January 27th, 2021 ~ Vol. 91 No. 4
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Hardship and Release – Aniela Plonka’s Story
Part II
Looking Back
A young indefatigable Aniela
Read: Part I - Surviving the Gulags - Aniela Plonka’s Story

So I’ll pick up where I left off last week. At this point Aniela is being shipped along with many others way into the Siberian interior of Kazakhstan. “We came to Akmolinsk by train. The train was a special one for prisoners with bars on the windows and guards with guns. They gave us very salty fish to eat but they didn’t give us any water to drink. They tried to find some water but there was no place to get it. As far as we could see, there was nothing but snow and more snow. Finally, they brought some snow for us to eat. We travelled like that for a week.”

(Authors Note: The trip from Kharkow (Kharkiv) to Akmolinsk was 3589 kilometers by rail. My God, undoubtedly through the most godforsaken country. It is stunning to look at it on a map. Akmolinsk was renamed Tselinograd in 1961, then back to Akmola in 1992 then Astana (which means capital city) in 1998 and finally Nur-Sultan in 2019. It is the spectacular capital of Kazakhstan. In this city there is a monument to the victims of the Akmola Labour Camp for Wives of Political Dissidents during Soviet times. Women and children of most men were sent there that the NKVD deemed traitors. There were tens of thousands of men executed. Everyone was a traitor in Stalin’s eyes. He used to say often, “No men, no problem!”
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“The camp was north of Akmolinsk, in Siberia. There were no railroads, so we had to walk through the deep snow for about ten hours to get there. Some people were so tired they were falling in the snow. The soldiers were pushing them with the butts of their rifles and swore and called us names. In this transport were more than 300 Polish women. The camp was full of Russian prisoners, wives and daughters of Tzar (Czar) officers; their husbands and fathers were shot when the communists took over the Russian government. Their wives and children were sent to prison for life.

In this camp they put me to work digging frozen ground because they planned to build a railroad. The work was hard and the hours long. We worked 14 to 16 hours every day. The temperature was 45 degrees below zero, and still we worked outside. To keep warm, we had to work fast; when you stand up to rest for half a minute, your sweat would freeze on your back. My feet were frozen so terribly that, for many years after, my feet were swollen and it was difficult for me to find soft shoes that wouldn’t hurt.

Every prisoner had to dig a “norm”, so many metres long and so many wide. If somebody managed to dig the norm he or she received more bread the next day. I could never make the “norm”. I was too weak so I received only small portions of bread. Also, once a day we got soup, which was made of some grain and fish heads.

For one and a half years I worked in that camp doing hard work outside, building railroads and digging canals for irrigation or something. Many of my friends didn’t make it; they died of starvation and diseases. My brother also died or was killed somewhere in Siberia.
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Author’s Note: There is a spectacular monument and museum at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan known as Alzhir, the Arch of Sorrow. It is dedicated to the women and children of the mass terror that occurred there. Like Aniela and the thousands of Polish seized and shipped to the Gulags, these women had no idea why they were there and whether their husbands or fathers had survived. Most were shot. Six months after the Russians grabbed Aniela on the San River, in the Katyn Forest in Poland, over 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were specifically murdered. Up until 1990 Russia denied this and blamed it on the Germans.

On the Alzhir Museum website I found a disturbing description of how the imprisoned women, who were kept from knowing anything for a year, managed to get word out to relatives. They used small scraps of paper they saved and wrote brief messages, using their own blood as ink by biting their fingers. The messages were hidden in a rest room box for a train and later these small triangles were picked up and delivered by railway workers to relatives.

Aniela goes on to say, “The Germans didn’t keep their promise of non-aggression. In June of 1941, the German army attacked Russia and the two “partners in crime” were now at war. Polish general, Wladyslaw Sikorski, tried to save the Polish people from Russian prisons. The terms of the agreement were signed in London on July 20, 1941 by Sikorski and the USSR. On Dec 4, 1941, the Declaration of Mutual Assistance and Collaboration was signed by Sikorski and Joseph Stalin. Stalin agreed to release the Polish people from Russian prisons. The Polish army was organized in the Soviet Union by General Wladsylaw Anders.
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This was possible because there were more than one million Polish prisoners of war and many thousands of civilian families deported from Poland to Russia.

In May of 1942, I was released from the Russian prison. I was released along with two Polish ladies. Together we decided to go to the southern part of Russia by train. Some female Russian prisoners asked us to find their families and give them messages that they were alive and healthy. When we got to the addresses we were given, their families were so afraid they wouldn’t acknowledge they had relatives who were prisoners. They said, “No. We don’t know anyone who is in prison.” When we asked them is we could sleep in their yards, they wouldn’t let us.

It was very difficult to get a seat on a train. There were a lot of people trying to get from place to place. The trains were full of Russian army personnel so civilians had a slim chance to get on. The rail stations were full of Russian refugees running away from the front. Their homes were destroyed by bombs and fire so they had to move on. Many nights we slept on the street waiting to get on a train.
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After a long wait at the Akmolinsk rail station, my two friends and I managed to get on a train, but we didn’t have any money for tickets so the lady conductor threw us out. We held on to the rails of the steps, hanging on while the train was running. On the next rail car steps, some Russian men were also hanging on. I had a little bag hanging on a string on my arm. A man from the next car tried to steal it. He pulled and jerked the bag but the string wouldn’t break, and I couldn’t release my grip on the rail to let go of the bag for fear of falling off the train. It was going very fast and I would have been killed if I fell. The string of the bag cut my arm, and for many years, I had a big scar from it.

When the train stopped, we walked to a village in Kazakhstan (a Russian occupied country), and asked for jobs, any jobs, because we were very hungry. The Kozak people (Cossacks) let us work on their farms and paid us with some flour and potatoes. After a few weeks, we tried to get to Alma-Ata. (A region in southern Kazakhstan). Some Russian men in the village were going to Alma-Ata, and said they had room for one of us, if we paid them. We had 50 rubles between us, so my friends decided I would take our belongings and the ride while they would walk.

On the way to Alma-Ata, the men stopped by some bars for drinks while I waited in the wagon. When they came back, they yelled at me to give them more money, but I didn’t have any. So they started hitting me and tearing off my clothes. I was very scared and didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, there was a little Kozak man travelling with the Russians. He asked them to leave me alone, but they were drunk and wouldn’t stop. When the wagon continued down the hill, the Kozak pushed me off the wagon and I fell and rolled down the hill. Then he threw my bags down. He saved my life.”

“I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know where I was or what to do. I sat on my bags and cried and prayed. After a long time, another Kozak man came by and asked if he could help. He was riding a donkey and spoke only Kozak(h). But somehow we understood each other. He let me borrow his donkey. I put my bags on the donkeys back and sat on it, then started off. The donkey walked steadily, until we came to a creek. It sat down right in the middle of the creek, getting the flour in one of my bags all wet. I jumped off the donkey and started pulling the rope, but the donkey refused to move. She was just enjoying the cool water. I was so upset, I ran behind the donkey and grabbed her tail and pulled it very hard. The donkey jumped up and started running fast. Finally, I got to the place where I was supposed to meet my friends. They said, “We walked and we are waiting here for you for a long time. You had a ride and you are so late.”

Author’s Note: In Part Three we will follow Aniela Pawlisak as she makes her way across the Baltics to Iran and Iraq with the Polish 7th Division where she eventually meets and falls in love with Czeslaw Jan Plonka, a former Russian POW and Polish Army officer. So far she has been moved an incredible 6,574 kilometers east and west through Russian territories.

Read: Part III - Freedom and Hope – Aniela Plonka’s Story

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January 27th, 2021 ~ Vol. 91 No. 4
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