The Invasion In 1939
In Bialystok at the garrison we had practiced many military scenarios. But on 1st September 1939 when the air raid sirens went off, screaming their tone urgency into the skies over Bialystok, it was clear that this was no practice drill.
News arrived that the Germans were invading Poland from the West.
Peace and security, as we had known it up until 1939, had ended with an almighty bang.
This was not entirely a surprise to me as we Poles knew we were surrounded by the power hungry countries of Austria, Russia and Germany.
Thereafter, it became almost impossible to get any reliable news or information on what was happening. Confusion was everywhere.
Being part of 42 Pulk Piechoty (42nd Infantry Regiment) our garrison was nearly emptied as we quickly went to fight the Germans and defend our precious Poland.
Some of 42 Pulk Piechoty went to Narew to fight the Germans. Others, including me, went to Lomza. As my military records show, from 27 August 1939 until 19 Sept 1939 (a 3 week period) I was at Lomza helping to protect it from German invasion.
There was no time to think or make preparations, hurriedly I spoke with Stanislawa my wife and my two children Zdzislaw and Lucyna. I was scared but I could not show it to them. We hugged and kissed and hurriedly said our goodbyes. I told them I would be home soon, but secretly I worried for my life.
We went west towards where the German invasion was happening. The Germans had advanced very significantly over the eastern border and into the very heart of Poland.
German aircraft attacked everything, buildings, installations and yes even civilians. Everywhere their were aircraft swooping down on us with a screaming high pitched whine, bombs went off, guns fired. Wladyslaw, I thought, what have you gotten into?
We fled into nearby woods for cover. Too late, the Nazi airman had spotted us and opened up machine gun fire, straffing from side to side. Bullets whined all around me, I jumped into a ditch and pulled branches over myself to conceal myself from the plane above. It circled a few more times before giving up. I was safe again.
Our unit made way again and headed for a Lomza.
My regiment, 42 Pulk Piechoty, was tasked with defending the Narew river line with important bridgeheads at Różan, Ostrołęka, Osowiec Fortress, Nowogród, Łomża and Wizna, and to cover the right flank of the Modlin Army as well as the Lomza fortress.
The machine gun bunkers were manned by 1st MG Company, 1st Battalion, 42nd Infantry Regiment under Lt. Franciszek Zaręba while the trenches around them were manned by two rifle companies of the 33rd regiment. I too was manning the machine guns in the bunkers.
One one occasion, a German aircraft came screaming out the sky and released a bomb. I saw a woman, standing in the road, just standing, totally transfixed in fear at this sight. I yelled at her to take cover. It was like she did not hear me. We all screamed at her to run, but fear had grasped her body.
We all ducked down putting our hands over our ears and our heads, praying for ourselves, for everyone. The scream of the approaching bomb intensified and I felt all the muscles in my abdomen and legs tighten, waiting for the blast. The bomb exploded with a deafening roar and heat.
Time past, till we recovered and dared to look. The body of the woman lay on the ground, her legs blown off in the blast and lying nearby. Blood everywhere. She moaned out crying. She was still alive, but barely.
One of the soldiers from 42 Pulk Piechoty, my unit, went over to her and mercifully put a bullet through her head. She had stood no chance, we had done this to save her any further pain because there was no-one who could or would come to her rescue in a manner that could save her beyond the next few hours.
Tears welled up in my eyes, we had become animals, territorial animals fighting over land. How I longed for Stanislawa, my wife and my 2 children. I loved peace, I was not a man of war and yet I loved Poland, I must be strong, I must fight for my fellowman.
My resolve strengthened to help push the Germans back out of Poland so that peaceful family life would return.
We heard the sound of familiar plane engines in the sky. We looked up. What was left of Polish Bomber squads were up there putting a fight up against the Germans.
As if there bravery fighting battles in the sky were not enough, they were also busy dropping bombs and vast amounts of tanks that were tearing into Poland from Germany. Was was everywhere, all around me in the skies and on land.
The Germans were everywhere, hunting us down. We were constantly on the move, always trying to stay one step ahead of them but there was practically no hiding place.
After 3 September the town of Łomża was bombarded by the Luftwaffe several times and was set on fire, but the Polish forces suffered only negligible losses. There were a few more followup Luftwaffe bombings, but despite this the Polish bunkers remained intact.
After 4 days, the protecting of Lomza was abandoned and the Germans recaptured Lomza.
Some Polish soldiers said England would be along to help us soon, others said England will not be helping us because we were choosing the military route instead of the political route.
As a result some of my fellow soldiers deserted, dumping their uniforms and in borrowed or stolen clothes made their way back home. Despondancy crept in, we were cornered, out-smarted and frightened. It felt like we had already lost the war.
Still some others re-grouped and headed for the borders, determined to fight for our motherland, Poland. Many servicemen could be seen in groups on roads, some had carts and wagons with their worldly goods piled up high, heading with civilians to who knows where.
This seemed to thrill the Nazi pilots who took special delight in machine gunning them down. Everything, everywhere and everybody was being destroyed by Germans.
Churches, houses, factories, farms, shops. All were targets for the relentless bombs and bullets of the Germans. On occasion we would loot shops for food, it was not a moral issue, it was one of survival. In a way it felt right, the goods of our fellowman would sustain us and help us to protect them from the invaders.
Zambrow - Captured By The Germans
Then from 10 – 13 September the 42nd regiment were fighting at Zambrow when we were taken prisoner by the Germans.
In the middle of Zambrow was a large square where the barracks were. On September 13, 1939 about 4000 of us Polish prisoners of war were taken there. Machine guns were mounted on cars at each corner. During the night large floodlights would come on, we were warned that if any of us dared move we would be shot.
On the night of the 14th of September 1939, the germans released horses into the square unexpectedly. In panic everyone tried to escape. The machine guns opened up and many were mowed down dead.
We were told to lie down again. Many were injured or dying but the Germans showed no mercy and gave us no medical help. In the morning we counted 200 dead.
Along with a few others we hatched a plan to escape. We only had a few seconds in which to do it un-noticed, but we ran quickly and somehow managed to make it safely to a nearby building where under the cover of darkness at night we slipped away.
Captured by The Germans
For a few days was a free man, living life on the run.
As if the German invasion was not bad enough, 2 weeks later on we were invaded from the East in the Kresy region by the Russians. At the time we did not know it, the Russians simply came into Poland in their droves, they were friendly to us and gave us no cause for concern.
They told us they were there to help us fight the Germans, well we welcomed this Red Army with open arms. Civilians everywhere put signs up saying "Welcome" in Russian. Locals were hoping and counting on the Red Army to save them and liberate them from the Germans.
The Soviet Takeover
Little did we realise how liberating the Russians would be. They would liberate us of our houses, our food, our families, our security, our religion, our art, our possessions, our culture and even our freedom itself.
Oh yes, they would liberate us, but not as we might have imagined. No, their liberation would cast a long and dark spell over our future as I was about to find out.
The Russian "liberation", which would end up in Russia invading our country and, would offer in return collective farms, brutal treatment, hard labour in Gulags, endless queues and shortages of food.
On September 17th 1939 without warning everything changed. We had been fooled, deceived.
The Russian authorities announced they were there to takeover Poland, they closed banks, instituitions, took over factories, made our currency worthless (and made the Russian rouble the new currency of Poland) and started arresting people. Some were even executed in the streets.
Meanwhile, closer to the eastern border near Ukraine there was much bloodshed daily. Polish army soldiers in the area were stopped by Russian military and stripped of their uniforms or worse beaten and murdered.
Their bodies were left on the roadside, in ditches, in fields waiting for wildlife and flies to finish them off.
You know, in the lead-up to 1939 there were known Communist sympathisers in our area, we did not think much about it. One of them locally was Piotr. Everyone knew he was a Communist sympathiser, well there he was, whenever there was an arrest by the NKVD in my neighbourhood, Piotr was there, marching along with the NKVD officials.
It turns out that Piotr, like so many other Communist sympathisers, had made up lists of people he knew who were anti-bolshevist and here he was feeling ever so important helping the NKVD arrest my fellow neighbours and cart them away to be deported.
And now here we were, our country split into 2 parts, Germany occupying and controlling the West and Russia occupying and controlling the east. I was bewildered, confused, trapped.
What about my family, my mother Stanislawa, my father Aleksander, my brother Lutek and sisters Regina, Irena, Stefania? And my dear children, dear god, my children, darling Lucyna and handsome Zdzislaw.
My world was turned upside down and beside me were my fellow soldiers in exactly the same postion. We were angry, scared, hungry and powerless.
Poland was hemmed in by 2 superpowers, we stood no chance and our future seemed doomed.
Captured by the Russians
In late September 1939 we were captured by the Russians. We were told if we laid down our arms we would be free men, free to walk home. We laid the guns down. How foolish! The Russians took control over us and now we were prisoners of war.
I could not understand why this was happening, after all Poland and Russia still had in place a "Non Aggression Pact". One of the men yelled this to the Russians.
He replied that the Soviet Union intended to override this, in fact he continued, your government no longer exists and so there is no-one to continue this agreement with. I was confused! What had happened in the last few weeks?
A Russian officer approached the part fo the group I was in and looked us directly in the eye. "I wonder if you know that your beloved government has fled Poland like cowards? Even right now, your president is sitting somewhere safe enjoying a good life safe outside his country. You have all been badly let down, you have no government anymore, your country is gone", well my breath was taken away with this statement!
"You are in a hopeless situation, the Ukrainians hate you and even your own working class have begged us Soviets to intervene and rescue you from hopelessness. Don't worry though, we will only detain you for a little time and once we have collected your personal information and we know who you are and where we need to return you to we will get transport organised.
We were all confused, so much had happened lately, so much war, we were (in hindsight) far too quick to believe these words. Reluctantly we agreed. Days went by and more military men were brought to where we were as well all awaited this Soviet transport.
Train To A Soviet Prison
The trains arrived, however it did not escape comment that they were cattle trucks. Forty of us men went into each cattle truck. There was nothing inside, not even a toilet. We did not complain though, for we were lucky to be going back home (or so we thought).
Soon the train was on its way, we sang, smiles on our faces, we were going back home, it felt so good! We talked about what we were going back to, did our streets and houses still exists, were our families still there and waiting for us? The tension was incredible as we all dealt with our own fears and worries. Our joy though soon turned to extreme dismay, anger, confusion and rage!
Through the cracks in the wood of the carriage we could see the passing countryside. Something was wrong with it, this was not the way back to Poland! We tried to open the carriage door to get a better look, but it was locked! We were starting to get very worried now, had the Russians tricked us?
It was starting to become very apparent we were prisoners, the taking away of our guns, the cattle wagons, the locked door and the unfamiliar countryside were all started to add up to one thing, we were going to the Soviet Union!
Worse yet, the fear and agitation were conspiring with our lack of a toilet and it was at this point men began to urinate against the walls of the carriage. Was this a protest? It felt like it!
If we were going to the Soviet Union and we were prisoners then without a doubt the NKVD were controlling this train journey. Shivers went down my spine. The NKVD were the only people I knew of that transported live people in trains to their burial. They were the worst undertakers you could wish for.
The train journey itself was relatively short. What made it long though was the stops, constantly stopping awaiting another connecting train to pick us up.
Not only sis we stop at stations for refuelling or to change trains but also in the middle of nowhere as well. Each time the carriage door would be unlocked, we would be herded out and forced to sit in groups with a Russian guard watching over us.
What was really strange was that each time the train stopped locals would be waiting nearby eager to try and buy anything from us. It was very strange!
Most in demand were watches. We sold our things, what use were they to us now? Our pockets quickly filled with wads of roubles, we had no clue what this foreign money was worth until one of the group attempted to buy some Russian cigarettes from a station.
It slowly dawned on us that sheer quantity of paper money (which would have been a small fortune back in Poland) was worthless here. Those filthy cheating Russians!
At one station we heard that up to 450,000 Polish soldiers had been captured in total. Given that Germany had completely seized control of the West of Poland this new knowledge made my heart sink. Poland as a country was finished.
Having just gotten used to this new news I was bewildered to hear that about 42,000 polish soldiers from Belarus and Ukraine had been released. Although I lived in Bialystok at the time, I could be argued to have Belarussian links and yet I had not been released. I wondered why.
So back in the cattle truck we kept climbing, filthy, unwashed, unshaven, stinking and with low spirits. Our journey to who knows where continued.
Eventually the train stopped for the last time. We were herded into the back of lorries and transported along open roads. I think this was the Ukraine we went through.
A bleak Soviet POW camp awaited us. All our hopes were dashed, all along the train journey we had been told we would be home soon and now we were prisoners of the Soviet Union in a POW camp. Every hope we ever had drained out of our bodies, bitter and twisted, our spirits dashed, we silently gave into the Soviets.
We were served thin soup and a piece of brown bread. Exhausted we fell asleep.
In the morning after a wash (it felt so good even if the water was freezing!) we were called to the center of the camp where makeshift tables had been setup, piles of paper and record cards on it.
At the table an NKVD officer sat. One by one we went to the table where our surname, fathers name, date of birth, address, education, occupation, rank and unit name were taken down. My surname of Gostik was changed to the Russian equivalent of Hoscik at this point. I did not care, the Soviets had already taken my soul, what use was a name now?
I began to notice that the Russians were separating people into groups, specifically NCO's and Policemen were in one group and regular officers in another. The NCO and Policemen group was getting worse treatment than my group. The Russians despised those that rose above the working class and this was being enacted on this group of people.
I noticed one group of NCO's were standing within our group, they had clearly concealed their status from the Russians. Although I was not aware at the time, this would prove to the the smartest move they would ever make and changed the course of their destiny. The group of NCO's and Policemen would not know it at this time but their fate was a bullet in the head at Katyn forest.
We were searched for weapons and knives and I might add robbed in the process by the NKVD. Shortly afterwards we realised the group of NCO's and Policemen were no longer with us. We would never see them again.
In A Soviet Court
The Soviet military then handed us over to the NKVD for processing. By the way NKVD stands for Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, better known as the NKVD or secret police).
The NKVD then hauled us into court on fake charges under the Soviet penal code. Some of my friends were charged with treason, others with being counter-revolutionaries. As such, we were not "prisoners of war" and therefore had little to no protection from whatever the Soviet authorities had in mind for us.
Reception centers and transit camps (well, prisoner of war camps really!) were setup for us at Jukhnovo (Babynino rail station), Yuzhe (Talitsy), Kozelsk, Kozelshchyna, Oranki, Ostashkov (Stolbnyi Island on Seliger Lake near Ostashkov), Tyotkino rail station (56 mi/90 km from Putyvl), Starobielsk, Vologda (Zaenikevo rail station) and Gryazovets.
Around 25,000 of us soldiers and NCO's were assigned to hard labour in Siberia (heavy metallurgy, roadworks etc).
Once we arrived at these camps (from October 1939 to February 1940) we were subjected to heavy interrogations. Those lying Russians kept telling us we would be released but we knew it was all lies. Never trust a Russian my dad told me. And he was right!
The camps were mainly located in former Orthodox monasteries. For the most part we we were well treated, we could have personal belongings and money. However the Russian officials would constantly try to recruit us, to be their spies or indeed to find out if we were dangerous to them. Someties people would just disappear from the camp and we never saw them again.
Whilst I was in Russian captivity we heard that the Germans were removing vast amounts of Poles in the West. Where were they going? We did not know.
Then, fear paralyzed me. I heard that the Russians were deporting Polish people in the East to Siberia. Dear God! What was happening? I remember my father telling me of a time when this had been done previously but now, again? Anger, red hot anger coursed through me…my world, my country, my life, everything had changed inside months.
I heard that any person who dared to speak out against the Russian takeover, even in the slightest comment, was branded an enemy of the Soviet Socialist Republics and that the outcome for them, at best, was a long train ride to the "big white bear" (Siberia) or Kazakhstan.