In 1941, about 18 months after Anna Sokulska Forster’s family was deported from Poland, Hitler reneged on the pact he had made with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin changed sides, joining the Allies, and was persuaded to release the people he had deported to Siberia and to restore their Polish citizenship. A Polish army was being formed in the south and many families made their way first back to Kotlas and then a very long way south to the recruitment centres that were being set up in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian Republics. This journey often lasted over two months, changing from one train to another, and travelling through Kazakhstan to Tashkent and then further west into Uzbekistan.
Once in Uzbekistan, some of the deportees were allocated to collective farms and Anna’s family worked picking cotton, which was hard and dirty work, making their fingers very sore. Anna’s father went to a town called Kenimech to enlist in the newly formed Polish army and the family moved to an area nearby. They lived with an Uzbek family in a clay house. Uzbekistan is on the Silk Road, and Anna fed silk worms to earn her keep.
Conditions in the army camp in Kenimech where Anna’s father was based were very bad, with typhoid and dysentery rife. The men were already in poor physical shape after 18 months in the labour camp, followed by two or three more on the arduous journey south from Kotlas. Many died, including Anna’s father. He is buried in the military cemetery there.
Anna’s younger sister Zosia never made it to Uzbekistan. She had been deported to the gulag in Siberia with the rest of the family, but was too ill to travel when they were released in 1941. Anna’s mother had to make an agonising decision: whether to take the opportunity to leave the labour camp with her husband and four other children, leaving Zosia in the care of another family who would follow on as soon as they could, or whether to stay with Zosia and risk not getting out at all. They decided to leave without Zosia and were not reunited until 1958, when Anna’s mother received a letter explaining that she was back in Poland, living on a collective farm. Zosia had been able to make contact with her family through the International Red Cross tracing service – tragically, a service that remains active today. Among other forms of support, they help people look for family who have been ‘lost in a boat sinking’.