Born in 1935 in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania – then occupied by the Second Polish Republic – Bohdan Wojciechowski spent a year in Soviet forced labour camp in Kazakhstan following the partition of Poland in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, an event which resulted in the deportation of 20,000 and 30,000 people from Vilnius alone. From there Wojciechowski and his family escaped via the Middle East to Scotland and then Canada. Now retired, Wojciechowski uses the incredible experiences of his youth in as fuel for his thought-provoking new book Zamora Texts: The Year 9000. We spoke to him about his incredible escape from Stalin and tragic betrayal of Polish civilians in World War II…
Do you remember packing your bags and being sent off to a refugee camp?
It was me, my mother and my maternal grandparents. They knew what to pack in the limited time and what luggage we needed because they had been in St. Petersburg and had to flee the revolution in 1918. I vividly remember the two weeks on the freight car we were packed into.
Do you remember much about your experiences in Soviet labour camps?
We were deported to a relatively remote village in Kazakhstan. I remember the accommodations, the cold, the hunger. My grandparents were too old and I was too young, but my mother was sent out to the fields to work. My grandfather died of starvation in our quarters.
When the Russians switched sides in World War II they were required to release all the deported Poles as part of being accepted as an ally. However, we were too far off the beaten track and the local authorities were not about to let us go. Many, many other deportees remained in Soviet territory since they were never sent on to refugee centres organised by the Red Cross.
To this day there are communities of descendants of these refugees in former Soviet territories. Some of them have been repatriated by the current Polish government but not all. We got lucky. My mother and grandparents lived in St Petersburg before the revolution. They had some standing in the society of the day and spoke Russian. When they escaped the Revolution they could not take much with them but did take some gold coins as a nest egg. These were still with us when we were deported in 1941. Grandmother sewed the coins into the hem of her overcoat as we were taken away.
In Kazakhstan, when word reached us that we should go to a refugee centre in Tashkent, the authorities refused to let us go. My mother went to the nearby railway station and bribed the station master to sell us first-class tickets on a train to Tashkent. At the appointed time we took some luggage and went to the station. The train came and we got on. We noticed that it was not pulling out. We peeked through the curtains and saw our luggage, which was to be loaded in the baggage car, still on the platform.
The local NKVD guy was talking to the station master. Perhaps he was reluctant to search the first-class wagon since only high officials would be there and they might object to being hassled by a provincial policeman. After some delay the train left, but not our luggage. We arrived in Tashkent and reported to the Red Cross and were safe from then on.
Did your experience vary between each camp?
I do not remember being in other Russian camps. The other camps I remember were refugee camps in the Middle East and in Scotland.
In 1943 you escaped to Scotland. How did you manage to escape and where did your journey take you?
Russia changed sides mid war but did not abide by their agreement to release all deported Poles. Perhaps 10 per cent ever returned to the west. My grandmother escaped with us but could not follow us to Scotland. She ended up in Kenya. We were put in touch with my father who was by this time in Scotland via the incredibly efficient help of the Red Cross while we were in Tehran.
As dependents of the British Army, my mother and I were transported across the Middle East and then from Alexandria to Scotland by sea. On the way I caught malaria. The transport convoy I was in spent some time in a camp on the border of Jordan because of some dispute as to our right to transit. We crossed the seas in empty supply ships returning to England from North Africa.
We arrived in Scotland to rejoin my father, who was there with the reforming Polish army. After demobilisation, we tried to settle in Scotland as Poland had fallen under communist rule. Jobs were scarce and my father (a mechanical engineer) worked as a draughtsman for a while but prospects for a career were poor.
Churchill urged Poles to return to Poland, but due to the Yalta treachery it would have been dangerous, possibly fatal, for officers and their families to return. So we moved to Canada.
Your father was in the Polish Tank Corps. Did you hear stories of what he did in the army?
Yes. When the Polish army regrouped in Britain under General Sikorski, he was stationed in Scotland with the Polish First Armored Division as an engineer of the unit. He was part of the invasion of Normandy and ended up with the First Division fighting along the northern front through France, Holland, Belgium and on to Germany itself. He was wounded once, a facial injury. He started as a second lieutenant and ended the war as captain before finally being promoted to major.
What was life like in the New World?
First impression: St Lawrence – endless wilderness. Toronto – a clean but hardly splendid city compared to London or even Glasgow. Polish friends of my father from his university days helped. Father’s job opportunities improved greatly and he was able to use his engineering skills. I did one year of high school and then went on to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto. I then got my masters degree and then a PhD.
I then worked in industry in the USA and finally moved back to Canada to teach Chemical Engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario.
Do you ever go back to Poland?
Many times, as a visiting scientist and for family reunions. I also visited Wilno, my birthplace and saw our old home there that we left in 1941. I also visited Siberia and Novosibirsk where we had passed through on our deportation journey, this time as a visiting scientist. A number of current professors in Poland spent time in my laboratories at Queen’s as research assistants. I have a number of colleagues in various universities in Poland including several cousins who hold PhD degrees and teach in various disciplines.
How do you look back on your experiences in wartime Poland?
I was largely sheltered from the worst aspects by my mother and my grandparents. Interestingly enough I remember scattered details of the years before the war and before our deportation but all of them are pleasant. I even remember the name of our dog – Golf. I guess it sounded exotic to my parents before the war.