‘His identity was taken from him, and from that day forth he answered to a cold, impersonal number’
Extract from A Homeland Denied: In the Footsteps of a Polish POW
By Irene Kossakowski
Published by Whittles Publishing
The wooden cattle trucks rattled laboriously along at an uneven pace, their cold metal wheels clattering noisily on the iron railway tracks, jolting their occupants.
The bitter Arctic wind easily found its way through the poorly fitted slats of wood, chilling the fifty men inside each truck. Crammed like sardines shoulder to shoulder, they were unable even to move their arms from their sides, and the suffocating smell of unwashed bodies combined with the overpowering stench of urine and vomit was nauseating.
Pressed tightly into a far corner of the truck was a young Polish soldier, fresh from Warsaw University. Without any warning, Germany had invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and Vadek Kossakowski had volunteered immediately on hearing the news. But the Poles were hopelessly outnumbered as the Germans advanced with over one million troops on several fronts – and when Soviet forces unexpectedly invaded from the east just two weeks later, Warsaw had to admit defeat. However, the Polish government never officially surrendered, and its exiled leaders fled to London while its people continued to fight with the Underground, the Polish resistance movement.
Under a Soviet agreement with Hitler which remained in force until June 1941 – and which had included a secret protocol to partition conquered territories – Poland was now split between Germany and Russia. The Soviets took the eastern half, and almost two million Polish citizens were sent to labour camps in Siberia. Here they would be forced to build runways in readiness for the military airbases Stalin planned to construct there.
Vadek remembered only too well the brutality of the Russian prison on the outskirts of Kozielsk village, one hundred and fifty miles from the capital of Moscow and ninety from the city of Smolensk. With the other cadets from the army training school who had been arrested that grim day of 19 September, he had endured several months of interrogation and harsh treatment in the detention centre on the Polish border with Latvia, before being taken to Kozielsk (in Russia).
Once the centre had been the important Orthodox monastery Optina Pustyn, comprising a chapel and several outbuildings connected by long corridors centred around a large and tranquil quadrangle – but now it served as a military prison. With views across the pine forests and gentle rolling hills not far from the river, its peaceful, rather quaint, setting belied its now forbidding interior.
He had been desperately scared, wondering if he could endure another beating, unable to prevent himself from shaking whenever he heard those heavy boots echoing on the hard stone floor as they came slowly and menacingly nearer to his bare but filthy cell. At each dreaded footfall along that long narrow corridor, he had frozen, as if moving would in some way bring that which he feared closer toward him. Hardly even daring to breathe, he felt that every fibre of his being was stretched taut with fearful trepidation as they reached his door; almost collapsing with relief when they passed. If they passed; sometimes they did not.
Every day there were incessant interrogations, and roll calls at all hours of the day and night. His name, his identity, was taken from him, and from that day forth he answered to a cold, impersonal number. He wasn’t brave, or did not think so. No-one he knew of had been prepared for war, and events had escalated so quickly there was no option but to fight. Kill or be killed. There was no other choice – but the only thing he had had brandished before was a pen, for he was a mathematician not a soldier. Though not particularly religious, but brought up in the Catholic faith as most Poles were, he now found himself uttering a prayer more frequently than he had ever done before. Death was always at the forefront of his mind, and he did not want to die. The terrible uncertainty consumed him everyday, and he felt he was trapped in a terrifying nightmare with no possibility of waking up.
And his family, what of them? He had so desperately wanted to get a message to them, but there had been no warning of the approaching Red Army. And no time. No time to do anything, for it had all happened so quickly. How could he have sent it anyhow – who would have taken it? There was no-one. Now it was too late. No-one knew where he was or where he was going.
But he did. He was on his way to Siberia. He had not known what to expect and had been terrified that he would be shot like so many others. Every day he had been asked to give up his Polish citizenship, to deny his heritage. But he had not. He would not.
Then one cold grey dawn he had heard his number called, followed by a loud hammering on the door before it was pushed open and a surly guard brusquely ordered him out of his cell …
A Homeland Denied: In the Footsteps of a Polish POW by Irene Kossakowski is published in November 2016 by Whittles Publishing (PB, £16.99)