[...] the Russian conductor hopes to leave some passengers behind at every stop. "Everybody is just running from the field to the train ... the last cabin is open and all the soldiers are standing there," she says, referring to the men in green uniforms standing above her flailing arms.
Nine-year-old Danuta Izbicki hops out of a packed car full of Polish refugees bound for Iran via Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea.
She scrambles into the cold with a starving throng of passengers collecting firewood and snow to make drinking water. If they're lucky, they might even be offered food from poor farmers in the area.
But they don't have much time. At any moment, the train can leave without warning. In fact, the Russian conductor hopes to leave some passengers behind at every stop.
"They just want us to die somehow -- before we leave Russia," says Donna Lukomski (nee Danuta Izbicki), recounting her childhood escape from a Russian work camp during the Second World War.
Hunger overrules common sense and drives her farther away from the train where locals hand out pita bread. Her moment of satiation is stolen by the dreaded sound of coupling rods as the locomotive begins to move -- her family aboard it.
"Everybody is just running from the field to the train ... the last cabin is open and all the soldiers are standing there," she says, referring to the men in green uniforms standing above her flailing arms.
"Please help me! Pick me up!" she yells at the Russian soldiers, who return her desperate plea with laughter and saliva.
"Oh my God! The train is moving," she says, wondering what to do.
She sees the steps on the conductor's cabin, reaches out for the railing and somehow climbs aboard.
"I made it," she recalls.
But this wasn't the end of the horror.
For hours, Lukomski, stood in the bitter cold, her hands latched onto the cold metal railing, watching the Ural Mountains pass by.
The train finally stopped.
"I couldn't move, I was frozen" she says. "I threw myself on the ground and my mother and sisters brought me into the cabin and started rubbing my limbs with snow ... They saved me."
Lukomski suffered for years with swollen limbs as a result of that escape in 1941 -- one of many trials she and her family endured in their 10 years as Polish refugees.
"I don't know how I survived," says Lukomski, 77, who finally found her home in Canada.
Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of her deportation from Poland to a work camp in Arkhangelsk, Russia, almost 1,000 km north of Moscow on the banks of the White Sea.
Her refugee life began when she was seven years old and living in what was then called the Polesie region of Poland (the Polish population was decimated and the area became incorporated into the former Soviet Republics of Belarus and Ukraine).
"We were living on a huge acreage of land -- very happy, very comfortable," says Lukomski recalling early childhood memories with her mother, father and three sisters.
Then, on Feb. 10 at 4 a.m., the Russian soldiers arrived at Lukomski's door.
"They knocked on the door, came in and said, 'We have to move you from your home to another place,' " says Lukomski remembering the cold -40C morning that marked the end of her childhood.
"My mother started screaming, 'What did we do? Why do we have to move? My kids are so small!' " she recalls.
"They told my father, 'You stay in the corner of the house. If you move, we're going to shoot you ... You have one hour to pack. Take mostly food and warm clothes, otherwise you're going to die like a dog.' "
The family packed up its valuables and was taken to the train station at Pinsk, near the Russian border.
Lukomski's family was in the first of four different Polish groups deported, equalling a total of two million people.
"I was on the first transport in winter ... It was the worst," says Lukomski, recalling the "cow trains" that became their home for the five-week train journey to Arkhangelsk, in northern Russia.
"They threw us on the wagon (train) where there were lots of people in it already -- Jews, Ukrainians and everybody," she says.
"Our whole family sat on the ground and we were all scared."
Train cars consisted of planks where people slept, a wooden stove for heating and a "big hole" on the side of the cold, metal wall, where people could go to the washroom.
Their diet was hot water and soup made of fish and cow heads.
"The conditions in the wagon were unbelievable ... the odour, the smell, people sick, throwing up ... that was how we travelled for five weeks."
When they finally arrived in Arhangelsk, they were taken to the work camp, where they were told they would "earn food by working for the Russian Republic."
Her family's home for the next two years was a big building that was shared with 400 to 500 other people.
"It was packed and everyone slept on planks, just like on the train. I got so scared because people were dying and nobody would pick up," says Lukomski, referring to the dead bodies strewn throughout her living quarters.
But Lukomski's family was intact and surviving life in the camp.
Then something terrible happened.
One night, at a regular meeting held by the refugees, her father made a big mistake: He spoke out against Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He was reported immediately and imprisoned. Within weeks, he died of starvation.
"I've never seen my father since," she says. "We didn't know how we were going to manage without (him)."
Then in 1941, as a result of political forces (the Soviets decided they needed Poland's help to fight against Germany), Lukomski got her chance to escape.
Lukomski's mother was working in construction when her foreman said, 'Stella, you know you're free, you don't have to work any more -- there is a Polish army forming here,'" recalls Lukomski, referring to the Polish men who were being conscripted from the work camps.
Lukomski's family grabbed the opportunity and made haste in the night to the train station on the foreman's sleigh.
"Russian soldiers were walking back and forth," as they tried to decide which train they should board, recalls Lukomski. "We didn't know where we were going to go. Maybe we were just going to go to another place (work camp)."
Then, with the help of Polish General Wladyslaw Anders, they boarded a train that would take them to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea. From there they would take a boat to a refugee camp for 900 Poles in Pahlevi, Iran.
It was during that train trip that Lukomski was almost left behind and sustained swollen limbs.
In Iran, Lukomski stayed in one of 1,000 Red Cross tents on the beach, where she witnessed many more deaths.
"I remember walking with my mother and stepping between dead people laying on the sand," she recalls. "They put their names in a bottle and buried them in the shore so there would be no epidemia."
After that, they stayed six months in Tehran. There, Lukomski's mom survived a near-fatal sickness while working in a Red Cross kitchen.
"All we did was pray, 'God, please don't take her. Don't take our mother away. What are we going to do by ourselves?'"
From Iran, her family boarded another boat bound for a refugee camp near Mumbai, India, via Karachi, Pakistan.
Tragically, her baby sister died of food poisoning just as the ship was approaching India.
"On the steps of freedom, we lost her," recalls a teary-eyed Lukomski. "When they threw her body overboard, I thought my mother was going to jump over too."
Lukomski had endured more than a lifetime of struggles and she was only 10 in 1943. She was due for a period of solace.
In India, Lukomski enjoyed some of her best years. The Maharaji, King of India, allowed Polish refugees from Persia to stay in Kolhapur, India, south of Mumbai. Lukomski stayed for five years.
There she learned English, finished Grade 10, joined Girl Guides and attended camps.
"It was just like heaven opened for us," she says. "These were the best years of my youth."
The war ended in 1945 and the refugee camps shut down. Lukomski's family was moved to Koja, a refugee camp in eastern Uganda near the Kenyan border, where they stayed in thatched huts for two years.
Then, opportunity knocked.
"A representative of the Government of Canada came to our camp and inquired for domestic help from young boys and girls age 17 and up," says Lukomski.
Lukomski and her sister jumped at the chance, leaving behind the other family members, who later moved to England. It would be two years before they saw each other again.
Lukomski, along with 800 other young Polish adults, received a contract for one year to work in Canada.
She recalls her voyage on the General Black from Mombasa, Kenya, to Halifax: "It was four weeks of a beautiful holiday on a ship."
When they reached Canada, most of the boys went to Kitchener, Ont., to clear forest. Lukomski, her sister, and another friend were among the girls assigned to work on Canadian farms.
They were sent to Abernethy.
"I worked from six in the morning till midnight -- every day," says Lukomski, remembering her hard work on the farm. "The family's child, Delores, a three-year-old, was mentally sick and I was always with her."
When her contract came up, Lukomski was offered a chance to stay in Saskatchewan from Monsignor Anthony Gocki, a local Polish priest who helped facilitate some major events in Lukomski's life.
"Monsignor found me a job to work with nuns at Holy Rosary on Scarth Street across from Blessed Sacrament."
He also found sponsors to bring Lukomski's family over from England.
"Then Monsignor Gocki introduced me to some Polish young people ... and we went to a dance on November 11th," recalls Lukomski. "That's where I met my husband, George."
George had his eye on Lukomski for some time, so on the night of the dance he didn't waste his chance.
"He came, asked me to dance and ... he never took me back to my crowd," says Lukomski, recalling her husband's courting tactics and sharp dress. "He was such a classy gentleman."
The two married on Dec. 26, 1951.
Six children and 16 grandchildren later, Lukomski says the years with her husband and their offspring represent the greatest joy in her life.
A close second was a trip with her two daughters back to Poland in 2007.
Wednesday, marks 70 years since Lukomski was deported from her Polish home. She expects it to be a very emotional day.
Says Lukomski: "I will go to church and thank God for everything ... God was always with me."
Credit: Josh Campbell; Leader-Post
Photo: For the young Polish girl, a living nightmare Colour Photo: For the woman she became, a story of survival Photo: Photograph on table (above) and reproduced (left) shows Danuta Izbicki (left) with her three sisters and mother (second from right) in Iran on June 3, 1943. Colour Photo: Bryan Schlosser, Leader-Post / Donna Lukomski looks through a scrapbook made for her, chronicling her childhood. Photo: Courtesy of Donna Lukomski / The former Danuta Izbicki (now Donna Lukomski) in front of her thatched hut in Uganda in 1949. Photo: Courtesy of Donna Lukomski / Polish refugees aboard a train in Uganda in 1949.; Caption: