The 79th Survivor - Bronislaw Mlynarski
On 1st September 1939 Bronislaw Mlynarski's commute to work at the Gdynia-America Line in Warsaw took longer than usual. German bombs were falling on the city.
Nazi Germany had launched its invasion of Poland earlier that morning. Air raid sirens went off incessantly. Buildings collapsed, fires broke out and dark choking smoke hung over Warsaw.
Bronislaw anxiously awaited the arrival of his call up papers. Where were they? Eventually they arrived on the 5th September. His unit had already left Warsaw, he was to proceed immediately to Lublin to join it.
Bronislaw left his home near Lazienki Park and made his way by tram to the railway station on the eastern side of the Vistula river. On nearing the station there was a violent explosion which broke windows on the tram and wounded some passengers. A German bomb had destroyed the railway canteen. Dozens were killed including uniformed young girls of a women's para-military group.
Bronislaw's train which was due to leave at 10pm didn't depart until 3am on the 6th September. It was packed to capacity. The train took 40 hours to travel the 110 miles to Lublin. By the time Bronislaw arrived his unit had already left Lublin and the Garrison Command did not know in which direction it had gone.
German planes bombed Lublin in three consecutive waves on the 9th September. Bronislaw narrowly escaped when a German bomb landed near him but failed to detonate. He and other officers were ordered to make their way to Brest Litovsk. There Bronislaw took part in a reconnaissance patrol, of a few light armoured cars, tasked with locating German forces. They encountered three German tanks and engaged in battle. The Germans withdrew leaving the Poles with one dead and one wounded. This proved to be Bronislaw's one and only encounter with Germans on Polish soil.
The Red Army
Bronislaw's group was then ordered to move to Dubno which was 35 miles from the Soviet frontier. They arrived there on the 13th September. On the morning of the 17th September they noticed something strange. A group of 30 planes flying from East to West which did not drop any bombs. Who were they? They were planes of the Soviet Air Force. Friend or foe? Rumours abounded of what the Soviets' intentions were.
A Polish Colonel told Bronislaw's group of officers that Soviet forces had crossed the whole length of the Polish-Soviet border on the morning of the 17th September. Bronislaw left Dubno as part of a group of about 300 men. They did not know where the German forces were nor how quickly Soviet forces were advancing. Near the village of Potutory they came under machine gun fire. The trucks they were travelling in burst into flames. At least 30 were killed and 50 wounded. It was the Soviet Red Army which had attacked them. The Poles withdrew and the Soviets retreated east. They now knew the Soviets had entered Poland as foes.
The aim for Polish forces now was to attempt to escape to Hungary or Romania. On the evening of Tuesday 19th September at 8pm the column of Polish forces containing Bronislaw was again ambushed by Soviet forces. This time there was no escape. They were surrounded, disarmed and taken into Soviet custody.
Scattered over our eastern provinces, from the frontiers of Lithuania and Latvia in the north down to the borders of Romania and Hungary in the south, our troops were being crushed mercilessly by the Soviet war machine ... Right from the start we were divided into separate groups of officers, non-commissioned officers and privates. (p. 63)
The Soviets marched the captured Poles, five men abreast, until they reached Bursztyn on the following afternoon. At 5am on the 21st September the Poles left the town in a convoy of 25 trucks containing in total about 500 men. They were driven about 70 kilometres, ordered to leave the trucks and to start marching towards the Soviet frontier. On the early evening of the 22th September the column of men reached Husiatyn on the River Zbrucz (the frontier post of the Polish Republic).
... we turned to the right into a vast field of stubble. A huge mass of troops could be seen in the distance. They consisted mainly of privates. They had been driven here in their thousands from all parts of Poland's eastern provinces... All of them completely worn out and hungry. (p. 71)
The Poles crossed into the Soviet Union and continued their march. Bronislaw estimated that there was now about 1,200 officers and 12,000 privates in the column. The Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) now took charge of the column rather than the Soviet Red Army. The Poles were told that they would now be travelling by train in box cars. The smaller box cars would take 48 men and the larger ones 80 men. At 3am on 26th September the train departed.
I kept imagining what had happened in the 19th century when our forefathers suffered the terrible ordeal of deportation to the Siberian mines and penal camps ... After 20 years of freedom in Poland it was now difficult indeed to visualise a journey more dismal and more wrapped up in mystery. (p. 86)
The hot weather made the box cars hot and stuffy. The men were suffering from a lack of food and water. In early evening the train passed the city of Kiev where they could see from the train the many domes of the churches. On the afternoon of the 28th September they passed the town of Poltava and at 3am on the 29th they arrived in Kharkov.
On the morning of 30th September the train came to a halt at a station called Starobyelsk. The Poles got off the train. Several horse-drawn field kitchens arrived and the men were given a bowl filled with hot oatmeal (kasha) and half a loaf of black bread. An NKVD roll call indicated that more than 2,500 had arrived on the train. The Poles were marched through the town of Starobyelsk and came to a high long wall glistening white. The wall was guarded by wooden watch towers with machine guns and searchlights. Behind the wall was the roof tops of a number of buildings dominated by the bulbous outline of a dark blue church cupola. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution the Starobyelsk Monastery had housed the Orthodox clerical seminary which produced Orthodox priests. Camp Starobyelsk was now the Polish prisoner's new home.
... an area of eight and a half acres surrounded by a thick wall six feet high, crowded with the most varied conglomeration of buildings - churches, cottages, stables, barns, sheds and storehouses, in a state of utter ruin, with or without roofs .. rats and mice all over the place, bedbug and flea infested... (p. 102)
The camp soon increased in size to about 10,000 people: 2,500 officers and 7,500 privates. The NKVD segregated the officers but all the prisoners lived in similar conditions. By the middle of November 1939 the privates and non-commissioned officers had left the camp. The NKVD had said that all those except the officers would be sent home to Poland.
A total of 7,000 left the camp. They took along with them thousands of messages destined to be handed over to thousands of our families...they had to memorize the gist...They never returned to their homes and our messages remained undelivered. (p. 126)
Between 1939 and 1941 about 300,000 Polish soldiers were captured by the Soviets. Rather than being returned home the NKVD deported them to labour camps in Siberia.
Polish Army chaplains conducted services in the barracks at camp Starobyelsk. There was around 25 priests of various faiths in the camp.
They would don the sorry vestments of their priestly estate that had miraculously weathered imprisonment and would lift up their voices in prayer in front of altars improvised out of a few boards covered with a piece of white linen, and those prayers would be more beautiful ... and close to the Almighty than any the finest temple on earth had ever celebrated. (pp. 135-136)
One Sunday early in November Father Adamski, a young chaplain from Lwow, celebrated Holy Mass in front of a wooden cross hung on the wall between tiers of bunks. Over 300 people were crowded into the room. As the priest began the Lord's Prayer the NKVD entered the room and demanded that the service be stopped.
A deathly stillness settled over the room. No one moved, no one uttered a word. The priest slowly turned away from the alter, looked at [the NKVD] ... turned his face to the cross again and in a firm resonant voice concluded [the Lord's Prayer]. (p. 137)
A Polish officer then sung the words of the ancient Polish hymn, Boze cos Polske. The 300 in the room then took up the powerful melody:
Oh Lord, Thou hast to Poland lent Thy might
And with a Father's strong protecting hand
Hast given fame and all its glory bright,
And through long ages saved our Fatherland.
We chant at Thy altars our humble strain,
Oh Lord! Make the land of our love free again.
And in the fetid odour of our barrack, under the impact of the drama of these words, our voices broke and weakened, for none could summon the strength to keep back the choking tears...This was the last Holy Mass and the last chorale to be directed to God in Camp Starobyelsk in Soviet Russia. (p. 138)
That night the NKVD came for the priests. They entered the barracks where Bronislaw slept and told Father Adamski to get up immediately and bring his things.
A total silence fell when the priest, ready to leave, slung his beggarly bundle on his shoulders, raised his right hand high and by the sign of the cross said goodbye to his petrified companions ... "May God be with you! Blessed be Jesus Christ!" were his last words on leaving the room. "For ever after, Amen," came the lugubrious murmur from all bunks. (p. 140)
The NKVD removed all the priests from the camp.
Arrivals and Departures
On 16th November, the day after the last batch of privates and non-commissioned officers had left the camp, another 1,000 officers arrived at Camp Starobyelsk. They together with another 1,500 officers had all arrived in one formation at Starobyelsk railway station from a camp at Shepetovka. Three hundred were sent to the local prison (they were allowed into Camp Starobyelsk after three weeks) and 1,200 remained in the train box cars (they were sent onto the camp at Kozyelsk).
At the end of November the NKVD started a regular wave of interrogations. They were always done at night. The NKVD came for Bronislaw around midnight. He was escorted at gunpoint to the NKVD building. An NKVD officer began the interrogation by accusing Bronislaw of being in the intelligence service. Bronislaw denied this. The NKVD asked him to explain his numerous trips abroad (they had his passport which was full of visas) if he was not an intelligence operative. Bronislaw explained that as a representative of a shipping company he regularly went on trips abroad. The NKVD wanted to know how Bronislaw spoke Russian. He told them he had lived in Russia during the 1st World War. The interrogation lasted four hours.
Bronislaw Mlynarski's account of Camp Starobyelsk stops before the liquidation of the camp began in April 1940. His wife Doris Kenyon-Mlynarksi said: " ... it cost him a lot to write his memoirs - nervously, I mean ... Every time he talked or wrote of his massacred friends he would scream in his sleep at night. He wrote ... through the fifties and sixties. Finally he had determined to finish them in 1971. His health however began to fail ... " (p. 9)
- Born 1899
- Reserve Polish Officer - Rank Lieutenant
- Son of the composer and conductor of the Warsaw Opera Emil Mlynarski
- Brother-in-law of classical pianist Artur Rubinstein
- Friend of writer and painter Joseph Czapski
- Fought as a cavalryman in the Polish-Soviet war (1920s)
- Awarded Cross of Valour
- Left Polish Army to work for Gdynia-America Line (shipping company) in Warsaw
- Died in the USA in 1971
Bronislaw Mlynarski was one of only 79 officers who survived Camp Starobyelsk. Hence the name of the book The 79th Survivor.
From April 1940 the NKVD started to remove officers from Camp Starobyelsk in batches. The officers did not know where they were going. The NKVD murdered them by shooting them in the head and burying them in mass graves. The executions later became known as the Katyn massacre.
The book has an epilogue which is based on the notes of Witold Kaczkowski who was a friend of Bronislaw and a roommate of his at the Gryazovyetz camp which was their last place of detention in the Soviet Union.
Witold Kaczkowski describes how he was amongst a group of 30 men removed from Camp Starobyelsk by the NKVD on 10th May 1940. They travelled by train under the guard of NKVD soldiers. On the 16th May they arrived at a camp in Pavlishtchev Bor.
We found there nearly 300 fellow Poles including about 200 inmates of the Kozyelsk camp as well as the whole of the so-called "special group" which had arrived from Starobyelsk some two weeks ago. A few days after our arrival we were joined by another batch of inmates from the Ostashkov camp, numbering about 100 men. (p. 226)
At the camp they learned that Norway, Holland and Belgium had succumbed to the German onslaught.
Should France succumb to Germany, this could probably mean but one thing, the end of the war. For it was obvious to us that Great Britain lacked the necessary land forces to fight Germany on her own. (pp. 226-227)
After a month they left Pavlishtchev Bor. A train journey of two days and nights took them to a camp at Gryazovyetz which was about 500km away from Moscow. It was the 18th June 1940.
Witold Kaczkowski shared a room in the camp with six others. They were:
- Cavalry Captain Olgierd Slizien (1st Lancer Regiment and an ADC to General Anders in 1939 campaign)
- Cavalry Captain Count Joseph Czapski (A true aristocrat ... a most uncommon man. Highly intelligent, he had many interests, including painting and writing)
- Captain Adam Moszynaski (Assistant Director of one of the banks in Lwow)
- Lieutenant Bronislaw Mylnarski (Assistant Director of the Gdynia-American line, an extremely likeable man, intelligent and well-travelled)
- Lieutenant Konstanty Cierpinski (Counsel at the Office of the State Attorney of Wilno)
- Lieutenant Otton Bisanz (Manager of the Savings Bank in Rawa Ruska)
In October 1940 the camp authorities finally allowed the prisoners to send postcards home. The first to receive a reply was Joseph Czapski who got a telegram from his sister. Then letters began to arrive. Witold just before Christmas Eve was overjoyed to receive a telegram and then postcards from his mother and sister.
But my God, what had happened of all our companions with whom, a year previously, we had spent winter at Camp Starobyelsk? ... We only learned from the letters we received from our families that it was only us [inmates of Gryazovyetz] who were corresponding with them. Why us only? (p. 237)
In June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. On the 31st July the prisoners in the camp heard on the radio that the Polish government in exile in Great Britain had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and on the 14th August they heard the news that a Polish Army was to be formed in the USSR under the command of Polish General Anders. On the 20th August the two Polish Generals in the camp were summoned to Moscow. On the 21st August the camp commander told the Polish prisoners that they had been granted an amnesty. General Anders visited the camp on the 25th August and declared that he would be forming a Polish Army and that the prisoners would be its nucleus.
At 6pm on the 30th August the Poles left the camp at Gryazovyetz. They got on board a train of box cars at the railway station at 2am. At 4am the train set off for Yaroslav. After Yaroslav they headed further east finally reaching Totzkoye on the 9th September.
Here at Totzkoye the sovereign Polish Army in the Soviet Union was to be formed and we happened to be one of the first detachments of Polish soldiers to arrive on the spot ... After two years of captivity I was going to serve again in the Polish Army. I was going back to life. (p. 246)
This page was added on 05 January 2018.