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, Waleria, as the older woman frantically looked for her husband and eldest son, who she had last seen months before, when they left a Kazakhstani kolkhoz to look for the Polish army.
Anna, Waleria 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 the unsettled survival of Stalin’s Labour for Bread regime.
One of Stalin’s intentions 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 and the labour of the living boosted the Soviet economy and Stalin's on-going Five-Year plans.
“Whenever a big truck came with soldiers, we went to see… I will always remember how we used to go through the whole lot… Everybody was looking for somebody.”
Albin Zatorski and his son Józef disappeared—and remain missing. Their names do not appear among the Polish dead in USSR cemeteries, nor among the 115,000 Polish soldiers and civilians who reached Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea and were shipped across to Pahlevi in Persia (Iran) by the Polish army.
In 1942, Pahlevi’s processing centre sent the Poles to army training camps, or civilian refugee camps and institutions in Teheran and Isfahan. Waleria Zatorska joined the staff at the main hospital in Teheran.
“The hospital was run by 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. Whenever a big truck came with soldiers, we went to see… I will always remember how we used to go through the whole lot… 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 people used to say, ‘Oh, this one or that one is found,’ but we never did.”
Before the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in September 1939, Albin and Waleria Zatorski lived comfortably in Waniów, in the Sokal region of eastern Poland. Bełz was the nearest large town.
Originally from sandy Kraków, Albin and Waleria (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. By chatting to local inhabitants, “travellers” spread and exchanged information.
Anna has few memories of the kolonia. “I know that we lived not very far from my grandmother, three or four houses from the end of the road towards Bełz, and that we used to visit her often.”
“I remember a fire that burnt down our house. I can’t remember if we stayed with babcia Gurgól—her husband died in WWI—but we had just started building a new place when we were taken to Siberia.”
Although Anna’s paternal grandfather, “a tall, serious man,” lived nearby, she does not think they stayed in his full household. Albin’s mother had died giving birth to her fourth child, and his father had remarried and had “four or five” more children, including Albin’s half-brother Antek, whose daughters, Helena and Janina, Anna met in Teheran.
Anna cannot remember exactly what types of crops her father grew but knows that as well as growing food for themselves, farmers often produced “cash crops.” A company producing sugar, for instance, provided a farmer with sugar beet seed, and advice. The farmer produced the crop and the company paid him on delivery of the harvest. Albin also held a job at the local distillery, which meant that even after the harvest he still had an income.
“Suddenly we had to leave our house and everything that we had… They kept saying, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry.’”
Newspapers reported record negative temperatures during the 1939–1940 European winter, the coldest in 100 years.
Anna has distinct memories of waking 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 a sled and taken to the railway station and put on those wagons—the same kind they used for animal transport—and I remember lots and lots of people, lots of children, and people lying on the floor, vomiting… It was horrible…
“There was no food. We weren’t given any food. If you took some with you—if you were lucky enough—you had, but otherwise, they didn’t feed us. We ate what we 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… If they wanted to, say, go to the toilet, if the train stopped and the doors were opened, they ran out to 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.”
From early in February 1940, Soviet soldiers forced about 220,000 Polish civilians, living in the Soviet-occupied eastern half of Poland, from their homes and onto cattle-trains. The soldiers were following 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.” The order extended one made only weeks after the Soviet invasion of Poland the previous September, and its execution that February was well-planned. (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, and the first seizing entire families. Whoever was found in a designated house in the early hours of that particular morning was taken, however old or young. Two other mass removals of Polish civilians took place in April and June 1940. Hitler interrupted the fourth in June 1941, when he reneged on the pact he had with Stalin to divide Poland between them 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, like little ladybirds but black and when they bit you, it was so sore it would swell and there was nothing you could do about it because there was no ointment or anything.
“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 they fed on us.”
Anna can now chuckle at the audacity and tenaciousness of the insects that lived with them in what she calls their obuz (the NKVD forced-labour facility) near a tiny Archangelsk village named something like “Czary.” Their particular house had no visible neighbours. They shared the accommodation but not the cooking—each family prepared their own scarce food. The bania, or sauna-like bathhouse, was another clear space of separation: men and women washed on alternate days.
The Zatorski family during their capture near Archangelsk, in the USSR, from left, Waleria, Józef, Marian, Władysław, Albin and Anna. Judging from Waleria’s hair length, this photograph was probably taken in 1941.
Waleria told Anna there was a two-year age gap between the siblings. 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, Waleria and Józef succumbed to typhoid, severely stretching the family’s meagre rations because Waleria could not work.
“They were taken away to hospital for about six weeks and my father looked after us. When we had some bread, he would dry it and put it into the great big kufer (trunk), so when they came back from hospital, we had some food. We were really lucky that they came back, but still my mother couldn’t go back to work straight away.
“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. 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.”
Almost drowning in the nearby fast-flowing river nearby created another indelible memory. One of her older brothers went on a hunt for berries on the other side, and Anna had followed him across a log they used as a bridge.
“I tried to walk behind him but I slipped and fell into the water. 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 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 many people needed help and he was a tradesman. He would do the job, but he would never take any money. He would say, ‘Rather, give me some milk, potatoes, or maybe bread or flour…’ Just food, and that way we survived quite well.”
Waleria spent her days scraping żywica (resin) from the trees. While their parents and older siblings worked, other Polish and Russian women loosely supervised the youngest children.
When Albin and Waleria first heard of the ‘amnesty’ that allowed Polish inmates to leave the forced-labour facilities they were as keen as the other Poles to find and join the new Polish army.
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 his Red Army. Polish Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski brokered a deal with the Soviets 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 families. Streams of Polish civilians 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, which they used 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.
Polish authorities estimated that by then half the 1,700,000 Poles taken to the USSR had died.3 That only around 115,000 escaped with the Polish army via the Caspian Sea 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.”
Like many of the Poles who left the forced-labour facilities, the Zatorskis did not anticipate the dark side of that that ‘freedom.’
The Poles spent weeks, sometimes months, heading towards the Polish army enlistment stations in Uzbekistan. The longer it took them to find those enlistment stations, the more precarious their situations became, and even more so, for whose like the Zatorskis, who were steered towards kolkhozes hardly able to support their own subsistence-farming inhabitants.
“When we got to the kolkhoz there was nothing there… just nothing. It was desert.”
For the first time in his adult life, Albin could not 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. After a while, the [local] people would come around looking for their dogs…
“The [Polish] men still had to work, digging, but there was no food. I only remember the hunger. We stayed in little huts. The floor was the ground. The [local] people grew cotton, and fed their stock with square biscuits that they made from the husks, pressed together with the oil squeezed out. There was nothing else to eat, so we stole some of those biscuits. They made us so constipated, we were bleeding.
“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.’”
“There was an inspection every now and then, to see if we were healthy enough to leave, and my mother was hiding me.”
Anna does not know why her father changed his mind. Instead of returning to the NKVD facility as a family, Albin and Józef left the kolkholz to continue looking for the Polish army.
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 (Polish military cadet school). Waleria, Anna and Marian made their way west to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea 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, she may not have been allowed to travel.
“There was an inspection every now and then, to see if we were healthy enough to leave, and my mother was hiding me.”
Authorities were supposed to prevent Poles with diseases from spreading their infections to Persia, which may have been Waleria’s reason for avoiding the official list-takers. Although the Red Cross list of evacuees from the USSR names Anna’s cousins Helena and Jania and their mother, Karolina, and Genowefa, Julia, and Maria Zatorska, and a Kazimierz Zatorski—all from Waniów—there seems to be no entries for Waleria, 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.”
Waleria took the job at the Teheran hospital as insurance for the future.
“We were all going back to Poland so we had to have something, however little. I knew my mum wanted to gather up a bit of money so we could go back with something.
“It was beautiful in Teheran. The hospital was the biggest in the city, 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, police on horses would shoo them away. In the city the shops were beautiful. They had the most wonderful jewellery, beautiful bracelets—gorgeous—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 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 were no cooking facilities, just 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.”
For seven days Marian Zatorski fought for his life while the hospital staff hunted for scarce ice to ease the swelling on his brain. When he died, a shattered Waleria decided to leave another painful memory.
Isfahan was Teheran’s antithesis.
“The rooms were small and we were put with a woman who was so angry with my mum for arriving, but they had already started Polish classes and I could actually start school.”
“They kept grabbing me and they had snakes… I was so scared. I hated it.”
Anna and her mother lived in bursa siódma (hostel number seven), a Polish boys’ orphanage where Waleria 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 nine-year-old Anna on her own.
“There were so many beggars. They kept grabbing me and they had snakes… I remember those beggars, always stretching for you and those snakes… They would play something and let smoke out, which would do something to the snake… I was so scared. I hated it.”
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 marked Anna’s first separation from her mother. Waleria developed morska choroba (sea sickness) and spent most of the journey in both ships’ medical units. Anna remembers the boys “getting up to mischief” on the larger 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 the ship 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 kept 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 Waleria settled down with the other refugees to life in what became known as the Pahiatua Children’s Camp, erected within the northern Wairarapa farming district and named after the nearby town.
After Poland’s apparent Allies in WW2 handed the country to a Moscow-controlled communist government, Prime Minister Fraser extended his 1944 invitation to the Polish refugees already living in New Zealand, and offered them 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.
“Quite a few young people 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 could she do in Poland as a widow with two teenagers? She wouldn’t be able to give us an education or even feed us in the same way she could in New Zealand. Here she had the chance to do that.”
Aged 18, Władysław Zatorski arrived in Wellington on 29 November 1948, aboard the ss mataroa. With him were 12 other Poles, including eight siblings and one father joining their Pahiatua families.
Anna and Waleria on holiday in Rotorua in 1951.
When the Pahiatua camp closed, Waleria accepted a job with an Italian priest, the Reverend Eugene Carmine, in Pungarehu on Taranaki’s south coast. The two Europeans “somehow managed” to overcome the language barrier, thanks to Rev Carmine wanting to learn Polish, and appreciating that during rationing Waleria could “do things” such as milk the presbytery cow and produce butter.
“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.
Waleria accepted that Albin and Józef were dead and married Antoni Characzko, a Polish war 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 Waleria 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 May 2019
THE 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