January 20th, 2021 ~ Vol. 91 No. 3
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Surviving the Gulags – Aniela Plonka’s Story
Part I
Looking Back
courtesy George Plonka
Aniela Plonka at age 18 just before she was taken
Many times I have delved into the past history of a Pass immigrant family and in so doing have been taken on a tremendous journey of adversity, perseverance, tragedy and eventual success. That’s why I love digging deeper into these stories. The Pass was built, in large part, by immigrants who chose Canada and ultimately the Crowsnest Pass, working within our logging and coal mining industries, to rebuild their lives and find opportunity.

Amongst us, living in Hillcrest, is a man by the name of George Plonka, more commonly known as Doctor Cool, a colourful character who can fix just about any appliance. Recently I came across the story of George’s mother Aniela and would like to share it with you the readers. Aniela had six children and wound up in Fernie where she passed in 2009. George is her oldest son and was born in Edinburgh, Scotland just after the war ended. Be forewarned, this story will probably go to three parts and take you on a gut-wrenching journey, one that will illustrate the raw courage and determination that can be summoned when one is pushed to one’s limits.

What follows is the remarkable story of Aniela Plonka. I will preface what unfolds by pointing out that most of this saga is in her own words, recorded some years ago for posterity. I will, at appropriate times, digress from her quoted words to put in context what was going and why. It is a war story that involves oppression, enslavement, incredible hardship and an unbending will to survive. In these times when many bemoan their precious loss of freedom I thought it might be sobering to see what true loss of freedom is like.
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She begins with: “I remember the last day of August 1939 when I said goodbye to my mother. She had tears in her eyes and asked when she would see me again. I said, “Mom, I’m going to Przemysl, only a few kilometers from home.” I was going to Przemysl to stay with my auntie who was expecting twins, and her husband was away in the army. Living with my aunt was closer to my school than travelling every day by train. (I was a high school student). Since that goodbye, 32 years passed before I saw my mother again.” (Przemysl is in the very south east of Poland near the border with Ukraine)

“On August 28, 1939, the ten year Treaty on Non-aggression was signed in Moscow by German Joahim von Ribbentrop and Russian Vyacheslav Molotov. On Sept. 1, the German army attacked Poland, bombing cities, towns and villages, killing not only soldiers but shooting civilians running in panic, women, children and whomever was in sight. It was a horrible thing to see and live through.”

Author’s Note: The treaty had an undisclosed Secret Protocol which basically cut Poland in half like a pie with annexation and invasion planned. Germany took the west half, Russia the east half. It was not until the Nuremberg Trials six years later this protocol was confirmed.
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“On Sept. 17, the Russian army invaded the eastern area of Poland. Then the Germans and Russians divided Poland in half. The river San, which flows through the middle of Przemysl, was made the German-Russian border. My mother’s house was on the Russian side of the San. I worried very much for my mother and family. I hadn’t heard from them since I left to go to school.

I tried to get home but the Russians didn’t let people through their border. They dynamited the bridge so it was impossible to get to the other side. I decided to wait until the river froze. I hoped the Russians were human too and would let me go home.

In the early morning of Jan. 19, 1940, I crossed the frozen river and two Russian soldiers grabbed me. They took me to their headquarters for questioning and kept me there all day. I pleaded with them to release me and let me go home to my mother. When night fell, they took me in a covered truck to prison. The prison cell was full of people, older ladies, school kids and young children. There was no room to sit down. When night came we had to take turns to lie down on the floor.

Once a day, we were given soup. We were starved, longing for a piece of bread. There was no place to wash either. After about two weeks, they loaded us in the canvas-covered trucks and took us to the rail station. I wanted to let my mother know what had happened to me, so I wrote a note. When the truck was moving, I cut a hole in the canvas with a razor and threw out my note. Looking through the hole, I saw someone pick up the note and run fast. He let my mother know what had happened to me.
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At the rail station, they loaded us in the freight wagons, which were empty except for some straw on the floor and a can standing in the corner. We travelled like that for two days and nights. Our first stop was Nikolayew, Russia. They brought us to the prison door and gave us some water. I remember I drank at least three quarts of water at once. I was kept in Nikolayew prison for six months. Many times, and always after midnight, they called me for questioning. Again they put us in covered trucks in separate partitions and drove us far away to another prison.

At that prison, they let us out one at a time and then put us each in separate little cupboard-like boxes in the wall, standing up. In front of me was a door with a few air holes so I wouldn’t die in there. If I fainted, I couldn’t fall because there was no room to fall. The Russians were very advanced in their cruelty. Sometimes they kept me standing there for three or four hours before calling me for questioning. By then I would be totally exhausted; I just didn’t care anymore.

Then the Russian commander insisted I admit I was an enemy of Soviet Russia. He would yell at me to scare me. “Why don’t you cry?” he yelled! For Pilsudski you would cry, but you will not cry for me!” I answered, “Yes For Pilsudski I would cry, but I will not cry to please you.” (Joseph Pilsudski was a Polish patriot and leader during the First World War.)
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The next prison they sent me to was in Kharkow, and I will never forget it as long as I live. They put me in a large cell with Russian women who were hardened criminals. They were in prison for murder, assault, theft and many other crimes. They swore and fought between themselves terribly. I was so scared. I thought I’d died and was in hell. Every night, two Russian guards came to the cell to count us. I kept asking them, “Please put me in with Polish women.” They asked, “Why?” “Because I can’t speak Russian,” I told them. “You have to learn,” they answered. “Learn from these women.”

Every night they asked us what we did before we came to prison. The Russian women answered that they were thieves, stealing large items or picking pockets. One night, when they asked me again what I did before coming to prison, just to make fun of them, I said I was a pick pocket. The guards looked surprised and smiled. The next day they put me in a cell with Polish women.

For another six months I was in Kharkow prison. Then, one day they called me to the commander’s office and read my sentence. They said, because I was an enemy of Soviet Russia, they sentenced me to five years of hard labour in a camp for women. The place was called Akmolinsk. It was the winter of 1941.”

Authors Note: Part Two will carry on with Aniela’s life in the Gulag and eventual release which was not always the case. Thousands were starved or worked to death in the hundreds of gulags that were set up all over Russia and the Ukraine. They held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people in these force labour camps. They operated from the 1920’s until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. Stalin rivaled Hitler for the out and out merciless killing of literally millions of people. In Part Two some of this will be briefly revisited including the terrible story of the Katyn Forest massacre. So stay tuned to follow Aniela as she makes her way out of Russia to the Middle East and England.

Read: Part II - Hardship and Release – Aniela Plonka’s Story




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January 20th, 2021 ~ Vol. 91 No. 3
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