Wisia Sobierajska Watkins
IN AND OUT OF NOWHERE
by Barbara Scrivens
Forty-eight people followed an order to get off a train at a tiny desert railway station in Uzbekistan in the early spring of 1942. Within weeks 45 of them were dead.
The family groups did not know one another but had shared experience. Nearly two years earlier Soviet soldiers kidnapped them from their homes in eastern Poland and transported them to one of the several hundred forced-labour facilities within the USSR.
They were expected at the station—as the train’s dust cloud settled they saw a man with a donkey waving at them and gesturing them to follow him.
This isolated destination was not what the ragged group expected. As far as they knew, the train had been taking them towards the new Polish army being formed in Russia, but this piece of desert did not resemble an army enlistment station and the man no Polish soldier.
Stalin’s release of previously incarcerated Poles in the USSR stemmed from his one-time friend and ally, Hitler, unexpectedly invading Russia. Stalin re-assessed the potential of the Poles he held captive and granted them ‘amnesty’—but not easy passage—to the Polish army’s enlistment camps, first in Buzuluk in southern Russia, then farther south in Yangi-Yul, Uzbekistan.
Wisia remembered the Soviet inspector walking along the corridors “from time to time” and ordering the corpses thrown out.
Among those ordered off the train were Wisia Sobierajska (15) with her parents, Wojciech and Apolonia, her older sister, Marysia (18), and her younger sisters Ewa (13), Lucia (11) and Zosia (8). Six weeks earlier the family left their particular Siberian forced-labour facility. Although weak from lack of food and water, they remained hopeful that they would be able to find their army and their way out of Russia.
They reached Uzbekistan, spent three days in Tashkent, and were pleased and grateful when an official steered them towards the train and what they assumed would be a continuation of their journey to freedom.
As the train took them farther into the desert, they noticed several of the youngest and oldest passengers becoming ill with typhus, and dying. By then they easily identified the infectious disease. Wisia remembered the Soviet inspector walking along the corridors “from time to time” and ordering the corpses thrown out.
She had no idea of their geographical location.
“We were getting really sick and hungry and weary and were too tired to think. Nobody told us anything and we did not have the energy to find out the names of the little stations we passed. We just got out where they told us to.”
The land between them and the snow-capped mountains on the horizon was “emptiness without a shred of green.”
Rolling tumbleweed, the only visible vegetation, caught their eyes as they looked around the station. The land between them and the snow-capped mountains on the horizon was “emptiness without a shred of green.” Four clay houses on one side of the station and cotton growing in the distance gave the only hint that people may be living there.
It became clear the man with the donkey wanted the Poles to follow him. The 48 included five men, “an oldish fellow” and three teenaged boys whose widowed mother had a problem with her eyes turning back into her head. They crossed the railway line and walked, Wisia estimated, about five kilometres along a dry canal to a kolkhoz called something like “6 Krutoj.”
“We were barefoot by then.”
Wojciech Sobierajski carried Lucia, crippled after falling out of a sleigh on their way to Siberia in February 1940. Wisia carried Zosia—Apolonia did not have the strength. From Zosia’s temperature, the family suspected she had contracted the measles that had infected others on the train.
The man with the donkey led the group to another set of four houses, gestured they should go in, and disappeared.
“It was strange. We thought that when he arrived in the morning, he would bring food and water for us but when we asked about provisions all he did was shrug his shoulders, as if he didn’t have anything or didn’t know.
“There was nothing, nothing to eat. No food and no water.
“He brought rough wooden spades and gestured to us to follow him. He showed us how we had to dig out the canal. We had no shoes and the ground was hard clay. We could not believe it. The Soviets took us there to dig the canal, so that water would come through their kolkhoz, so that something would grow.”
Wisia recalled the incredulity of their group. Instead of heading towards their Polish army and hoped-for liberty they faced a situation far more dire than the one they left in the Soviet forced-labour facilities.
Anything moving became a potential meal.
“We children used to go and find tortoises. We could see where their burrows were by the holes they made in the sand and we would put our hands in. Every now and then out came a huge tortoise, puffed up to frighten us—and it sure did.”
Apolonia had eaten tortoises during World War I and remembered how to extract the meat:
“It was a hell of a job to cut them so in the end we found an old axe outside the Uzbekistani’s office and we had a stone. Mum would put the tortoise on one side and cut one side and then the other side with the axe, and then she sharpened the little piece of knife we had left on the stone and cut it out. Then she cut the head off and boiled the legs, back and front, and took the liver and the eggs to make an omelette.”
Wisia remembered catching and eating hedgehogs but Marysia struggled with dog meat.
The men caught and killed a dog for food. Back at their Tajkury farm, Wisia grew up as the only girl among her cohort. This, and her love of running and exploring her surroundings, led her to being much more of a tomboy than her always-ladylike older sister.
“We children had to walk around for miles to collect the tumbleweed so we could cook it. It foamed when it boiled…”
Wisia loved to roam the Tajkury coutryside and acquired an ability to recall landmarks. She could always find her way home, a skill she took with her to the Siberian forced-labour facility, where she was too young to cut wood with her parents and Marysia in the forest and too old to join her younger sisters in the Russian ‘school.’
Living and playing with boys in Tajkury honed Wisia’s sometimes-wicked sense of humour and in the desolate Uzbekistani wilderness, as their mother encouraged Marysia to eat a spoon of the dog meat, Wisia went “woof!” Marysia refused the food.
The Poles came across unexpected sustenance when the Uzbekistani’s horse broke a leg.
“We heard the shot and went to have a look. There it was—a dead horse. We could see one hoof dragged out, broken. People sharpened their bits of knives, steel, whatever they had and cut the horse to pieces. We children had to walk around for miles to collect the tumbleweed so we could cook it. It foamed when it boiled but the horse was quite young so thank goodness it was tender and we fed on it for quite a few days. We tried to dry it but that didn’t work very well. Still, we finished the meat.”
Inasmuch as their Uzbekistani overseer was heartless, Wisia experienced the friendliness of other Uzbekistanis living a few kilometres away. Wandering around the area, she discovered people who kept sheep and made cheese with the milk. By chance, her first encounter with a local family happened while they were cooking their meal, owcze mleko (sheep’s milk) with kluski (macaroni).
“They asked me to sit. There was a hole in the floor for the fire and a hole in the roof for the smoke. Along came an old man, an aunt, the father, the mother and the children. I watched them and copied them. They passed around a huge wooden spoon, first with the macaroni then the milk.”
“I was the first to get typhus. It was from the dirty water but what could you do? You couldn’t boil the water to drink.”
Every time she returned the ritual remained the same. She knows those few meals helped sustain her when she became ill.
“I was the first to get typhus. It was from the dirty water but what could you do? You couldn’t boil the water to drink. When you’ve got typhus, you get a sort of unconsciousness and fever. They told me that I was unconscious for about 10 days and when I woke up, the plait I had at the back of my head fell off.
“My mum did what her dad did when she got typhus in World War I—she sharpened the knife and kept shaving my bald patch. It was hurting me and I was getting fed up about it but she said, ‘I have to do it to encourage your hair to grow back again.’”
After about two months, Wisia's new hair grew out much blonder than her original mousey shade. The “quite pronounced” difference in her hair colour lasted for years and, until it grew out, people assumed she had dyed it.
“As I got better my sister got typhus and others too because they drank the same water and we were just naturally getting weaker. I was lucky that my mum knew what to do. She didn’t get it because apparently you don’t get it twice but she was getting weaker from lack of all sorts of vitamins and food.”
As more people succumbed to typhus, the Poles realised they had been abandoned and left to die. Wojciech and two other slightly younger men went to look for help.
“They felt they had to do something. They knew we were on our last legs and they were right because as soon as they left people started dying.”
A woman in the same hut as the Sobierajscy became the first fatality. Wisia, uncomfortable about leaving the dead woman in the room, went to tell the Uzbekistani supervisor.
“He came with a mask on his face. He stood outside the doorway and with a lasso rope threw it into the room over one of her legs. I remember she had no underwear—by then nobody did—and when he pulled her, the other leg became stuck in the doorway. Her family were too weak and sorrowful to do anything and in the end, I moved the leg so he could get her out. He didn’t dig a deep grave but he buried her. After that, he couldn’t be bothered.”
The supervisor marked the occasion by taking away their spades.
Without a spade, it took Wisia a day to dig her sister’s “very shallow” grave and bury her.
Apolonia and her daughters knew Wojciech would not return. The date Zosia died, 13 April 1942, became seared in Wisia’s mind. Without a spade, it took her a day to dig her sister’s “very shallow” grave. She was grateful that roaming dogs did not disturb it overnight because she could not find as many stones to cover the grave as she would have liked.
Two days later, she buried Marysia and a few days after that, her mother—the three among the last in the kolkhoz to die, and among the few who were buried.
Eventually only Wisia, Ewa and Lucia remained alive.
“We weren’t worried that we were going to die—we knew we would die—but we didn’t want to die there.”
“We got up and the stench was unbearable from all the other people lying there… the bodies rotting… The dogs had been at them, you could see arms lying around, bits of hair… and there were no stones left to cover them. I couldn’t carry anything and it was so heartbreaking and unpleasant to stay there.
“We weren’t worried that we were going to die—we knew we would die—but we didn’t want to die there. I said to my sisters, ‘Let’s get out of here because I would rather die somewhere on the road and in the open fresh air,’ and they said, ‘Us too.’”
Before committing her sisters to the walk back to the railway station, Wisia needed to deal with a nagging thought that she may be able to find help closer by. She knew her sisters would not move without her and left them lying together on the floor of the hut.
“Soon after I crossed to the other side of the canal it started to rain very heavily. I got cold and weak and was so hungry I didn’t get very far and tried to come back but they let the water into the canal and it was about 20 foot deep and I couldn’t really swim, and even if I could, I couldn’t manage—it was so huge, that main canal. So I walked along the edge to try to find a way across and I walked quite a long way when I saw an Uzbekistani house on the other side and I thought, ‘Surely they would help me?’”
Wisia sat for about three hours watching for movement from the house. As she contemplated giving up, a man came out. She shouted and waved. He may not have heard her, but he did see her—and went back inside.
“The next thing, I saw him riding on a camel across the canal. It was such a sight, an absolute Godsend. He grabbed hold of my shoulders, threw me on the back of that camel and took me across the canal to the edge of our kolkhoz. He definitely knew where I came from.”
His rescue and subsequent quick getaway made it clear to Wisia that she and her sisters were on their own.
“He knew of the sickness and I suppose he was afraid.”
“We were barefoot and all in rags and dirty but we washed our faces and our feet in the canal water and looked as best we could…”
The sisters waited another day or two for the rain to stop and walked away from the kolkhoz in the direction of the railway station looking for a narrower—or possibly not as deep—crossing over the canal.
“In the end the water started to settle and we could see it rapidly going down and down and down until there was no more water and we could cross the canal by foot.
“Walking to the station took us all day because I had to carry Lucia a bit now and then and she hopped on her leg quite a bit. I said we had better catch the train at night-time, if it comes—because we didn’t know if it would even come—and we had no money for tickets. We were barefoot and all in rags and dirty but we washed our faces and our feet in the canal water and looked as best we could and crossed the railway lines.
“The train did come. I put my sisters inside right by the door facing me and I sat on the step outside the door so I could lift my head and see if they’re okay, and I sat there holding on and we went so far for most of the night… Nobody said anything. Nobody noticed them inside or me outside. Then we came to a station in a bigger place and Russian soldiers kept coming into the train. I couldn’t get in and I was afraid with so many soldiers around.
“The ticket seller… started shouting… behind the ticket seller was a Russian officer…”
“The ticket seller came over to my sisters and started shouting at them in Russian: ‘How did you get there?’ ‘Where are your tickets?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you going?’
“They started to cry and I started peeping through the window and was worried sick because behind the ticket seller was a Russian officer. I thought ‘Oh my God, I have to take them out while the train is standing still.’
“The Russian officer said to the man, ‘Now be quiet. Leave them alone,’ and he spoke to them, asked their names and where they came from, where they were going and why. They started telling him, and he said, ‘You’re too little to go by yourselves,’ and they said, ‘Our big sister is outside on the step,’ so I came in and he spoke to me. He called a soldier and told him something and after about five minutes, the soldier came back with three jars of spaghetti and tomato sauce and the officer opened them up and gave one to Ewa, one to Lucia and one to me and said, ‘Sit here until you get to where the train goes.’
“And that was, oh, a Godsend that I didn’t have to hang on anymore. I sat next to my sisters—inside—and that cold spaghetti was delicious.”
Wisia smiled at the Russian officer’s unexpected generosity. The next morning the train reached another “biggish” town. She remembered the station as sounding something like Kagan, or Kasan.
“We looked out and saw a little round park with trees, which was very unusual because we hadn’t seen trees for so long. We also saw lots of people, dirty and with torn clothes just like us, so we thought we’d get out and see if we can be amongst them because it’s a bit scary to be just the three of us and I also knew that if I died first, my sisters would be lost.
“We walked towards the people and heard them speaking Polish. I excused myself and started talking to them and told them what happened. The women there were very pleasant, said they were very sorry that we were left just the three little orphans, and told us to stay with them. But people told one another and, next thing, an official person came over and told us that General Sikorski was organising so many Polish people to come out from Russia.” (The grapevine, rife with all sorts of conjecture at the time, had at its core the official agreements between Poland and the USSR. See military timeline from July 1941.)
“‘Surely I can join them? I look just like any other kid, skinny and one year doesn’t make any difference.’ He wouldn’t listen…”
Her relief at having some knowledge of the overall plan for the Poles turned to dismay when the same official told Wisia that he would have to take Ewa and Lucia to an orphanage—but leave her.
“He said I was a bit too old, one year too old, so I must stay with the rest of the people and I said, ‘Surely I can join them? I look just like any other kid, skinny and one year doesn’t make any difference.’ He wouldn’t listen and just said he had to ‘stick to the rules’ but he promised me that my sisters would be safe and we would join up later on, so in the end I was quite relaxed that they were safe.”
Being “absolutely just skin and bone, my hair quite short and with that bald patch at the back,” Wisia understood why the official did not consider her an adequate caregiver. She could barely look after herself at that stage—and was in some way relieved, knowing that Ewa and Lucia would not have to rely on her for their survival.
The Polish official told her that children from the Polish orphanages, with a certain number of adults, would leave Russia first. Wisia and the others in the new group she had attached herself to would follow in the next available shipment. The Polish official said they would take a train to Krasnovodsk, a port on the Caspian Sea, and then board a ship bound for Pahlevi in Persia (Iran).
During the few days she waited with the group for the Krasnovodsk train, Wisia enjoyed the rations prepared by Red Cross men in khaki uniform. Although the men spoke Polish, few in the food queues felt like talking.
“We were so tired, we couldn’t be bothered to carry on a conversation. I thought it was so strange to see Polish people in such nice-looking shirts. They had big pots and they made soup with lots of meat, pearl barley, some carrots and potato and they gave it to us like the soldiers got—in oblong tins with a handle and spoon.”
True to the official’s word, the group did get on the Krasnovodsk train—but it stopped at an inlet outside the port. Railway guards told the Poles to disembark, and it disappeared. The sea on one side of the hot sand made it only marginally less isolated than the Uzbekistani kolkhoz.
“We were told we would have to walk to the port and that it only takes a couple of hours along the railway tracks, which we decided to do at night when it was cooler. Most of us saw the sea for the first time. It was quite scary and someone said it was salty so we all started testing whether that was true. Sure enough, it was salty, but we splashed around and only found out later that you should wash the salt off because it made our skin itchy, dry and prickly.
“Night time came and we prepared to go. Even without the heat, walking was difficult. We stopped halfway to have a rest because everybody was so tired and I didn’t know then but I fell down, unconscious.”
Wisia learnt later that the people in the group who befriended her tried to wake her. When they could not, they put a mirror in front of her nose and mouth to check her breathing. Nothing happened, so they left her.
Daylight woke her.
“I looked around and could see not one person… I couldn’t see footprints… I was absolutely lost.”
“I thought, ‘My God, where am I? What happened? Why was I alone when I was with so many different people and we were going to the port?’
“I looked around and could see not one person and because it was so dry and on the railway lines I couldn’t see footprints so I didn’t know which direction we came from or which way we were going. I was absolutely lost.
“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t just lie here, I’ve got to get up and do something,’ so I started walking and maybe from the stress or from having a good rest, and that good food the days before, I got some strength, and I ran, and I ran. My chest was bursting and all of a sudden I saw some men repairing the line. I stopped and I said, ‘Excuse me, have you seen lots of poor, sick people going to the port?’ I spoke to them in Russian because by then I spoke perfect Russian.
“They said, ‘Oh yes, they passed about two hours ago.’ I said, ‘How far is the port from here?’ They said, ‘Oh, about another half a mile, just turn left… just follow the line.’ And so I did and just when I got to the ship the gangway was lifting up. The ship was ready to go and I ran and they saw me and they dropped it back again and I got on board.
“Some people from the group I was walking with saw me and they started making the sign of the cross ‘W imię Ojca i Syna… to jest duch Wisjy. Ty umarłaś!’ Ja mówie, ‘Nie, ja jestem tutaj.’” (‘In the name of the Father and Son… this is Wisia’s ghost. You died!’ I said, ‘No, I am here.’)
“There were so many people on that ship. I don’t know where they all came from but it was full. Soon after we got on Russian soldiers came with big wooden crates and gave each of us a tin of corned beef and a tin of cheese. They opened them up for us and we were thanking God for the meat until about an hour later when everybody got dysentery because our insides were so neglected and not used to the rich food.
“They start making extra toilets like those in the old days, a few boards of wood and a piece of wire sticking way out of the ship and a hole in the middle and people were queuing up to go there. There was no toilet paper and people were hurrying one another so you came out and had to go to the back of the queue again because it was soon all running down your legs again. Everybody was more or less the same and of course a lot of people died, I don’t know whether from the dysentery, or from weakness or whether they just gave up. They just dropped them in the sea, without anything to cover the bodies, or weights.”
“We didn’t bother to look. We were so weak that if somebody said, ‘Would you like an ice-cream or a handful of money or a block of gold, we couldn’t give a tuppence.”
“ I watched these footballs as they came closer and… they’re people, drowned people… corpses already and they couldn’t sink…”
The Poles disembarked at a Pahlevi seafront filled with makeshift huts. Coconut leaves covering the rooves created welcome shade in the summer heat, and people lay on wooden boards. Wisia saw the friendly face of a neighbour from Tajkury, Mrs Podhorodecka.
“I was quite dirty and smelly. She asked about my family and I told her. She went away and came back with a piece of string and a big stick. At first I wondered whether she was wanting to hang me but she led me to the beach and told me I could wash myself and get some fresh air. There were quite a few people on the beach, which was very close to our [hut shelters].
“She pushed the stick quite deep in the sand and told me she couldn’t stay with me but that she would be back in an hour. She had one son with a broken back, as well as another two, and her husband unwell, and she wasn’t well either but she tied that piece of rope around my waist and she said, ‘You sit here. If the water comes close, you can move back a bit.’
“So I sat there and looked around and all of a sudden I saw so many footballs floating on the water. I wondered why there were so many of them, bob, bobbing here and there. The water was coming closer and I looked around to the other people on the beach—there were lots, but at that point nobody talked to anybody. We didn’t have the strength.
“I watched these footballs as they came closer and… they’re people, drowned people. I thought they were drowned but they were corpses already and they couldn’t sink because they didn’t have water in their lungs so they just floated on the water and because they were coming towards me, I could see the heads before I could see the arms or legs or bodies. I got panicky because the water was coming in and although I moved back, the water was coming higher and I thought, ‘Ah, that’s what she wanted—me to drown!’”
Mrs Podchorodecka’s return cut through Wisia’s delirium and soon after, she saw Polish soldiers with stretchers taking away the corpses and burying them in the sand farther away.
“By then I was clean,” said Wisia. Cleaner than she had been for months, relieved at escaping from Russia, grateful for the kindness of old neighbours—and thankful that her weary body could at last rest.
Wisia Sobierajska had graduated from a finishing school of the roughest kind.
© Barbara Scrivens 2014
Updated September 2017
THANKS TO THE NORTH AUCKLAND RESEARCH CENTRE IN THE TAKAPUNA LIBRARY FOR THE LOAN OF AUDIO RECORDING EQUIPMENT.