From Gospodarka to Gulag: the journey from Rzesniowka to Noshul

“We arrive at Karnaczowka Station. There is shouting and crying. A mother is saying goodbye to her daughter. A son is bidding farewell to his parents and sister… how many people who are being exiled with us are innocent – only here because they had been visiting relatives or friends? And yet, they have to suffer too. We contemplate escaping but that would be of no use; the NKVD are standing, watching our every move like hawks…

They are putting us into cattle trucks now. Then they lock the doors on us and that is where we remain, all night and all day. The cattle truck is cold and dark but we wait patiently.”

– Excerpt from the writings of Kasia Oko, February 1940.

Sybiracy_(deportacje_1940-1941).jpg
Families being deported from the Kresy region of Poland 1940.

It was still the morning of the 10th February 1940 when Kasia and her family arrived at Karnaczowka Station, some 4 km from their home. It was the first day of the first mass deportation of (predominantly) Poles from the Kresy region. The scene at the station was chaotic; people crowded the platform, families were separated and those sentenced under the secretive administrative ruling to deportation were ordered by armed NKVD soldiers onto a freight train. There was often a convoy of trains, stretching far beyond the station. One anonymous account cited in Klaus Hergt’s Exiled to Siberia: A Polish Child’s WWII Journey relays the extraordinary scenes in more detail:

“The trains were very long, and seemed also extraordinarily high. The last was because they seldom stood along platforms, and the whole train was accordingly seen from the level of the ground. Later, some Polish trains were also employed, but the earliest were all typically long Russian trains brought in for the purpose; dark green in colour with doors coming together in the middle of box cars as they do in cars on the Underground. In each of these cars, very high up, just under the roof, were two tiny grated rectangles, the only windows and the only spaces by which air or light could enter once the doors were fast. This great length of the waiting trains, always coiling away somewhere and always partly lost to sight, was in itself terrifying to the imagination.

[…]

The roofs of the cars were piled with fresh snow but the ground all about was trampled and fouled. The trains, after being loaded, often stood for days before leaving, and the tracks along which they stood would become piled with excrement and yellow and boggy from the urine running down off the floors.”

The train the Oko’s were put on waited at Karnackowka Station for two days, filling up with people sentenced to exile from the surrounding region before departing. All the while they sat in the cramped wagon along with some 60 other people until the evening of the 12th February 1940. On one of these days the Ukrainian put in charge of the maintenance of their farm came searching for them. He found them and while Lutka doesn’t remember the interactions that took place between her parents and their old fellow villager she remembers him bringing them the bread they had left baking in the oven that fateful morning. It was a small and unexpected act of kindness.

Their train was heading north to a gulag near the town of Noshul in the north eastern Komi District of the USSR. All across the Kresy region train convoys where transporting people to different forced labour camps. Some travelled to the Central Asian states were those exiled were forced to work on cotton farms while others were transported to remote areas of Siberia where they felled trees. The journey to the gulags was arduous, helped little by the cramped conditions of the wagons they were locked in.

The wagon the Oko’s occupied contained four shelf-like wooden constructions running along each side of the wagon which served as bunk beds. They were lucky in that they were one of the first families in the wagon and thus secured two of the shelves for themselves. Others who came later slept on the floor of the wagon and on top of bundles of their possessions. On one side there was a hole in the floor of the wagon which served as a lavatory. There was no privacy in general let alone when they wanted to relieve themselves. My great aunt Lutka remembers the embarrassment as they covered themselves with blankets in the hope of preserving some dignity. In the centre there was a wood-burning stove that did little to heat the wagon in the depths of winter. The temperatures at night would drop dangerously low with people suffering from frostbite. One night Kasia’s sister Władzia fell asleep leaning against the side of the wagon. The temperatures dropped so low that her face froze to it. Snow had to be removed from the outside of the wagon in an attempt to defrost the wagon wall and free Władzia. A large boil developed on her face and took a long time to heal, leaving her face scarred.

At each station one member of the family was responsible for collecting food and water. At one station my great aunt Lutka remembers it being Kasia’s turn but she never made it back in time and the train the family was on departed the station leaving her behind. Thankfully the convoy of trains meant Kasia got on another train in the convoy and re-joined the family at the next station. Kasia never wrote about the incident but we can imagine the fear of being separated from her family and the anxiety felt by her parents and siblings.

The journey to Noshul took two weeks. Along the way the elderly and very young succumbed to the conditions. Even in death there was no dignity with bodies being thrown out of the wagon whenever the train stopped.

“We are going deep into Russia, passing their beautiful villages and cities and our hearts wrench with sorrow. Oh how can they glorify this country when we are here in the midst of poverty?! ”

– Excerpt from the writings of Kasia Oko, February 1940.

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