Anna Zatorska Piotrkowska
MEMORIES THAT REMAIN
by Barbara Scrivens
Anna Zatorska Piotrkowska has never forgotten the sight of hundreds of emaciated bodies and corpses as they arrived, truck after truck, at a Teheran hospital in 1942 and 1943.
At eight years old she accompanied her mother, Walerija, as the older woman frantically looked for her husband and eldest son. She had last seen them months before when they left a Kazakhstani kolkhoz to look for the Polish army.
Anna, Walerija and the other Poles in Persia at the time shared common experiences—forced removal from their homes in eastern Poland by the occupying Soviets, brutal transport to NKVD1 forced-labour facilities in northern Russia and Siberia, and surviving Stalin’s Labour for Bread regime.
One of Stalin's ambitions was to eradicate the Polish nation. While the Soviets remained in eastern Poland between 17 September 1939 and 21 June 1941 they abducted an estimated 1,700,000 Poles. The remote regions of the USSR easily absorbed their corpses and, while they were still living, their labour boosted the Soviet economy and Stalin's Five-Year plans.
After Hitler started marching his forces towards Moscow in June 1941, Stalin saw the readily available Polish adults in his NKVD facilities as potential Red Army soldiers and allowed them to leave those forced-labour facilities if they formed a Polish army on Russian soil.
“… whenever a big truck came with soldiers, we went to see… I will always remember how we used to go through the whole lot… there were trucks and trucks with dead people…”
The Zatorski family separated when Anna’s father, Albin, and her eldest brother, Józef, decided to look for the new Polish army’s enlistment stations, which were supposed to be nearby. Walerija, Anna and her two other brothers, Władysław and Marian, moved to an Uzbekistani civilian camp and eventually joined other Polish evacuees escaping the USSR.
Albin and Józef disappeared. They were not listed among the Polish dead in USSR cemeteries. Nor were they listed among the 115,000 Polish soldiers and civilians who reached Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea and shipped across to Pahlevi in Persia (Iran) during the Polish army's 1942 evacuations from the USSR.
Pahlevi's processing centre sent the Poles to the army, or refugee camps and institutions in Teheran and Isfahan. Staff at the main hospital in Teheran included a substantial number of newly arrived Poles.
“The hospital was run by the Persians but they needed a lot more help and there were Polish doctors and nurses and others who worked there.
“My mother tried very hard to find my father and brother through the Red Cross but we never heard from them again. When we got to Persia, she found work in the hospital and whenever a big truck came with soldiers, we went to see… I will always remember how we used to go through the whole lot… there were trucks and trucks with dead people… Everybody was looking for somebody.
“There were all sorts of bodies in the trucks. I don’t remember whether they were all soldiers. Some of them were alive because they used to say, ‘Oh, this one or that one is found,’ but we never did.”
Before the invasion of Poland by the Germans and Soviet Russians in September 1939, Albin and Walerija Zatorski lived comfortably in Waniów, in the Sokal region of eastern Poland. Bełz was the nearest large town.
Originally from the sandy Kraków area, Albin and Walerija (née Gurgól) accepted a Polish government offer to buy land with far better farming potential. This map, with Waniów in the centre and Bełz to the west, comes from a series created by the wojskowy instytut geograficzny warszawa (Military Geographical Institute Warsaw) in 1936. It shows Waniów's more than 30 farms, a church and a cemetery. The blue line to the north is a river and the green belt in the south represents forests.2
Young families formed the bulk of the new kolonia (settlement). All the Zatorski children were born there, Anna, the third, in 1934. She does not know how her parents heard about the land but suggests the usual form of communication at the time—word of mouth. Travellers chatting to local inhabitants often disseminated and exchanged information.
Anna has few memories of the kolonia. “I only know that we lived not very far from my grandmother, and that we used to visit often.”
She cannot remember exactly what types of crops her father grew but knows that, as well as working his own land, he held a job at the local distillery. Besides growing what their immediate families needed, farmers often produced “cash crops.” A company producing sugar, for instance, provided a farmer with sugarbeet seed and advice. The farmer produced the crop and was paid on delivery of the harvest. Albin’s distillery job meant that even after harvest he still had an income.
“Suddenly we had to leave our house and everything that we had in there… They kept saying, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry.’”
Newspapers reported the European 1939–1940 winter, with its record negative temperatures, the coldest in 100 years.
Anna has distinct memories of being woken abruptly one night:
“Half-asleep, half-scared, I didn’t know what was going on… I was probably too young to understand why and what was happening. Suddenly we had to leave our house and everything that we had.”
Armed Soviet soldiers—unexpected, loud, insistent—rounded up the family.
“They kept saying, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry.’ We couldn’t take many things. We were put on the sled and taken to the railway station and put on those wagons—wagons the same kind as where animals were transported—and I remember there were lots, and lots, of people, lots of children, and they were lying on the floor being sick, vomiting… It was horrible…
“There was no food. We weren’t given any food. I mean, if you took some with you, if you were lucky enough, you had, but otherwise… They didn’t feed us. We ate what we had brought with us.
“I don’t remember the men who came to our house. I only remember that as we were travelling in those wagons, the people were so sick… they were so sick and if they wanted to go, say, to the toilet, if the train stopped and the doors were opened, they ran out to just do it… and then the train would leave… and they would be left behind in the freezing snow…
“Later on people got so hungry, so ill, that it didn’t matter. You were just lying there… That was horrible. I remember that like it was today.”
On 10 February 1940 about 220,000 Polish civilians living in the Soviet-occupied eastern half of Poland were taken from their homes against their will. Soviet soldiers followed NKVD Order No. 0054 to remove “anti-Soviet elements” from Poland. This included “all persons who, by reason of their social and political background, national-chauvinistic and religious convictions, and moral and political instability, are opposed to the socialist order and thus might be used for anti-Soviet purposes by the intelligence services of foreign countries by counter-revolutionary centres.” (See missing humanity for a full account of the transportations.)
Polish soldiers, high-ranking officials, politicians and wealthy landowners had already disappeared into the USSR’s immense depths. February 10 became the first of four mass removals of Polish civilians, the first time entire families were seized. Whoever was found in a designated house in the early hours of that particular morning was taken, however old or young. Three other mass removals of Polish civilians took place in April and June of 1940, and as late as June 1941, only days before Hitler reneged on the pact he had with Stalin and stepped through Russian-occupied Poland on his way to Moscow.
“I don’t know how long the train journey was. I just know it was really hard in those wagons. I remember at the end we were put in a house with quite a few families and there were bugs everywhere. They were called pluskwy and they were like little ladybirds but black and when they bit you, it was so sore, and it would swell, and there was nothing you could do about it because there was no ointment or anything and you could do nothing about them.
“Some people tried to stop them coming into their beds by putting the bed legs into containers of water but the pluskwy would crawl up the wall, onto the ceiling and drop down on you. They could smell us and were feeding on us.”
Anna can now chuckle at the audacity and tenaciousness of the insects. She remembers the obuz (the NKVD forced-labour facility) near Archangelsk named something like “Czary” and like a small village. Their particular house had no visible neighbours. They shared the house with several other families but not the cooking—she clearly remembers the preparation of scarce food being done individually, and the bania or sauna-like bathhouse where men and women washed on alternate days.
The Zatorski family during their capture near Archangelsk, probably in 1941, judging from Walerija's hair length: from left, Walerija, Józef, Marian, Władysław, Albin and Anna.
Walerija told Anna there was a two-year age gap between all the children. In this photograph Józef would have been nine or 10, Władysław seven or eight, Anna five or six and Marian three or four. Soon after arriving at the facility Walerija and Józef succumbed to typhoid, severely stretching the family's meagre rations when Walerija was unable to work.
“They were taken away to hospital for about six weeks and my father was looking after us. When we had some bread he would dry it and put it into the great big kufer (trunk). We were really lucky that they came back from hospital but my mother couldn’t go back to work straight away so when they came back we had some food.
“My mother had the most beautiful long hair, like all the women in Poland at the time. When she came back from hospital, it was all gone. I don’t know whether they had to shave it off or whether it fell out with her high temperature.”
“I tried to walk behind him but I slipped and fell into the water and I remember holding myself against that log…”
The rest of the family did not catch typhoid but Anna contracted what the obuz inmates called chicken- or night-blindness (kurza ślepota).
“When the sun went down, I couldn’t see anything. We had a lamp and I couldn’t see it, or any light. It was from lack of vitamins. It was horrible not seeing anything.”
She has also not forgotten the sensation of almost drowning in the fast-flowing river nearby. She followed one of her older brothers hunting for berries on the other side across a log they used as a bridge. “I tried to walk behind him but I slipped and fell into the water and I remember holding myself against that log… Somehow they dragged me out.”
Anna retained a fear of water and never learnt to swim—although it did not stop her from teaching her own children. Her family called those particular berries borówki, often used in Polish dessert pierogi (filled pasta).
The Zatorski family’s food problems eased once the facility’s NKVD commandant and other Russians discovered Albin’s abilities as a blacksmith. Instead of the hard labour in the forest, he did repair work in the obuz for his daily rations and had time to take on private jobs.
“In the end we did quite well with food because there were lots of people who needed help and he was a tradesman. He would do the job but he would never take any money. He would say, ‘Give me some milk, give me some potatoes or maybe bread, flour…’ Just food, and that way we were surviving quite well.”
Walerija's job was to scrape żywica [resin] from pine trees. While their parents and older siblings worked, other Polish and Russian women loosely supervised the youngest children.
When Albin and Walerija first heard of the ‘amnesty’ that allowed Polish inmates to leave the forced-labour facilities they were as keen as the other Poles to join the new Polish army—but the ‘freedom’ turned into a mixed blessing for them.
After Hitler took a surprise grip on western Russia, Stalin re-classified the captured Poles. Instead of the “anti-Soviet elements” of Order No. 0054 they became potential reinforcements for the Red Army. Polish Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski brokered a deal in London five weeks after German troops crossed into Soviet-occupied Poland, and Stalin released the Poles under a blanket ‘amnesty.’ (See military timeline.)
It soon became clear that Stalin was not prepared to cater for ‘superfluous’ family members unable to help his military cause—but the military-aged Poles would not leave the NKVD facilities without their family members. A stream of civilians unknowingly headed towards rations even more strained than those they left behind.
There was no clear plan regarding how these Poles were to get to the Polish army enlistment stations. Some of the forced-labour facilities had better communication and organisation than others. Many of those close to rivers left on make-shift rafts. Some families had been able to save a little money for train fares. Few would have known of the exact geographical location of the enlistment camps. Most Poles left with faith and a belief that they had to grasp their chance to escape Stalin and return to their homes in Poland.
By then Polish authorities estimated half the 1,700,000 Poles taken to the USSR had died.3 That only around 115,000 escaped through the formation of the Polish army on Russian soil shows the fragility of their circumstances. Even if the news of the ‘amnesty’ reached a facility, the NKVD commandants needed to retain their workforce. War or no war, Stalin’s Five-Year plans for Soviet expansion rolled on.
Trains provided the usual form of travelling for ‘visitors’ within the USSR—locals used animals—but the on-going Operation Barbarossa in western Russia meant that Soviet soldiers and ordnance took priority on those trains.
“When we got to the kolkhoz there was nothing there… just nothing. It was desert.”
The Poles spent weeks, sometimes months, heading towards the Polish army enlistment stations in Uzbekistan. As their army’s presence remained elusive their survival became even more precarious.
“When we got to the kolkhoz there was nothing there… just nothing. It was desert.” Albin was for once unable to earn a living.
“I don’t know exactly how we got there but I do know there was nothing to eat. There were quite a few [Polish] families around us and if they found a dog they would kill it to eat and after a while the [local] people would come around looking for their dog…
“The [Polish] men still had to go and work, digging, but there was no food. I only remember the hunger. We stayed in little huts. The floor was only the ground, nothing but soil. The [local] people grew cotton. They made square biscuits from the husks, pressed together and the oil squeezed out, and that was what they were feeding the stock. We had to go and steal that. When we ate it we were so constipated that we were bleeding, but there was nothing else to eat.
“That was the toughest time and my father said, ‘That’s it. We are going back to Russia. Let’s go back while we have our lives.’”
“I remember there was an inspection every now and then, to see if we were healthy enough to leave, and my mother was hiding me.”
But instead of returning to the NKVD facility with the whole family, Albin and Józef continued looking for the Polish army, which they heard accepted younger boys into the junaki (Polish military cadet school).
Anna does not remember how or when the rest of the family left the kolkhoz but they did manage to get Władysław into the junaki. Walerija, Anna and Marian made their way west to Krasnovodsk to wait for one of the cargo ships evacuating Polish soldiers and civilians to Pahlevi. Anna’s only memory of getting to Persia in 1942 is that she was so ill, it was not certain that she would be allowed to travel.
“I remember there was an inspection every now and then, to see if we were healthy enough to leave, and my mother was hiding me.”
Walerija also seems to have avoided the official list-takers. Although the Red Cross list of evacuees from the USSR names Genowefa, Helena, Janina, Julia, Karolina and Maria Zatorska, and a Kazimierz Zatorski—all originally from Waniów—there is no entry for Walerija, Anna, Marian, or even Władysław.
“We saw Władysław in Persia before he went to Palestine with the junaki. I don’t know for how long, but we did see him. There were quite a few camps and whenever a group arrived, we would go and see if we could find somebody.”
Walerija’s job at the Teheran hospital became her insurance for the future.
“We were all going back to Poland so we had to have something, however little it was. She had to gather up a bit of money so we could go back with something.”
“It was beautiful in Teheran. It was the biggest hospital… really well looked after and the roads were all beautifully sealed. There were trees and roads with two lanes and lovely cars, limousines and people beautifully dressed… They said they were Armenians, the most beautifully dressed women, lovely looking, and the men, they were the handsomest, like my husband, dressed beautifully in two-piece suits and lovely shirts and ties.
“Someone else moved a bed right against the balcony. Marian went to play on the bed. It tipped…”
“When any of the beggars came out onto the main road from the hospital to the city, there were police on horses and they would just shoo them away. In the city the shops were beautiful. They had the most wonderful jewellery, beautiful bracelets—gorgeous—with all different designs and turquoise jewels. I loved Teheran. I thought it was the most beautiful city.”
Anna did not appreciate leaving.
“In Teheran there were big blocks, sleeping quarters two or three storeys high, for the people who worked at the hospital. In each room there were seven or eight beds. There was no cooking done, no other facilities. They were single beds. Somebody moved out of this room and someone else moved a bed right against the balcony. Marian went out to play on the bed. It tipped and he was pushed up and fell off, over the balcony.”
Anna remembers how for seven days her younger brother fought for his life while the hospital staff hunted for scarce ice to ease the swelling on his brain. When he died, a shattered Walerija decided to leave another painful memory.
Isfahan was Teheran's antithesis.
“The rooms were small and I remember we were put with a woman who was so angry with my mum for arriving. They had already started Polish classes and I could actually start school.”
“They kept grabbing me and they had snakes… I used to be so scared…”
Anna and her mother lived in bursa siódma (hostel number seven), a Polish boys’ orphanage where Walerija worked as a hygienist. The orphanages were a “significant” distance apart and those without the customary horse and carriage had to negotiate local beggars when walking the streets. The experience frightened Anna, nine years old and on her own.
“There were so many beggars. They kept grabbing me and they had snakes… I used to be so scared. I hated it. I remember those beggars, always stretching for you and with those snakes… They would play something and let the smoke out, which would do something to the snake…”
Anna was relieved when in 1944 her mother accepted temporary refuge in New Zealand, although she had no idea where the country was. For both of them, the other side of the world became another place to wait until they could go back home to Poland. New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser made the offer to the Polish government-in-exile after he became aware in 1943 of a ship in Wellington harbour carrying Polish refugee children to Mexico.
The two-legged trip to New Zealand was the first time Anna and her mother were separated for any length of time. Walerija developed morska choroba (sea sickness) and spent most of the journey in the ship’s medical units. Anna remembers the boys “getting up to mischief” on the uss general randall, which took the Polish refugees from Bombay to Wellington.
“I remember the nuns bringing us chocolate and that we weren’t allowed to have any lights on at night because of the war and that we were zig-zagging to escape the torpedoes. The soldiers were so kind to us and occupied us. There were always games and we were busy all the time. I was always hungry… I distinctly remember two meals a day but my stomach was always growling.”
John Pascoe captured this image of the Polish refugees on the main deck of the ship on 1 November 1944.4
In New Zealand Anna and Walerija settled down with the other refugees to life in what became known as the Pahiatua Children’s Camp, erected within the farming district of northern Wairarapa, and named after the nearby town.
When it became clear that there was no free Poland to return to after 1945, Prime Minister Fraser extended New Zealand's invitation to include permanent residency.
Lessons purely in Polish changed to lessons in English and those children who elected not to return to Poland after 1945 were sent to New Zealand schools to integrate and improve their language skills.
“There were quite a few young people who found their parents or relatives in Poland and returned but my mother decided to stay and asked for Władysław to come to New Zealand because he was in England then. What was she going to do in Poland as a widow with two young children? She wouldn’t be able to give them an education or even feed them in the same way she could in New Zealand. Here she had the chance to do that.”
When the Pahiatua camp closed Walerija accepted a job with an Italian priest in Pungarehu on Taranaki’s south coast. The two Europeans “somehow managed” to get over the language barrier, helped by the priest’s wanting to learn Polish and appreciating that Walerija was able to “do things” such as milk the presbytery cow and produce butter during rationing.
“He spoke beautiful Maori and enough Polish so that when my mother got stuck with English, they could work it out.”
Anna attended Opunake Intermediate School and later completed her high school education at the Marton District High School.
Anna and Walerija on holiday in Rotorua in 1951.
Walerija accepted that Albin and Józef were dead and married Antoni Characzko, a Polish veteran who, as part of the New Zealand government’s family reunification scheme, joined his daughter Helena, another of the Pahiatua children and a few years younger than Anna. They all moved to Marton, where Walerija found a job sewing large items such as candlewick bedspreads and dressing gowns. Antoni was a carpenter. Anna lived with them until she married Władysław Piotrkowski in 1953 and moved to Wellington.
“It’s been quite a journey.”
© Barbara Scrivens, 2015
Updated January 2018
THE TWO PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHS ARE FROM THE PIOTRKOWSKI COLLECTION. OTHER IMAGES ARE CITED BELOW.
THANKS TO THE NORTH AUCKLAND RESEARCH CENTRE IN THE TAKAPUNA LIBRARY FOR THE LOAN OF AUDIO RECORDING EQUIPMENT.
Władysław Piotrkowski's story, lucky man, is on the polish veterans page.
- 1 - The NKVD, or Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del was the Soviet Union’s Secret Police, known officially as the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the precursor to the KGB.
- 2 - This map is a section of P47_S38_SOKAL from Mapywig. Home page for the English version is:
- 3 - Anders, Lt-General W, CB, An Army in Exile, originally published in 1949. Reprinted by The Battery Press Allied Forces Series, Nashville, ISBN: 0-89839-043-5, page 116.
- 4 - Pascoe, John Dobree, 1908-1972, Polish refugees arriving in Wellington on board the General
Randall, Photographic albums, prints and negatives. Ref: 1/2-003638-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New