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My uncle Wojciek has a large, valuable collection of stamps from Poland; he has been at this for more than seventy years, but the whole thing started with a matchbox filled with stamps and a dollar bill that saved his life, that of my mother, and my grandmother as well.
"Small coins add up to large sums." - Tosefta.
Before WWII my grand parents lived in Slonim, a town located in Eastern Poland, now Belarus. Grandfather Hillary[1.48] was an "Architekt Powiatowy" (County Chief Architect) and specifically dedicated his time to build schools.
When WWII started, he was called into service as a reserve lieutenant. After the fall of Poland and its partition, he managed to get rid of his uniform and evade capture by the Nazis. A month later, he appeared back in Slonim dressed as a bum – soviets would look closely at anyone well dressed.
However, he was soon taken prisoner by the NKVD and sent to a gulag that he and his fellow prisoners had to build themselves, somewhere passing Siberia, in Kamchatka. He later managed to escape and finally joined the Anders army.
He was taken prisoner on three charges:
Espionage: He was a spy because he had letters from relatives abroad. The fact that his hobby was photography and he had his own studio at home was a sure proof for the NKVD guy that said "Spion" to him.
Being a bourgeois element: They watched his hands, and so they realized that he wasn't a proletarian or peasant. So he was a "Bourgeois."
Being an enemy of the people: He had fought against the soviets when they attempted to capture Warsaw in 1920, and since Stalin's Soviet Constitution said that the Soviet Union was the sole and legitimate representative of the interests of all the "people" hence, if he fought against the USSR, he was of course, an enemy of the people.
Since he was among the first who were captured by the NKVD (number 744, if I remember right) they made a mock of a trial during one night - secret police trials always took place during nights - and found him guilty, of course. Other people captured some days later, such as grandmother's uncle Józef Skowronek[1.39] were not that lucky. Józef was only judged by the aspect of his hands at the Lvov train station as they attempted to travel to Sweden, possibly thorough Slonim and Lithuania, according to his daughter Alicia Maria[1.38], taken to a prison and later murdered; since he was a banker, his name appears on the "Lista Ukrainska" where the names of those to be assasinated were written. Maria herself was captured, escaped, captured again and tortured, sent to a gulag for "reeducation" near Arkhangelsk, and then later delivered to the Anders army (see Józef Skowronek).
Grandmother figured out from what was happening with other people in the town, that she had to live the next morning because everyone would eventually be captured by the Soviets, so she and her two children – my mother and my uncle – took a train out of town and to the border between the Soviet-occupied territory and the other section of Poland, taken by the Nazis.
Those days, at their home in Slonim were two of my grandmother's brothers, Nathan[1.46] and Khaim[1.47], after they escaped Warsaw before it fell to the Nazis. My mother Yolanda[1.50], who was five fears old remembers that they brought for her two rag dolls, one blond and one african. For some reason, they didn't got away with my grandmother and both were taken prisoners by the NKVD as well, as after the war Nathan said. Apparently, Khaim was freed but then fell prisoner of the Nazis, who killed him. Nathan survived the gulag until he was liberated at the end of the war ended and didn't want to have anything to do with life again.
As my grandmother again went away in 1946, from Poland and forever, she asked Nathan to leave with her; he wouldn't. For years, she tried to convince him to migrate to Argentina, but he stood in Nowy Dwór Maz. taking care of the family "Austeria" until his death, in 1965. He used to say that he was tired of travelling around.
But back then, grandmother and her children left Slonim and approached the virtual new border between the USSR and Nazi Germany which, of course, was sealed. My mother was five years old then, and she got lost at a train station. Uncle Wojciek[1.49], who was nine, spotted her at the last minute before the train departed, and saved her. Then, near the border, the Soviets would try to spot anyone who looked suspicious, meaning that they wouldn't look like peasants. Only anyone with the looks of a brute would be safe.
As grandmother and her children waited until the night in a town, a Soviet patrol approached. Everyone fled to survive capture by looking for cover. My uncle said that it was already too late for him when someone signed the alarm, and couldn't escape the room where he was in without being seen, so he stood behind a door while a Soviet soldier looked inside. He said that after so many years, he can still remember the man's face. The soldier couldn't see him, but Wojciek said that he could see the soldier thorough the door's hinges. The soldier stood there at the door for a few seconds; my uncle stood behind the door for half an hour or so.
The following night, they crossed the militarized frontline. Before that, grandmother put his little stamp collection that he carried with him as his only possession, inside a matchbox, but under the stamps, she put a folded US$100 dollar bill.
After crossing into German-occupied territory, two guards stopped them and inspected every piece of clothing, every item that they had, and of course, they found the matchbox, looked inside, and found the money.
They took it away, placed the stamps back into the matchbox, gave it to my uncle and let them go away. Indeed, your survival can depend on a box of matches.
The family house in Slonim as it looked in 1934; pencil, 2012, by Pablo Edronkin.
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