A Second "Memoir"

Ludwik Kowalski

What follows is fictional. It began as a homework assignment in a memoir writing class for senior citizens. After completing a memoir based on my life in wartime Russia (1), and inspired by reading numerous testimonies by other survivors of the same period (2,3), I decided to compose a story based on their experiences. David Lipman, my fictitious narrator, speaks in the name of those whose real stories are described in (3).

We Suffered From Two Regimes

David Lipman


At the age of 80, I am once again being asked to describe what happened to me and my family during World War II, more specifically, between 1939 and 1942, when we suffered from two murderous regimes, Nazi and Soviet. In 1942, like many others who managed to escape from the Soviet Union, I attended a gathering, conducted by a Polish Army officer, at which we were asked to either write or tell our stories. Only recently did I learn that most of our stories were preserved and published (3). My own story was probably lost; otherwise it would be in the book. But I was surprised to learn that what happened to my family was far from unusual.

Under German Occupation

Germany invaded Poland when I was ten years old, on September 1, 1939. We lived in a small town in eastern Poland, where my parents had a general store and we lived comfortably. My older sister, Hanna, worked in the store, my younger brother Chaim and I attended a cheder. Like many Polish towns, Strasno was bombarded by German airplanes, as soon as the war started. Several buildings, including the railroad station, were destroyed. But intense battles with the invaders took place far away from us. The Wehrmacht entered the city without fighting for it, during the third week of the war. Most soldiers were Austrians; they did not interfere with activities of local populations. One officer, for example, came to our store and bought a box of chocolate, for his landlord's children.

The relative calm ended when new army units, and Gestapo, arrived. They soon discovered that Jews and Poles in our town had close personal relations. One of the first orders, posted on the walls, forbade Jews and Poles walking together. The first poster addressed to Jews only appeared two days later. All of us had to gather in the park, leaving homes and stores open, for inspection. That was the beginning of looting. German soldiers took everything of value. What they did not take was often destroyed.

In a nearby town Germans desecrated the altar of a catholic church and claimed that this was done by Jews. The reaction was predictable; local peasants cooperating with Germans locked about one hundred Jews in the synagogue, and set it on fire. Those who were able to escape, even women with children, were killed by German soldiers. In our town, brutalities against randomly encountered Jews became more and more frequent. Sadistic soldiers enjoyed ripping off beards, often with skin, others preferred beating, often to death. One day Germans rounded up about one hundred Jews, took them to the nearby ravine, and executed them. We were terrified by all this and, like most Jews, tried to avoid the streets, as much as possible. Then we decided to escape.

We already knew that eastern parts of Poland, including Lwow, were occupied by the Soviets, as prearranged with Hitler. They had invaded Poland three weeks after the Germans and grabbed a big chunk of it. The new border was not too far away. Tary, where my grandmother and uncle Boris lived, was on the other side of border; that is why we decided to escape to Russia.

Escaping From Poland

We left home at the end of October, shortly after midnight. So as not to be noticed, we separated. My mother left first with Hanna and then my father with me and Chaim, each carrying a bag. It was cold and dark and no-one saw us leaving. We met in a prearranged place and started walking along a dirt road. Several hours later we arrived at a field crowded with hundreds of people, Jews and non-Jews. All wanted to cross the border, only one mile away. The road leading to it was closed. People told us that the road would be open around 9 o'clock in the morning and that the Germans in control would not interfere with us.

Later I learned (3) that crossing the border was a big challenge for many people; they were harassed first by Germans and then by Russians. Many were killed. But we were lucky; we walked slowly along a wooden bridge, waiting for our turn to register. The process was simple--nothing more than giving our names and addresses. We entered a little town. Polish money was accepted and my mother went to the market, to buy some food. We waited for her at the railroad station, crowded with people like us. Everything was the same as before; even the train schedule had not changed, since the Red Army "liberated" the area. We took a train and arrived at Tary two hours later.

The first question my grandmother asked, after her warm greeting, was “where is Boris?” She had not seen him since he was drafted, one week before the war started. She believed he was in Strasno, with us. But we had had no word from Boris either; he was probably killed defending the country. But that is not what my parents admitted. We all wanted to believe that he was somewhere in Poland. We stayed with grandmother for three nights only, sleeping on the floor of her small room. Boris's room had recently been rented to a family of Polish refugees from Krakow. Our next stop was Lwow, where my father sold a gold watch. This allowed him to enter into partnership with a local food store owner, and to rent a small apartment for us. The business succeeded and we lived reasonably well, especially after Hanna, who was 17, also found a bookkeeping job.

Soon things started changing for the worse. As in Strasno, this coincided with the arrival of a new administration. First the food store was “nationalized,” under a Ukrainian director. My father had no choice but to conduct the business illegally, buying and selling cigarettes, food, and other items, Chaim and I helped him. Such activities were dangerous; one could be arrested and put in prison. Hanna became the only family supporter. Then came formal registration; each refugee was given two options: (a) returning to occupied Poland, or (b) taking Soviet citizenship and moving further away from border regions.

Most refugees, believing the German terror over, selected the first option. They already knew how difficult life in Russia was, mostly from those who experienced it in distant regions of the country. We did the same, hoping to recover what was left in Strasno. That was in April of 1940.

Deportation To The White Sea Area

Two months later, during the night, four secret police (NKVD) agents, came to our apartment in Lwow and told us to get ready for departure to Poland. "Take what you can carry and be ready in 30 minutes,” they ordered. We packed and went down to their military truck. Two other refugee families were already inside. We left at once. They took us to the railroad station, to a freight train waiting at a distant platform. Other trucks were bringing people at the same time. Our cattle car was filled with 58 people and the sliding door was locked from outside.

Those who were the first to enter took the most desirable places--the wooden bunk beds, build in the front and the back of the car. The rest of us had to sit on the floor. The most upsetting thing, as we found out shortly, was a hole in the floor, to be used as a latrine. Except for one Ukrainian and two ethnic Polish families, all other travelers were Jews. Most people were happy, believing we would be home very soon.

But the train did not start moving till the next morning, about 30 hours after our boarding. Waiting was very uncomfortable. It was very hot and we were not given any food or water. It was dark all the time; the only light came from two small barred windows. During the night everyone received a cup of highly diluted soup, during the day a pound of moldy bread. The smell was horrible; especially near the hole in the floor. I was embarrassed to use it in plain view of other people. Fortunately, my father and Chaim stood around me when I used the hole for the first time. "Do not be embarrassed," my father said, "this car is for animals and we must do what the animals do."

No one expected that we would be rolling, under such conditions, for nearly three weeks, toward northeastern Russia, rather than to our homes in Poland. This became obvious when the train passed Kiev. By that time using the latrine in public was no longer an embarrassment, to me and to other people. That is what made me think about abnormal becoming normal. I had many occasions to think about this later. The hole in the floor was small; probably to make sure no one would escape from a standing train. Some people were able to "aim toward the hole" better than others. The smell was horrible and the floor became slippery. But we got used to it, as well. The only trace of remaining civility was the tendency to avoid looking at those who were satisfying natural needs. All heads would at once turn away from the latrine when someone moved toward it.

The family sitting next to us had a one-year-old girl, Bella; she cried most of the time. My effect on her--she would stop crying when I looked at her--was soon noticed. I was often asked to use this influence. Bella was not the only child in our car. But she was the first to die, on the tenth day of travelling. I will never forget the desperate cries of Sara, her young mother. Losing the first child in such conditions was indeed a great tragedy.

Life In Krasnovo

The train stopped in the middle of nowhere; this was the end of the railroad track, near a river. Only 45 people from our car survived the trip; those who died, mostly very old and very young, were removed by soldiers accompanying the train. This, like the hole in the floor, became a normal part of our lives. The train delivered about 1500 people. Barges were waiting for us. They took us north. This part of the voyage, lasting nearly two weeks, was not as horrible as the previous one; at least we had real toilets, although dirty and smelly. The food was not much better than before. But our eyes could enjoy beautiful surroundings. The night sky was not different from that in Poland. The same could be said about woods and meadows. What was shocking, however, was the complete absence of roads or villages.

Once unloaded we were allowed to rest on a wide meadow, for several hours. The weather was still good but we were greeted by horrible mosquitoes. The meal served to us there was much better, and more plentiful, than anything we had since leaving Lwow. A Soviet official addressed us, in Polish. Standing between two red flags, he welcomed us and said that we are lucky to live in the first country without capitalistic exploitation. Do not call me mister, we are all equal here, he emphasized. At the end he referred to Feliks Dzierzhynski, the most famous Polish Bolshevik.

After resting a little longer, we marched to barracks, nearly ten miles away. Our belongings were delivered later, on pushcarts designed for logs. We arrived tired; our faces swollen from mosquito bites. Some barracks, in a small settlement, were already occupied by Russian prisoners; others were reserved for us. These primitive buildings, we were told later, were built by the first wave of prisoners, mostly Ukrainians peasants, arrested in early 1930s. They were brought here during the winter and lived in tents. About half of Ukrainians died, from cold, hunger and disease. Most Russians wouldn't talk to us; being in contact with foreigners was considered a crime. But some of them were not afraid; they helped us to settle in. Knowing Polish and Ukrainian, we were able to understand them. I started speaking Russian after only two months. Hanna also learned the language quickly, But neither my mother not Chaim were interested in learning it. My father knew the language well; his parents spoke Russian at home.

All barracks were very primitive; each had 16 compartments separated by hanging "curtains." There was no electricity, no running water, and no toilets. We slept in our clothes, on straw mattresses. No linens or blankets were provided. After the first night we became aware of huge bed bugs and lice; they were all over. Mice and rats were also our constant companions. We worked in the woods, 12 hours each day, cutting down huge trees, removing branches, loading the logs on pushcarts (or sledges), and hauling them toward the river, along a narrow-gauge railroad. The daily norm for tree cutters was close to 30 cubic feet per person. Everyone, except very young children, who were kept in a special hut, had to work.

Like other youngsters, Chaim and I gathered cut branches. For this we received slightly more than one pound of bread per day. A Russian prisoner supervised the work. He sort of befriended me, saying that I looked like his son, Kolia. One day he brought a chess set and started teaching me how to play. For this he allowed me stop working. Chaim is working, he said, and this is enough. I will report that you were also working, fulfilling the norm. That is how I became a chess player. We often played during the summer work hours.

Adults able to fulfill the norm received nearly two pounds of bread a day, plus a small sum of money, hardly enough to buy a bowl of watery soup, in the little store. Neither my mother nor my sister was able to fulfill the norm. Their daily portion of bread was considerably smaller. Being sick was not an excuse from work, unless body temperature exceeded 105 F. Cold weather was also not an excuse, unless the outdoor temperature was below -54 F, Temperatures between -40 and -50 F were usual, during the winter.

Death resulting from disease was very common. Chaim became one of the first victims. His leg was broken by a falling tree and he had to stay in the barrack. That coincided with the beginning of the typhus epidemic. He became sick and suffered terribly. The nearest hospital was 50 miles away and going there in the winter was practically impossible. Sick people lived together with healthy people and the epidemic spread rapidly, helped by lice and bed bugs. Chaim died in my mother's arms. His body could not be buried at once because the ground was frozen. Meanwhile my mother became sick; fortunately, she was able to recover and started working. The iron rule--those who do not work do not eat--was always in effect. More than 200 people died during the first typhus epidemic.

Frostbite, producing blood-filled blisters, was very common; we were not dressed properly for extremely cold conditions. Our barracks were reasonably well heated with tree branches. But this did not prevent people from dying in their sleep, apparently from overworking, malnutrition, bloody blisters and inflamed boils. The number of people who died during the summer was close to 100. One eight-year-old girl, lost in the woods while gathering berries, was attacked and killed by wolves. Her remains were found about one week later. Those who died were quickly replaced by newcomers, or by people brought from other settlements. We have a planned economy--I heard one Russian saying, ironically. Delivering wood is more important than anything else. From him I learned that death camps in Varkuta and Kolyma were much worse than what we were experiencing in Krasnovo.

Free But Dying In The South

At the end of October, only four months after German invasion, two officers in uniform, Polish and Russian, arrived to our settlement, They brought a good news--amnesty for all Polish citizens. “You are our free allies now,” they said. “Those who want will be able to leave, after receiving a proper document and some money.” That was a big surprise. Only now, 70 years later, do I understand this amnesty. The initiative came from the Polish Government in Exile, in London. Soviets were loosing the war and agreed to form a Polish army on their soil, in Uzbekistan. That army, headed by the well known Polish general, Anders, was created to fight Germans, under British command. Both soldiers and civilians were needed.

Naturally, the administration tried to persuade us to stay, promising higher pay and better living conditions. But very few families chose this option. Most started leaving as soon as possible, after learning that a Polish Army was being formed in the south of the country. A Russian prisoner who befriended me said that this was probably some kind of a trap. But we packed and left two weeks later. I still do not know why the departure was not organized, for example, by again providing barges, and cattle trains. The destination was Tashkent, a town where one of the Polish Delegations--offices created to help arriving Polish citizens--was located. This town is famous for the abundance of bread, said another Russian. Nothing could be further from truth, as we leaned after arriving there.

Traveling south, first by a river boat and then by train, took six weeks. This was not easy; army trains had priority, transporting soldiers and equipment to the front. During the trip we heard about the first great Soviet victory, pushing approaching Germans away from Moscow. We had to stop and change trains frequently, often waiting at rail stations for several days. My recollection is that bread was very expensive but watermelons were not, in the southern parts of the country. We arrived in Tashkent penniless, hoping for some kind of support from the Delegation. But we were wrong, no one expected us at the town railroad station. It was crowded with people like us. We had to spend the first night in a park, together with hundreds of refugees, mostly Polish, Jewish, and Russians, From them we learned about the nearby government farms, looking for workers. Without any hesitation, we decided to take advantage of this opportunity, earn some money, and then resume our search for Polish representatives.

The Uzbek farm took us willingly. Most their men were drafted, young to the army old to labor battalions. We were assigned to the cotton-picking team. The pay was minimal but we were fed with bread and soup. We slept in a very primitive adobe, a clay-made house without a floor and without windows. We lived there for two weeks. After that we returned to Tashkent. It took us half a day to find the Polish Delegation, and more than an hour to be received. They gave us some money and asked to come the next day, to receive some clothes and blankets. From them we learned that other Delegations, directed by the Polish embassy in Kujbyshev, were located in Samarkand, about 200 miles west, and in Bukhara, even further away, also west.

Finding lodging in Tashkent was impossible, even for people with money. Residents were not allowed to rent rooms, unless the guest had an official permission to stay in the town. We sold clothes received at the Delegation but kept the small blankets. The next two nights were also spent in a park. People we met told us that Bukhara was less crowded than Tashkent. We planned to go there but on the third day my mother became sick. The symptoms were familiar; it was typhus. The hospital was nearby but it was overcrowded; no one could be admitted. We had no other choice but to remain in the park for another week. Between ten and twenty homeless refugees were dying in that park each day, mostly at night. Burying the diseased was impossible; the only solution was to bring the body to a special horse-driven wagon, provided by the city. That is what we did, when my mother died on the eighth day. It is surprising how quickly death becomes a normal part of life, even when a dear person is lost.

Then three of us went to Bukhara. Trains were crowded and we had to change them several times. The 350-mile trip took us five days. During the trip we bought and ate something that made our stomachs sick. The diarrhea disappeared two days later. But on the third day my father started bleeding. People at the station told us that this was dysentery. His conditions deteriorated during the last leg of the trip and he died in Bukhara's hospital, several days later. Here we were able to arrange a simple ceremony, and a burial at a Jewish cemetery. That is what he asked us to do, if possible, the day before dying. Left alone, Hanna and I sold two of our four blankets and went to the Polish Delegation. We were lucky; not only did they give us some money; they offered Hanna a job, at the Delegation. They needed a bookkeeper and Hanna was in the right place at the right time. We were also able to rent a little room in a nearby house. Life became easier but we cried a lot. Most people at the Delegation were Polish; they were nice to us. The officer who supervised Hanna said that our chances of escaping Russia would be higher if we separated--I should go to the Polish orphanage, which they supported near Bukhara, and Hanna would wait for a military transport. He would try to add her name to the list of families of soldiers.

From Bukhara to Palestine

That is exactly what we did. Hanna took me to the orphanage in the middle of February, 1942 and I was accepted at once. Out of 50 children 9 were Jewish, including myself. The food was good but I was not happy; Polish boys often teased and beat us because we were Jewish. That was my first personal encounter with anti-semitism. Hanna visited me frequently and we talked about this. She told me that anti-semitism was very common in Poland, and that nothing could be done to stop it. Try to be good and all will be fine--she advised me. And that is what I did. I helped those who needed help--usually with homework--, tried to ignore insults, and reacted passively to kicks and hits. These things were just like other misfortunes in Russia. Even now, at the age of 80, I often think about this orphanage experience. How can beating and insults I experienced be explained? Their personal stories were not very different from what happened to our family. Most of them also lost both parents, in addition to brothers and sisters. Why did they blame me for this? One day, when we were at the cemetery, two weeks before the departure, Hanna told me about anti-semitism in the Polish Army, where some volunteers were rejected only because they were Jewish. In the Delegation she met two rejected young Jews who planned to cross the border illegally. Top commanders were not anti-semitic, but some lower rank officers were.

The orphanage was expected to leave the Soviet Union for Persia (now called Iran) in May. But the actual departure took place in the middle of June. This coincided with the closure of our Polish Delegation. The special train from Tashkent, which came to take us, had seven carriages, three of them already occupied by children from other orphanages. Our carriage was the fourth. The remaining three were for families of soldiers, and for the departing workers of the Delegation, including Hanna. The train was surrounded by a cordon of Russian soldiers; no one was allowed to approach it, except through a control gate. We left at noon and traveled to the Caspian Sea, without stopping anywhere. A large rusted freighter was waiting for us in Krasnowodsk (now Turkmanbasy). We were among about 2000 refugees, mostly Poles. The trip to the Persian port Pahlevi (now Bandar-e Anzali) took three days. No one was comfortable on the deck; but all of us were extremely happy to leave the country in which we suffered so much.

As soon as we arrived we were taken to a quarantine tent camp for three weeks. Here Hanna and I met a Polish man, Bolek, from Lwow. His entire family was deported to Siberia several month before us. He joined the Polish Army in Uzbekistan but became very sick. “We were given neither uniforms nor weaponry,” he told us. “The food supply was minimal; we were hungry most of the time.” The unit in which he served, before being taken to the hospital, left the Soviet Union one month earlier. They are now training in Palestine, under the British command, he said. He hoped to join them. Most of these soldiers, as I learned later, died in Italy, during the famous battle for Monte Casino.

As prearranged, Hanna stayed with the orphanage, taking care of Jewish kids. She knew that representatives of a Jewish Agency would meet our small group, after the quarantine, and to arrange for our departure to Palestine. They took us to Teheran, where we waited for a large group of Jewish refugees. With them we arrived to Tel Aviv. A month later Hanna and I joined a kibbutz.


1) Ludwik Kowalski--a free on-line book “Tyranny to Freedom: Diary of a Former Stalinist,” at http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html

2) Wesley Adamczyk, “When God Looked the Other Way: An Odyssey of War, and Redemption.” The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004. ISBIN 0226004430

3) Maciej Siekierski and Feliks Tych “I Saw the Angel of Death: Experiences of Polish Jews Deported to the USSR during World War II” (in Polish); published by Rosner&Wspolnicy, Warszawa, 2006. ISBN 8360336087. Copyright: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University.

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