My mom’s stories of wartime suffering taught me about kindness and tolerance

This First Person article is from Agnieszka Matejko whose mother lived through the mass deportation of Polish people to Siberia during the Second World War. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I used to be jealous of my friends’ mothers who hosted parties, baked cookies and chatted with us when we visited. My mother never baked a cookie in her life — she barely knew what they were — and mostly scurried away when my friends came over. 

An accomplished historian in Poland, she’d come to Canada in 1970 as an unwilling emigrant dragged away from her homeland by my dad. Even after decades of living in Canada, she never became comfortable speaking English. She never felt like she belonged.

Perhaps that’s why her storytelling focused on immigration. In 1979, Joanna Matejko (née Grześkowiak) published Polish Settlers in Alberta, a compilation of stories she collected from Polish families around the province.

Back in Poland, both of my parents were anti-communist activists. I still recall the excitement of watching them deliver sandwiches to student protesters in the ’60s. To my eight-year-old eyes, the demonstrations felt like a street party. I didn’t realize my dad risked losing his job or worse. 

He decided that we would move to Zambia and once his two-year teaching contract ended, we escaped to Canada. We landed in Edmonton in the midst of a February snowstorm.

Joanna Matejko and husband Alexander are photographed outside their Warsaw apartment in 1956. This was around that time that she changed her documents to go by her middle name (Joanna) rather than her given name Cenia. (Submitted by Agnieszka Matejko)

After we settled into our apartment, I became painfully aware of how different my parents were. Where my friends’ parents chatted easily about events of the day, conversations at our dinner table dove right into 100 years of eastern European politics. As a teenager, I listened attentively and found my parents’ heated disagreements entertaining.

But when my mother told her stories, a hush fell over the table.

A Russian soldier saved them

My mom barely survived the brutal Soviet deportation of Poles to Siberia. Starved as a child, she remained so diminutive as a grown woman that she could barely see above the steering wheel of her car, even when propped up on a pillow. Yet as she told her stories of childhood suffering, I was always puzzled by her exceptional kindness. She never once said a bad word about the Russian people.

My mom’s story started in the early morning of Feb. 10, 1940, when Russian soldiers came banging at the door of the Grześkowiak family home — a forestry hut in northeastern Poland. As part of his efforts to absorb eastern Poland into the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin sent over a million Poles to labour camps in Siberia, including my grandparents and their seven children. Families were loaded onto cattle trains and many, mostly children, died en route. 

Joanna Grześkowiak, left, with four of her six younger siblings in a photo taken in the mid-1930s in front of their house in Poland. Two more children were born before the mass deportation of Polish people to Siberia took place in 1940. (Submitted by Agnieszka Matejko)

But my mom’s story included a Russian soldier who she believes saved their lives. He loaded a sewing machine onto their horse-drawn sled and put pots, bowls and cutlery into a chest — treasures that would be later exchanged for food. A wall hanging was sold for a wreath of onions and kept them alive for a week.

Now, long after she passed away, I remain baffled that the only story she related about that fateful February day was the compassion of this one soldier. It was as if the horror of being corralled onto cattle trains paled in the face of his one kindness. Perhaps what she tried to teach me was that this Russian soldier, like many others, was an unwilling participant in the deportations.

The family arrived in a labour camp south of Arkhangelsk in northwestern Russia, greeted by a previous wave of deported Ukrainians whose families had been wiped out by brutal working conditions and -40 C winters. These traumatized survivors taught my grandparents how to adjust to the horrific circumstances, helping them dig up stumps and dig the soil between felled trees to plant potatoes and vegetables.

This photo was taken in the early 1940s, likely in the refugee camp in Pahlevi (now Bandar-e Anzali), Iran, where the Grześkowiak family stayed for almost a year. Joanna, left, shown with her mom and younger sister, was the oldest sibling but remained diminutive after two years of starvation in Siberia. (Submitted by Agnieszka Matejko)

You didn’t eat if you didn’t work so my 13-year-old mom lied about her age and got a job numbering logs before they floated down the River Iksa. 

A year later, when the political situation changed, Stalin needed help fighting the Nazis and allowed family members of the newly formed Polish army to leave. My mom and her family once again boarded a cattle train. 

This time, with months in transit and nothing left to sell, she raided gardens at train stops. She said she was ashamed of stealing but as the eldest, it was her job to keep her siblings alive. 

At the last train stop, my family found safe refuge in Iran. Despite Soviet policies that blocked its rice transports, Iran welcomed more than 100,000 Polish migrants. In a tragic irony, the plentiful food had disastrous consequences for many malnourished children who died as a result of overeating.

I only ever saw my mother cry once. It was when she told this part of her story. 

A year later, the family was transported to a Polish refugee camp established in British colonies in Africa. Before returning to Poland in 1947, my mom completed high school in Northern Rhodesia. For her, that time was nothing short of heaven on earth. A time to be a normal teenager.

A more recent photo of Agnieszka Matejko, left, and her mother Joanna, right. The family moved to Edmonton in 1970. Joanna died in 2017. (Submitted by Agnieszka Matejko )

Today, as I scroll past photos of frightened Ukrainian refugees crowded onto train platforms, I wonder how she would respond if she were still here. 

My mother spoke Russian fluently, having learned it from her days of working in the forest with the loggers, and she loved Russian literature. At the same time, she was fiercely anti-communist and against Soviet expansionist policies.

Yet through all the dinnertime conversations, I don’t recall my mom ever speaking ill of individual Russians. I know that news stories describing the vandalism of Russian businesses would have horrified her. 

I also realize that the terrible war playing out on the other side of the world has helped me fully understand the deep historic roots of her kindness. Her life lessons, imparted in the stories over countless meals, have shaped my worldview and my response to the horrific invasion of Ukraine. 

From my mother’s stories, I know that my mom’s survival came from the kindness of strangers —  people of different faiths, skin colour and nationality. 

I abhor Soviet policies and I despise their military actions. But I owe it to my mother not to scorn or shun those individual people who are caught up in the melee of history.

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