General Ander’s Army
We reached the town of Guzar in Uzbekistani Soviet Sociaist Republic. Many people had already died there after a previous outbreak of typhus, but luckily for us, the epidemic had ended by the time of our arrival.
The three of us joined the army: my father as a Reserve officer, my brother as an Officer cadet, and myself as a volunteer in the Polish Women’s Service, although officially still too young. We had to register at Army H.Q where for some time I served as a messenger. Tents were set up for us in the small town.
Although it was towards the end of the rainy season, the ground was still wet. We therefore surrounded our encampment and each ‘bed’ with trenches to prevent water from seeping in. At times, we even slept on our greatcoats on the bare ground. Very soon after our arrival, Janusz left for an unknown destination while my father was in a camp on the opposite side of the river.
Our status changed even though we were still on Soviet territory. We were happy but still always very hungry. Our group began to organise. My best friend, who was also Danuta, became our leader. She was a little older and more dynamic than I was. Her sister, Miecia, was convalescing from typhus and we often visited her in a mosque that had been converted into a hospital. Their mother was also with us. We later learned that their father along with many other officers had been executed by the Soviet army at Katyn.
Easter came and for the first time in many months we were able to take part in the Mass celebrated by the army chaplain. We were all given an egg and an army biscuit, but hunger persisted.
When the rainy season ended, it became very hot. Our camp was transferred to a larger camp a few kilometres from the town where tents had already been prepared for us. We were given uniforms but no weapons. At night we kept watch in turn, three hours on, three hours off and slept in the guard room on concrete benches when we were relieved of our duties.
We were constantly afraid some Kirghiz men might attack in the dark but at daybreak it appeared we were alone except for scorpions crawling over the stones.
Our combat uniform gave us a rough, uncomfortable time because they were thick and didn’t allow any air in to cool us. Reveille was at 4.00 am because of the scorching heat and we finished our work by 10.00 am. At midday everyday life stopped until 4.00 or 5.00 pm. Our group had lectures in hygiene in addition to the usual marching and drilling. These consisted of listening to a sergeant from the men’s camp talking about basic hygiene, anatomy and physiology.
We listened sitting on the ground but didn’t make any notes as we had neither pen nor paper. After us there came a group learning how to entertain the troops through acting, music-hall, and then another studying how to set up, organise and run an army camp.
To the right of our camp a small river flowed down from the mountains. At this time of year, it wasn’t very wide or deep but it brought down a great deal of brown mud. We had to wash in it and, what was even worse, use it for cooking. Each morning we boiled water for breakfast in a large cauldron the size of a hip – bath. One look at this liquid reminded us of cocoa or hot drinking chocolate. In order to give it a taste of water we had to be careful and not stir it so that the silt remained at the bottom.
We added rice to this water too but so little we could count the grains floating in it. At mealtimes, we used this same cauldron to cook soup. Food rations continued to be meagre. Six volunteers living in a tent shared a little bread and a jar of jam not much bigger than a box of matches between them. But after such a long period of doing without anything sugary in Siberia, even such a tiny amount was delicious. Sometimes we were given half a sardine, but we continued to be very hungry. The tins of food that were set aside for possibly worse times to come, were bursting because of the heat!
Extra rations often turned up in the men’s camp on the other side of the river. My father would then give me a little coffee or red wine. would often give it to Miecia and Danuta’s mother who was suffering from acute diarrhoea. The mother of two other volunteers was also ill. She was a civilian but, as she had no other family, an exception was made and she was allowed to stay on the outskirts of the camp. She lay on the other side of the river in the shade of a bush. Her twin daughters came to nurse her, bringing whatever they could find for her to eat. It was sad to watch this poor woman lying on the ground not even sheltered by a tent when it was so hot by day and not much cooler at night.
The little Kirghiz girls, their black hair plaited and wound around their heads had just come from bathing in the river. They looked like little imps as they jumped skilfully into the water from the bridge. Elderly Kirghiz men sometimes came to sell some very bitter khefir (a sort of yoghurt) at the camp entrance. We couldn’t afford a lot but from time to time it was a welcome addition to our meagre diet.