When I think of my old friend Wisia Sobierajska Watkins, I see a ragged teenager walking with her equally ragged younger sisters in the Uzbekistani dust—towards a railway line and away from four huts and 42 shallow graves already disturbed by wild dogs.
I see a determined young woman intent on escaping, so they could “die in the fresh air” rather than suffer the same fate as their parents, older sister, and the other dead Poles.
I see a 15-year-old, so skeletal that she could have been 12, begging a Polish official to accept her into an orphanage with her sisters, and being declined.
I see a sassy 16-year-old in East Africa deciding that the word “propeller” sounded so beautiful, she volunteered to work with them at the RAF station, Eastleigh in Nairobi, and standing before the RAF enlistment officer, surprising him with her full name: Wincentyna Krystyna Helena Bronisława Sobierajska.
Wisia inspired, encouraged and guided me when I started researching and writing for this website. Her smile, strength and determination followed me as I attempted to persuade other Poles in New Zealand to talk to me about the time they spent in the USSR during WW2.
Wisia was easy to talk to, and to listen to. She surprised me when she said life in Siberia was not a fraction as bad as it had been in Uzbekistan. No matter how harsh the conditions at Iszim, the Soviet forced-labour facility where Stalin had “exiled” the Sobierajski family in February 1940—and the conditions in the Archangielsk region of northern Russia were harsh—at least they could work for their daily slices of bread, and Wisia had been adept at foraging for things like mushrooms and berries.
Exile to Siberia had been part of Poland’s history with the Russian Empire during its more than century-long partitioning. The 1921 Treaty of Riga ended that Russian power over the Poles—temporarily.
Once Stalin invaded eastern Poland in 1939, he set about removing into the USSR the Poles he considered “anti-Soviet elements”—about 1,700,000 of them. First were prisoners of war, policemen, and anyone in authority or classified as an intellectual. The NKVD, Stalin’s Secret Police, then collected names of Poles who may have slighted him or the Soviet state, people such as Wisia’s father, Wojciech Sobierajski, who had fought in the 1919-1920 Polish-Soviet War that led to the Treaty of Riga and the revival of the Polish state. The NKVD lists netted even civilians too young to have fought in that war, or WWI, but who happened to have a little land in eastern Poland.
Four mass transports of Polish civilians started in February 1940 and ended in June 1941, immediately after Hitler invaded Russia. The later transports mopped up the families of the mostly men taken in 1939. Stalin’s on-going Five-Year Plans needed the captured Poles for their labour. They were supposed to eventually die in the Soviet facilities, prisons and gulags, and in three years, at least half did.
Hitler’s invasion changed the dynamics between the captured and the captors in the USSR. Suddenly Stalin needed the Poles as soldiers. An ‘amnesty’ brokered between Poland and the USSR in July 1941 was supposed to allow people like Wisia’s father and her 19-year-old sister, Marysia, to join the Polish army. Instead, on their way to an enlistment station, their train stopped, and Soviet soldiers bundled 48 of the Poles off “in the middle of nowhere.”
Soviet authorities had decided that the group, with three men among them, should help dig part of a new canal system.
The 48 shared four crude huts in what was apparently an abandoned kolkhoz out of sight of any other human life. Whereas the NKVD facilities provided meagre rations, the Uzbekistani supervisor handed out only wooden spades. Wisia recalled how the children scoured the landscape for tortoises to eat, and the adults ensnared roaming dogs. A lame horse that the supervisor shot extended their lives but, as their situation deteriorated, Wisia’s father, with the other two men, left to find help.
The remaining women and children soon started to die of disease and malnutrition. Wisia buried her mother, Apolonia, on what she thought was 17 April 1942. Apolonia had helped her dig a similar grave for her six-year-old sister, Zofia, four days earlier, but could barely move when Marysia died two days after that. The Uzbekistani supervisor had removed the spades when his labourers started to die, so they used whatever they could find to make hollows just deep enough to cover the bodies, topped with stones to weigh them down.
By the time Apolonia died, Wisia had run out of strength to hunt for stones. She and her younger sisters, Ewa and Lucia, were the only ones left alive. The next morning, they looked outside their hut.
“The stench was terrible. The wild dogs had been in the night… you could see arms lying around, bits of hair… It was so heart-breaking. I said to my sisters, ‘Lets get out of here. I would rather die somewhere on the road and in the open fresh air.’ They agreed.”
For several days, Wisia worked out the way to the railway line, and led her sisters to a ‘station’ about six kilometres away, where a train did stop. By then rain had filled the canal, so the girls had washed before Wisia sneaked her sisters aboard, and sat on the steps outside.
It may have been luck that a train arrived, but it was not a lucky accident that they found the station. It was probably lucky that when the train rolled into a larger station with Soviet soldiers waiting to board, the door separated Wisia from her sisters, so she could not flee. It was lucky that a kind Soviet officer heard the ticket collector shouting at Ewa and Lucia, spoke to them, and found Wisia on the steps. He took pity on the waifs, ordered food for them, and made Wisia sit next to him until they reached a larger town, where the girls disembarked.
Luck, however, had nothing to do with the sisters getting to the station. Wisia had prepared the way. They did not simply walk away from the death stench. Wisia left her sisters as she worked out the route, and had crossed the then-dry canal bed when it suddenly filled. She walked on until she found a dwelling, and waited for its inhabitants to notice her. A man eventually crossed the canal on a camel, put her on its back with him, and took her to within sight of the kolkhoz. “He knew about us. He knew the sickness, and I suppose he was afraid [to take me farther].”
Wisia and her sisters left the USSR later that year, but they left separately. At the larger town, Wisia approached a crowd as bedraggled as she and her sisters. Her happiness at finding other Poles turned to dismay as Polish officials took Ewa and Lucia to an orphanage.
About eight percent of Poles captured by the Soviets from 1939 to 1941, managed to escape with the Second Polish Corps in 1942. Chance, decisions, experience, knowledge, a stubborn will to survive―all played their parts in helping those Poles leave the USSR. The Polish civilians had slightly more control of their destinies than the 22,000 mostly Polish officers, murdered individually by NKVD marksmen in Katyń and other extermination sites in then-western Russia in April and May 1940, just weeks after Soviets forced the first Polish civilians from their homes.
At 15, Wisia took her chances, made decisions based on what she knew, was determined to never give up. Throughout, she retained her wit, in both senses of the word. She reflects the personalities of so many other Poles who survived similar ordeals, and whose stories I have shared on the War Immigrants page of this website. Wisia’s stories are under the heading Independent Journeys because she did not arrive in New Zealand with any group of people. In and Out of Nowhere tells the full story of her Uzbekistani ordeal.
Five years ago today, 22 September 2015, Wisia Sobierajska Watkins did not wake. She had warned her son Roger that her 89-year-old jalopy had run out of steam, but it still seemed far too soon.
Jalopy is a word I can imagine Wisia saying, pronouncing it with the same eastern Polish accent as my mother’s.
Five years after her death, even though I still miss her, I know that she deserves to rest in peace.
22 September 2020
Note 1: Wisia, like many Poles who were imprisoned in USSR forced-labour facilities, used the word “Siberia” in the figurative rather than geographical sense, that is, the USSR wilderness as a whole rather than the geographic-specific east of the Ural mountains.
Note 2: The single apostrophe marks with the word ‘amnesty’ acknowledge the fact that although Stalin granted what he called an amnesty was nothing of the sort. The Poles had done nothing to be amnestied for. The double quotation marks come from Wisia’s three stories on our War Immigrants page, under Independent Journeys.
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