Janek Leja - A Polish Survivor of Siberian Labour Camps

Janek - A Story of Survival

In 1939 Janek Leja was a young man of 21 years living in Krakow. He had been born in 1918 in Grodzisko the eldest of six children. His uncle Franciszek Leja, who was a Professor of Mathematics in Warsaw, adopted him when he was nine years of age. They later moved to Krakow when his uncle took up a similar position at Karkow University. On the 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany attacked Poland and the German air force began bombing Krakow. For Janek, studying at the Academy of Mining and Metallurgical in Krakow, a lifetime of living in a free and independent Poland was about to end.

Capture by the Russians

Janek left Krakow, with two fellow students, on the 3 September 1939. They headed east looking for the recruitment post of the Polish Army. On their way there they were attacked by German planes. After walking for about 550 kilometres they eventually found the Army recruitment point at Wlodzimierz Wolynski and signed on as soldiers. They were given the task of defending Wlodzimierz Wolynski against German attack but two days later, on 24 September, they were attacked and taken prisoner by the invading Soviet Army. Janek was one of several hundred Polish soldiers taken prisoner. The Soviets marched them to Luck fifty-five kilometres away. At Luck Janek managed to escape and made his way to Lwow. There he found his brother Staszek who had also escaped from the Russians.

In October Janek travelled to Bialozorka to find Staszek's wife Basia. He travelled by train and then had to walk 67 kilometers. He found her and returned with her to Lwow. Janek then crossed the demarcation line between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in order to make his way to Warsaw.

This was his first sight of Warsaw under German occupation. He remembers All Souls Day, November 2, and the local people placing candles on the temporary graves in the streets, marking those who had died in the valiant defence of the city. (pp. 50-51)

Janek went to Grodzisko and found his parents and two younger brothers who were all in good health. His uncle Franciszek Leja had returned to Krakow from Grodzisko. On 6 November his uncle and other Professors were invited to a lecture organised by the Germans. It was a Gestapo trap. The Professors were all arrested and taken to the concentration camp at Oranienburg, near Sachsenhausen. Janek's uncle was released in March 1940 after intervention from the King of Sweden. He resumed his duties at Krakow University after the war.

Captured by the Russians Again

In January 1940 Janek attempted to make his way abroad to join the Polish Army. However, when crossing the demarcation line between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union he was captured by Russian soldiers. He was taken to a prison in Przemysl where he remained for two months. In March 1940 he was transferred, in a train of cattle trucks, to a prison in Nikolaev on the Black Sea. He was sentenced in August 1940 to 25 years hard labour.

On 9 August 1940 Janek left Nikolaev by train and travelled to Archangelsk in the north of Russia. At Archangelsk he and other prisoners were loaded onto a coal boat which sailed through the White Sea and Barents Sea for Nar'yan Mar.

The ship was hit by a real hurricane...the storm lasted about a week...the whole trip lasted two and a half weeks and about one quarter of the prisoners died during the journey...Nar'yan Mar lies at the mouth of the River Pechora, which flows 1,809 kilometres from the Urals, and it was along this river...the next stage of our journey was to be undertaken. (pp. 66-67)

Janek travelled for a few days by barge up the Pechora River to a transit camp at Ust Usa. They then marched for twelve days to a place called Abez. He was given the task of building interim camps for prisoners who were going to construct a railway line from Abez to Kotlas.

The initial colony of one hundred and twenty-five [prisoners] on November 3 was gradually reduced to about twenty-five by the time Christmas 1940 was approaching. We not only had to contend with the freezing cold, the back-breaking work and near starvation, there were also accidents...Sickness of any kind, mainly diarrhoea, took its toll. But the swiftest and most alarming cause of death was due to psychological reasons. Anybody who lost faith in survival did not last for more than a day, two at the most. (p. 73)

Polish Prisoners Set Free

Janek fell sick with diarrhoea and scurvy and was unconscious in hospital for eleven days. He had scurvy of the intestines. The NKVD visited the hospital and listed the names of some patients. Poles on the list were to be freed. On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany had attacked the Soviet Union and Stalin had given an "amnesty" to all Polish prisoners. A Polish Army was to be formed in Russia under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders. Janek's name was not on the list as he was considered too sick to leave. Janek managed however to convince the medical orderly that if he was not put on the list he would die.

On 2 September 1940 Janek and others left the hospital and travelled by barge to a camp at Kozhva. There they were issued with an identity document and a train ticket allowing them to travel to where the Polish Army was reforming.

The journey from Kozhva which had started on September 17 1941 continued after a two day delay in Kotlas for nearly three months in the same train, until it finally reached Chardzhou on the banks of the Amu Darya river. (p. 94)

Janek and his companions did not travel to Buzuluk where the Polish Army was being formed. The Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) told them that Buzuluk was overcrowded and they were being sent further south. They were placed in collective farms along the Amu Darya river. In March 1942 they left their collective farms and began their journey to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea. On 2 April a ship took them across the Caspian Sea to Persia. They were finally free of the Soviet Union.

Janek Leja died on 4 November 2009 in Vancouver, Canada.

Janek - A Story of Survival

Author - Alick Dowling
ISBN - 0948955457
Publisher - Ringpress Books in 1989.
Book Availability - Amazon (UK) - Amazon (US) - BookFinder

Book Details

The author of the book, Alick Dowling, was married to the sister of Janek's wife.

The book is divided into three parts. Parts I and III are written in the third person. They focus on Polish history prior to the 2nd World War and on events during it. Part II describes Janek's experience of being taken prisoner by the Soviets and his eventual release from Russia. This part is written in the first person.

Related Material

  • The book Janek - A Story of Survival is reviewed by Danuta Hutchins in The Sarmatian Review (April 1994)

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This page was added on 22 January 2010.