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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 Five--Continued from January 2003 issue

Zofia Ludwika Malachowska Ptasnik

Translated by Leszek M. Karpinski

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

Friday, December 27, 1940

On December 25 a letter with the oplatek [unleavened bread traditionally shared by Poles on Christmas Eve] arrived from Mieczek and Janek. Janek informs me that he has made efforts through Professors Bujak and Kleiner for permission to be granted for my return. It is also supported by medical certificate issued by Dr. Czyěewska stating that I need further treatment and cannot work. She treated me for colon ulcers some three years ago. I have a faint hope that it will move the tovarishchi [comrades].

Again a buran is raging. When the sunshine cuts through, it creates a mirage of two interconnected columns on the horizon.

Finally the parcel from Maryna arrived. It contained 5 lbs. of thick side bacon for 3 rubles, 5 lbs. of wheat meal, groats, mushrooms, etc. I never expected such great generosity from her. Unfortunately, I have lent about 200 rubles to people around me here and at present cannot send back all the money I owe her. I know that she is also in dire need!

Wednesday, January 1, 1941

Yesterday a buran blew snowdrifts half as high as our house, making it difficult to get out and move around. Our supply of fuel is almost gone, but to our luck Józef, who works in the blacksmith shop, somehow manages to bring back some wood and coal. It is barely enough to cook dumplings for breakfast at 11 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. something for a combined dinner and supper.

My memories go back to the wedding of Mary and Marysia [Bladye], a happy St. Sylvester's night and New Year's Eves with all our neighbors. . . and the name day of my dearest son Mieczek. Am I the same person? Zosia Malachowska, then Madame Professor Ptasnik, and now Ptasnik--a rabochaia [woman laborer] sheltered under one roof with other maltreated companions in misery who sleeps on other people's bundles under a cover made of a kerchief, a blanket, and two coats all tied together with string and tape in order to hold them together and keep them from sliding?

I try to keep continuously busy so as not to think about the future or bring back memories from the past that would only deepen my sadness and despair. Here we need a powerful desire to survive: "The past is a fairy tale," Mieczek once wrote. It is true that simple things that were so easily attainable in the past are now beyond anybody's reach, like a fairy tale dream.

Friday, January 17, 1941

Poor Tadzio is staying in bed suffering from frostbite to his feet. He and his mother set out to Donskoye, 6 miles away, to look for some flour as they have completely run out of it. They got 70 lbs. so now they are free from having to borrow any flour, but at the cost of Tadzio's frostbite. We do not have money to buy anything, but anyhow there is nothing available around here.

Yesterday I received a long letter from Hania dated December 29, 1940. Winter over there is not too severe, but fuel is very expensive and she cannot get enough of it to keep warm. Lots of vodka is available around. Collective farms have been organized in Hruszów, Wróblaczyn, and Nahaczyn. Farmers in our village have been under strong pressure to join, but have resisted.

Sunday, January 19, 1941

Here I've been thinking about rebuilding our farm and about the land steward, when I have 49 kopecks in my pocket and cannot afford to buy 1 lb. of whole meal flour for 80 kopecks. I tried to collect something from my debtors but without any luck, and the other people have no spare money to lend me even a few kopecks. The Szkudlapskis feel sorry that they cannot repay me. It is most unfortunate that the administrators of our farm were late submitting requests for money to the Central Accounting Office. For us it means a long delay until the next payment, a whole month later.

A wave of freezing weather for the last week has kept us dry and without snowstorms. Maria somehow miraculously expands our supply of fuel. We simply have no money to pay for kiziak. Our last two sacks were exchanged for tea. Somehow we managed a whole week on our one remaining sack of kiziak. The Szkudlapski boys brought some coal dust from the blacksmith's shop. Maria procured three more sacks of coal dust from the wife of our upravliaiushchii. [chairman]. We somehow keep body and soul together anticipating the arrival of our liberation.

Monday, January 20, 1941

In a letter that just arrived, Janek tells me that 15 professors of Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów [Lviv], including Professor Studynski, signed an application for my release. Professor Juliusz Kleiner talked about me to [Wanda] Wasilewskaia, a communist who promised to support my application for release. It is easier to struggle through this difficult winter living with hope for change.

Wednesday, January 22, 1941

It is already 1:30 p.m. and we have not eaten yet because it is impossible to keep the fire going. In moments like this we dream about a loaf of bread that is unfortunately not obtainable. It would be so wonderful to cut a slice of bread and spread it with the lard I just received from Maryna! Tadzio and Janka dream about bread and flour. Even if we get a bag of flour or any kind of groats, we still have to cook it--but how? My dreams go continuously to Szczeploty which is in ruins, and I always see among them my late parents...

Those beautiful ancient Szeptycki oaks were cut down to the ground! The logs were taken away to Russia. The awesome harm inflicted on our people and country is crying to heaven for vengeance.

Thursday, February 6, 1941

On February 3 and 4 a powerful buran raged. It claimed two victims among the Poles. Young Mrs. Orlowska from Sarmorsa went on Monday evening to fetch milk for her baby, and thus far has not been found. Mr. Silberman returned back on Sunday evening and spent the night with a Kazakh family. He was sent here to unload the gasoline that never arrived because of the bad weather. On Monday he dropped in on us and when he discovered that we were without any flour, he went out to buy some wheat. He went to an old sovkhoz where he was treated with patties. After that visit he left and disappeared in the steppe. I wonder when these two are going to be found. On the 2nd Farm a salesman who lived half a kilometer from the store perished. Also, a young man disappeared. In Khromtau six people perished and many more returned with frostbite.

Thursday, February 13, 1941

Ten months have already gone by since our deportation - when will we be freed?

Sunday, February 16, 1941

The boil and painful swelling of my nose had scarcely healed when, about ten days ago, my stomach again started to show signs of gastritis. I cannot get it straight even though I now cook for myself groats, which are running very low. Mieczek has promised a parcel. The Szkudlapskis received a parcel from Marta containing side bacon, groats, and tea. Tea is a precious commodity we can advantageously use as barter for kiziak from the Kazakhs--one sack for 5 teaspoons. Otherwise one has to pay 5 rubles and it is still very hard to come by. Our constant need for kiziak is bringing us to financial ruin. Luckily, a week ago Józef received 17 pieces of birch wood for helping to pull out a truck that had got stuck in a deep snowdrift. It is a good supply for the next two weeks. I found part of a sleigh.

Tuesday, February 18, 1941

Reading news from Janek has warmed my heart. I am an optimist, believing strongly in the help of God, St. Anthony, St. Thaddeus, and St. Theresa. I pray in the deep faith that I will obtain the blessing of returning home.

Thank God it is warmer now, a pleasant, misty day. We had one eventful night when some 50 prisoners from Khromtau were sheltered in the room next to us during the raging blizzard. We heard them coughing and stamping their feet to keep warm. They are brought here to clear the roads of snow to allow trucks to move around. When the buran calmed down they walked on foot back to Khromtau. Since Saturday both Maria and Józef have been sick. Maria has a cold but today is up and is busying herself around our tiny room. Józef is suffering of back pain. Janka has a sore throat. I am bothered by my stomach, especially during the night when my companions cannot hear the rumblings. May it come to an end, as there is no way one can keep to any diet and no medication is available.

Monday, February 24, 1941

Yesterday was a good day when the long awaited cashier arrived bringing Józef's earnings of 160 rubles. The Szkudlapskis immediately paid me back the loan of 120 rubles, but soon they will again be forced to borrow money. Janek sent me 100 rubles. So, now without any delay I will pay back Maryna for the side bacon.

Sunday, March 2, 1941

Today the house is full of people looking for shelter. The room next door is once more filled with prisoners from Donskoye who were brought here to clear the road. The whole night was restless, filled with endless talking, singing, coughing, and stamping of feet.

On Tuesday letters arrived from Mieczek, Marysia [Baum], and Hania. The latest one made me cry in deepest sadness. Hania describes the terrible devastation of the farm: "The manor house is dying like a human being struck with deadly cancer--after the last gasp of breath, only the green grass will remain. You should not take this too much to heart because it may be God's wish that we should not attach ourselves beyond measure to our earthly possessions. We should always be aware that all we own may go with the wind."

Hania feels cold and suffers from rheumatism. She is afraid of being evicted from the miller's house since it belongs to the government. It would be disastrous for our family. As long as Hania stays there, she can save our kitchen appliances and those few remaining boxes with our family belongings. Only a few cows are left, some were sold, other exchanged. [The Szczeploty estate had developed a renowned herd of pedigree Holstein cows.]

The forest suffered horrible destruction, but some patches still remain. Mr. Kichura was made the forester of the Szeptycki Forest, which was clear-cut, and now nothing is left growing there. Those beautiful ancient Szeptycki oaks were cut down to the ground! The logs were taken away to Russia. The awesome harm inflicted on our people and country is crying to heaven for vengeance. Villagers keep cutting down alders and willows on the banks of the river and also on their own land. Everything will be shaven clean. . . .I just turned 51 years old. It seems to me however that these last months have taught me more about life and people than those 50 years I lived in comfort among familiar surroundings.

Sunday, March 9, 1941

We just saw Mr. Altschiler from the Fourth Farm. As a group leader he traveled to Aktyubinsk and made a short stop to warm up. He told us that Mrs. Ujwarowa, Mrs. Ciesielska and Alfred are working at the farm base where they all live in a small room and earn very little. Alfred suffered frostbite on his nose. They live in extreme poverty like everybody else around them.

Our money situation is again coming to a crisis. Mrs. Szkudlapska owes me 80 rubles; Mrs. Zielinska still has not repaid her old debt of 35 rubles. So I have only 7 rubles left. By a stroke of luck the truck driver that passes by several times a day sold us black bread.

Since Monday the weather has been warm and sunny. Every day I walk for 2-3 hours along the truck route. The prisoners, when shoveling snow to clear it, broke many small wooden shovels. I am laboriously collecting the wooden remnants for fuel. From time to time I take a rest, sitting on the snow and warm up in the sun which is as hot as ours in June.

Yesterday I received a card from Mieczek who tells me that the matter of my application to return is progressing well. Prof. Studynski received a copy and he will personally take it to Moscow. Mieczek predicts that we shall meet in May. My poor lonely lad, how lucky he is to be among well-off people who love him as their own child. Here, among us poor people Tadzio has grown from a boy to a man. Due to this poor nutrition he suffers from night blindness.

Thursday, March 13

Again, sad news from Sarmorsa. After a long seven-day illness, the old Mrs. Helena Halaczowa died, probably of pneumonia because she had high fever and was delirious. She was a deaf woman whose husband was a retired policeman. She was truly a decent person. A parcel from her sister in Lwów was just received but unfortunately she was already unconscious.

Tuesday, March 18, 1941

From March 12 I have been winnowing oats in the granary. Today, however, I rebelled and stayed home cooking some food. When the supervisor arrived, I was in bed with my neck wrapped in a kerchief - it worked! It's not the work itself that gives me trouble as I have already told everybody. Simply I'm not able to lift heavy sacks. I fill the sacks with grain and move them from the winnower. However, the Kazakh women and even Tadzio keep complaining that I am not doing my share of work and I feel sick and tired of it. I do not intend to lose my health over this Soviet work. If I get really sick, there will be nobody to help me. I already thought that if it comes to dying here--God protect me!--I wish to be buried the way Emperor Josef II wished to be buried. I would ask to be dressed in my yellow nightgown, wrapped in a sheet and without any coffin lowered into a ditch and then sprinkled with lime. His subjects refused to follow his wishes, but I am sure I shall be buried like that.

Saturday, March 22, 1941

It has been a good week. On Wednesday a letter arrived from Mieczek with birthday wishes and a poem I'm pasting here:

On this sad birthday of yours
I hope you, my dearest Mommy
             will spend many happy hours.
When God's hand returns
             everything to us,
when the rainbow of happiness
again shines for us
and all of us are allowed to return
             to our nice house!
Let our country be reborn
and, finally, let the grass grow
over the freshly-dug graves!

(March 14, 1941)

[On the back of the inserted paper]:

My dearest sonny, I am not writing this to you, but your Mommy will never see the prosperity that has forever been taken away by the war. She will live in poverty until the end, but if it could only be in Poland. Our nests have been destroyed! Maybe you and Marysia will be able to rebuild them. I have neither the time nor the energy any longer. Though I still wish I could test once again my strength in rebuilding the farm, as I did 26 years ago. If I could only return, I would be happy to live together with my Winia, my very dearest one, in a little room on a small peasant farm. Also, I would be content living with Mieczek in the city on the pension of a professor's wife. This would be real happiness. If the Red invaders are still around, I would try to move to Kraków and perhaps I could receive my pension there. I would be fine living with the Brodowiczes in Jaroslaw or with the Kumors in Bogucie, although probably not as comfortable as living in Kraków. All these plans! . . .

Back at home, the police took away Mrs. Mondowa's apartment, leaving her to live in the kitchen. Her daughter, Zosia, works in a clothing factory; her husband Stanislaw is in prison [the infamous Brygidki prison where he was found among those whom the Russians murdered before retreating in 1941].

(continued in the next issue)

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 10/13/03