Re: Repatriation 1945-7: Russia to Poland

Judy Brandspigel

Shirley: I am answering you on behalf of my husband, Mike, who was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1936, spent the war years in Kazan, Russia and was then repatriated by train to Poland after the war. He was 9 years old when they left Russia and remembers the events quite vividly. I’m posting this to the list rather than just to you personally as I believe it might be interesting to all. Although Kazan is about 1500 miles, as the crow flies, from Novosibirsk, I would imagine the experience would be similar.

After the war ended in 1945, the Polish Jews in Kazan were told that they were being repatriated to Poland. About 2 months before the date of departure they were told to start preparing for a journey that might take several weeks. They were told to hang and dry pieces of bread; gather together tins of sardines or other tinned food; to prepare Kielbasa or other preserved meats. This was early in 1946. It was still winter in Kazan when they left.

Two days before the journey, 50 filthy cattle cars were brought in. They had to be cleaned out completely by the future occupants. They were provided with wood planks with which they were told to construct 2 wide shelves at either end of each car, to be used for sleeping platforms. Each car was to hold 30 or 40 people. When the cars were ready, the men themselves had to manually move them from the sidings to form a train behind the engine.

In the middle of each car was a coal stove. Bags of coal were provided. It was very hot in the cars as the stoves were kept going day and night. A pail in the corner served as a communal toilet which was emptied when necessary through the opening in the cattle car while the train was moving. Any daylight they had came from a window high up in the car.

Their water was the snow that they got from the sides of the tracks when the train was stopped and melted on the stove. It was used for drinking, for cooking and for rudimentary cleanliness. They ate the food that they had brought with them and occasionally were able to buy some potatoes and carrots from farmers when they stopped. One time a farmer came and sold them a live cow. Someone among them slaughtered the cow and it was divided up. No possible edible part was discarded. The pieces were cooked on the coal stoves. (My husband thinks it was all boiled in pots.)

When the train stopped the children were allowed outside to run around. Otherwise they played quietly in their cars, read books that they had with them, talked, and slept.

After 36 days with multiple stops (some as long as 6 days on a siding) and a journey of many miles the train arrived in a town called Petrolesha. (sp?) in Poland. (My husband thinks it was near the German border but we cannot find it on the map.) The train was stopped for a few hours and my father-in-law went looking for food to buy to continue the journey. All of a sudden he was accosted by a young man who recognized him—it was Hershel, his brother-in-law whom he had last seen 8 years previously when Hershel was 15 and whom my father-in-law thought was dead! (That’s a whole other story!). So my husband’s family got off the train to live with Hershel. This was in the spring of 1946.

The family lived in Petrolesha for several months until they heard of the pogrom in Kielce. As well, the Communists were taking over the town and nationalizing any businesses. Fearful of pogroms happening in Petrolesha they decided to leave Poland. Whoever it was who organized this exodus (my husband thinks it might have been UNRA) advised them to destroy all papers and photos that had any Yiddish, Hebrew or Polish writing on them. Thus they had no documents and few mementos. They walked for 2 or 3 days, a caravan of refugees, foraging food from farmers’ fields when they could find anything, until they reached the Austrian border. There they were given shelter in a former concentration camp. From there, after 3 or 4 days they were transported by train to a DP camp-Hassenhaeke- near Kassel Germany, where they spent the next 2 years, finally emigrating to Canada in 1948.

I hope this is helpful to you. If you have any questions please email me. My husband is more than willing to help you if he can.

Judy Winstan Brandspigel

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