The deportation was ruthless. The Russian soldiers came into the house of this five month pregnant Polish woman, Bronislawa, and ordered her and her four sons to pack their things and go to the railway station immediately. They were not even allowed to go upstairs where the most necessary things were. They were loaded into cattle cars and transported to Kazakhstan. Their crime was that husband and father was in the Polish Army. He had been exiled two months earlier to work in the mines east of the Ural mountains. “My mum was just trying to subdue despair”, commented later her son.
She made sure she did not forget the family cross. That was the only treasure they had. So she put it around her neck. When mother and children knelt down for a parting prayer, even the KGB soldier was moved. He removed his cap and in a hushed voice, whispered in mum’s ears, “Aunt, God will let you return home.”
He was right. They did return but only after six years of pure hell. They lived in a dugout, a roofed shelter that could not protect them from the fierce winters with temperatures that sometimes reached 50 degrees or lower! “There were times when we froze to the walls inside the dugout!” They ate roots dug from under the snow destroying their digestive system permanently.
The mother and the elder sons had to go daily to forced labor from dawn to dusk. Work was so tough that after some time she only weighed 79 pounds. Besides the obvious isolation – the KGB made sure that no more than two or three Polish families stayed in the same village – and acute homesickness, there was the constant threat of the ravenous wolves who in their hunger would attack anyone who dared to come out in the evening. “I once saw a wolf carrying a crying baby in its mouth.”
One evening, the two younger brothers found themselves surrounded by two hundred howling wolves. They saved themselves by climbing on the top of a silo. “In his inconceivable providence God saved us.”
Then there was the hunger. One day mum cooked the last handful of malt that she had. She left it on the side to cool down when suddenly this emaciated sixteen year old girl rushed into the dugout and devoured the whole plate. The kids were in despair because that was their only meal of the day. One of them rushed after her. The girl leaned by the door… and dropped dead! Hunger killed her!
Another day my mother exchanged the wedding ring for three chickens and some potatoes, bread, barley and some matches. However she had to give away the two chickens, tearing them to pieces in a desperate effort to ward off the wolves that were chasing her.
Later on, her son remarked, “if my earthly mother is so good, how much more must my heavenly Mother be beautiful? I am immensely grateful to God that I was given such a mother and Mother from Him”.
What kept them alive in all this ordeal was the family cross that hang always in a prominent place in the dugout.
“The memory of the cross that was in our dugout brings me joy. Our lives continually oscillated between this cross and reality, a reality that comprised a permanent threat to each one of us. This cross on the wall of the dugout was actually everything for us. The cross was faith, was hope, was a sign reminding us of our home and homeland that has been forcibly taken away from us. The cross gradually gained importance in my mind and in my heart, it became more real, friendly, joyful and glorious!”
This was written by the youngest son Antoni who was born in the dugout. He says how one day an old gray bearded and wasted shepherd came into the dugout. When he saw the cross, he burst into tears. It turned out he was an orthodox priest and that was the reason he was deported. This was Antoni’s first meeting with a priest.
“After this meeting, I have been asking my mom many questions out of pure child’s curiosity – who is a priest? where does he work? what does he do? what are the priests in Poland like?” Antoni had never seen a church neither.
In the meantime, the father, having served his sentence in Siberia came back to Poland. He tried desperately to repatriate his family back home. It was not easy. The first answers were, “No such persons exist”, “we have no records of these names.” However the persistence of the father made it possible. In May 1946 the whole family was reunited.
In 1967, Antoni was ordained a priest. God did it again. He transformed a human tragedy into beauty.
Just two years ago, Father Antoni Papuzynski was murdered. Reasons unknown. When he was baptized by his grandmother in Siberia, she took the cross from the wall and put it in front of the lips of the baby in accordance with the Orthodox custom.
The cross was his first kiss. Apparently this was also his last kiss.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.