Memoirs covering the period 1939-1946
by Kazimiera J. (Jean) Cottam, PhD
My mothers sister Aunt Celina, her son Jerzyk, my mother, and I were staying at a rented summer cottage, about 30 km from the German border, when in late August 1939 we heard that Foreign Ministers Von Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression
Pact. We realized we ought to return to Czestochowa. Here it was decided that the men of the family would stay behind to await the call-up for reservists, while women and children would proceed to Otwock, a resort beyond Warsaw.
On the morning of September 1, as we were having breakfast at the hotel we were staying, precise arrow formations of sparkling aircraft appeared. They were German and soon bombs began to fall. The war had begun. Everyone was convinced that poison gas would be
used, so we had a drill in wearing gas masks, which made us look ridiculous. On September 3, my mother, aunt and grandmother decided to leave Otwock. We fled eastward in a peasant cart, avoiding highways and main roads that were constantly bombed by the enemy, but German
planes attacked the crowds of refugees fleeing along secondary roads as well. As soon as we heard the familiar sound of approaching enemy bombers, we tried to hide the horse and cart behind trees and ourselves jumped into a roadside ditch; when there was time, we ran away
as far as possible from the road, before dropping to the ground. (Later on, when my father and uncle rejoined us, we had the advantage of the former's experience in anticipating the exact bomb impact. My father had been a bomber navigator in the Soviet-Polish war
of 1920. Probably, this saved our lives on several occasions.) I remember the fear, the uncertainty of survival while staying down in the ditch. I was particularly terrified of being killed when alone in an outhouse. Irrationally, I felt safer among people,
especially my loved ones. I'll never forget the many dead horses beside the road.
One night an ammunition train exploded several kilometres away from us. Earth shook and flames shot up sky high. Villages and towns constantly burned all around us. The smell of burning was ever present. By night, the visibility was often almost as good as in
daylight. However, the nights usually were more peaceful. We slept where we could: in barns, sheds, ditches. Fortunately, the weather was unseasonably warm. Once a Polish soldier killed a chicken and gave it to us to be cooked; on another occasion we found a pear
tree with sweet, ripe pears.
Some time before the Soviets invaded Poland from the east my father and uncle rejoined us, after making unsuccessful attempts to find military units in which to enlist. Afterwards, I remember how once we were trapped in a forest, which sheltered a Polish army unit; German
aircraft were flying overhead and strafing the troops and I was given an English lesson under the trees to pass the time.
Later on, near the western Ukrainian town of Kowel, we had another close call. For a few days before the Soviets took over the local administration, a power vacuum existed in the countryside. These were dangerous times for refugees, particularly those that still
looked affluent, like ourselves. After all, we had precious stones sewn into the lining of our coats. One morning, we woke up in a barn staring straight at a rifle pointed at each of us. It appeared that a local gang was interested in our possessions. We
were saved by a timely intervention by an apparently popular local Polish landlord, who sent the Ukrainian gang away and then told us to get out of the village as fast as we could. (It was around this time that my mother's uncle, a medical officer, was taken prisoner by the
Russians. He was sent to the Starobelsk PoW Camp in Ukraine and, along with most of the inmates of the camp, was executed in Khar'kiv in the spring of 1940.)
I remember our encounter, near Kowel, with passengers on board a westbound Polish military train. We recognized a few of the officers, when the train stopped briefly. They were convinced that the war was over and our side had won the war. Having told us they were going
home, undoubtedly all ended up in German PoW camps.
We spent about a month in Kowel, where we rented accommodation from the widow of a recently killed Polish policeman. In November 1939 we transferred to Bialystok in north-eastern Poland, where my uncle had relatives, in the hope that the war would end soon, enabling us to go home.
My aunt, uncle and cousin Jerzyk stayed with these relatives, while my parents, grandmother and I lived with strangers in another part of town. This is why in June 1940 we were arrested separately by the dreaded police of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal
Affairs). There were several waves of arrests, on various grounds, in the winter, spring and summer of 1940, and the arrested Polish citizens were transported to the north or east of Soviet Russia, where the climate was harsh and where everyone was expected to do hard, physical
labour, in the fields, forests or mines.
In our case, we were compelled to fill out questionnaires, stating whether we were willing to become Soviet citizens. We refused and even tried to cross the border illegally into the German-occupied Poland. We were caught about 30 km from the border. The border guards
merely laughed when we naively told them we were simply on our way to a picnic--in a horse-driven carriage and with a number of suitcases at that! We were compelled to go back to the town, without incurring any immediate penalties, however. Some weeks later, on June 29,
two NKVD officers knocked on our door at about 4:00 a.m. and gave us two hours to pack our belongings. I remember my mother asking: "What about the child? " The reply was: "The child will go, too."
After we boarded a freight train filled with prisoners like ourselves, it stood the entire day on a siding, which enabled friends and relatives to bring the detainees some food and items they had left behind. I remember that there were at least fifty people of both sexes and
all ages in our car. Other cars were even more crowded. We were periodically allowed to relieve ourselves near the track, in full view of the guards; and were fed mostly salty herring and hot tea. The trip was to last at least three weeks.
Travelling in north-eastern direction, we finally reached Kotlas, the northern terminus of the railway, at a point where the Sukhona and Vychegda rivers empty into the Northern Dvina. After getting off the train in Kotlas, we discovered how relatively well off we were. We were
allowed to move freely while awaiting the river boat which was to take us to the town of Syktyvkar on the Vychegda. Suddenly we saw a train, full of haggard looking Russian political prisoners, pulling into the station. There were bars on the windows and the men, unable
to get out, were virtually dying of thirst. My mother grabbed a bucket, filled it with fresh water at the station, and we both ran back and forth alongside the train distributing the water.
From the very beginning of our boat trip eastward on the Vychegda River I kept smelling smoke, so I made a pest of myself and in the end the crew heeded me, made a thorough search of the deck and located a carelessly discarded, burning cigarette, about to set fire to the deck.
We were ordered to disembark in Syktyvkar, the capital of the Autonomous Komi Republic, a primitive looking northern town with about 50,000 inhabitants. Our final destination was a minimum security camp in a settlement named Rasyu, about 50 km to the north, which distance
we covered on foot, our belongings transported in a horse-cart.
It was July 1940. The sun was shining, it was warm and the woods were full of berries and eventually mushrooms. The inmates of the penal colony were former Ukrainian "kulaks," sent here nearly 10 years ago, during the forced collectivization. They told us they were dumped
here, into the virgin forest, in the dead of winter, with temperature going down to -40°C or worse. Among the survivors of the artificially created Ukrainian famine that were sent here many more died; especially, babies and older people. Survivors built the barracks and
worked on a local collective farm. We were indeed lucky--we arrived in the summer and were accommodated in the existing housing. My mother, father, grandmother and I lived in a single room and slept on straw.
There were no walls or fences around the camp, but we could not go beyond the 4 km perimeter without a special permission. The inmates were supervised by two commandants--one for the Ukrainians and the other for the new arrivals. Apart from the two commandants, the most important
personage in Rasyu was the local Party official and storekeeper. (With the exception of bread, matches and few other items, the shelves of his store were almost completely bare.) My mother was a very determined, no-nonsense type of person, as the Party official learned first
hand. It was a standing joke in the camp that this individual was virtually afraid to open his mouth in my mother's presence.
My mother found employment in the local brick factory, while my father worked in the forest. Initially, I merely picked berries and mushrooms. Later on, I fed chickens on the collective farm. In the fall I went to school. In my Grade 4 the teacher was a 40 year-old
Russian, named Lebed'yev, who was proud of my scholastic achievements.
I was amazed that some pupils in my class were as much as four years older than myself. Several of them came from a local orphanage for boys, noted for their hooliganism and throwing macaroni at the staff. One boy in my class had killed someone and was out of jail on probation.
I remember that even adults considered it unsafe to approach the orphanage. However, the tough boys in my class had always treated me with respect.
All the children 8 years of age and older were expected to cut wood for heating the school (which, incidentally, was located several kilometres from the settlement, a distance we were expected to cover on foot in all kinds of weather). The boys felled trees and the girls cut them
with a saw into short pieces, working in pairs. I soon learned how to cut through big logs, working outside in -40°C without proper winter clothing. In the spring, I had a narrow escape. It was a damp and cool day and the teacher had asked me to go into the woods and cut
some branches, so that we could warm ourselves up beside a campfire. I took an axe and went into a fairly thick growth area. Preoccupied with my task, I suddenly heard a sound resembling a falling tree. An instinct told me to run ahead as fast as I could. I was lucky to
escape without a scratch as the tree fell very close to me.
On November 16, 1940 death had claimed the first member of my immediate family, my maternal grandmother: the poor quality food we ate didn't agree with her. There were no funeral homes, so the body lay at least one night before burial in the same room with us. Meanwhile, Aunt
Celina with her husband and little Jerzyk were sent to a settlement in another district of Komi. We received two postcards from them dated January and March 1941 I still have. However, after they had left Komi to join the Polish Anders Army in the south, we lost contact.
It is certain that they all perished in a terrible typhus epidemic raging in Tashkent at the time, as they were actually seen in that city after they had all came down with this dreadful disease caused by malnutrition and unsanitary conditions.
The formation of General Anders Army was made possible by the amnesty issued to Polish detainees in the USSR, following the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. However, despite the amnesty, my parents decided to stay in Komi for the time being. In the summer of 1941 my
father had been offered the job of a canteen manager in a nearby Komi village of Madzha, an opportunity we couldn't miss, weakened as we were by our inadequate diet.
However, I was somewhat sorry to leave the picturesque Rasyu, where I was happy in school and had some pleasant memories. I remember how once I ran away from school on learning that we were about to be given an anti-typhoid shot. I went to the river, sat down on the shore
and the sound of the gently flowing water had a soothing effect on me. I decided it was foolish of me to run away, so I went back to school, where a doctor and nurse appeared to be waiting for me. I said: "I give myself up." Instead of scolding me, they started
to laugh. In the early summer of 1941, a children's summer camp was set up in our school. We received good food and were having fun. I remember how, on June 21, the day before the German attack on the USSR, we had a picnic in the woods, accompanied by the music from
a portable record-player, and how we were surprised by a violent electrical storm and had to rush home.
There were no Russian schools in the Komi village of Madzha, so my education was going to be interrupted. The Komi (pre-war name Zyryane) were primitive people, related to the Finns, who didn't even have an alphabet of their own prior to the Revolution. The cook in the canteen
was my Ukrainian friend's mother and the building was owned by an old man whose daughter was the establishment's sole waitress. Unfortunately, this uncouth, vulgar 23 year-old had access to the cellar, where provisions were kept. Eventually, several bottles of vodka disappeared,
undoubtedly stolen by the young woman, but my father was held responsible. He was fired and in addition had to repay the cost of the missing bottles. To this end, we were compelled to sell my mother's beautiful sapphire ring privately, for a fraction of its true value.
With my father unemployed, we had a very hard time. I believe that it was in Madzha that we once had nothing to eat for five days. Also, it was in Madzha that two complete strangers--father and son--were staying with us for a short time. Recently released from a camp
in the terrible Vorkuta, a town located beyond the Arctic Circle in the north-east of Komi and notorious for its deadly coal mines operated by political prisoners, our visitors were dressed in rags and exuded a very unpleasant smell. Unfortunately, I had to sleep on top of a big
stove fairly close to one of them. This was my first, unforgettable exposure, to former inmates of a Soviet maximum security, forced labour camp.
Without prospects for employment in Madzha, we were forced to move to Syktyvkar in the early winter of 1942. We went to Syktyvkar in -40°C weather--my parents in an open body of a truck exposed to the elements, while I sat in the cab, protected from the cold. Soon after
our arrival, I ceased attending school regularly. This was due not only to our circumstances, but also to the chaos prevailing in my new school, where female teachers proved incapable of handling tough boys and maintaining order without male teachers, who had all been conscripted.
In Syktyvkar both my parents worked while I "kept house" for them, preparing meagre meals. I also went shopping at the market and remember how once, in the summer of 1942, my dress was ripped literally from top to bottom as I was trying to buy a few carrots.
Particularly critical was the problem of fuel. In the country, it was possible to go to the woods and bring home free fuel, whereas in Syktyvkar fuel had to be bought and the preferable currency for this purpose were vodka and cigarettes. I remember standing in line
for five hours, to be replaced by one of my parents just in time to make the purchase, as vodka was not sold to minors. Often, however, we couldn't afford any fuel and slept in an unheated room while the outside temperature was -50°C.
In Syktyvkar we rented a room in a small two-storey house from a nurse named Postnikova, who had a daughter my age, and who lived upstairs. She had another tenant, a 29 year-old woman who earned her living by driving logs down the river. It was one of toughest and most dangerous jobs
in the North, involving utmost exposure to the elements, and I admired her greatly. Though both my parents worked--I believe my mother, in a knitting cooperative, while my father delivered heavy sacks of flour on a horse cart to Polish settlements--we often went hungry. Feeling sorry
for us, the landlady killed her pet dog, whom she couldn't afford to feed, and gave us the meat, literally to save us from starvation. I am usually very fond of animals, particularly dogs, and I felt terrible, but I was very hungry, so I overcame my scruples. After all, at that
time even cannibalism was not unknown in Soviet Russia and eating dog meat was less distasteful than consuming a fellow human.
My father was first to come down with typhus. My mother followed and I was left alone with the landlady's cat. I had my mother's bread ration card and nurse Postnikova kept bringing me a bowl of soup from time to time, so I managed all right by myself. One day, however,
a social worker came and persuaded me to accompany her to a transitional children's home, where they stayed for a short time, pending a transfer somewhere else.
At first an acquaintance from Rasyu gave me a hard time and tried to turn other children against me. In addition, I feared transfer to some other town, where my parents wouldn't be able to find me. Soon, however, I established a good rapport with both the children and adults,
and was reasonably well fed and clothed. We all learned to sleep with electric light on all night, which was regularly left on by the staff, for some unexplained reason. When my mother recovered and came to get me, I was having a fairly good time and was about to take part in
an amateur play, so I re-joined her somewhat reluctantly.
Soon after my father recovered from typhus, he caught pneumonia. After he had been discharged from the hospital, he worked for a short time in a shop manufacturing smoking pipes, but soon came down with pernicious anaemia, which in wartime conditions of the USSR was a terminal illness.
He died on 8 January 1943, two months before his 48th birthday! Both my mother and I were utterly devastated. (However, the day after my father's death, my mother unselfishly sent me to school to occupy my mind, a sacrifice on her part, as she was left alone, with no one to
console her.) My father died in the town's only hospital, where our landlady worked as a nurse and she helped my mother to arrange a primitive burial.
While in Madzha my parents had met a Polish family from eastern Poland, consisting of an elderly gentleman and two daughters, one of whom had a son my age. (After the war the sisters settled in Zgorzelec on the Polish-German border.) We became friends and I often went blueberry
picking with the old man, who died after we had moved to Syktyvkar. Later on, the two sisters were put in charge of a Polish children's home in a Komi village of Dodzha, about 30 km from Syktyvkar. After my father died, an acquaintance advised my mother to place me in this home for
Polish children, where my needs, at least, would be taken care of. She discussed the option with me and I agreed to go. I remember how, on February 1, 1943, I left Syktyvkar in an open body of a truck, leaning against a barrel.
Every move since Rasyu turned out to be for the worse and indeed the move to Dodzha was the worst of them all. Though only 30 km from the "capital," this bleak hamlet might just as well have been thousands miles away, cut off as it was from the rest of the world from early
October until May. Upon my arrival at the grim-looking log cabin that was to be my new home, I was surprised to learn that some of the children had no boots, so boots had to be shared. Once a day we obtained our meagre food from the canteen located at the other end of the village,
so the person who was wearing boots was obliged to bring back the watery soup to a "partner" without boots, left behind in the cabin.
The very day I arrived I was sent to the canteen with a container. On the way, I somehow got left behind and became lost in the sub-Arctic darkness of the afternoon. It was very quiet and the buzzing of the telegraph poles seemed unusually loud. The snow was deep and soft;
I kept falling through, at least up to my knees. I could not find any paths and the village seemed deserted. All the cabins looked the same. Most likely, the villagers didn't speak Russian, so seeking their assistance seemed futile. I was entirely on my own; I was scared,
but my greatest concern was the integrity of the soup. After all, a hungry child was waiting for it. I almost gave up when suddenly the object of my search, the cabin, materialized in front of me. Everyone in the cabin wondered what had happened to me! They were
amazed that the soup, now stone cold, was almost fully preserved, except for my spilling a few drops. This frightening experience did not bode well for the future.
The staff tried to keep up our morale, but life was harsh. Since the death of General Sikorski and the break in Soviet-Polish diplomatic relations, orphanages such as ours were really in a kind of limbo. The food apportioned to us was poor and scarce: a bit of black bread and
a bowl of a watery soup. It is not surprising that the cakes our boys baked out of old, rotten potatoes, simply tasted delicious! After the snow began to melt and the roads turned into rivers of mud, we subsisted on raw grain, because there was no way it could now be delivered
to a flour mill.
In Dodzha my wood sawing partner happened to be a strong Polish peasant girl, whose kind stepmother managed to supply her with regular food parcels. I found it hard to keep up with her, weakened as I had been by many months of intense hunger. I remember that we both swore like
old troopers, which--believe it or not--helped us to keep warm. Since I had no mitts, I wore socks on my frostbitten hands, as we worked outside in temperatures as low as -40°C.
Our landlady, who lived in the shed attached to the cabin, was a mean, primitive woman, who was reputed to have starved her husband to death. I remember how a half-dead Chinese man, apparently just released from a camp, came to the door, begging for food. She chased him away with a
broom. (For some reason, there were many Chinese in Komi camps. I once witnessed one of them dying in a village clinic, as he was being transferred from one camp to another with a group of fellow-prisoners. Their guard was surprisingly kind to the dying man, trying to cheer
Dodzha was a very windy place, and the mournful sound of the wind only added to our prevailing sense of hopelessness. Nevertheless, at times we hoped against hope for a miracle to happen. I remember a rumour circulating for a while that we were going to be evacuated from Russia,
perhaps via Teheran. Soon after arriving in Dodzha I wrote a letter to my mother, detailing the conditions in Dodzha and my intent to rejoin her in May, the beginning of the navigation season. Looking forward to my return to Syktyvkar sustained my morale.
For some reason I missed the first boat to Syktyvkar. There was no set schedule and the boats came irregularly. In order to catch such a boat, one literally had to wait on the shore for a long time, sometimes as long as several days, entirely in the open. (There were no
buildings of any kind by the river.) While waiting in this manner, I remember having to hide once from an enraged bull in an old haystack. Finally, I did catch a boat to Syktyvkar and was amazed to recognize, in one member of the crew, the daughter of one of our commandants
Upon my arrival in Syktyvkar, I learned from the landlady that my mother had died of a stroke on May 2 and was buried two days before my arrival. Were I successful in catching the first boat to Syktyvkar, I might have found her still alive! I have no recollection of the next
three days. It was fortunate that, coincidentally, my cousin Irena's husband Olek (Alexander) happened to be in Syktyvkar and it was he who looked after me until I got over the initial shock. Recently released from a camp, where he had been lucky to secure employment as an
accountant, Olek, who was found unfit for military service, managed to obtain a passport and was about to get out of the USSR. (About a year after the war ended, I ran into him and his new wife in Poland. He had remarried, after my cousin Irena perished in Warsaw. Irena
and I shared paternal grandparents, who also died during the war, in Czestochowa. During her terminal illness, my paternal grandmother was lucky to have been cared for by a woman boarder, a medical doctor expelled by the Germans from Poznan in western Poland. After this grandmother
had died, we received one postcard from my 90 year-old blind paternal grandfather, mailed in February 1941 and written by a distant relative. This grandfather apparently died a few months later.)
I had no choice but to go back to Dodzha. With a mattress and the rest of our belongings on top of it, all carried on my head, I returned to the God-forsaken village, where everyone in the orphanage was surprised to see me back. To make matters worse, the letter that my mother
had written to me on March 25, in response to my note informing her that I was planning to rejoin her, reached me in Dodzha only after her death, several weeks after my return. In it my mother told me about the hardships she experienced after her bread ration card for the month of
March was stolen. Though she had some potatoes and other provisions, my mother missed bread acutely. The money she was making was minimal and she was wondering whether two could live on her meagre pay. On the other hand, my mother wrote, I could be helping her and we
would thus make more money. Finally, she (quite needlessly) worried about how I would manage the return trip to Syktyvkar all by myself. Getting this letter after my mother's death added to my sense of guilt. I already felt I had probably contributed to her stroke, among
other things by my complaining about the conditions in Dodzha. I still have the letter and keep re-reading it from time to time, in a sense reliving the horror of her death at the age of 41. I no longer blame myself to the extent I did at the time, for after all a child has the
right to make her mother aware that her living conditions are unbearable and to seek the mother's help.
Afterwards, listless, depressed, covered with boils and getting weaker and weaker, I didn't expect to survive. During the early summer of 1943, we subsisted on berries and various plants. In the late summer and early fall, particularly after the harvest, our diet improved.
In October 1943 came the unexpected news: we were going to a special children's home in Zagorsk, near Moscow, in two groups. I was lucky to have been selected to go with the first group--this had likely saved my life. First we were taken to Syktyvkar, to be equipped with
decent clothing, and slept in the quarters which at one time housed the transitional children's home. Staying in these quarters, where I lived for two months a year earlier, when my parents were in the hospital, gave me an eerie feeling: my former playmates had gone to an unknown
destination, but the memories remained. At a clothing depot in Syktyvkar, I was provided with a nice navy-blue winter coat with a simulated fur collar. (I literally loved this coat. It was to be stolen about a year later from our cloakroom in Zagorsk. I was heartbroken
and mourned the coat, as if it were a living thing.) We boarded a train for Moscow in Vologda. I remember how we were assigned a freshly painted coach, but somehow managed to keep the paint off my precious coat!
The woman who came to take us to Zagorsk was Eugenia Penson. (I once heard my mother mentioning her, but apparently they were not acquainted.) Mrs. Penson accompanied us on the long trip to Zagorsk, becoming a senior member of the Polish Children's Home staff. (Soon after the war
ended, Eugenia Penson emigrated to France with her husband. In November 1993, at the age of 89, she came with her French-born son, a professor at Sorbonne, to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of our arrival at the new Polish Children's Home in Zagorsk, held in Warsaw.)
In Zagorsk, 70 km to the north-east of Moscow, a complete blackout was still mandatory, though no German bomber had penetrated this far for many months. Upon our arrival, in the evening we went to an outside bathhouse, holding hands, so as not get lost in the dark. (The name
"Zagorsk" originated after the Revolution. The town, famous for its monastery and other Russian Orthodox Church buildings, was named in honour of a Party secretary named Zagorsky. It has since reverted to its old name, Sergiyev Posad.)
Except for two Russian teachers and initially one nurse, the professional staff in Zagorsk were Polish. The age of the children ranged from 6 to 17. Some of the big girls were tall and well developed, so there was a real danger that Soviet authorities might consider them too old
for staying in a children's home and our girls could be transferred to some awful Soviet factory school. To avoid this, our Polish staff did all they could to make them look younger. We attended a special Polish school, and had only four hours of Russian a week, including both
language and literature, taught by one of the Russian teachers. The other Russian teacher, whose name was Vera Nikolayevna Koroleva, became a housemother to younger children. A very refined, kind and dedicated individual, she had an 80 year-old father who at the time was still
the director of the local hospital.
In 1989, while on a visit to Moscow, I decided to locate Vera Nikolayevna (with whom I haven't been in touch since 1946). I hired an Intourist guide, car and driver and we set off for Zagorsk. The building of the Polish Children's Home now housed deaf and blind children, but the
staff was most helpful and made many 'phone calls in an attempt to find someone who knew the whereabouts of Vera Nikolayevna. Finally, her friend, a woman doctor, produced Vera Nikolayevna's address in Moscow. We found her, 92 year-old and sharing a Moscow apartment with her 90 year-old
sister. She wore a hearing aid, but otherwise seemed in good health. She told me that after the Polish children had left Zagorsk she went back to teaching and retired at a very advanced age. She was glad that her mentally retarded son was well taken care of in an institution.
Vera Nikolayevna died about three years later. However, in 1994 I received a telephone call from George Bolotenko, an archivist employed at the National Archives in Ottawa. While in Moscow on business, he had paid a visit to Olga Nikolayevna Kopyleva, a fellow archivist, who was
the granddaughter of Vera Nikolayevna's sister. I, too, met Olga Nikolayevna in 1989, when visiting her great aunt and grandmother, as she lived in another apartment on the same floor as the two old ladies did. (Olga Nikolayevna spent three weeks in Ottawa on a course in October
1993, but she inadvertently left my address behind in Moscow, so she couldn't get in touch with me. It was in Ottawa that she met Bolotenko for the first time.) When Bolotenko again met Olga Nikolayevna in Moscow, she asked him to deliver two photographs from Zagorsk to me as well
as a note with information about her great aunt. I was not in the least surprised to learn that Vera Nikolayevna came from the nobility and that her husband had been a victim of one of the many Soviet purges. She had been a nurse during the First World War in the Tsarist Brusilov's Army
and was a graduate of the Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, becoming a teacher of French and German. Also, her distinguished father had been a medical officer of the local government known as Zemstvo under Tsar Nicholas II.
In Zagorsk, we led a more or less "normal" life. We helped with the chores and went to school in two shifts: the younger children in morning, the older in the afternoon. We had several hours of military theory and drill per week, provided by a youthful Russian sergeant, who had
been seriously wounded and had a steel plate in his head. Since our classes ended in the evening and in the winter it was quite dark, he often escorted us home, protecting us from the toughs armed with switchblade knives, roaming the streets of Zagorsk. He told us how difficult it
was for officers to keep troops in line at the front. I must admit I often gave him a hard time. He never scolded me, but instead was quite stern with our boys.
As a contralto, I sang in the choir on the boys side, making them laugh on a sly, but refused to take piano lessons and no one forced me to take them. Because of my good marks, I was often among those awarded trips to Moscow. Included here were New Year's Eve parties for children
in the famous Column Hall as well as trips to the theatre--including the famous Bol'shoy--and to the Tretyakov Gallery. We went by train, always provided with a comfortable seat, as Russian adults tend to give their seats to children, rather than vice versa. We celebrated
Christmas and sang Polish patriotic songs. I don't remember being indoctrinated; most of us were too sophisticated for that and knew what really happened to the thousands of missing Polish officers.
The older children had their own garden plot to look after; and during summer holidays we helped on nearby collective farms. I remember how once, when working in a potato field, I was warming myself beside a campfire and baking potatoes. I came too close to the fire and was
completely unaware that the back of my coat caught fire. (Actually, it was a borrowed coat--mine was too good to be worn while doing farm work.) Someone said to me: "Your behind is on fire," but as I turned to investigate the situation the smoke coming from behind me
also turned. Finally, I realized what was happening, took off the coat and put out the fire. Unfortunately, the hole burnt in the coat was the size of a fist.
Before I re-acquired the ability to see the funny side of life, I went through a period when I was listless, depressed and demoralized to the point I hated to get out of bed in the morning. For a long time, every night in my dreams I kept sawing through huge logs in -40°C and
swearing aloud. Eventually the nightmares, brought about by the incredible hardships of my life in the North, ceased. Then I went through another stage: I became very aggressive, fooled around in school and picked fights with boys. I finally channelled my extra energy into
writing awful juvenile poetry. In fact, I became one of the two official "poets" of the Polish Children's Home in Zagorsk; and my antagonist was Konrad Poplawski, the official "poet" of the opposite sex. Several years ago, I edited some of my "poems"
from Zagorsk and sent them to Konrad to California. In November 1993, I met him, for the first time in 47 years, at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of our arrival in the newly-founded Polish Children's Home in Zagorsk (mentioned above), which was held in Warsaw.
Like other girls in Zagorsk, I knitted a lot, so as to make pocket money by knitting sweaters for members of the staff. While we were knitting, Polish classics were read to us. I also read a great deal on my own. And every Sunday I wrote many letters to various relatives scattered throughout
the world, including such far away places as Southern Rhodesia. As a result, I received exotic stamps that were the envy of all the stamp collectors amongst us.
Zagorsk was a model home and we had a number of distinguished visitors coming to inspect us. It didn't seem unusual that the red carpet, normally put away, would be brought out on such occasions. More puzzling was the special use of knives and forks when visitors came, as otherwise
we were expected to eat everything with a spoon. One such special occasion was the arrival of Prof. Oscar Lange, an economist from the University of Chicago and husband of one of my father's cousins. Accompanied by Rev. Orlemanski, a Roman Catholic priest from Chicago, Lange had either just
had an audience with Stalin in Moscow, where they discussed the future of Poland, or was about to meet with him. I hoped that, at the very least, he was going to exchange a few words with me and give me a chocolate bar. I was truly disappointed when he virtually ignored me. (Later on, he
became the first post-war Polish ambassador to Washington and Poland's representative at the UN.)
Our Russian staff was kind to us. In addition to two Russian teachers, we had a Russian nurse for some time. She was a sad young woman, with a small baby, who worried about her husband at the front. When I came down with a serious bout of flu, shortly after my arrival in
Zagorsk, she nursed me back to health. I spent two weeks in bed in our sick room. Despite my high temperatures, I had an appetite of a horse and not only finished everything on my plates but also insisted on eating the leftovers of my sick room partner, who also had the flu, but unlike
me was not in the least hungry.
The non-professional staff, including the two hard-working female cooks, Aunts Nyura and Shura, were Russian. One of the cooks had six children to feed. Virtually all of them worked hard and led a difficult life. We were generally better off than they were. We certainly were
better dressed. (We looked after our own clothes to some extent and I remember that our sailor suits were hellish to iron.) The food we ate was often of a better quality, too, than that available to the Russians. On one occasion at least, during a picnic, we were even instructed to
hide our white bread from Russian children. Some of our clothing and canned food came from the United States. For example, we were given canned plums and corned beef. Nevertheless, the portions were too small, particularly for growing adolescents, and we perpetually went to
In March 1946, we were repatriated to Poland--initially to a central repatriation point. Those of us who were not immediately claimed by relatives were sent to "Our Home" in Bielany near Warsaw, where we arrived at the beginning of April. I remember our first dinner there: bread was
piled up high on plates at the centre of the table and we were served our first normal meal in six years: soup, potatoes, a vegetable, meat and desert. Second helpings were readily available and you could eat as much bread as you wished. Our reaction was disbelief; how could this be
possible? On the other hand, the staff was amazed at our reluctance to reach out for the extra food readily available to us. At the 1990 reunion I attended in "Our Home," this scene was partially recreated, televised and subsequently videotaped.
In August 1946 I was among those who were sent to a summer camp on the then Yugoslav island of Hvar, which we reached by a sail boat from Split in Croatia. (On Hvar, I was once unwittingly exploring an unsafe section of the coast, mined during the Second World War, and was fortunate
to encounter a stranger who warned me about the danger.)
On the way to Yugoslavia, we travelled through Slovakia, where we were literally invited to raid an orchard in Bratislava, formerly belonging to a German, and we were given the opportunity to explore Budapest, Belgrade and Zagreb. After an entire month of splashing and swimming in the blue
Adriatic Sea, exploring the Dalmatian coastline, eating masses of grapes and drinking a lot of wine, I returned to Warsaw to discover that a relative from Canada, who came to Poland to do relief work, was trying to get in touch with me. An Anglican minister, he was my mothers cousin who
adopted me. In 1948 he returned to Canada with his family. I followed them in January 1949, having obtained a passport with the help of Oscar Lange, my cousin Irenas famous husband.
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