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Throwback Thursday 1951: A Professor & Alumna’s Experience in a Siberian Labor Camp

Editor’s Note: The following is a “Meet the Faculty” article from Emmanuel College’s student newspaper, The Emmanuel Focus, from November 1951. Historic newspapers courtesy of the Emmanuel College Archives.

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“Night after night as I sat shivering in that Siberian hut, studying those difficult Russian sounds by the light of a gasoline lantern, little did I dream that someday I would be teaching Russian at Emmanuel College.”

As Miss Korzeniowska spoke, her eyes spoke too, revealing the depths of joy and peace she has found here at Emmanuel after her odyssey of pain, toil and starvation.

In the spring of 1940, a black pall of terror hung over the eastern Polish province of Volhynia where Eleanor Korzeniowska lived with her parents and her sister, Ursula. Trapped between the German onslaught from the west and the Russian menace of the east, Poland had been divided between the two powers, much as present-day Berlin is divided between eastern and western Germany. Volhynia lay in the grasp of Russia. With that most chivalrous sort of courage — the courage of a defeated nation proudly clinging to its heritage — the people of Volhynia reverently observed the season of Lent and, at its close, celebrated the feast of Easter with all its traditional pageantry. That Easter ceremony is Miss Korzeniowska’s last bright memory of her homeland, yet even that is tinged with sadness, for shortly before Easter her father, a captain in the Polish army, had been deported to Russia and imprisoned, along with many other officers, soldiers, police and government officials. For a few months, he was able to get letters through to his anxious family, then even the letters no longer came. They never heard from him again — he had been swallowed up in the greedy maw of the colossus, Russia.

Shortly afterwards, Madame Korzeniowska and her two daughters were arrested. They had become almost accustomed to friends and acquaintances disappearing overnight with never a word, never an explanation. They were not surprised when they heard the loud, insistent knocking in the dead of night, when they were dragged from their beds and thrust into an endless nightmare of hunger, pain and fear.

“We were hearded into freight cars, like animals. There was no fresh air and we could hardly breathe. No one could move.” Thus Miss Korzeniowska describes the twelve horror-filled days and nights of her journey from her homeland. Although no one knew it at the time, the destination of the prisoners was Karagstan, one of the republics of Siberia. Here Eleanor Korzeniowska and her family were to spend the next two and one-half years, working on a collective farm, raising wheat for the Red Army on the vast, treeless steppes.

The prisoners were crowded into one-room clay huts — many families sharing one hut. The huts were unheated, even in the bitter Siberian winter. There was no sanitation; typhus and dysentery were rampant. Cleanliness, health, hope — everything was forgotten in the struggle for bare existence.

The children of the farm were given their choice of working or going to school. The enticement of additional rations compelled most of them to choose school. Eleanor Korzeniowska, like many of the other students, sometimes regretted her choice. Not only were pupils forced to learn the Russian language, but they were also indoctrinated with Communistic theory: “They told us all sorts of rubbish — that Russia was the workingman’s paradise and that the people of capitalist countries were overworked and underfed. We were also taught all the tenets of atheism. The Russian children there were often convinced, but the Polish children, with their firm foundation of devout Catholicism, could not be swayed from their ancestral faith.”

The first faint ray of hope came to the prisoners in 1941, when Russia exchanged her Axis Alliance for an Allied partnership, obtaining the unhesitating trust and respect of the Allied nations. Word came to the Polish people that the several million Polish soldiers who had been imprisoned in Russia had been granted amnesty and had been allowed to form an army to fight the Axis powers in Africa and Italy. At that time, they were marching through Russia and Siberia on their way to the Middle East.

The prisoners of Karagstan were freed — but in their freedom they were little better off than they had been in captivity. They were given no food, money, clothing or medicine — they were simply to shift for themselves.

Revitalized by freedom, they set off on foot to find this Polish army. One can imagine how Miss Korzeniowska, her mother and sister must have dreamed and prayed to find among the soldiers a face dear to them. but this was not to be. And again, in the midst of happiness, Eleanor Korzeniowska was to know great personal tragedy. On the last day of their wandering 00 the day before they came upon the Polish soldiers — her mother died, a victim of typhus, dysentery, and starvation.

Miss Korzeniowska and her sister, with other Polish orphans, were taken to India where, in December, 1943, they found shelter with the Bernardine Sisters of St. Francis.

Four years later, in Pennsylvania, Sisters of this same order arranged to bring twenty-five of the orphans to America. One more journey for Eleanor Korzeniowska — one taking her even farther from her beloved Poland — but taking her this time to a free and prosperous country, where she could think, learn and worship as her conscience dictated.

In september of 1947 with the help of one of her Bernardine Sisters, Eleanor Korzeniowska entered Emmanuel College, while hers sister Ursula entered the Carney hospital to train as a nurse. Miss Korzeniowska spent four years at Emmanuel, mingling with her new friends, studying with them, sharing their laughter, their youth, but carrying with her, memories that they, in their secure American homes, could never conceive.

This year Eleanor Korzeniowska has returned to Emmanuel to teach Russian in the warm sunlit classrooms, adorned with crucifixes and statues of the saints — to teach the language which she learned on the frozen steppes of Siberia, by a gasoline lantern in the dark cold of a filthy clay hut to which God was forbidden entrance into which hope dared not enter.

–Joyce Cooksey

Posted by on November 6, 2014. Filed under Around Campus,Throwback. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.