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

The long flight from Russia

The long flight from Russia

Then one day the news came of an amnesty for the Polish exiles in Russia. Nothing was certain, but it was decided to return to Poland. My parents began packing and my mother came to take me with them. Anna wouldn't let me go and wanted to adopt me, but my mother would not hear of it. It was an emotional parting because I had come to like her.

All was ready for the journey in a third-class rail carriage. But we soon learned that we were misled by the Secret Police, who did not want us to return home, and our train was ordered in a different direction. On 15 September 1941, our exile began anew. The train shook and rattled terribly.

The only food we were given was a ladle of weak soup – sometimes. Occasionally, when the train stopped, we would buy a little bread or a melon. One could buy a piece of bread for any old clothing. At times we were told to leave the train and wait for another. We would sleep for days in the stinking waiting rooms at various stations in overcrowded conditions. We felt that the Secret Police had some secret plans regarding our future. We also thought we would never get out of this nightmare and waited for inevitable death.

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One day, we were told to board a train which was obviously going south – though Poland was in the west. We passed the towns of Chimkent, Tashkent, Leninabad and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The train then took us to Kazakhstan and back to Tashkent. Three times we made this circular journey. Some people were ordered off the train in Kirghizia and others in Uzbekistan. The rest were taken back to Kazakhstan.

When it was our turn to leave the train, we were ordered to walk the rest of the way. I don't remember how long this journey on foot lasted, but we used up our last reserves of strength when we came to a river (which was so wide that we could not see the other side) where huge floating rafts waited for us. Whole families were herded onto them like cattle with no room to move. Some had to sit on the sides with their feet dangling in the water. Our father feared that we would never return alive if we boarded these rafts (we learnt later from witnesses that some of them did sink and that the survivors were taken back to forced-labour camps). Luckily, there wasn't enough room to fit the great mass of people waiting on the shore, and we had to return to the railroad and once again travel by train into the unknown.

I cannot remember how long this journey took. On the way, the train's human cargo was gradually unloaded, a few families (or their remnants) at a time, in Kirghizia and Uzbekistan. The rest were scattered in groups of threes or fours every 15km over the arid vastness of Kazakhstan in the Dzhambulska region.

Six weeks later, at the end of October, we were taken by oxcarts to the Lugovaya region, and given a mud and wattle hut with a straw-covered roof. When it rained, the hut was awash with water, which was not often because of the arid climate. We slept on a bed of dry prickly weeds strewn on the bare earth floor. The hut was so tiny that we had to sleep squeezed together like sardines. We drew water from a small stream in which the local Uzbeks washed their clothes (without soap, which was available only to the Communist Party members).

With the unsanitary water and lack of food, many of the Polish families were decimated by epidemics of typhus and typhoid fever, dysentery and other diseases. Within two months, a number of families had ceased to exist. The young men escaped to the Polish army, which was rumoured as being formed in the south. Their places were taken by a new influx of young men on their way to join the same army. This situation lasted a few months.

At the beginning of May, I went to work 6km away in vegetable gardens assigned for the benefit of Communist Party members. An Uzbek gave me a light weeding job. Ukrainian guards stood watch over us to ensure we met our quota and to prevent theft. For a full day's hard work, we were given a page 52small quantity of flour. Lacking vitamins, my sisters contracted nyctalopia (night blindness), which causes blindness from late afternoon until morning. I was free of that because of my better diet while in the employ of the Russian woman many months earlier in Siberia, and was able to lead the girls around when they could not see.

We were saved by the young Polish men mentioned earlier. One of them gave us liver from an unknown animal and told us to cook it, waft the steam on the open eyes and then eat it. They also gave us some lard from a dog. In a short while, the illness passed and the girls could see. I returned to work. In the evenings we prayed the rosary. I was very upset when I lost my rosary and prayed intensively to the guardian angel. In the morning, I knew exactly where to find it.

The countryside was covered with wheat and cotton fields, though much of it was dry steppe covered in dry grasses with snakes. The Kazakh men wore distinctive clothing, with heavy sheepskin coats and woollen caps, which kept them warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The women wore pyjama-like garments with turban-like headwear. Their language is related to Turkish and we could not understand it.

We lost our appetites due to the chronic shortage of food, and without salt all food was hard to swallow. We were still homesick for our country and churches. Only three of us were to come out of this alive. My mother became ill and I went to work by myself. When I saw a strange man in my path, I would change direction, only to be confronted by snakes – I didn't know which way to run. The time passed in constant stress and fear. Each day seemed like a month and we longed for death, which seemed the only escape from this hell.