After the outbreak of World War 2, Poland was invaded from the West by Germany and from the East by the USSR, which was at that time allied with Germany. The Soviets deported between 1 and 2 million Polish civilians to labour camps in Northern Russia and Siberia. Most of them were women, children and old people. (Most men of military age were fighting in the armed services.) About half of those deported survived.
In about January 1940 when I was 10 months old, my mother and I were deported from Pinsk in Eastern Poland to Archangel in Northern Russia (just South of the Arctic Circle.) We lived there until we were released in about September 1941 (when Germany attacked Russia.) We then travelled by rail to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, a transit centre for those released from labour camps and for members of the Polish army. (During this journey, my mother lost me for three days when the train made an unscheduled departure while she was queuing for food.)
From Tashkent we were sent to the Caspian Sea (about a three week journey by lorry convoy) and thence to Jussuf Abad, near Teheran, Iran where we lived in tents in a refugee camp for about 18 months. (Teheran is about 7,000 feet above sea level and snow a metre deep in winter is common.)
(Now that Russia was an ally, Polish soldiers were told to report to the nearest Russian Division. The Russians murdered most of the Polish officers (about 8,000) and about 14,000 others, including police officers, intelligentsia, government officials, landowners, priests etc.; in fact anyone who might have any influence in the Polish community. The most notorious executions were of about 4,000 officers in Katyn.) Nearly one in five of the Polish population lost their lives during WW2. (As a comparison, the appalling British losses in WW1 were about one in fifty of the population.)
My mother wrote this piece in her diary in the mid or late 1940s. I found it and translated it a few years after her death in 1956 at the age of 49. The title of the piece is her own. (Incidentally, the title and theme is reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s book “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” that was first published in 1962.)
A Day; Just One of Many
25 December 1940
It is 5 a.m. and cold and dark. With an effort I move my aching bones, slide off the boards of the bunk and get up very quietly, so as not to wake my child. Carefully, I manage to tie up my felt boots in the dark without getting the laces tangled. Lightly, so as not to wake him, I kiss my son on the forehead and go out.
It is dark. The Aurora Borealis has gone out. Around me is the treacherous slippery whiteness of frozen snow. On my left looms the dark mass of the barracks and on my right I can sense, rather than see the vast expanse of white.
I have to feel my way along the path in this white darkness. There is just time to go into the canteen for a bowl of soup. “Soup” they call it! Hot water with a few grains of barley at the bottom. I remember the great day when we had chicken soup. They must have been telling the truth because I found a real chicken’s feather in mine!
My felt boots creak and slide over the frozen surface. I can tell by the sound that I am crossing the bridge. On the right looms the stable. At last there is a glimmer of light. Thank goodness that we were recently given permission to keep the tack in the drying room so that it is warm and pliable instead of being frozen hard. The old nag called Groza turns her weary gaze towards me. She is chestnut but looks white because she is covered in hoar frost. She lowers her head to let me put on her collar and then we go out into the darkness.
I find my way to the sledge. My hands stiffen and freeze as I hitch the horse between the shafts and tighten the girth. At last I have finished and can put on my linen gloves and move off to join the other sledges. It is difficult to steer in the tangle of horse-drawn sledges moving in the dark especially as each sledge has a trailer attached to it by chains.
At last the column of sledges moves off into the darkness of the forest. Now I can put the reins between my knees and roll a cigarette. A scrap of newspaper, a twist of home-grown tobacco. I smoke it without taking it from my lips until I can feel it burning them.
The sledge is turning. The horse knows the way. The boughs of pine and fir loom darkly above, heavy with snow. It would be beautiful in daylight but right now it is still dark.
After half-an-hour the trees thin out and we arrive at the felling area. The sledges disperse to their working areas. My group, like all the others, consists of five people; four loaders and one overseer. The overseer is Russian. I can see one sledge already in position in my area. I recognise Manka by her silhouette. As I come closer, I hear that she is crying. “My first Christmas here” she sobs. “Why am I here?” She is 17 years old. She was brought here with her little brother and her elderly parents. “Bear up Manka, don’t cry,” I tell her, “it’s a waste of tears. You must be strong! Tears will do you no good and will only freeze.”
The rest of the sledges arrive. We dig the logs out of the snow one by one as we find them; firs, pines, birches, spruce, larch and we load them onto the sledges. It is not easy to manoeuvre back onto the road through the stumps of trees hidden in the deep snow or to avoid snagging the chains or overturning the sledge or trailer. Everyone struggles to achieve this, if only to avert the curses of the overseer who in one sentence can accommodate an unbelievable number of the foulest oaths.
At last the first load is on the sledge and I am on the road back, wading through the snow, leading the horse.
The first load is carried in a spirit of despair; the second with hope in anticipation of the grey light of day; the third with the pleasure of knowing that there is only one more load before the meal break and the warmth of the fire.
Before driving onto the embankment from which the logs are rolled down into their individual piles, one has to stop in front of Sasha’s post. Sasha is the tally man who records how much each person brings. In the glare of the fire, he looks even more frightening than in daylight. He is short and squat and dreadfully hunched with a malicious face and a look of hatred in his eyes. I have always thought of him as Quasimodo.
The grey light of dawn creeps in. You cannot say that there is no day at all. There is even some sun, sometimes. It looks pale and feeble and only just peeps over the horizon as though only to prove that it still exists. Having shown itself briefly, it sets almost at once, as though surprised to see people working and surviving in these limitless snowbound forests.
Marysia brings the dinner. The gruel, although flavourless, is hot. The horses stand in line and munch hay. Groza, freed of her bridle, eats with the others.
In the heat of the fire, the snow trodden into the felt boots and lodged in clothing melts and finds its way into every crevice. You know that as soon as you move away from the fire, everything will freeze solid but it doesn’t matter. It is warm now and now is all that matters.
The half-hour is over all too quickly. Back into the forest to haul another two loads while it is still half light. The last load is taken back partly by feel and partly by the horse’s instinct. Now I look forward to the dark and with it the end of work for the day.
The last bend. On the embankment, I can barely see the silhouettes of the other loaders. The sledges of those that have unloaded their logs pass me going in the opposite direction. One sharp turn and we are on the bridge. Suddenly, Groza remembers her dim and distant skittish youth and stupidly, pointlessly just mutinies. She knows one little trick that will give her a few minutes rest. She stops dead, and when hit with a stick to make her move, she moves backwards until the collar slides over her ears. She then lunges forwards, knowing that by doing so she will have loosened the various fastenings and unhitched herself from the sledge. She seems to know that the tack is frozen hard and stiff as a board and that re-hitching the sledge is painfully slow and difficult. Groza! You would sometimes pull this little prank two or three times in the course of a journey.
At last the sledge is unloaded and unhitched. Groza is so exhausted and apathetic that she does not even hurry to the warmth of the stable. Freed of her tack and rubbed down, she starts on her hay. We will see each other again tomorrow.
The road home seems terribly long. My feet do not bend. Each foot is literally encased in a block of ice so that it is impossible to walk quietly and my steps echo down the barrack corridor.
I come into my room to find my very own ray of sunshine; a little figure runs up to me clutching a pair of dry slippers. “Hello Mummy!”