Freed: Archangel To Lugovoye
The Morning Of The "Amnesty" Announcement
One morning (12 August 1941), a Russian officer came into our hut. There was something different about his walk today, my curiosity was aroused.
We were ordered to stand up, he then began to pace the room and tell us that the Germans had invaded Russia. You know, even though I hated the Germans, I hated the Russians more and so to know that the Germans had invaded made my heart flutter a little.
He told us that we had been freed, we were no longer captives of Russia. A man called General Anders was forming a Polish Army in Exile who would fight with the Red Army against the Germans. Well, hadn't things taken a turn I thought!
Apparently, Russia saw us as "free soldiers" to help them defeat the Germans. It was an insult to us, after all we had been imprisoned for nothing other than being Polish.
Now we were to help our captures fight their oppressors, the very oppressors we had been fighting when the Russians captured us and sent us to the Gulags. I remember thinking that their so called "amnesty" was every bit as fake as the arrest charges that had brought us all here.
We were told, encouraged even, to join this army. The officer then left the hut.
Wild conversation then broke out, some men wanting to fight the Germans, some saying they would never help Russia, others remarking that either way we were free men again.
I could not sleep! Would we be able to defeat the Germans? Would we be able to return to Poland? Were my family still alive and would normal life with the family resume?
None of us slept, we were free men and yet we had nowhere to go to so we slept freemen in a hut that just the night before had held us as captives.
In the early hours of the morning men began to talk, to discuss their thoughts, to lay plans. Jubilation broke forth, we talked excitedly, we sang old Polish songs, if only there was some Vodka to drink!
We got up, put our arms round each other and sang, laughed, cried all the time dancing. No-one cared how they danced, how stupid they looked, we were drunk on jubiliation alone!
Then, eventually, reality and sadness set in. We needed to know more about this new Polish Army, who was this man Anders? We asked each other, but no-one knew. One man said he was not sure but he thought Anders had at one time fought for the Russians.
This confused me even more, how could a man who fought for the Russians lead a Polish Army of strong devout Polish men fanatical about their homeland. It made no sense at all. But we continued to hope.
The Amnesty Changes Russians Attitude Of Poles
Before the amnesty the Russians had regarded us as weak, they perceived we had been too easily beaten by the Germans.
But once Germany turned on Russia and invaded it (and started winning!) the Russians attitude to us soon changed. If Russia was at real threat from the Germans then they must have been a real threat to us Poles also. I secretly wanted Russia to win and it felt strange to feel this for Stalin, my captor. Now we were to be fighters for freedom and for allies.
Word Breaks Out About Anders Recruiting Stations
The next morning at breakfast we were told that recruiting stations had been setup in Totskeye and Buzuluk, we were to make our own way there although we would be given some rations and train passes for some of the journey.
The rations arrived, not all men got them but between ourselves we shared the food and supported our fellow countrymen.
Suddenly our Russian captors were patting us on the back claiming " we will fight Germany together". Had they forgotten they had taken our dignity, our freedom and everything we held dear to our hearts?
But even more surprising was the attitude of fellow captives who were not poles. They were not being asked to fight for Russia and now, with us Poles about to fight for Russia we were seen as being as bad as the Russians, perhaps even fully Russian and therefore untrustworthy. Our friends had now made us their enemies!
Getting Ready To Leave
This amnesty meant the end of repression of all Polish people in Siberia. We were free to go. All I have to do now is wait for my release documents to come through. (Editors note : sample document to be added here soon).
So even a whole month or more after the announcement of the amnesty and our freedom from captivity we were still living at our former place of captivity, some working, some just passing time.
Well at this point I had only served 15 months of my 8 year sentence, the release was very welcome but my heart felt heavy, yet more fighting and more struggle ahead.
At the same time I wondered about Stanislawa my wife. Where was she? Was she alive? And my children, how were they?
How I longed to be back with them but I had to put these thoughts to the back of my mind for now I had to journey south to an important railway junction in Lugovoya in Kazakhstan to signup for Anders army.
Leaving SevDvinLag Forever
Finally my documents came through, I was summoned to the camp commanders office. The "Certificate Of Release" lay on the table in front of him. I had waited for what seemed like forever for this moment and yet I felt nothing, the Soviets had stripped me of ability to feel emotion.
I went around the camp saying goodbye to all my friends, even the ones who were not Poles who regarded me as a Russian because we were going to fight for Russia by defeating the Germans.
I met Dimka, a Russian who had befriended me. He wished me good luck and a safe journey, there was sadness in his eyes because he would remain at SevDvinLag whilst I would be the lucky one by leaving. I am old he said, death is waiting for me. But you are young, you have a family and wife to return to, Go" Wladyslaw Go! do not stay here a moment more.
A flicker of an old emotion washed through me, it was as if my body was remembering what love and family felt like, trouble was the Siberian chill had frozen my emotions too. But I knew I had to go, I had to return to Poland one way or another. I am ashamed to admit it but I was sad, depressed even, to be leaving SevDvinLag. The Russians had nearly beaten me.
As I was leaving SevDvinLag a Russian officer approached me and pushed a piece of paper into my hand. I asked what it was. This, he said is a list of where you can buy a railway ticket. I asked him where the Polish army was, he denied all knowledge of having this information. Luckily another Russian officer appeared and urged me to head to Totskeye.
I was given a basic idea of the route I would need to take to get there. They told me to avoid large towns and cities if possible becuase Polish prisoners from the GuLag were not particularly welcome there. We could reside there for a night or two but only with special permission (which I was told might be difficult to get at each town or city).
Travelling To Lugavoye
We Poles were given permission to use trains as part of journey to Lugovoye. The trains were cramped and often we had to miss one and wait days for another, hoping for a space to get on it.
I remember my first train, we had only been underway a few hours when it pulled into a siding and we were told our journey had terminated as the train was required to take Russian soldiers to the front. It was winter. At this rate I thought it would take till spring to reach Totskeye.
I found a camp nearby containing freed Poles and stayed a few nights with them until my next train was due. The Poles there were friendly and happily shared herrings with me. At night we slept close together to share body heat. We all stank as we had not washed in weeks but nobody cared. Freedom with fellow Poles was worth this inconvenience.
In the morning curious Russians would visit the Polish camp and say "Idi Z Bogom" which means "God be with you". This meant so much to us broken spirited Poles.
During odd moments we would get into conversation with Russians and would tell them about the Gulags, our captivity there and the treatment we got along with the hard labour.
They would give us empty looks, disbelieving us completely. I knew they could not comprehend how their hero, their Stalin, could allow this. How deluded and brainwashed they are I thought. I felt sorry for them. Poland was a much better place to live and I was going back to my beloved Poland.
We did large amounts of walking, some people had walked hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles. Mothers too exhausted to walk would simply put their baby into the arms of a stranger and fall to the ground and expire. It was horrendous.
In between using the trains to head towards the recruiting post for Anders army, we also walked through the frozen Soviet Union. Many deaths happened along the way, we buried whom we could in shallow graves because the snow was hard to dig out with next to no equipment.
It was so utterly ironic that have fought the Germans and the Russians we were deported to hard labour in archangel, survived that suffering much loss of human dignity in the process, only for some of us to perish on the path to freedom.
Occasionally we would pass piles of frozen corpses that had been set down from hauled wagons. We got so used to the site it was fast becoming normal.
Stalin was turning us all into barbarians without our consent! The minute a human being stops mourning the loss of another is the minute we start to lose sanity and return back to being cavemen.
Inside I cried, the inhumanity of it all! Here was I, a father and a husband, witnessing things I never ought ot have. How could I look my wife Stanislawa in the eyes again?
How could I pickup and cuddle Lucyna or Zdzislaw? Witnessing these things had changed me from the loving person I once was, I could not honestly return to my former personality.
Well, one way or another we made it to Lugavoye and located General Anders recruitment camp. The snow was thick as we trudged through it. I saw tents with Polish men hanging around them. What a welcome sight that was! We Poles would band together, fight together and once more become great in our homeland!