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former teacher/ pilot/general manager




July 1999


Full of anecdotes and stories, this interview vividly brings to life the narrator’s experiences in Siberia. He was deported there in 1939 and stayed until the end of the war in 1945, when he was resettled here in Klodzko. He remembers his excitement as a young boy “when the NKWD officer first said, ‘Pack up all your things, you’re going to Siberia’. I was pleased … Jesus Christ, going to Siberia was something incredible for me then”. He grew up there, learning Russian, adapting to the harsh conditions, and discovering a great talent for survival. He acknowledges that he feels almost more at home with Russian language and culture than Polish, and with the people themselves: “but only those from beyond the Urals, not the European Russians”. He describes the generosity of local people, and “the Siberian custom – when you are offered a gift, you never offer to pay for it. It would be as if I were trying to buy friendship”. Their hospitality, too, was memorable: “You could always count on a warm reception anywhere you went, people would feed you, give you shelter. You wouldn’t die of hunger; you would always have a place to spend the night. It was the sacred Siberian law”. But he also relates terrible stories of brutality and even cannabilism.

He describes the secret of survival as adaptability, which is why he became an expert thief: “you could be a ironmonger – that was nothing. If you knew how to steal things, it meant you would manage to survive.” But he emphasises that once he had left Siberia, he never stole again, despite many opportunities. He worked for the NKWD in the camp, earning their respect for his discretion and resourcefulness: “they were like super-humans. I don’t know if people were scared of the Gestapo during the war as much as we were scared of the NKWD”. During his time in Siberia, he rarely socialised with Poles – so much so that when everyone was packing up to leave for Poland after the war, “they looked at me and asked, ‘What are you doing here? Are you a Pole? We didn’t know that’.” Instead, he spent his time with the other nationalities, whom most other Poles treated with disdain: “they treated the Russians as inferior, they looked down at them. But they were not inferior, they had been deported there in the same way we were. Everybody, save the Kazakhs, had been deported there. And I found a way of adapting to them. Look at the Chechens, they are said to be professional murderers, but they treated me like a brother”.

Siberia was the formative experience of his life: he hates the valleys in the mountains and feels that “Spiritually, my home is beyond the Urals, I spent so much time there.”

detailed breakdown

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Section 1  His childhood, and the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939 and the arrest of his father. He has not seen or heard from him since.
Section 2-3  Early life before the Russian invasion in what is today Byelorussia – traditions, school, family life – uses photographs to illustrate his memories
Section 4-5  Life in Grodno, the day of the Russian invasion and their deportation. The kindness of the NKWD officer who allowed them to take some warm clothes; the train journey to Siberia; and arrival in the village of Opuchovka. He joined the local school, where there was a high standard of education.
Section 6  The Russians ridiculed the Poles, calling them a “a nation of lords”. He gained respect by learning Russian fast and because he owned a pair of military fieldglasses: “they called me by my proper name, never made fun of me anymore. It only took one pair of silly binoculars”.
Section 7-8  Remembers how “glad” he was about the outbreak of war with Germany in 1940 – “maybe there would be proper war, the Germans would come and liberate us”. Left the kolkhoz to work on a railway construction site, and was introduced to the law of survival by theft. Got a job as a (horse-cart) driver for the head of NKWD. Kept quiet about what he saw and heard: “my friends advised me to keep my mouth shut”.
Section 9-10  Proud tales of his skill at stealing and of outwitting soldiers. Encounters with important NKWD people; visits from Stalin’s associates, including Beria. A catastrophic explosion on the railway (a vital supply line) and how those workmen thought to be responsible for the mistake just “disappeared”.
Section 11  How he “didn’t have much to do with the other Poles” in the area. Describes a massacre of the Chechens by NKWD forces.
Section 12  Recalls a particular Chechen girl he liked: “Her father approached me and said, ‘Listen boy. You keep your hands away from her or else we will cut your head off’.” Later he realised this was no idle threat.
Section 13-14  The “sacred Siberian laws” he learnt: “There was this unwritten law that if someone gives you shelter, feeds you, you can’t give them money, that would be an offence, but you had to respect your hosts whoever they were, Russian, Kazakhs, Mongols, whoever.” Shocking story of the cannibalism that went on: dead bodies were made into pies and sold at the railway station to groups of starving deportees.
Section 15-16  He expresses little regret or sorrow at his experiences, saying that he was intelligent enough to know that: “you’ve got to find a way of adapting yourself to any circumstance.” And “In order to survive, not to die of hunger, one had to steal.” He enjoyed life in Siberia, making friends with the various nationalities: Russians, Kazakhs, Chechens. He won respect as a skilled thief: “everyone praised me … everyone would pat me on the shoulder like a hero”.
Section 17-18  Recalls the end of the war and his return to Poland. Settled in Klodzko. .
Section 19-20  Joined the Polish air force, but was banned from flying after they discovered he had an uncle in New York (in case he defected). Became a teacher of Russian in the army. Discusses his love of Russians but only those “east of the Urals” because “the European Russians …have soaked up the western rot, they like a better lifestyle, cognacs, clothes, American music.”
Section 21-22  Brief mention of his family. Ends the conversation by telling about how he got so hardened by the Siberian weather that he used to jump into frozen rivers in Poland as a bet.