http://www.citinet.net/ak/img/orzelm.gif Stasia - the childs s odyssey http://www.citinet.net/ak/img/flagam.gif I could never remember where I first met her.Jan 10 1 of 1View Source
Stasia - the childs's odyssey
I could never remember where I first met her. Perhaps it was on one of the picnics organized that spring of 1952 by some Polish group. It was Janek who introduced us. Janek at that time already owned a car, a rarity among the newcomers, which, combined with his natural social adaptability, made him rather popular in the young Polish immigrant circles. Stasia was there with him and a few other young people whom I had met before. She was visibly unimpressed with my person, and was rather in a slightly defiant mood all the afternoon, which did not defer me, a bit. I liked her; I liked the sight of her, her dark long hair, and even her cockiness. I wanted to see her again but she would not give me her phone number and, only somewhat reluctantly, she told me that she worked at the Marshal store on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. But on our way back to the city she fell asleep against my shoulder. Many, many years later she told me the real reason of her somewhat unfriendly behavior. Apparently, listening to Janek talking about me, she imagined that I must be if not like her idol at that time, Robert Taylor, then at least like Gregory Peck. Apparently she got over her disappointment for when a few days later I visited her at work, we agreed to meet for our first date. (Incidentally, Robert Taylor lost all his charm in her eyes when she saw him in the movie "Quo Vadis" wearing a short, above the knees, tunic. Somehow it did not seem manly enough). And again many years later Stasia told me that somehow, from the very beginning she always trusted me although the misfortunes of her young life taught her to be rather suspicious of people's intentions.
We would usually meet somewhere downtown, often near the Forum. At first, once or twice a week after work, and soon, practically every day. We walked the streets and talked and talked and laughed and nearly cried at times. Once we went to a restaurant and I made a fool of myself by angrily demanding a table cutlery in place where one supposed to use ones own hands for that purpose. Well, what could be expected from a European hick not educated in the ways of the natives? Not that I never ate with my hands and without the benefit of a bowl of water for cleansing. Incidentally, I suspected that Stasia secretly enjoyed the incident; there was that slightly mischievous smile on her lips. On another occasion we took a bus to Beauharnois where I once worked. I rented a rowboat and we spent a few hours on a river and a nearby island sunbathing.
Slowly, ever so slowly, for she at times just choked on her tears, I managed to get from Stasia the story of her odyssey. I knew that she was one of Polish people forcibly "resettled" by the Soviets to Siberia as a result of the infamous pact between Hitler and Stalin to conquer and divide Poland. But the details of what happened on the Polish territory now incorporated by Soviets were very sketchy in the rest of Poland now "liberated" by them.
They were a farming family living in the village called Zulin, a southeastern part of Poland not far from the town of Stryj. It started in the dying days of summer of 1939. Stasia’s father Jan Traczyk a Sergeant Major in the Polish army reserve was mobilized just as thousands of others. In the last days of August, Stasia’s mother took her and her younger sister Rysia to the town where their husband and father was stationed to say goodbye, for his unit was about to leave. None of them knew then that it was a farewell forever. Stasia was five that year, and her sister two.
On the first of September 1939 Germany attacked Poland from the west, the south, and the north, and when the overpowered Polish forces tried to consolidate the front, the Soviets, on the strength of a secret agreement with Hitler, attacked from the east.
Stasia and her family found themselves on the territory annexed to Soviet Russia. There was no word from her father. For all they knew he could be dead, a German or Russian prisoner of war, or possibly managed to cross the southern border to, then still friendly, Romania or Hungary. There was no way to find out. The first trouble started when some ethnic elements decided to assert themselves by murdering their Polish neighbors and occasionally their Polish wives. One of the firsts, a local priest, was quartered to pieces with lumberjack saws. The Soviet occupants did not interfere except once when the entire Polish population of the village, mostly women, children and old people, took refuge in the church. Stasia still remembers sitting with all the other children at the foot of the altar while the adults were barricading the gates. Luckily, someone alerted a nearby Soviet garrison and the soldiers arrived just in time to prevent the church with people inside from being incinerated by their long time neighbors and friends
It was just the beginning. On February 10, 1940, in the middle of the night, the Soviet soldiers roused the ethnic Polish people from their sleep, gave them a few minutes to dress, get their children and any thing that they could carry with them, and assemble for "resettlement” to Siberia. That night they loaded thousands of people into unheated cattle cars, and the long train started for a two-week journey. Some children and old people died on the way like Stasia's aunt’s few month old baby. They were leaving their dead on the frequent stops for the local people to bury them. Occasionally they got some food. When they finally arrived - Stasia remembers that the nearest town was Swierdlowsk - they gave them some primitive accommodation and her mother was sent to work in a sawmill. The little children were kept in a ditsad (the precursor of our day care center) while their hard working mothers had to feed and care for them during their lunch break. At least they were not starving. A working mother was getting a more or less regular food allotment for her two children and her old parents.
In June of 1941, Germany attacked the completely unprepared Soviet Union. Faced with an almost certain defeat the Soviet government turned to England and the United States for material help. They got it because the British and Americans believed that the Russian front would take quite a load off them, and that a German victory over Russia would be catastrophic. However there were some conditions to be fulfilled by the former enemy. One of them was that they immediately free all the Polish prisoners of war and forcibly “resettled” civilians. Furthermore, they were obliged to facilitate transportation of all these people towards the southern borders for transfer to the British held territories there.
Freed them they did. Well most of them, except the thousand of Polish army officers and political prisoners whom they had already executed, and all those civilians who had died of starvation or had frozen to death.
They were free and left mostly to themselves in a hostile land. Stasia with her mother, sister and grandparents were moved to the Soviet province of Uzbekistan (bordering with Afghanistan). How they got there, she does not remember. However she had a still vivid and painful memory of the nightmarish episodes of their life there. There were nine of them in a mud hut: Stasia and her family and a woman with three daughters. There must have been some other people about, but she does not recall any. They were hungry. In Soviet Russia those days most people were hungry but those of them who worked at least got some food allotments. Oh yes, they too got some work assignments: to dismantle an ancient adobe structure. They tried mostly with their bare hands. But the ancient bricks turned into rock, and a woman with a six-year old child could not make a set norm. No norm, no food; a socialist law. There were large cotton plantations nearby. At harvest time there was work, picking cotton. Stasia and her mother worked on it for some time. The dust irritated their eyes, their fingers were cut and infected by the sharp husks, but they could not make the norm. They were starving. A man came by and showed them what kind of grass was edible. Stasia's mother still had some salt, which she had bought at their previous location for the rest of her worldly possessions. They gathered grass for food and dung for fire and cooked that grass and ate it with a bit of salt for taste. Some time later the same stranger brought something in a sack and left it for them. It was a live turtle. He warned them to hide the leftover bones and shell for the Uzbeki, devout Muslims, may kill them if they find out that they ate an "unclean" animal's meat. Stasia became the turtle hunter. It was not easy. Once she spotted a turtle among some rocks. When she got near she noticed that on each side of the turtle lay a coiled snake. She was terrified, but the hunger was greater than the terror. She snatched the turtle from between the two serpents and ran. Once, word came that there will be some food in town. All Stasia remembered was that she walked across the land, at first alone, then there were other people walking. Sometime after a very long walk she got to the town, she never knew its name, and to the square where there was a long wooden trough. Following others, she sat beside it. After a while, men came with large pots full of steaming rice and emptied them into the trough. The waiting people, Stasia included, started scooping the hot rice with their bare hands and kept on doing that until there was none left in the trough. How this child did not get sick after the long period of hunger and how she managed to find her way alone back to her hut is one of these small miracles, which sometimes happen to little children.
An occasional turtle, and a steady diet of grass notwithstanding, they were starving and slowly dying. Stasia's grandfather died first. Between sobs she barely managed to tell me how in his last hours her desperate mother was trying to feed her father with some meal she scrounged for him and he just could not swallow any more and only choked. She remembers her mother dragging the dead body of grandfather to bury him nearby. She helped mother to dig a shallow grave in the sun parched hard ground. They put some rocks over the grave to prevent wild animals from digging out the body. The grandmother was next together with the woman and her daughters living in the same hut. One by one they starved to death, including one more woman, a mother left there by her daughters going to join the Polish army being organized out of freed prisoners. That army, and the orphanage being organized by it, seemed the sole salvation, so the only survivors, mother and her two little daughters trekked many miles to reach them. The orphanage accepted Stasia and her sister but their mother was left for some time to her own means under the open sky. The orphanage was basically established for the families of these who joined the forming military units and she had no one in the army there. They took pity on the children but their mother had to wait until they hired her to work in the orphanage and then Rysia got sick with dysentery, taken to the hospital in town on the donkey for an ambulance, and died there. Her mother and sister never saw her again.
In the fullness of time, following the evacuation of all Poles fit to bear arms, the rest of the survivors of the Soviet POW camps, prisons, gulags and forced resettlements were gradually transferred to the British held territories. From somewhere between Tashkent and Samarqanda on the ancient Marco Polo trail the group Stasia and her mother belonged was transported across the - then Soviet - provinces of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the Eastern Shore of the Caspian Sea. There they were put on board a ship on route to Persia, (now Iran) on the southern shore of that sea. It wasn't exactly a cruise ship, just a dirty freighter, and all the human cargo was kept outside on deck. They placed small children to sleep under the lifeboats. That nearly cost Stasia her life. She woke up and wanted to slide out from under the lifeboat. However her eyes were so gummed up that she could not see and started moving in the wrong direction. She would have gone under the guardrail, and overboard, if not for her forever-watchful mother who pulled her to safety at the last moment.
They landed on the southern shore, in the vicinity of Tehran on British held territory. The shreds of the preserved registration certificate mark the date as the middle of October 1942, after some two years and eight months of extreme misery and death incurred in the inhuman land of the Soviets. From the ten inhabitants of the mud hut in Uzbekistan only the two of them, mother and daughter had survived.
Some Polish people were there to take care of them. Right on the shore there were two camps made of canvas tents. They were all directed to the first tent, the dirty one, where they were told to strip, and throw all of their clothes and possessions into the huge fire
There was a woman who was in charge of the orphanage. She had a small valise with her. When she threw it on the heap, the valise opened and out spilled Russian rubles, which she must have saved from the soldiers’ offerings to feed the children.
Then they had their haircut down to the skin and were directed to the showers. Once cleansed of at least the external remnants of the "workers paradise", they were given a cotton nightshirt each and led to the clean camp. Once there, Stasia’s mother took her daughter from the orphanage, although, not without an argument with the woman in charge of it.
Some time later, Stasia, together with other surviving children, had her First Communion administered by the head chaplain of the Polish forces in the West, bishop Gavlina. She, like the others, attended it under the open skies barefooted and wearing only her nightshirt.
Worn by months of misery and starvation, Stasia's mother became sick and was taken to the hospital in Tehran. Stasia was left alone in the camp. It was only a transition camp and the people assembled there were to be shipped to the permanent camps to stay there until the end of the war then raging around the globe. When the time came for a decision, the child was asked where would she prefer to go to, India or Africa? For some unknown reason, Africa seemed to Stasia a better choice. When her mother got the news of her daughter's decision and the imminent departure, she left the hospital after signing the warning that she had no chance of surviving the voyage in her present state of health. She did, survive that is, the long drive in the open lorries all the way across Iran up to Karachi in Pakistan on the shore of the Arabian Sea. There the whole group was loaded onboard of a ship for transport to Bombay in India. It must have been an extra long voyage because apparently they arrived some two weeks overdue and were already considered sunk by German submarines. After a short stay in Bombay, the group destined for Africa boarded another ship for the Indian Ocean port of Mombassa. The only thing Stasia recalled from that passage in submarine infested waters was that, because of Christmas, all the children received gifts, such as dolls, all except she; someone in charge decided that she was probably Jewish and therefore did not rate a Christmas present. That gossips persisted even when people on the ship wanted to pray for delivery from the danger of German submarines and were looking for some religious artifacts. The only one onboard was a tiny icon of the Black Madonna framed in a piece of alabaster, which was the single possession, the single treasure, Stasia had taken from her home, hidden under her clothes. She guarded the icon through all the misery in Russia and did not surrender it at the “dirty" camp near Tehran.
Submarine scares notwithstanding; they landed safely in Mombassa in Kenya, then a province in British East Africa. From there they traveled hundreds of miles by train, first to Nairobi still in Kenya, and then to the town of Kampala in the province of Uganda. From Kampala after some two hours drive by lories they reached a place called Koja where on a peninsula on the shores of Lake Victoria was an African style camp prepared for them. There, mothers, children, and the old and infirm were to stay while their husbands, grown up sons and daughters went to fight the war. In there, Stasia spent the rest of her childhood and her adolescent years. It was more or less a self-sustained community of a few thousand people. It was under British general supervision and also supplied by them, but inhabitants of the camp ran all inside administration. There was a small hospital and a doctor. There was a post office and a general store, a chapel and eventually a resident priest, a community center and schools, including a humanistic and vocational high school. There were some problems with school supplies, even writing paper and pencils were lacking. That did not stop the children from learning reading and writing by substituting a sandy floor of their African school for a blackboard or exercise book and a bamboo stick for a pencil. They had good professional teachers and with time there were books and other supplies provided by the efforts of the soldiers and the Polish Government in exile in England. They were living in mud huts with thatched roofs; two families in each, divided by a partial wall and with a common dining space in the middle. They slept under the mosquito nets. Behind each hut there was a primitive cooking facility made from clay and discarded oilcans. All public buildings in the camp like classrooms, community halls, et cetera, were constructed in more or less the same fashion; a bamboo structure supporting a thatched roof and mud walls, except the walls were only a half height supplemented by the roll-up burlap curtains. There were other necessary facilities including pumped up water and even bamboo screened public showers, for the lake was off limits because of crocodiles. There was no police or a jail - they were not needed there. The food was distributed daily from the camp store. It was not much, but most people supplemented it with fruits and vegetables, which they could easily grow beside their huts. Those whom had someone in the army usually got some money sent to him or her and could buy things they needed in the general store supplied from Kampala. The others had to do without unless they could make some money utilizing their crafts or skills. Stasia and her mother had no one, but Mrs. Traczyk in her youth had finished a gardening school and was in charge of the camp's vegetable garden, and so was paid some salary there. It wasn't a home, but under the circumstances it was not a bad substitute for it, and after what they had been through, the people appreciated what they had. After all, there was a terrible war going on and everyone there had someone dear in it. Some like Stasia and her mother did not even know where their husband and father were, or even if he was alive. The others, who had their relatives in Polish Armed Forces fighting in North Africa, and then in Italy, made a daily walk to the camp's post office where the lists of fallen soldiers, were posted. In the dramatic days of May 1944, when after nearly five months of trying to crack German fortified defense on Monte Casino, which held the allied forces from freeing Italy, when British, Indian, Free French, and American units could not make it, it was left for the Polish 2-nd Corps under gen. Anders to do. They made it. It was a five-day uphill struggle, and so many died there that they rated a separate cemetery. Since most of the soldiers there were the survivors from Soviet imprisonment the lists on the post office were long and painful. One of the families in the camp had five of their six sons in the Army. And as the final attack progressed, for each of the five days of it a name of one of the sons appeared on the list until all five of them were accounted as death.
For some time there was no priest in the camp. However, about half way between the Koja camp and Kampala was a place called Namilyango and there was a Catholic missionary school for native boys, so until a Polish priest, a Fr. Gruza, could be sent, one of the priests from the mission would arrive on Sundays to say the mass. The priest in charge of the school, Fr. Doyle, became very much taken by the adversity the people in the camp had to deal with. In particular, he cared for the children. He managed to learn the polish language and during the school vacations, which in Africa were after each trimester, invited the camp children for scouting and other group activities to stay and use his school facilities at his expense. Stasia, and a few of her girlfriends, often took advantage of Fr. Doyle’s hospitality for weeks at a time during vacations .The years passed and the war seemed to near the end. The people started using facilities of the International Red Cross and other agencies to find their lost relatives. The inquiry about Stasia's father made through the Red Cross resulted in a copy of a German document certifying his death in Budapest (Hungary) - where he was a POW - on December 27, 1940. The document arrived only in December of 1946. Years later they found out from people who were there that he died from wounds sustained during an attempt to escape from the POW camp. The people started leaving the camp to join their demobilized husbands, fathers, brothers and sisters now in England. Some others who managed to find their close relatives back in what was left of Poland chose repatriation. And there were others like Stasia and her mother with no place to go. Their husband and father was dead, their home and any relatives, even if alive, were now on the territory annexed to Soviet Russia, courtesy of Poland's Western Allies who just wanted peace for almost any price. Under no circumstances would those two ever return under Soviet rule. Their situation was desperate because, sooner or later, the camp would be closed. Luckily, the brother of Stasia’s Uncle, a prewar emigrant to Canada, sponsored His brother- now demobilized- and his children. They lost their mother in Russia. Eventually their widowed father decided to sponsor Stasia's and her mother. It was the spring of 1949 by the time the sponsorship formalities were arranged and the two women, Stasia then a teenager of fifteen, and her mother, together with some twenty-five other people in more or less a similar situation, some of them from a camp in India already closed, were sent to Kampala. There they had their initial emigration processing. Then on May 18, 1949 they received a travel document in place of a passport and visa for Canada by a local British consular officer. From there the group traveled by train to the Indian Ocean port of Mombassa in Kenya. There they boarded an IRO chartered Italian ship "Jerusalem" for the voyage via Suez Canal to the emigration camp in Cinocita near Rome in Italy. It was one of those places where human cargo was sorted for a permanent destination, checked for conformity to the set of bureaucratic standards, approved or discarded on the smallest of pretext. There they were informed that the visas issued by the British consular officer in Kampala were not valid for approved by the Canadian Health & Welfare Department. After an extensive check up, and then acceptance, they presented themselves to the Canadian visa officer. They were moved to Rome where all the prescribed formalities took place. From the group of twenty-seven, twenty were rejected. Stasia and her mother belonged to the group of seven accepted and received the Canadian visa on July 25, 1949. A fair illustration of what was going on that human heap of helpless people was the odyssey of the Polish orphans from the Tangieru camp in Tanganyika led by a young priest Fr. Krolikowski. They were being processed in Italy at the same time when Stasia was there. The Montreal Catholic Archdiocese under Archbishop Charboneau sponsored the whole group to Canada. They had no problem with Canadian Emigration, especially because there was with them a person delegated by the Canadian External Affairs Dep. to streamline their processing. But they were virtually chased through Europe by agents of the Communist government of Poland, which wanted these children back under the Soviet domination. The whole group had to escape at night from the camp and hide in the bushes in order to avoid being kidnapped by Communists. They eventually got to Canada but it took quite some time and trouble.
Returning back to Stasia and her tiny group of seven, by the time they got their visas the last ship with emigrants had already left Italy. They were attached to the shipload of emigrants and transported by train across Europe to the West German port of Bremen. There they boarded the ship "Samaria", a rusty bucket on her last voyage, and on August 15, 1949 landed in Quebec City. From there, already as Landed Immigrants, to Montreal where their sponsors met them.
It is an incredible story; or rather a part of a true odyssey, for it only lists facts and events but no feelings, emotions and perhaps, dreams. I knew that she once dreamed about having a doll but never realized that dream as a child. And where did she get that inner strength that permitted her to survive the nearly ten years of almost unheard of misery unscathed, and grow up as a lovely and beautiful young woman with whom I fell in love with, and wished to marry. And on one sunny afternoon, while walking alongside the mountain at Pine Avenue, we suddenly decided to climb straight up through the rocks and thick forest. Once on the top, near Beaver Lake, while sitting on the grass there, I asked her to marry me. She did not say yes, but she did not say any either. There was some talk that she would not probably live past the age of thirty and such, possibly to cover some girlish confusion. However, the next day as I walked her to her home, right in front of all her watching neighbors, she suddenly kissed me, and then led me inside and told her surprised mother, "Mother, this is Kazik, and I am going to marry him".
I knew that she was one of Polish people forcibly "resettled" by the Soviets to Siberia .... The orphanage accepted Stasia and her sister but their mother was left for .... group of seven accepted and received the Canadian visa on July 25, 1949.