6. Goodbye to Siberia

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To begin with we had to get food. My father and brother had to make several trips to the neighbouring villages to try and exchange clothes and household linen for food. They saw half-naked children in many houses, yet their parents refused with regret to exchange food in case they hadn’t enough to last until the following harvest.

We made the return journey from Charyshkoye to Alejsk on low-lying sledges in a temperature of -40. Fortunately it was sunny as we made our way back to freedom. It took us several days to cross 107 kilometres of mountainous terrain. At night we stayed in villages. We were made welcome by the local people who allowed us to sleep in their homes – more often than not in the kitchen.

We slept on benches, on the floor, anywhere: the best place was on top of the stove. One night we even slept among some sick sheep. We were lucky to be able to eat our own bread and meat that my father had exchanged for clothes because the villagers were so poor, they had nothing to share with us.

The route across the steppe was more difficult to bear. The wind was so strong it froze us to the marrow. To protect us from the bitter wind and the thaw, Janusz lay on the sledge behind one of the cases. My father and I sat at one end of the sledge next to each other. My father took great pains to protect me from the wind. Every hair of my ‘chapka’ (fur hat) was covered in ice and every time I moved my head there was a sound similar to the ringing of small bells. Eyelashes froze obscuring everything before our eyes. The storm raged continuously, getting stronger and stronger.

The driver stopped to find the correct route once again. The snow quickly covered over us and there was always a risk of getting ourselves lost. My father got off the sledge to warm himself up. As he did so the driver moved off fearing the sledge would get stuck in the snow. My father ran quickly and jumped back onto the sledge – this frightened us a great deal. We reached Alejsk that evening stopping at the first house we came to. The door opened and we found ourselves in a hot kitchen. The snow covering us began to melt and a large puddle formed on the floor. This didn’t bother our hosts who understood how difficult our journey had been.

We stayed in Alejsk for several days waiting for a train. We lodged at the ‘People’s house’ in a large room set aside as a dormitory. It was divided into two sleeping areas; one for women and the other for men. I spent a great deal of time there as I had toothache and we couldn’t find a dentist.  Meanwhile my father went looking for a fire on which we could bake some bread with what remained of our flour so we could continue our journey. We had to take a shower before leaving to remove lice. These showers weren’t very effective but to take the train you needed a delousing certificate.

So began our long train journey to southern Asiatic Russia to join General Anders’ Polish army. We often had to change trains. We didn’t need tickets but each time we changed we had to take a shower to delouse ourselves. It was a tiring journey as we took with us all our heavy luggage. We didn’t want to gel rid of anything we could exchange for food. Trains circulated erratically and we spent many nights on waiting-room floors.

In the trains we either slept on the wooden benches or in the luggage racks. One night someone stole from under my head the coat I was using as a pillow. It was often difficult to find any food. In the railway stations we could only get gruel as the soup was reserved for soldiers returning from the front line. Once a soldier helped us to get some of this soup. One evening while we were lying on  our luggage on the floor of a station waiting for the next train, we saw a veritable banquet – tables prepared for Russian officers. Unfortunately, we weren’t invited to join them.

It became warmer and warmer as we travelled further south. Travelling through the countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. Tadzhikistan and Kirghizstan. We came to towns made famous by the ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’: Alma Ata, Samarkand, Tashkent and then Baghdad. I didn’t really take much notice however of the splendours of this ancient culture. Thieves continued to steal even more often than before because of the abject poverty people found themselves in. For example: in Tashkent as the train was going to be stationary for some time my father and an officer left to sell some tobacco leaves. Standing near a market stall they didn’t notice all their merchandise had been stolen. Thus, once more the hope of getting something to eat faded.

In another town the Anglo- Polish army prepared some provisions for us. We hadn’t eaten such food for a long time. But once more these provisions were stolen as we loaded them into the carriage. We had to overcome our hunger. My eyes brimmed with tears and my father stoically consoled me. Much later we went past lakes and rivers until towards the end of our journey the surroundings became more desert-like. We then threw away our lousy winter clothes through the train windows and along with them my plait that I’d cut off to rid myself not only of lice but also of the nightmare we’d lived through.

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