Surviving WWII as a Polish refugee
Nadia Seluga now lives a comfortable life at Woodlands Heights in Tigard, and her cheerful demeanor belies a traumatic childhood when her Polish refugee family nearly starved to death as they were moved literally around the world during World War II.
The odyssey is vividly captured in a spell-binding book Nadia wrote called, "Far From My Home, Never to Return: A Polish Child's WWII Memoir," available on Amazon.com.
"Perhaps our ordeals and suffering were not as shocking as those of the German concentration camps, but they were equal in their devastation," Nadia wrote. "In two short years, we were reduced to living skeletons, dressed in rags, sick and dying."
Prior to the Bolsheviks coming to their village of Lunin on Feb. 10, 1940, the Bogdaniec family led a self-sufficient and idyllic-sounding life on their farm. Nadia's resourceful Mother and Father had five children: One son, Antek, and four daughters, Olesia, Janka, Nadia and Marysia, who was an infant when the odyssey started.
The family grew crops, raised animals, made their own clothes and wove all the household linens until the Russians arrived to "liberate" the Polish people. The villagers were loaded onto train cars with the doors locked behind them and transported to the Polish-Russian border, where the refugees were transferred to a different train that sped away into the night. They had almost nothing to eat or drink for four days until they reached Siberia.
Local people with sleds met the refugees and took them to Camp Listvinnitsa 22, where there was one large hall. For supper, each family got one small piece of bread and "kipyatok" (hot boiling water). Each family found a spot on the floor to spend the night, and in the morning, the older children and adults were given work assignments. Father, Janka and Olesia were sent to the forest to cut and load logs onto trains.
"We lived in the hall for a couple of weeks, dirty, unbathed, and our clothes unwashed," Nadia wrote. "Then one day, I discovered I had lice... "
The family of seven was moved to their "house," a small, narrow room in a big building, complete with bedbugs. Then mange, a contagious skin disease, spread through the family.
Soon after, the family got moved to an apartment, and younger children went to school, but food was scarce. "It seems that we spent most of our time in lines for bread and soup," Nadia wrote. "Bread and soup were not free. We had to buy them...
"To supplement our diet of bread and soup, Mother traded her linens for whatever she could get… a cup of flour or a small bucket of potatoes."
One of Nadia's friends and schoolmates died, apparently of starvation.
Spring finally came, and Father and other Polish men were able to plant seed potatoes. The Bogdaniecs gathered mushrooms and berries in the forest to eat during the short season of nice weather, and a typical meal was soup with noodles, rotten cabbage or old, dried fish.
Nadia's parents reached the conclusion that the Polish prisoners were deliberately being starved to death.
The second winter in the Arctic region was colder than the first, and "in order to survive, nothing was sacred," Nadia wrote. "We stole whatever we could, but not from our own people... Soon more people had died, first the young, then the old, and those in between... We were punished with a policy of ruthless extermination through hard work, starvation and lack of medical care, precisely because we were Poles."
The family was moved from Camp 24 to Camp 8, where the scarcity of food was so bad they were forced to eat salt. The prisoners were moved, traveling by sled to a town called Plisieck, where they boarded a train. After three days with nothing to eat, "to cheat our stomachs, we ate snow, pretending it was ice cream, a different flavor each time," Nadia wrote.
As prisoners died along the way, they were buried by the tracks.
After the Polish Russian Military Agreement was signed Aug. 14, 1941, Stalin declared amnesty for all the Polish people who were in the Soviet Union, and they were moved again from Plisieck to Kitab in Uzbekistan, where the family lived in a small mud house with a dirt floor and one small window. The parents and older children were expected to work, and Nadia and her sister Olesia got typhus, were hospitalized and recovered.
The Poles then were told they were being transferred to Krasnovodsk, where they boarded a ship on Good Friday 1942 and crossed the Caspian Sea to Persia (Iran).
"After two years of hunger, cold, sickness and life without laughter and the simple joys of childhood, Persia seemed like a paradise," Nadia wrote. Food was plentiful, and the family learned that they were on the last transport that was evacuated from the Soviet Union that spring to join thousands of people already living there in camps.
After a week the family was moved to Tehran, the capital of Persia, where Nadia and Marysia caught the measles and were hospitalized. "During my five-month stay in the hospital, I witnessed many deaths of the children, who suffered from malnutrition and disease they brought with them from the Soviet Union," Nadia wrote.
Finally back "home," an epidemic of mumps hit their tent. Brother Antek joined a military school for young boys and was going to Iraq or Palestine, and Father was called up by the army.
The British were now in charge of the refugees, and the camp where the family had been staying was dismantled; they were sent to Ahvaz, Persia, where an epidemic of pink eye broke out. The refugees were sent by ship to Karachi, India (now Pakistan), and after a short stay, again boarded a ship and found themselves in Mombasa, East Africa.
Once in Mombasa, the refugees were sent by train to Nairobi, Kenya, to a camp in Uganda on the shore of Lake Victoria, where they stayed for five years.
"We were the first transport to arrive in this exotic country," wrote Nadia, who was 10 years old by then. "There were 300 of us – mainly women and children – who in 1940 were deported from Poland, survivors of labor camps and prisons in the Soviet Union."
Food was plentiful, but there was the miserable rainy season and snakes, bugs, crocodiles, termites and other wildlife to deal with, and Nadia wrote, "I lost count of how many times I had malaria in five years."
But there was a school, a church, a radio hut, a post office, a cultural center for movies and social events, a hospital and even a Girl Scout program plus better clothes, including snakeskin bags, belts and shoes.
The family occasionally heard from Antek and Father and where they were fighting, and one day in 1945, Nadia heard on the radio about the Yalta Conference where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin agreed that the Polish eastern frontier would be along the Curzon Line, which originally was a tentative armistice line between Poland and the Soviet Union. This meant that the family's home they longed to return to was now in the Soviet Union, although Poland gained more land to the west.
"On Nov. 20, 1947, there was a tragedy," Nadia wrote. "I remember this date not because it was the wedding day of Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II), but because of the tragic death of a 16-year-old boy (snatched by a crocodile) on Lake Victoria. The two events are inseparable in my mind."
The refugees leaned that Churchill wanted Polish refugees to return "home" to start rebuilding Poland, but that meant going to the new western part of the country.
Those who chose not to go to Poland would be sent to England, and the Bogdaniecs decided to go there, where Father and Antek were already living, and left on a ship in February 1948.
Mother and the girls arrived in England on March 8, 1948, and were reunited with Father and Antek. The younger children finished growing up in England, and they all eventually got married and had children of their own; Nadia married John Seluga, an American in the U.S. Air Force who was of Polish descent, and they had a son and daughter.
The Selugas moved around over the years, finally settling in Albuquerque, where John later died; Nadia moved to Oregon 1 ½ years ago.
She visited Poland in 1990 but didn't go to Lunin, which is now in Belarus; however, her brother Antek saw the family home on his visit to the area.
"Roosevelt and Churchill gave away my village and one-third of Poland to Stalin," said Nadia, writing in her book, "The winds of change still keep on blowing, bringing changes to many others. Long ago, the winds wiped out our footprints in Poland, the USSR, Iran, India and Africa, and not a trace remains of our ever having been there."