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The Strangeness of Faraway Lands
by Bogdan Czaykowski

Jadwiga Czaykowski (born 1933 in Szyly, Poland, now Ukraine, residing in Vancouver since 1962)

Bogdan Czaykowski (born 1932 in Rowne, Poland, residing in Vancouver since 1962)

Our early childhoods were obliterated by the experience of the war: the Soviet occupation; deportations to Siberia and Kazakhstan; the labour camps; the arrests and lengthy imprisonment of the fathers; life in camps and settlements; starvation in the kolkhoz and life-threatening illness; the death of siblings; other men near the mothers; journeys south, to Persia, India, and Africa; the strangeness of faraway lands; experiences at an Uzbeck cemetery, where hamsters would dive underground, pop up here or there, sit up on their hind legs like restless guardians, while in the hollows of the dry soil, bones lay scattered around pitchers and among whispering, dried herbs.

J: We were deported to Kazakhstan in February 1940. A family friend, who used to visit my mother a lot, had informed the authorities that my father, who had escaped from a POW camp, was hiding out in our cellar. They came for him, and we didn't see him for another seventeen years. When what was left of the family reunited in London in 1957, he was already dying of cancer. He lived only another six months.

I remember one day, our school in Kuzkuduk went to pick watermelons. When it was time to go back, I intentionally stayed behind, grabbed an enormous watermelon, and started carrying it to the clay hovel. We were starving then and the watermelon was a treasure. But it was terribly big and heavy. My arms were going numb, and my legs were starting to buckle-it was quite a way through the steppe. Then my arms gave up, but I didn't want to. So I pushed the watermelon along with my foot until I could push no more. I kicked it a couple more times... But in the end, I returned, my hands empty.

B: They came for us in April before dawn. We were loaded onto a cart, and then, after a stay at a prison, taken by train into Russia. Then they herded us first into trucks and then into carts to reach the camp, which was located deep in the woods on the Vychegda River.

I can see myself walking across a huge field. The region gets lost in the taiga... ragged patches of grass and dirty snow, rocks and chunks of wood... They arrested father on Christmas Eve of 1940. Took him away, to a prison.

There was one NKVD officer-tall, lanky, dark-who would visit my mother sometimes after my father's arrest. He would say to her, "Dainty hands," and show her the hairless inside of his palm... "Just as hair doesn't grow on the inside of the palm, so there will be no Poland."

J: The hunger was unbearable from March 1941 on, from the Orthodox Easter. Mother exchanged a few things, some remnants, for food. The hunger was worse in May. My sister, Marysia, died. Two weeks later, my little brother, Wojtus. Marysia was almost three years old; Wojtus about nine months.

What's strange is I'm not bitter. It was a jungle. It was understandable...

B: It was easier for me to get food in Russia than it was for my brother. He was younger, weaker. I would run through the fields, pick something from the trees, dig something up from the earth, a carrot, potatoes. Sometimes I would bring the food back to the barrack, but sometimes I would eat it at once. On the kolkhoz, we were given kasha and grain. We had to stand in line, along the abatis. We stole. Those standing further back in the line would scoop some grain into small sacks sewn under the clothing. I did, too. But there came a time when there was no more grain and kasha, only bran. Then there was no more bran. We would eat cooked grass.

J: When Marysia died, I felt it like a death. But when Wojtus died, I could only think about boards because there was no wood in Kazakhstan, and it was very difficult to get even a small piece. But the animals would dig up the bodies, and the earth in May was still hard. We wouldn't be able to bury the bodies very deep. One woman thought I was insensitive. I knew that Mother did all she could to save her children, but I wouldn't be swayed from my goal. Finally, an old Kazakh man gave me the boards and we buried Wojtus in a small coffin so that the animals would not dig him up.

B: When I was in Kermine, a small town in Uzbekistan where some units of the Polish army were being formed in 1942, a terribly emaciated, twelve-year-old boy showed up one day at the orphanage that was attached to the army. He had escaped from a Soviet home for orphans. Before he could be properly attended to, someone fed him. It was evening, and he was assigned to sleep under my blanket. We lay down on the floor. I fell asleep almost at once. In the morning, the boy could not be woken. He was dead. A starving person should not be fed to capacity. You have to give him food bit by bit, to accustom his system slowly to normal amounts of food. I know nothing about that boy-to whom he belonged, how he came to be in a Soviet orphanage, what made him run away, how he reached Kermine: hiding, going hungry, stealing?

After the amnesty, many of those arrested and sentenced (like my father) returned on foot to the camp. For weeks I would go out to the road and wait. And watch. I would return to the barrack to cook something when mother was sick. I would run to the field to find something to eat. The rest of my time was filled with waiting. Watching. Until we were forced to leave.

The last time we saw father was March 1941. The snow was still deep. The deputy-commandant of the camp took us on a sleigh ride through the forest under an enormous moon. In prison, I heard my father whisper to mother how they treated him in prison, how they would sometimes throw him from the sleigh into the snow and force children to piss and shit on him. Father was granted this visit because he started a hunger strike. He was sentenced to ten years in Beloyezersk, almost 150 kilometres from the camp. He realized he might never see us again.

J: After the amnesty, we left the Soviet Union. We were taken to a camp near Teheran in Persia. There was a hospital there. The heat was horrendous. I was sick with diptheria and running a high fever. I didn't even realize I had no hair. They had cut it off, even though it was down to my waist and I had no lice. Just in case... When I ran my hand over my head, I didn't feel I was bald. Close by, a girl lay dying from tuberculosis. She moaned, begged for something, but there was no one around. I managed somehow to get out of bed and make my way over to her. She wanted only some water. So I dragged myself over to my cup, because she didn't have one, and got some water for her.

When I began to feel a little better, I was given a mirror. And then I saw myself, naked. I thought: What the devil, where is me? I am not like that inside. How can that bald head be me? Teheran was the most important period in my life.

At the beginning, we lived in tents. Dysentery was rampant, which meant the constant running to the latrine. The latrine was a huge pit with boards lying across it. You would have to climb on the boards and then shit into the abyss. One day, a child, feverish, weak from dysentery, fell off the boards. It couldn't be revived.

B: It must have been 1943, in India. I was eleven and I didn't know anything yet about the relativity of signs. I liked to get up early, while the air was still fresh, and walk into the hills overgrown with cacti to watch the sunrise. At a certain moment, on the next hillock over, I saw the figure of a Hindu, who saw me as well.

We stood there watching one another. Then he put out his hand in my direction and started to gesture: he waved his hand, palm turned towards me. In my culture, the gesture means: go away, get lost. So I ran away, towards our camp. Only later did I learn that, in India, this gesture had the opposite meaning: the gesture which, for us, means to go away, for them, means to draw near.

J: Suddenly, in Teheran, women started getting their period. They thought it wouldn't come any more because, in Russia, they stopped having it. And now in Teheran, everyone was getting their period.

B: I'm hanging, crucified, from the beam of the long barrack. Four of my roommates are holding the thick rope by which they have managed to string me up. Jeering, amused, sometimes hateful laughter, cries...

When I am let down, I go outside to my mother's hut. Of the almost 1,000 orphans and half-orphans, only six of us have a mother.

J: In the camp in Africa, there was a girl whose father was in the army. She adored him. Her mother had died in Russia. One day, while she was ironing the only dress she had, I noticed that she was burning it. Because her father had remarried. I asked, "What are you doing?" She replied, "I have no mother, and now I have no father." 


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