Bradford Polish community gathers to record stories of Stalin’s brutal purge

Wieslawa Swiercz

Eva Szegidewicz

The Polish community remembers deportations to Siberia at a special function

First published in News Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , Leisure and Lifestyle Editor

The snow had started to fall, that bitterly cold February morning when the horse-drawn carts arrived.

One of them pulled up outside Daniela’s Kozik’s home, and a Russian soldier told her family: “You are being deported to Russia. Take what you want, load it on to the cart. You must all come.”

Sitting at the kitchen table, he asked for documents – birth and marriage certificates and deeds for their land and property – and confiscated them.

As the family gathered belongings they had already started to pack when dark rumours circled their village, Oryszkowce, Daniela’s grandmother, sat with “tears in her eyes and a prayer on her lips”.

“She gave me a faint smile and put her arms around me and Alexander, whispering: ‘You poor, poor children’, recalled Daniela.

Joining a convoy of carts to the railway station, their silence was broken by the occasional cry of a child and the distant sound of abandoned farm animals.

Soon the family was boarding a cattletruck without windows and only wooden floors to sit on.

“People were carrying and loading cases, boxes, baskets, pots and pans on to the train. It was not easy walking through deep snow, carrying luggage. People were sliding and falling, sometimes spilling contents of their packages.”

What followed was a journey in darkness, in sub-zero temperatures. They couldn’t tell if it was night or day, and the packed wagon became more unbearable each day.

“Sometimes my cousins played guessing games, told riddles or sang songs. They tried to read and draw, straining their eyes in the dim paraffin light,” recalled Daniela. “Unanswered questions were repeated: ‘Where are we going? What are the Russians going to do with us?’ On and on we travelled, it seemed a journey without end.”

As the cattletruck travelled through mountains, Daniela awoke to find the adults huddled around her sobbing mother. “Mother passed a soldier a bundle that looked like the white cushion she used for wrapping my brother. My little body was shaking not only from cold but from fear, as I became aware that Alexander had been given away.”

Like many babies, Daniela’s brother had died during the long journey.

When the train finally reached its destination, everyone was ordered off. “We were in a pine forest with towering snow-covered trees. The daylight hurt our eyes,” said Daniela. “Along a road between the trees were sledge-like objects; a few planks of wood tied with ropes. People loaded their belongings on them then placed the elderly and small children on top.”

Perched on a sledge with her mother, Daniela caught her first glimpse of a place that was now home. “Suddenly there were no more trees, in the clearing were rows of log cabins. Our family was allocated a cabin, there were my parents, grandparents, two aunts, three uncles, six cousins and myself.”

So begins Daniela Kozik’s account of life as a deportee sent to Siberia. After the Second World War she settled in Bradford, like many Poles who survived Stalin’s brutal transportation regime which began on February 10, 1940. Over two years 1.7 million men, women and children were taken from Russian-occupied Poland to Siberian labour camps.

More than 70 years later, survivors of Siberia gathered this week for a commemorative ceremony held by Bradford Polish Veterans Association at the city’s Polish Community Centre.

Survivors’ memories are being recorded for a ‘virtual museum’ documenting the deportations. The website, in Polish and English, is run by Kresy-Siberia, founded in Warsaw, which is building profiles of deportees and an online discussion group enabling people to find out more.

“We’re gathering material for an interactive ‘exhibition room’ of photographs and memories. We’re interviewing survivors so their memories are not forgotten when they are gone,” said Eva Szegidewicz, director of Kresy-Siberia UK, who met Bradford survivors at this week’s ceremony.

“As well as providing a search engine for people to find out what happened to their families in Siberia and beyond, we’re raising awareness. After the war there were more than 265 Polish settlement camps across the UK and today there are significant Polish populations in many cities, including Bradford, yet what happened in Siberia isn’t taught in schools. Even those of us with parents who experienced it didn’t know much, as nobody spoke about it.”

Eva’s mother was taken to Siberia aged 16, with her parents. “She remembered two Russian soldiers banging on the door with rifles, and having five minutes to pack,” said Eva. “They were packed like sardines on to cattletrucks, and taken on a four-week journey in minus-40 degrees. Mother said ‘if you leaned your head against the side your hair froze’.

“They had no food, just bits of bread thrown occasionally, and they didn’t know where they were going. Their destination was a labour camp where they were told ‘if you don’t work, you don’t eat’. They built railways that didn’t go anywhere, felled trees, chopped wood, and lived in lice-infested, filthy barracks.”

Everyone, including the elderly and pregnant women, had to work for meagre food rations.

Between February 1940 and January 1942 at least half the deportees perished. The regime finally ended with the German invasion of Russia.

Many survivors, including Eva’s grandfather, enlisted in the Polish army fighting with the Allied forces. “My grandfather came to the UK in 1946. My mother and grandmother came two years later, after six years in Africa,” said Eva. “They had nothing to return to in Poland and didn’t want to live under Communism. They didn’t speak much of what happened, I sometimes heard this word ‘Siberia’ as a child but I didn’t know what it meant until later.”

Wieslawa Swiercz went to Siberia aged four. She recalls a terrifying journey with her parents and two-year-old brother. “Sometimes the train would suddenly stop then start again, with no warning,” she said. “Once it stopped and some women got out, to find food for the children, then it started moving, leaving them behind. I clung to the bars screaming ‘Mama! Mama!’ as my mother ran. Somehow she managed to get back on, but others were left in the wilderness.”

Wieslawa’s family spent two years in the camp. “My brother and I were too weak to stand up, my father brought us bread and milk and all we could do was hold out our hands,” she says.

Her brother caught dysentery in Siberia and never recovered. He died in what was Persia, modern-day Iran, where the family later settled. “After Persia we were in east Africa for six years. We lived in huts, there was a school, a church and a hospital – it was paradise after what we’d known,” said Wieslawa, who arrived in Bradford aged 12 in 1948, living initially on Great Horton Road.

Wieslawa was one of many survivors who came to Bradford as displaced people. Two years ago they were awarded the Siberian Cross by the Polish government. Now their memories are becoming part of a ‘virtual museum’ so the world can remember, and learn from, their harrowing but remarkable experiences.

  • For more about Kresy-Siberia visit kresy.siberia.org.

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