Vilnius – Siberia – Altaisk
It was June 1941 and I was 16 years old. I was walking down Wielka Street on my way back from Zakret where I had been taking an examination in PE for my School Certificate. We had had to run both a 100 metre and a 500 metre race and despite my heart murmur I had come first in the 100 metres. I felt happy.
I turned right into Wingry Street and right once again into Zdrojewska Street – a cul-de-sac. At the top of the cul-de-sac from an open window I heard my friend crying. I didn’t take much notice because that morning we had quarrelled. I then turned left and walked towards the house. At the doorstep I came face to face with an armed Red army soldier. Taking no notice of him, I tried to go in but he barred the way with his rifle. I wasn’t upset in the least and said,’ I live here’. He let me go in and I walked down the corridor leading to the kitchen. But even before getting there, I could hear my friend Krysia and her cousins crying. They, like me, had been living with Krysia for some time.
They were holding a large hessian bag which they were filling with my clothes, personal belongings, and food which Ms. W. had bought with great difficulty on the black market. We four young people (our ages were 16 to 18) were alone in the house with no adults to help us. The two soldiers stood calmly waiting.
Faced with the gravity of the situation, all I could do was to put on as many clothes as possible as I knew how cold it would be in Siberia. I made sure I didn’t forget my fur-lined coat. We then said our good-byes. I’II never forget them – the sad faces of the people who also lived in our small street, the owner of the sweet shop where I used to buy ‘halva rachatlucum’, a sort of Turkish Delight, and other sweets.
Thus, it was on a beautiful sunny day in June that I found myself sitting in a taxi between two armed Soviet soldiers being driven through the street of Vilnius. Despite all my preparations, I still thought I’d be taken to prison. Recently, even school children had been imprisoned. I wasn’t really frightened although it was a question of deportation. I felt proud to be suffering for my country. How heroic one can be at 16!
We drove along either Sierakowska or maybe it was Gera Buffaewa Street near Zygmunt August, my secondary school. A little later we arrived in front of the house where my father was lodging, not far from Zwierzyniecki Bridge and Adam Mickiewicz Street. Chaos reigned in the large sun-lit room: objects were scattered around, cases were wide open and in the middle, soldiers and other people were milling around. My father visibly disturbed and anxious about our future came towards me carrying a bottle of valerian. One of the soldiers stopped him, saying ‘No, no’.
My father said, ‘It’s a sedative’. The soldier gestured towards me and said ‘She doesn’t need one !’, so calm did I appear.
My brother, who had been working in other people’s gardens to help us survive, had also been traced and brought to the house by soldiers. They forced all three of us into the street. I suddenly realised that my father had given them our addresses because he had been told it would be even more distressing if we were to be deported separately. Usually members of the same family were deliberately separated so, I don’t know how my father managed to keep us together.
We received the order to climb into the lorry. It was just like a nightmare. Neighbours gathered around to say goodbye. Among them was my father’s landlady. She was a really skilful dressmaker who had miraculously transformed old dresses, coats, aprons and American-donated clothes into pretty dresses during the German occupation years before. She gave us a packet of sugar – a rare commodity in a time of scarcity.
Standing up in the lorry, we drove along Adam Mickiewicz Street. Passers-by raised their hats to us. A long empty goods train stood waiting at the railway station. We were made to climb into a wagon, sixty people at a time. The heavy door was locked behind us separating us from freedom.
Once locked inside, we didn’t waste time thinking about our tragic situation. We had to get ourselves organised. There were 58 of us and my father’s natural authority led to him being chosen as the ‘starosta’ – the leader. His first task was to enable us to move around and also to find a place where we could sleep. There was a small barred opening enabling us to breathe fresh air and three shelves one above the other. The fittest people could climb to the top shelf and the oldest had the bottom shelf. We, the youngest lay, down on the shelf in this way- me, my brother, another boy, his sister, another girl. From my position I could see light through the small opening. Before we left, someone had given us some sweets by hoisting himself up to the opening of the wagon. Sweets were a rare luxury because there hadn’t been sugar in the shops for some time. I accepted this last gift from Poland gratefully and with great emotion.
We arrived in Moscow, on the 21st June almost to the day war broke out with Germany. We heard this news from the station loudspeakers, even though our train was stopped some distance outside the station. Several poor people came to our wagon begging for bread. Then our train set off once more on a journey that was to last several days; I could see telegraph poles speeding by through the narrow window.
I realised that each one of them took me further away from my beloved country. In our wagon, travelling farther into the unknown, day followed night. Nothing was changing: the same confined living space, the persistent half-light, the unanswered questions about the future. In a corner of our prison on wheels was a hole in the floorboards. It was crude and uncomfortable, but we were able to relieve ourselves. There was always a lack of privacy despite the draped blanket.
During this long and difficult journey, which must have lasted about two weeks, our guards only came three times to bring us a bucket of pearl barley sprinkled with a little fruit juice. Fortunately, we had brought some provisions: bread, salami and other cooked meats. We were not yet experiencing hunger pangs. The train stopped only once on our journey. We were allowed to leave our wagons and found ourselves in a bleak wilderness. This was the tundra – the vast expanse of land we speak of when studying the geography of Russia. In the distance we could see a forest of stunted trees. I had one thought on my mind: escape.
But where to go and how? It was unthinkable and above all impracticable. In fact, I think everyone was keeping an eye on the train to see it didn’t leave without us. The guards were supervising us and whistled when anyone wandered too far away. Soon everyone went back to their wagons and the train left once more.
After about two weeks we reached our destination