Flight From Hell

By Michael Kirilov

I was born in [Tsarist] Russia, although officially my birth place is Poland. My account begins with the tragic events of 1917 Russia ...

Before this "foreign" [Bolshevik] revolution, my grandparents lived very well. On my paternal side, my grandfather was given free schooling in Tsarist Russia. He was an intellectual and an astronomer, yet he was from a very poor family. He wed into wealth, proving that the class barrier was far from absolute, a sort of Cinderella story with a reverse of gender. My grandmother was a renowned pianist and private tutor to the Court of Prince Balkonski, of War and Peace fame.

Often she would perform before the Court of the Tsar. With such contacts it was not long before my grandfather was appointed by the Tsar as Governor to the South East Province in which they lived (even though he had socialist views). My grandfather saw himself as a moderate reformer, maybe his background as the son of an orthodox priest played a part in his moderate outlook. They owned a stately, castle-like home with regal gardens and a private wood land.

Our family once had many family photos that included the Tsar in the shots. With the Bolshevik takeover however, out of fear, the images of the Tsar were sheared off the photos. A program of "thought clearing" was set in motion by the Bolsheviks after they overthrew the Tsar, then killing him and his family. House to house searches by the Cheka, forerunner of the OGPU, the NKVD and the KGB, resulted in interrogations of millions of Russians. Upon personal orders of Lenin, my grandfather was interrogated by the OGPU, and before the eyes of his wife and children he was brutally hacked to death by sword.

My grandfather on my mother's side refused to denounce his pro-monarchist stance, and was sent to a death camp by the White Sea canal in the extreme north. The last image we ever saw of him was a photo sent from the camp. Under the Bolshevik "Reds," eastern Russia was becoming a massive graveyard -- another word for "grave" is hell.

Fearful for their lives, my grandmother and her two small children fled to the safety of western Russia where the hellish Bolshevik empire had not yet spread. She began a new life under another name near the borders of Belorussia [Belarus] and Ukraine. Our new home was one of the houses the family owned, though it was not as great or as grand as the one we were forced to leave. Like many such properties, the "Reds" simply took them over and made them their own. The Soviet system simply legalized terror, theft and murder for its foreign elite.

The frith (peace) of western Russia lasted for only a short time, though. The "Red" expansion came our way. For a while the worst of Soviet tyranny passed us by. My grandmother became a tutor to the new super elite. This time the tactics of property theft became more sophisticated. They did not proclaim a ban on home ownership, they simply kept raising the rates until the owners were unable to pay them, so the Council [Soviet] seized the properties, as was the case with our second home. The family by this time had been stripped of all wealth and assets, and was forced to rent a small flat.

By this time my father was a grown man. He had studied as a surveyor and was working at a High School as a mathematician. When I was seven, my father was called up in 1939 to fight in the Soviet- Finland war. Shortly after the Second World War broke out he was called up again. Soon our province was overrun by Hitler's troops.

Much to the surprise of Hitler's troops, they were greeted by the Russians as liberators. The Bolsheviks were naturally displeased, and in an effort to have the Russian people turn on the Germans they would kidnap German soldiers, slay them in a most gruesome way, and place the bodies for the Nazis to find. The purpose was to whip up Nazi reprisals against the Russian people. This usually meant ten Russians were executed for one German. It was a sordid tactic that worked for the Bolsheviks. Our province of Bryansk became a sort of "German Vietnam."

In October 1941 my father was heavily wounded on the Moscow front. Stalin's policy was to leave the severely wounded soldiers for dead, and patch up the less wounded to go back to the front. Even though the Germans were the foe, more often than not, they treated us better than Stalin's Reds. My dad was picked up by the Germans after being left for dead by Stalin's troops, and was taken to one of their field hospitals. When he felt strong enough he left with the help of peasants and made his way home. Because this was during the Russian winter, it was a very hard and bitter trek.

For many in the West it may seem hard to believe, but Nazi occupation, despite reprisals, was better than being under Stalin. Because, for the first time, farmers could work the land free of the disastrous Bolshevik collective system, bumper crops were harvested. The Germans organized efficient food distribution. At last there was no starvation in the land. Some years earlier Ukraine had suffered a holocaust and systematic genocide, perhaps the greatest in this century inflicted upon a single people. Seven million lost their lives at the hands of the Bolsheviks for their refusal to join the collective farm system.

Following the Nazi defeat at Moscow, the German treatment of those of us in the areas they occupied softened. And then the Volgograd (Stalingrad) defeat taught the Germans that their earlier victories had been due not to their military might, but rather because the Russians had not wanted to fight them. The ensuing German defeat at Kursk hailed a turning point. As the German forces began to retreat, the people living in the German-held areas feared the worst. They faced two choices, but in either case life would never be the same. They could remain where they were and be assured of enduring the racial wrath of the Bolsheviks, joining so many of their kinsfolk in the "Red" concentration camps, or they could flee westward, leaving with the retreating Germans.

In that case, neither one's livelihood, heritage nor family ties would be any safeguard. Their lives would become far off memories. A deep sense of gloom fell upon them as they realized that the [British-American] Allied forces had teamed up with their foe, Joseph Stalin, the world's greatest murderer. We felt deeply betrayed. We saw that the West had little care for us. How could they condemn Hitler, when they did not condemn Stalin? What is more, how could they give help to the world's worst monster? Our position was dire.

Our lovely province was going to fall again into the hands of the hellish centralized government. Thus our family, like so very many others, set out on a trek -- not knowing where it would take us, how long it would take, when we would eat, where we would sleep, where we would end up, or even whether we would live to see better days.

Not far from where we were staying, near the city of Bryansk, was a huge rail junction. Waiting at the station was the last train going west. We took all we could carry, my father stressing the need to take family photos. Of all things, we even took our sewing machine, a Russian-made Singer, which we have kept to this very day.

The train was a steam locomotive followed by coaches, box cars and flat rail cars. Not far to the west flowed a river that had to be crossed. The approaching Bolsheviks were to the east. The train was set to leave only after all German troops had safely crossed the river. This meant that the train might never make it if the "Reds" caught up. The train was being sand-bagged and armed with heavy guns. On board was a team of demolition experts. Their job was to rip up the track and blow up the bridges behind them.

Several families tried to board the train. The Germans refused permission, but we persisted. War has a way of changing folk; they gave in, and we were allowed to stay. For three days the train was our home as it stood in the station. We used the station's facilities and joined the queues with the German soldiers at the field kitchens. Morale among the soldiers, who whistled as they went about their business, was surprisingly high. Yet those three days were very deadly. Every so often Stalin's planes would spray the station with gunfire. I saw many fall. For the other families this was too much, and they fled. We were the only family left on the train. At one point we wondered if we should have left as well. Far to the east we could see the Soviet tanks.

Then at last came news that all German troops were well ahead of the train. We were truly in a no-man's land, which was about to become dead-man's land. Finally the train began to move. The sky just to the east was black with smoke. The demolition team carried out their work ripping up track and blowing up bridges behind us. Several hours later the train was in a relatively safe zone. The train went very slowly, and the German soldiers got to know us. Six weeks later we were in Minsk, Belorussia.

The platform there was very busy with many Russian-speaking soldiers in German uniform. These were General Vlasov's men. [Andrei] Vlasov had been a Soviet general who had defeated the Germans at Moscow. After his capture, he came to see the evil of Stalin and Communism. He believed it would be better to join the Germans to defeat the Bolshevik regime. Maybe it was too little too late.

My father found clerical work under the famous General. This lasted only a few weeks, however. The Bolsheviks were drawing nigh to Minsk, and again we had to flee. Vlasov and his army fought bravely, but lost. Vlasov met with a grizzly fate at the hands of the "Reds," hanged in Moscow.

We managed to get to Polish White Russia. By now all organized German transportation had collapsed. The Allies had systematically fordone (destroyed) the infrastructure. There was plenty of food, but it simply did not move. Nazi work camps were the first to feel the pinch, resulting in starvation and disease. Civilians too were facing a grim lot. To help in our trek westward dad bought a horse and cart. The horse was a faithful beast, whom we fondly called Masha, meaning Maria.

Although Vlasov's life was not spared, our lives may well have been saved by him. He gave my father a written discharge, which made the journey through German-held lands easier. It also entitled us to much-needed ration cards.

By the time we made it to Poland winter had set in again. Ironically the winters of World War II were some of the worst on record.

As stated earlier, the Tsar had given the many ethnic groups living within the borders of his realm near-autonomous ethnic homelands. This seemed to suit all the groups, except the Khazars [Jews] who were swiftly making themselves the new masters of all Russia and beyond. There was also a German ethnic area. Many Germans had wed Russians. One such ethnic German was a Baron von Schindelko. Under Hitler's rule he was appointed to run a vast estate of a former Polish landowner. Unwittingly our trek took us there.

As we drove by, the baron just happened to be walking by, and he struck up a conversation because he had recognized, by the way our horse was harnessed, that we were from Russia. So many miles, so many folk, such a big world -- yet it turned out that the baron was acquainted with my father's mother!

From late Autumn to mid-winter we became guests of the baron. I guess the frith [peace] and rest would not last. Poland, like Russia, was to be overwhelmed by Soviet-Bolsheviks. Midwinter was not the ideal time to move on, but there was no choice. The baron and his household now became refugees. Together we formed a small caravan of horses and wagons heading for what was a crumbling Germany.

We believed we would be safe after crossing the Oder river into Germany itself. We could only cross by ferry. It amazes me how in times of great danger some people can keep such a service going. The Soviets were not far off. Although we were under long-range artillery fire, we made it to Germany. We slowly journeyed around the Baltic harbor city of Stettin (now Polish Szczecin), where we saw the results of British air raids: black sooty skies loomed over a sea of flames, many leaping out of large oil tanks.

The main roads were swollen with millions of refugees. Many refugees died and were given shallow graves where they fell. The highways were lined with hundreds of thousands of wooden crosses.

The baron, still wearing a German uniform, felt it would be wiser to leave the main road and use secondary country lanes. He feared encountering a German check-point, which could result in him being sent to the front.

Generosity and love during times of wholesale calamity always leave a mark, as was the case when we came across a German farmhouse and asked to stay the night. The farmer and his wife, despite the knowledge they would soon either be killed by the Soviets or become subjects of a Bolshevik regime, gave us shelter, fed us and cared for our horses. Early the next day we thanked the farmer and set off into cold driving snow. We left quite early, and so were unable to thank his wife for their hospitality. Some time later we heard a woman call to us. Through the blizzard the farmer's wife was running to catch us, to give us bread and wurst for our trek. She wished us well and returned home. Only a few days later the black Soviet cloud passed over their home.

Not far from Stettin we came across a refugee train being loaded for a journey westwards to Hamburg. The Hitler Youth had been given the task of getting everyone on board. At this point they were carrying out such secondary functions needed in running a country. Here we had to part from our trusted helper, Masha.

A grim landscape greeted us as we reached the outskirts of Hamburg. Mile after mile of once fine suburbia -- street after street, block after block -- were flattened and burned out. Only chimneys and staircases leading nowhere remained upright.

The end of the rail line was just south of the city of Brockstadt. The Germans were desperate to keep food production going, so many of us were sent to work on the many abandoned farms. Money was worthless, and one's pay was given in food. This we did until the British occupation.

The new occupation forces in Germany were now dealing with the refugees. The Yalta agreement -- signed by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill -- demanded the return of Russian refugees to the Soviet Union. This transfer was nicknamed "Operation Keelhaul." We were taken to a Displaced Persons (DP) camp at a former German army barracks. Field Marshal Montgomery was still under the illusion that Russia was going to hold free elections. The camp's British officers passed the problem of returning the refugees to superior officers who put off giving a decision. Eventually when Montgomery visited the camp my father told him personally that no way would our family go back. In time many of the British realized that sending Russians back would simply be a costly way to kill them. When dad openly told the officer in charge where he came from, he was taken outside and shown a bonfire. The officer told him to throw any Russian documents into it. The British officers knew the treachery of the Agreement, and did all they could to save the refugees. They employed Polish officials to supply us with new papers. From then on we were "Born in Poland".

Stalin become aware of such widespread falsification of papers, and in response sent KGB agents to monitor proceedings. Upon their arrival in our camp, the Soviet agents were stoned by the refugees, though not to death. This ended their investigation. The British officials did little to stop the near riot of the 35,000 angry people in our camp.

Our food came in Red Cross parcels. The first time we ever heard of Tasmania was the labels on two of the things in the packages: IXL Jam Hobart, and Cadbury's Chocolate Hobart. From time to time we would go to the Russian quarter of Hamburg. For a few weeks we stayed in the former house of the composer Mendelsohn.

Between 1945 and 1949 we were moved to several camps. The British, realizing that we could not go back to Russia in time looked for alternate lands for the refugees. We knew something of Canada, and that the climate there was similar, but the quota list filled quickly. We were told to try for Australia, but in those days we knew very little of that far-away land. We heard stories of bush fires, Aborigines, snakes and kangaroos. However, we became more interested when Australian immigration officials showed us films explaining the country's culture, British heritage and monarchy. Many Russians were monarchists, so Australia appealed to them.

However, Australian labor unions had made immigration difficult. The head of a family was allowed to go to Australia, but the rest of his family could not follow until a year later. In addition, the migrant could not work at his trade until he was first naturalized, which required a six year stay. They forbade money being sent to loved ones in camps, as well as food parcels worth more than five shillings! My father came to the Bonegilla camp in New South Wales, but the heat was too much for him, so he opted for Tasmania. His first job was breaking rocks at Lake Leake, from where he went to Leganna to work for an orchardist. Later he became a farmhand near Cressy. It was there that the rest of us were united with him at long last. We stayed in a humble worker's cottage. The farmer was very kind, giving us clothes, furniture and other essentials. My brother, sister and I went to the Cressy Area School.

Prime Minister Menzies loosened the labor union restrictions, and so my father thought highly of him. After a while, we moved to Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, where my father found work at Cadbury's Hobart and my mother at IXL Hobart!

In time I had children of my own, and a few years ago my parents died. Now I am retired. Out of fear I kept this account to myself for a long time. Now it is my belief that this story needs telling because any land, however peaceful, can find itself prey to a hungry host. May that which befell Russia never befall this land.

This article, slightly edited, first appeared in the "launch edition" of the Australian periodical, Tasmanian Life, Winter 1996 (vol. 1, issue 1).

Michael Kirilov is the pen name of a Russian who lives in Australia.