One experience of Soviet 're-settlement' among millions - my father's story
The story you are about to read is my late father's experience of Soviet 're-settlement' from Poland. It begins in 1939, when he was a thirteen year old boy living in Maloryta, a small town in what was then South East Poland. His father was a political activist and a lawyer who had specialised in defending workers groups. What follows are my father's own words, with changes made only when necessary to maintain sense when transcribing the spoken word into text.
My dad Stan Pawlinski, then Waldemar Maley, aged about 13, Circa 1940, Kazakhstan.
Just before, or within a month or so of the war starting, father thought it prudent that some of us should spend time with friends or relatives away from the town, especially as the station and bridge were not too far away from our house. We travelled in darkness in a horse drawn cart on a country road full of bumps. All I could see were silhouettes of trees and eventually, buildings. Father got down and we could hear voices, which got louder as father and whoever he was with were coming back towards the cart. The conversation was in the dialect of Belorussian and Ukrainian, and the words filled me with fear and foreboding. ‘Anton’ the voice said, ‘Run; if the Ukrainian Nationalists catch you, they will cut your throat!’. The journey back home was very quiet.
Maloryta was bombed shortly after the Germans began hostilities with Poland. Somebody said they were attacking the Station. Our house was right opposite, and I rushed home. The bombardment was still ongoing, so I ran into a nearby field full of sunflowers, and tried to shelter. My half brother Czeslaw, who we knew as Dobrek, was killed in this attack. He was a year younger than me. He had been out playing, in an avenue lined with trees opposite the station, when the bombing began and he was struck by a piece of shrapnel. He was hit in the temple. The entry and exit wounds were very small, but even a tiny piece of shrapnel in such a vulnerable place, had meant his death. I remember very little of the funeral. To my recollection father had to do everything. He made the coffin, and conducted a simple ceremony and the burial, himself. If he did have help, I do not remember it. This bombardment also caused some terrifying destruction. The house next but one to ours took a direct hit and there was absolutely nothing left, nothing but a big crater. The trees around the house still stood, and you could see the down from the pillows and quilts in the destroyed house, scattered amongst the branches. The side of the house next to us, which had been nearest to the blast, was also badly damaged. This was my only direct experience of German action at this time.
Very soon the Soviets occupied Maloryta. From the time Czeslaw was killed, to the time we were 're-settled', I do not remember very much of the facts. Mostly I remember feelings. I can almost feel now what I had felt then. Waiting in anticipation of something going to happen, not knowing what, with a feeling of nausea in the pit of one’s stomach. Maybe because everyone around us felt it, there was no relief from advice and sympathy.
Soon the Red Army was in full control. There were rumours of pockets of resistance, which were confirmed in later years. Quite a number of Red Army men were around the Station, and it was noticeable that they were not as well equipped as Polish soldiers were. Their uniforms were shabby (except for the officers). From what I remember they were disciplined when on duty and when officers were around, but if not they always looked for food, vodka, Polish cigarettes and tobacco. One heard of Communist sympathisers pointing the finger at people, and many were arrested.
The police were replaced by a militia, and the council authorities were all new. But I had to go to school. War or no war my parents believed in education. At school I remember being utterly confused. History was being re-written, we received lessons in Russian language and some, what I know now to be, indoctrination.
Father was arrested in Maloryta on the 17th March 1940. I know now that it was not uncommon for left wing intellectuals and activists to be arrested. Soon after our turn came, and on the 13th April 1940 the ‘re-settlement’ to Kazakhstan started. My first recollection is entering our dining room and seeing our mother putting our prized possession, a fine Persian rug, onto the blanket which was spread on the floor. There were two Red Army soldiers flanking her, and they went everywhere she did, telling her in Russian repeatedly to get on with it. I can still remember their faces and their characteristic peaked caps. Mother also took our big eiderdown, while at the same time telling me what to do, how to pack, what to take. I was following her example by making a bundle in such a fashion that it could be tied, and carried on the back with the knot across the chest. A very well known art as practised by millions of refugees all over the world. Smaller items and food went into linen pillow cases. I was told to put on as many clothes as I could, and all this time the soldiers were 'encouraging' us to get on with it.
We were fortunate in one respect, in that we lived not far from the marshalling yard, where we were to assemble. As we approached the yard I could see cattle trucks. I knew the place very well, it being my former playground. Many a time I had seen cattle, timber or fish being loaded there. I did not see the significance of the cattle trucks then. As we arrived at the yard a milling crowd confronted us, ringed by Red Army men. The hubbub and confusion slowly turned into people continually asking questions. “Where are we going?, why have you arrested us?, what will become of us?, how are we going to live?”, and so on. Many who knew my mother and her knowledge of the Russian language asked her to approach the Red Army personnel and ask them where we were going to be ‘re-settled’ to. That was the first time I had came across the expression, ‘re-settling’. All this was happening at bewildering speed, with accompanying confusion and anxiety, and very many questions to which there were no answers.
I do not remember getting into the cattle truck, but I remember very well the position we occupied. Inside, there were platforms with two tiers on each side. Once we were inside, there was no room to spare. We were mostly women, old men and children of all ages, although I do not recollect small babies. Toilet facilities consisted of a hole in the floor of the wagon. There were all kinds of people from peasants to professionals. Some were ill prepared for what was to come. Some were bringing treasures, possessions which had no bartering value, and that was their undoing later on. I remember one such person, dressed in a light summer frock and light coat, carrying a small suitcase. My mother knew her, and commented on it. I think my mother had learned a hard lesson earlier in her life when leaving Kiev for Poland. In retrospect, on the whole, people of the land were not only prepared better with clothing and food, but also for what was to come. They could withstand the hardship better.
We were still in Maloryta, in semidarkness, and I could hear the shouting of the guards or railwaymen, and the clinking of the buffers as the train moved away from the goods yard. I was never to see my birthplace again. Inside the truck some were crying, some praying aloud, some counselling others. Some, like my mother, were very quiet. I was completely bewildered and numb. The only source of light when the sliding doors shut, was from the small rectangular barred windows, and a narrow gap between the halves of the doors. When opened or closed only one side was used. The windows and gaps in the doors were also the only source of ventilation. Sometime during the journey I began feeling faint. My mother and I were on the top tier farthest from the window. It was agreed to take turns at the window to revive those who were gasping for breath. This was a problem during the day when it was hot. During the night it was cold. We were sleeping on boards, softened only by what we had with us. What food we had was soon exhausted and we had to depend solely on what was provided by those who were supervising our ‘re-settlement’. What we were given was irregular, depending on distances between stations.
When the train stopped, those who had anything to barter with, could get extra from the guards, who, as the journey progressed got very choosy. Some in the wagon had more food with them than others. Those of the land were usually better placed, and at the beginning of the journey there was a certain amount of sharing. Very soon though all realised it was each one for himself in order to survive. There were even attempts at thieving, notwithstanding the close proximity we were to each other.
I remember myself being continuously hungry, a feeling that did not leave me for the entire duration of my stay in the USSR. I started dreaming of food. Nothing exotic, mostly what I was getting at home. And later on in Martuk, where we lived for a while, when staying in an unheated draughty room, winter clothing and bedding was added to my dreams. As the journey progressed in total or semidarkness, it was spent in waiting, anxious and fearful of the unknown. People became more silent, and talked in subdued voices. I was dropping off, awakening when the train was manoeuvring in yards with the clinking of the buffers and guards shouting, and when it all subsided dropping off again. Those at the window were relating information continuously, that is, if there was anything to relate such as the names of towns we did not stop at, changes in direction, or troop movements backwards and forwards. Changes of direction I remember most vividly, as sometimes my mother was asked about names of rivers, or towns, geography being her forte subject at school, especially the Russian empire. We were definitely zigzagging all over Russia, very often going in the opposite direction from the destination at which we eventually landed. When the train stopped and the sliding doors were opened by the guards, the light and fresh air were intoxicating. We were told that a party was allowed to go for boiling water, for which we had to get all available receptacles. We learned very quickly to have as much water as possible, as we never knew when the next stop would be. We also got some bread, and slabs of a type of pastry made from a cereal similar to semolina. It was cut into squares, and after a while one learned to like it very much. I do not recollect getting very much else.
On one occasion I was one of the group going for boiling water. There were a number of other people who were inside the canteen area. Very often the tap was outside but in this case it was in the canteen. Usually nobody else was allowed to mix with the ‘Polish Bourgeoisie’. Unexpectedly I felt something thrust into my hand, and heard a whispered instruction to hide it under my shirt. Trying to look inconspicuous is not in my nature, but I got safely back into the wagon and my mother and I were richer by half a loaf of bread and some meat. I can still remember with warmth the heavily lined and scarred face of the old woman. Even after over fifty years her kind deed has not dimmed in my memory.
The wagons must have been used before, as we soon discovered to out cost. They were also carrying those most unwelcome passengers, lice. Very early in the journey all in the wagon started experiencing great discomfort. My experience was that of torment. At home although there was the occasional ‘find’ resulting in great consternation and immediate remedial action to eradicate the parasite, we were not prepared for what was to follow. Severe infestation, which lasted most of the stay in the USSR. Every opportune moment was spent in trying to get rid of the offenders. The fact that it was a problem was proven by that fact that in every large town there was a de-lousing centre. A chamber that one could drape ones clothes over, and when closed it exposed the clothes to super steam. It was effective when it worked as designed, but when the steam was not hot enough the respite from lice was very short. Sometimes the steam was so hot that it shrivelled the clothes. When finally settled in our new home we had to devise our own methods. I shall spare the reader the details.
I have no recollection of us arriving in the town of Martuk, (in Aktyubinsk region, Kazakhstan) our final destination. But I do recall later looking at Martuk from the part of the station we must have arrived at, and seeing a building dominate the whole of the town. I later learned it was a very high grain silo / elevator. Otherwise the town and surrounding countryside were monotonously flat. The silo was part of the station complex, and trains could pass right under the grain discharging chute. We were taken with many others in a lorry which stopped at various places where those in charge shouted commands for so many to get off. We in turn were dropped off at our new 'house', and so our life in Kazakhstan started.
My grandmother, Kazimiera Pawlinska, in Kazakhstan.
My mother and I had a small room, and but for our bundles it was empty. It was very basic, no mod-cons. I remember it so well because next morning I was up early and exploring outside, when I saw a Mongol man going to the outside toilet carrying what looked like a small teapot. I was so curious I had to ask. Not only did I learn about the ways of different religions, but also the importance of hygiene in such primitive conditions, which was normal to the people living there at the time. There was no need as yet to heat the house, but we still needed fuel for cooking and washing, especially our clothes. Fuel was a problem. There were a number of wells in the locality, so at least water was not. There were houses in certain parts of the town with piped water, and internal WCs, but I would reckon that none of the ‘re-settlers’ were in them. As I lived in Kazakhstan with my mother and others, I learned to cope. But without any doubt, but for my mothers ability and will to survive, events would have been different.
Looking at the life we led in retrospect, the society was constantly afraid and profoundly corrupt.
One of the proverbs my mother used quite a lot at that time was the equivalent of the English ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. One had to bargain, using material goods unknown to the USSR, In order to obtain a better position at work, or concessions from those in authority. Although we were at the lowest end of society, it would surprise me indeed if the higher echelons were any different.
My mother was always seeing the authorities about allocations or questions regarding what was allowed. If not on her own behalf, then representing others. It was on one of these visits that she got me a job, because the next thing I remember was working in the grain silo. Lorries with grain from the ‘Kolkhoz’ were discharging grain into the elevator pit, and it went through processes of separation, drying and then either storage or discharge for immediate wagon loading. The USSR was desperate for food. The people I met were mostly old men who knew the job, young boys and many middle aged women (some from amongst the ‘re-settlers’). This was a good period for me for food, because I could always take some grain with me. There were guards and we were searched, but providing my pockets were not bulging the guards always ignored it.
Another thing I remember is the public address system. Next to uniforms, what fills me even now with dread, is public address systems, as they evoke memories of the way they I experienced their use in a totalitarian system. It started in my birthplace of Maloryta, but realisation of its pervasive effects did not fully enter my consciousness until I was out from under its spell, and I had left the Soviet Union. It was blaring from early morning until late at night. News, propaganda, encouragement to work harder for the glorious Soviet proletarian classes, and all this interspersed with martial music. And then more exaltation of the system in all its aspects, warnings to beware of enemies and the infiltration of spies etc. It was piped in, and although you could switch it off, you dared not. Some people had them in their houses, free. I know from experience that it crept up on one. One started using the phraseology. There was no need to think. Many a time I was checked by my mother. She used to say something like, “next you will be reporting me for incorrect speaking”. There were cases when children did report their parents.
During the stay in the USSR I saw very few shops. The ones I did see were state owned and mostly empty. As soon as an allocation of a commodity came, a queue formed and within a short time the shop was empty again. Life revolved around being aware of the possibilities. The how and where and when of being able to get food or other necessities of life. Our lot was bad enough for mother to sell our prized possession, a Persian rug which she had prudently thought to bring. It was very popular, especially with the Mongol people at the market. Mother did haggle, and thought that she had got a good price for it. On her return, the people who were staying with us in the house at that time thought that she could have held out for more. Mother got payment for the carpet half in money and half in kind. I remember it well, it was the first time we had mutton. It was also the first time I tasted roasted sunflower seed.
I went back to school. I do not know how it came about, but suspect that my mother had a hand in it. My input into our income was comparatively small, but not insignificant. I am assuming that mother must have calculated that we would manage on what she was getting. And so started another instalment in my rather staggered pursuit of knowledge. It couldn’t have been very fruitful, as the only thing I remember is that the Kazak written language has a roman alphabet. Experience from Maloryta had taught me how to get propaganda in one ear and expel it right out the other. I remember that it was a new school with facilities better than in Maloryta. Especially anything to do with sport.
Martuk was a cosmopolitan place; there were Kazaks, Ukrainians, Russians, Tartars, Czechnians, Karmuks and others I do not remember. There was a feeling of xenophobia around, and for a short time I was exposed to it. The Kazaks were the only ones who were not there because of Stalin’s ‘re-settlement’ policy. Whilst in Martuk my mother had a number of jobs. She worked in the hospital and in an institution looking after children. Many a time she would bring home leftovers which were gratefully received. During the day I can remember going to the ‘Stolovnaya’, what I would describe now as a soup kitchen. For a small sum I would get a plate of beetroot or cabbage soup and a hundred grams of bread. By the time mother came home and we would make a meal, I was famished.
We were transferred to the village of Ribakovka, Kolkhoz ‘Krazni Zvesda’, the Collective Farm ‘Red Star’. I have no recollection why, whether it was a decree or some other reason. Our lot was not improved by the move. I remember the house we were dumped into, the flat roofed type that one sees in pictures of the far east. We then had a very cold winter. There was no natural shelter, no trees, no hills, nothing; and the wind was what I remember and dreaded most. If I remember right it was called ‘Pozyonka’, literally a strong wind which ends up on the ground. Such a wind picks up small particles of ice and drives them against the frozen ground, making a tinkling noise, almost a song. When it hits ones face or any other exposed part of the body it is painful and unbearable after a while. I went to see those in charge in order to get work. There was an expression and if I heard it once I heard it a thousand times, ‘those who do not work do not eat’. The philosophy of the Soviet Union; there was no social security, there was no help for the needy. On one occasion when I was already working, well on into our stay in Ribakovka, I was stacking hay for winter fodder with the son of the manager who always wandered around and hardly ever stayed at his post. But this particular time his father, the manager, arrived unexpectedly and caught his son asleep. He gave him a dressing down in front of us, and he gave me as an example, ‘ look at that capitalist boy etc.’ It did not help my lot at all. The boy thought I should have wakened him, as if I knew where he was and what he was doing. It made my life even more miserable.
Amongst the brigade there were Mongols, who were more sympathetic to ‘re-settlers’, and during one of the breaks which used to be called Pirikurka (meaning smoke break), It was explained to me that I was working too hard. It apparently did not matter how hard I worked, my ‘trudodni’ would be small anyway. The ‘trudodni’ means ‘work day’. In effect it was a system of payment which assessed each job and the worker on his worth to the kolkhoz. I was getting half a ‘trudodni’, in other words half a days pay for a days work. I was told by the Mongols that the 'sleepy boy ' was getting one whole ‘trudodni’, a whole days worth of pay. My mother was getting one workday, a tractor driver would get two and a half, and so on. When one had accumulated enough workdays one could get payment. Since we were continuously on the bottom scale we were more often than not asking for a payment in advance of having accumulated enough workdays. Effectively this made one continually in debt to the kolkhoz (not very different from the abuses of 'token' payments which could only be spent in company shops, in capitalist settings).
I remember going on sledges pulled by a pair of oxen to get some hay. What stuck in my mind was the size of the stacks. One hundred to one hundred and fifty metres long. The stacks were covered in snow, and snow at that time in Kazakhstan was up to five metres high. On one occasion I had to stay behind because of the heavy snowfall, but there was no problem. Lying between oxen in a trench of hay was probably the warmest nights sleep I had in Kazakhstan. The oxen were directed by voice alone, mostly by ex Ukrainian’s. If you wanted the oxen to go left you said ‘seb’, and if you wanted them to go right you said ‘sebey’.
To supplement what little fuel we had, and we never had enough, I remember making what to all Mongol nations was and probably still is, what peat was to Scotland. One collected animal dung and mixed it with dry straw or similar, made it into pats and then let them dry, all by hand. Then it was stacked in a similar manner to peat and stored somewhere easy to get at in the winter. The winters in Kazakhstan can be very severe, I remember the inside of the window being as thick with ice as the ledge itself. Mothers eiderdown saved us from a lot of suffering. We slept huddled together under the eiderdown and fully clothed.
After the Winter, I found myself in a group hunting steppe hare. A very long hind legged animal with an ability to jump sideways. Their downfall was that they liked to have their burrows in the sides of river beds, which were dry for most of the year, but had some deep pools. Blocking some of the side entrances, and pouring water in from the top, usually brought the hare out. It was roasted over a fire made from the dung pats, and eaten with relish. When one of a group picking water melons, It experienced the only time in the Soviet Union that I was told, along with the others, that I could eat my fill, but how many water melons can you eat? I also recall trying to sell, home made ‘mahorka’, a type of cut tobacco. We were trying to sell it to the passing troops for food and clothing. To this day I know how to cut and dry tobacco. I learned to ride horses without a saddle. Horses were being brought in to the area to get fixed up for the Red Army. I spent some time in the ‘Solkhoz’ (state farm) several miles away. In the ‘Solkhoz’ one was paid wages, rather than the ‘work days’ of the kolkhoz.
But we were getting poorer. Our possessions which had any bartering value were going fast, and the remainder were already patched and in need of renewal. My mother seemed unable to find extra work. I talked to her years later, and she told me “I wish I had not been so stubborn in sticking to my principles and had joined the party.” When I asked her when she had been asked to join the Communist party, she replied, “they started in Martuk”. Many rumours were circulating. We were desperate for any news which may improve our lot. There were even those who, not knowing the true nature of the Germans, hoped that they would overrun the Soviets. There were also great expectations of the Americans and British interceding on our behalf. But any the news that gave us hope was welcome. Our lot was desperate (things were even worse for my aunt Halina, and my half brothers Zigmund and Tadeusz, who had also been 're-settled' to Kazakhstan).
I found myself sitting on top of a fully laden lorry with my mother. There was nothing to hold on to but our few possessions, and each other. The road was full of pot holes and the driver was in a hurry. We were leaving Ribakovka, and the Kolkhoz Red Star, headed back to Martuk where we stayed for a period. My mother had decided that 'we' must leave the Soviet Union. Strong rumours were circulating that Stalin had approved the formation of a Polish army to be armed and supplied by the allies, and to be stationed in the Middle East. In the Soviet Union absolutely no one could travel farther than the boundaries of the local authorities without a pass. I have a very nebulous recollection of trying to obtain a pass, and the difficulties we had as I was not of ‘call up’ age. They were allowing people to join the Polish army providing they were of ‘call up’ age.
I remember being at the railway station with my mother and seeing trains with many Poles crammed in the wagons passing through towards Yangiyôl (a border town housing a transit camp for Poles to the South West of Toshkent). I do not remember getting a pass. We went to the station and I have a vague recollection that we were intending to board the train ‘on spec’. There wasn’t room for both of us and I was pushed in to a carriage by my mother when one of the trains stopped for a short period. I do not remember how I felt. Probably the excitement of it all was overwhelming. Thus the next chapter of my wartime experiences began. When I asked my mother about it much later in Prudnik, all she did was to shrug her shoulders.
My journey without my mother began, and without any experience of coping for myself. My memory is very hazy until one morning I woke up and discovered that the bundle I had under my head for safe keeping was gone. It had contained some food, a shirt mother had made me and a few photographs. I was at a loss what to do. I had a few roubles on me, but that did not give me confidence as journeys in the USSR were very unpredictable.
Some fellow travellers took me under their wing. They were ‘re-settlers’ from the part of Poland that I came from, and they had been ‘settled’ in the next town adjacent to Martuk. They were all together in a group and their accepted leader was called Mielanik. There were two brothers of that name. I met one of them in Scotland later on. I was to spend the rest of my journey to Yangiyôl in the company of my new found friends. One chap, I think his name was Jatsek, was a very accomplished thief. Although he was younger than me he was very self assured, at least he gave that impression. His story was that his mother had died soon after their arrival in Kazakhstan. He was taken to an orphanage intended for Soviet citizens, apparently there were also those for Polish children. He did not like being there and he and his friends were always running away.
When we entered Kyrgyzstan then Uzbekistan and other Mongol States, the countryside slowly changed from the Steppes of Kazakhstan to cultivated groves of peach and Apricot trees. Even better, we could buy some from local traders for roubles. The journey took us through Toshkent and Samarqand. At Samarqand we spent the night in a dilapidated building, which had some beautiful fresco’s, and looked as if it had seen days of grandeur at one time. From Samarqand we travelled onwards to the transit camp by road via the Persian town of Meshed, a holy town.
We were fed, showered, given some clothes and some money. Some time after we boarded some lorries, old buses and any vehicles which could carry people in order to go to the border. It struck me then that there had been very few Red Army soldiers at the stations between Martuk and the border between the Soviet Union and Persia, the very opposite to when we had left Maloryta.
Our drivers were Persians employed by the British and their reputation had reached us before we boarded the vehicles. Once we crossed the border they travelled at high speed, every stop when we had some tea and a snack, the drivers had their own places where they smoked bubble pipes, and as the day wore on they got higher and higher.
From the border the road was descending most of the way to Tehran, which we had learned was to be our destination after Meshed. The only time the drivers were nowhere to be seen was in Meshed, when we spent the night there. We were ushered into a courtyard of the large house, presumably belonging to some rich person. With a blanket each we spent the night beside the pond. In the morning we were allowed into the street and I remember buying cigarettes.
On the journey we were in convoys of many vehicles, and on at least one occasion one of the vehicles went off the road into a ravine. It was carrying women and girls, there were no survivors. It crossed my mind then that if mother had been able to board the train at Martuk she might have been in the vehicle which met such a tragic end. Such was our fate, I was lucky because the convoy after ours was the last one to leave the Soviet Union. Stalin was creating a Polish army in the Soviet Union under the name Kosciuszko, (Polish Patriots of past uprisings).
I foud myself in a tent, in a town of tents, just outside Tehran, where we remained for a fairly long period. I was able to visit a very famous underground Persian market and a Persian air force display outside the palace of the Shah.
Outside our camp there were scores of traders selling everything imaginable, and we felt very rich because already we were getting a weekly allowance. After Soviet conditions it was luxury indeed. We were warned several times that if we were to eat outside of our kitchen issue, to be very wary not to eat rich food or to over indulge. But for all that there were some deaths and many hospital casualties. I remember one in particular, a chap in my tent could not resist buying hard boiled eggs from the traders outside, and eating them in secret. He was dead the next day.
In late Autumn 1942, in the tented city outside Tehran, we were divided into units. Some, who were old enough, were going into the regular army. Some, as civilians, were going to Rhodesia or South Africa. And some, like myself, were going to the cadets or junior cadets. I had made myself a year older, but was still too young for the army. I had miscalculated, I should have made myself two years older and I would have been in the army. I was kidded on by my mates in the tent, about going to the cadets and being ‘officer material’, but at the time it didn’t bother me at all.
Meantime we were square bashing, singing patriotic songs and bragging to each other about our exploits, no doubt enlarging some aspects and hiding others; behaving I would say normally. We also had at that time, preconceived political ideas, we were all very anti-Communist. Military life is a monotonous one, so apart from a few memorable incidents, time flew by quickly. Good food, exercise and rest, did wonders to our bodies. The time in Tehran had to end, and towards the end of 1942, we left the camp. In true military style we were not told where we were going. The lorries were driven by British soldiers. We were mostly using side roads, I can only assume to keep as straight a line as possible to destinations. The roads were rough, dusty and sometimes only marked by large army tins filled with sand. The tins had held dehydrated potatoes and vegetables used in the army kitchens. They had another use, as we were using them as wash basins. I recall, after a very long and dusty day we arrived at a transit camp weary and numb with fatigue. We were met by Jocks, the first time I had ever seen Scottish soldiers. They were manning that particular camp, and were standing there with enamelled tin cups full of very hot, very strong, very sweet (made with lots of condensed milk) tea. There were many transit camps, evoking memories of camp beds and British army breakfasts. We were going through deserts, scorched earth full of ‘black as if burnt’ stones where we could see no life at all. Through Persia, the Persia - Iraq border, to a transit camp outside Kirkuk. One could see large oil installations in the distance, probably why the Axis powers were so keen to befriend the Persians and Iraqis. We remained in that camp for a few days, allowing us a very welcome rest, and then on to Syria and then to Palestine, to the place where Be’r Sheva is now. At the time I was there the Zionists had started their activities against the Arabs. It would be much later that they turned against the British as well, so we were not affected.
We ended up in barracks where we were to be billeted for several months. The built up part of the camp must have been a permanent military establishment, as it had all the trappings of one such as a guard room. Military life started in earnest, with a routine of getting up in the morning and exercising, ablutions, back on the parade ground for the singing of prayers while we stood at attention, breakfast, lectures in the classroom, dinner, washing up, a short break then military schooling plus training, supper, washing up, a short rest then games or attending to ones personal needs such as washing clothes. Sometimes there would be evening lectures on all sorts of subjects. Most of the days were the same, and we had very few days off, one once a fortnight.
One chap, named Misha, who was billeted in my tent, sticks in my mind. He was supposedly of Polish origin, although he had never been to Poland. He was Jewish and spoke Hebrew, Russian, English and Arabic. He had lived in Moscow originally. He was the most unlikely soldier ever, but could translate instantly from any one of the languages he knew to another. He was very pleasant and easy to get on with, but alas one day he disappeared, as it transpired later so did hundreds of Polish Jews serving in the Polish army. They disappeared all at the same time, and it would appear that it was well organised.
Our life in the cadets was occasionally disturbed by fighting between Zionists and Palestinians. On one occasion they, whoever they were, broke into our armoury. There was no real harm done as we only had a few rifles for ceremonial and training purposes. There were always reports of raids on camps, where they would take anything they could lay hands on. At the same time any remaining Polish Jews, were disappearing as well. On my 'day off' I would visit Jerusalem, or Haifa or Gaza. Transport was no problem. Anyone in uniform thumbing a lift would not wait very long. Australians especially were good at giving lifts. I started a collection of souvenirs and photographs and my side pack was starting to fill. I became very interested in Arab culture. There were quite a lot of them working in the camps, mostly performing menial tasks. Not all of them were ready to speak to us, as a matter of fact some of them were quite reluctant.
Being army cadets we could not escape square bashing, and we were used on a number of occasions at some parade or another, to ‘fly the flag’ so to speak. Being small in stature I was always at the back, so I never actually saw those personages we were parading for.
At one of the regular medical check-ups I was diagnosed as having a trachoma, and ended up as one of two to three dozen who were isolated. Being a highly contagious disease, isolation was total, meaning no lectures. We attended a clinic a few times a day, for treatment by an optician. Other than that we had to remain in semidarkness. So it went on for several weeks, and then on day the optician who was treating us was arrested.
We were sent to a British general hospital and I was discharged in less than ten days. Others whose eyes were badly damaged remained in hospital for a long time. I met one of those who was isolated with me in Glasgow, after the war. He told me that he was one of the witnesses who testified against the optician. It was in a local court, and the optician got ten years jail. Supposedly he was experimenting on us. I was very lucky because the only condition a subsequent examination could find was a stigmatism, which was not the result of the trachoma. The friend that I met was medically discharged from the army and had to wear dark glasses all the time.
Back to my desk, and back to military life. The Cadet force was disbanded and I was sent to Syria and a newly formed unit, for mountain training. I was attached to a Bren carrier unit, and so a new chapter started in my life. My abiding memory of this period is having to carry a machine gun base plate. Very heavy and cumbersome. We were then transfered to Egypt and more training, in desert warfare, night fighting and so on, took place. This involved a lot of driving around in Bren carriers, making clouds of dust which made you choke. We ended up billeted within sight of the pyramids. In our spare time we visited them, and other sights including Cairo, where we hunted for souvenirs and generally killed time as best we could. But we knew all the time we were going to Italy soon.
The MS Batory - Photo from Wikimedia
And so it happened, we boarded a Polish passenger ship, which had been converted into the troop carrier ‘Batory’. We landed, I think, in Brindisi, and then transferred to an ex Italian naval establishment outside Taranto. In the bay outside there were a number of scuttled Yugoslav ships. Those had been ships of supporters of Mihalovic the Nationalist leader who was out of favour with the Allies. We were supposed to keep an eye on them and also some ammunition dumps, and also a small compound containing some Italian prisoners. It was strange because we were paired with Italians who were pro Allies. Of course those chaps, the Italians I mean, were more interested in what they could get in the way of food, clothing, soap and so on from Allied soldiers. The position of the Italian civilians was grim, they were hungry. Just having come from the same situation I could see it and sympathise, but I must say such sentiments were not universal. “They brought it all on themselves” was a much more common kind of comment.
For a period I was with a unit guarding prisoners between Taranto and Bari, in a very desolate district. I was glad when I was transferred to Taranto city where they were housing German prisoners of war. I was impressed with their discipline, or ‘stand-off ishness’, the exact opposite of their allies, the Italians. Our platoon found itself with a group of Cypriot non-combatant muleteers supplying ammunition to forward ammunition dumps in the Battle for Cassino. We were doing it under cover of darkness, going over very rocky ground, where fierce fighting had taken place. Gurkha and Indian regiments had fought there, and of course not all bodies had been taken away. The sweet sickening stench of decaying human bodies is unforgettable.
After that stint our unit was transferred to the Adriatic side, and our battalion was following the retreating Germans. The division my battalion belonged to, the Crossovians, had suffered casualties it could very ill afford, and they were scraping the barrel for reserves. On one occasion a Corporal and I were to go for some supplies. We were to go in a Dodge truck, and the last thing I remember seeing was earth splattering on to the windscreen. The next thing I remember was regaining consciousness in a hospital in Scotland with a priest sitting beside me speaking in Latin, and trying to converse. I understood from this that I had been unconscious for many days, and when I saw myself in the mirror, and saw my twisted face, I burst out crying. I was told that the Corporal I had been with was dead. The messenger also notified me that they could not find my belongings, especially my side pack. So all my souvenirs and memento’s and photographs were gone. I never found out whether it was a mine the truck hit or whether it was some other kind of explosion. I had a number of injuries including wounds from small pieces of shrapnel in my body.
I think the people in charge in my unit, especially Captain Adamzcek, were shielding not only myself but also other young soldiers as well as those well up in years. At least that was my impression. There were no heroics in my life. From the lice infested cattle wagon in the Soviet Union to the best possible attention in a British hospital, it was suffering which only years later I could understand.