The Exodus South 

This is odd. I have made this a grand declaration of an 8,000 km bike trip. Then I received a message from a friend saying “Hey, I thought you would be cycling on your cycling trip.”  Guilty! I thought so too. This has been niggling at me a bit. What kind of sham outfit is this? Time to come clean as we point south. 


For the Sybiracy July 30th, 1941 was an incredible day. Or it would have been had they heard the news. The signing of the Polish-Soviet Agreement and a subsequent August 12 agreement provided ‘amnesty’ to Stalin’s tens of thousands of imprisoned labourers so they could join the fight against the invading Nazis. Hitler had conveniently tossed the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact that cleanly divided Poland up between the two – and invaded the USSR anyway.  


Stalin, the man who had so ruthlessly transformed these people’s lives to starvation and survival, was now their ally! The release of thousands of Poles who survived the labour camps and gulags allowed for the formation of the Polish II Corps. The exodus to find the army camps began. 


My mother’s family was not informed of this ‘amnesty’ until December 1941. Like most, they had no idea where they were going. They just knew to point south. Thousands of refugees walked, hitched rides, hopped on trains, hired sleighs, crossed rivers on boats…sought whatever means of travel they could to find their people and army. Food and shelter. Lost family members. News. Dignity.    


Unlike our train journey, they slept on crowded train platforms and inside stations, desperate to move south.  Days were spent waiting on the floors of cold stations completely jammed with bodies and feasting lice. Moans and wheezing were interrupted by the hourly cart filled with those who didn’t survive. 


Occasional watery soup was shared if lucky. On really good days my grandmother chipped off a hard lump of sugar to soak in hot water from the train samovar and suck as a treat. 


At first the army was forming in Central USSR but inadequate supplies and support shifted the collection points to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. People didn’t know exactly where they were going, they just knew they desperately wanted out. They wanted home.  


In following their exodus  we too have now turned south. (This is the come clean part.) The 8,000 km was based on a specific route and gave a 64 km/cycle day average, for 20 days with 10 days off per month. It’s doable. Then reality hits. Like the email received from my brother “you must go to Zaostrawicze. I insist.” Or back track cycling to Baranowicze to explore and film the place so many deportees were crammed into train wagons. Then illness in Minsk. Then waiting for Kazakhstan visas in Moscow. Or getting tossed off the train several nights ago for excess baggage with no train possible for two days. Ok all this to say that somehow those calculations got a little ummm…not doable. 


The good news is an unintended experience of a train journey similar to that of the refugees. Ofcourse they didn’t get beds, views, berries, snacks, helpful security guards, schedules, water, pillows and kind train attendants. It took my mother’s family eight months to get out. It took us a couple of days. We are in Kazakhstan. 


And now my next (likely misguided) declaration. We are back on schedule to get to Astana by bike. Yes bike! My cycling legs are trembling with anticipation, and I say this even though there is a 30 km headwind blowing across the Kazakhstan steppe right now. I may need those training wheels but I can’t wait! 


6 thoughts on “The Exodus South 

  1. Wonderful to see the progress you’re making Ewa. Good luck! You’ll find Kazakhstan not unlike Mongolia. Keep safe and healthy.


  2. This is absolutely wonderful, looking forward to more. Will there be a DVD ? Would love it. Wishing you all the best from th Polish Syberiaks in Victoria. Keep in touch. Following your every step.
    Zosia Skarbek
    President Assoc. of Polish Syberiaks in Victoria ( Australia )


    1. Thank you Zosia! So glad you could join us!! I am so so glad when I hear from people, but especially those connected with the Sybiracy. It makes all the challenges of this feel somewhat less so. Yes we are filming and hope to release it. Pozdrawiam. Ewa


      1. Ewa
        Also following your trek with bated breath. I have been encouraging young harcerki from Victoria (and others) as I too descend from Sybiracy as does my husband.
        I discovered you through my good friend Teresa Berezowska, such a small world but such strong and powerful history.
        Zycze dalszego powodzenia
        Krysia Paszkiewicz


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