Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Miracle Escape from the Soviet Union: A WWII Story

by Cindy K. Stewart

In April, I shared about the Soviet invasion of Poland on the seventeen day of WWII and the subsequent ruthless treatment of the captured Polish officers. If you missed the post and would like to read it, you can find it at this link: Massacres and Miracles.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
In late September, 1939, the Soviets and Germans divided Poland - the Soviets occupied the eastern section of the country. Before WWI, this area belonged to Russia but was awarded to Poland following the war. In 1939, Polish settlers, Ukrainians, and Russians occupied this territory. Starting in February of 1940, the Soviets exiled the Polish settlers to Northern Russia, Siberia and other far flung locations to work in labor camps. The exact number of people transported will never be known, but estimates indicate at least a million men, women, and children were forcibly removed and sent to the USSR. Later, the Soviets also exiled some Ukrainians.

After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Soviets allied themselves with England and consequently with the Polish Government in Exile in London. Stalin agreed to release the Polish captives held in the Soviet Union and to allow the Polish Army to re-organize to fight the Germans. This army initially formed in Uzbekistan but later moved to the Middle East. Polish civilians left the Soviet Union along the same path as the newly formed army (Anders Army).

A small portion of the former captives successfully escaped the Soviet Union and arrived in the west where they shared their stories.

Here is the account of one fourteen-year-old survivor.

Danuta Maczka - 1939
Courtesy of Kresy Family
Danuta Maczka lived with her family on a farm near Rowne in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland, now part of Ukraine. In October of 1939, the local Ukrainian Committee (established by the Soviets) evicted her family from their home. They were allowed to take food, some furniture, their two dogs, and a few personal possessions with them. They settled in a rented apartment in a Jewish house in a small town nearby, but the NKVD continued to pester them.

Danuta (bottom right) 
with family
Courtesy of the BBC
At 6:00 AM on February 10th, 1940, the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) and Ukrainian police awakened the Maczkas and gave them a two-hour notice to pack. Their destination—Siberia. In icy cold temperatures, they traveled for two hours by sledge through deep snow to the railway station where they boarded a cattle truck with many other Polish settlers. A few days later they transferred to a Soviet cattle truck, holding seventy-two people. Double bunks lined the sides of the car, a stove occupied the center, and one tiny grilled window admitted a little light and air. A hole in the floor provided for hygiene needs. Danuta and her family rode in this locked car for sixteen days. Occasionally they were given food, water, and coal for the stove.  

They reached Kotlas in Northern Russia, and Danuta’s stepmother contracted pneumonia. She was taken to the hospital where she recovered. Meanwhile, the rest of the family traveled 25 kilometers by sledge during a huge snowstorm with the temperature at -40° Celsius.

For the next twenty-two months, the Maczkas lived in various huts and barracks, working deep in the forests. They were paid for their work, felling trees, removing branches, working in a sawmill, stripping bark, sawing wood, and building small wooden houses. Danuta’s younger brother and sister, Tadzio and Zosia, attended school, but Danuta, her father, and her older brother, Bogus, worked.

In the summer and autumn, Danuta was allowed to leave the camp and collect berries and mushrooms in the forest. In a small plot of soil, they planted vegetables, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, and beans, which grew rapidly in the almost twenty-four-hour-a-day sunlight. Everyone worked in the forest, the saw-mill, or on the collective farm or they didn’t receive their bread ration. Many became sick and died.

Zosia caught the flu in October, was hospitalized for two weeks in December, and died alone in the hospital on Christmas Eve. Tadzio broke his leg in school, and it didn’t heal properly because of the lack of adequate medical treatment.

On June 22, 1941, the Germans invaded Soviet territory, initiating the German-Soviet War and the Soviet alliance with the Allies. On July 31st, the Maczkas learned that the Soviets had signed a treaty with the Polish government in London, granting amnesty to all Poles on Soviet territory. Danuta and her family rejoiced that God had answered their prayers. Although the first discharge papers were issued on September 5th, the Maczkas didn’t receive their papers until December 27th. With the Soviets at war, the exiles were no longer paid for their work, and food was rationed. Christmas dinner consisted of a few pieces of dried bread and hope that they would soon leave the Soviet Union.

With great joy, Danuta and her family boarded their train to freedom on January 1st, 1942. Impatient to join the Polish Army before receiving his papers, her brother Bogus had left with friends in November.

Danuta's Route Map - Courtesy of Kressy Family

After many weeks of riding the rails, on February 22nd the Maczkas arrived in Guzar, Uzbekistan, the location of the 7th Division of the Polish Army. Danuta claimed she was eighteen so she could volunteer for the Polish Women’s Auxiliary Service (she was only sixteen). She was issued a man’s military uniform many sizes too big for her, a rifle with no bullets, and a bayonet. But she was proud to be in the Polish Army! 

Danuta’s father found Bogus in the hospital recovering from typhoid – he and his friends had faced a very difficult journey. Without government papers, they had not been allowed to obtain rations at the railroad station canteens.

Danuta Maczka 18.V.42 Teheran (before typhoid).
She was doing a nursing course in the 4th hospital
(Red Cross) at the time. Courtesy of Kresy-Siberia.
All the Maczkas traveled by train with the Polish Army to Krasnovodsk near the Caspian Sea and by boat to Persia. Many passengers suffered from typhoid and dysentery, and some died on the trip. 

The Maczkas arrived in Teheran in early April. A Polish doctor operated on Tadzio’s leg, and Danuta’s father and older brother departed with the army. Danuta contracted typhoid fever and nearly died.

This is Danuta Maczka’s Dodge D15. 

After a two-and-a-half-month hospital stay, Danuta recovered and joined the transport office. She drove heavy vehicles, delivering supplies to military units in Egypt and later Italy. During the Italian campaign, she met 2nd Lt. Jerzy Gradosilski  and married him after the war. They later settled in England and had six children. Danuta's stepmother and Tadzio remained in Palestine until the war ended. Her father and brother also survived the war. 

Danuta and Jerzy Gradosielski. Italy 1945.
Courtesy of Kresy-Siberia.


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-nine years. Her married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live nearby. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Oh my! Now THAT is a time of hardship! Thanks for telling Danuta's story.

    1. Hi, Connie. Thanks for dropping by and reading Danuta's story.

  2. An amazing story about this brave and stalwart family. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi, Linda. I'm glad you joined us for today's blog post. Thank you for commenting.