The Wartime memories of Blanka Potocka
Before the Second World War, I lived in Jezupol in the County of Stanislawow, located in Eastern Poland. There I was a teacher in the local school and my husband worked for the local council.
During the warm and sunny August in 1939 my husband was called up to the Army for exercises and I was left alone with my 8 month old son.
My husband was stationed close by and could visit us regularly. He used to take our son on his knee and Janusz played with the buttons of his uniform. These pleasant visits lasted only a short while, because towards the end of August, my husband received the news that his Unit was to be moved away from our locality and nearer towards the Hungarian-Polish border.
Then finally it happened! On 1st September 1939 – the outbreak of the Second World War. A terrible shock! What should we do?
My husband came for a very brief visit (I was unaware at the time that it was to be our last on Polish soil) and told me the date and time of the departure of his Unit to Wyszkow, a town near the Polish-Hungarian border. We agreed that I would come with Janusz to the station to say goodbye.
I came to the station, but there was no transport. I was informed immediately that it was moved forward by 2 hours. What despair! May heart sank and filled with pain, sorrow and disappointment.
I returned home completely demoralised. The stark reality struck me – I was left alone with Janusz and in 5 months I was expecting the birth of my second baby. Longing, sorrow and despair weighed heavily on my mind – I totally lacked concentration and was unable to carry out the simplest of daily domestic tasks; but on the other hand, the awareness of my son forced me to face reality and life.
Even though it was September, the school was not functioning. There was no headmaster, no organisation.
Then on 19th September 1939, a second enemy, after collaboration with the Germans attacked from the East – The Russians. They occupied part of Poland and immediately instituted their rule and ordered us to report to school.
So we entered into a new routine, with underlying concern of fear about the future. Indeed there was a lot to be feared. The Russians soon began arresting, interrogating and persecuting the population.
When I received a letter from my husband, I was called to N.K.W.D. for interrogation; sometimes every few days, under various pretexts e.g. that I had contacts with the Army abroad.
At the end of January of 1940 my second son Bogusz was born. After a brief break, I had to return to school, so my sister came to help me with my children.
Then suddenly, rumours started that the Russians were going to deport some of the population to Russia. The first such deportation took place on 10th February and a second transport was to be arranged in a few weeks. Details were leaked that the deportations were going to be on a major scale; that the group would consist of the intelligencia – priests, judges, doctors, professors, and wives of officers. My name was also rumoured. I fell into a panic, intensified by lack of information about whether children would be allowed to go with mothers, or separated.
Two months elapsed in this atmosphere of intense fear and uncertainty until on 13th April in the evening, I was informed that the dreaded deportation was to take place next day and that I was on the list with my children.
There was despair and panic in my household. My sister was advising me to run away and leave the children in her care. But under no circumstances was I prepared to be separated from my children, preferring to face fate together. My sister then advised me to pack and prepare for the journey. I grabbed my rosary, put it in my pocket and was unable to do anything else. I was shattered.
The early morning (4am on 14th April) was dreadful. That sound of footsteps up the stairs, that knocking on the door – those sounds are the sounds I still hear today – and those frightening words “take your belongings and come with your children!” What could I do? I dressed the children and sat down motionless, staring into space. My sister was packing and the policemen were checking the baggage. On my way out, I met the priest who was waiting to bless us. A moving moment. Then we were taken to the station and ushered into cattle wagons, in which we spent two weeks travelling, in appalling conditions to Kazakhstan. En route, we were occasionally given boiling water as a substitute for tea – nothing else.
After reaching our destination (Aktinbinsk), we were transported by lorries to the collective farms, tens of kilometers apart. I was assigned to the “17th Stalin Farm” and here I was to remain for an unspecified period of time.
There was no provision for housing and individually we had to arrange lodgings with the locals. And the locals? Well, generally the people were kind, also extremely poor, mostly transferred to these farms themselves by force and generally very poorly equipped. They had a mud hut, one maybe two cows and a small garden as an allotment. I had no difficulty in communication, since I spoke Ukranian, which they also spoke.
Immediately from the next morning I was working physically on the farm. During the working day, the children were in the nursery and after work I took them home. The food was very simple – milk, occasionally bread, otherwise we had to fry pancakes. We exchanged our possessions to improve our conditions and the Russian women were eager to help, as long as they knew we had more to trade with. The work was poorly rewarded with allotment produce – skimmed milk and sometimes bread.
My inadequate diet had a disasterous effect on my younger baby, whom I was breastfeeding and within six months, in spite of the availability of local medical attention, my son died.
This was burial was within the Polish community. Thanks to my compatriots the burial was conducted in Polish and according to Catholic ritual. I realised how deeply both the Poles and the Russians were affected by my tragic loss.
If I had been in Poland, my child would have been alive, but in the eyes of the Russians I was a criminal; I was teacher, a Pole, a wife of a Polish officer who at the time was stationed abroad – they had to throw me out of my country. I was a dangerous person. It is difficult for me to write about this, the memories still cause pain. During this low point in my life, I returned to my ‘normal’ existence on the farm, because I was glad to resume work.
And so I continued in these difficult conditions up to the outbreak out of hostilities between Russia and Germany. To us this proved to be another blow, because there was a railway line close to our village and the Russians, fearing sabotage, moved us about 40km. deeper in to Kazakhstan. Here the conditions were the worst imaginable – filth, water was far away and had to be collected, milk had to be collected from even further away and to cap it all, it was terribly hot. The work however was reasonably easy – weeding of the garden.
At this time I made contact with my husband. In the middle of June of 1940 he escaped from the army in Hungary and under a changed name, travelled though Yugoslavia and Palestine to Egypt to join the Polish Army. In the middle of August 1941 he was in Tobruk.
Following an agreement in August of 1941 between Stalin and General Anders and Sikorski to form a Polish Army, an amnesty was announced. As a result we were allowed to return to the Stalin farm.
From January 1942 I had a number of letters from my husband in Cairo. He wrote that he had an opportunity to try to arrange my departure from Russia. And indeed in August 1942 I received a document allowing me to leave Russia. After great difficulties and a dramatic journey in horrendous conditions, I reached an Army Camp in Jangi-Jul, near Tashkent, where a Polish Army was being formed. From here, after just a few days escorted by the Army, we left for Ashkhabad from where we were transported by lorries across the mountains from Russia to Persia.
We arrived in Teheran on 8th September 1942. This was a happy day.
From 26th of September I was already teaching in the Polish school and Janusz was attending kindergarten – he was 3 years and 9 months.
In September after 3 years separation, my husband came from Iraq to spend his leave with us. There is no need to describe how happy this reunion was and how wonderful the 10 days were together.
In March 1943, I went to India and lived in Valivade near Kolhapur in a camp specially erected by the British Authorities for the political refugees. Here we were to stay until the end of the War, but in fact we stayed until 1947. In India I worked as a teacher in the Polish school and Janusz first attended the kindergarten and later went to school.
During the 4 years in India, I corresponded with my husband. Performing his duties in the Transport and Ammunition Supply Section he went through from Tobruk to the Middle East, Monte Cassino, Ancona and Bologna. Then finally in Spring of 1947 he was transferred from Italy with the rest of the Polish Army to England, where he was stationed in an Army Camp.
I came to England with Janusz in September 1947 to join my husband permanently. We were all very happy to be finally united and had hopes of returning to Poland. But Poland was under Communist rule. Our religious and patriotic feelings could not allow acceptance of the Government, which was a puppet of the Soviet Union. In England, we could maintain our freedom to bring up our children in the Catholic faith while still being able to pass to them our language, Polish customs, national traditions and culture. So, when my youngest son, Andrzej, was born, we decided to stay in England.
In this atmosphere, our sons were able to study and after completing university education they both obtained suitable employment.
Even though at times life was very difficult, we were never sorry that we elected to remain in England and we have always been grateful to the British Government for allowing us to remain here.
Mrs. B. Potocka.