Zosia's story

Siberia 1945/56 -- life in the gulag

"Don't come home. The Russians are here, go to America."

There were rumours that this part of the American Zone was to be handed over to the Russians and everyone was rushing to move out. There had been news of atrocities and already one woman she knew, had been raped by many Russian soldiers, and had saved her eight year old daughter from that fate, by hiding her up the chimney. There was no way that Zosia wanted to remain in Weimar, once the Russians came, but she had made friends with an American captain and wanted to go to a dance, so she stayed.

One morning there was the sound of heavy boots on the stairs and a loud banging on the door. When she opened it she was arrested by several Russian soldiers all ragged and poor looking. Arguing her innocence and uncertain why she had been arrested she was hauled before a Russian military court. Apparently, a friend had betrayed her to the Russians. There she found herself standing before a poorly clad military and was addressed by a tall, fat Russian general, with gleaming gold teeth. His thin well worn army coat was covered in medals and he barked questions at her. Quaking and shaking, she found that she was charged with spying. In vain she argued that she was a victim, dragged from her home to work in Germany. As a prisoner she had lived through the carpet bombing of the Americans and seen her friends killed, burnt alive from the incendiary bombs. Nothing could convince her accusers, that a Polish woman in Germany was other than a spy. If she was innocent, as she protested then she would have committed suicide rather than work for the enemy.

Always a firebrand she angrily, lost her temper and jeered at the fat general, calling him a thick, ignorant peasant. Sneering, that if he was so important why was he dressed in rags? His fellow officers stood back in amazement at her insubordination as apoplectic the man quivered with rage, and banging the table angrily, declared her guilty and sentenced her to a Siberian labour camp
Crying with fury and terror, she was lead away to prison to await transportation. Over and over she asked herself why she had not left when she had to the chance. Begging, pleading and struggling, she was escorted by the rough, ill clad soldiers and thrown into a dark, windowless cell. Hysterical, she banged on the door until it was thrown open and a sour-faced woman manhandled her into removing her clothes and flinging a dirty grey blanket at her left her alone.
Naked and frozen, sick with fear, Zosia to her disgust began to bleed heavily; her period had been brought on by shock. The bleeding was so heavy that she thought she was haemorrhaging. She cried out for assistance, her cries were ignored and she was left all night to fend for herself. There was blood everywhere and the dirty blanket was completely sodden. Disgusted and degraded she lay in her own blood and in her despair ripped out all the hair from her armpits in frenzy.
The next day she was dragged to a wash room and hosed down with ice cold water as she screamed with pain when freezing water hit her naked body. Then wrapped in another grey blanket she was pushed back in her cell, where she stayed alone for several days and nights, her only company a half witted guard who grinned through the hatch on the door when he pushed a watery soup and some wet, soggy bread into her cell. There were no toilet facilities only newspaper to use left in a corner. This was not changed and soon a fetid smell filled the cell.
No information was given and each day passed with the noise of boots on the stones outside her cell, the clanging of doors and the screaming of fellow prisoners. Sometimes, there were shouts and the sound of gun fire as people met the fate that she thought would soon be hers. She was so afraid that every time she heard footsteps she would shake in terror.
Having lost track of time she had no idea how long she had been there. After some time the guards came for her and she screamed in fright, but found that she was marched to another cell, this time to share with another woman prisoner. This woman was also Polish and although young, her hair had turned white with the daily fear of being executed. They stayed in the cramped cell together for a year now clad in sacking dresses to wear. It was wonderful for Zosia to be able to speak her own language, and they passed the time talking of their youth reminiscing about Crakow and its fashion and culture.
One day they heard the sound of boots on the concrete flooring outside and the clanging of cell doors. Believing that the time had come for her to be shot Zosia fell down on her knees praying. Hauled to her feet, she was pushed and shoved down the corridors with her new friend, and herded onto a truck with other women and taken down to the railway station. There a large crowd of women waited, as a large freight train chugged into the station. The sliding doors were thrown open and all the women were pushed into the freight compartments, to begin a journey across Germany to a labour camp in Siberia, 142 kilometres from Alaska.
The women were all nationalities and ages and some even had small children and babies with them. There were no windows in the carriage and only a hole in the floor for a toilet, and straw on the floor. To keep warm, the prisoners made a fire on the carriage floor, and slept on wooden shelves fitted above each other. As the train stopped at various stations, the prisoners were made to throw out the straw and new straw was throw in. As the climate changed and it became even colder, at least minus 60 deg F the guards gave the prisoners masks and cream for their faces to prevent frostbite.
Zosia made friends with a young French woman and they managed to understand each other. The young woman had been working in a factory like Zosia and had formed a relationship with a German, who was the father of her baby. The baby was only a few weeks old, and owing to the shock of what had happened, the mother had no milk. The baby was starving, too cold and ill to cry. Zosia begged the guards for some milk, but none came and slowly the baby faded away.
The women watched in silence as the baby was wrapped in a blanket and thrown out into the snow. Soon some of the elderly women developed hypothermia and died, their bodies also thrown off the train. It became such a regular occurrence that Zosia became numb, and the tears no longer came as she struggled to keep awake and not give into the cold and die.
After an interminable time, there was the screech of brakes the heavy doors were slung back, dazzling them with the bright sunlight as fresh air wafted into their fetid compartment. Lined up they were led before a large female in a khaki uniform, who barked questions at the silent queue and ticked off their names on the list. Then meekly the women were led into a large tiled room, stripped and hosed down with freezing cold water. Zosia tried to lean against the mouldy tiles for support, but the force of the water knocked her down and the women began to scream and shout as they bundled into each other as they slipped and fell. The whole area was permeated with the stink of chlorine that haunted her for the rest of her life.
When the hoses were turned off everyone was handed a rough grey towel to dry themselves, and were pushed by the large woman, into a nearby room, where an elderly man sat sharpening a razor. Terrified for her life, Zosia fell to her knees pleading and begging but she was hauled to her feet, and told to stand with one leg up on a chair. Shaking she did as she was told and the elderly man without a trace of emotion shaved her pubic area with a blunt rusty blade. She was spared its scrape under her armpits, as the hair had never re-grown after she had pulled it out in despair.
Sick with shame and disgust, Zosia began to vomit profusely but as her stomach was empty, she gagged and retched up bile and watery liquid. This angered the large woman, who slapped her so hard that she fell down and was so dazed that she couldn't get up. Confused she was hauled to her feet, and staggered along a dark, corridor with endless doors with only the wet towel around her. Led into a storage area, she was handed a three quarter coat made of rough material, trousers and a hat. A young Belgian woman with flaming red hair, her face stark white except for two dark red spots on her cheeks and eyes unnaturally bright, stood behind a desk looking on sadly. The silence broken by her hacking cough, given lighter duties, she had the task of handing out the clothes. Seeing Zosia's distress she whispered to her that the indignity that she had suffered was to prevent lice and added,
'If you do as you are told and don't argue, it will be the best for you. It does not good to fight them.' Those clothes were to be Zosia's only outfit and she was to live in them, day and night, wet or dry. The girl's soft words touched Zosia and later she sought her out, only to discover that the girl had died from tuberculosis.
When the admittance procedure was complete, Zosia was placed into a dormitory with twenty girls, mainly violent recidivists; many were unstable and riddled with syphilis. Zosia was terrified of them and suffered many a beating, spending the nights desperately staying awake in case she was murdered in her bed. Her few remaining possessions were stolen and anyone who protested was attacked. One day a French girl argued and there was such an altercation that the guards came. There was a stand off as the French woman's head was severed from her body by one of the girls and thrown at the guards feet as the perpetrator jeered at them. 'What is prison to me? Prison is my home.'
Hysterical, Zosia screamed in terror and was knocked unconscious. However, she soon found that if you shared a dormitory with the criminals, they looked on you as one of their own, and protected you from the other prisoners. In the day she nearly collapsed with exhaustion from lack of sleep trying to guard her few remaining possessions, until the criminals were moved to another camp. She now shared the dormitory with prisoners like herself. She even found that the friend, who betrayed her to the Russians, was also in the camp and she now begged Zosia's forgiveness. As she was suffering in the same way, for her betrayal, Zosia forgave her.
In the beginning some of the women worked in the mines with many Mongolian male prisoners. However, Zosia was given work outside in the freezing cold, clearing snow, cutting down trees and all kinds of manual labour. Sometimes the blizzard conditions were so bad. that they could not see each other and had to shovel away snow that was chest high. Their clothes would be soaking wet. but it was still the only blanket they possessed
The years passed and Zosia had no idea how long her torment would last. Luckily her knowledge of German came in useful as a translator, as there were many German women in the camp. She also learned some Russian, whilst she was moved around various camps, working in different places. One place was a brick factory, it was heavy work, and she worked the night shift from 6pm to 6 am. There was an underground dormitory and prisoners were allowed to sleep during the day. As the prisoners worked shifts, people were coming and going all day and night so the prisoners were exhausted from lack of sleep and proper food. They lived on a bowl of thin, fish head soup and a lump of wet bread. When the work was particularly heavy they were sometimes given a few extra rations.
On one occasion, whilst working in heavy snow a train ran into a party of workers. It was carnage with the dead and dying everywhere. Even this did not faze Zosia as she had seen it all before, having experienced the terrible effects of the American carpet bombing. Now she stood and looked on, unmoved as the blood coloured the snow until snapped to action to try and help the maimed.
The disaster was so serious that the nearby villagers came to help the injured. They bought food and even tore up their clothes and made bandages to bind the terrible injuries. People who had lost limbs were left to die in the snow, as they were thought to be beyond saving. Despite the odds some did survive, as the cold had prevented massive blood loss but they lived on maimed and crippled. One young woman who survived, even though she had lost her arm without realising it, because the cold prevented her feeling any pain, was the one who had begged Zosia's forgiveness for her betrayal.

In Siberia it was dark for six months of the year and light for the rest, but that meant that conditions were more tolerable in the summer, when it was warmer. Always a clean and particular woman, Zosia used some of her water ration to keep herself clean. When occasionally, the women were given a lump of margarine with the soggy bread, she spread it on her dry and chapped skin. Additionally, she
tried to maintain a veneer of civilisation by folding her clothes under a mattress to press them. When challenged by an officious guard and accused of hiding an iron, Zosia's temper rose and she shouted that the guard was stupid to think such a thing. This resulted in her being slapped in the face with such force, that she had dizzy headaches for several days and was punished by being locked in solitary. Zosia was too depressed to care, and used the quiet time to pray for release, as she never lost her faith. Usually the noise of the work force was so loud and the dormitory full of weeping and arguing women, that she was glad of the peace and quiet. The one thing she was sure of was that nothing was going to break her spirit.

All the prisoners suffered severe skin complaints owing to the lack of vitamins, and their teeth would drop out of their mouth like stones. Even so amongst the hardship there were individual acts of kindness. One old woman gave her bread ration to Zosia, saying that she was too old to care, and Zosia needed to live as she was young. This had made Zosia weep for the first time since her imprisonment, it was the first kind thing anyone had done for her.
After some years a rumour spread that Stalin had died, and there was a wind of change in the camps, the food improved and the guards relaxed a little. One day a young Ukranian male prisoner, who before being imprisoned had been a surgeon, asked the authorities, if he could run some training courses for nurses. This was approved, and Zosia took advantage of this, and her life began to improve. She became so good at nursing, that she was given work in the hospital and became the equivalent of a Sister. She was even trusted enough, to be given charge of the drugs' cupboard. However, even in the darkest days, she never felt that she should take the easy way out and commit suicide. Her will to live was so strong.
At her last camp she was moved to, there was a children's home. In this were the children of women, who had worked down the mines .with the Mongolian male prisoners in earlier years, and had formed relationships and had babies. After Stalin's death, women ceased working down the mines, as it was deemed too hard for them. Their offspring stayed with their mother in the camps until they were three years old, then they were then sent away to school. When at a later date the prisoners were released the children were returned. However, although many had been distraught at being separated from their child, some of the women on their release did not want to return to their home country with the shame of a Mongolian child, but they had no choice.
This was Zosia's happiest time, as she was delegated to work with the children and had to make sure they were fit and well. As they were not prisoners, they were allowed the best food and Zosia was allowed to share it. If anyone was unkind to the children she would respond angrily. One day she saw one of the senior monitors push a child roughly and broke his arm. Zosia reported the incident, but one of the medical prisoners didn't want to fall foul of the senior and lied that it was Zosia herself who had caused the injury. She was dismissed and sent back to manual labour.
All the mothers in the camp protested in support of her reinstatement, as they knew how well she looked after their children. Many a night she had sat up watching a sick child and as a result she was reinstated. However, the incident had unnerved her and she became so anxious and nervous, that she asked to be moved. By this time there were not so many children left in the camp, and she was sent to work with terminally ill cancer patients in the main hospital, run by prisoners.
It was 1955, ten years after her first transit to Siberia, when in fear and trembling and fearing punishment, Zosia was summoned to the Governor's office. There she was told that she would be permitted, for the first time. to write a letter home. Up until then her mother had no idea that she was still alive. However, when she wrote she put the camp number on the letter heading, and her mother had made enquiries and found out where she was. As a result she was called into the main office and reprimanded but wasn't punished.
Soon after she was told her sentence was over, and arrangements were being made for her to be repatriated to Poland. Apparently an international agreement had been signed in Geneva when the Russians finally admitted that they still had prisoners from the war, and agreed to release them. Although conditions had eased and Zosia was given better food, it took nearly a year for the prisoners to be freed. Every time a batch was released they had to queue until the train was full, everyone hoping they wouldn't be last.
When Zosia finally managed to have her papers stamped and be handed another set of clothes, she was herded onto the large, black steam train that stood in the station, puffing out clouds of dark smoke. There she found her self bundled into a carriage with an elderly woman. who was crying with joy at getting on the train. She had sat out all night to be first in the queue, so desperate was she to go home. The frail woman had queued three times and each time been sent back to camp, so this time took no chances.
The journey had been arranged to take the longest possible route so that the improved food rations would ensure that by the time they arrived they would look healthier. However, as the climate changed leaving the freezing waste of Siberia, Zosia like many of the others began to feel ill and fainted. Apparently the change in climate affected the women's metabolism. Although due to the poor diet and climate her periods had stopped for years, they returned with a vengeance. Zosia fainted from loss of blood at the flooding that occurred, and some of her fellow prisoners were too weak to stand it and faded away. Zosia gritted her teeth and made the best of it as she had always done and used her medical knowledge to help herself and others.
When tired and weary and a shadow of her former self, Zosia arrived, her mother did not recognise her. Only the nephew survived who had been hidden had survived and he recognised her although had been four years old when she left.She had been away from 1940 until 1956, first taken to work for the Third Reich and then to Siberia. She had gone away a pretty, lively young woman with everything to live for and came back prematurely aged, her youth and looks gone a living body with a dead soul. Her Polish fiancés body was mysteriously found at the bottom of a lake. Now back in Poland she found herself ostracised as having been in prison and could not find a job. Finally she wrote a letter of protest to the authorities arguing that she had been punished enough just for being Polish and an administration job was given to her. There she stayed until the death of her mother when she moved to England to start a new life.
Part one: War comes to Poland -- the nightmare begins...


Told to her daughter-in-law Jacquee
3rd November 2011

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