Africa, where they joined the British Forces and fought under the command of General Anders.
A little later, we started our journey to Great Britain, but in the wrong direction! We were loaded into cattle cars once more and propelled in the direction of Archangel on the White Sea. That was a long and tiresome trip but we arrived in December 1941. Only on arrival we found - to our great chagrin - that the Archangel port was frozen and it would remain so until May of 1942. We were told that we must wait five months before the bay would thaw, to allow us to sail. As a result of forceful intervention by British and Polish authorities, the Soviets agreed to transfer us to Murmansk where, owing to warm currents, the port did not freeze for the winter. This incident was typical of the way business was conducted in the Soviet Union. I have already given examples of this phenomenon in connection with road construction in the Ukraine. Surely it should have been a simple matter of communicating with the port authorities in Archangel to determine the sailing conditions in the bay before sending two hundred people on a long journey, well in excess of a thousand miles.
Back we went to the railway and the cattle cars, this time for the trip to Murmansk! The railway line followed the White Sea coast in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle. The intensity of the cold there is difficult to describe. I have never experienced this kind of cold weather, not even during my excursions in Canada and Alaska. In the open air, it was difficult and painful to breathe, as cold air filled the lungs and a cloud of freezing vapor surrounded our heads. Spilled water turned into ice before hitting the ground. Voices sounded strangely hollow and the whistle of the locomotive was weird and mournful. We were wearing heavily-quilted Russian trousers, jackets, and Eskimo-type hats, buttoned under the chin to protect our ears and necks. In addition, when leaving the cattle cars, we put blankets over our heads and shoulders.
During the whole trip, not once, not even for a little while, did we take off a single article of our clothing. There was an iron stove in the middle of our car and fortunately there was no scarcity of wood as fuel, which we picked up at each stop. To keep warm we huddled as close as possible around the stove, frequently rotating our positions so that everyone had an equal chance to stay warm. The vapor caused by our respiration settled on the walls of the cars where it froze immediately. Soon a sheet of ice covered all four walls and the ceiling, increasing in thickness as time went on. This was a welcome phenomenon which, by providing a layer of insulation, helped to keep the the heat inside, the way the Eskimo ice-built huts do. I woke up one morning to find that I could not move my head, despite all of my efforts. The explanation was simple. During the night the quilted hat slipped off my head, and my hair froze to the sheet of ice on the walll My companions had to cut my hair with a pocket knife to set me free. It was a lengthy and rather painful operation, because my head was close to the wall, and there was not much room to maneuver.
Whenever the train stopped, we made trips to the locomotive to get boiling water from the boiler, which the friendly crew did not begrudge us. Although a little greasy from the engine, that water kept us warm inside and, when some was left over, we used it to wash our faces. That was not easy. We could not do it outside because there would be no time to dry the water before it changed into a film of ice on our faces. So covering the container as well as we could, we had to rush back to the car to perform our ablutions, hoping that the water would not freeze in the meantime.
From time to time, we passed a "Gulag" (prison camp) for political prisoners, made notorious by one famous inmate, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, in his "The Gulag Archipelago." Frequently we saw groups of prisoners painfully trudging to work, dejected, heads low, dressed in tattered old rags, and surrounded by guards. That was a very depressing sight for us who only a short time earlier, were in a similar, although a little less hopeless, situation. We were attempting to signal our compassion and friendship towards them with gestures and shouts, to the great, hostile consternation of their guards.
A wonderful surprise was awaiting us on arrival in Murmansk. After having experienced all the squalor and deprivations of life in a Soviet prison camp and being accustomed to transportation in cattle cars, you can imagine our astonishment when we found immaculate luxury coaches waiting for us at the railway station. But that was only the beginning! We were taken to a bath house where all our old clothing was taken away, and after a bath we were issued brand new underwear and quilted outer clothes. After that, our luxury coaches delivered us to the quarters of higher ranking U.S.S.R. Navy officers where we met with treatment usually reserved for most distinguished guests.
We were given newly painted, well lit, spacious rooms with beds equipped with fresh, never used linen. Three times a day our coaches returned to take us for meals to a place which was less than ten minutes leisurely walk away. That place looked like a first class restaurant, even by western standards. There were thick carpets on the floor, real palm trees in enormous pots, and pretty waitresses in black dresses with white aprons and head-wear. The food was fabulous. We did not believe our eyes, seeing hot chocolate with whipped cream, tropical fruit, sumptuous ice-cream, pate de foie gras and other luxuries. We were treated that way until the day of our departure to Great Britain.
To this day I cannot figure out the purpose of this special treatment. I doubt very much that they hoped that the extra- vagance of those few days would result in our forgetting the experience of the previous two years. More likely they realized that we were leaving for a capitalist country and wanted to show us that they also had some class and luxury. The latter, although more probable, would show a lot of naivete on their part, similar to the famous villages of Potemkin which, in the days of the tzar, attempted to hide the misery and poverty of the rural population behind the scenery of painted pictures of opulent looking villages. The most probable explanation is the typically communist disorder where orders are improperly interpreted and carried out. Or, simply, they confused our arrival with the arrival of an important American delegation.
At last the impatiently awaited day of our departure from the Soviet Union arrived. We boarded a Soviet tugboat and started in the direction of the port where the British ships were located. When the tugboat reached the side of the British warship, the Soviet and English sailors exchanged a few words and the Soviet sailors tried to throw a mooring rope to the British. There was some misunderstanding, however, because the British threw it right back shouting something which we did not understand and neither did the Russians, judging by the puzzled expressions on their faces. In the end the tugboat left and approached again, touching the ship in a slightly different location. This did not seem to satisfy the British either and resulted in a palaver similar to the first one.
In the meantime, the Russians were swearing in Russian, which we understood perfectly and the English did the same in English, which we did not understand at all, but could imagine from the tone of their voices. As for us, we were worried and distressed, thinking that the British did not want to accept us. In the end, however, both sides came to some sort of an understanding. The British accepted the mooring rope, tied it on, and dropped a rope ladder which we used to climb aboard. It was like leaving a nightmare and entering a paradise. For the first time, since the day of captivity, we were truly free men. I felt like falling to my knees and kissing the deck of the ship.
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The British sailors received us with open hands and open hearts. Their hospitality, kindness, and friendship did not have limits. We were given hammocks and were allocated in twos and threes to each living quarter on the ship. Each group of sailors accepted us as their own, took care of us, shared with us the treats they received in parcels from home, taught us English and took us around the ship, showing us everything including the radar, in spite of the fact that it was a top secret, jealously guarded at that time.
I noticed that in our group there were frequent, very heated discussions between one particular sailor and the rest of them. It appeared to us that this individual was not too sure of his ground and was taking a defensive posture, while the others were attacking his statements and pointing to us as witnesses. In the end it dawned on us what was going on. We found out that the man in question was a member of the British Communist Party, and his opponents were pointing out to him his erroneous ideas about communism, using as arguments the information they obtained from us. It was really amazing how well we communicated with them and how much we managed to tell them by means of sign language, an improvised pantomime, an odd mixture of French, German or Latin words, and a few English ones which we managed to pick up. It was proof that, where there is a real necessity, the language barrier is not insurmountablel
The ship's doctor, who probably did not have too much experience with malnutrition and its symptoms, showed a great interest in our condition. The entire surface of my arms and legs was densely covered with large scabs. Those did not heal at all. When one peeled off, another one, even bigger, took its place. All my teeth were loose and I could rock them back and forth about 1/32nd of an inch - I was convinced that I was going to lose them all. I and others who were young and in good health before our capture were lucky. A few months after arriving in Great Britain, where we were put on an intensive, recuperative diet, all of those symptoms disappeared. Even our teeth firmed up in our gums. Unfortunately those who were older or in poor health suffered permanent effects of malnutrition which probably shortened their lives.
Our ship, a "pocket cruiser", so called because of its smaller-than standard size, was H.M.S. Trinidad. It was the command ship of the convoy which, in addition, consisted of two destroyers and six merchant vessels.
Tragedy marked the beginning of our journey to England. There was a German submarine in hiding just outside the port of Murmansk. As the convoy emerged from port, the submarine fired a torpedo which hit one of the destroyers almost point blank. The torpedo must have hit the ammunition chamber. There was a tremendous explosion and the ship disappeared completely below the surface of the water in a matter of two or three minutes. The U-boat was only a few feet below the surface and did not have time to submerge, before the other destroyer, only a short distance away veered towards it and literally cut it in half. The whole encounter could not have taken more than five minutes. Only two members of the crew of the destroyer survived. When they were pulled out of the water their faces were so covered with oil that the features could not be distinguished. Their heads looked like big blobs of oil. There were no survivors from the U-boat. After a short time of fruitless search, the ships resumed their journey. I do not remember how many sailors were aboard the destroyer but I think that it was around a thousand.
This was a sad experience which made us realize the constant danger to which our new friends, the sailors, were exposed and that, in the technological warfare which commenced with the Second World War, there was no safe place on land, in the air, on the water, or under it.
Later, during our stay in England, we were grieved and saddened by the news that, first, the H.M.S. Trinidad was badly damaged and later, after a thorough reconstruction, was returned to service and not long after was sunk by the enemy. We never found out how many of those wonderful, friendly sailors lost their lives.
T.Kuniewski - a photo taken shortly after arriving in England in 1942.
The journey through the Norwegian and North Seas took three days. Our ship was one of the most modern and speedy for those days. All the time it sailed around the rest of the convoy on the lookout for U-boats. Because of its great speed, those rounds did not slow down the progress of the convoy. It would decrease its speed when moving in the opposite direction to the other ships and, after turning around, accelerate to overtake them and have enough time to cross over to the other side in front of them. During the accelerating portion of the maneuver, there was such a strong current of air on the deck that those standing on it felt like they were riding in a convertible sports car.
On passing the Norwegian coast, our cruiser left the convoy, approached the coast, and fired a couple of salvos from its biggest guns. It was quite an experience to see and hear this. The German shore batteries answered the fire, but the range of their guns was insufficient and their shells fell short, raising enormous fountains of water. After this demonstration of its presence, H.M.S. Trinidad rejoined the convoy. The following day an enemy plane flew toward us, and our cruiser opened such an overpowering barrage of antiaircraft fire in its direction that its pilot changed course, turned around and flew back.
At night on the third day, we landed in Greenock, near Glasgow, in Scotland. That was February 14th, 1942, a memorable day for us.
The original Polish text completed:September 5, 1991.
English translation completed: November 19, 1991.
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