The following narrative is the story of my father’s early life before
he married my mother. Like so many hundreds of thousands of Polish
people he experienced the invasion of his country by the armies led by
two very tyrannical leaders that were responsible for the deaths of
millions of innocent individuals simply to further their own perverted
aims. The story is told in my father’s own words.
My name is Dymitr Szawlugo and I was born in 1923 in a small village called Zagorze in Eastern Poland only two kilometers from the Russian border. I went to school in Miori until I was fourteen years old. My family was all farmers and I worked on the farm after my formal education finished. I was the youngest of seven children. I had two brothers and four sisters. My mother died in 1936. Life on the farm was quite good and I had many friends.
On 1st September 1939 Poland was attacked by Hitler. There was a general mobilization of the army and the war was underway. Nothing happened in my area until 17th September when we heard the sound of gunfire at the border. The Russians began their invasion and we were immediately under Soviet occupation. In October 1939 my eldest brother Paul was arrested by the communists. He had been denounced by some scum in the area as an anti-Soviet sympathizer. With no trial he was convicted as an enemy of the state and sentenced to eight years hard labour in southern Russia. A good friend of the family, Josef Buzinsky who worked as the local forestry officer was hunted by the communists and escaped to Latvia where he was eventually caught and punished accordingly. In order to gain favour from the Russians, local criminals and those with grudges against the authorities in Poland wrongly accused many innocent people of being a potential threat to the communists. As a result of this many people suffered unnecessarily.
Soon after the fighting in Poland ended there were waves of mass arrests beginning with the intelligentsia and middle class. In fact anyone thought to be a potential future threat to Stalin’s communist empire was arrested and either shot, imprisoned or exiled to Siberia. We heard about people disappearing during the night including entire families. On 13th April 1940, soon after midnight there was a knock at the door and communist police and soldiers came into the house. They were armed with rifles and machine guns. We were ordered to pack food and our belongings and be ready to leave within half an hour. I was escorted by a young soldier to the back of the yard as I had to relieve myself. We communicated in Russian as I knew a few words. When asked about our fate he hesitatingly told me that we were to be taken to the station for a long train journey. Of our family my father Ivan, brother Teodor and sister Viera together with myself were to be sent to Siberia. That night was very cold and the ground had a thick covering of snow. We were taken to the local train station by horse and sled.
The train was very long consisting of about forty goods wagons. Each wagon contained four or five families. In our wagon there were twenty seven people including small children. The wagons were locked most of the time. The doors were opened occasionally during the long journey when we were allowed to remove the dirty hay and empty the bucket. There were no facilities inside the wagon and everyone had to use the same bucket which often tipped over spilling the contents as the wagon would rock from side to side. During the few occasions that we did see the sunlight, we were given bread, soup and water. Armed guards on the train made sure that we did not cause problems.
We traveled for thirteen days and nights. Finally we arrived at the town of Pavlodar in Kazakstan where we were loaded onto ships on the river Irtish. Another three nights and two days took us to a small town, the name of which I cannot remember. We were all herded into the town square where we sat for another four or five days. It was cold but finally lorries came and took us south to a small river port called Moscik about one hundred and ten kilometers north of Semiplatinsk. At a labour camp my family and I were put to work in the timber yard. We were assigned to a hut or barrack (five square metres) which we had to share with another family. I worked in the timber yard for seven months after which I spent eight months in a garage. Then I was sent to the forest to cut trees for another three months.
From 13th April 1940 to the middle of February 1941 was the worst time of my entire life. Winter was very cold with temperatures as low as minus fifty degrees centigrade. I was hungry most of the time. We were given bread rations every three days which I soon learned should not be eaten in one day. There was never enough food, we were on a starvation diet. Sometimes we had to steal or barter for food. It was survival of the fittest. My father, Ivan was an old man and became weak as time went by. He told me that his greatest fear was to die and be buried without the presence of a priest. He died in May 1945, buried in an unmarked grave without the last rites being administered.
On 23rd June 1941 we were told at a meeting of the exiles that the Soviet Union was at war with Germany as Hitler had invaded the previous day. Upon hearing the announcement there was no emotion but quietly and secretly we felt happy. For me this would somehow mean that a way out of Siberia was possible as men would be needed to fight in the war. I hated Stalin and I hated communism, we all did. Many Poles died in the Siberian camps of the cold, starvation and slave labour.
In February 1942 there was a general mobilization of Polish subjects to the Polish Army. Only my brother Teodor and I were able to leave. Viera stayed to take care of my father. The meeting area was in southern Russia. On the way to the Polish Army I traveled from Moscik to Pavlodar which was a distance of two hundred and fifty kilometers by horse and camel. From Pavlodar I went by train to Novosibirsk where we waited four or five days for a connecting train to Uzbekistan finally reaching Lubrovaya which was somewhere between Alma Ata and Tashkent.
I joined the Polish Army in March 1942. In the middle of April part of this new Polish Army was evacuated to Persia. I was lucky that I got out of Russia. Many were left there to die. We traveled from Lubrovya to Krasnovosdskwhich which is a port on the Caspian Sea. We were then taken by ship to the Persian port of Pahlevi. As we sailed across the Caspian Sea I looked back towards Russia and told myself that I would never go back of my own free will. We waited for a week in Pahlevi after which lorries arrived to take us through Iraq and Jordan to Palestine where we stayed near Robovot.
We were assigned to our units and I became an infantryman soon training to be a small arms instructor. However, I was taken ill just before my unit was assigned to duties in England. I had to be hospitalized in Nazareth where I was treated for dysentery and rheumatism. After I was released from the hospital I was transferred to the 22nd Transport Company which was responsible for transporting the munitions for the artillery. In effect I now serving in the Second Polish Corp. We were sent back to Iraq seven months after first arriving in Robovot. For nine months we trained near Kirkuk.
I soon became familiar with Wojtek ( Voytek) the bear and we spent
much time together. We all loved him and everyone enjoyed his
company. He loved to drink from a beer bottle and when it was empty,
he would look through the opening to see where the rest of the beer
was. He would accept lit cigarettes, take a puff and swallow them.
Once he got stung on the nose by a scorpion and became very ill. A few
of us stayed with him all day and night to nurse him. We thought he
Many soldiers would not play with Wojtek as it got quite rough sometimes with people being scratched and uniforms getting torn. You had to know how to handle the bear and if you did no one got hurt. When enough was enough then we stopped play fighting. There are many photos of me and Wojtek playing together.
In Iraq I passed my driving test and then we moved to Bigirgi in Palestine. We stayed there for about four months and then we were off to Egypt where we were stationed at a place thirty kilometers from Ismalia. In March 1944 we traveled to Port Said and boarded a ship taking us to Port Barri in Italy. From there we made our way up to Taranto. At the end of April we were finally sent to the frontline at Monte Cassino where a long battle was being fought against the Germans. From where we were located we could see the battle being fought. My closest encounters with the Germans were when the Luftwaffe sent their aircraft to attack the supply lines. Each time they attacked the only thing to do was to find cover quickly. Soldiers did not just get killed fighting the enemy. There were many accidents where men were seriously injured or killed. One of our men liked to play with grenades and accidentally pulled the pin out of one and blew himself up. Two more were dispatch riders and killed themselves taking chances on their motorbikes. Another soldier, a friend of mine was killed when he was crushed by a supply lorry.
After Monte Cassino was taken we went to the Adriatic Front passing through Termoli, Pescara, Ancoma, Rimini, Cesena, Forli and Imola. At the end of 1944 I was promoted to lance-corporal. After Bologna was taken the war in Italy was over. Later we went north to Padua, Treviso and then Venice. After that we went back to Imola and then I was sent to Barletta in the southern Italy to attend a school for non-commissioned officers. The course lasted for three months and I earned another promotion to corporal. From Barletta I went back to Ancoma where my unit was stationed. In May 1946 I went to Germany to see my brother Teodor whom I had not seen since we were at Pahlevi in 1942. He had served in the 8th Rifle battalion 1st Polish Armoured Division. He drove a bren gun carrier. It was a very happy reunion. I had to return to Ancoma where my unit was preparing to move to England. At the end of July I said goodbye to Italy and traveled through France and across the English Channel. We spent ten months in Berwick upon Tweed and then moved to Edinburgh. Finally in November 1947 I went to Enfield in Middlesex to take part in the demobilization of my unit. It was a sad time for many of us as my fellow soldiers and friends were splitting up.
I elected to join the Polish Resettlement Corp which allowed us to stay in Great Britain and be usefully employed. It was a difficult time for the Polish service personnel. We had lost our country to the communists and many people in Britain wanted us to leave especially the unions. Most of us swore that we would not go back willingly unless it was to a free Poland. We were also torn between a duty to go back to our families and staying in a safe country. Anyone going back to Poland faced an uncertain fate. My brother Teodor wanted to go home but that part of Poland was now part of Soviet Russia. I persuaded him to stay in England. One of my very best friends by the name of Stanislaw Sokolowski was persuaded by his mother and sister to return to Poland. They wrote in their letters that they missed him so much that they needed his help. His father had been a colonel in the Polish army and was murdered in Katyn forest. Before Stanislaw went back he promised me that he would write back to report on the situation. He was never heard from again, it was said that like so many others, he disappeared by being shot or imprisoned in a gulag. One of my cousins went back to an immediate arrest and was convicted as a traitor for having served with the enemy of the people of Poland. He was sent to Siberia for a few years and finally when he was released, settled in Poznan, very likely scarred by his experience. Stanislaw and I had planned to go to Argentina and settle there. Many Polish subjects refused to join the Polish Resettlement Corp for various reasons and emigrated to various countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and parts of South America.
I worked for the rest of my life as a labourer or factory worker until I retired. I married a beautiful woman called Victoria Mateo in 1955. We met while on holiday in Spain. We had two children, Andres and Helena. I spent my life after the war living in peace and I am grateful to the government of Great Britain for letting me live a happy life here. I have been free to live as I please and that sadly that freedom was not experienced by my countrymen until recently.