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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

At the labour camp

page 47

At the labour camp

As the train wound its way north, carriages were detached on the way and its human cargo unloaded to work at mines, collective farms and forests. But we continued to the end of the line. After some weeks of this journey of hunger, cold, foul air and discomfort, we arrived in the Sverdlovsk region. The rail tracks ended here. We were told that the sawmill in which we were to work was the largest in the world, with more than, 2000 workers.

My father had to be carried to the barracks because his legs were paralysed. The bags of flour and porridge we brought with us had been stolen by our fellow travellers, leaving us with the remains of some corn flour a neighbour returned. In these difficult times of exile, dignity and neighbourly love turned into selfishness. I helped my mother with the children. It was easier for the other people to cope because there were few children among them.

Our family of seven was given a small room in large barrack dormitory, with only one iron bed between us. I can't remember how we managed – suffering has deleted that from my memory. The barrack was enclosed by a high barbedwire fence and we were surrounded by the vast taiga forests. The daily food rations were a weak soup and 200 grams of doughy bread which couldn't be eaten without first drying into a hard crust.

My mother and the other Polish exiles were transported under armed escort by truck to work in the sawmill. My father was seriously ill and there was no medicine. In desperation we prayed often and intensely with novenas, and applied holy water from Lourdes which we had brought with us from Poland. The children's almost non-stop prayers were heard and we were overcome with joy when the miraculous cure came, because the paralysis and illness disappeared and my father could walk unaided. The next day, he went to work in the sawmill.

The commandant of this forced-labour camp was surprised and angry that he was given families with children and old people to work in his sawmill. He was promised convicts and criminals. He helped us as much as he could with food and protected those who could not work due to illness, because without a medical certificate the ill people would be dismissed from work or sent to places unknown. The Secret Police got to know of this leniency and after two months the commandant was replaced by a diehard communist from Moscow.

The Russian population understood our fate. Many of them were Ukrainians deported like us to Siberia from the Kiev region and were left to their own fate without a roof over their heads. I saw others living in dugouts, with only a chimney pipe sticking out from the ground as evidence of people living inside.

page 48

The conditions were dreadful and gnawing hunger was always present. Bedbugs were a continual harassment – they were everywhere, brought diseases and killing them was useless. There were also plagues of lice. The Polish exiles began to suffer from typhus, bleeding dysentery and other contagious diseases. We heard the cries of dying children who were our neighbours from Lachy in Poland. Soon, their mother also died in much pain, leaving only the father and two other children.

One woman's punishment for not turning up for work without a medical certificate was deportation to an unknown destination. She was not heard of again. This also happened to other families. We were treated as slaves, to be used until we dropped because replacements were cheap. The cries of the suffering and dying were endless, and each day corpses were placed in coffins of raw sawn planks and buried in the taiga forest. Families were being decimated and the living waited for inevitable death. There was no hope of escape from this virtual extermination camp.

Some months later, the camp authorities issued us permits to go to the nearest settlement to buy some food in exchange for our clothes. A few times, my father managed to buy a little porridge in exchange for my clothing.

My job was looking after the younger children and to stand in the bread queue with our ration cards. The stronger ones would push their way in, sometimes breaking the bones of the weaker ones in the crush and pushing them to the back of the queue. There would be no more bread by the time my turn came. I would go back to the barrack empty handed and in tears. My mother would often lament at the injustice of the children suffering. People visiting us would comment about how peaceful, clever, pretty and smiling our little twins were, even in this horrible place. I think God's mercy shone through their innocence and above the prevailing evil in people's hearts. We were helped at the most critical times by people of goodwill. Sometimes we would receive a small food parcel from our relatives in Poland and once we received 200 roubles from our old neighbour there.

Even working three shifts, my parents struggled to feed us. They would also have to pay fines for not sending us to the Russian school. My father would say that he would not allow us to be raised as communists and it was decided that it would be preferable for me to work at the mill instead. I was dismissed a month later for not meeting my quota, because the work of stacking wet planks was beyond my strength. I went back to minding the children and waiting in the bread queue. I knew my parents were hiding something from me – they had stopped going to work on medical grounds and were receiving a small sickness allowance. I soon learned that they were suffering from typhus. I can't remember how they recovered, perhaps with the page 49help of some kind-hearted Russians. Anyway, none of the children caught the sickness from them.

And so we lived from day to day awaiting death. One day seemed like a year. After some months, having decided that the Polish prisoners were not criminals but industrious and well behaved, the Russian authorities decided to transfer us from the communal barracks. We were given unfurnished, barrack-like, one-family, single-room accommodation with a stove big enough to bake bread and a wooden shelf for sleeping. The walls were thin and draughty, but at least vermin free. The Russian workers had little plots of land in which they grew a few potatoes and carrots in the short growing season. In the Siberian climate, the severe winters last for nine months and temperatures can fall to -50°C (in this temperature, air expelled from the lungs turns into tiny ice crystals which fall tinkling to the ground).

We were 5km from Tauda, a small town of 5,000 people in the taiga forest by the river of the same name, where the Polish exiles cut and felled trees. The timber was floated down this river to the sawmill. Severe penalties were imposed on anyone taking firewood from the forest – better for it to rot than for us to have it, we were told. We were continually watched by the Secret Police.

For firewood, the workers were given some poor-grade planks not suitable for transport. Melted snow was used for water. The families of the camp garrison lived in a block of flats in the town. For privacy, we hung blankets on the windows and sang religious songs. Day followed day in drudgery and misery. I also remember the river in flood when all the houses were halfway under the water and there were floating corpses.