Veteran Interviews – Antonina Klimaszweska Markut

Editor’s note: 99% of the time I am tasked with synthesizing the tape recorded interviews and then
writing up the biographies of our Polish veterans. In this case I am very fortunate in that
Antonina wrote the narrative herself as a historical account for her children. The story straight
 from Antoniana is better than anything I could write.

The events that surrounded my military life compel me to share my experience of sacrifice, struggle and survival. I was just one among thousands captured by the Soviets during the nightmarish time when Poland was attacked on opposite sides by Hitler and Stalin. The three month journey that followed took my family by train across Russia to a Siberian labor camp. I was 14 years old in 1940 when this camp stole the lives of my mother and my youngest sister. I was left to fend for myself and my younger sister. All the while I clung to the hope that my father was, somewhere in this desolate tundra, alive.

I spent over a year in this existence until one night a Polish soldier arrived with official-looking papers for our immediate release. Only later did I learn that my cousin forged these documents. He was among the Polish captives released from Siberian prison camps by Stalin to join British forces in Iran. This, Stalin’s lone act of humanity, came after Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. This became my fate as I, too, wanted to serve for freedom. We headed south to Uzbekistan to where by my cousin was stationed. Although I was 16 and too young to serve, I lied about my age and enlisted in the Polish Army. This act guaranteed my sister’s care under the sponsorship of the armed forces.

My first military assignment in 1942 was to care for the sick children. We were transported across the Caspian Sea finally leaving the Soviet Union and landing in Persia (Iran). It was there I had to say goodbye to my sister as she, along with the other children, were being sent to an orphanage in the Republic of South Africa. Although I knew she’d be safer where she was going, it was with a heavy heart I watched as yet another member of my family was led away. To this day, I cannot begin to describe my emotions at that moment.

Orders were issued to report to Palestine (Israel) where I completed boot camp and training at the School of Transportation. It was here the #317 Transport Company of the Polish 2nd Corps under the British 8th Army was formed; an all female unit. This unit – my unit- was totally self sufficient, managed and maintained by women, complete with command levels and ranks.

Through 1943, the 317th transported soldiers and supplies across Iran, Iraq and Egypt. During this time I received word that my prayers had indeed been answered – my father was alive. He had survived the Siberian trial and was now a Polish soldier. My cousin managed to arrange a brief reunion for us while in the Middle East.

My unit’s 1944 orders were to provide all services to the men’s Polish 2nd Corp. They were being sent to support the invasion of Italy. The 317th kept the division fully furnished with all the ammunition and material provisions required for battle. Across the mountainous Italian peninsula extended land mines, pillboxes, barbed wires and machine gun nests. Our advances north always kept us right behind the front lines. We were exposed to all of the brutality of war: explosions, bombs, dismemberment, killings, the “blood and guts.” During this trek we joined forces with many allied armies including American, British and Australian. (May I add that the Americans shared the best chewing gum.)

At the Battle of Monte Casino, the Polish 2nd Corp replaced scarred allied troops and concluded the battle with a victory. With great pride, we raised the white-and-red flag above the ruins. Our celebration was short. We headed to Nazi-occupied Rome to push the enemy back through Northern Italy. Finally, in May of 1945, the war wads declared over.

I remained in Italy attending Military School until 1946 when the entire 2nd Corps was transferred to England. There I served in the Military Police until my honorable discharge in May 1949. The Polish Resettlement Corps reunited me with what was left of my family; my father, sister and cousin. We remained in England since Poland, our beloved homeland, was behind the Iron Curtain and not free for us.

In 1954 I married Stan whose experiences during the war were, sadly, similar to my own. We emigrated from England to America in 1956 and established our own family. In 1963 I became a citizen of the United States.

In my adopted hometown of Buffalo, New York, I reminisce of these experiences with other Polish veterans; particularly with my platoon leader, former tent-mate, and an officer of the men’s 2nd Corps that I met when stationed in the Middle East. We share a kinship. Distance and place are no barriers for those of us who survived this ordeal.

After documenting this, I found myself remembering the Christmas spent in Bethlehem in 1943. I attended Midnight Mass and remember how I just sat there thinking of the events that brought me here; wondering what had happened. What went so terribly wrong in this world to cause such devastation, uncertainty and fear? Something deep within willed me the determination to stay alive and keep my spirit from being crushed. I prayed to God and felt peace. I still do.

Antonina Markut in Uniform 1944