Surviving the Siberian Labour Camps - Richard Lysakowski

Siberian Odyssey: The Song of the Cornucopia Book Cover

Siberian Odyssey: The Song of the Cornucopia

Richard Lysakowski

ISBN 0533083869
New York: Vantage Press



94 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

During the night of 14 March 1940 the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) banged on the door of Richard Lysakowski's family home in Poland. They demanded that the door be opened! Richard's aunt opened the door and three soldiers with bayonet tipped rifles entered the house. They searched the house thoroughly.

Richard slowly realised they must be looking for the printing type he had taken from a Soviet print shop. It was hidden under the sauerkraut barrel. He was able to give quick instructions to his aunt who lifted the heavy object and threw it into the snow. The soldiers did not find what they were looking for. They arrested the teenage Richard and took him to the prison in Lutsk. There they put him in a prison cell with 15 to 20 other men. Richard's life in Soviet captivity had begun.

Invasion of Poland

On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany attacked Poland. The German Luftwaffe planes bombed major Polish cities. Richard heard the sound of air raid sirens in Lutsk (Eastern Poland) on the morning of 2nd September. He was on his way to work in a print shop when he became aware of a strange voice which told him not to go there. He decided to turn around and go home. That decision saved his life. The print shop was heavily bombed with many killed.

From the east on the 17 September the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Soviet tanks arrived in Lutsk and the arrests of Poles started immediately.

Hitler and Stalin ... were to enforce a policy to destroy the Polish intellectual elite, political and business leadership, as well as the lowest levels of organised national and social life. Mass murder and deportation of millions were the tools. (p. 31)


Two weeks after being arrested Richard's interrogation by the NKVD began. His interrogator Lt Kuznetzov demanded to know about his past life, his friends, his relatives and what organisations he belonged to. His first session lasted two hours but at the end of it he still did not know why he had been arrested. More sessions followed lasting four or five hours and some went on for 25 to 35 hours. They ended with Richard completely exhausted.

In May 1940 he was interrogated for over 40 hours. The NKVD brought in a Polish friend of Richard's who said that he had given Richard three pages of printing font in December 1939. Richard continued to deny everything.

Six months passed, from March to September, during which time I was mostly concerned with my own survival, because of frequent beatings during the interrogations, being deprived of regular sleep ... and the psychological tortures by teams of interrogators. (p. 63)

At the end of October 1940 Richard was put on trial along with the nine other boys he had been active with in organising an underground printing shop. The People's Court prosecutor accused the boys of being traitors and enemies of the Revolution. He demanded the death penalty. The People's Judge sentenced Richard to eight years hard labour in Siberia. Most of the other boys were given 10 years and two were executed.

Journey to Siberia

In December 1940 Richard started the long journey to the Far East of the Soviet Union. He and other prisoners were loaded onto a train of about 120 cattle trucks at Lutsk railway station.Their daily rations were one or two slices of dark rye beard and a bowl of soup. They did not always get their daily ration and the NKVD guards paid no attention to the prisoners' cries for water, bread or coal.

After three weeks the train approached the Ural Mountains. The weather was terrible with blizzards and snow drifts blocking the path of the train. Sometimes the train had to stop for one or two days waiting to be rescued by special snow plows.

One unforgettably beautiful experience was when the train passed the southern tip of Lake Baikal. The sun was setting as we approached the lake and for several hours we circled its southern tip .... We saw the city of Irkutsk only through the cracks between the boards in the side of our boxcar. We had been riding on that train about five weeks by then ... physically we were still alive but just barely. (p.89)

On 16 January 1941, six weeks after starting its journey, the train arrived at its destination Komsomolsk. Richard stepped out of the train into subarctic winter air. There was a lot of snow on the ground. The guards marched them for an hour to a transit camp.

Labour Camp

The day after their arrival at the transit camp the prisoners were auctioned off to representatives from large labour camps. The camps needed a constant supply of new labour to meet their production quotas.

Richard was taken to a camp near the Bureya River (a tributary of the Amur River). The camp commandant told the new arrivals that their job was to build railroad tracks.

The overall plan for the prisoners in the hundreds of camps in the area was to build a railroad that would run parallel to the Trans-Siberian railroad built several decades before. There was great fear of a Japanese attack ... The Japanese had taken over Manchuria, and the only Soviet railroad connecting the eastern port of Vladivostok with central and European Russia was the single line from Vladivostok to Moscow. Our line was to run about 800 to a thousand miles north of the original line. (p. 106)

Richard witnessed the guards administer many murderous beatings to weak and defenceless men.

In August 1941 word reached the camp that Nazi Germany had attacked the Soviet Union. The Polish prisoners were told that an agreement between the Soviet government and the Polish government-in-exile in London had been reached which meant that they would be set free to join a Polish Army being formed in the Soviet Union.Those prisoners being freed were taken back to the camp at Komsomolsk.

At the camp rumours emerged that not all Polish prisoners were being freed. Those convicted as counterrevolutionary elements were to remain in captivity: Richard was one of those. He was taken to a camp called Osnovnaya, a special camp, which allowed prisoners to die a natural death.

The rations were minimal ... Within days some of our men fell victim to epidemics of bleeding dysentery, food poisoning, and pneumonia. (p. 122)

Release from Captivity

Three months after arriving in the camp, on Christmas Eve 1941, the camp commandant told the Polish prisoners that they were now free to leave. Only 8 of the 80 men sent to the camp with Richard were now left alive.

The camp commandant advised them to head south to the Asiatic Soviet republics. There they would be able to join the Polish Army and have access to sun and fruits. They decided to head as a group to Samarkand, the capital of Uzbekistan. They were given provisions of food and some money. The journey by train was expected to take about 22 days.

They arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to find that it was full of thousands of Polish men and women looking for refuge. They discovered a misery they hadn't expected.

The warm, sunny south, with pleasant temperatures and plentiful vegetation, proved to be a deathtrap for hundreds of thousands of former Polish prisoners and resettlers...the subzero temperatures of the cold northern climate was more conducive to physical survival because germs and bacteria had less chance to incubate and develop...In the south...they were decimated by typhoid fever, dysentery, scurvy and other local diseases. (p. 140)

They found a Polish refugee information center which told them it would be weeks or even months before any army recruitment centers were setup. A Polish Major advised them to go to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. They found the situation there was just as bad. It was February 1942 and they were sleeping out in the open in fields. They later managed to find shelter on an Uzbek farm outside the city.

When they returned to Samarkand the recruiting office was open and they joined the Polish 7th Infantry Division. They marched 12 to 15 miles to a small town called Kermine.

Richard became ill and was admitted to the field military hospital with pneumonia. It became double pneumonia. His weakened body also succumbed to typhoid fever, scurvy and bleeding dysentery. After several days of high fever he managed to survive. The doctors had no medicines for the patients except aspirin. The death rate in the hospital was 75%.

Escape from the Soviet Union

The Soviet leader Stalin came to an agreement with the British and Polish governments that the Polish Army could leave the Soviet Union to serve under British command in the war against Nazi Germany. The Polish Army was to be evacuated to Persia.

Richard was on one of the last transports to leave for the port of Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea. The ship for the crossing to Persia was a freighter called the Baku. He was very ill and Red Cross personnel carried him onto the ship on a stretcher.

In the three days and two nights that it took us to travel across a wide stretch of this great inland sea, I was able to get up, eat well, and walk cautiously around the deck. (p. 198)

The ship arrived at the Persian port of Pahlevi. After a period of quarantine Richard was taken to a camp in Teheran. He was later transferred to Baghdad the capital of Iraq. In Iraq he passed tests which qualified him to serve with the Polish Air Force. This meant a long sea voyage to Great Britain. The ships he sailed on managed to avoid being sunk by German submarines and he eventually disembarked at Greenock in Scotland. From there he was transferred to the seaside town of Blackpool, England.

We were officially assigned to the Polish section of His Majesty's Royal Air Force (RAF). Soon we were equipped with the British guns, RAF's new blue uniforms with patches saying Poland on the shoulder strap. (p. 213)

Richard served in the RAF for more than 4 years as a radio operator then as an instructor. After the war he started a new life in the United States.

Richard Lysakowski died on 23 August 2010.