89 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain
In September 1939 Poland is invaded by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Maria Hadow's husband, an army officer, leaves her to fight the invaders. He is captured by the Soviets and later shot. Soviet forces occupy the Polish town in which Maria and her mother live. In February 1940 many people from neighbouring villages are forcibly taken from their homes by the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD). They are loaded onto a train of cattle trucks and deported to distance parts of the Soviet Union.
In April 1940 the NKVD again pound on peoples' doors in the middle of the night. Maria's mother is one of many taken away. Maria arrives the next morning to find the NKVD ransacking her mother's house. She demands that she be taken to her mother so that she can share her fate. The NKVD take her to a long train of cattle trucks. Each is full of people and closed with chains. She eventually finds the cattle truck which her mother is in and the NKVD place Maria in the truck. The train starts and their journey of deportation to Kazakhstan has begun.
Life in Kazakhstan
Fifteen days after departure the train arrives in the steppes of Kazakhstan. A bare land without trees. The NKVD put them onto lorries and take them to a Kazakh village. There they are told that they are to live with the local inhabitants. Maria and her mother find accomodation with a Kazakh family. The items that they brought with them from Poland enable them to survive.
My mother had managed to bring quite a lot of clothes with her and these we kept with great care because we soon realised that every small handkerchief, scarf or blouse represented a treasure which we could sell well. With the money we got we bought meat and butter on the black market - but at what a price! There were, of course, many Poles who didn't have much to sell, and if they in addition weren't strong enough to work they just died. On the whole, the younger generation survived and the old died. (p. 57-58)
Conditons in Kazakhstan were harsh. The winters were very cold and the summers very hot. In October 1940 the snow arrived and remained on the ground for eight months. Flies and mosquitoes were a constant irritation in summer.
The Russians...slept soundly and did not mind the flies crawling over their faces...but for me this life was agony. I shall never understand how we survived; never enough sleep, never enough food and never the right food, and hard work day after day, month after month...Yet I never regretted that I had come with my mother. Sometimes I thought of what would have become of her alone in the steppes if I han't managed to get to her in time... (p. 83)
Polish Army Formed in Soviet Union
In June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. After this the general attitude of the local people towards the Poles improved. Maria learned in February 1942, from a delegate of the Polish embassy in Moscow, that a Polish army was being formed on Russian territory.
The Polish Embassy sent delegates all over Russia to organise the distribution of Embassy relief...they started to organise soup kitchens...The delegates' next activity was the opening of a school for Polish childern. I was asked to help...Organising the life of the exiled Polish community put us into contact with Poles who had been freed from prisons in various parts of Russia. They looked terrible; all were ill and hungry and most were dressed in rags - yet they were all in high spirits for they were about to join the Polish Army. (pp. 127-129)
The Russian attitude toward the Poles changed when the Soviet Union began to repel the attack from Nazi Germany. Maria learned that the Polish delegate and his staff had been arrested. Their Polish centre, school and orphanage were closed.
Many Polish civilians were able to leave to join their relatives in the reforming Polish Army and then to travel on to Persia. Maria received a letter from an officer in the Polish army which contained a call-up form and two travel tickets. They could now plan their escape from the Soviet Union. Maria's mother was ill in hospital. A doctor told Maria that her mother was dying and that there was only a 50% chance that she would survive the journey to Persia.
I had to make plans to get my mother to the train...she would have to be carried...I met a young man who...was going on the same day as we were. He was willing to carry my mother...he had just come from prison...If it hadn't been for him I don't think I should have left Siberia - for my mother couldn't have made the journey. (p. 140)
Leaving the Soviet Union
It was September 1942 when Maria and her mother set off from Kazakhstan. They travelled by overcrowded train for four days to Chelabinsk. They changed trains there and headed south for Tashkent where they had been told the Polish Army was. It took them several days to get to Taskkent. When they arrived they received the shock news that the Polish Army had already been evacuated and that the civilian evacuation via the Caspian Sea to Pahlevi in Persia had finished. A small Polish Army unit was still though evacuating Poles from Ashkhabad by road. They decided to travel to Ashkhabad without obtaining a travel permit as there was no time to get it. It took them four days to get to Ashkhabad and they were delighted when they saw Polish soliders at the railway station. Maria's mother was admitted to the camp hospital. Six days later she died.
...how much lighter my heart would have been if her grave had been next to my father's under the friendly Polish sky, where every morning the wind would bring her the sound of Polish songs and the gentle murmur of the weeping willow and beautiful poplar. (p. 151)
Maria left Ashkhabad the next morning for Persia. She travelled in a lorry containing convalescent Polish soldiers and headed for the frontier between Russia and Persia which lay high up in the mountains. After some delay at the frontier she crossed the border into Persia and freedom. The next day the Russians closed the frontier and stopped the evacuation of the Poles. Those Poles left in Ashkhabad were told to go back to where they had come from.