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THE BLIZZARD
— excerpts from the memoir by Bohdan Kurowski

Translated from the original Polish

 

Grandfather Kazimierz

My grandfather Kazimierz (Casmir) Kurowski was only ten when a Cossack troop invaded his parents’ estate, in punishment for the family’s involvement in the January uprising—the Poles’ attempt, in 1863, to overcome Russia’s political dominance. The tzarist authorities penalized all involved, confiscating their properties and expelling many to Siberia. The Cossacks burned the house but Kazimierz hid in a flour-barrel. Some relatives took care of him. He received an agricultural education. By the tzarist records, Kazimierz Kurowski was a byvshiy dvoryanin (former nobleman). Because the Polish nobility formed the nucleus of national resistance, the tzar wanted to eradicate that class. The children of noblemen, now landless, were registered as “people of various professions” —raznochintsy. When Kazimierz grew up, he worked as an independent leaseholder. He would sign a contract with some landowners, pay them rent, and rule over their land. In good years he earned a lot, if the crops failed, he lost. But all in all, it was a good life.

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Kazimierz Kurowski, 1924

Before World War I, Kazimierz ran his own agricultural business in Sorocca, Bessarabia. He married Emilia Sierpińska, with whom he had five children. They hired a governess, Maria Szczuka, a maiden from a once-wealthy family. Her father, an attorney in Kiev, gambled his family fortune away, so that his two daughters had to go to service. After Emilia died, Kazimierz wedded Maria and had four children with her. Their only son, Witold—my future father—was born in 1902. When Witold became a teenager, Kazimierz sent him to a high school in Kiev. The Russian revolution was underway. Witold recalled how, in 1918 (his senior year) the classroom door opened abruptly and a leather-clad commissioner appeared in it. With his claw-like finger, he signed out the prettiest girl. She went with him and a few days later committed suicide. The revolutionaries wanted her to give away a family member but since she was beautiful, they most likely took advantage of her, too.

After finishing high school Witold tried to escape to the other side of the Dniester River, and join his father in Sorocca. Searching for some boatmen to hire, he noticed two men, who were making the sign of the cross “V ím’ya Ottsya í Sina í Svyatogo Dukha[1]. Resolving that Christians would not kill him, he asked them for the service. He had good reasons to be cautious. Gangs of marauding Bolsheviks, peasants, and other bandits slaughtered the nobility. A saying circulated “Cut him slowly, for he was a good lord.” Witold reached his father in Sorocca and soon enlisted in the Polish army of Roman Abraham, in the south. Together with the army, he chased the fleeing troops of the Soviet general Semyon Budyonny.

In 1920, Kazimierz sold his business and moved to Poland. He had exchanged his assets for the Polish currency and crossed the border with a suitcase of bank-notes. Soon the inflation went out of control and a matchbox cost several million marks. In the end, grandfather stayed with a pile of papers, barely enough to buy a small cottage with a scrap of land near Bydgoszcz. Kazimierz went back to work as a property manager. He died in 1938.

original text (with more photos)

 

Life In The Barracks

After the war, Witold stayed with the army. He graduated from the Cadet School in Warsaw and began military service. In 1930, he married Zofia Dąbrowska. Father’s squadron moved to Molodechno (in today’s Belarus), where his and Zofia’s two sons were born—Zbigniew in 1931 and Bohdan (myself) in 1933. Mother had lung problems, so Witold requested a transfer, for a climate change. We moved to the town of Bielsko-Biała, near the mountains. Father, already in the rank of captain, wore a highlander’s hat, a unique distinction of the beautiful horse-artillery Tatra.

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From right to left: Witlod, Zofia, Zbigniew, Bohdan, and Witold’s sister Kazimiera
1938

Just before the war, father’s salary was about five hundred zlotys—not much considering his expenses. For example, he had to purchase a tailor-cut uniform. An officer could not appear in public in a badly cut outfit. Socializing with fellow-officers was expensive, too. Zbyszek and I spent our youngest years practically in the barracks. Father raised us in a military fashion but did not treat us completely rough. Occasionally, we would get the belt but we held no grudge against father because it was not done in anger. The military service was intense. I recall celebrations, for instance the anniversary of the Battle of Racławice. The entire squadron had gathered for the show. There were cannon shots, costumes… Oh, how those moments impressed our—the kids’—imagination! I also have vivid memory of a trip to the garrison hospital in Lviv. Father took me there to treat my tonsillitis. At that time, the way to treat children’s strep throat was to cut the tonsils. A surgeon came with scissors and snip! cut down my tonsils flat. Before the operation, father asked me:

“You know that soldiers don’t cry?”

Of course, soldiers couldn’t cry! I was compensated with huge portions of ice cream. The idea was to cool the throat to prevent hemorrhages. After the surgery, father visited me again:

“Atte-e-ention! Is everything okay?”

“Yes, sir!” I saluted him back.

It was summer. From the beautiful park outside a squirrel came to my hospital room. Everything was just wonderful. As a grown up man, I searched for that place and for that atmosphere but to no avail.

 

Torokanie

The grandfather on my mother’s side, Czesław Dąbrowski was born in Uman in Podolia [2] as one of the four sons of the nobleman Kajetan Dąbrowski. The Dąbrowskis too were involved in the January Uprising, so their property was confiscated as well. Czesław, who had studied agriculture in St. Petersburg, was offered the post of the director of a large, state-owned agricultural school in Polesia [3]. In 1918, Grandpa Czesław and his wife Amelia moved to Kobryń county, to the village of Torokanie, where the school was located. It was the time of Poland’s rebirth [4], also of the Bolshevik revolution, so the region underwent great turmoil. There were revolutionary riots. Packs of peasants robbed “the lords” or even slaughtered them. One winter, grandmother Amelia was returning home in a sleigh. A gang of robbers stopped her and stripped her off her fur-coat. The day was terribly cold—lutyi moroz, as the Russians would say. Amelia caught pneumonia and died, orphaning her eight-year-old daughter Zofia (my future mother). After a time grandpa Czesław remarried. His second wife, Lucyna Terpiłowska, was a maiden from a well-to-do family, also with strong insurrectionist traditions.

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Czesław Dąbrowski with wife Lucyna in Torokanie, 1927

Czesław was a kind, cheerful, if somewhat mysterious man. Very sensitive, he had remarkable abilities. For example, he knew how to cure ailing spines. He even had some disciples. The family lived in a four-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the school building. The offices and classrooms were downstairs. In the past, the building belonged to a congregation of the Basilian monks. As Uniates, Basilians were persecuted in the tzarist Russia, and their practices were banned. One day, a troop of Cossacks besieged the monastery in Torokanie. Forbidden to leave the building, cut off from their gardens, the monks gradually died of starvation, one after another. Many villagers claimed their ghosts still wandered in the halls.

Bohdan, Ewa, and Zbyszek in 1936

My brother and I spent summers in Torokanie. Zbyszek was a very sensitive boy. Sometimes he would wake up during the night, screaming; or he would sleepwalk in the corridors. When his condition worsened, the grown-ups wrapped him in cold, wet sheets. When he shouted, they tried to calm him. We had a playmate, the daughter of the local Uniate priest. Her name was Ewa – and I, a preschooler, was completely in love with her! One day, Zbyszek invited us to a play. He led Ewa and me to a tiny room, with a small round table and some chairs around it. On the table, he put a vase. “Now, let’s go out,” he said. We all left the room, closing the door behind us. A few minutes later we came back and saw the vase was… gone! As if it never existed! Zbyszek repeated that game several times, only in Torokanie.

Grandpa Czesław was a hospitable man. Local landowners would come to visit. I especially remember Stanisław Solohov, a retired General Brigadier, who married a real princess from the tzar’s family. Sadly, in the turmoil of the first war, the princess disappeared without a trace. General Solohov lived alone in a brick house in Antopol, about forty kilometers from Torokanie. He always arrived in a beautiful carriage. Parading in his gala military uniform, he would drink schnapps with Grandpa Czesław and pat me on the head. His fantastic mustache flowed like the famous mustache of Budyonny.

original text (w. more photos)

Outbreak of War

Before my father left for Bielsko-Biała, his fellow officers presented him with a small silver tray. On it, their signatures were engraved. Six silver goblets sat on the tray. That unique souvenir survived in the family [5], though the silver lost some of its luster and a few goblets went missing. Most of the soldiers, whose names appeared on the tray, later perished in Katyń.

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Witold Kurowski as a POW, 1940

The summer of 1939 was beautiful and unusually long. It turned out to be our longest vacation. The war was brewing in the air, so father sent us to Torokanie for safety. Early in September we received a message that the war with Germany had begun and the Kraków army left the barracks to fight. Father’s division had no chance against the much stronger enemy, so they soon surrendered and father became a prisoner of war. A few Polish troops appeared in our area. Some of them fought. We heard that General Sikorski’s planes flew over Paris and that the Soviets suffered severe defeats from Finland, so we hoped the war would end quickly.

The Bolsheviks marched into eastern part of Poland on September 17, 1939. Before their invasion, some agents of the Communist International, mostly Ukrainians and Belarusians, arrived to prepare the area for the arrival of the Red Army. Rounding up civilians, they chanted “Long live the invincible Red Army!” In our region the Reds appeared by the end of September. A troop—or better, a band of angry peasants—attacked General Solohov’s brick house in Antopol. At first, General remained calm. Polish officers in the eastern borderlands had orders from the headquarters not to attack the Russians. Hoping things would smooth out, the commanders tried to avoid any imaginable provocation. However, when the Bolsheviks kept shooting at him, General Solohov had no choice but to defend himself. A waterfowl rifle and revolver being his only munitions, the defense did not last long. The attackers shot the general, buried his body, and performed a victory dance on his grave. Some time later a Soviet tank arrived. A gray-haired comandir came out of it. “Does my good old friend General Solohov live here?” he asked.

“He did but we’d sent him to the other world,” the bandits boasted. The gray-haired comandir wept. Then he went back into the tank, aimed the machine gun at those enthusiasts of Soviet justice, and sent them a deadly series.

A few days later, a pounding on the main door woke us up. It must have been well before dawn because Grandpa Czesław, always an early bird, was still in bed. He got up and went downstairs. He opened the door and saw a group of men with rifles and clubs in their hands. The red bands on their sleeves showed they were members of the local communist organization. They told us to get dressed and go outside to greet the Red Army. It was obvious they would beat us up if we refused. Soon the whole population of Torokanie stood alongside the main street. Banners with words like “Slava k nepobedimyy Krasnoy Armii!” (“Glory to the invincible Red Army!”), and triumphal arches decorated the driveway.

We, as the members of the “lordly” class, were ordered to stand near the main gate, together with the local intelligentsia. The peasants gathered on other side. Among them were batyushka and matushka[6]—that is, the Uniate priest and his wife, along with their two lovely daughters. The Basilian monks were gone but the Greek-Catholic church still stood in the village, hence the priest. He and his wife bowed constantly, repeating “V im’ya Ottsya i Syna i Svyatoho Dukha. Aminʹ.

From a far end of the village came noises. Under the triumphal arches, military trucks rolled onto the main road. They resembled the American Fords. In fact, they were made on Ford’s license—the entire Soviet Union rode on Fords, it was a sign of “higher mechanization.” Alas, the Russian ZiLs and ZiSes only looked like the American cars. Quality standards in the Soviet Union were so low that their trucks broke all the time.

In those ZiLs and ZiSes soldiers of the Red Army sat. They wore the characteristic “Budyonny” hats on their heads; with a red star on each, like a big stain of blood. The soldiers were part of motorized cavalry or infantry. They were armed with rifles; additionally, there was a machine gun in every cockpit.

The communists pushed the people in the crowd on both sides of the road, to greet the soldiers. Some shouted. The trucks drove slowly towards the church, so that one could hear the sand pouring between the wheel-spokes. A soldier sitting in the first truck raised his rifle and aimed at the brass cross on the church tower. We heard a metallic bang. It was an incredibly good shot. I tried to say Our Father but could not remember the words. It bothered me that I was not able to say the prayer—as if that krasnoarmeyets killed my faith. For many years, the Bolsheviks entering Torokanie would return in nightmares. The metallic sound often woke me up in the middle of the night.

The new government arrived and soon expelled my family from the school. We moved to an empty house that belonged to a rich Polesia farmer. We had the permission to use three out of its four bedrooms, so the conditions were not so bad. I quickly learned Russian, a language my mother and grandma Lucia knew fluently, along with French, Ukrainian, and the local Polesian dialect. Some Russians tried to win the Polish intelligentsia. A Soviet poet—Shurkov, I believe—wrote: Come with us, Comrades Polish intelligentsia. Yes, I know it hurts when the land you call native is taken from under your feet. But in the light of the new dawn—communism—the genius of Copernicus, of Mme Curie, and of Mickiewicz will shine ever brighter. I suspect mother had already lost all hope. In her library she kept a novel by Wanda Wasilewska [7], which could mean she considered adapting to the new reality. As Aleksander Wat pointed out, a number of Polish and Jewish intelligentsia awaited the new government with genuine hope.

Near the end of 1939, two former pupils came to grandpa Czesław and said they would help him escape from the Soviet-occupied Polesia. Special groups organized transports to smuggle people to the German side. Grandfather went with those students. For a very long time we heard nothing of him. Only after the war we learned that those students led him straight to the KGB. Perhaps they got a pat on the back for an award. Thus we knew that the deportations to Siberia were already underway.

original text (w. more photos)

 

Through the Ural

A few months later, early in the morning, a loud knock on the door woke us up. What the devil? Maybe a ghost from the nearby swamps or birch woods came for a visit? Mother opened the door.

Tak bylo pozhalovat’, Sof’ya Cheslavovna... (Greetings, Sophia Cheslavovna…),” a KGB functionary in a blue-rimmed hat greeted her. Two armed krasnoarmeytse stood next to him. We knew those people! They were our neighbors!

Grandma Lucia emerged from her bedroom.

“Greetings, Lucyna. You will be resettled to a new location. Sophia Cheslavovna, you will see your father; and you, Lucyna, your husband.”

We, the children, got out of our beds.

“Kids, do you want to see your dedushku (grandpa)?”

Sure, we did want to see Grandpa very much!

“Well, you will go to him,” the soldiers said and then turned to the grownups, “You have half an hour to pack.”

It was April 17, 1940. We were being deported. They were giving us half-an-hour to get ready. A bustle started. The functionaries searched the house, looking for weapons. They combed through our toys. “O, kinzhal!” (Oh, a dagger!), they shouted grabbing our wooden saber; then, “O, pistoliet!,” confiscating our cap gun.

Mother fought to get the permission to pack dad’s belongings—his officer’s riding shoes and his leather suitcase with the label “Captain Witold Kurowski” attached to it.

“What? Captain?” the functionaries yelled. “Your army is gone! We crashed it once for all! There are no captains!”

In fact, Stalin did abolish military ranks: lieutenants, captains, colonels, generals. Only later he restored them. After a long argument, the functionaries allowed mother to take both the shoes and the suitcase. Miraculously, she managed to pack the silver tray with officers’ signatures, along with the goblets. Later, those things helped us to dodge starvation.

A peasant-cart waited in front of the house. On it, all the suitcases and bundles piled up. Mother and Grandma tried to take as many things as possible, knowing they could later exchange them for food. Finally, we all climbed onto the cart. The functionaries drove us to a station in Kobryń or Antopol (I don’t remember exactly), where we saw krasnoarmeytse in the Budyonny hats loading human cargo onto a freight train. Soon we too found ourselves inside a train car. The two-storey wooden bunks quickly filled with people. Dozens of men and women, old and young, lay tight next to one another.

Our journey began.

There was a furnace, now dismantled for it was April and the days got warmer. Only the cooking plate remained. Some people brought food from home—whatever they managed to grab. Once a day, a food-bucket was inserted into the car. Typically, finger-thick dumplings with holes in the middle were in it. They tasted awful. People drew them with spoons, pots, canteens… whatever dishes and utensils they could find. Once Zbyszek and I looked into the bucket and saw that the “noodles” wriggled. We gave a terrible scream. Some official came from outside and said, “Don’t you like it? Then don’t eat it!” They took the bucket away and that was the end of it. Some Polesia farmers—the wealthy ones, for such were deported—shared their food with us. A few Hasidim Jews were in the car but they kept to themselves. Of course, they did not eat any pork.

In the middle of the floor was a hole. That was the car’s toilet. From time to time, the train would stop in a wilderness. People who had enough strength poured out of the train to relieve themselves. Armed krasnoarmeytse lined up around them and watched until everyone finished. The train moved on. We rode thousands of kilometers, through Eastern Europe, large parts of Russia, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. Each car selected an elder to represent the deportees before the krasnoarmeytse. Beyond the Ural, in Chelyabinsk, the soldiers marched the whole transport to a bath in a huge Russian bania. A crowd of naked people suddenly surrounded me and Zbyszek. Especially the sight of grown up and elderly women was shocking to us.

 

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Lucyna Dąbrowska’s ID issued by the Soviet authorites

 

Mother soon fell very ill with a bloody dysentery. It seemed she would not be able to rise from her bunk anymore. One Polesia farmer said to her, “Zoya, ya tebya vylechu!” (Sophie, I’ll heal you!). He had a 70% moonshine and a barrel of salted pork fat. He poured the spirit to a cup and gave it to mother. She obediently swallowed it, in one gulp. Then the farmer handed her a slice of the pork fat. It was yellow and rancid but not spoiled. The farmer said mother must eat it to shelter her stomach. There were no doctors in the transport, so mother had no choice. A few hours later, the farmer repeated the treatment. Amazingly, the following day mother felt better. She was still very weak but slowly began to rise. The alcohol burned the dysentery. Grandma Lucia helped mother a lot. They always strongly supported each other. As for me and my brother, we were in shock all the time. I was only six, Zbyszek eight. We kept asking the grown-ups, “What’s happening? Where are they taking us? Where is Grandpa? What will become of us?” The women comforted us. Both prayed a lot on the rosary and said various litanies. They encouraged us to pray. The entire wagon prayed collectively, Catholics, Uniates, Jews.

 

Kaz-tzick

By the end of May we arrived at the city of Shortandy in the Akmolinsk-district, in Kazakhstan. The Russians loaded us tight onto two trucks that carried us to a village called Kaz-tzick, about thirty kilometers into the steppe.

At first glance, the sovkhoz seemed planned by modern standards. There was a radio broadcasting, a diesel generator, infirmary, large bath. There were a few office buildings and a number of four-unit farmhouses. All constructions were made of fascine—tree branches wound into mats and enforced with plaster. Such building materials were hardly adequate in a continental climate where the summer temperatures reached 40°C, while in winter they dropped to minus 50°C. Topographically, the area was not the typical Kazakh steppe. There was a pond nearby, and some woods (pine, birch, or mixed) in the south and east. That too was a good fortune because in winter we could steal dry wood for heating, while in summer we could pick the white gruzdi (milk-cap mushrooms). To the west, there stood the mud-huts of the Kazakh aul. The sovkhoz included the center and five otdielenia (areas), each with 200-300 inhabitants.

The trucks dropped us on the ground and drove away. The first few nights we slept in the room of the local radio, huge like a concert hall. More than twenty people lay side by side. The vermin in the fascine immediately sensed our presence. Soon we were totally bitten by lice, fleas, and especially bed bugs. The nights were unbearable, everyone ran outside. During the day, we desperately tried to sun-bath our clothes. About two weeks later Mother, Grandma, Zbyszek and I moved to one of the farmhouses. Our room had no furniture except for three beds. Zbyszek and I slept in one, the women in the second. In the third a war invalid with no legs slept. Each night he got out of his bed and crawled to scratch his back against the wall. One day I was alone in the room with him. I woke up and saw some dark wave moving from his bed towards mine, inch by inch, across the floor. I looked closer. It was lice sensing new food supply. I screamed at the top of my lungs. Someone alarmed grandma Lucia. She came, saw, and rushed to the hospital for a vermin-poison. Soon afterwards, they moved us to another farmhouse. Eventually, we were put in the area three, several kilometers in the steppe. There were even some brick houses there, next to the Kazakh aul.

We were very lucky to get to a sovkhoz. As a state farm, it was theoretically self-governed. Of course, the locals had no governing power whatsoever but because sovkhozes were owned by the state, their workers were entitled to compensation, even if just allowances of bread. In contrast, in kolkhozes there was no obligation to pay farmers anything. Theoretically kolkhoz was a “voluntary” (in actuality, forced) union of farmers owning some land. If they generated profits, they shared them; if there was no profit, they got nothing. Kolkhoz was a collective cooperative in the worst sense of the word. Frequently there was nothing to share. In hard times, all collective farms suffered famine.

Mother was still recovering from the dysentery but she had to go to work. In the beginning she worked as a tractor driver. Tractors, also on Ford license, were on cogwheels and shook terribly. But we were incredibly lucky. It soon turned out that a Polish registered nurse worked in the infirmary. Her name was Wanda Naumowa. She offered mother a job in the hospital, along with some medical training. Mother jumped at the offer. She must have gotten a pretty good training in that hospital for after some time she became the manager of a first-aid post by the gold mine in Zholymbek, a few kilometers to the north. She went there, while we stayed in Kaz-tzick. I remember trucks carrying gold ore on the beaten road between Zholymbek and Shortandy. Zbyszek and I used to collect crumbs. However, after the outbreak of the Soviet-German war in 1941, all trucks went to the front and the transportation stopped.

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The address-page of Zofia’s letter sent from Kazakhstan to her husband in a Nazi Oflag

On September 1st we went to school. It was located in the otdeleniye (area) number four. Mother sewed red stars (Soviet pioneer insignia) on our clothes, so that we would not stand out. That, however, did not prevent persecution. There was a teacher, a stocky little woman called Maria Ivanovna, who was also the school’s politruk (political commissar). She gave political talks and was in charge of the so-called Red Corner, a memorial room with portraits of Soviet heroes, such as Comrades Stalin, Lenin, Voroshilov, Timoshenko, Budyonny… Even before the war, there was a song, “Should tomorrow be war, should tomorrow be march, let’s be ready to march today—our Stalin with us, Tymoshenko the ace, and the warrior Voroshilov!”

Full of awe, I stood before a huge portrait of Budyonny, particularly admiring his long, flowing mustache. Maria Ivanovna noticed it and came close. “Chto vot, lyubish’ ty tovarishcha Budonnovo?” (“What then, do you love Comrade Budyonny?”), she asked.

“He reminds me of someone.”

“And who does he remind you of?”

“One time I knew a general.”

“A General?!”

A scene started.

Kakoy yeneral? (What general?) There are no generals! We have smashed your generals—and your army—once and for all! There is nothing left of it!”

I cringed. Maria Ivanovna called the other kids. “This boy here needs re-education,” she said. “His father is a traitor because he surrendered!”

This of course made no sense. Father did not serve in the Soviet army. Comrade Stalin collaborated with Comrade Gitler (Hitler). But I was just a little boy, so I got into a terrible sob. The children surrounded me, did not let me out of the circle. Later, mother had a very serious talk with that teacher. Maria Ivanovna remained mean but she did not dare to harass me any more.

After the start of the Soviet-Nazi war we had endless defense-training sessions in school. Guns and sticks in our hands, we maneuvered and sang, “Be always ready to work and fight!”.

Near the forest, on the west side of the sovkhoz, there was the Kazakh aul. Its huts were constructed with sun-dried bricks made of cow-dung and clay. Most of the huts had porches, so that, in winter, people could dig themselves out slowly trough the snow. The doors always opened to the inside so that people could get out. On the top of each hut, a yurt-skeleton lay. In spring, the Kazakhs led their sheep to the steppe for grazing, and took their yurts with them. For a while we lived in a Kazakh hut. Our host was an old man with a goatee. His name was Kïndjïbai [8]. As every Kazakh, he greatly valued tea. In those times, the only available tea was the so-called kirpichnyy chay—ground tea compacted into bricks, hence the name (kirpich stands for “brick” in Russian). Kïndjïbai set the samovar on a low round table, and waited until it turned blazing hot. Then he poured tea from the samovar and sipped it. Summer or winter, he always wore sheepskin clothes, but as he drank his tea, his body started to sweat. Piece by piece, Kïndjïbai took off his clothes, until he was naked to the belt. Streamlets of sweat running down his torso, he kept sipping his chay. At times he told us about his past advantages. He came from a very wealthy family, with uncountable sheep, and cows, too. In our company he felt comfortable enough to complain without fear on how the Soviets deprived them, the Kazakhs, of everything—property, nationality, economic independence.

We came to Kazakhstan in the last decade of May. Winter arrived instantaneously, as if out of the blue. Mountains of snow covered the nearby woods, so that we could see only the tops of the highest birch-trees. Then the blizzards came. Sometimes during a metel’ (flurry) people would go out, walk a few yards between houses and then disappear without trace. In spring, after the snow melted, their bodies were found in the steppe. They lost their way and froze. Neighbors stretched cords between houses, to avoid getting lost.

Zbyszek and I rode on skis from the roof of a two-story house where we lived for a while. We had to make those skis by ourselves. First we stole young spruces from the woods. We cut them into planks. Then we boiled them in water for a long time, until they softened, so that we could bend them. Then, the best we could, we made the grooves. We attached some binding strips—whatever was available—to the planks. Using some buckles or locks we fastened them on feet. Those skis were what they were, but without them we would not be able to make the two kilometers to school and back home through the snow-covered steppe. Of course, we got frostbite. One time I came home, took off my boots and gloves, and saw blisters all over my hands and feet! I had a second-degree frostbite. As long as I was outside, I wasn’t even aware of it!  But the effects of that frostbite afflicted me through my entire life.

One day, we heard powerful explosions. Cannons? No, it was the snow cracking! The white mountains covering the woods started to break. Mighty streams of water flowed underneath them. The water run into old ravines and quickly disappeared. Within a week or two summer heat replaced the cold. Those explosions, that cracking of the snowy mountains, were awesome.

The people in the sovkhoz received daily rations of bread, the rabochiye (working persons) 500 grams, the izhiventse (dependents) 200 grams. The bread often contained mold-infected millet, so it tasted bitter like wormwood. Theoretically, people could stand in line every day to get their rations but in practice the supply of bread often stopped for several days, particularly after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. Vegetables and fruit were not available, so soon everyone got scurvy. Our teeth moved, gums bled, painful sores covered our bodies, especially around the neck and the legs. There was no adequate treatment. The only medication we could get was the drawing salve. Hunger spread. I remember two boys from our neighborhood—their bellies were bloated, legs looked like wooden sticks. They carried toothbrushes and containers with kerosene. From time to time they dipped the toothbrushes in the containers and then sucked the kerosene. Their family name was Oszczakiewicz. In another house, an old Jewish woman lived. She too looked like a skeleton. Sitting in front of the house, she stretched her shins in such a way that we could see her privates. It amused us, the boys, but in reality it was a sad sight. I do not know what happened to that woman. Many people died of hunger and malnutrition. A Kazakhstan photo of grandma Lucia survived. From the chubby, good-looking woman she had been before the war, she turned into a skeleton resembling the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps.

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Grandma Lucyna as the “beekeeper” in Kaz-tzick (4th from the left, 2nd row from front)

But, thanks to mother and grandma Lucia’s resourcefulness, Zbyszek and I never went hungry. Mother received regular rations of bread. As the manager of the first-aid point in Zholymbek she also had some extra supplies. If anyone got sick in such harsh conditions, they would give away their last egg for a cure. In other words, being a nurse in exile was like winning the lottery. As for grandma Lucia, the skills she obtained as the wife of a director of an agricultural school proved very useful. For one thing, she knew beekeeping. The news that she was a pchelovod (beekeeper) quickly spread around the village. The sovkhoz’ administration summoned Grandma and asked her to organize an apiary, the first ever in Kaz-tzick. Grandma agreed and told them what was needed. She also explained the bees would require special protections in winter. “No problem! All will be done!” they assured her with typical Soviet nonchalance. And Grandma did create an apiary. It was located beyond the birch grove, to the west from Kïndjïbai’s hut. What a joy it was to get fresh, smooth honey combs—of course, when no one saw. Luckily there was no watchman on duty, the apiary was too far away. Sometimes we would bring a whole pot of honey to Kïndjïbai’s. When winter came, the bees were transported to one of the huts but without any additional protection. Grandma begged and yelled but to no avail, the bees perished. The apiary lasted only one season.

Around the sovkhoz, there were fields of wheat, some as huge as nine square kilometers. The farm produced wheat but the local farmers had no access to it. There were no granaries in the Kaz-tzick. Trucks took all the wheat to Shortandy. After the war began, only two cars remained in the village. They broke all the time and had to be reassembled from scrap. After harvest, the threshers produced tons of grain, but there was no way to transport them. We, the children, were mobilized to prepare special dirt floors in the steppe. With sharp spades we cut kavyl (steppe grass) to the ground. An ox-pulled shaft evened the dirt and the grain was poured onto it. Winter came, snow covered the wheat. In spring, after the thaws receded, all those huge heaps of grain turned into rot, weeds growing all over them.

But Zbyszek and I had a job. When no one looked, we’d come to a wheat heap for a handful of grain. Stealing wheat was a very serious crime. One could get a sentence of a year in gulag for taking a kilogram of wheat. We collected the grain under the guise of picking dry cow manure—the so-called kizyak—in the steppe. Cow manure was an excellent fuel. Conspicuously, we put large pieces of kizyak under our shirts. Under it, we secretly poured some grain and took it home. Most households had gristmills. People made flour on them, to use it for pies, dumplings, broths, etc. Collecting kizyak and stealing wheat were our summer duties.

original text (w. more photos)

End of War

Czesław Dąbrowski in Tel Aviv, 1943

One day I came back from school to Kïndjïbai’s hut and saw… Grandpa Czesław! Pale as parchment, with only his mustache still looking like in old times, he sat on the bunk and soaked his feet in a basin. I went into an uncontrollable sob—for long hours, I could not calm down! After Sikorski signed a treaty with Stalin, many Poles were released from the gulags. My grandfather, then fifty-nine, came to Shortandy to enlist in the Anders’ Army. He soon left with the troops to Tehran, through the Caspian Sea. After the war, someone sent us his picture. Dressed in a private’s uniform, Grandpa stood in front of a military cemetery in Tel Aviv. He soon died of typhoid and was buried in that very cemetery.

A few months of patriotic euphoria followed. After Sikorski-Stalin treaty, mother became a plenipotentiary of the Polish government’s in the area. First supplies from UNRRA arrived, mother distributed them. There were cans with fish—wonderful American mackerel!—as well as blankets, jackets, uniforms, battle-dresses… Their sizes were way too big for us kids, but the women knew how alter them, so we wore battle-dresses. Then another visitor arrived. Grandpa Dąbrowski’s niece, Anka Jaroszewicz, found us through the Red Cross. Her mother Jadwiga Dąbrowska married a well-off farmer Michał Jaroszewicz, who was a deputy to the Polish parliament before the war. Anka was only fifteen when, in 1939, the KGB captured her in a street roundup. They grabbed her as she stood, in high-school uniform, and deported her to the Altai region, for forced labor. After Sikorski-Stalin agreement, she received the permission to contact her family. She came to Kaz-tzick. Then, together with two other girls, she went to Shortandy to enlist in the Anders’ Army. Alas, the KGB intervened and all three were sent back home. The KGB still decided who could or could not obtain the honor of joining the Polish Army. Their policy was to retain young people in the Soviet Union.

After the army departed, our patriotic euphoria gave way to dark apathy. Some new hope arrived only with the advent of Wanda Wasilewska and her pro-Soviet Związek Patriotów Polskich (Union of Polish Patriots). Wasilewska’s pamphlet Free Poland circulated in the sovkhoz. Meanwhile, Anka Jaroszewicz received a draft to the so-called Armia Nad Oką (The Oka-River Army), a Polish formation within the Red Army. She was assigned to the fusiliers, a battalion terrible especially to women. When, after reaching Warsaw in 1945, the battalion was demobilized, Anka promptly burned all her war decorations and went into seclusion. When family found her at last, she was ill with schizophrenia, a result of an untreated reactive psychosis. Thus how it ended for Anka.

By some great irony, her joining the fusiliers brought us a boon. Exclusive for the families of the Armia Nad Oką soldiers, we received the permission to move to the Ukraine, for the so-called “betterment of the living conditions.” We rode a long, circuitous route in a special transport. Our train often stopped. I remember stopping by the fields of the famous Battle of Kursk. The tanks piled up to the horizon; Zbyszek and I walked around that sea of wrecks. Finally, we arrived at the sovkhoz called Zarya Kommunizma (The Dawn of Communism), about two kilometers away from the town of Piatykhatky in the Kharkov region. At first, we lived in one room with fifteen strangers—a “betterment of the living conditions,” indeed. We did not attend school any more. I worked as a cart driver, Zbyszek felled trees. We spent three long years in Zarya Kommunizma.

 

Zofia Kurowska with her sons Zbyszek (left) and Bohdan, in 1934

 

In 1945 the war ended and we could return to Poland. Mother—now a Polish consul in Dnepropetrovsk—did not want to leave the Soviet Union until she helped every Polish exile she could assist. Many people changed their citizenship and the Soviets made it extremely difficult to reverse that. Mother fought for those people. She worked tirelessly, in spite of her advanced tuberculosis, which several months later would take her life. She died in September 1946, soon after her return to Poland.

For now, grandma Lucia, Zbyszek, and I left Russia without her. Once again we traveled in tepushki (cattle cars)—bunks, floor-hole toilet, and all. But this time we had plenty of food, UNRRA’s cans with fish and svinnaya tushonka (pork stew), yum! Bread was delivered at the stations. The journey lasted several months, the train stopped often on side tracks, to give way to the soldiers returning from Germany.

In April 1946 we crossed the border near the town of Przemyśl. In the field we saw soldiers on horses, mustering. On their hats, they had characteristic yellow rims. Polish cavalry! It was a squadron of Polish Border Protection Troops. Everyone in the train got up. Tears of joy running down our cheeks, we sang in one voice, “Poland has not perished yet.”

original text (w. more photos)

 

Excerpts selected, translated from the original Polish, and edited by Joanna Kurowska Ph.D.

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Footnotes:

[1] “In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

[2] Podolia (Polish: Podole) – a historic region in Eastern Europe, presently shared between Ukraine and Moldova.

[3] Following its last partition in 1795, by its neighbors Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Poland regained its political independence in 1918 .

[4] Polesia (Polish: Polesie) – one of the largest forest areas in Europe, located in the south-western part of the Eastern-European Lowland; presently shared between Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

[5] Presently in Muzeum Wojska Polskiego (Museum of Polish Military Forces) in Warsaw.

[6] batyushka and matushka – literally “daddy” and “mommy.”

[7] Wanda Wasilewska – Polish/Soviet communist, political activist, and writer. She played an important role in the creation of a Polish division of the Soviet Red Army during World War II and in the formation of the People’s Poland.

[8] The name, transcribed here as Kïndjïbai to reflect Bohdan’s pronunciation of it, could have been Кингыбай (meaning “Rich King”).

 

 

 

October 24, 2018

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Copyright ©Joanna Kurowska. Any content from this website may not be reproduced without permission.

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