New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children
It was December 1941. My four-year-old little twin sisters had measles. One night one of them, Teresa, wanted to go outside. I followed her but she changed her mind and came back inside. She lay in my arms, breathed a deep sigh and died. I thought she was asleep and we lay like this all night. In the morning, her body was still warm and supple. She looked alive. We wrapped her in a sheet and buried her out in the steppe. Three days later, her twin sister Weronika died. In death, she too looked alive and pretty. We buried her with the help of the young Polish men.
My father's first exile to Siberia in World War I caught up with him. His legs deteriorated and he couldn't work, became ill and developed a heavy cough. He began to yearn for the unattainable homemade bread and our return to Poland. There was no medical help available and no one bothered about us page 53– the unwelcome foreigners. He had a painful and lingering death in March 1942 at the age of 50.
My mother warned me not to accept any favours from men, especially the collective farm manager who took a liking to two of the Polish girls. On a few occasions, he gave me some vegetables which I refused. As punishment, he sent us to do heavy work which was beyond the means of even strong men and threatened us with beating. We prayed and awaited the worst. Then we had a bright idea and told the manager that we would write to Stalin himself, who had us under his personal protection and who would punish him for treating us like slaves. The gullible manager believed this, or gave us the benefit of the doubt, and sent us back to the relatively easier work in the cotton field which was under a different manager.
My mother became ill but continued to work in the cotton fields. Because I also had to work, she would take her other two daughters with her, afraid to leave them alone. Somehow, she managed to get into the local hospital a few kilometres away. I visited her with my younger sister Maria. My mother developed a craving for milk and butter. I peddled our clothing from hut to hut and could only buy mare's milk and a little butter, which my sisters would then bring to her. But unable to eat, she would leave them untouched. The food became rancid and reluctantly we had to throw it away. When I was peddling, the local Kazakh people in one hut invited me to share their noodle soup, which I couldn't accept because I was in a hurry. One day, on the way back from the hospital with my sister Maria, we were attacked by two horsemen but were defended by some local Kazakh women working in a cotton field.
Though still ill and unable to walk unaided, my mother was discharged from the hospital and in this state we walked her back the few kilometres to our hut. She was too weak to eat, had a fever and spat blood – she was once again ill with typhus and bleeding dysentery. It was a miracle that none of us three children caught these contagious diseases. She willed herself to keep us alive.
We were so depressed that we did not want to live, let alone eat, even when sometimes people would bring us a little food. Once, my younger sister Maria sat on the grass and began screaming for help. An adder had wound itself around her foot. A workman removed the adder, but my sister, though not bitten, was ill for some days. Everyone was very surprised that the adder didn't release its venom and we all thanked Providence.
Then one day, three Polish men arrived with the unbelievable news that we were to be set free. They first checked our documents to see if we were in fact Polish. They then loaded our weak mother and meagre possessions onto an page 54oxcart, and took us on an unknown journey. We boarded a train at a station and in the heat of the sun we arrived in Dzhambul, Kazakhstan. There we found a large gathering of Poles who were also waiting to be taken on the next leg of our journey.
Medics in white coats checked our state of health. When they saw my mother lying on the ground, one of them said that she was dying and she was carried on a sheet to the hospital – we were in agonies of grief. She could not eat, drink or speak but understood all that was said to her and she said goodbye with her eyes. From her neck, she removed her meagre savings and gave them to me – I gave the lot to a woman who was our newly appointed guardian of the orphaned children. I thought I would also die. People slept in the open air, but we orphans were taken into a shelter where we spent the night half-sitting. In the morning, I was taken to the hospital, but my mother was no longer there and no one wanted to show us where she was taken – we knew she had died.
We had to hurry because the train was waiting. The carriage had wooden benches on one side. The small children were placed in nets which were slung like hammocks on one side of the rail carriage and others had to sit on the floor. A guardian was in charge of each carriage with children. Some of the latecomers jumped on when the train was already in motion. We then travelled west through Central Asia – Chimkent, Tashkent, Leninabad, Samarkand, Bukhara, Chargan and Ashkhabad – and then left the train at the seaport in Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea. I suppose we were fed on the way but I can't remember, though I do remember Polish soldiers sharing their meagre rations with us.
After we disembarked from the train hungry and thirsty, we were taken to the steam baths in groups, where we were disinfected and our hair washed and shaven. All our possessions and documents were taken away, leaving us only in what we wore. We looked like slaves – emaciated, pale, sad and scared.
At last we boarded a cargo ship, where we were squeezed together in a tight space with standing room only. One woman was trampled to death in the crush and her body was thrown overboard into the sea. Two latecomers attempted to board ship when it was leaving the wharf. They jumped into the water and tried to scramble up some dangling ropes, but were too weak and drowned.
Moaning from sick young girls came from below deck, but we weren't allowed to go near because of typhus and other contagious diseases. Our guardian wetted our lips with cotton wool because it was so hot that our tongues stuck to the roof of our mouths.