Marion’s family fled from the German army when it attacked western Poland in September 1939. They reached the Russian Zone in eastern Poland but were sent to Siberia as suspected enemy aliens. When war between the Soviet Union and Germany began in the summer of 1941 the family were allowed to leave their Siberian camp and they made an epic voyage down river to arrive, finally, far to the south in Bukhara. Conditions there were very difficu
INT: In Russia you were three years [old]?
M: No no first, in the first year of school when I was in Poland and then finished school in June and war was of course very imminent. I actually developed terrible whooping cough, and was dreadfully ill and we were in our holiday house in the country when war broke out and we never went home. We just went East because my mother’s sister was with her son, my cousin, out east where her mother-in-law had a big estate. I’m afraid these families all had big estates, my grandfather had several big estates and my great-grandfather as well. It just happened to be you know that kind of family, so that my mother inherited from her parents, of course with her siblings, two factories, so you know they were very comfortably off. [Marion explained her family was unusual] And so we never went home from the holiday house we went east, variously by train to begin with and then by horse and cart and in various ways. And being bombed on the way by the German planes, you know coming down and finally we got to this estate where my Aunt was.
INT: That was still part of Poland?
M: That was still, well that used to be part of Poland you see. We didn’t realise that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had divided Poland across. So we actually had to cross the River Bug which was the boundary.
Now, at night in a rowing boat really clandestinely, because we found ourselves in Soviet Russia suddenly, but it used to be Poland yes. And, so we got there but of course it was a big estate and we stayed there about a week when the Russians came and said ‘right you are land-owners out out!’ And the peasants said ‘these people have always been good to us, let them pack up their things and take what they want’ because the Russians would have just. ..Well we were there only as visitors, but of course my Aunt’s mother-in-law, she was the owner and my uncle. Anyway, so we went to live in the town of Brody, which is now in the Ukraine and, so I went to school there to the second class. But all the schools were moved down a year because in Russia you went to school at eight years old.
So I was eight that January so I found myself second time in first class and we were taught Ukrainian. And then we had to register; the Soviet authorities wanted all these refugees that had come from Western Poland to register whether they would take Soviet citizenship or return to German occupied Poland. At that time, of course, my parents corresponded with my grandfather and my mother with her brothers and they said well, things are not easy but it’s all right. This was still the winter ’39/40, and here we were living in a little rented room in very difficult circumstances. So we registered, well there was no way we were taking Soviet citizenship that was just out of the question. So we registered to go back home so in June of 1940,
everybody who registered to return home to Poland was taken to a big cattle-truck train and we were all transported to Siberia. Thousands and thousands of families, thousands, big big trains cattle-trucks packed full of people. It was quite an experience I mean we must have been on that train about, I don’t know, maybe two weeks, I really, I mean I was eight years old I don’t really know exactly, but, I do remember one gentleman saying as we were passing through a chain of mountains that we’re passing the Ural mountains and so now we are in Asia and it seemed such a thing being in Asia.
[Marion explained that the Russians transferred them because they were Polish. It was irrelevant that they were Jewish]
INT: And were you standing during this.
INT: Were you standing during this journey or did you have seats?
M: No. There were platforms a cattle-truck, hahaha how can I explain it, you know you’ve seen it on news reels.
INT: Of course
M: But no we weren’t standing, there were platforms; two platforms on one side and two platforms on the other but we were like one line beside the other, absolutely packed. I don’t know maybe 50, 60 people in the cattle-truck.
And once a day they [the Russian soldiers] would bring a sort of bucket with some soup and some bread, if you were lucky. It was just dreadful, dreadful and the sanitary arrangements were horrendous, you know if you were a child it was not so bad.
M: But for my mother it must have been an absolute culture shock.
INT: Of course, absolutely horrific, and in Siberia were there, was there work for you? Was that why you were being sent?
M: We were taken by this train away to the sort of last station, I could show you on the map, last station, in Siberia in the middle of the, you know what’s known as Taiga that’s primeval forest. And this was on the River Chulym which is a tributary of the River Ob, which is the big big river which goes to the north. And we disembarked there and we had to, well luckily it was June so it was warm, because we had to wait for about a couple of days and nights till this little ship that went up and down the river came. And we were taken down about 200 kilometres or so, and then when we got there, they had transport for the luggage but we had to walk. I don’t know maybe 10 kilometres or something of that kind, to a, well, it was really like a camp for political prisoners. There were three such camps, at a distance of maybe 10 kilometres from each other.
One was on the river and the others were a bit further in and we just had to walk until we got there. There were barracks and there were the watchtowers but we were not the kind of people who were likely to run away. Where would we run to? There’s primeval forest, there is a river, there’s nowhere to run to. And we were put in these barracks which unfortunately of course it’s all logs, wood logs, timber is the principal industry, and you have bedbugs in the timber, even the trees that actually grow in the forest have bedbugs, so you can imagine.
INT That was the summer where you made the logs, you put the logs together.
[Marion explained that the paths through the forest were lined with logs as in the summer the ground became a swamp.Then Marion described what happened after they had arrived in Siberia in June 1940. They spent the winter there. The men were put to work cutting down timber and there was a small school of three classes with a nice young Russian teacher who had to teach us the alphabet and who taught all enemy aliens – Jews and non-Jews – alike.
In June 1941 Germany attacked Russia and, instead of being enemies, the Polish prisoners became friends and allies and so were allowed to leave. Marion’s family, and some others, however, decided to stay because they felt as Jews they might be safer there. They believed Hitler would never get as far as Siberia. But as autumn approached they decided they had to go – they did not think they would survive another winter.
Unfortunately by this time there were no boats and the river was about to freeze so the only way out would be to build a raft.]
M: Ah the men, well when we, people actually decided that another winter in Siberia would be just too much. They went to the river where the logs were, because logging was the industry and they tied the logs together making rafts and then they tied the rafts together and eh, the rest of us who were still left in the camp all embarked on this but it was October so there was sleet and rain and cold and we had no shelter and, our family personally we really had no food. It was quite a horrible, horrible journey.
M: Well we were just floating down the river with the current ’til we got to the station Asino. I can show it to you on the map. Now I’m trying to see the River Chulym I’m looking for. Now Tomsk, that’s right and the River Chulym must be somewhere here. Kuznetski? It’s Asino! There you are Asino. So Tomsk was like, the nearest big town, there is Asino and that’s the River Chulym you see.
INT: And that’s the river you went down?
M: And then we had to go down this River Chulym
M: My cousin in America, the one who was just a baby, he actually got this on his computer. He knows all about it. He is a professor of geology and he actually got the whole thing, you know was able to pin point the camp and last he got in correspondence with a professor in Tomsk.
INT: Hm hm
M: And arranged to go there and then he actually went to the camp where he had been as a child.
INT: I just think absolutely incredible that he survived as you know as at such a young age.
INT: Well he was on the raft as well?
M: Oh yes, in fact he remembers that someone tried to cook on the raft and so they made a fire.
INT: Oh dear.
M: And of course the logs took fire.
INT: Oh no.
M: And he remembers being passed from hand to hand away from this fire.
INT: That’s remarkable, and how long was your journey without food?
M: Well we must have been a good few days, I mean 200 kilometres sort of going with. just floating down the river.
INT: With no food.
M: Must have been about a week. Well my mother managed to get some oats but they were not like porridge oats.
INT: No, no.
M: That we have here for porridge. They were really oats that you feed to horses.
M: And she made sort of with water, sort of cakes with it and I personally could not swallow it. It was very rough.
INT: Very coarse.
M: Very rough.
INT: But you must have had to take water with you as well.
INT: Fresh water, fresh water.
M: I think must have been the water from the river that was boiled. This is how there was a fire on the raft.
INT: My goodness.
M: And we got to Asino, when they took us to Siberia we didn’t have to buy a ticket but when we were leaving Siberia, we got to Asino and had to get on a train, also cattle trucks not a passenger train. We had to buy a ticket.
INT: And you had no money?
M: And we had no money and my mother still had her navy blue suit, and she took it into town on a sort of bazaar and she sold it in order to have money to buy tickets.
And we got onto this train, and we were going to the Asian Republics because of course by this time, you know the Germans were advancing into Russia so we couldn’t go into Russia proper, it had to be the Asian Republics, and that was a very long journey and again we had really no food. It was quite a difficult journey. And we got to Kazakhstan.
[INT: I don’t suppose there were many people from Poland there?]
M: Thousands. I mean Stalin transported hundreds of thousands of Poles to Siberia.
INT: Right and they ended up in?
M: And then we were allowed to leave so people came to the train when we stopped at Alma Ata which is now called Almaty
but was used to be called Alma-Ata which means father of apples because the apples apparently from Kazakhstan are wonderful. And remember them saying why don’t we get off there because it’s very nice there, but we stayed on the train and then it went through Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara was the last stop. The train didn’t go any further so we got off and of course the weather was wonderful, because end of October in Bukhara is just beautiful. The summer is very, very hot instead of being minus 50 like in Siberia you can get up to plus 50.
INT: My goodness.
M: Which is a bit too much. But it was you know it was a lovely place, with lots of trees and you know Mulberry trees and all kinds of things.
INT: And did they choose to go to the end of the line because it was the furthest away from..
M: Well we got off..
INT : …The Germans?…..
M: .. There and each one of, you know my mother’s brother and my mother’s sister and we, we each rented a little room, a tiny little room, and then my father started looking for work but he, he was so afraid of the communist Russians, because he was the son of a big landowner and if there was anybody they had their knife into, it was big landowners. They really didn’t like them and he was just scared so he just went to work in the kolkhoz, you know like communal farm, as just a worker so unfortunately because he only came home for Sunday, which was his day off. You know the sanitary conditions were very poor to say the least. Water was very scarce as in a hot country it always is and lice were everywhere, I mean even the people who have always lived there the Uzbeks because this was Uzbekistan. They all had lice so you couldn’t get away from them, and typhus is carried by lice and my father got typhus. He was taken to hospital and then my mother got typhus and the night she was taken to hospital he died.
INT: Oh dear.
M: And I was ten years old by this time.
I was just ten in January and this was beginning of February and my uncle came, and packed up the bedding and the few things that we had, we had very, very little by this time and took me to where he and his wife and baby son who by now it was 1942 so my cousin was just 4.
M: His mother had also had typhus but she had come back from hospital she survived. Now my father died and nobody told me my father died.
M: My mother was in hospital and on a Sunday when my uncle wasn’t working, he would take me to go to hospital to see my mother and I said ‘and I want to see my father’, ‘oh no you can’t see him.
He’s so, he’s there behind this window but you can’t see him’. He never told me, I didn’t find out that my father was dead ’til my mother came out of hospital.
M: And of course she was so ill, they couldn’t tell her until she got better.
INT: Hmm they probably thought they were being kind to you, but they weren’t.
M: So I stayed with this aunt and uncle and baby son and my, my aunt, my mother’s brother’s wife. I remember their wedding, in Tarnow which was a beautiful wedding.
M: And I remember when my cousin was born, I was six when he was born and, she of course being after a severe illness was mostly in bed resting, and I was sent to the bazaar shopping before I went to school. I did the cooking, and I did cleaning.
INT: You were only ten.
M: My cousin had to be washed but you just had a basin, you put water in the basin and you stood the child in and you washed him. You know at ten years old I was a maid of all work.
M: Unfortunately my aunt did not behave too well to me. Well I was an orphan, to all intents and purposes, my mother might not survive.
INT: And she was.
M: I’m totally dependent, totally. So finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and I told my uncle that the way she was behaving to me, I couldn’t stand it and I’d like to go to my other aunt, my mother’s sister so..
INT: Your mother was still in hospital?
M: My mother was in hospital, it was touch and go.
M: So I had to carry all the stuff across town because my aunt lived at the other end of town, but my aunt was ok she treated me the way she treated her son. You know when she was annoyed she shouted, and otherwise she was ok. It was quite different to the way my uncle’s wife treated me. And then finally my mother came out of hospital now she was a very small woman.
The joke, way back before my aunt and my mother were married was that the Miss Ecksteins can walk with an umbrella under the table.
M: Because they were about four foot ten, they were very small.
M: And their mother obviously was small as well judging by that photograph you know. But she was quite a strong personality, very strong personality and, so my mother when she came out of hospital she looked like a child because she was so thin there was absolutely nothing of her, and of course her hair had all been cut completely, very very short, and she was just, not worth tuppence.
And we went, she went to stay with her sister where I was already and not long after that she took ill with dysentery.
M: Now on top of what she had just been through, she nearly died, again.
M: She was really dying and this doctor came. He was a Jewish doctor from Poland and she said to him ‘my child has already lost her father, if I die what will happen to her?’ and he got me to go with him and he gave me a little bottle of opium drops and she took these opium drops and that seemed to help her, because otherwise she was just going to die.
So she managed to survive that.
INT: She must have had an incredibly strong will, I mean as you said she lived ’til 104.
M: 104 and a half.
M: This is a donation I gave to Wizo [Women’s International Zionist Organization] in her name, in her memory.
INT: She must have been a very strong person to get through this.
M: Well you see she had such a privileged upbringing, as a, you know it was a very wealthy family.
M: Very wealthy family, they, you know when she was born in 1904 that part of Poland, Krakow, Tarnow that was called Galicia? And it belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
M: So they travelled to Vienna like we would travel to London you know. My uncles were educated in Vienna, in fact the First World War the whole family spent in Vienna. They were brought up speaking German as well as Polish. They had a governess teaching them French. Only my grandmother Matilda, when it was the cook’s day off she would make the girls come into the kitchen and make them cook and bake, and my mother’s sister especially, she rebelled ‘why should I have to do this’ and she said ‘ you never know when it may come in useful’.
INT: And indeed she was right.
M: She was absolutely right because the fact that my mother could cook is what saved us because then she got well, when she recovered from the typhus and the dysentery. The, the Polish, sort of, by this time there was a sort of Polish government in Moscow, sort of government in exile. There was one in London and there was one in Moscow and they were called Delegatura which was a sort of people in charge.
M: And people from abroad would send things for us poor people. You know clothes and shoes and all sorts of things, but I’m sorry to say that not everybody who was in charge was honest.
So by this time my mother had no shoes, her feet were wrapped in rags, I ran around barefoot and she was really in a very poor state, and they were looking for a cook for the nursery school that they opened for the small children, because in Russia you go to school at eight years old so between say four and eight they opened a sort of nursery. So my mother got a job as a cook because it was just a day nursery but you gave them lunch, which consisted of soup, that’s all she could cook because there was nothing else. But she did the best she could with the products that they gave her, and the children all loved Mrs Schoental’s soup and I was by this time in an orphanage.
M: Which I hated.
INT: Because your mother couldn’t afford to look after you?
M: My mother couldn’t feed me, she couldn’t feed me, she put me in an orphanage.
INT: What what ..?
M: And I hated the orphanage.
INT: I’m sure you did.
M: I really did hate the orphanage and my dream was that one-day my mother would knock on the gate and come and say ‘I’m taking you away from here’.
INT: Did she have time to visit you; did she visit you in the orphanage?
M: Well we were actually brought into Bukhara to attend school. The orphanage was out of town a bit so we were brought into town to attend school And I’m sorry to say I was very bad because I would run away, and go to this little nursery school where I knew my mother was cooking, and she would give me a plate of soup and I would cry into the soup and say ‘I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to go back’ but you know I had to go back, I had to go back.
INT: It must have been very hard for her as well, awful.
M: Because I didn’t hear what was going on, I didn’t know what was going on, I was away whatever book I was reading, I was away.
INT: It’s quite amazing to think that someone so small, so tiny and fragile could go through such awful experiences, terrible illnesses, life threatening illnesses and yet it’s fantastic that she sort of decided that I will go and live there and that’s what I’m going to do and ..
M: Well I mean.
M: In Bukhara because of the heat, of course we were plagued with mosquitoes.
M: And my mother had malaria very badly. She used to get dreadful bouts of malaria. I only had one bout of malaria and I tell you it was pretty awful because you’re running such a high temperature that although there is tremendous heat outside.
You know at 35 degrees, 40 degrees, you’re shaking, you’re shaking with cold, and she piled quilts on top of me to you know .But I was given quinine a large you know sort of course of quinine and that seem to.. I didn’t get it again but she kept get recurring bouts of malaria. How she survived so long is a mystery and why didn’t I get typhus and dysentery and all these things that people got and died of. I mean we lived in such close proximity. It wasn’t like you could keep away from people you couldn’t.