Thursday, January 27, 2022

Exiled to Kazakhstan: A Survivor Miracle

by Cindy K. Stewart

When the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland at the beginning of WWII,

the secret police (NKVD) immediately began arresting and deporting Polish citizens identified before the invasion. They simply pulled out their lists. . . .

These initial arrests focused on individuals holding leadership roles in the government, in the church, in education, in the military, as well as foreigners and those who had visited foreign countries. In February of 1940, hundreds of thousands of landowners and their families were sent to labor camps in Northern Russia and Siberia, and in April of 1940, family members of individuals previously arrested were transported to camps in Kazakhstan. Smaller numbers of Ukrainians and Jews were also deported.

Over one million people "rode the rails" to exile.

Maria Zareba
Courtesy of the Canadian
Polish Historical Society

Maria Zareba Andrzejewska was deported with her mother and sisters during one of these mass roundups. Prior to WWII, Maria’s father was the mayor of a small town in Eastern Poland where Maria and her sisters lived peacefully, enjoying skiing, hiking, playing sports, reading, and picking mushrooms.

The war changed everything. . . .

After the Soviets occupied Eastern Poland, they arrested, imprisoned, and deported Maria’s father in October of 1939. Six months later, in April of 1940, Soviet soldiers pounded on the Zareba’s door at 4:00 AM, demanded entry, and allowed the women fifteen minutes to pack. They gathered a large amount of clothes but only a little food and rode by horse and buggy to Kolomyja where they were ordered to enter a cattle boxcar holding 50 to 60 people. The windowless boxcar was bolted from the outside, and the occupants were only allowed to leave their quarters one time during their month-long journey.

Deportation to the Soviet Union. Courtesy of Official Composite

Maria and her family prayed and sang as they traveled to Kazakhstan, hoping they would be able to return home soon.

Upon arrival, the Zareba women were assigned to a dirt-type hut with no stove or furniture. Thirty people slept side by side on the clay floor. They dug water ditches for field irrigation, gathered hay during harvest season, and subsisted on very small rations of food. 

Before winter set in, Maria’s family bartered clothes for food in the villages because there would be little work, and the Soviets didn’t distribute food to those who didn’t work. In the fall, they moved to a small chicken coop and endured the cold, dark, and brutal winter which followed. Snow built up until it covered the entire building.

The Zarebas survived by melting snow for water and making a thin soup, which they ate once a day.

To entertain themselves they sang and played instruments made of combs. After walking to the local villages, Maria’s feet froze, causing festering boils on her toes. Maria’s sister developed large black sores all over her legs that spread to her torso, and she lay unconscious for weeks. Maria developed a milder form of the disease.

In the spring of 1941, the Zarebas worked in the fields and later in huge stables, caring for cattle. The deportees were told they could gather leftover sunflower seeds after the harvest, but other officials drove up and told them they were committing a crime against the state and could be arrested. The officials confiscated the bags of seeds the hungry children and teens had collected, much to their sorrow.

In June of 1941, the Germans invaded Eastern Poland and attacked the Soviet Union. Two months later the Zareba’s manager revealed that the Soviets and the Polish Government in Exile in London had signed an agreement granting the deportees amnesty so they could form an army to help the Allies fight the Germans.

The exiles were free to leave . . .

so the Zarebas sold everything possible and purchased train tickets to go south where General Anders was gathering and training the Polish Army. Traveling for weeks and suffering more hunger and disease, the Zareba women hoped to find their husband and father if he was still alive.

The women arrived in Samarkand and lived on the streets for three weeks, where they were attacked and robbed.

A friend helped them move to Zirabulak where Maria worked in a cotton factory and her older sister labored in the mines. They lived in a little factory living quarters. Maria’s older sister met her future husband, a Polish Army officer, and he helped the family arrange transportation to Krasnowodsk, a port town on the Caspian Sea. From there they crossed over to Pahlavi, Persia, on an overloaded dilapidated ship, full of hungry and ill passengers.

A ship carrying Polish soldiers and civilian refugees arrives in Iran from the Soviet Union, 1942.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.

They sheltered temporarily in tents on the beach until relocating to Tehran. The British occupied part of Iran at this time, but the Iranians assisted the Polish exiles and treated them warmly.

In Tehran a miracle took place. . . .

Maria’s father had survived his imprisonment and was searching for his family. What a joyful reunion took place when they were reunited in Iran. All the Zarebas were together again except Maria’s oldest sister who had fled with an aunt to Romania at the beginning of the war.

Teheran,1943. The group of Polish students from Junior
High School. Maria is sitting in the first row (first from right)

Courtesy of the Canadian Polish Historical Society

While waiting for the war to end in Tehran, Maria, her sisters, and thousands of other Polish youth attended school.

Maria’s father was sent to England, and the family later followed him. At a Polish Military Resettlement Camp near Liverpool, Maria met her future husband Antek who had fought in the Polish Home Army, survived four years in Auschwitz, and escaped to join the Polish Army in Italy.

Maria and Antek on an
 Edmonton street. May 5, 1950. 
Courtesy of the Canadian
Polish Historical Society

Maria and Antek became engaged, Antek moved to Alberta, Canada, and Maria followed six months later. They married the next month in February of 1950. Maria’s sisters and their families also immigrated to Edmonton, Alberta, where many other Polish immigrants had settled after the war. After the death of Maria's dear father in England, Maria's mother joined them in Canada. Maria and Antek were blessed with three children and four grandchildren in their new home.


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical romance author, writes stories of hope and love. Her first manuscript was a 2020 finalist for the Georgia Romance Writers Maggie Award of Excellence, placed second in the 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 forty years. Their daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live only an hour away. Cindy’s currently writing two fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. I enjoyed reading this tragedy to triumph story. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Cindy! Despite all the tragedies that took place during WWII, there are so many interesting stories of triumph.

  2. Thanks for posting today. It's amazing to me that this family survived.

    1. Thank you, Connie, for stopping by our blog and commenting today!

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Michelle. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.