The aim of the "Separated by History" project is to document one of the most traumatic Polish experiences of the 20th century – separation of families in the years 1939–1989 due to, among other things, resettlements and deportations of the war period, political imprisonment, and the decisions taken in the communist era to emigrate to the West because of political or economic reasons.
We would thus like to preserve the memory of separated families, establish a link between the history of the Poles at home and the history of Polish emigration, and to encourage also the young generation, to take an interest in the history of their relatives or acquaintances.
Every account and story is invaluable, as there are no two identical family stories. All of them deserve to be recorded, because they testify to the vastness of experiences and complexities of life in Poland and in other countries of the region in the 20th century.
Maria, the oldest daughter of Irena and Zygmunt Imiłkowski, lived with her parents and siblings – Halina, Zofia and Zbigniew – in Plewno, a village in Pomerania. Her maternal grandparents lived nearby. In August 1939, her father, Zygmunt Imiłkowski, left home to serve in the army. Zygmunt fought in the 29th light artillery regiment at Grodno, from where he returned home after a month-long odyssey.
The Nazis had a plan to turn Poles and other Slavs, as inferior races, into slaves. They shut down all secondary and higher-level educational institutions, as well as cultural ones. Members of the Polish elite were either killed or sent to concentration camps.
In December 1941, the Imilkowski family was deported to a camp in Potulice. Conditions in the camp were extremely difficult – inmates suffered from hunger, disease, and cold. Worst of all, however, were the forced separations. First, Maria's father was sent to work in an aircraft factory. Then, her sister, Halina, who was seriously ill, was sent to a hospital in Bydgoszcz. She was so weak that when she returned to the camp, she had to walk with a stick. Most difficult was the separation from her mother, who in spring of 1942 was sent to work on the estate of a manor house. A month later, a camp trustee took Zofia and Zbigniew away. Maria and Halina were left alone.
"Then they drove us to the barrack. It was unheated, overcrowded, cold and dark. Our family of six received an area of three square meters to share. We lay on bare ground, on a pallet; there was no floor in the barrack at all. There were cracks and crevices in the walls, the room was lacking windows. The sloping roof nearly reached the ground. It was impossible to stand or sit there; one could only stay lying down. So, all the families lay squeezed together, one next to another: men, women and children. There was no running water or sewage system in the barrack. The lavatories were outside. One could walk straight only in the middle of the barrack.
The children wet themselves and suffered from diarrhoea; there was no way to wash oneself or dry wet underwear or clothes; there were lice, fleas and scabies."
"On visiting days, a lot of people came to the concentration camp to visit their family and friends. It was crowded on both sides of the barbed wire, people searched noisily for familiar faces and called out to each other. Everyone had to yell in order to actually hear. With everyone talking like this, shouting through the barbed wire, it seemed like it was just one great screaming match. It was indescribable."
"It was a hot summer’s day when I remember my father coming home. We didn't recognise him. He was hunched over and looked more like a beggar than the man we had last seen in December 1941. Father came home in a grey-green American military coat, and he had another American military coat, this one in a blue-grey colour, in a suitcase. These were the only belongings he had brought from the American camp. An acquaintance, Mr Dondziło, who was a tailor we knew before the war, made coats for us children from these military coats."
"I was 12 years old, and I could neither read nor write. (…) After leaving the camp for freedom, we received no help. (…) That time after the war – almost until 1956 – was difficult and full of sacrifices for us. But I was happy that I was with my parents and siblings, and that I could go to school."
Kazimierz Młyńczak served as a border guard and completed a training course for police officers. He also met 17-year-old Zofia Blidsztejn, whom he married in the Church of St. John in Vilnius. A year later, Zofia gave birth to a son, Waldemar Kazimierz, and in 1932 to a second son, Jerzy Henryk. In the mid-1930s, Kazimierz was promoted to the rank of constable and moved with his family to Kurzeniec in the Vilnius Voivodeship. They were living there when the war broke out.
After the Red Army entered Poland, Kazimierz's unit was ordered to withdraw to Lithuania; where police officers were interned. This was the beginning of a long odyssey through the Soviet Union. Kazimierz was first taken north to Murmansk, and later across the Kola Peninsula to Archangelsk.
On 17 September 1939 the Red Army invades Poland from the East, thus fulfilling Stalin’s obligations towards the Third Reich stipulated in the secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact (Hitler-Stalin Pact). The Soviet Union’s government declared that the 13.5 million Polish citizens who lived on the annexed land were forced to accept Soviet citizenship. From February 1940 to June 1941 Polish citizens were being deported in large numbers into Soviet interior. Deportations affected the families of officers, bureaucrats, police, lawyers, doctors and other representatives of the Polish intelligentsia. Many of them did not survive inhuman conditions of transport and hard life in Siberia or Kazakhstan.
After Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Union in June 1941 an agreement between Polish government in exile and Stalin was negotiated. On that basis thousands of Polish citizens were released from prisons and labor camps. Following the agreement Polish Armed Forces in the USSR under the command of general Władysław Anders were formed. Later in 1942 41 000 troops of the Anders army and 74 000 accompanying civilians were evacuated to the Middle East.
When amnesty was declared for Poles in the fall of 1941, Kazimierz volunteered to join the General Anders Polish Army, which was being formed in Tatishchev. In March of the following year, he left the USSR as a soldier. Serving in a military police unit, Kazimierz Młyńczak travelled with the 2nd Polish Corps through Iraq, Iran, Palestine, and Egypt to Italy.
On 12 September 1942 the Polish Armed Forces in the Middle East were established by joining the armies of Gen. Anders and the Independent Carpathian Brigade – heroes of the 1941 defence of Tobruk. Initially stationed in Iraq, the troops regained their health. In 1943, due to the Allies’ plans to invade Italy the majority of units were moved to Palestine.
The largest unit of the Polish army was the Second Polish Corps (II Korpus Polski), consisting mostly of units from Gen. Anders’s army. They took part in the Italian campaign in 1944, gaining fame at the Battle of Monte Cassino on May 1944, later liberating Ancona and Bologne.
In February 1946, the British Government decided to dissolve the Polish Armed Forces. In September it agreed to form the Polish Resettlement Corps. It was to smooth the demobilization process by giving soldiers adequate preparation for civilian life. Soldiers were dispersed to former military camps, e.g. to Foxley, which functioned up until 1955.
After the war Kazimierz Młyńczak settled in Great Britain and made fruitless efforts to get his wife and sons to join him. Zofia was forced to become a Soviet citizen, which made it impossible for her to leave the USSR to join her husband.
Meanwhile, the family stayed in touch via postal correspondence and photographs. In the 1990s, Kazimierz was visited in England by his granddaughter Olga, the daughter of his oldest son, Waldemar.
Stanisława and Franciszek Szwajdler lived in Łódź, where they built a happy family life. He became a successful lawyer. Stanisława divided her time between her family, social life, and charity work. Each day, Franciszek and Stanisława gathered together for dinner with their ever-growing household – their oldest son Włodek, daughters Barbara and Teresa, grandmother Emilia Lutomska, and aunt Adela, who everybody simply called Dela – as well as the firm's secretary and legal intern, and numerous other relatives and guests.
In August 1939, Franciszek Szwajdler was called up into the army during a family vacation. Already in uniform, he arrived to bid farewell to his family – this was the last time they were together.
As a result of the lost defensive war of 1939, about 420,000 soldiers of the Polish Army were taken to German POW camps – officers to Oflags, private soldiers and non-commissioned officers to Stalags. Franciszek was interned and spent the next six years in POW camps in Gross Born, Sandbostel and Blomberg.
During the occupation, in order to support her family, Stanisława Szwajdler, dealt in small trade, which was strictly forbidden. Several times, she brought things from the flat in Łódź, which after the outbreak of war, was within the borders of the Third Reich, and thus presented a huge danger when crossing the border illegally.
Life in the General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories was directed by numerous orders and bans – curfew was introduced, people were forbidden to possess radio set, to visit the places marked as “nur für Deutsche”, and to trade food. Any violation of law was severely punished – people might have been imprisoned, deported to Germany, or to concentration camps – or sentenced to death.
"It wasn't easy for her to feed our growing group! There was a booth with cigarettes where she sold a few cigarettes for which she received a concession, as well as a lot of so-called ‘own-make’ cigarettes manufactured in our house. My small hands were the most suitable for the job because I was the fastest at filling the papers with tobacco. (…) Mummy and Basia made flower ornaments from organdie (brooches, hairgrips) and together, we wove string bags. Włodek, the ‘handyman’, repaired watches, electric goods and made shoes from string."
Tragic death of the nearest and dearest.
The war's end did not mark the end of the family's separation. Franciszek Szwajdler could not go back to Poland for fear of repercussions due to his pre-war political activity in the ranks of the conservative National Party, which was regarded as a hostile ideology (the same as all alternative political options) by the new communist authority in Poland.
Franciszek stayed in Germany after the war. Later, he left for New York, but first travelled briefly to Poland in order to see his daughters. Only in 1956 was he able to return to Poland, to already adult daughters.
On 1 September 1939, Germany attacked Poland from the north, west and south-west. The Polish Army, despite putting up a determined resistance, was not able to stop the more numerous and better armed German forces.
Julian Stryjak spent six years in German POW camps. In captivity, he found out that his wife had been deported to the USSR. He kept trying to make contact with her. Though he had little success in making direct contact, thanks to correspondence with a cousin from Różniatowo (occupied Poland), he had news about his wife.
In 1945, Julian managed to escape during the evacuation of the POW camp in Görlitz. He travelled through Bohemia, Germany to France, where he joined the Polish Army.
In 1941, Hilaria Borowska, her mother and her brother Tadeusz were deported to Siberia via different routes. Only her father, Wincenty, and her younger sister, who was caring for him, remained in Białystok.
The Women’s Auxiliary Service formed alongside the Anders Polish Armed Forces in the USSR, was based on the same organizational principles and hierarchy as the army. It consisted of about five thousand volunteers, who performed duties relating to first aid, culture, propaganda, transport, administration, sentry duties and communication. This force was disbanded in 1946.
In autumn 1947, Hilaria sailed on the "Empress of Australia" to England.
The Stryjaks travelled back to Poland for the first time since the war in 1971 – after a thirty-year absence, Hilaria crossed the threshold of her family home.
"I am sending a map of my journey there so that you may get a grasp of it. From Teheran we travelled at the beginning of April by train (more than a hundred tunnels) to Ahvaz; from Ahvaz – by car to Basra; from Basra by a very small train (with small carriages). The chamsin was blowing all the way; one could see nothing at an arms-length distance but the whirling and howling red desert dust. From Baghdad it took us four days to get to Jerusalem by car – nothing but desert and black stones, not a single blade of grass. Only after we had crossed the border with Palestine,did farmland become visible. In April it was already very warm there; I wore a light denim uniform – a skirt, a poplin shirt, and short sleeves."
The Polish History Museum in Warsaw expresses its sincere appreciation for their kind and helpful involvement in the project to — Maria Brylowska, Teresa Rybicka, Barbara Stryjak
Curation — Ewa Wójcicka, Polish History Museum
Proofreading — Barbara Stryjak, Tomasz Wiścicki
IT support — Artur Szymański
Exhibit's origin — the presentation is part of the “Families Separated by History” project run by the Polish History Museum, rodziny.muzhp.pl