The Life and Times of Jospeh Doda-Dan
My name is Joseph Doda-Dan. I was born in 1923 in Bialystok, Poland. I grew up in a small town in Eastern Poland near City of Vilnius.
On September 1, 1939 my brothers and father were mobilized, but my sister, mother, and I were left on our farm. We heard the news about Germans attacking Poland. On September 7, 1939, we saw Russian soldiers marching on the road. We were told they came to protect us from Germans. The Russian soldiers came to our farm house and told us not to help anyone. We were directed to report any suspicious person who came to our doors. We suspected the Russians would try to remove us from our land. We had no recent news about my father and brothers, but we thought about them often and hoped they would survive the war.
In December of 1939, NKVD soldiers came to our home and told us to pack because we were going to be sent to Siberia as “bezapastnoj element”. We were considered a threat to the USSR. We were told to pack warm clothes, axes, and saws, but no food. We could not take anything of personal value. The soldiers stood over us and watched us continuously to be sure we did not try to take any contraband. I still have memories of the Russians jumping around, when my sister dropped some spoons and knives on the floor. They started yelling “guns? guns?” and pointed their guns at us. We were loaded onto farm carts drawn by horses and taken to the nearest railroad station. There we were loaded into cattle cars. They packed us like sardines with a NKVD officer inside and soldiers outside the cars, sitting on the platforms and roofs with guns drawn and ready to shoot.
We traveled for over 30 days, with few stops here and there to stretch our legs, clean the cars a little bit and remove those who died during the trip. We saw children dying from hunger and old people just giving up. At one of the stops we saw our friends and neighbors, who were also being taken to Siberia. Our train trip ended at Novosibirsk. From there we were transported by sleigh to our final destination deep inside a dense forest. The commander of the camp told us we would never see Poland again. He said we would all die working for the USSR as slaves.
I was determined not to give up. I wanted to escape as soon as I could, but I was worried about leaving my mother and sister in the camp. I tried my best to protect them and support them. We were starving and working very hard. We looked like walking skeletons. We worked on big pine trees, cutting the lines to drain sap and collect it for further use. We also cut the trees and cleaned them to make them ready for transport.
We did not know what was happening in the world, as we were cut off from everyone. People were dying like flies. The air was extremely cold and a person could freeze to death in matter of minutes. Many times I wanted to sit down and rest my legs, but I knew I would never get up. We were always cold, hungry and thinking about our families.
We finally learned that there would be special amnesty for us, but we could only travel a few kilometers from our villages. Once I heard about the Polish Army in the South of Russia, I decided to get away. With a few friends, I traveled by foot, train and whatever means I could. We had to get to Lugowoj to join the Polish Army. In March 1942, I signed up and waited for transportation from Russia to Persia. You had to be on a NKVD list to be let go or you went back to Siberia. I was afraid that I would be sent back, because I was in a special group of people that Russians took to Siberia first. Thanks to good luck, I managed to leave Russia with the army. I had been in the hard labor camp for 3 years.
We traveled by boat from Lugowoj to Pahlavi. British officers, nurses and doctors took care of us and helped us regain our strength. They started training us as soldiers. I was assigned to artillery unit of the 3rd Carpathian Division of II Polish Corps.
After we were equipped and trained, we were sent to Iraq to complete our training and defend Iraq against the German invasion from the North. I spent time at a camp at Lake Habaniya and around Kirkuk and Mosul. We trained in early morning and evening. During the day we lay down in the tents when temperatures outside were 100 degrees or more. You could not touch the metal parts of guns, trucks or equipment without suffering burns.
After a few months in Iraq, the Polish Army was sent to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine to defend the Eastern Mediterranean from German invasion. We trained and learned our craft. We were getting ready to go to Europe. In December 1943, the Polish Army was in Egypt awaiting ships to transport us to Italy. We landed in Taranto right before Christmas. We collected our equipment and moved to the front.
From January 1944 my unit was in constant battles with the Germans. We participated in battles at Forli, Monte Croce and others. We heard about attacks on Monte Casino by British, Australian, Hindu and American soldiers and how unsuccessful they were. We knew that many soldiers lost their lives during those offensives. We did not know how horrible it was until in late March and early April 1944. We took over positions around Monte Casino. The bodies of dead soldiers were everywhere and the stench was beyond comprehension. We were getting ready for a new offensive. In May 1944, our units were taking positions around the Town of Monte Casino and its famous monastery where the Germans were dug in.
Monte Casino offensive started on May 11, 1944. My artillery unit was in action before that date, because we were firing at the Germans to force them to abandon their high ground positions. Germans had all the roads and hills under constant bombardment and we could not even get our heads up during the day. We would get food and ammunition delivered during the night by Ghurka troops using mules. All around us were hills and narrow roads only accessible on foot. We were ready for the offensive.
The attack on Monte Casino started with artillery bombardment to which Germans responded with their own artillery. Positions in my unit were hit by the shells and some of my friends were wounded and killed. On the second day of the offensive, I was wounded by shrapnel when an exploding bomb shredded my blanket and hit my hands. Small fragments were embedded in my legs. My best friend was killed during that attack and many others were severely wounded. I was patched up by the medic and stayed with my unit; others were transported to evacuation points. We were not ready to give up yet. The fighting went on. I lost count of how many days I was loading the artillery gun, firing and trying to stay alive to fight another day. We knew we were wearing the Germans out and hopefully breaking their will to fight. The day before Germans abandoned Monte Casino Monastery I was wounded a second time. I was evacuated to a field hospital, suffering from exhaustion, and wounds to my hands and legs. I lost my hearing from the explosions. The hills around Monte Casino were covered with dead bodies of Polish soldiers and others. I lost many friends during that one battle, but I never lost the spirit to defeat the Germans. After the Battle of Monte Casino, my unit along with II Polish Corps, went on to fight the Germans at Loretto, Bologna, Ancona and other places in Italy until the end of the war. We were disappointed that the Polish Army was not granted the privilege to enter Rome, after we broke the German defenses at Monte Casino and opened the road to Rome.
For my action, I was awarded the Polish Bravery Cross with 2 Clusters and Monte Casino Cross, British Defense Medal, War Medal 1939-1945, Star of Italy, and the 1939 -1945 Star. In 2011 I was given the Siberian Cross by President of Poland, which honors all those who suffered during deportation to Siberia.
After the war I was sent with II Polish Corps to England, where we were demobilized and found out that we had no country to go back to. The Russians had taken over Poland. I worked in England for few years and in early 1950 emigrated to the United States where I made my home.
R.I.P. Joseph Doda-Dan 1923-2014
Transcribed by Anna Doda-Dan