For our family there exists only one photograph from before WWII. That of my father and his cousin/fiancée, taken in their city of Lodz. Both my parents survived the war years throughout the Russian territories. They survived and clung to life for one reason only, to return home to Poland and family.
Soviet Russia and Central Asia was a harsh exile that ironically proved to be for Polish Jews single best chance for escaping the catastrophe that engulfed Europe during the Second World War.
My mother always said, “My life was saved in Russia.”
After the civil war of 1919, Stalin put the blame for Russia’s lack of progress on the workers and peasants. He embarked on a brutal and ruthless plan known as the ‘Second Revolution’ to turn a backward country into a modern industrial society. Stalin’s plan was to eliminate millions of small, private farms and replace them with large, state-owned, collective farms run by Communist managers. Millions of farmers were moved from their small villages and into cities, forced to adapt to a different way of life. Those who refused were sent to the Gulag labor camps to build infrastructure for the new economic system. They worked as slave laborers, living on the edge of starvation. Working long hours in the frigid temperatures was the norm. Hundreds of thousands suffered and died. The forced-labor camps became concentration camps for opponents of the Second Revolution. Anyone could be seen as a threat to the revolutionary cause. The ‘guilty’ one, more often than not, had no understanding what his or her crime was. Most of the victims of the 1930s were peasants whose lives were violently uprooted in the service of modernizing Soviet society. What followed was the worst famine of the century. The peasants’ resistance brought about the full fury of the Party. Stalin blamed the peasantry for waging a war against the Soviet state. The ‘Terror-Famine in Ukraine’ had been estimated to claim up to 5 million lives.
Stalin was as brutal as Hitler was, however, he did not single out Jews. After the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland on September 17, 1939, massive arrests, killings, and deportations took place. Thousands of people from this part of Poland suffered. Stalin established a new threat: “the enemies of the people.” Whole families were loaded into closed trucks and taken to train station where dirty, cold cattle trains waited to take them away. From the occupied eastern territories, Stalin deported 1.7 million Poles to slave labor camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Around twenty percent of those deported were Jews. People died like flies, from the journey, disease, starvation, and the awful conditions of the labor camps.
After Hitler occupied Poland, my parents made their way to Bialystok from Warsaw and Lodz at the end of 1939, and after signing up for mandatory work inside of Russia they lived in Saratov from May 1940 until February 1942. As the war came closer, my mother and father joined the Polish army. In February 1942 they travel east with the army to Uzbekistan and arrived in Guzar, in April 1942. My father was a recruit his head was shaved, he wore a uniform. Soon he and many like him were dismissed from the army, many reasons were given. In Guzar, my father found work as a mechanic at the train station. They could hardly sustain themselves on the allocated food rations. As the final transports of soldiers left, Guzar become a dead village.
For the next four years their life was plagued by hunger, malaria and extreme heat or cold. They left Guzar after six months, and looked for work and food, passing through places like, Kamuszyn, Gitap, and towns along the railroad tracks. They stayed in Kamuszyn from August 10 until September 5, 1942. There were no jobs to be found, there were hundreds of homeless people at the train station, and every one of them was hungry. Many were living out in the open. Many just out of Stalin’s Gulag, discharged from the army, without jobs and hungry, and they paced the train stations day and night. Stealing was the only way they could stay alive. Gitap was their next stop. My father got a job at a wine factory. My mother’s malaria attacks that started in Guzar left her unable to stand on her feet for weeks on end. The river’s edge where they went to get water was thick with clay and swarmed with mosquitoes. They had no way of protecting themselves. In Gitap, the factory director taunted her by saying, “You’re eating Russian bread and you’re not working. Just wait until I go to the N.K.V.D. They will take your husband away to the army and you will have to work.” A few days later, my father was summoned to report to the army. The Russians wanted to draft men like him, but they had no right to draft Polish citizens who came from that part of Poland that was under Nazi Germany occupation. After four days, they had no choice but to let him go. My father went back to work.
By October 25, 1942 my parents were on the move once again. My father found a job in a tractor factory in Karsi. Since leaving Saratov in February of 1942, this would be the first time they’ll be sleeping on a bed. My mother worked too as a night guard, she had to carry a rifle. But she soon realized she could make better wages trading on the black market. This is how people around her managed to survive. Next to their room was a small market for factory workers. My mother made friends with Nina, the woman who ran the store. Twice a day my mother took a loaf of bread to the market and sold it. Besides selling bread on the black market, occasionally she traveled with other groceries like tea or rice. Nina sold this to her under the table. My mother traveled to the Gitap market where she sold the goods at a higher price. She come back from Gitap with walnuts, which she easily sold at a higher price in Karsi. She followed this routine for many months until the Gitap police stopped her and confiscated her packages. My mother was arrested in Karsi for trying to sell an army blanket which was illegal, trading on the black market was illegal as was trading with the passing soldiers.
The Russian government issued a new edict; they wanted the refugees to become Russian citizens. The Polish citizens living in Karsi were a large group. Rumors were such that whomever becomes a Russian citizen would have to stay in Russia forever. In the winter of 1944, in Karsi, my father was arrested yet again. He did not want to die in a Russian prison, for not accepting a Russian citizenship. Held in a cold, wet cell, with the only food my mother brought to him once a day. By the end of the week he was exhausted and ill. On the seventh day, he gave in; he said “I need to stay alive, this way I have a chance to do something. I will sign their papers just to get out of here.” He signed a promissory note to become a Russian citizen. My mother did the same.