Seventy years ago today, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack, bringing the United States into World War II.
Half a world away, a Polish family was trying to survive the horrors of a Russian labor camp in Siberia.
Eugenia Kowalczyk Lecko lost a sister and a brother in that camp. Her mother and father died soon after they were freed. Her oldest brother took off to join the Polish army.
Eugenia and her little brother went on a journey around the world with other orphans before finding peace and settling down as adults.
Now 85 years old and living in Howard City, Eugenia retains a steadfast, thankful spirit.
“I thank God every day,” she said. “It was very hard. Some stories …”
She trailed off, shaking her head free of the memories.
A family interrupted
Eugenia was born Sept. 8, 1926, in Cielaz, Poland, to Wladyslaw “Walter” and Anna Mulka Kowalczyk. The family moved to a small farming community Rozalowka, later renamed Stanislowoka, in 1935.
The Kowalczyk family was poor, but loving. They had chickens, cows, horses and pigs and earned a living by farming.
Then war broke out in September 1939 and Russia invaded eastern Poland. Germany occupied western Poland.
A few months later, the family’s lives would change forever.
On Feb. 10, 1940, five armed Russians soldiers entered the family’s home in the middle of the night. They questioned them and gave them half an hour to pack.
The soldiers made Walter Kowalczyk sit in a chair guarded by a soldier while Anna Kowalczyk gathered supplies as quickly as possible — mostly food.
A horse-drawn sleigh carried the family of seven to the local school, where their neighbors were also being assembled. Two days later, the entire community was loaded onto a train with locked sliding doors and barbed wire over the windows.
That began a two-week journey to Siberia, Russia.
“That February, I can never forget,” Eugenia said. “It was very rough, of course. We didn’t know where we were going, but I didn’t worry too much because I had my parents, who worried.”
Eugenia was 13. Her older brother Ted was 20, her older sister Mary was 16 and her two younger brothers, Peter and Steve, were 9 and 8, respectively.
People were packed into the train cars, 40 to 50 people in each wagon. A pot-belly stove provided heat and allowed simple meals to be prepared. The toilet consisted of a hole in the floor with a blanket around it.
The weather became colder as the train traveled farther. Passengers scooped snow from the roof to melt into water. They slept on bunks made of wood planks.
After two weeks, the train stopped. The Polish were ordered into horse-drawn sleighs and traveled another two days until they arrived at a crudely-fashioned labor camp on the Czurha River near Arkhangelsk, Russia.
Eugenia and her family spent more than two years in the camp. They were forced to harvest trees from a nearby spruce forest and send the trees down the river for lumber.
Families slept together in cramped dwellings on wooden planks. There was never enough food.
“It was terrible,” Eugenia recalled. “That year was very, very cold.”
Mary, 17, and Steve, 8, both became ill and died in the camp.
In the winter and spring of 1942, the word “amnesty” spread throughout the camp. The prisoners were free to go.
Eugenia’s brother Ted immediately left to join the Polish army, which was forming in southern Russia. The rest of the family decided to travel in that direction as well.
No one wanted to go back to Poland.
Walter and Anna Kowalczyk traveled with Eugenia and Peter to Uzbekistan and then Iran.
Walter briefly left the family to try to join the Polish army. Anna and her two children fell ill from typhoid fever.
Walter returned from his trip looking very ill. He and the two children were taken to the local hospital.
Walter died next to Peter while they were sharing the same bed. Young Peter had to tell his sister the sad news.
When the two orphans recovered from their illness, they went back home, only to find it had been robbed and vandalized. They stayed there a few weeks, not knowing what to do.
Food became scarce and the siblings decided to leave and try to find some Polish people.
Eugenia cooked some eggs — their last food — put them in a thermos and the brother and sister began walking. They stopped to take a nap in the ditch on the side of the road. They woke to find their thermos of eggs had been stolen.
Eugenia and Peter continued walking. They stole food, when necessary. Peter was beaten once for picking some fruit from a tree.
He once wanted to kill a dog for food.
“When you are hungry, you are hungry,” Eugenia said simply.
The siblings walked until they arrived back in Uzbekistan, in the capital city of Buhara. They found many Polish people there and stood in line until they received some food from a relief agency.
Eugenia and Peter slept in an alley their first night there. A man stole the shoes off Peter’s feet but the young boy was too scared to fight back.
The next day as they were walking — Peter barefoot — they found some children playing. Adults supervising the children talked to Eugenia and Peter, learned they were orphans and took them under their wing.
The children playing were orphans, as well.
The assembly of orphans and their chaperones were taken across the Caspian Sea to Persia in Iran. They had to burn all their clothes and were cleaned and given new clothes.
They then rode in vehicles across the mountains to Tehran, took a train to Ahvaz and took an English freighter across the Persian Gulf to Karachi in Pakistan.
Peter saw his first black person there, which made quite an impression on the sheltered boy.
The group took another English freighter to Bombay in India, ate lunch at a port and then quietly traveled across the Indian Ocean, taking great care to avoid German submarines all the way.
No one was allowed to even smoke a cigarette on deck.
They arrived in Mobasa, East Africa, and took a train to Narobi, Kenya.
“We didn’t stay in any place for very long,” Eugenia said.
Eugenia and Peter were among the first wave of thousands of displaced Polish who sought refuge throughout Africa. The orphans spent Christmas 1942 in an empty school building in Masindi, Uganda, and then arrived in Kampala, Uganda, in January 1943.
Kampala was their home for the next several years.
Eugenia and Peter lived with fellow orphans in newly built mud and straw huts with wooden doors and shutters. There was no electricity, but there was good food, warm weather, school classes, a radio for entertainment — and stability.
An international relief organization assisted the independently run camp.
“We were happy because after Russia anything was better,” Eugenia said. “They took good care of us.”
Reunion and marriage
Eugenia hadn’t seen or heard from her older brother, Ted, since the family was freed from the labor camp in Russia. One day, a classmate showed her a photograph of the classmate’s brother — standing next to Ted.
Eugenia wrote to Ted in care of her classmate’s brother. Ted had been fighting under British command in World War II. Eugenia’s letter was forwarded from numerous locations, but finally arrived in Ted’s hands.
He immediately wrote back.
“He didn’t know where we were, he didn’t know my parents had died, he didn’t know anything,” Eugenia said.
The two regularly corresponded as Eugenia graduated from high school in 1946 and took a job at a local store. Eventually, she decided she wanted to go to England, where Ted was living.
She left Uganda in 1948.
Peter heard Canada was willing to take young refugees and volunteered to go. He traveled from Uganda to Italy to France, where he was told he couldn’t go to Germany — a required stop on the way to Canada.
Peter and other refugees went on a hunger strike in protest until government officials relented and sent them to Germany.
The timing was bad, as the German government was in flux. Peter waited with others from May to December 1948 until he learned of another opportunity to go to Australia.
He missed the warm weather of Uganda and decided to go south. He arrived in Sydney, Australia, in January 1949 and got a job in March 1949 in Melbourne, Australia.
Peter still lives in Australia today. He married a Polish woman and they have two sons and several grandchildren.
Coming to America
In 1948, Eugenia was reunited with Ted after years of separation. She also met Ted’s friend, a Polish man named Michael Lecko, who had been in the same Russian labor camp as the Kowalczyk family.
“First my brother and his friend came to visit me. Then his friend came to visit me by himself I don’t know how many times,” Eugenia said with a smile.
Michael and Eugenia were married in September 1949. Ted married a Polish woman named Elizabeth soon after.
They all worked for a carpet manufacturer, but longed for better jobs. Ted and Michael decided they should all go to Canada.
However, Canada declined them because of that country’s high unemployment rate. The foursome got on a waiting list for the United States instead and waited five years.
Michael and Eugenia and Ted and Elizabeth arrived in New York by boat in 1959.
“It was big streets, cars, everything,” Eugenia said. “I was afraid to cross the street.”
They took a train to Chicago, where many Polish families were making a home. They got good jobs there.
Eugenia worked for Zenith Electronics Corp., a radio and television manufacturer, for 24 years. When she was laid off in 1982, she and Michael decided to move to Howard City after a friend told them about an affordable property for sale there.
Ted and Elizabeth followed them to Howard City in 1985.
Eugenia visited Poland in 1985 for the first time since she and her family were forced to leave in 1940.
It was an emotional journey. She didn’t recognize her homeland after nearly half a century.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I didn’t know my country.”
A valuable resource
Michael died in 1994. Ted died in 2009. Both men are buried in Chicago, where Eugenia wants to be buried when she dies.
“Chicago is like the other Polish city,” she said. “My dream is to go back to Chicago.”
Eugenia met Mary DeLaRosa, 89, in Howard City. DeLaRosa is also Polish and also survived a Russian labor camp. The women are fast friends and attend Christ the King Catholic Church together north of Howard City.
“I don’t get mad at God,” DeLaRosa said of her experience during World War II. “I say there must be a reason why I’m living, you know?”
Eugenia nodded her head in agreement.
Reynolds Township Clerk Tina Porzondek met Eugenia and Mary when they came into the township office one day and recognized “Porzondek” as a Polish name. Eugenia told the clerk her last name means “to put into order” in Polish.
The three women have become good friends and enjoy talking about Polish customs and recipes.
“Eugenia and Mary are one of our most valuable resources,” Porzondek said. “They are walking history lessons. I was humbled when I learned what Eugenia went through and how she and her family suffered. You hear stories about the camps and orphanages but it has a different meaning when you hear it through the voice of a woman who experienced the war as a child. How brave she is.”
Porzondek always encourages Eugenia and Mary to share their stories with others.
“You never know when you meet someone what they have been through,” she said.