New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children
The Polish population was then subjected to a census of people and their possessions. We had a bad feeling about this and our fears were justified, because on 10 February 1940, on a bitterly cold night at 1.30am, we heard loud knocking at our door. These uninvited guests were armed Russian Secret Police and a few local Ukrainians. Some of them behaved arrogantly and noisily, and one of them told us to be packed and ready to depart in 30 minutes. My father sighed: "You will probably take us to Siberia?" Another replied that we were being taken to a safer place because we are in a border zone. But we did not believe them and our doubts were soon to prove justified.
My father was not allowed to move. My mother pleaded with their conscience to take pity on the children who were crying in distress. The men's hearts melted and we were allowed as much food and provisions as we could carry – among them freshly baked bread. I was allowed to move freely around the house to pack what I could. Some of our "guardians" helped me in this while my mother dressed my little sisters. The enemy were so touched by the children's distress that they helped us carry our provisions to the waiting sleighs.
It was almost light when they loaded us onto the second sleigh and on this cold morning drove us to the unknown. I can't remember how long it took us to reach the nearest railhead at Lesko. This part of the journey, a time of terror and uncertainty about what will become of us, was erased from my memory. Or perhaps I fell asleep?
Cattle trucks and locomotives were already waiting for us at the railway station, and we were loaded into a carriage with four other families from our village. The doors were bolted and padlocked from the outside. The train was very long. The carriage had small barred windows and a hole in the wooden page 46floor was the toilet. For sleeping, two tiers of plank shelving lined the end walls. We were packed like sardines, having to lie close together. One could only sit in a crouching position.
For many, many days we survived on the provisions we brought with us, sharing with the less fortunate who were not allowed to take much from their homes. Children were given priority. We tried cooking on a small camping pot with water from snow scraped from the small window. The train shook and rattled so that the cooking pot often tipped over and we had to avoid scalding. Because of our state of depression, uncertainty and worry, we lost our appetite.
Occasionally, the door would slam open and, under escort, one person would be allowed to go to the provisions carriage to select a few items from our own meagre rations stored there, such as a little porridge. The train would often stop for some hours far from any town and would move again before dark. One of the reasons for the long and frequent stoppages was the priority given to the movement of supplies for the Russian army. People in exile had no status – even babies who died of privation on the journey were thrown out of the moving trains into the snow.
After some weeks we reached central Russia. At a railway station, people started banging on the bolted doors with their fists and yelling out that we are not criminals or animals, that we are families with children and so on. This protest forced the Secret Police to open the doors. Hot water was brought to each carriage, and after some days we were given a bucket of watery soup with a few small leaves of cabbage and fish bones. Sometimes we were given a little bread.
Once during the journey when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, we saw a cabbage field under a cover of snow. Someone tried to force the door and to everyone's surprise it wasn't locked from the outside. A few jumped out to grab some cabbages and jumped back into the carriage before the train moved. We also saw fields of wheat and potatoes under snow. It was a heartbreaking sight when so many people were hungry.
Once we were in the depths of Russia, the authorities felt we had no hope of escaping on foot across thousands of kilometres in the bitter cold through sparsely populated areas, so the carriages were left unbolted and many would take the risk to alight from the train at a station to buy food. The train would always restart without warning and some would be left behind. Once, my sister and I alighted from the train at some large station to look for shops and when we returned we couldn't find our train. It had been moved to another siding and we found it just as it began to move, so we had to be dragged in. My mother cried with relief and we said a thankful prayer.