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Bystrzyca Klodzka


May 1999


A long interview, rich in detail about the narrator’s early life in Siberia, where her family was taken by the Russians (from what is now Ukraine) during the war. Her memories of the terrible conditions in Siberia are harrowing. Her entire family’s health never recovered from their time there. She gets very agitated several times in the interview because her ID card records her as born in USSR. “I am ashamed to show my ID…. I wasn’t born in USSR, cause I was born in Poland. What can I do about the Russians having partitioned Poland together with the Germans, it is not my fault? I’m no Russian. …. They make a Russian out of a Pole.” This concern is more to do with her sense of identity as a Pole than a hatred of Russians. Indeed, she stresses that ordinary Russians were “hospitable people … you have to give them credit for that. And when we were leaving for Poland, they saw us off, there was no end to farewells, we had made friends with them, and they cried and they said ‘you’ve made it now, you will be much better off from now on, good luck to you, they said and we will have to stay here and we’ll die here, agonise slowly’. And so it was, they didn’t have much either”.

Despite the privations of Siberia, she thinks things could have been worse: “maybe it was just as well they took us away. The Ukrainians murdered people so awfully, they locked people in barns, set them on fire, burned them alive”. She remains “afraid of the Ukrainians”. After the war, when her family settled in the recovered lands of west Poland, she found the German inhabitants “were ever so nice” and when they were forced to leave, “we were sorry for them … we cried as much as they did, cause, you know, my parents, the Russians chased them away from their home as well, so we knew what it meant”.

She believes times have changed for the worse: “the way it is now, we’ve got western prices and Polish wages”. She is concerned for her orphaned granddaughters and how they will survive now everything has become so expensive, including healthcare: “not everyone can be a businessman, majority are poor people … now a pensioner will get some 500 zlotys, sometimes they get only 300, how could anyone live on that? It used to be much better. I don’t know what they’ve done now. I don’t know whose fault it is….”

detailed breakdown

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Section 1-2  Early history: father was a forester, they were a large family. Russians entered Poland in 1940 and sent them to Siberia. They lived in barracks: “everyone was employed in floating (timber down the river) … there was terrible famine and disease…. A lot of dead corpses … people nobody ever mentions [them]; there is a forest growing on those dead people”. They moved to a kolkhoz (Russian farming co-op): more “poverty, shortages, lice. No food”. After six years, they returned to Poland and were appointed a farm in Marianówka, Bystrzyca. They were hard times: “the reign of Stalin, we had to produce and give our quota, and so little food was left for us.”
Section 3  Family history from 1950 to 1999. Her husband, son-in-law and daughter all died. She lives with her grandchildren.
Section 4-5  Vivid memories of Siberia: “famine and poverty, nothing else.” They “were slaves back then ... we were like sheep”.
Section 5  All of her family’s health suffered: “… I was such a small girl, 8 years old, but I returned without health at all. The joints – inflammation all over … All of us have this, in the chest … asthma…. they didn’t give us any soap ... we didn’t have any hair, cause mother cut it to the skin, cause there were lice, they were like ants on an ant-hill … there was no hygiene at all”.
Section 6-7  The journey back to Poland. Later, when her daughter was taught Russian in school, says “they didn’t teach them proper history then, they gave them lies, cause they couldn’t tell the truth that they did the same to us as the Germans. Perhaps even worse.” Survival under Russian occupation. Move to the “recovered” lands. The Germans still there helped her family to settle in the area: “they were good people. My father received from one such Kraut – a cow, a machine, some other things, he bought us some bed clothes, a bed”.
Section 8  Believes that the Russians should pay “some sort of damages for the suffering … I lost my health .. they should give us – the way the Germans do, some damages, we got nothing.”
Section 9  Shame at her ID card which “says I was born in USSR, although I’m Polish … I am ashamed to show it to anyone, cause I’m no Russian, I am Polish”. She went back and visited her homeland (in which, she admits, they had been “colonisers”, her father having brought them there from another part of Poland.) Despairs at the changed environment left by “the Russians, they were so stupid, there used to be beautiful orchards, so beautiful trees, but they uprooted every one of them, they used cranes to do that, those tractors of theirs, and they turned the orchards into fields for the kolkhoz”.
Section 10-11  Describes the good relationships she had with ordinary Russians in Siberia: “they helped us whenever they could … they would share one cigarette among ten people. That’s what they were like.” Also mentions “how beautiful the nature there is … as if enchanted, the landscape was so breathtaking, something beautiful”. Describes the cold, meeting Mongolians, and how hunger was so pervasive in Siberia that “when a boy met a girl, he would say, “have you got bread today?” … they didn’t talk about love, but about food.” Horsemeat was a rare delicacy. (“God forbid, my child. It’s difficult to talk about now”).
Section 12  The widespread fear of Ukrainians (“there was a terrible manslaughter”).
Section 13  The difficulties of farming today: “the whole economy is in ruin…. The farmer is nothing and has nothing. The farmer is totally destroyed … you can smell nothing in the air, fields are empty”.
Section 14  She compares town and village life: “villages are poor these days. In towns, if you have a pension, or if you have a job, you can live somehow. But village people are very poor”. But however difficult life may be now “thank God, we don’t suffer from hunger”. Her only dream when she was young was “to eat something, get washed and clothed”.
Section 15-16  Recalls their own homeland again, it was a hard life but the soil was fertile. Says people there still live in poverty and isolation (“they know nothing”). Describes how happy they were when they came to Bystrzyca: food at last, music and dancing, and good neighbours: “they helped each other a lot, whether it was potato picking or a need to use a neighbour’s horses”). Some anecdotes from when she had to join the SP – a sort of communist youth group (“all that was obligatory”).
Section 17-18  Long section about how life has changed: more violence, less respect, the threat of AIDS, drug addiction, loss of wildlife, even the sun’s rays are dangerous. There’s less employment, people live in fear of redundancy, cots of living has soared. In the past: You could buy medicines, you could afford being ill. When my parents were still living, you had to pay for the hospital, but it was much cheaper.”
Section 19  There were no delicacies in her childhood: “Lemonade or tea or coffee? In winter, you brought some water from the bucket and you drank it”. Anecdotes about the time she and her husband re-visited her homeland. The Russians: “they don’t have any culture as far as eating … they make moonshine, they kill themselves with that, they drink a lot of vodka, they go to that kolkhoz, they dance and sing and play … I’ve never seen anyone [in Poland] giving vodka to children. At theirs it happens on everyday basis”.
Section 20-21  More stories about her and husband, and the happy early years in Poland. Feels standards of behaviour have deteriorated: “They can call me old fashioned alright, but I think there was much more respect people had to each other.” Discusses people’s sympathy for the Germans who left (“Everybody was so sorry, cause, can you imagine you work all your life and somebody comes and throws you out of your home, it’s terrible”)
Section 22  Story about the German former occupant of her house who came back (“he wanted to go round the household, see what it looked like, and I let him in everywhere he wanted, and kept saying “Good Frau, good Frau”).
Section 23  Final comments: “people liked me and I like people. I like company. I know how to share with another man, I know what it means to be poor, to be hungry”. She still always prepares too much food, just in case a visitor comes.