Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Siberian Exile in Polish History (Part 4)

The fence and guard tower at the Soviet forced labor camp Perm-36 100 km northeast of the city of Perm in Russia, part of the prison camp system operated by the Soviet Union in the Stalin era known as the GULag (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Gerald Praschl)

Russian terror against the Poles reflects Moscow’s fear of freedom which has been Poland’s organizing principle in the Eastern Borderlands of Western Civilization.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz


The Siberians: A Sample

Although we have kept the narrative impersonal for the most part, it is imperative to describe a few outstanding individuals who suffered because they were Polish patriots. Our focus will be on the post-1944 cohort for, unlike their earlier counterparts, their story remains even much more obscure in the West. Out of the millions of victims of the Communist terror we have selected three separate individuals and a family for no apparent reason really, rather than to note the enormity of their suffering, the strength of their convictions, and the volume of their perserverence.

First, let us consider the Tołwiński family. The family consisted of the matriarch Ewa Tołwińska, her son Józef, his wife Eugenia, and their two toddlers, a six-month old girl and a three year-old boy. The Tołwińskis were petty nobility farmers from Tołwin near Siemiatycze outside of Białystok. During the first Soviet occupation (1939-1941), they took in their relatives, Stanisław and Józefa Ekielski, who brought three little children with them, including an infant. The Ekielskis had been mill owners in the nearby Siemiatycze but the Soviets expropriated and expelled them from the town. In addition, another aunt arrived from Warsaw, Maria Tołwińska, a university lecturer, who, like Stanisław Ekielski, was a member of the independentist underground. Other would-be conspirators gravitated to Tołwin for talks and instructions.

On the night of June 20, 1941, the NKVD raided the Tołwiński farmstead. The Soviet secret policemen tallied the inventory and took over the property. They rounded up the owners, their children, and their guests, except for Maria Tołwińska who hid successfully. The NKVD allowed them to take some food and clothes, and transported them to the railroad station at Siemiatycze. At this point the police guards separated the men from the women and children. On June 23, the Soviets shot Józef Tołwiński, Stanisław Ekielski, and other prisoners near Hajnówka, while retreating before the invading Nazis. The three women and five children had meanwhile been loaded up onto a cattle truck with other people, altogether about 25 individuals, and shipped off to the east. The trip was nightmarish, in particular because Józefa Ekielska had to nurse an infant. On the bright side, she shared her breast milk with four other little children. A hole in the corner of the cattle truck served as a toilet. There was hardly enough water to drink. The prisoners did not bathe for three weeks until the transport reached the Ob River. They were off loaded onto a lice-infested ship and sailed on it for a week when, in turn, they were transferred to a barge which proceeded up the Parabela River. Because of overloading, the barges took on water and nearly capsized, losing much of the luggage of the exiles. The victims were then dropped off on a river bank in the area of Krasnoiarsk and Novosibirsk.

There disembarkation point was a virtual slave market. Soviet officials inspected the human cargo and selected the strongest people for themselves. They wanted to divide the Tołwiński and Ekielski families, in particular to get rid of the children, but the women refused. A collective farm manager finally claimed them, having agreed to allow the grandmother to take care of the infants and toddlers, if the two mothers worked. He took them to the village of Kasikha, where the Tołwińskis and Ekielskis would spend the next three years. Bed-bug infested dug-outs awaited them in lieu of houses. The Poles shared their dug-out with Russian exiles, a couple with a child.

The Polish women bartered some of their clothes for food. The supplies they brought with them from home were indispensable for their survival. Sometimes they walked for miles to other villages to trade illegaly. They also had to fulfill the work quota. The daily routine was always the same. In wintertime, when the temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees Celcius, the women hand wove fishing nets out of flex. Each pound of net material equaled a pound of bread. In summertime, their job was to cut grass in exchange for an occasional bowl of thin ersatz-soup and the daily allotment of 400 grams of bread (about 1/5 of a pound) and an additional 150 grams per child. Every evening the exhausted women returned to their children, who were crying of hunger and disease. Bed bugs and lice were a permanent scourge. Because of the lack of proper nutrition, all exiles started losing sight and open sores covered their bodies. Nonetheless, Eugenia Tołwińska found strength to assist others in need. When a fellow Polish deportee, Mrs. Czarnkowska, was dying of starvation along with her three children, Eugenia brought a pie for them. She also arranged to trade Mrs.

Czarnkowska’s fur coat for a generous supply of potatoes, which saved the lives of that family. Eugenia also shared her food once with a destitute Russian exile and her three children.

The Polish slaves found their solace in prayer. They individually recited the Rosary daily. They also organized collective prayer sessions every May and October, thus marking important Marian holidays of the Church. They also celebrated other important religious holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The women and children kept their hope of return to Poland. Their Soviet supervisors heaped a torent of abuse on them ordering them to forget Poland. Their fellow Russian exiles had the same advice because, according to them, reconciling with one’s fate was the key to survival in Siberia.

Following the amnesty of August 1941, the conditions for the Polish family improved somewhat. In 1944, the women and children were even permitted to move to the little town of Olkhovatka in the Ukraine. There they received American assistance, including canned food. Eugenia sew clothes, and Józefa worked first at a sugar beat refinery and then at a milk depot. She purloined sugar and butter from her job. In addition, at least one of the children supplemented the family income by begging. Finally, in March 1946, the women and children were permitted to return to Poland. They did not go home to Tołwin for they found out that their husbands and fathers were dead. Instead, they settled in Elbląg in the formerly German territories in the west. Eugenia Tołwińska became a seamstress at a clothing enterprise. She never remarried. Now, the lively ninety-seven year old has forgiven but not forgotten. Eugenia sometimes hosts the “Russkie” pilgrims at her home but she still suffers of the Siberian “hunger syndrome” and hoards food.1

One of the most unusual cases of the Siberian misadventure concerns Bronisław Szeremeta, a veterinary student of Lwów. Having fought against the Nazis and Communists in September 1939, he was taken prisoner by the Soviets but concealed his rank of a cadet-officer and avoided execution. Instead, he was dispatched to slave labor in the camps of Krivii Rog and Kotlas. Szeremeta escaped successfully in July 1940 and reached Lwów on foot, where he joined the independentist underground Home Army. From June 1941, he fought against the Nazis. But the Soviets returned and the NKVD arrested him once again in 1945. After a stint at the Lubianka prison in Moscow, he was transported to the camps in Vorkuta in the far north. Szeremeta returned to Poland in 1957, but was immediately arrested by Polish Communists and held for additional two years. Eventually, he was permitted to study and earn a doctorate in veterinary science. He retired soon because of a handicap: one of his arms withered away in the Gulag. Since 1989, Szeremeta has been formally active in the Siberian veterans circles, writing a memoir and collecting testimonies of his fellow exiles. He also published an indictment of Ukrainian nationalist terror against the Poles in the Eastern Borderlands. Last but not least, he is bitter about what he perceives as an indifference of the current Polish elite, enamored in the European Union, to the nation’s freedom and independence that Szeremeta sacrificed so much for.


We would like to thank prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz for sharing this article.