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Death by a Thousand Cuts

A Polish Woman’s Diary of Deportation, Forced Labor and Death in Kazakhstan: April 13, 1940–May 26, 1941
Part Four--Continued from September 2002 issue

Zofia Ludwika Malachowska Ptasnik


Edited by John D. L. McIntosh, with assistance from Bogdan Czaykowski and Kenneth Baulk

Monday, August 28, 1940

On Friday, August 23, I returned to the work gang and found everyone in dire need of food and bread. Today, as a favor, tiny pieces of bread were distributed for 5 kopecks. Our administrators have just sent grain to the mill. At present, neither flour nor bread is available here for us. The senseless, wasteful management of the whole enterprise is obvious at every level.

On Friday I had a letter from Mieczek and Marysia Baum. She took him to the Ukrainian High School on Kurkowa Street to a meeting of parents. The Baums however are doing everything to place him in a Polish high school. Mieczek writes that America has sent a delegation to the Soviet Union to negotiate the transfer of deportees [from the Soviet Union] to the British colonies, as rumor has it here [in Lwów], by October 15.

Good God, tear us away from this filth! Even if it were worse, it would be different and in a new place: maybe to Palestine or India. If I am not allowed to stay in my own home, it's better to be on the move.

Monday, September 2, 1940: at the Work Gang

Starting on September 1, it has grown cold. Mornings are so chilly that we have to wear our coats. Up to now we have been sleeping by the road in the fresh air, but last night it got so cold that I moved to a kibitka [a small hut on a wagon with a tiny window and a door, inside there are two tiers of bunks]. Our young people already moved inside two nights ago. Only Mrs. Dobrowolska and I lasted longer, spending the nights under the stars.

Last week I again received 200 rubles from Janek [Baum]. Furniture from the Bladye's [her niece's] apartment dining room and a medical cabinet set were sold for 4,250 rubles. The Baums could not store them any longer because part of their apartment where things were kept was requisitioned by the Soviet authorities and they had no other place to keep them.

Letters from the country keep telling us that we will be taken away from here and set free. I hope it happens soon. Living conditions on the work gang are becoming harder. We are required to do more work on very meagre food rations. Still I have gained 8 lbs. and now weigh almost a hundred pounds. . . .

What a gypsy and paupers' life we lead here! Three times a day we beg for a 7oz. slice of bread. There was no bread this morning to go with our chai [tea] A new pereboi z khlebom [fight over bread]. The woman-baker has been summoned to Sarsai to account for flour and bread distribution.

For dinner and supper we get lapsha, sliced dumplings in a watery liquid masquerading as broth with 3 oz. meat, or rather bone scraps, which usually are thrown out to the dog. Later the dog stole Janka's bread, cheese and fish from a jar. . . .

Thursday, September 5, 1940

Yesterday I received letters from Mieczek and Hania and a card from Jaska [Janina Popiel]. Jaska's card informs me that Irena is working as a waitress in a diner in which Mr. Lachowicz is a bartender. Irena sometimes has to cook meals herself and the whole family wonders how she can manage to do anything on her own. Ewa, unfortunately, has been sick since July 9. Now she is down with scarlet fever. Jaska is going to attend the same Polish school as Mieczek; the former Sisters of St. Benedict's School on Strzelecki Square. It's a ten-grade school. Mieczek has been moved back one grade to grade six with French as the principal language of instruction. Mieczek is apprehensive as to whether he can manage and recalls how wonderful a teacher his own mother was. It was so easy to study feeling her presence everywhere around. My dearest boy!

Hania writes about a fire in Szczeploty in which Ivan Harasym, Hryn Kiselyk, Hryn Geza and Stach Geza suffered losses. All of them were sympathizers of the tovarishchi ["Soviet "comrades"]. Our two carpets were lost at the Kiselyk's home.

Wednesday, September 11, 1940

Nalkowska's House on the Meadows [Zofia Nalkowska, a Polish novelist].

My dear home! My best, holiest! My longing for you fills my eyes with tears. If it happens that I die away from you, thoughts of my last hour will repeat those words which were fervently uttered in deepest faith: my home is my final harbor.

[Note added later in the margin]:

When later a letter from Hania arrived with the description of devastation of our beloved family home, I was ready for the news but still my heart filled with pain and my eyes shed tears.

My heart was totally gripped by one chapter [of Nalkowska's novel]. This small book about the life of simple people from a small developing suburb written in such a good style has given me the idea of publishing my diaries if they ever survive.

Monday, September 11, 1940

Four days without dinner! For breakfast we were given only chai [tea] and 10 oz. bread; in the evening at 10 p.m., potatoes with a watery liquid without any fat for flavor and again, 10 oz. bread.

Wednesday, September 18, 1940: at the Work Gang

The population of Warsaw has swollen to 2 million with refugees from Germany making up half of this number. The Reds are afraid that if Germans or British win they will turn against them. Poland has to wait until the next year because America is busy electing a new president; Roosevelt will probably be elected. Later in November, but more likely in spring, the Americans will join the war.

On September 2 Mieczek wrote that he is satisfied in the new school, though he is only in grade six. He is friendly with his new classmates and was admitted to the German language class. Grade six corresponds to grade two of high school [gimnazium] which means that he has not been set back a year. He is in the Polish school and writes that both teachers and classmates are nice.

Monday, September 23, 1940: at the Work Gang

Gradually people are being moved from the gang. Mrs. Dobrowolska and Mrs. Brewczynska left today. Mrs. Orlowska and Genia are on sick leave. The overseer and two Kazakhs families dismantled their round yurts [tents] and left the work gang. Only nine of us Poles, a couple of tractor drivers and a few Kazakhs are left behind. We are weeding the wheat field. Yesterday my shift did not start until 5 p.m., so I went to the farm to wash myself more thoroughly and launder my dress and other clothing. After returning I worked until 1 a.m. Today very early in the morning at 5 a.m. we were back working. Today the wind is blowing big guns. Our kibitka [hut on wheels] is rocking like a ship at sea. The day is sunny and not too cold. It looks as though we are not going to stay here much longer. Some time ago Mr. Žurowski, a leaseholder on the Kochanowki's estate--a part of the Lachowicz estate near Lwów--arrived here from the 5th Farm to collect "black" barley. He had been deported with his wife and daughter. His son is a POW in German hands. Their life is a bit better than ours on this paupers' farm; it seems that they earn more money. . . .

[Note in the top margin added later]:

Mr. Zurowski died in March 1941 in the Aktyubinsk Hospital from the frostbite he suffered in the buran [blizzard], probably of gangrene.

Wednesday, September 25, 1940

There was good news yesterday: Genia and Mrs. Dobrowolska received letters in which we read that negotiations about the departure of deportees are completed and by September 29 we shall know when we go to India. In the evening two of the otchotchiki [record-keepers], who distribute bread, account for grain, amount of completed work, hectares etc., got into a fight near our kibitka in which Tadzio and Janka were staying. They started to knock and shout: "Uezhai, bo Sovetskii Soiuz vypuskaet vas v Polshchu" [Go away, the Soviet Union is letting you go back to Poland]. What joy overwhelmed us. We all dream about leaving this place as soon as they allow us.

[Note in the top margin]

We are forever deluding ourselves hoping that a change is coming. . . .

The kindhearted Mrs. Szkudlapska gave me her husband's warm sheepskin vest. During the night shift I put it under Winia's summer coat and did not feel the penetrating chill of the night. It has been already three nights of grain cleaning. First night till 1 a.m., second only till 11 p.m.. because the "tryer" [grain cleaning machine] broke down, third night only till 12 p.m., as again the machine did not function properly and we were told by otchotchik [time -keeper]: "nado otdykhaty" [rest time].

Saturday, September 28, 1940

It is a cloudy day; we yearn for rain so as not to have to go winnowing the wheat and rye chaff, which is a horrible job, especially when a gale force wind blows clouds of dust and tiny sharp grains of sand into our eyes. Last evening Mrs. Szkudlapska arrived telling us about her very upsetting adventure of the past night. Around 1 a.m. a drunk Russki in uniform arrived and said that he is from the NKVD and is going to arrest her. The lonely woman was petrified, not knowing what will happen next. He lay down, slept through the night, and after waking up next morning he left without repeating his ominous threats.

Mietek Wilczkiewicz heard in Sarsai that Poles would be taken to India or to Canada, but Jews would stay in the USSR. When are we going to receive any reliable information?

Thursday, October 10, 1940: 1st Farm

Starting October 1, nights have become colder. It was also raining and, on October 4, the first snow fell. Inside our kibitka the rain dripped in, water froze and snow blew around. Sunday October 6, using my first vykhodnoi den [day off] I packed up my things and left the work gang. It was a good decision: the weather turned wet and no trucks or carts could pass through the mud. Today Józef walked all the way from the work gang. He was annoyed by our poor food and lack of bread for breakfast. In here life is hard too. There is no bread delivery, only flour is brought occasionally and we are allowed to buy a pound or so per person daily. . . .

Saturday, October 12, 1940

The earth is frozen solid. At night snow has been falling but during the day it melts in the hot sun. It is, however, hard to bear the frost and wind. Our little room is so cold that I have started to wear my valonki [felt boots]. We are promised another room because this one has no stove. There is also no kiziak. Altogether winter misery is starting to cause us great pain; it is staring us in the faces! On top of all these hardships, Janka has a sore armpit, I am suffering from eczema on my chin and Józef has a painful boil on his face. . . .

This week we were lucky to have visitors: Jewish women from Niemirów who were moving to the gorod [city] of Aktyubinsk. Because our 1st Farm is located on a main bus junction, travelers have to spend a night here. First, on Monday, when we were already in bed, Ryfka Blumberg, on the way back from Aktyubinsk; then on Thursday Mrs. Baumohlowa and Mrs. Kochowa on the way to Aktyubinsk. Because of the mud, no trucks could move around, and they had to spend the night with us. We took down our door to the corridor and made of it a bed for them to sleep on. Luckily, next day they could continue on to their destination. They left behind a little dog Figa, but really there is no food for her here. They told us that they received parcels from Poland through Kolomyja. I will give Mieczek the address of Mrs. Kochowa's brother to find out how he is sending those parcels. I received two letters from Mieczek. He is worried because he has received no letters from me.

The Jewish women mentioned that letters do not reach people here. The fact of disappearance is confirmed in the letters that somehow do get through. There is information about previous letters that were never received. . . .

Perhaps Winia is still in prison on Kazimierzowska Street--has Janek [Baum] handed in money for her and has it been accepted? My poor dear Mieczek writes that he is glad to have so much work at school. "It takes my mind off our misery, especially that of my aunt and mother's." He is asking if he should send more money. I have strong scruples not to take more for myself as Marysia and Winia are in need, too.

Unhappily, talk about the transfer of deportees to the British colonies is not heard anymore. It would be so wonderful if we could be freed from this place! Marysia Poziombko wrote about the death of her younger son due to dysentery from which she also has been suffering. She feels very depressed.

News of the war concentrates on very heavy bombing of London and reprisal air attacks on Berlin and the rest of Germany. America has threatened to join the war, but it probably has to wait until spring. The summer in Poland was rainy. Crops were good but harvesting is difficult due to the rain.

Tuesday, October 15, 1940

Yesterday Tatarenko wanted to send me away to the 5th Farm to work at transporting potatoes for our farm. In this cold weather I was unwilling to travel by horse cart the distance of 50 miles. It would endanger my health, and also expose all the layers of coats and clothes on my back to wear and tear. Tatarenko, in extreme exasperation ordered the cash-clerk not to sell me any provisions: "pust' zdykhaet" [let her croak]. Fool! If I get sick, I will not need his provisions. My fate would be totally miserable if I were to get sick here.

Saturday, October 19, 1940

Yesterday, Mrs. Brewczynska with her four children (the youngest Lila after a long sickness with whooping cough), and Mieczek Wilczkiewicz and Mrs. Zielinnska from Sarmorsa were resettled to the 5th Farm. They all stopped by with us at noon to warm up with hot coffee and milk. They had to pile on top of a horse cart loaded with their earthly possessions. The children started to cry when a sack of horse fodder was thrown at them, and then when a Kazakh woman going to lift potatoes, and the driver climbed on the already crowded cart. When I watched this departure, I realized that it was a living picture of the misery to which the Polish nation is being subjected.

The Wilczkiewicz men had a quarrel with their mother and sister and left in great anger. Last night they slept in the stable rather than in the room. Interesting people!

[Note at the top of the page]:

Truly, Kazakhs speak caressingly to their children: "son of a bitch! if only you would die."

Yesterday I received a letter from Mieczek. He is worried because he has not received any letters from me for three weeks. I write to him every week. The school keeps him very busy and his studies are going well. There is not a word about the Janek Baum's family. He informs me that Britain and America are now friends with the Soviet Union. . . .

Yesterday Mrs. Szkudlapska received a letter from Niemirów with news about her son Marian who is a POW in the Soviet Union together with General Kasprzycki. As this was the first news about him since the beginning of the war, they all are feeling very happy. Also Mieczek writes about rumors that POWs are returning from the Soviet Union.

I have fallen into a total disgrace with Tatarenko [the overseer]. Yesterday I was not allowed to purchase any flour. He wanted me to drive an ox cart to Sarsai, 11 miles one way, to bring flour and one passenger. I told him that never in my life have I driven an ox cart. I stated firmly that I do not know the way and will not go. Instead Tadzio went. The law says "kto ne rabotaet, to ne kushaet" [one who does not work, does not eat]; therefore there is no flour for me to buy. People say that we will be moved to Sarmorsa. At least from here it is easy to reach Rudnik for bread and other provisions. On Thursday Mrs. Szkudlapska went there and bought some bread and 1 lb. suet for 13 rubles. She used it to flavor potato soup and dumplings, which we ate with such relish for dinner. For breakfast and supper we have black coffee with bread or flour patties. Occasionally I cook buckwheat for myself. For the time being it is doing my stomach no harm.

Saturday, October 26, 1940

Today Mrs. Szkudlapska went to fetch some bread. Yesterday we had a little argument about money. She feels that I reproach her for borrowing money from me. However, we quickly made peace, but for how long? During the winter, when all the inhabitants sit home getting on each other's nerves, quarrels and squabbles are easily aroused as for example among the Wilczkiewiczes.

On Wednesday Alfred alone was resettled to the 5th Farm. He stayed with us all day and also spent the night. We shared our food with him. It must be admitted that Mrs. Szkudlapska is immensely hospitable and resourceful. She reminds me very much of Walerka [her cousin Waleria Schmidt]. Alfred read us a letter from his cousin in Boryslaw who writes about America sending to Britain 14,000 bombers and 40 destroyers. In Britain 10,000 people have been killed by German bombs. Ukrainians in Jaroslaw and Kraków have organized a legion to fight the Russkies. The Bolsheviks are taking away and nationalizing private houses and properties. Life is so difficult everywhere.

The last two days have been frosty but sunny. Seizing the opportunity of dry weather, I went walking to free myself from the monotony of sitting in our crowded lodging.

On Monday I worked on the roof of the barn moving earth around with two Kazakh women. A short job but I had to climb up and down the roof twice with the help of a barrel. A year ago I would have had a hard time believing in such rejuvenation. This must be the reason why people can hardly believe that I am fifty. Indeed I have already entrusted all my earthly fate into God's hands and am peacefully surviving all the hardships of our daily life without despair or complaints. It gives me a younger look and good sleep.

My dearest child writes to me every Sunday. He keeps worrying because of the lack of news from me due to the fact that letters from here do not arrive at their destination. Hania wrote to him that the mill is getting electricity. Our room in the mill has been taken over by a new lady teacher. Mieczek is proud to be among the best students in the school.

Tuesday, October 29, 1940

Since Sunday afternoon Mrs. Ujwaryowa and Mrs. Wilczkiewiczowa have been staying with us, not being able to continue their trip to the 5th Farm. They were caught in the rain and mud. Yesterday they started, but an hour later returned when the horses got stuck in the mud. . . . We are still expecting a passage of 10 more people from Sarmorsa. It is difficult for us to put people up for the night. . . Gurtov paid us a visit yesterday and talked about a mysterious sickness that occurs here--people call it "Siberian." First it appears as a pimple which burns like an open fire. If it is not extracted immediately, the afflicted person will die within a few hours in horrible pain as if being burned alive. The sick person screams so loudly that everybody runs away from the house. Cases of this sickness are luckily very rare.

(continued in the next issue)


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