Letters From Labor Camp: Dying Messages From A ‘Traitorous’ Mother In Soviet Exile
“You do not care that your mother lives among strangers in the depths of Siberia, among rocky mountains and terrifying gusting winds, left to die without any help, hungry and cold….”
At the age of 76, Jozefa Bujdo was paying the consequences of marrying a Russian and having a son who entered the Polish police force.
Arrested as the “parent of a traitor” by the occupying Soviet authorities in April 1940, Jozefa boarded a converted cattle car in territory absorbed by the Byelorussian S.S.R. and headed 2,500 kilometers east to serve out her sentence of corrective labor on the Kazakh steppe.
The mother of six was the only one in her family to make the trip, which came seven months after the Soviets invaded her native Poland as part of a secret pact with Nazi Germany to divvy up her homeland.
In faraway Aktyubinsk, present-day Aqtobe, she would complete what would effectively be her death sentence.
But in hastily documenting her experiences in a recently discovered cache of letters sent back home to her children, she would leave behind a story of desperation that would span continents and generations.
Letters Of Desperation
Alojze, her beloved and sole remaining son, was the main reason for Jozefa’s dire situation.
When the NKVD secret police rounded up “hostile elements” after the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939, Alojze’s occupation as a policeman made him a marked man. He was arrested and listed as a “senior officer” — but he escaped, sparing him the fate of thousands within the Polish police, intelligentsia, and military.
Fate was not so kind to Jozefa.
She was arrested, labeled a traitor, sentenced, and quickly put on a train, one of some 1.2 million Poles from their country’s eastern borderlands who were forcibly resettled to remote areas of the Soviet Union.
Upon her arrival in Aktyubinsk, Jozefa would be assigned to a “supervised residence” — in her case, she rented a bed in the kitchen of a crowded downtown apartment — and given work details that likely drew on her skills as a seamstress.
Based on her first letter home — one of the 20 written in an obscure dialect mixing Old Polish and Russian that were squirreled away by her granddaughter, a mystic, in the U.K. — she didn’t plan to stay forever.
She sets her sights on securing a contentious family sewing machine so that upon her return she can keep bread on the family’s table. But to do that, she needs to get past her daughter-in-law:
“It is my son’s [Alojze’s sewing] machine, not hers. Everything she has she got thanks to his labor — furs and other things. And through my son, it also belongs to me. It’s my machine, and I won’t give it back.”
But hunger and illness threaten to extinguish her glimmer of defiance, and she pleads for her children to do what they can to help, assuming they are living well at home:
“Oh, my old and sick age!” And the prices are tremendous here — potatoes are 4 rubles a kilo; flour is 6 rubles; meat, 20 rubles, bacon is 50 rubles — and the rest is so expensive that there is not enough [money] to buy it. Everything is terribly expensive.”
“I am not begging for mercy — [it is for] my work. Remember that they have bacon and smoked meat, and please send. If I were in your place I would never forget, and if you were kind, you would send a little every month.”
Unable to work and faced with the loss of the roof over her head if she cannot come up with the rent, she lashes out at her children:
“Not a day goes by that someone else does not receive a letter or a package…and they run to me [saying]: ‘Is there a letter or a package for you?’ And your mother, in great sorrow, says ‘not for me.’ And what kind of words are these? Nothing. There is no letter or package for me, so let the pain pierce my head lowered in shame on my sorrowful chest, and pierce my eyes swelled with tears.”
Jozefa was born in 1864 in a village in modern-day Belarus that was at the time part of the Russian Empire, would later become part of the Second Polish Republic, and, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, would come to be occupied by both the Soviets and the Nazis.
In 1892, she married outside her Catholic faith to a citizen of the Russian Empire, Konstanty Bujdo, a decision that was not welcomed by her family.
While her long union with Konstanty bore two sons and four daughters, it also contributed to her remaining in a Soviet internment camp even after the Polish government in exile forged a one-sided agreement with the Kremlin under which the Soviet resettlement of Poles was reviewed.
While many of her countrymen were freed, Jozefa’s marriage to a Russian citizen decades earlier precluded her release because she was not classified as pure Polish, but as a Soviet minority. And unfortunately for Jozefa, the release of Polish nationals would not include members of prewar minorities.
Instead, she was transferred to a collective farm in Shibayevka, a village outside Aktyubinsk that has since been renamed Nurbalak. There, she was likely put to work sewing clothes and binding broom heads.
Michael Daniel Sagatis, a great-grandson of Jozefa’s who would discover her letters in South Wales in 2015, told RFE/RL by telephone that Jozefa’s daughters were also placed in an “impossible situation.”
Their “mother has been exiled and is writing these highly emotional letters that are demanding the daughters in some way help preserve Jozefa’s life by sending money and food,” Sagatis said. “And while the demands have been written through the letters, clearly Jozefa’s daughters have their own survival that they must also prioritize during this period.”
After the Nazi invasion, he said, “the postal service would cease to function, and the letters would stop coming.”
The Youngest, Wanda
Most of the letters Jozefa wrote are addressed to her daughters Maria (Mania), Janina (Janeczka), and Wanda (Wandeczka, Wandzia, Wandziu). Alojze is frequently mentioned, as is her deceased son, Piotr; her late husband, Konstanty; and another daughter, Helena (Hela), who lived in Vilnius, which was part of prewar Poland.
Wanda, Jozefa’s youngest child, is on the receiving end of some of the most affectionate passages, but also the biggest guilt trips:
“My dearest Wandziu, thank you so much for the nice letter, but it would be even nicer if you would remember who your mother is, and who she was for her beloved Wandzia. How she cared about your health and didn’t let my Wandzia go hungry and cold.”
“And my Wanda does not care at all. I am shocked that your conscience allows you to sleep in spite of this. It is a nightmare, with such screams and such storms that forests are falling from the noise. The hills are heralding a message, with voices sorrowfully screaming for the rescue of their mother. The time will come… The gusting winds and the terrifying storms will cease.”
Sagatis sympathizes with Wanda, his grandmother, and the tough position she was put in as the result of war, the occupation of her homeland, the NKVD’s active pursuit of her brother, and the fact that she was newly married and carrying a child.
“I think back at that period, that while the letters are coming — you know, they’re these very kind of strong, strong letters from Jozefa, especially the ones directed at Wanda, and how Wanda must have been feeling: the youngest daughter being made to feel that she’s responsible for keeping her mother alive, who’s 2,500 kilometers away. And they’re still communicating by letter,” Sagatis said. “And then the letters stop, and, you know, by this point, Zofia is born.”
The Mystic, Zofia
It was Zofia — an otherworldly soul who would gain international fame as “Sister Marie Gabriel,” a self-styled nun and prognosticator of a doomsday future — whose hoarding habit would provide a bridge to the past.
At 5 years old, she would make an arduous trek with her father and mother, traveling through Central Europe and across the Alps on their way to a Polish settlement camp in southeastern Italy. From there the family sailed to the United Kingdom and were interned at a displaced persons camp for Polish refugees in North Wales.
Wanda gave birth there to her second child, Sagatis’s father. She later settled down in London, where her grandson recalls her being a devout Catholic who maintained close ties to the city’s Polish community.
Zofia, meanwhile, caught the world’s attention in the 1990s after Sister Marie Gabriel predicted that Halley’s Comet would explode in 1991. Later, in a “cosmic newsflash” in the British press, she predicted that the comet would collide with Jupiter as “a warning from God to all nations and governments that they must reduce the crime epidemic on Earth drastically or face extinction by fireball asteroid.”
She wrote numerous books, including one in which she tells of going to the Russian Embassy with her handwritten prediction just months before the comet displayed an unusually bright flare in 1991. Zofia’s legacy was further cemented in pop culture with the 2010 release of the song Sister Marie Says by the English band Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.
Sagatis recalls visiting his Aunt Zofia as a child and seeing that her house was filled floor to ceiling with bags and boxes, covered with cloths and sheets to “hide the fact that she was a compulsive hoarder.”
Eventually, Sofia moved to South Wales to be closer to her brother and lived there until her death in 2014. Sagatis attributes his aunt’s persona as a mystic to the trauma she inherited as a child.
Faced with the decision of what to do with her possessions, the family decided to painstakingly go through them all, revealing that her hoarding and book research also meant she “kept and would make multiple copies of documents,” Sagatis said.
Among those to barely escape the trash bin, he said, was an envelope containing Jozefa’s letters, which had been saved by her daughters. After the war, they repatriated to communist Poland and reunited the letters with Wanda when she visited in 1963.
While Jozefa’s experience “wasn’t something that was actively talked about in detail at home,” Zofia’s strange behavior was — and its cause defied diagnosis or explanation, Sagatis said. The discovery of her letters kindled his interest in past family events, accounts of 20th-century history, and the effects of inherited family trauma.
Sagatis’s journey to track down evidence of Jozefa’s life has led him, at times accompanied by his own sister, to Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia, and, most recently, Belarus, to discuss the possibility for Jozefa’s official rehabilitation.
Sagatis’s research has also led to the creation of a series of international exhibitions, a TEDx talk on intergenerational memory, and a documentary short film.
He is currently working on a nonfiction account of his experiences.
The End Is Nigh
“One more fit, and I am gone. I am scared. If [my] life were calm and [I had] good food, maybe my lungs and heart would get better. With the life I have I will die. Without help. I am the only one to blame. Without help from the children, I needed to last a couple of months. The machine should have been sold two months ago…and we should not have left each other.”
Based on his research, Sagatis said that Jozefa is believed to have died in 1943 and was likely buried in a cemetery on a hill just outside Shibayevka, now Nurbalak, in Kazakhstan.
There is no grave marker to remember Jozefa, but there are a handful of family photos, and her letters, which contain her last wish:
“Wandziu, if you [all] forget about me, then that is hard, but I am ordering you not to forget about my most beloved papa [Konstanty] and Piotreczek, not even [if you are] in the greatest torment. This request of mine must always have a place with you, and if you disregard it now, your conscience will wake you up after my death. Once again, I ask you to do something for the sake of my return to you all. Wandziu, my Wandziu! Your image is forever etched in my heart, even though you all forgot about me. With great pain in my heart, I end my cordial words. Sincerely loving you, Mother.”