‘Where are they taking us?’ Someone
asks in the darkness.
Lips move. Words are passed from one
mouth to another.
‘The railway tracks point east,’
‘East? There is only one place to the
east. The Soviet Union,’ someone else replies.
And again, comes the silence.
I listen to the silence.
Will there be end to silence?
A long, painfully long, moan follows.
As if from somewhere deep, I think.
Dragged out. From under the ground. And the sound goes on.
Can someone stop the
Much later, I came to understand the
sound as that of human despair. At this moment, I don’t know what the sound
means however. But my blood freezes. It makes me shake and tremble. The sound
becomes one word. People’s lips make the word. The word comes closer. What is
it? And the word becomes louder. And the word bounces up. And the word bounces
down. Off the roof? Off the ground? It slides with people’s sweat and down
people’s wet faces. It explodes as does glass when broken into tiny, sharp
fragments. Do fragments of the sound lodge in people’s minds? Is it just in my
mind? Or does it really happen?
But what is the word? I am trying to
hear. What is the word that creates so much fear? I try to make out the word.
The word. Yes. The word is. "Si...be...ria."
Do others pick up the word? Or is it
just the me? Do others raise it up? Or do they make it go down? If not, why does
the word bounce, like a ball? Up. Down. Up. Down. "Siberia". "Siberia".
"Siberia." Is it only one word? Or are there many of them? Is it only an echo?
If so, where does the echo come from? And why does the word drag out so, when
leaving people’s mouths? And why does it take so long to make this, only one
A paralyzing terror of the word
squeezes me and pours over me. This word. This sound. Siberia. What is it?
Mihalinka said it’s where hungry children live. It is also the place where
naughty children go. So, can adults like Mama, be sent to Siberia?
But is that where we are going? Are
we going to Siberia? The fear stabs inside me. I touch it. I smell the fear.
It’s like a spider web. It clings. It encircles me. I cannot move my arms or
legs. It holds me tight. I cannot breathe. It’s suffocating me.
Not days. Or nights. I can’t tell
them apart. Hours, upon hours, upon hours follow. Long hours of stench, of
terror. And of horrible darkness. And it’s not just my fear. It’s also others’
Are these hours or minutes? Or are
they seconds only?
And then the world explodes. The
sound of sirens. Crying. Rising. Falling. The sound cuts through my eardrums. It
slides into my brain. My hands cover my ears. To shut out the sound. Sirens are
meant as warning. I know. Warning to take cover. But we have no place to run to.
We have been locked up! I shiver. Sirens wail.
And now come other sounds. Sounds of
plane engines. And still more different sounds. Like thunder!
‘Bombs,’ I hear Mama shouting. ‘These
are bombs exploding!’
We wait. And again more sounds.
‘Machine guns,’ Mama calls. ‘These
are bullets falling!’
‘Like raining on the roof,’ I hear
And now the train stops. And people
go quiet. There is a sort of laughter. But not a normal laughter. More like
sobbing than laughing.
‘God saved us!’ I hear someone cry
out. ‘These are German planes! These are the Germans coming!’
Outside the noise still rages.
Inside, it has grown quiet. Is this what people think? That Russians will let us
‘They will need these trains to take
Russian civilians back to the Soviet Union,’ I hear someone saying. ‘To save
their own people from the German armies.’
‘Russians will not want us now,’
another voice cries out. ‘Russians will let us out.’
Emotions swing from despair to
overwhelming delight. Some, in readiness to get out, begin to check their
‘The train has not crossed the
border,’ another person says. ‘We are on Polish soil. We will find our way
The train does not move. Bombs
continue to fall. But no one opens the door.
Instead, there is the sound of
footsteps. Footsteps run under the train.
‘The soldiers are hiding from the
bullets,’ Mama says but her voice is trembling.
People bang on the door.
‘Open the door!’ They cry. ‘Open the
door! Let us out!’
But no one seems to hear. No one
opens the door. I peer at the door through darkness. The door remains
And the world keeps on exploding. And
again panic rises. Some weep. Some pray. Some moan. It’s dark. It’s hot. I can’t
see even with my eyes open. Now, it’s Mama’s voice shouting, it’s Mama’s voice
rising. I hear her above the din. Now I know she is afraid because her voice is
‘Pray Krysia!’ Mama shouts. ‘Pray
that bombs don’t hit the train! Pray, Krysia! That Russians open the
Pray? In this noise? Now? I can’t
even remember the words! Pray? Mama tells me to pray? I try to remember the
‘Please God. Please let me remember!’
I beg. ‘Hail Mary!’ Yes! ‘Hail Mary! Hail Mary!’ Words come from far away. ‘Hail
Mary!’ Two words tumble out of my past. ‘Hail Mary!’ Are they the words of
prayer? Hail Mary? Yes. Yes. They are. ‘Hail Mary...’ But what comes after that?
Can Mama tell me? Hail Mary! Hail Mary! Hail Mary. Hail Mary.
Hailmaryhailmaryhailmary. Please, God. You must help me. Hail
‘Pray, Krysia!’ Mama
‘Please God. Please. Hail Mary!’ I
have to keep on repeating the words. We are safe as long as I keep on going, as
long as I keep on saying the words. ‘Hail maryhailmaryhailmary...’ The words are
pouring out. ‘Hailmaryhailmary!’ I can’t stop. If I stop, they will kill us! If
I stop, bombs will hit the train! ‘Hail Mary!’ I have to keep on going. We are
safe. As long as I keep repeating the words.
Curled into a tight ball, with my
knees bruising my chin, I lie on the floor trembling and shivering. One minute,
cold sweat drenches my clothes. The next, my skin is like an oven. I am hot. I
am cold. And again, I am hot.
‘Pray, Krysia!’ Mama keeps on
‘Hail Mary! Hail Mary!’ Words are
gushing out. ‘Hail Mary! Hail Mary!’
How long have I been praying? ‘Hail
Mary!’ How long? Many days? Or hours? How long?
Now. Suddenly. There is silence. . .
. . . . "
" Words passed from lips to lips.
News travelled like fire. It spread from labour camps to prisons, from steppes
to forests, from salt mines to coal mines.
‘We are free. The political agreement
was signed!’ the message said.
‘Go south!’ said the message.
Even the children in the Soviet
orphanages heard the message.
‘You are free! Go
Those who were quite alone. And those
who had others with them. They heard. And left. The older took their younger
brothers and sisters by the hand. Whether on their own or with others, they
From Archangelsk, Vorkuta, from the
Ural Mountains. To the south they went. From Irkutsk, Kolyma, Novosibirsk,
Krasnoyarsk and Northern Asia. Southwards, they directed their
The agreement opened prison gates. It
swung open doors.
The exodus began.
Having never accepted that exile was
their final fate, the people were ready. Those who heard the message, left.
Hundreds of thousands left their place of exile. On horse drawn wagons. On foot.
By train. On trucks. On rafts. They crossed open steppes. They forged deep
rivers. They found their way over mountains, through forests and sands. All were
hungry. Most were ill and covered with sores and rags. Many flocked to the
railway stations. On the way, they tried to rest. In the streets. The open
fields. The station buildings.
But even trains did not guarantee a
safe journey. Leaving the train during the stopovers, in search of food, was
itself fraught with danger. The train would often leave the station without a
prior warning. Family members would be left behind, never again to be found.
Frequently, the trains would be stopped, shunted to a side rail and left for
days or even weeks before another engine would take them further.
Many did not get inside the wagons,
even when the trains arrived. Their feet tied with rags, people walked thousands
of kilometres. They stopped in towns and villages. Homeless, they tramped.
Hungry, they foraged.
The agreement signed by Stalin and
General Sikorski meant that the Poles were free to go and form the Polish Army.
Our enemy, the Soviet Union, had turned into an ally. The Polish Army would help
the Soviet Union in their war against Germany.
The agreement gave people the freedom
to leave, but it did not bring the promise of the guarantee of their survival.
Often, it became even more difficult to go on living. No longer did people have
a roof over their heads. There was no food, or shelter. There were no
So South was where the people went.
South was where the Polish Army was being formed. South was where the Polish
Embassy and Polish Welfare Agencies were being established. South became the
promised land where there was to be no illness, no misery, no death from
starvation. People hoped.
But the south did not have the means
to cope with all the exiles. Weakened by slave labour and starvation, the people
in their hundreds and thousands were succumbing to various epidemics. In the
north, there was ice, snow and extreme hunger. The south meant malaria, typhoid,
dysentery, scarlet fever and many previously unknown diseases.
And even when the people finally did
get to the south: Tashkent, Bukhara, Ashabad, Kermene, Guzari, the Soviet
authorities were ready and waiting. Unaware of what awaited them, the people
were distributed to the nearby Collective farms. But the locals could not
accommodate, feed or employ the unexpected arrivals. Land was barren. The food
was scarce. They could barely keep themselves alive. Newcomers, starved and ill,
were handed a spade and told to live by their own means, build their own clay
Without medications, the people died
like flies; standing in the streets, waiting in queues for assistance, or just
sitting in gutters. The frequent passing of the tarpaulin-covered wagons which
carried bodies for burial was the poignant reminder that freedom did not,
necessarily, bring salvation.
And the Polish Army? Army meant men
and women tottering on their feet, sunken eyed, hollow cheeked, emaciated
skeleton-like apparitions. Yet, those very men and women were formed into ranks
and made to train for battle.
‘You must survive!’ they were ordered
by General Anders himself, the uniform hanging loosely on his own, gaunt body.
‘You must survive!’ came the command.
‘You must survive for your own sakes as well as for the sake of
And the bent, swaying bodies
straightened, eyes filled with hope. Lips formed the words of the military
And families? Many men did not learn
about their families having been deported to the Soviet Union until they were
let out of the labour camps and the prisons. Women and children did not know the
whereabouts of their sons, husbands and fathers. Were they dead? Or alive? Were
they still in Poland? Or had they been deported to some far away place in the
Yet, there were moments when a ray of
sunshine pierced the gloom of this human misery. By pure chance, some came
across someone they knew from their town or village. Some, also by chance, came
across a member of their own family. Most often it was the children who
recognized their lost parents.
Guzari. A street like all the
other streets. Dull and gray. A young boy, seven or eight years old, walks down
the street, his clothes caked with mud, his feet bare. Having buried his mother
and having left an orphanage in Siberia he has no place to go to. He is on his
A man passes by. The boy looks up at
the man’s face, as he has looked up at so many faces already. He does not expect
anything from looking up. Now, it’s just a habit. And he is tired of looking at
people’s feet. So many feet go past him.
The man’s face is gaunt and thin from
hunger. A face without any hope in it. Like all the other faces the boy has
encountered. A face without life. But when the boy looks up, the boy stops and
The man keeps walking, his eyes on
the ground. Unlike the boy, he has stopped looking at people’s faces. A long
Now the boy follows the man. He
passes the man and turns around. He looks at the man’s face again. This time he
looks at the face more keenly. It’s not a passing-by look any more. The look is
alert, careful. The man keeps walking. The boy hesitates and, as the man has
just passed him again, the boy hurries. When he reaches the man, the boy grabs
the sleeve of the man’s jacket. He tugs at it.
The man stops. He looks at the boy
blankly. A shadow of annoyance crosses the man’s face. The man sees the boy’s
lips move but does not hear the words.
Child, what do you want from me? the
man’s eyes say.
‘I have nothing to give you,’ the man
The boy shakes his head. His lips
move. Whispered words. But the man is not interested. The man turns. Again, he
starts to walk away. But the boy does not let go. His words come out louder.
Puzzled but still exasperated, the
man now tries to listen to what the boy is saying. The boy’s lips move
‘Tata?’ one word comes
‘Is that you, Tata?’ more words
The boy’s lips tremble. . . . . . ."
"Mama’s priority became to find Tata.
There were so many questions that needed answers. Was he ill? Was he dead or
alive? Was he in Poland or had he, like us, been deported to the Soviet Union?
Did the news of the agreement reach him? And if so, was he travelling towards
the south? Was he walking the streets like so many others? In rags? Homeless?
Or has he joined the Polish
Mama needed to know. The only way to
find out was to go out and look for Tata. The question was, how could she find
It’s cold, gray and wet. Streets are
covered with slush. Mama leaves early mornings and returns at night. Her face is
pale, her eyes are dull with exhaustion. I can feel a bleak hopelessness about
her. Not only because she could not find Tata that day but also because of what
Mama brings back stories. Stories of
homeless people. Of men, women and children standing and shuffling in the
streets. Of people lying in the gutters and dying with no one able to help them.
Mama peering down at faces full of misery and pain. Mama searching and hoping,
and at the same time afraid of what, of whom, she may find. Mama also checking
lists of patients in the hospitals. And Mama looking up the names of those who
visited the recently set up clinics. Mama talking to people in the welfare
agencies. Mama stopping strangers in the streets and asking, ‘Have you heard of,
have you seen my husband, Stanislaw?’
And always, Mama hearing the same
answer, ‘I haven’t.’
And in turn, Mama being asked similar
questions by others, ‘Have you heard of Jozef, my husband? Jadzia, my wife?
Franek and Kasia, my children?’
Names. So many names being exchanged.
And always a glimmer of hope, immediately extinguished by a look of
And Mama writing notes: ‘Mrs.
Krystyna Pancewicz from Poland, Sokolka, looking for Stanislaw, her husband,
most probably deported to some part of the Soviet Union.’
Mama pinning her notes on the huge
notice boards, already covered with other small, now grubby, weather stained,
pieces of paper. All waiting for, all desperately demanding an answer to the one
and always the same question and message they carried.
And Mama visiting the Polish Army
camps. Slush, smelly slush, and tents standing in mud. People dressed in rags.
Their feet also in rags, wet and caked with mud. Mama checking lists of the
enlisted soldiers. Many names, long, unending lines of names. Mama’s eyes
getting very tired. Still, Mama’s eyes start at the top of the lists of names
and go down. Mama’s eyes not finding the name she is looking for.
I look at Mama coming home at night
and it not being necessary for me to ask about what has happened. Not words,
just the sadness around her drooping lips and echoing in her eyes. And Mama’s
haggard face tells me the outcome of her journey.
Mama goes out every day. Searching.
And so, yet another day. And yet another note with his name and her name
on the notice board. And again, this note becomes like all her other
notes and all the other people’s notes, desperately expectant and
But one day, a man, worn, ragged and
haggard comes up to the board, looks at the note, reads the note and runs after
‘Pardon me Madam for intrusion, but
are you the Madam Judge from Sokolka?’
As soon as Mama entered our room that
night, I knew that Mama had a different story to tell us.
‘A man told me that Tata is in the
army camp. A few kilometers from Guzari,’ she said, breathless from excitement.
Mama went to the camp the very
next day. But Tata was not there. The man had made a mistake. . . . . .
"‘October 1944. The American troop carrier was
transporting a special cargo from Bombay to Wellington. Kiwi soldiers were
coming home from the battlefields in the Middle East and Europe. Also on board
were 100 adult civilians, predominantly women, and 733 children. Not ordinary
children but victims of war, taken from their homes and forcibly deported to
Siberia. Many remembered the terrible cold, hunger and darkness inside the
cattle wagons. Many suffered nightmares from seeing their parents, brothers and
sisters dying of illness and starvation. Many remembered being separated, lost
or being placed in Soviet orphanages. But some did not remember anything at all.
They were too little or too traumatized when it all happened. The passage
on the American troop carrier was a perilous journey. At any time, the ship
could be torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. There were sounds of guns firing and
of sirens warning of danger. The journey would have been distressing for the
children if it was not for the Kiwi soldiers who gave them their love and
attention. They spent time with the children and entertained them. The ship
resounded with the children’s songs and
As I spoke, I saw in my mind the vast ocean and
I felt the intense heat and the constant sense of danger. I remembered Kiwi
soldiers sharing with us their allocation of fruit juice and ice-cream, teaching
us our first words of English and the Maori war-like dance, called
Then I looked at the people in front of me. I
was addressing the Hamilton Rotary Club pre-Christmas meeting in 1980.
Rotarians, Rotarians’ wives and Dame Te Atairangikahu, the Maori Queen,
I saw a man at the back of the
room raise his arm. He stood up and then walked towards me. As he neared, the
man stretched out his arms and embraced me.
‘I was one of the Kiwi soldiers
on the American ship transporting the children,’ he
There was total silence. Through my
own tears, I saw tears in the eyes of my audience. . . . . . ."
And the rest of the book?
Life in Isfahan.
Life in New Zealand.
1966 - Iranian secondary schools teach
history about the Polish children, who lived in Isfahan
and two small children of Polish origin but born in NZ, lay flowers at the
tombs of the first Polish kings in the golden chapel of the Poznan
Is life only roses in New
How far does one need to go to find the
answer to what is the essence of life? India?
The book can speak for itself.
The book can be ordered ($NZ25 plus postage)
PO Box 5115, Palmerston North, NZ.
ph: 05 358 7169,
fax: 06 357 9242,