Triggered by the unprovoked, barbaric Russian invasion of Ukraine and its peoples’ horrendous suffering, a few months ago, I began presenting to you, my dear OLLI friends, chronological excerpts from my dad Stefan’s war years—during a similar assault on Poland by the Soviets at the outbreak of WW II. The first story was, “The Soviet Invasion of Zbaraz.” This is the second story. — Junia
2 — Stefan’s Imprisonment in Ukraine
September 1939, Shepetovka (Soviet occupied Ukraine)
Stefan arrived from Tarnopol in a cattle train, forty prisoners in each boxcar, to a massive POW camp in Shepetovka ((today: Shepetivka, in western Ukraine). His sergeant, Jagiello, was with him.
Every soldier had to identify himself at the camp’s registration posts. Stefan produced a fake document stating he was infantry private Stefan Orzechowski; Jagiello had written it hastily while on the train. He hoped the Soviets wouldn’t understand Polish or suspect anything shady. They didn’t.
Stefan’s assigned barrack housed around one hundred men. Guards ordered Jagiello to a different location. Exhausted, Stefan fell asleep on his hard bunk bed. Deep into the night, four men burst into the barrack waking him with, “Stefan Orzechowski!”
He shook himself awake, stood, and approached the men. Up close, he recognized the Belarusian camp commandant E., two Soviet NKVD (precursor of KGB) agents; and a civilian.
“Yes, that’s him, Commandant,” the civilian said in Polish pointing to Stefan. “Orzechowski, take your belongings and come with us.”
Stefan was familiar with Soviet NKVD’s methods—identical to the Gestapo’s—of night-storming, intimidation, forced confessions, and the use of traitors among Polish minorities. He suspected someone had revealed his officer’s rank in exchange for a favor. But who could have betrayed him?
He was escorted to the commandant’s office. There, without questions or explanations, an NKVD agent ordered Stefan to exit through a rear door and march at gunpoint to a building surrounded by double barbed-wire fences and guarded by two armed Soviet soldiers. One stood at the barbed-wire gate, the other at the door to the building, which he opened with a key and shoved Stefan inside with a thrust of his gun barrel.
The unbearable stench of human excrement met Stefan in the darkness. He searched his pockets for a match, but a flame swished to light beside him. “So, you too are here now?” its holder asked in a deep voice. “This may be our last night alive, you know.”
“They only send spies here.”
The match died before Stefan could get a good look at the man. Moaning rose from the concrete floor of the building. He needed no further explanation—the penalty for spying was execution without a trial. They were keeping them alive for interrogation by torture in the next days.
“What’s your name?” the same man whispered. “Why did they shove you in here? Were you a milicjant, or in the Border Patrol? Are you a priest? A school superintendent? A city mayor? A professor, or a nobleman?”
“Orzechowski, here. I’m nobody. An accountant in a large business firm. Enlisted in our Lodz Infantry Reserve on September 6. How about you?”
The man whispered in Stefan’s ear, “I’m Gajecki. I served in the Milicja (Polish for police) in Rzeszow.”
Stefan slipped, sat on the floor, lowered his voice, and said, “This must be a mistake.” He wouldn’t reveal his rank and his betrayal ordeal to a stranger. Gajecki could be a Soviet spy probing him.
“Makes no difference, man. When you’re shoved through that door, you’re a spy.”
Gajecki moved closer and grabbed Stefan’s head. He muttered into his ear, “We have to escape tonight. Before dawn. Even if they try to catch us.”
“But the barbed wire—”
“We have to. Leave it to me. Hear, pal?”
Wetness seeped through Stefan’s uniform. He was sitting in feces and urine and could hardly breathe in the overpowering stench.
“All right, let’s go,” he whispered. “I’m with you.”
Gajecki stood up from squatting and banged on the door. “Guard, guard!” he yelled over and over.
A key turned with a harsh squeal, and the door opened a sliver, held back by a heavy chain. The hairy face of a guard appeared in the fluctuating light of an oil lamp.
“What the hell you want?” His voice was more gravel than sound.
“We can’t stay in here, swimming in shit. Please remove the sick. Besides, I need to relieve myself,” Gajecki yelled. “Let me out to the ditch for a minute.”
“I have to go too,” Stefan hurried to say. “I can’t wait any longer. The pain is terrible.”
“Shut up!” the guard said. “In the morning someone will get rid of the sick and the corpses.” He closed the door.
“How about me and a few others?” Gajecki screamed again. He moaned at the top of his rumbling voice and started kicking the door. “We can walk. Hell, guard, just let us out to the ditch and back!”
“How many of you?”
The guard opened the door and, placing the lamp on the ground, let Stefan and Gajecki out. He reattached the chain behind them. “Go, go, sons of bitches!” He pushed them with his gun then followed them to the bushes to a barely visible hole in the ground covered by two boards with a space between them. Right then, other prisoners protested, kicked, and screamed for help, demanding to be let out too. The guard left, swearing profusely.
“Now!” Gajecki whispered. “Get to the fence and stay low, in case he shoots.”
They crawled a few meters to the head-high barbed wire secured to the ground with craggy fence posts. Charitable bushes provided cover, and a clouded sky blackened the space around them. They grappled with the lower wires, battling to free them from entangling vines then shimmied under the bottom strand. The knotted wire tips knifed into Stefan’s jacket, shirt, and back, plowing a wound as he stemmed forward. Pain tore at him but he kept going. A second wire fence! The same stabbing pain raked his right shoulder this time. He tried to lift the barbed wire with his hands. God, the agony of his raw back and now his palms and fingers. No time to think. A little more. Jesus Christ, how much farther?
They made it! They emerged on the other side of the fence, ignoring the guard’s rising shrieks and shots. They dashed into the cobalt-black night and scrambled blindly. Stefan’s body funneled to perform one function alone, that of an animal fleeing death. Gajecki raced alongside him, moaning with pain.
A rhythmic pounding of boots, like that of a company of soldiers running on pavement, resounded in the distance, growing louder and louder. When the soldiers drew near, Stefan made out a few breathy words in Polish.
“Poles!” he said to Gajecki. “Let’s split up and join them. Maybe this way the guards won’t recapture us. May God forever bless you, man.”
“And you,” Gajecki replied, veering away from Stefan.
Stefan joined a row of soldiers, matching their pace. “Where to are you running at this time of night?” he asked.
“Don’t you know?” someone said. “We’ve been ordered to pick up bread from the bakery and take it to a distribution point. To the kitchen. What are you doing here?”
Stefan lowered his voice, “I escaped from jail under the barbed-wire.”
“Don’t worry, friend. Nobody here will expose you. We’re the Air Force Squadron prisoners. I’m a pilot.”
Stefan’s back stung; his legs wobbled. “Have you registered yet?” he asked the pilot.
“No. We arrived here last night. . . . You need a burlap bag to carry the loaves with us. Here. Take mine.” He thrust a ragged bag into Stefan’s bleeding hands.
“The blood. My infantry uniform is stuck to my back. They’ll notice.”
“Move to the last row. And take my jacket!”
The pilot pulled Stefan out of formation, eased the torn jacket off his tender back, and handed him his own. In agony, Stefan pulled it on. Life or death. With no time to thank the pilot, he grabbed the bread bag and they tailed into formation.
The bakery’s lights glowed in the distant dark. Once they arrived, Stefan stuffed his bag with loaves, turned around, and hurried back with the airmen. The same pilot found him, snatched the bag from him, and swung it on his own back next to the one he carried. He slouched under the load.
“With the weight on your shoulders, you’ll bleed more,” he said.
“God bless you, man.”
Stefan continued trotting. Although his strength dwindled by the minute, he had to reach the kitchen and rush back for more. When he finally came close to the Air Force barracks his legs gave out. Two men held him and walked him inside.
They laid him on a cot, washed away the blood, shaved him, and dressed him in a clean shirt, jacket, and pants. In his air force uniform and beret, Stefan revived.
“They may come looking for you,” the men told him. “Forget you were in the infantry. From now on, you’re a mechanic in the Fourth Air Force Squadron.”
“Fourth Air Force . . . I owe my life to you boys,” Stefan said, still in shock.
“We flying boys have no fear. But being unarmed you have to lie and cheat to survive here.”
“You can call me Jozef Kowalski. That’s really my father-in-law’s name.”
In the morning Stefan registered with camp authorities using his new identity. At noon the door to his barrack slammed open for three men to enter: the same two NKVD agents and the civilian who had singled him out the previous night. Luckily, E., the prison camp commandant, wasn’t there.
Stefan was on his cot at the deep end of the one hundred-capacity barrack, and before the inspection committee came close to him, one of the airmen whispered, “Join us at the card game. Now.”
He slipped down to the floor with the other soldiers who nudged over to accommodate him. As soon as the inspectors approached, an airman handed him a deck of cards and teased him, “Jozef, why do you always have to cheat? Why, Jozef? You think you can outwit us, you son of a bitch?” He punched Stefan’s shoulder, triggering laughter around the circle of men. A bolt of pain in Stefan’s back birthed images of electrified coils inside his eyes. An alarming weakness overcame him, but he forced a smile and said nothing. He didn’t dare reveal his voice.
Three players stood up and loomed over him, chuckling and making fun of him and of one another. The NKVD agents streamed by, quickly surveyed the group of soldiers, and left. Decked out in pilot’s gear, without a beard, and answering to a different name, Stefan was a whole new person.
The next two weeks at camp gave Stefan’s wounds a chance to heal. One day he bumped into Jagiello, but, cautious, they exchanged glances and pretended to be strangers. Jagiello must have guessed Stefan had become an airman for a good reason.
The camp authorities at Shepetovka grouped the POWs by their trade. Following the advice of the airmen, Stefan declared himself a welder. “We’ll teach you, don’t worry,” they assured him.
“Harasho. We need welders,” the Soviet at the registry table told him.
Each group of forty prisoners, Stefan among them, received orders to board a boxcar in a cattle train heading to Bolshoye Zaporozhye, a foundry town. They ate either cabbage soup or kasha as one daily meal and could drink kipiatok, boiled water, from their tin cups at rail stations. A drilled hole in the center of each car’s floor served for the men to relieve themselves. Hungry rats raced around them, biting their flesh and feces alike. During station stops the guards allowed the stronger men to jump off the train, two at a time and at gunpoint, and do their necessities in the open—deprived of privacy, of toilet paper, and water. Deprived of vestiges of human dignity.
Intestinal infections ran rampant—loss of bowel control, vomiting, prostration, some ending in sudden death. Miraculously, the pestilence skipped Stefan, but he had to bear the horrors around him. Guards forced prisoners to throw with bare hands the bodies of their infected comrades, from all the boxcars, onto an open platform car at the end of the train. During night stops, local village peasants waited to ransack the corpses’ clothes and shoes, leaving them naked and exposed. Near the end of their two-day journey, prisoners on board had to bury the dead in a common grave along the rail tracks.
As the train slowed down in its approach to a city, a small opening in the boxcar allowed Stefan a limited view of the world around him. Men took turns surveying the new surroundings: An enormous town under a thick haze of heavy industry unfolded on both sides of a mighty river.
Bolshoye Zaporozhye, in Soviet occupied Ukraine (today: Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine)
The train stopped at a prisoners’ camp. Local Soviet guards ignored the work assignment lists of the prisoners, discarding their papers on the ground without looking at them. They transferred Stefan and many others by rail to a nearby mining community, Krivoy Rog (today: Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine). There, inside another camp, he had to shuffle iron ore onto train cars ten hours a day.
Two months went by during which freezing weather got the best of Stefan. In December the guards transferred him and a group of other POWs back to Bolshoye Zaporozhye by rail. Stefan arrived at the new camp numb, exhausted, and coughing endlessly. He had lost considerable weight and hoped to finally work inside a building as a welder.
Local guards told him that before the war the Bolshoye Zaporozhye foundry had employed twenty thousand Soviet workers. Half of them had joined the military. Now Polish POWs, arriving by the thousands, filled their positions working but . . . without pay. Stefan’s assigned foundry unit employed one thousand prisoners.
Work at the foundry was intense and nonstop. The ironmasters molded ore into seventy-kilogram blocks of cast iron and dumped them into nearby excavations as reserves. Others loaded the blocks onto train cars for transport to distant plants that melted them to manufacture tin, wire, and ultimately the armament for the colossal Soviet military.
Stefan’s hopes to work indoors ended soon after arrival. The season’s first snowstorm caused an immediate demand for clearing portions of the foundry railroad tracks of ice and snow. His second day at the plant, guards sent him and three other men to clear a bridge for the safe passage of local cargo trains.
A prisoner told Stefan that several times a day trains either crossed the bridge or stopped for unloading ore into the three-story-deep excavation under the bridge. The crater’s diameter exceeded the length of three box cars. A steel bridge just broad enough to fit the rails spanned the chasm. The running tracks’ glassy surface buried under snow and debris presented danger of train derailment on the bridge.
Stefan and the other three prisoners arrived on site before dawn and scraped ice from the bridge with shovels, stopping often to rub their bare hands back to life. A lingering moon’s blue light, frozen into a purplish gleam on the snow, provided the only relief from darkness. From the depths of the excavation, sharp-edged boulders of ore protruded black and menacing. With no side rails to latch onto, Stefan balanced his movement on the tracks with extreme care.
To keep his mind off the precipice, he recited the rosary, trying to keep the ten Ave Maria count correct, although . . . one more or less probably wouldn’t matter to God. The other three men swore profanities without end, so to vent his own frustration Stefan stopped the rosary and joined in the cussing. A resin scent of fir trees swept the air—beyond the ore pit, the train tracks curved then vanished into a tunnel surrounded by spruce forest.
After about an hour, a hollow thumping shook the woods, followed by the galloping sound of a huffing engine.
“Oh God! A train!” a man cried.
“Sons of bitches!”
“Help! Help! God damn it!”
“Stop the damn locomot¾”
With an uproar a blinding light blasted in front of the men, having emerged from the woods, bleaching out the world. Three of them jumped into the crater with screams echoing in the depths. Stefan had been working on a portion of the track farthest from the charging engine, but even so he had no time to back up from the crater onto firm ground. He threw himself on the track and grabbed one end of a tie with both hands, outside the rail. Immediately, he dropped his body down and stayed dangling over the precipice.
He’d no sooner secured his grip when the train wheels clattered above his head, growling and striking sparks on the freshly scoured rail beside his hands. The bridge pulsed and sagged. Vibrated and creaked. The deafening racket wouldn’t stop. A searing numbness crept into Stefan’s fingers. A scorching numbness that urged him to let go. But the roaring demon shimmied away, and then whipped out of sight into the black.
With uncanny strength Stefan pulled himself up onto his elbows, then flung one leg over and hitched his foot onto the track. Alerted by screams and the thundering locomotive, prisoners working in the vicinity rushed to the bridge. They dashed to Stefan, grabbed him, and carried him to terra firma.
“You were so lucky!” one of them said.
“Jesus Christ! You look like a ghost,” said another.
“How’d you pull yourself up?” They all looked at him with awe.
“Where are the others?” Stefan said, unable to move, his hands on fire.
“Just rest. We sent for ropes to pull them out.”
“Am I . . . really alive?” Stefan murmured, then the world eclipsed.
When he regained consciousness, he tried in vain to sit. Someone had wrapped his hands in rags. Not too far from him lay the three other bridge workers. The pink light of dawn revealed two were dead. The third one was breathing and moaning, but his right eye’s cavity seeped blood, his limbs distorted and black with bruising.
<To be continued>
Just a month earlier, before the outbreak of war, Stefan had been an accountant and a reserve officer in Lodz, Poland. He had enlisted in the Polish Infantry, leaving his wife and two small children. As a POW, this is how he was treated by the Soviets.
The images in this story were added to support the mood of the narration. They are not photos of the actual events. –Editors
Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II : Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows.
A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.