A Catholic woman has been awarded the Siberian Exiles Cross, nearly 80 years after she was forced from her home in Poland and bundled into a cattle truck bound for a remote and unforgiving outpost of northern Russia.
Helena Kurpiel, 91, received the prestigious medal from Leszek Rowicki, the Polish Consul General in Manchester, at a small ceremony among family, friends and staff at St Joseph’s Convent Nursing Home in Stafford.
Canon Michael Neylon, parish priest at St Austin’s, Stafford, also spoke at the ceremony, while Polish Father Wiktor Ostrowski gave a blessing to Helena.
The Siberian Exiles Cross recognises and commemorates Polish citizens deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan and northern Russia during and after the Second World War.
Helena was just 13 years old in February 1940 when she, her parents and siblings were taken by Russian soldiers and put on wagons bound for the freezing climes of Siberia.
One of her sisters did not survive the journey, while her mother and father died later in the camps, where conditions for deportees were appalling.
‘Our mother remembers being covered in fleas and always very hungry and cold,’ said Helena’s daughter Lucy McWilliams, of Great Haywood. ‘She often searched bins to find any scraps of food to stay alive.’
Helena was in Siberia for nearly two years before moving south with many other Polish deportees, through Persia (modern-day Iran) and on to Lebanon where she became seriously ill with tuberculosis.
It was not until 1948 – three years after the war ended – that she made it on to a Red Cross ship bound for the UK, arriving on these shores with absolutely nothing to her name. She was initially taken to a hospital in Wales to further recover from illness before being reunited with her older sister Rozalia Magnowska in a Polish resettlement camp in Morpeth, Northumberland.
It was here that she met and married her husband Jan, a decorated Polish solider who died in 2014, aged 94. Jan had also survived Siberia before joining the Polish Armed Forces in 1941 under General Władysław Anders, going on to fight in the Battle of Monte Cassino and alongside the British Army.
‘Our mother has always been very grateful to this country for all the help and assistance she has had,’ added Mrs McWilliams.
‘She is now the last person alive of her immediate family and we felt she deserved some recognition for the ordeal she went through. That’s why we put her case forward for the Siberian Exiles Cross and we are very proud that she has received it.’
By Chris McWilliams
St Austin’s, Stafford