Death by a Thousand Cuts
A Polish Womans
Diary of Deportation, Forced Labor and Death in Kazakhstan: April 13, 1940May 26, 1941
Translated by Leszek M. Karpinski
Edited by John D. L. McIntosh, with assistance from Bogdan Czaykowski and Kenneth Baulk
Tuesday, March 25, 1941
Such an unusual moment--I'm left alone in our small room which seems to serve as a gathering place for our Polish colony all day long. Taking the opportunity of my rare privacy I washed myself a bit more thoroughly. . . . Lately I have not been feeling too well, suffering from enteritis or gastritis. I keep finding blood and mucus in my stool. Today I feel a bit stronger owing to kindhearted Hania who sent me wheat meal and barley. When one is sick, there is not much to choose from: there is only whole meal flour. I bought 3 oz. of butter for 5 rubles, Kazakh-style bread for 4 rubles and 3 eggs: 12 rubles are gone on account of my sickness. Again I have grown as thin as before the khleboborka [harvest].
A Kazakh has opened the door and is standing staring at me as I write these lines. I recall the time when I was a young girl and Kazik [a cousin admirer] stood in the doorway of my room looking at me, though I never said a word.
Friday, March 28, 1941
The old Mrs. Orlowska paid us only a short visit because a horse cart waited to take the voters back home. She asked me to write to Mrs. Halaczowa's sister to notify her about the death.
Tuesday, April 1, 1941
With a little luck, for the holiday [Easter], I may receive three parcels if Mrs. Irgerowa sends hers. Receiving parcels gives us great joy and immense help. Everything from the parcel finds a use, even the piece of rag in which it is wrapped. . . .If I had lots of money, I could improve my nutrition with good tasting Kazakh wheat bread for 4 rubles, milk, eggs and butter. To get all these one would need not 70 rubles but 270 rubles. Notwithstanding all this, I feel uneasy that I have more than the Szkudlapskis who, for some days now, have been eating food without any fat flavoring. I keep sharing with them suet, pork fat, and flour: however, I have so little for myself and must take a good care of my thinning scraggy body. There are moments that I feel weak and dizzy, seeing black spots in front of my eyes. Twice a day I eat dumplings made of dark flour in water with a touch of fat. If I use more fat, my stomach starts troubling me.
At noon I made patties with some fruit jam and had a cup of coffee - oh how good it tasted, but what kind of nutrition is it? It differs so much from the food I had for half a century. Dairy products, vegetables, fruit, honey, everything tasted so good and there was always as much as one desired.
Hania writes that people are disheartened with heavy taxes, forced duty, providing labor to the state without pay, quotas of meat, grain, etc. People have high expectations for change. Thirty farmers from Szczeploty were taken forcibly to dig entrenchments. Father Gumowski [the local priest] was ordered to pay 2000 rubles in income tax; 700 rubles from his farm and 105 lbs. meat. People say that priests in Lwów [Lviv] earn their living by delivering wood, coal, etc. as they need this additional income to pay for food and taxes.
Easter Sunday, April 13, 1941
Here we are commemorating the saddest anniversary of our deportation. Also, forty years have passed since the death of Helunia, my dearest older sister, whom I lost in my childhood. I have not even received a letter from Mieczek.
It's the time of roztopka [thaw] and the roads are dangerous. A few days ago a horse drowned on the road to Rudnik. Yesterday, right here on the farm, our solkhoz [?] Kratoiaz's cow nearly drowned. Horse carts sent to Aktyubinsk ten days ago from this farm and the 4th Farm to bring a shipment of flour still have not returned. Riverbeds that are normally dry all year long are now a mass of water roaring menacingly across the roads and steppe tracks. Yesterday people were saying that Mr. Silberman's body was seen floating down our little stream. He died on February 3rd in a frightful buran. Józef was horrified by the thought that it might be his duty to bury him. The body floated quickly away. Truly nobody recognized him. When will Mrs. Orlowska be found?
I often think that if I could die here, it would be a less painful blow to Mieczek. During this past year he must have become more independent of his mother, although he keeps assuring me in his letters how much I mean to him. I recall how much he looked forward to Easter last year with the yeast cakes, cold meats etc. from Dobrowolski. I wonder if Marysia [Baum] will prepare a traditional Easter breakfast. Customs and traditions are so important for a child. My Winia, my poor soul who is buried alive in prison, what are you doing on this holiday? Will we ever see again Marys and Marysia, Dzida, and Hania, whose Easter [Orthodox] is coming in a week? I think about all of them with deep longing. I feel apprehensive about Marys and Marysia [Bladye]. What does the future hold for them? I wrote a card to Marysia, but is it going to reach her? Will I get an answer?
Maria received a loaf of bread from Rudnik. I bought Kazakh bread for 4 rubles and 10 eggs for an exceptionally cheap price of 6 rubles from Koralova who badly needed money, selling them for the same price as in Aktyubinsk. Each of us got 3 oz. of butter for 4 rubles per person. All these things were placed in a box that served as a cupboard for our provisions. A piece of plywood, placed on a bedside table and kitchen table, is used for rolling, with a bottle, the dough for dumplings. As an exception, today we made pierogies stuffed with kasha which were cooked by the Szkudlapskis. Józef said prayers and blessed our food in Latin, sprinkling it with holy water brought with them from Czestochowa in Poland. Instead of Holy Communion, we drank a spoonful of holy water. Then we shared a wedge of a boiled egg (unfortunately it was not well cooked), and then started our Easter breakfast. I painted on Easter eggs "Hallelujah 1941" and also everyone's name. For coffee I provided half a pint of milk and the Szkudlapskis' dessert consisted of a dried fruit stew, very good plum jam and pierogies. During the past two days, Maria whitewashed our room and Janka neatly scrubbed it. The bricks that covered a third of the window were removed. Even a small yellow curtain was hung up to celebrate the holiday. The day is cloudy and gray, just as the mood in our souls. I have a feeling that if I allowed one tear to be shed, others would follow in a profuse stream and it would be impossible to contain myself. Why stir up everybody's feelings?
Thursday, April 17, 1941
From early morning, everyone around was very agitated. Józef, with a driver, went to fetch the body of Mr. Silberman, which was found 5 miles away. We were told that his brother has been notified and asked to come here.
The steppe is showing more of the black soil and is slowly drying out. In the last few days oxen are let out to graze on the old grass which is starting to protrude from the snow. There is no more fodder for them on the farm.
On April 15 I received lots of mail: a letter from Mieczek dated March 30, from Irka [Kamienska] with attached notes from my aunt [Edmundowa Kamienska, Irka's mother-in-law], and Jaska [Popiel]; also two letters from Maryna [Poziombko]. Mieczek received his quarterly school report card showing marks of 4 good and 8 excellent. At the end of the school year students will face final exams and even now they are very apprehensive.
I believe that Mieczek has no reason to be afraid. Jaska [Popiel], who is the same age as Mieczek, writes that Mieczek is the great darling of all his teachers who praise him as a person showing good manners and upbringing. Irka also tells me about Mieczek, saying that he has grown from a boy into a student who now has a man's voice that I would not recognize. He is already sprouting a mustache. She assures me that Mieczek is living up to all my hopes. If only I could see him!
There is continuous trouble and sickness at the Kamienskis. Poor nutrition and lack of massage has weakened Stefan's leg so much that he can barely walk. Earnings from his work in Janów are minimal. He had the flu, which he passed to my aunt [his mother]. When Irka goes to the diner where she works as a waitress, and Jaska to school, the very old lady, her mother-in-law, must take care of her grandchildren with the help of a part time housekeeper. Since Christmas the children have been well, but Jola has a swollen gland and Ewa suffers from a hernia caused by extreme loss of weight. Poor little Irutka!
Krzysia Wilczynska got married; Ula Ross has a son. People get married even in these hard times. Maryna writes that she was sick with St. Anthony's fire on her face. Her son cannot get rid of a cough. Her husband was sent to the forced labor camp and he is not allowed to write to her. Poor Maryna complains that the local air is the cause of all her ailments and that she is homesick for our home. When are we going to see it? Mieczek had a dream about my return but it may remain only a dream.
Friday, April 18, 1941
It was only this morning that Józef finally brought Mr. Silberman's body back to the farm. Last evening the oxen pulling the cart stopped and refused to move any further. He had to leave the body on the road not far from here. Today Mr. Silberman's body, with his face down as he was found in the steppe, rests in a small room where Mrs. Ciesielska used to live. When I asked the palivod [field boss] why he was not turned with his face up, he answered that "maie mordu pobitu" [his mug is beaten up].
Yesterday we had a visit from Mr. Nosowicz, son of a police inspector in Nowogródek. He now works for the Department of Highways in Novorossiiskoye. He was sent here to secure or dismantle bridges, but even before he arrived, the water had already washed them away. While at the 5th Farm, he met the Wilczkiewiczes. He told us that the people over there live in extreme misery. In the last two months they have been given only 33 lbs. flour and there is no fuel. The Wilczkiewiczes and Mrs. Wittmanowa are sick in bed.
Mr. Žurowski died in March in the Aktyubinsk Hospital where he was being treated for frostbite to his feet. His wife and daughter are left alone. Gehenna of the Polish nation!
Sunday, April 20, 1941
"The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth."
"As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease" ( Genesis 8:21-22).
This was God's pronouncement after the flood. Both Janka and I read the Bible that was given to Kuba Kostkiewicz and his wife, Zosia, at their wedding by Father Fedorowicz from Brody. His mother left some things with the Szkudlapskis when she was looking for a safe place. She now lives peacefully with her brother Tadeusz in Pogwizdowo, while the Holy Scripture is here with us. Truly, it is Zosia, her only child, and the in-laws who are there because Kuba is a POW somewhere.
Today is Ruthenian Easter [Eastern rite]. What is Hania doing?
Sunday, April 27, 1941
In the evening I made a trip into the steppe and collected two buckets of kiziak which I emptied under our window for drying. Mrs. Tatarenkova called me and I noticed a group of people around a cart. Kazachenko had returned from Sarsai and paid the outstanding two months salary to Kanen, our local teacher. And to my great happiness, Kazachenko also brought Janka and me 50 rubles sent by Mrs. Matuszewska from Žólkiew. I collected the money and went once again to the steppe to gather more kiziak. When I returned, I told our young people that I found the money in the steppe. They believed my story. Tadzio got indignant, "why are you showing money in the presence of Kazakhs, maybe you wish to give it back?" I answered: "Of course, but only if the owner is found." He continued: "And who are you going to inform, the upravlaiushchii [chairman]?" Tadzio continued: "You know very well that he will keep the money for himself." Finally, I told them the truth. Now we all rejoice knowing we have money to buy flour. Today I bought 3 oz. butter and half a pint of milk. I am afraid that malnutrition may get me into the same misery as Tadzio and Józef with their night blindness that causes them trouble seeing after dark. The most tragic is that normally they have excellent distance vision. Mrs. Tatarenkova said that the best remedy for night blindness is cooked liver; it cannot be raw or half-cooked. When it is cooked and still hot, one has to cover one's head with a kerchief and inhale the vapors for a while and then eat the liver. The results are immediate. Night blindness must occur frequently among the local population. Mrs. Tatarenkova's brother, her son, and Kazachenko had it when they served in the Red Army.
Yesterday the late Mr. Silberman's younger brother arrived here to find out what happened and collect his things. He left empty-handed because the solkhoz who had taken everything into his safekeeping was not around and Altespai, the present store salesman, at whose place Silberman spent his last night, was nowhere to be found.
Thursday, May 1, 1941: Prazdnik [Holiday]
Today I received two cards from Mieczek dated April 8 and 14, and from Hania and Filip from April 7. Mieczek has again not received any news from me for a long time. He writes that he reads many books dealing with nature and geography that he borrows from the school library. The beginning of April was so warm that people were walking outside without coats, but on April 8, snow fell again and the Easter Holiday was cold with a wet thaw.
[Hania's letter] from the village tells me that the fields are wet and no work has begun, in addition there is a shortage of people in the village. 150 men and women have been taken forcibly to dig defense trenches on the border. People in Szczeploty complain and many are sick. They hope to see us coming back home. Filip informs me that many apple and pear trees were destroyed by the deep freeze of the past winter. Hedge rows are still standing, but fences are strewn left and right; the same happened to barn walls, dividers in the granary, and lofts. If only I could return, even to the worst conditions, but to live on my own and work for myself, it would be better than living in a corner under a strange roof. Here I am so often exposed to the stinging remarks of callous youths to which I try to turn a deaf ear. I am not sure if I can gather myself to go to the steppe looking for kiziak. For the past few days we have already started to collect kiziak for next winter. "We expect the best but are prepared for the worst," as my late Father had written down as good advice for his "Farmer's Ten Commandments."
Hania wrote that Mr. Jaworski, the mill manager, is in big trouble because thieves broke in through a window and stole the heavy leather transmission belt from the meal grinder. This has always been my worry, as it is impossible now to find a belt of so high a quality.
Sunday, May 4, 1941
We are on our way to the work gang. Skinny oxen barely pull the carts loaded with wheat through deep mud. We stopped for a break and the oxen were unhitched and allowed to graze freely in the steppe. Thank God! I had a very unpleasant incident with a Kazakh driver. When we were some 2 miles from the farm, he ordered Janka to get off his cart and also threw off our bundles. Our bundles were picked up by people from another cart driven by Ablizh. At this time I was still allowed to continue on the cart. However, when the road became worse, he urged me to get off. I tried to explain that I do not have proper shoes to wade through the mud. I even offered him cigarettes so as to be left in place. The Kazakh simply started to push me off and I was barely able to get down. My God, what I have to go through in my old age! From my childhood I was treated with respect. Maybe the Bolsheviks are doing us a great service. Who would, of one's own accord, part with their wealth? They freed us from that ballast; in Christ's words "it is easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to reach heaven." If there is no return to Poland, let us hope that the wait to get there is not too long.
Thursday, May 8, 1941: St. Stanislaus Day
Here is a short account of the miserable days in the work gang. One May 4, I shuffled along the remaining 5 miles through deep mud. At the work gang quarters we are squeezed into a common worker's room. My bed is in the corner but the place is full of men walking and talking: a horrible stench hangs around.
In response to Janka's begging, the palivod [field boss] gave us permission to move to the same hut on wheels in which we lived last year. It's also used as an office. We feel content to have our own corner with a table and bench. The night was cold and I slept in my undershirt and quilted jacket.
We did first some work in the yard loading seed wheat into sacks. Then we cleaned around the diner and carried hay and tumbleweeds to the kitchen. It started to rain. In the evening Janka was appointed as zapravchik [fuel specialist] instead of Józef who, because of his night blindness, is not able to work in the evening. Tadzio works as a pshichepchik [helper] on a tractor until late at night. Janka gets very upset when he does not come back at a regular time. She runs around asking people to look for Tadzio who, with his bad eyesight, cannot find his way home in the darkness. This time he got lost and it was only late at night that the tractor driver found him and brought him back home.
I was sent out to the field to gather sunflowers together with their stems and roots for fuel. I enjoy being all alone in the steppe in tranquillity all around me and no talking. I arrived late for supper but immediately was sent as a pshichepchik on a tractor. I ride on a five-ridge plough with three pulverizing iron harrows. My task is to lift and clean harrows that are too heavy for me. The tractor driver sent me back to the work gang quarters to fetch a shovel for scraping earth off the plough. I told the palivod [field boss] that I am not fit to do this kind of work, and although he ordered me back, I went to gather sunflowers. Again in the evening I faced a big fuss. I must work as a pshichepchik.
Today, May 8, 1941:
Tadzio and I woke up a bit late and again there is a big fuss --"liudi rabotaiut a vy spite" [people are working and you are sleeping]. There was no breakfast for us, and I was threatened with a report to Novorossiiskoye. I do not care any more about this dog's life.
I went to the tractor, but both Tadzio's and mine were undergoing major repairs. I was sent with this report to Kozachenko, gave it to him, and hid myself in my corner of our hut.
Yesterday I received letters from Mieczek and Marysia [Baum] dated March 16 stating that 100 rubles have been sent to me, although it still has not arrived. They are expecting to see me in May. I'm losing all hope! Courses that Janek [Baum] was teaching are finished. He has lost his job. Maybe something will come up in June. They are worried because there are great expenses to be met.
Everybody seems to find comfort in the hope that spring will bring something better and all the deported people will come back. If they only survive!
For my stomach problems I ate yesterday's patties. I have tea leaves but no water.
Thursday, May 15, 1941: with the seeding work gang
A very sad day! For the first time in my life nobody remembered my holy patroness's day of St. Zofia. My dear Winia, you have always taken such good care of your sister--a gift of elegant lingerie, boxes of chocolates, cakes, and sumptuous dinner served at a table decorated with flowers. . .
Monday, May 26, 1941
Finally, I received a letter and card with good wishes from Mieczek, and a very warm note from Marysia Baum in which she confides that both she and Janek have became accustomed to Mieczek so much that it would be very difficult to live without him. When I return I must move in with them!
Besides that, a letter from Hania arrived and a card from Maryna. At the Post Office in Sarsai there are two money orders for 117 rubles waiting for me. Also, Maria has finally found a buyer who is offering 300 rubles for my brooch. So much good news!
I do not wish to share the tragic fate of Mrs. Orlowska who was found after three months in the river. Her body was in a state of total decay and was immediately buried in a ditch without any coffin. I heard that Mrs. Orlowska's daughter, Zdzicha, cried desperately when her mother was found and buried. Now she has accepted her mother's death and her face shows peace.
[Note written in a different hand]
Unforgettable grief for the late Zofia Ptasnik, in exile, July 25, 1941, Siberia.
[Also added by Maria Szkudlapska]
I dreamed a dream at dawn about the late Zofia Ptasnik: I saw her holding a loaf of bread for 10 Groschen [Polish coins]. The bread was snow-white, perfectly well baked. I admired the bread and especially its glowing whiteness.
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