The Silver Madonna - Eugenia Wasilewska

The Silver Madonna Book Cover

The Silver Madonna

Eugenia Wasilewska

ISBN 0049200291
London: Allen & Unwin



91 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

Christmas 1939 and the Soviets have occupied eastern Poland for three months. Eugenia Wasilewska and her brother Jurek try to keep warm in their room in Aleksandriya, a small town near the Russian border. Their father is in prison, arrested by the Soviets for the "crime" of being a wealthy landowner. The Russian soldiers had looted their property and thrown them out. They left their estate, found accommodation in Aleksandriya and Jurek a job as a teacher.

Deportation to Kazakhstan

In February 1940 the mass deportation of Poles to Siberia and Kazakhstan began. The Soviets arrested hundreds of Polish farmers and families during one night. They were put in cattle trucks and sent east into Russia. In March Jurek was dismissed from his job. The school authorities told him he would never have been appointed if they had known he was the son of a wealthy landowner. Eugenia and Jurek moved in with a priest and his wife. On 13 April a Russian commissar knocked on their door at 8am and told them to gather everything they could carry. They were taken to the railway goods station at Lubomirka.

On a siding stood the cattle trucks, covered and with large doors on the side which slid open. In each truck were crammed women, young men and children, sitting on top of bundles, mattresses and cases they had been ordered to bring. (p. 21)

By 11am the doors of the train were shut. At 3pm the wife of the priest they had been staying with brought to the train a huge enamel bowl. It was filled with food. She had killed that morning a pig and four chickens, baked bread and brought a bag of salt. Eugenia and her brother now had food for the long journey which lay ahead of them. In the early hours of the next morning the train at last moved. It arrived in Sarny in the evening. Everyone was taken off the train and put on another one. This was because the European railway gauge ended at Sarny and the wider Russian gauge began. There was 70 people in their truck and the train had about 40 trucks.

No one knew where we were going; we could only watch the sun to see if we were going north or south. If we went north we thought of Arkhangelsk or the dreaded Nightingale Islands, north of the Artic Circle. But now we were heading south-east from Sarny, and could only try to forget the stories we had heard of the cold, damp, disease-ridden forest camps of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea. (p. 25)

The train travelled for three days from Sarny to Kiev. Stopping for long periods along the way. They were given no food or water. At Kiev they stopped in a siding outside the city and were given a rough barley hash to eat. The train took two more days to travel the 250 miles to Kharkov. There they were given hard and tasteless bread made from sweetcorn. From Kharkov the train headed north through Kursk and Orel. At Orel the train turned to the east and cheers of relief were heard from all the trucks: they were not going to the north.

Ten days after leaving Orel they came to the town of Zlatoust. Beyond it was the Ural mountains and Asia. The train arrived at a town called Petropavlovsk and at a railway junction they saw a sign which said Moscow-Vladivostock - this was the trans-siberian railway line. Their train though turned south at the junction rather than east. On the afternoon of 28 April their journey came to an end. They had arrived, not at a town, but at a barren landscape of grass and dusty earth. This was Kazakhstan.

Life in Kazakhstan

After leaving the train the Poles were loaded onto lorries which took them to villages. Their they were told they had to go and find themselves somewhere to live. That they were free to move about within 50 miles of the village and that if they wanted to survive they would have to work. The population of the village that Eugenia Wasilewska found herself in was mostly Russian. There was also some Poles and Ukrainians who had been deported in 1935 and 1936 from areas of Russia near the Polish border. Eugenia and her brother found accommodation with a Russian family.

The house was of the single-room type with a kitchen and the stable in which were kept a cow and a pig...In one corner was our bed of hard wooden boards, and I saw the open-eyed wonderment on the faces of the family as I unpacked our mattress, pillows and blankets. Never before had the family seen such comfort and I looked at the rags they had for blankets. I offered them one of my blankets and there were tears in the eyes of the 60 year old mother as she took it...we were among friends from then on. (p. 39)

Eugenia and her brother started work on local farms. They were told they would be paid for their work at the end of the year. Eugenia was given the task of planting trees. After three weeks she stopped working as no matter how hard she worked she never met the required number of trees to be planted and hence never earned any money.

Eugenia was asked by Kazik Wasilewski, a fellow Polish deportee, to marry him and they married on 24 May 1940. She was 18.

In November the first snows arrived. Their meals were becoming more frugal.

For breakfast we had soup made from two potatoes and two peppers; with a piece of bread each...[it] was like clay...The only other meal of the day was almost the same, except that sometimes we could add scraps of meat to the soup. (p. 64)

Just before Christmas 1940 they received a letter from their father. He said he had been released from the Russian jail at Kharkov after claiming to be German. His surname was Laessig and he spoke German well. The Germans had requested that the Russians release all German, Austrian and Czecho-Slovakian nationals. He was now living in Warsaw and running a cafe with his two sisters. The sisters were married to Polish officers, one of whom had escaped to England.

In January 1941 many people fell ill from starvation. The cold and the hunger got worse. Most houses had someone very ill and at death's door. In the spring Eugenia discovered that she was pregnant. She was horrified.

I thought with horror of bringing a child into such a world as Siberia, with its poverty, its starvation, of years and years of working on farms, of years and years of near-death as each winter came and went. (p. 81)

She now had only one thought in her head - escape.

Escape from Kazakhstan

Eugenia told her friend Gunia Kupuc of her plan to escape. Gunia immediately said that they would escape together. Gunia was married to a Polish officer who had been sent to prison. They started selling their clothes to raise money and buying Russian clothes as a disguise. Eugenia's brother Jurek had also decided to escape. On 12 April 1941 Jurek left the village and was reported being seen at Novo Sukhotino railway station enquiring about the times of trains. On 2 May Eugenia and Gunia set out on their attempt to escape. Eugenia had her silver Madonna around her neck and 300 roubles in cash.

They were told that they must find someone else to buy a railway ticket for them. A friend of Gunia knew a man who worked on the railway. He was prepared to buy them tickets for 50 roubles. They were given tickets to Kurgan, a day's journey north and still in Asia. They boarded a packed train at dawn and took their reserved seats. Their escape had begun.

At 11am the train stopped at Petropavlovsk. Later that day they got off at Kurgan. They tried to buy tickets to travel westwards but couldn't. They spent the night at the station and asked for tickets back to Petropavlovsk. Their train was almost empty. The railway conductor rumbled that they were Poles trying to escape but said he would not give them away. He advised them to get off at the village of Malino and ask for tickets to Koziol, the last station before Kharkov in the Ukraine. They were refused tickets to Koziol but did get tickets to Chaguyev. The railway conductor on their next train told them they would have to change at Penza. the late afternoon, after we had just left the tiny town of Miass, I suddenly caught sight of the Ural mountains in the distance. I wanted to cry out for joy, for once we were over the mountains and away from Siberia the main barrier to our escape was overcome. (p. 104)

At Penza they managed to avoid being asked by the police for their papers and got on a train bound for Kiev. At Chaguyev they decided there were too many police on the station to risk getting off. The railway conductor discovered they were travelling without tickets and ordered them off the train at Koziol. They reached Kharkov by tram and later Kiev by train. A Russian solider obtained train tickets for them to Koresten which was near the Polish border. On arrival at Koreseten they set out to walk the 50 miles to Poland.

Arrested by the Soviets

Close to the Polish border they found themselves in a military area and were arrested by a Soviet solider. The confessed to the police that they had escaped from Siberia. The police handed them over to the NKVD. After interrogation they were taken on 24 May 1941 to a prison at Proskurov. Eugenia was accused of spying for the Germans. She denied this. While she was being interrogated the Germans bombed the prison. Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The prisoners were evacuated from the prison and marched away heading eastward. On 2 July they were set free and told to go where they wished.

Reunited with her Father

Eugenia and Gunia planned to head west. They were now however in the middle of a battlefield as German and Soviet forces fought for control of the area. After many days they came to the town of Konstantinov. They had come almost 100 miles but still had another 150 to go to get to Rovno in Poland. Eugenia eventually arrived in Rovno and found it in ruins. She managed to find her stepmother's brother. Later she went to her family home at Zaborol. There was no house. Only the cellars and foundations remained. On 22 August 1941 she set off to travel to Warsaw to find her father. The next day she was reunited with him. In December,  holding her silver Madonna and praying the baby would survive, she gave birth to her daughter. After the war they started a new life together in England.


Listen to Professor Aleks Szczerbiak of Sussex University in the UK talk about one of his favourite books The Silver Madonna on YouTube (5 minutes).