This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information


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 Two--Continued from January 2002 issue

Zofia Ludwika Malachowska Ptasnik

Translated by Leszek M. Karpinski, edited by John D. L. McIntosh, assisted by Bogdan Czaykowski and Kenneth Baulk

Sunday, April 28, Sarsai Center

I adjusted my watch to the local time, four hours earlier than central European time. In the morning I walked to the canteen to buy a bowl of soup: black dumplings floating in water. Now the Szkudlapskis prepared black coffee and I drank half a cup with a slice of black bread. I have been on a diet for five days; no wonder I have lost so much weight.

First Farm: 7 p.m.

The Szkudlapskis, the Ciesielskis and I arrived here after a 6-hour trip on two oxcarts. The Ciesielski women got the smaller room with a cauldron for cooking and a floor; the Szkudlapskis and I got a larger one without a floor but with a cauldron. Windows cannot be opened. The ride was “romantic:” after 2 miles the Kazakh driver unhitched the oxen to let them drink water and he decided to take a snooze. After one hour I bravely woke him up and persuaded him to bring back the oxen, which by now had walked quite a distance away. With the help of Tadzio the Kazakh barely managed to get them back, when suddenly the smarter one ran away into the steppe and did not want to return. Fortunately, a two wheel horse-drawn cart with two people arrived, unharnessed the horse and caught up with the fugitive. In our convoy there was only one driver for both carts. The driver stopped at the Second Farm and lost count of time. The boys started ahead on their own. He caught up with them and told Tadzio to follow him up as a second driver. I drove with the Kazakh. Suddenly the oxen saw a puddle of water, turned rapidly and stopped. My suitcase fell into the mud.

Tuesday, April 30, 1940: First Farm

Two days have gone by. Yesterday we were joined by three women and a girl - two of the Orlowski women—

the wife and mother of an arrested driver and Mrs. Holowiczowa, the wife of a policeman.

[Comment added later]:

Mrs. Holowiczowa died in March 1941 after a few days’ illness. Helena Orlowska perished in a dust storm on February 2, 1941. Her body was not found until May.

Wednesday, May 1: First Farm

Today, early in the morning, the chairman of the sovkhoz came to see us. Józef will go “to sow bread” [plant grain, a Russian expression]. We shall see how much he earns. The chairman promised us a stove for cooking and bunks for sleeping. At present we sleep on the floor covered with hay which we took from a nearby haystack. We all sleep side by side on the floor. The kind-hearted Mrs. Szkudlapska allows me to use her feather comforter, so I’m warm and sleep well, free of bad dreams about the country and family. Last night, all of a sudden, I dreamed about the two aspen trees by the statue of the Virgin Mary that was smashed before Easter. I dreamed that the trees were chopped down. Even a dream will not tell me how my only son or my sister Winia or Marysia or Hania are doing. I cannot give them my address. Who knows how much farther we shall be taken.

Poverty here is wretched, nothing is available except milk and eggs. We still have the two-day supply of bread given to us on the train. On Monday, to our delight, we treated ourselves to pierogies with curds [potato-filled dumplings]. I kneaded and rolled the dough with a bottle, and together with Mrs. Wittmanowa, stuffed them with potatoes. Józef kept the fire going under the stove and Janka was boiling twelve dumplings at a time. Next day we cooked beans with noodles made of the leftover pierogi dough. The worst of all is that we constantly get infested with lice as we live in such filth and misery. We gather small twigs, slivers of wood, and dry grass for fuel and Józef does the cooking in a small pot propped on two bricks on the stove. Mrs. Szkudlapska tried to make some improvements and damaged the stove so we cannot cook now. Luckily, Mrs. Ciesielska pulled out her gas heater. She also offered a couple of handfuls of rye flour, Mrs. Szkudlapska found some buckwheat and I provided eggs. From all these resources put together, we are making dinner for all of us. A rainy and cold day. We are not able to gather any fuel on the steppe. It is good, however, for sowing which they are trying to complete speedily; not taking time off for celebration of the May 1 holiday. Yesterday I walked to the granary where they were getting oats for sowing. The oats are of poor quality and full of dirt, but the wheat is clean, thick and good-looking.

On our farm there are two cowsheds with only heifers. At this time of the year most of the cattle are grazing in the steppe both day and night. The vegetation around is very poor, the soil is dry and cracked. It is covered with sparse grass which is not yet starting to turn green. There is a profusion of colorful flowers everywhere; they seem to grow in bunches and look like flower baskets.

For the last two evenings we have been saying the Holy Litany to the Virgin Mary for our speedy return to our country. It is only here, in the monotony of desert land and being the subject of exploitation that one fully learns to appreciate the beauty and good life back home.

If it were not for the strength drawn from a belief that we will be back home before the arrival of winter, we would sink into deep despair. News circulating among us is that America demands the return of deported people and threatens war, or something worse, and that Italy is at war with the Germans. All this talk gives us some hope.

Here a person who owns a cow is obligated to give to the government 50 rubles, nine pounds of butter and 150 pounds of meat for the right to use the pasture in the steppe. We cannot buy butter here, it costs 20 rubles per pound. A Kazakh boy brings us milk for 1.5 rubles a liter. It tastes sour and is thick, not like ours, but it is palatable. We get many visitors all day long: Kazakhs and Russians with whom we can barely communicate. They keep telling us that in the past they kept thousands of sheep. For the last six years the region has suffered from drought and that is the cause of this poverty.

If it were not for the strength drawn from a belief that we will be back home before the arrival of winter, we would sink into deep despair. News circulating among us is that America demands the return of deported people and threatens war, or something worse, and that Italy is at war with the Germans. All this talk gives us some hope.

What joy! The Szkudlapskis bartered Janka’s embroidered blouse for 8 pounds of pork back fat. It is thin and not fresh but they eat it raw. I do not touch it but give them an egg for a teaspoonful of lard which I use in my soup.

Thursday, May 2, Ascension Day

Again a strong wind is blowing while the sun is shining. The boys are getting ready to go to the central depot of the collective farms to get some bread. Through some local farm people, we received a note from the Lewkowiczes. They informed us that the organist’s family was left in the central depot: we feel very envious. It is probably easier to survive over there, being able to use the canteen, than here with only milk and eggs available. We look into our bleak future with growing anxiety. I dreamt today about a return to our home.

Friday, May 3

This morning Józef went to work by truck. I’m curious what he sees and how much he earns. We have finished the last crumb of bread. The boys’ trip was in vain: there was no bread available in the central depot. In the canteen, soup was given only to [local] workers. The boys met the Lewkowiczes: they work with cattle dung making kiziak [fuel made from dried manure]. The three of them are promised 200 rubles for a month’s work, and 200 grams of bread a day per person. Nisiek Baumohl took a job as a shepherd. We had a visit from a Russian of Polish descent; his name is Dubrowsky. He keeps crowing like a raven that we will all die here and never see our native land. As there are no jobs for us here, he advised us to apply for a transfer to a city where we could find work as seamstresses in a factory. Mrs. Wittmanowa and Mrs. Ciesielska dream about escaping to Turkey: it’s easy to talk! Little Krzysia plays with the Kazakh children. The little companions in misery seem happy despite poverty, cold, and lice. Today we saw many trucks carrying loads of men guarded by soldiers. They are probably being taken to an iron mine in Rudnik, 12 miles away. Little Janka ask me to write the alphabet down on a sheet of paper. I also make a triangle; now we are trying to call up spirits. Staszek [her dead brother] tells us that Winia is well, while Mieczek and Marysia have not been deported. As to the date of return: it’s said to be May, but which year? Staszek said, “you will return.” One is horrified at the prospect of our surviving winter here. Even now we are freezing both indoors and outside.

Saturday, May 4

Yesterday they told us to get ready for work next morning. We will get 120 rubles monthly, meat, and 200 grams of bread. I decided to try to see what I can do. We got up at 7 a.m. Mrs. Szkudlapska mixed rye flour and curds and made patties. I ate them, as we have no more bread left. While waiting, we gathered some dry grass and dry dung for fuel. It is already 10 a.m., we keep waiting but nobody calls us to work. At the granary, where they keep oats, a line of horse carts is also waiting. The zaveduiushchii [manager] is not in a rush.

Around 11 a.m. the zaveduiushchii came and took us to two dung piles left over from the winter for making kiziak. We are supposed to shape and stack them for drying. Together with Jania, Tadzio and Mrs. Orlowska we made one stack by noon, and another in the afternoon. The zaveduiushchii said that if we work this productively we will be paid 400 rubles a month.

Sunday, May 5

News from the newspaper Pravda of April 14 [an example of gathering information by deportees; stories have not been verified]:

Since April 4, Norway is the scene of dogged battles. The Norwegian and British armies have repulsed German attacks around Trondheim. The center of military operations remains in Kwan, located between two mountains in the Hunbangstalen. . . .

The British Observer (as cited by Pravda) writes that the results of the operations in Norway may be of great importance for the final outcome of the war. If the allies wish to avoid defeat, they must send reinforcements to Norway. The coastline of Norway is protected by mine fields: the entrance through Vestfjord to Narvik is so protected.

We were called to work today, but because it is Sunday, we did not go. We received 10 lbs. of barley flour, but of inferior quality: whole meal for 80 kopeks a pound is really better. Rations are given only to working people. We mix flour with curds and make pita patties; our neighbors intend to bake bread.

Today we wandered for at least 3 miles towards the central farm base looking for some sticks and tumbleweeds for fuel. From branches of a steppe bush we made a broom--no more borrowing from others. . . .

Monday, May 6

It’s our second day of work gathering dung in and around the sheds and stones. Tadzio drives an oxcart carrying all this stuff away to the dump. Mrs. Szkudlapska takes pains to make something edible from this Siberian flour: the patties are awful. Now, she is trying to make bread, kneading flour with curded milk and soda. If only we could get a good stove and wood, we could bake better bread, not underdone and half-raw as it is now.

(continued in the next issue)

Back to the April 2002 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 9/23/02