I looked outside into the dark night and watched the rain pelt against our living room window. I was 8 years old and the howl of the wind was terrifying. I snuggled under the soft throw blanket my mother had knitted and hoped the storm would soon pass, but instead, our apartment suddenly lost all power. I remember my mother lighting a single candle and placing it on the coffee table. She blew out the match and sat beside me. My sister joined us, Mama’s arms offering warmth and security. Sitting in the dark, we stared at the candle and begged for a story. The thunder crashed and we snuggled closer. Mama reassured us there was nothing to fear and all would be well. She sighed and began telling us of her own childhood experiences during World War II. It was hard to imagine the terrible hardships she described but she was patient and answered our many questions. She reminded us that we came from a strong, faith filled family and we should feel pride in our heritage. So, on a Fall day when my 7th grade history teacher announced we would be studying WWII, I felt excited to share my mother’s stories. The teacher stood in front of the blackboard, pacing back and forth, repeatedly pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Who can tell me something about WWII?” she asked. My hand shot up quickly. The teacher continued pacing. I began waving my hand furiously in the air attempting to get her attention. Finally, she called on me. “Poles were persecuted under German and Soviet regimes,” I began. My teacher frowned and pursed her lips. She replied, “Many nationalities suffered throughout the war.” Without giving me a chance to continue, she moved on, asking the question again. My mind became a fog. How could the facts that millions of Poles, forcibly deported to Siberia, made to work in forced labor camps, live on starvation rations in frigid temperatures, be dismissed? I had not even had a chance to say how many had died. How could this not be important to our class discussion? That evening I recalled my day with my mother. She sadly shook her head and said, “Your eyes are opening, my child”. The world has no interest in the truth. It was then a desire began stirring deep inside me that my mother’s story needed to be shared, not just for her but for the millions who no longer had a voice. The truth needs to be told.
Most Americans and Westerners are well versed in the horrors perpetrated under Nazi German occupation to destroy and eliminate the Jews, but not Hitler’s original plan, which envisaged the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Poles on a vast scale, and the colonization of Poland by Germans. By the end of the war, they succeeded in killing 20 percent of the Polish population, kidnapping thousands of Polish children for Germanization, and razing much of Poland to the ground. If this isn’t bad enough, an episode entirely unfamiliar to many Americans and Westerners is the story of my mother, who was one of almost 2 million Polish citizens deported by the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, to the slave labor camps of the USSR. The invasion of eastern Poland by the Red Army on September 17th, 1939 and its totalitarian persecution of the Poles is a subject which continues to be relatively unknown to most high school students and Americans in general. As historian Norman Davies notes in the foreword of my book, One Star Away, “Since Stalin’s Soviet Union became the ally of the West, and the principal victor over Hitler’s Wehrmacht, we are apt to judge the Soviet record by different standards, ignoring the blood-stained dictatorship, the mass atrocities, and Stalin’s odious role during the early years of the war”. After years of this important part of history being silenced in the West, I wanted to honor my mother’s memory and the memory of the millions of Poles murdered in WWII, by writing her story.
My mother, Józefa Nowicka, was the seventh of ten children of Konstanty and Teodora Nowicki. She was born in 1932 in the village of Dąbrowa, in the province of Wołyn, Eastern Poland. After the first World War, Poland had only reappeared on the map after 123 years of being partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, and the young Second Polish Republic was a peaceful nation of various ethnicities, the largest being the Jewish population, which had grown over 16 percent in the interwar period, to approximately 3, 310,000 Jews. My mother’s village was a mecca of many cultures and little “Ziuta” often recalled her parents’ close relationships and village banquets with their ethnically different neighbors. The Nowickis lived in a three-room house next to a large forest. Ziuta’s father was a forest ranger and often invited his Jewish, German and Ukrainian neighbors over to their house for dinner and fellowship. On the predawn morning of February 10th, 1940, a thunderous banging on the Nowicki’s front door and windows was the end of my mother’s carefree and happy childhood and foreshadowed a new hellish existence for her family and the thousands of families arrested that night by the Soviet Secret Police. The forced expulsions of Poles targeted mainly families of men who served in the military, prisoners of war and foresters. To the Soviets, they were seen as “enemies of the people”. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), forerunner of the Committee for State Security (KGB) orchestrated the operation, as it did for all subsequent mass deportations. My mother, along with five of her living siblings and parents were given minutes to gather their belongings; the family bundled up food, bedding, and their family Bible in haste. One of the Russian officers, whose name my mother didn’t remember, but whom my mother’s family mentioned daily in their prayers, even insisted that they pack their sewing machine, which would prove indispensable to their survival. Loaded onto sleighs in the frost, my mother and her family were taken to a train station where they saw hundreds of other Polish families waiting in the sub-zero temperature. Everyone was then packed by Russian soldiers into a train, which consisted of cattle wagons. Sixty to seventy Polish prisoners were herded like cattle into each frozen car. These wagons consisted of two-tier wooden racks, which “the lucky ones” would use to sleep on, one iron stove and a hole in the middle of the car for a toilet. My mother would often recall how humiliating it was to relieve yourself in this primitive way and family members would hold up blankets to create some privacy. As the train departed, an ancient Polish hymn, Serdeczna Matko or Beloved Mother, was sung as families cried and hung onto each other. Their deportation to a settlement in the northern reaches of European Russia took three to four weeks. Once a day the train would stop for them to stretch their legs and fill their pots with kipiatok, or boiled water. It was dangerous to venture far from the train, for one never knew when the train would start moving. Some mothers, out of desperation to find food for their starving children would make a trade of clothes for bread with locals. Many a time, when the train would leave with no warning, families were forever separated and children instantly orphaned. As a result, little Ziuta became inseparable from her mother, living in constant fear of possible orphanhood.
The box car prisoners quickly became plagued by hunger, lice and freezing temperatures. Their daily rations of 400 grams of a clay-textured black bread wasn’t enough to sustain them. Those who had not been given time to pack provisions soon died. The dead were periodically collected by Russian soldiers and thrown out ruthlessly into the frozen abyss. At the end of their three-week journey, only half of the wagon’s passengers survived. From Vologda, my mother’s family was transported another 250 kilometers to their final destination on sleighs, to a settlement called Holm, (Wierchniaja Pielszma). The NKVD officer led my mother’s family into a one room frozen barrack with an iron stove in the middle with one warning: Kto nie rabotayet, tot i nie kuszayet He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat. My mother’s father and 16-year-old brother Tadek were taken the next day to a forced labor camp 20 kilometers away, where they would labor 12-16 hours a day felling trees in -40C. My mother and her siblings were taken to compulsory Russian school to be indoctrinated into young Bolsheviks. Luckily this process of systemic russification never happened, because my grandmother took care to impart everything about their Catholic faith and Polish culture to her children. After the family’s provisions were gone, starvation stared the Nowickis in the face. Fourteen-year-old Janka, Ziuta’s oldest sister and eleven-year-old Józek, Ziuta’s older brother, left school to also work 12 hours a day chopping wood in the taiga, as they would receive a daily portion of fish soup and an extra slice of bread. Jadzia, the second oldest daughter would go begging after school for scraps of food. My grandmother’s health quickly deteriorated, but she scarcely complained. When not in bed with her persistent cough, she would be mending the locals’ tattered clothing, for which she was occasionally rewarded an onion or a potato. When the roads were passable, the family would walk miles to a local market where they would barter the last remnants of their clothes for bits of food. My mother was fortunate to have a kind Russian teacher, who would bring her “blini”.
Growing up, I remember my mother praying daily for Citizen Alexandra. Another incident which saved the family from sure death was a goat, which Tadek had one day brought to their barrack in the middle of the winter. The goat’s milk provided the nutrition they needed to survive. Polish refugees died en masse every single day from the bitter cold, maltreatment and sickness. Because of malnutrition, some of their teeth would fall out as they were speaking. My mother was plagued her whole life from nightmares, which began with “the banging”. I often wondered was it the banging sound of the Russians on the Nowickis front door that fateful night or was it something more morbid?
After two years of this macabre existence, news of an amnesty reached their camp. In June of 1941, the Germans attacked the Russians, and Stalin concluded an agreement with the Polish government in exile in London, in which Poles in the Soviet prisons and gulags were to be freed. A Polish Army was to be formed on Soviet soil to help the Russians fight the Germans. Reception centers for Polish citizens were established and men were directed to Army registration points in Buzułuk, Tatishchev and Totskoye, at the same time organizing food distribution, medicines and other necessities. Despite the difficulties of war, communist rule and obstacles created by the Soviets, the Polish Embassy managed to establish 807 agencies by the end of 1942, including orphanages, schools, soup kitchens and medical aid centers. For the Poles in the gulags, some learned about the amnesty by chance but were prevented from leaving without proper documentation and travel permits. Soviet authorities in the gulags frequently detained their Polish prisoners as their main concern was to meet their gulag quotas. Other Poles, weakened and malnourished, grappled with the decision, whether they could embark on a journey through the frozen Siberian taiga. Would they survive? My grandmother was one of these individuals, yet her faith in God was stronger than her doubt. Barely hanging onto life, she discovered untapped sources of energy and prayed incessantly that her mission, the salvation of her family, would be fulfilled with God’s help. The Nowickis fled their gulag and walked for weeks in knee-deep snow to the nearest train station, where they then traveled south to the Polish Embassy in Kuibyshev. In the warmer climate epidemics of dysentery and typhoid broke out. Thousands of Poles arrived daily in Kuibyshev; exhausted, starved and diseased, many died upon arrival. My mother’s family was among the inflicted and was hospitalized upon arrival. It was after several weeks, that news arrived via the Polish Red Cross that a kind-hearted Maharaja from India, Jam Saheb Digvijay Sinhji, was offering lodging in his kingdom for 500 Polish children. Parents had to make the most difficult decisions of their lives. Should they keep their children in Russia, where death was still imminent, or entrust their children to Polish caretakers who would give them a chance of survival and freedom. It broke my grandmother’s heart to contemplate separating herself from her children, but reason prevailed and my mother, with two of her siblings were the lucky ones on the list for evacuation. Along with the Polish Army they would forever leave “the Inhuman Land” to Persia.
Photo of Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinghi
Iran, then occupied by British and Russian forces since August 1941, would be the first port of entry for the approximately 38,000 Polish citizens who left Soviet soil alongside 78,000 Polish troops. Over half the number of the civilian population were children and teenagers. Another 2,694 Poles came to Mashhad, Iran from Ashgabat. My mother and her two siblings, Józef and Jadwiga, arrived in Mashhad by land in an army lorry, approximately July of 1942. Thus, their life of starvation, sickness and terror suddenly vanished. For my mother and her two siblings, and thousands of other young Polish exiled children, life in Persia and India would be time to recuperate and an opportunity to return to normal life. Despite the constant uncertainty and worry for their separated family members, stuck in “the Inhuman Land”, the young exiles would find supernatural strength to rebuild their lives thanks to their ardent will to live in freedom.
Mom in the role of a Fortune Teller
One Star Away chronicles the horrors my mother’s family endured in Russia and the plight of my mother and her siblings who were rescued from the “Inhuman Land”. It follows the course of their wandering from the safety of home in Poland, to Russia, Persia, India and beyond. Ziuta’s story introduces us to many self-sacrificing Polish heroes, including the children’s’ teachers and tutors, who further cared for these children and teaches us important lessons about faith, courage and love. It is finally about one man’s generosity, which would forever change the destiny of my mother’s life and that of hundreds of other Polish exiled children. One Star Away reveals that miracles do abound and come from the most unlikely of places. It is my utmost desire that my mother’s story, immortalized in One Star Away, will leave us a legacy everyone should know about.
Photo of my Mother and Polish children with Maharaja Jam Saheb, My Mom-Ziuta Nowicka in 1945 is standing,(second from the right). Maharaja Jam Saheb - in the middle second row. After the performances of "Cinderella".
When the world today is shouting slogans like “equity”, “inclusion”, and “justice”, it is an outrage that the world has never addressed justice for the country which suffered the most losses and destruction during the war. The reason Poland suffered is because Poland refused to be an Ally of the Soviet Union and Germany, two countries with plans of extermination and annihilation. It is unjust that the United Kingdom and America have not included this piece of history in their textbooks and have hidden the truth. In researching this subject, I came upon thousands of pages of declassified documents from 2012, exposing how Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill covered up evidence about the Katyń massacre, in which over 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectuals had been murdered by the Soviet Secret Police and shoved into mass graves. Although genocide was legally separated as a new type of international crime by the 1948 Genocide Convention, until the present moment, no government has ever charged the Soviet Union with any war crimes, nor has the Russian government even apologized for their genocidal activity against Poles. Poles received nothing in compensation from their Eastern aggressor. While the world leaders were meeting at Yalta in 1945, they already had agreed that Poland’s Eastern borderlands would be annexed into the Soviet Union, and the Poles enslaved under Soviet domination. And why weren’t the Polish soldiers, who constituted the fourth largest Allied Army, present at Britain’s Victory Day Parade? The troops who so valiantly fought on every front were shamefully not invited by the British, as the U.K. officially recognized the new communist government in Poland, not the Polish Government in Exile, to whom the troops were loyal. Polish war victims, unlike Jewish war victims, never received any reparations from their German aggressor either, not one dollar. In light of all this, I am justifiably offended and outraged even more when the world media, including world leaders state such falsehoods, which include the words “Polish death camps” and inaccurately rewrite history. The correct term is “Nazi German death camps in Poland.” I hope that One Star Away will help to set history straight concerning the Stalinist terror and acknowledge the blood and tears of my compatriots. Such an important part of history cannot be buried.
In Jamnagar, India September 2018 Me with my Mother.
One Star Away is a new novel authored by Imogene Salva. The story is based on the childhood stories of her mother, Ziuta Nowicka and detailed research into much-forgotten historical events during World War II. The narrative follows the Nowicki family through the eyes of eight-year-old Ziuta and her true-life joys, fears, pain, and dreams. From the fateful knock on the door of her family home one cold February night in 1940, through their deportation and crowded confinement in a cattle car and the cruelty of the Russian guards, to the inhuman conditions and forced labor in the work camps of the Russia taiga, Ziuta and her family face extreme cold, fatigue, starvation, and fear. Some life experiences are so horrific, Ziuta will spend a lifetime trying to forget. Through Ziuta eyes, we also witness the heroism of her mother and father, the solidarity of her family, and a steadfast faith, and, by extension, the enormous inner strength of the Polish people.
Salva has brilliantly balanced the horrors of war with the soothing balm of Polish culture, stories, and customs which she has thoughtfully interwoven throughout the book. Polish American readers will delight in the rituals of the traditional Christmas Eve Wigilia, familiar activities such as mushroom hunting and scouting, Wojtek the bear, religious customs of Catholicism and reverence for the beloved Black Madonna, and Polish poems, songs, and dance. Chapters of friendship, faith and adventure will warm the heart. Poles will remember that we are a proud people of faith underpinned by a fervent love of country and family. One Star Away is also rich with photographs of Ziuta, her family and several of the locations mentioned in the book. These pictures help to further connect the reader to the times and places in the novel.
Ziuta’s story chronicles the horrors that Poles endured at the hands of Stalinist Russia, largely unknown in America. However, central to the story is the compassion of a certain Maharajah, whose intervention provided a miracle for hundreds of Polish children and an affirmation of their Polish heritage. Ziuta journeys from Russia, through Persia to India by truck and train facing many dangers. Along the way, Ziuta meets self-sacrificing Polish heroes, including her teachers and tutors, aid workers, doctors, and several very influential Polish priests. Throughout the story they teach us important lessons of faith, courage, and love.
For Imogene Salva, telling her mother’s story is a life mission. Frustrated by the lack of historical information available, she became inspired to write her mother’s story. “The truth needs to be told” Ms. Salva said. “After years of this important part of history being silenced in the West, I wanted to write my mother’s story to honor her, and the memory of the millions of Poles murdered in WWII.” Ms. Salva spent years researching, reading, attending lectures and conferences, traveling to Poland and India, all to insure an accurate portrayal of these historic events. On one trip to India, she had the opportunity to visit the grave of Ziuta’s childhood friend, place flowers in remembrance and pray the rosary. “This is a memory that will forever stay with me,” she recalls. “My heart aches for the suffering these children endured.” Ms. Salva studied the handful of accounts written on the subject and poured over hundreds of news articles and photographs. She interviewed authors, sources in India, and Polish survivors, as well as historians and authorities including Norman Davies and Wieslaw Stypula. Her goal was not only to educate readers of these past events but, through storytelling, compassion and understanding, work to ensure these horrific events never happen again.
Ms. Salva is available for follow up emails, phone calls, book club meetings and other presentations. She can be reached at [email protected].
One Star Away reveals that, amid great cruelty, miracles do happen, and kindness comes from the most unlikely of people. The reader is left with a sense of immense pride and a renewed connection with our Polish history, culture, and heritage.
This novel has also gained popularity among non-Polish readers who frequently comment that this piece of history was unknown to them before reading the novel. Available on Amazon, this new novel has received rave reviews from readers, educators and many others.