Gloria Gaynor’s hit song ‘I will survive’, has always resonated with me. There are times for all of us, when life throws yet more problems our way, and all you can do is say to yourself, ‘Deep Breath. You can do this’.
Janina Andrzewski’s story always helps put things back in perspective for me. She was a shadowy family step-relative, whose name we didn’t even know, let alone her story, until her memoirs unexpectedly came to light. She wrote them so she must have wanted to share them, and it seems right to do so with this audience. After all, we have all survived life’s challenges to find there is joy in retirement.
Janina was just one of the one and a half million Poles expelled in the four deportations which followed the Soviet takeover of Poland in 1939. Just one of the one hundred and fifteen thousand civilian ex-prisoners who made it from Siberia and Kazakhstan to Iran from 1942 onwards.
Once back in her home country she made a life for herself, with an administrative post and a government allocated flat, and although we don’t know the exact date, she seems, despite everything she went through, to have made it to about one hundred.
Survive to live again
When the Soviet army marched in, they marched the prisoners out. Janina was at the roadside, with the other women, searching hopelessly through the dejected ranks for her husband’s face.
That was September. Then there was a respite, but no one trusted the Russians, and Janina and her mother huddled at home. Waiting through the long, cold, dark winter.
They came for them in the April, in a spring they never saw. Families of the military, deemed tainted by association. Herded into the depths of crammed cattle wagons, it was 28 days and Siberian frost when they half fell, half crawled out. Dirty, starving, just alive.
They spent their first night as slave labour sleeping in their coats, on the animal-dank mud floor of a Kazakstan farmer’s house. Collective Farm labourers now, but slaves just the same.
How was existence even possible on just 300 grams of bread a day? Only by renting themselves out to the freeholders in return for a meal. And when the body which was Janina’s could do no more, it was the same struggling smallholders who nursed her through, with the curative wild herbs only they knew of.
Recovered, and being selected for railway building was a blessing for survival. She slept the sleep of the near dead on her shovel in the wagon after a day tamping down railway sleepers. But there were 3 bowls of gruel a day to go with the 300 grams of bread. On that she knew she could, and would, survive.
May and freedom, if it was freedom. Permits were issued to those prepared to take up the fight against Germany. For Janina, and her mother, it was a barefoot day’s march to the recruiting station. Women weren’t wanted, but she persisted. They were the only 2 women, among 2,000 men, who boarded the crowded troop train for a 3 day journey through Turkestan, then another 3 days by ship to Iran.
1942 – 1945
Two more years passed. Not easy years, but better ones. Working for the Women’s Auxiliary Service on refugee reception, then running an evacuation camp. Finally, with the end of the War in Europe, return to Poland became a reality.
But those years of exile and suffering were never to be officially acknowledged. Janina could not satisfy the Verification Commission. Her original arrest warrant and Tehran issued passport were not enough to prove her stolen Kazakhstan years and gain her veteran’s rights.
She was a survivor though. She proved that.
You can share your reflections on Ruth’s story with her in the comments below.