When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 Dad was 13 years old living with his parents Wladyslaw and Urszula Muskus, and younger sister Grazyna, in the market town of Rawa Ruska near Lwow. Within a few weeks the Germans handed over to the Russians who had invaded from the east on 17th September 1939. Communist propaganda started almost immediately with compulsory mass meetings. Responsible citizens were dismissed from their posts and replaced by the unemployed and petty criminals. Mass arrests started. The NKVD arrested Dad’s father on 6th January 1940. Apart from a brief sighting at the railway station that was the last time Dad saw his father.
On 13th April 1940 the rest of the family were arrested as ‘dangerous social elements’. The hammering on the door came in the middle of the night. They were allowed to pack as much as they could carry, with food a priority, in preparation for a journey to ‘another place of habitation’. Taken by lorry to the station they were pushed into a wagon and the door slammed shut. Eighty five people were crammed into a wagon with wooden shelves on each side and a small hole in the middle. It was 5 or 6 days before food was provided, then soup and grains were provided once a day. With many stops and never much speed they travelled east. He remembers crossing the Volga River and following the journey on a small atlas. After thirteen days they reached the town of Alga on the endless steppes of Kazakhstan. Four nights were spent in an empty school before the NKVD allocated the prisoners to different kolkhoz or collective farms.
Dad’s group of about 30 were taken to Tokmansay and found shelter on the straw in the granary. It was a badly run farm inhabited by Kazaks with only one Ukrainian who could speak Russian. They started from scratch, first making an outside fireplace from scrap iron and clay, on which to cook. The fuel was dried cattle dung. Dad worked on the vegetable plots during the summer, irrigating the beds from irrigation channels. In return for the work a little milk and barley grains was provided from time to time. He also trapped susliks, a rodent ground squirrel that lived on the steppe, which they skinned and cooked. The food they had brought with them soon ran out. Travelling without a permit was not allowed, but somehow his mother walked and hitched to the town and neighbouring settlements to barter clothing for food. She walked 30-40 km a day. They knew that they would starve if they didn’t move quickly. After trudging several hundred miles in total his mother got permission for their group to move in the autumn.
Maxim Gorky was a larger farm at the next settlement, about 60 km away, with more enterprises including milk cows and pigs. Dad harvested by day and stole by night. The guards turned their backs as they took whatever food was available. Strips were cultivated up to a km wide and several km long, and then abandoned after a few years. Oxen were used for local transport, but camels were used for longer journeys to pull the grain carts to the silos over 50 km away. It was important to have a docile camel at the front because they tended to be very uncontrollable, but liked to follow one another. Dad found it very comfortable sitting between the two humps and enjoyed collecting the camels from the steppe.
His Mother thought that survival would be easier in the town of Aktyubinsk. Noticing that the supplies of wool were not used locally she suggested starting a knitting enterprise. The authorities agreed and with permission they moved into digs with a deported Russian family. Dad went to school during the winter of 40/41, enjoying mathematics and learning Russian. He is not sure how his mother produced food for himself and his sister, probably by bartering knitwear.
When the Germans attacked the Soviets in June 1941 all the Poles were moved back out to the farms. Dad was allocated work with the village smithy, a job which he enjoyed. Everything was made from scratch, starting with nails he became skilled at making metal buckets. Hearing that a Polish Army was being formed his Mother gained permission to travel to the H.Q. at Buzuluk where she met General Anders. He had been released from the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow and had heard little about the Polish deportees. She also made contact with the Polish Ambassador Professor Kot. Urszula was appointed welfare officer for the Aktyubinsk area.
Dad, now 15, joined the Polish Cadet Force and travelling in a similar railway wagon as before, but with more space and better food, and part of the journey with Uncle Karol, went to an officer’s training camp in Tashkent during the winter of 1941/42. He crossed the Caspian Sea to Persia on 13th March 1942, exactly two years after deportation to Kazakhstan. To be continued…