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THE LONG BRIDGE: Out Of The Gulags


This book is about the events, most of them quite unpredictable, in my life; and my observations and memories from the day of the unforgettable Autumn in 1939, the day Poland was invaded by Germany, till my arrival in London in the spring of 1957.

These include my arrest as a 'particularly dangerous social element', deportation to Kazakhstan to do two years forced labour, ten years 'hard labour' as a political prisoner in the Soviet labour camps or gulags, and four years 'eternal exile' in Siberia.

REVIEW by Irene Tomaszewski, writer and recipient of the Lech Walesa Media Award 2011

"The Long Bridge is a wonderful book, much more than another retelling of the horrors of the gulag. It is, of course, a historical document, but it is also a psychological study, a development of a philosophy, and an inspiration. I recommend it highly."


Over the years I've assessed quite a few memoirs in manuscript by elderly European èmigrès who survived the Second World War. Naturally, I can't remember them all, but I'm pretty sure that this one is the best I've ever read in many ways the most informative, the most gripping, the most harrowing, the most poignant and, despite some grammatical lapses and a few obscurities, the best written.'s just possible that a publisher or two might be as gobsmacked as I am to realize that here, coming out of nowhere, is a fully-formed, full-length, never-seen-before, first-hand true-life story of the Soviet labour camps written by a woman of truly noble spirit and humanity, with the fine eye of a novelist – in other words, a genuinely exciting 'find' that deserves an honourable place in the existing canon of Gulag literature.

...One of the things that make this book different from other èmigrè war memoirs I've read is the breadth of its sympathies. Whereas most of the others tend understandably, I suppose – to be very self-centred, to the point of recording every scrap of trivia, Urszula Muskus takes as much interest in the lives of her fellow-victims – and their captors – as she does in her own ordeal. She writes of her own privations and sufferings with dispassion; of the sufferings of others with compassion. She spends little perhaps too little - time telling of her former life and upbringing but plunges straight into the outbreak of war and the occupation of Poland. The book is full of extraordinary character studies and anecdotes – for instance, one illiterate prisoner was given a ten-year sentence for recounting a dream that war would come, and her husband received a similar sentence for listening to it!

There are lots of fascinating details. Thus, many of the criminal prisoners – 'bandit molls', as they were nicknamed – were epileptic, and they also loved to dress up as Charlie Chaplin! The climate in Kazakhstan actually improved the health of many of the prisoners and gave them the energy to endure. I was also intrigued to learn that 'just-in-case' bags were as much in use during the 1940s as they were – still – when I visited Russia during the1990s.

Sociological detail abounds – some of it reminiscent of Britain's legendary Mass Observation studies – on the difference between criminal, political and religious prisoners, on smoking, on sex and on sects. There's no shortage of drama either, with vivid descriptions of beatings, snowstorms, forest fires, malaria outbreaks, howling wolves, scenes of utter pandemonium, and a passage about the Soviet règime's persecution of an entire people – the Chechyans, no less. Such harsh experiences are tempered by gentler scenes involving a successful knitting enterprise, the grateful adoption of a stray cat, and a stay on a farm where Urszula milks cows and learns to distinguish between their personalities.

Urszula never boasts, but from her refusal to buckle under or to indulge in self-pity, her concern for the welfare of her fellow-prisoners (activity that led to her becoming an official relief officer for Polish political prisoners and deportees), her love of nature (there are wonderful descriptions of sunrises and landscapes), and a spirituality that is entirely without grating piety, one gains an impression of a woman of exemplary humanity and fortitude, at once sensitive, caring, resourceful and tough... It takes a lot to make this veteran professional reader blub, but the few lines at the end in which Urszula describes her reunion with her daughter in England certainly succeeded.

All of this is conveyed in an English which at times is technically faulty but, on the whole, has a remarkably good feel for the internal rhythms and stresses of the language, so that her prose never lapses into monotony of syntax and seldom into repetition.

...I hope by now it's obvious that I think highly of this book and believe not only that it's publishable but that it ought to be published.

23rd May 2005

The photos below have been gathered from family members in Poland and the UK.

Latawiec Family. Urszula is standing on the left.

Latawiec Family home in Rawa Ruska. Photographed in 1995 after restoration by an unknown person.

Urszula about 1921.

Wladyslaw, Zbigniew and Grazyna

Urszula third from left, her two children in front and husband second from right.

Wladyslaw with his workforce. Prewar.

The Muskus Family with Wladyslaw's Mother

Urszula, Grazyna, Marianna, Zbigniew, Wladyslaw

Grazyna at 14 years old. This photo was taken in Kenya on 24 June 1943 when she was living at Tengeru as a refugee being looked after by the Red Cross.

Zbigniew in England c1946.

Urszula in Long Bridge 1955

News of Urszula's survival from a released German POW. 1950

While exiled in Siberia, Urszula was sent a parcel by her sisterStatia (Stanislawa Lejczakova). It was returned to the sender and this is the address label written on cloth.


Urszula with her sister Jula (and Jula's husband Pawel). This was taken in Poland in1956, after her release from Siberia.

This portrait of Urszula was painted in Poland in 1956.

Urszula with grand-daughter Ann and Zbigniew's wife Margaret April 1957 at Ashby Pava.


Notification of record of Wladyslaw's execution. 1995

The Muskus House Oct. 2005.

Urszula's grandson Peter with his family at the Edinburgh book launch on 27th Oct 2010

Sam, Peter, Therese and Jo.



This contains information that is linked to, or helps explain the story, but is not included in the first edition.




In April 2011 I received a summary of Urszula's prison records from the archives held in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. It was a straight forward process, I wrote to the address on the letter and just waited a very long time! A translation is below, along with the address. Good luck if you are after family records!



GU Upravlenie komiteta po pravovay statistike i specialnym uchetam generalnoy prokuratury respubliki Kazakhstan po Karagandinskoy oblasti.

Karagandinskaya Oblast, Karaganda Town, Rayon Kazybek Bi, Ulica Jambyla 97, postcode 100012.

Your request was considered. According to the archive documents we have, it is known that Muskus Urshulya (it is written in archive document) Nikolaevna (father’s name in Russian tradition to put behind the name), born 1903, Polish, married, citizen of Poland, originally from Rova-Russka, Lvov region, delegate of Polish embassy in Aktubinsk region, who lived in Aktubinsk before her arrest on 10th May 1942, was prisoned in Alma-Ata (oldest name of Almaty, the city where I’m now),  from where on the ground of NKVD (National committee for internal affairs) USSR from 02.07.1942 directed to Karabass branch of Karlag (Karaganda’s camp), where she was convicted on 13th January 1943 by Special Meeting under People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs USSR on the ground of Article of law 58-10 ch.2, 58-6 ch.1 УК РСФСР (I think this is criminal code of Russian Federative Soviet Republic) to imprisonment in corrective labour camps for the duration of ten years. The beginning of the imprisonment 10th of May 1942. The end of term is 10th May 1952.

                For the imprisonment directed to Karadjar branch of Karlag MIA USSR (Ministry of Internal Affairs), on 18th may 1948 transformed to Spesial Steppe Camp MIA USSR, on 8th December 1950 sent to Luglag, then to Special Sand camp MIA USSR. Being imprisoned had been used (worked) in overall works.

                After expiration of imprisonment on 12th April 1952 sent to live to Krasnoyarsk (so it is written in archive document).

                At the same time, we interpret that above written camps were located on the large territory, that had many communities that had been part of Karlag branches, however in archive documents regarding Muskus U., the details and names of these communities not written.

                In the addition, that we do not have any documents about Muskus stay on special settlement. For these details we advise you to call directly to the place where she was sent to settle to ИЦ УВД (executive centre of management of internal affairs) of Krasnoyarsk region: Krasnoyarsk, 660017, 18 Dzerzhinskogo street.

                Reason: record cards №СЕ-36б 3686.


Acting on behalf of head of management, senior adviser of justice          E. Musilimov


Executor I.V. Egolnikova

Tel 56-93-83






Urszula's work helping to organise relief for the released Poles passing through Aktyubinsk (p. 54) is acknowledged in this excerpt from The Ice Road. Rather than follow Anders Army south Urszula stayed in the city to feed the starving travellers. This led to her arrest on the charge of espionage and 10 years in the gulags.


The Ice Road: An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom by Stefan Waydenfeld (Aquila Polonica, 2010), p. 261-262



I half sat up. The window was too small for me to lean out, but I could see a little more of the outside world. The train was going very slowly, then, with a long hiss of steam, it stopped.


Odd! We had stopped along a platform next to the station building, not in a siding, nor in the middle of nowhere as before. The big black letters above the entrance said Aktyubinsk. Then the station door opened and a cart loaded with bread rolled out, pulled by two uniformed men. I had not seen so much bread in one place for a long time. I could not take my eyes off it. Loaves and loaves of white bread! Such a beautiful sight. Who was it for? What lucky people!


There was something puzzling about the cart’s escort. With my mouth watering, my eyes dashed from the cart’s load to its escort and back again. What were their uniforms? Not railwaymen, not Red Army. Who were these men? Not NKVD, not militia, not railway police. It was an ill-assorted dress. But. . .wait a minute. . .was that the white eagle of Poland on their hats?


Then another man emerged from the station building. He was very smart. A four-cornered cap, rogatywka, a definite white eagle, two stars: a Polish lieutenant!


‘Start distributing to everybody. One loaf per head.’ The order, in unmistakable Polish, was music to my ears; the sound no less than the contents.


‘Wake up, wake up, bread is here! And Polish soldiers!’ I shouted and shook my father by his arm. He was instantly awake and so were the remaining passengers. The next minute Olek was pulling the sliding door wide open. The cart was just outside. ‘How many?’


‘Forty.’ Olek was passing the loaves of bread into outstretched hands, counting aloud. Two more soldiers came out pushing another cart bearing a gleaming urn inscribed kofe in big Cyrillic letters. It was grain coffee, of course, but it was hot and sweet and my happiness was complete.


Our wagon was predominantly Polish, but the nationality of the passengers did not seem to matter. The soldiers were distributing bread to people in the wagon next to ours, mainly Ukrainians and Romanians. In the meantime, more bread and coffee trolleys appeared along the trains with non-Polish escorts.


Aktyubinsk was our city of bread, I thought. Let’s hope that Tashkent will also live up to the name.


The train remained stationary for an hour or more. Having finished their task, the officer and the soldiers walked up and down the platform chatting to people. The elegant lieutenant stopped by our wagon. We crowded round him, all talking at once. Then Olek raised his arm. ‘Shut up all of you!’ he shouted. ‘Is there a Polish Army camp here? Can we enlist now?’


‘No, not here,’ answered the lieutenant. ‘There is no Polish Army camp anywhere near Aktyubinsk. We have only a small station unit here. Our job is to feed you and to make sure that you continue on your way south. The whole Polish Army in the USSR is on the move. We shall reorganise in Central Asia. Your train is going to Tashkent and you will get further information there.’ He saluted with two fingers—the Polish way—and proceeded to the next wagon.


Then, as usual, without warning, we were on our way. With our stomachs full and in a good mood, we sat on the floor in the open wagon doorway, with our legs dangling, with the wind in our faces and we started singing. As soon as we finished one popular Polish song, Helena intoned another and another. Polish passengers in other cars picked up the songs as the train continued on its journey south.


The Aktyubinsk bread and coffee were our last taste of that luxury for a long time. There were no more Polish units on the way; no stations with either restaurants, bars or food trolleys. More often than not the train stopped in the middle of the empty steppe, so that hunger and thirst were our constant fellow travellers.



Michal Giedroyc discusses the ‘forty system’ which Urszula refers to on her entry to the camp at Zavod p. 204.


Crater’s Edge by Michal Giedroyc (Bene Factum, 2010), p. 153.


Smoking was officially discouraged, and only just tolerated in remote venues favoured by the addicts. One such sanctuary was a secluded patch behind the latrines. There a strange custom, traceable to Soviet labour camps, was observed. It was called sorok, Russian for ‘forty’. Anyone short of a cigarette could approach a smoker and say the magic word. The smoker was then honour-bound to give not quite half of his cigarette (about forty per cent) to the petitioner. The penalty for breaking the sorok rule was ostracism – a fate worse than death.


I found this story by Danuta Nowak-Rumfeld following a web search for Rawa Ruska. The Nowak family was deported on the same train as Urszula, went to the same kolkhoz and, amazingly, Urszula is mentioned by name. My cousin believes that Mrs Nowak is the Mme. N who was with Urszula when she was arrested p. 56. Danuta's father was shot on the same day in the same prison as my grandfather.


Then came that terrible year 1939.  In early August mother and I, without father, had gone back to Inowrclaw to visit grandmothers, She probably knew that this was a final parting and separation with her family for the foreseeable future.  When we were returning back home during those final days of August, the roads were awful – filled with army convoys, we were constantly being diverted to a sidetrack, as the military trains had preference.  Finally we reached Rawie Ruskiej – Father was impatiently waiting for us.  He hardly had time to greet us and drive us home, before returning to his duty station, and to advise mother to make preparations for evacuation further east.

Frightful days began.  Father was not at home, just dropping in to wash and dress.  Mother was left with the entire difficulty of the oncoming cataclysm, the task of cataloguing, packing suitcases, and preparing food articles.  Plus that awful fear of waiting for what was to be----September 1, 1939, the first German bomb fell on our town.  Now father did not appear at all and after a few days a card was received: “I cannot come for you, we are moving out…” We were now left alone, but mother did not give up.  I would never had supposed, that she would be so strong in such a threatening and uncertain moment – she just would not give in to anything.


Then began the hell of evacuation.  Through our town of Rawie Ruskiej, ran a main highway and the railroad line Warsaw-Lwow-Zaleszczylki.  Families of the army in the west were hurrying east before the German army.  Our dwelling was transformed into a refuge for these army families who were now fleeing on foot as all railroad centers had been destroyed by the continuous German bombings.  The side roads and ditches were full of destroyed vehicles, wagons, and dead horses.   In every room, where it was anyway possible, even on the floor were nomadic sleeping mothers and children.  Once again mother stood up against cruel fate.  With her whole heart she cared in everyway possible for these refugees – everyone was fed, and since the weather was beginning to cool, to those who needed it, was given our clothes and shoes, with the children receiving my toys.  Our residence became very crowded  - although rather large and spacious, but in any event, they were at least under a roof, warm and fed.  Mother just gave to the fullest extend that her strength permitted.  Once again, mother met the greatest of tasks and no one ever left our home without help and a good word. 

After a few days this huge human wave flowed on, our home became deserted, the front drew closer.  There was a frightful battle over Mosty Wielkie.  My catechist came for us, that for the duration of the battle, we must take shelter beneath the church where everything had already been prepared, straw and blankets for sleeping, food, and water. Thereafter, for three days and nights, amidst the roar of bombs and shells, with the priest and a few other persons, we waited until there ensued this uncanny silence.  We were able to leave and view the town after the battle.  Some neighbors came running over saying the Germans wanted to requisition our house.  Mother had a good command of the German language and came to an understanding with the German officer, who withdrew that intend after learning it was the home of a Polish Officer. 


The Germans occupied the town.  Then came the quiet before an even bigger storm that was to occur on the 17th day of September 1939.  After a few days that tattered ragged Bolshevik army appeared and the Germans, according to their agreement, gave them our town.  At the same time we were evicted from our home and were not permitted to take all our furniture and belongings.  Fortunately, right next door in a little house was a small apartment – one room with a kitchen – to where we brought the rest of our things.  Once again mother began her active operations.  In an understanding with the priest, she opened a point of crossing over the green border for those persons who had not been able to cross over to the west where their families lived.  I took over mother’s duties and she began to search for father, wandering among the various NKVD commands, often traveling to Lwow, because she had heard that secret prisons there held Polish officers.  There were good people in Lwow who provided for mother, with food and shelter, as well as helping with the search for father. It was this cooperative way, which made possible the crossing through the green border.

It was from one of these searches that she brought back from the Zamarstyn prison in Lwow father’s arrest warrant.  This was in March 1940.  A month later, in the night of 12 to 13 April, at four o’clock in the morning, there came a banging on the door: “Open up, NKVD. You are being sent to your husband (?).” Terror paralyzed us, but just for a moment.  In mother again, arose that spirit of self-defense. Our valises were already packed; we just had to pack some food – and departed to the railroad siding, where there were already several loaded railroad cars.  The entire intelligentsia of our town was being deported.  So began our nightmarish trip in cattle cars to Lwow where there was a transfer onto the larger broad-gauge railway.  The doors were bolted and the windows nailed shut with boards.  We were then taken into the unknown.  From time to time, one person was allowed to leave the train with a bucket to get kepiatok  (hot water) right from the locomotive.  Through the entire journey we received some sort of mystery soup, made from God knows what, only twice.  But as usual, the fortunate hand of my mother was able to find something to eat that could be shared with everyone.  We traveled that way for over a month – because there was always some sort of delay - we reached a station called Alga, in the province of Aktiubinsk in Kazakhstan.  After a couple of days in a newly built school, we were then separated and assigned to a kolkhoz.  My “Z” group of fifteen persons found ourselves assigned to a Kazakhstan kolkhoz named “Tokmansaj” – five mud huts on the naked, empty steppes.  No one among the Kazakhstanis understood Russain; there was no possible way to make oneself understood.  They gave us one large “hall” in a mud hut, and called it – a storeroom for grain.  On our large carpet from father’s study, under which we laid straw, fifteen persons would now sleep.  Early in the morning of the next day a Kazakhstani with a whip would appear and hurry us off to work in the cowsheds to gather up an entire winter’s manure.  It was piled so high and thick that the cows hardly had room to leave the shed.  It made you want to cry to see our mother, in pinned together and completely unsuitable clothes, being hurried off to do this work.  Even we children were not exempt.


Once again a spirit of resistance appeared in mother.  Together with Pani Ursula Muskus they went to Alga (more then 60 kilometers away) to the NKVD for permission to transfer to a Russian kolkhoz, because – as we later learned – in the one we were now in, we would not have survived the winter.  They tried three times, each time they were denied because of Kazakhstani objections  - but we persisted.  After the fourth time, permission was granted.  They laid the entire night in a packing case in a truck, which a friend from the kolkhoz had come to pick up its food that was covered with bags of potatoes.  Naturally, the driver was bribed with the rest of our chattels. After a couple of days they returned by a “powodach” (an ox cart) and with the written permission we were transferred to a Russian kolkhoz  “Maxim Gorki”, This was an entirely different terrain, not knowing any Russian, mother again had brought about a miracle in getting the NKVD to consent to our transfer.

It was there that we were to spend four frightful winters.  Winters on the steppes were no joke.  Burany (snow storms) at times went on continually for twenty days without a break, frost cut through the air, the mud huts of the kolkhoz disappeared in the snow.  Only the snow from the stove broke through the snow.  Through the open door we brought snow inside to do our cooking.  Fuel for the winter, or so called kiziak, dried cow manure, and dried grass – burzan – we had to gather up enough on our own through out the summer to last us to spring, as no one would extend any help to us. Then summer, in turn, a breeze would blaze forth from the east as from a hot stove, nowhere any coolness or shade, because on the steppes there were no trees.   Here again my mother’s hands found a solution.  After work she went to Rosjanek to repair and sew their clothes, payment for which she would received among other things was that splendid anran – milk which had been cooked for a long time and allowed to sour – that was then stored in the cellar.  It was awfully cold, but we ate it as though it was the most delicious ice cream. For recreation we had the Ilek River, which flowed right by our kolkhoz.  In the summer it was our bath and our laundry.  After work we would go down to the river to bath and wash our ever increasingly worn out clothing. 

Nothing was too difficult for my resourceful mother; she was able to accomplish in her broken Polish-Russian language anything necessary to survive life through this forced labor.  We just kept getting weaker as time went on.  In that last winter, we had not been able to gather up enough fuel. Once again, mother by her own means tried to get “podwody” (a slang term – to go under water – meaning to get a way out) and in three weeks we were transferred to the town of Alga.  In the morning of 19 January 1942, right on St Jordan’s day, in the mist of a frightful freeze, we drove off from the kolkhoz.  Fortunately the sleigh was filled with straw from which we were able to build a little fire for warm while on the road.  Otherwise it would have been questionable if we had been able to survive until reaching Alga. Blood was flowing from the mouths of the horses that were pulling our sleigh, but apparently we were meant to survive. 


After the signing of the agreement of Gen Sikorski with the Soviet Union, mother was selected by the Polish Delegate in Kujbyszew to be a representative for our region. Soon after, help from American began, for which mother had to go from Alga  (Asia) to Czkalow (Europe) to their warehouse.  Again showing her skill in organization.  She was always able to find a truck and that way brought in food and clothes, which the committee then distributed further to the various kolkhoz and our compatriots.  After the army of Anders left the Soviet Union again vexation and certifying – there are no more Poles in the Soviet Union.  

Just as soon as war activities crossed over from the Ukraine to Polish territory, mother could not hold back, but went right into action and organized a convoy of 14 Ox carts to travel to the Ukraine, in order just to be closer to Poland.  Thanks to mother’s efforts in October 1943 from Alga and the nearby kolkhoz we rode off to the Ukraine to the city of Mikolaj (near the Black Sea).  For a few days we camped in the deserted ruined railroad station in a drizzling rain, and in the bombed ruins of the shipyard. Our compatriots were scattered among the Oczakow and Sniegorow regions.  Mother was instructed to remain in Mikolaj and to open a Polish office.  Just as soon as we received our quarters and the snows came, mother began to tour Polish settlements, preparing lists and distributing gifts to the most needy.  Even though these trips were onerous – it was necessary to cross over the Boh River on a pontoon bridge, which went ankle deep in the water – although she never refused any needed help, she went everywhere herself in order to see with her own eyes, as to how our compatriots were living and what they needed.  

Our tiny little room on Pogranicznej Street began to swarm with compatriots seeking advice.  There also began small friendly meeting. We were of course, already nearer to Poland and hoping for a quick return.  From here many Polish families had already departed at the invitation of their family in Poland.  It was just such a family, which in appreciation for her help and care sent mother an invitation needed to depart.  As improbable as it may seem, in such an important matter, mother again was not able to prevail.. The local office of the NKVD in Sniegorowie, took away the invitation, as they already had in their possession a list of 15 persons who were identified as our nearest relatives.  Once again, this gave her a chance to display her desire to help another and extend to them the joy of an early return to Poland.  That was how our entire “gromaka” (group) drove out of Mikolaj through Kiev, Wlodzimerz Wolynski to Babci (grandmothers) in Inowroclaw, and the hometown of my mother, which did not want to accept us or even to report us.  We were told to return to where we left. 

Thanks to her great resourcefulness we were always able to reach our declared goal. Because my mother was hard, difficult, and obstinate, we survived the hell of war, deportation and exile.  There was just one thing that she was never able to obtain - information as to what had happened to her beloved husband.  The entire time that was spent on the steppes of Kazakhstan none of us ever heard of Katyn.  After returning to Poland all search efforts failed to produce any results and mother dying on June 11, 1978, left us not knowing what had happened to her husband, as to what had been his fate. 

My father I recall as a brave, valiant Polish officer, for whom fate prepared such a horrible death at the hands of NKVD.  He was shot in the Zamarstyn prison in Lwow, by order dated March 5, 1940, No. 2081 55/4-82.  I learned of this only in May 1994.  After 55 years I was invited to an organized “Memorial” in Lwow, for the funeral of the remains of the victims of the NKVD that had been shot in the Zamarstyn prison. This took place on July 31, 1994, the actual birthday of my father.  Could it have been just a coincidence?  I was allowed to go out onto the grounds of the Zamarstyn prison, where I gathered up some earth from the place of his death.  Perhaps there were areas, where my footsteps met with traces of yours, Dear Father. In spite of the awful cruelty of that place, I was still so glad, that I could be there and see everything, there where you suffered so much, because I felt your presence. You, Dear Father, there you remained, while I left and the guard even saluted me. 

These memoirs I dedicate to my beloved parents.  Especially to mother for her energy, her will to survive, for her love, resourcefulness, and courage in the moments of the worst tragedies, thanks to all of which I was able to live through the hell of Kazakhstan’s steppes and thanks to which I returned happily to my beloved Poland.   Honor to Their Memory. 


Mother: Mrs Janina Nowak, nee Klimkiewicz.

Father: Captain Ignacy Nowak.

Translated by N. Frank Lanocha




The Long Bridge is the story of a woman of great courage and determination, in an exceptionally eloquent account of extreme hardship and hope. It speaks to the profound and ongoing relevance of human rights. Indeed, eight years after Urszula Muskus’ arbitrary arrest, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted as nations tried to avert any recurrence of the atrocities of the Second World War. The UDHR was the first document to agree common terms for what we know to be right and just and is the bedrock of Amnesty International. Yet it was to be fully another eight years before Urszula was released.

Sadly, it remains the case that where wars erupt, suffering and hardship invariably follow. Conflict is the breeding ground for mass violations of human rights including unlawful killings, torture, forced displacement and starvation. Urszula witnessed or experienced all of these, and yet one of the most striking and moving aspects of The Long Bridge is its revelation of an indomitable human spirit.  As she says, ‘oppression cannot imprison thought’.


Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK



This story is not mine, and so I have chosen not to write about Urszula in the introduction. I want you to meet her and come to know her through her own words. If you enjoy my grandmother’s book and are curious to know more there is a postscript with notes on her background and later life. As the publisher insists on an introduction, I will describe how the book came to be published and, since the story took place two or three generations ago, give a brief historical background for those unfamiliar with European history in the mid 20th century.


Poland, as a country in central Eastern Europe, experienced several changes of boundaries and rulers over the centuries. In 1939 the Poles were in a strong position, with lands extending eastwards into the present day Ukraine (following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and defeating the Bolsheviks in 1921) but they were not ready for the might of the Germans when they attacked, nor able to resist the Soviets when they entered in accordance with the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact.


In the years following Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin rose to become leader of the Soviet Union. His forced collectivisation of farming caused disrupted food production and famine. In the 1930s he expanded the penal labour camps or zones (commonly known as gulags in the West) in Kazakhstan and Siberia to which he deported political prisoners caught in mass arrests together with more common criminal types.


When the USSR invaded westwards in 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Stalin extended the mass arrests to the occupied territories to eliminate the professional classes, and install in power those he could more easily control. Urszula, whose husband was an ex-army officer and self-employed forestry surveyor, and her family were included. Her husband was arrested first and then she was deported with her children to the USSR for sixteen years.


Urszula died in her sleep while looking after a friend’s house in Hayling Island, England in 1972. Living there on her own, she had been using the peace and quiet to complete the book that she had been working on for fourteen years. She had stopped typing in mid sentence and the chapters were laid out across the floor. The story was complete, but the tidying up and sequencing of the chapters had not been finished. Writing in such detail about sixteen years of her life, with no notes or diary, from two to thirty years after the event was a major achievement.


Three years after Urszula’s death family and friends funded a small, private print run for the use of the Polish community in London and family in Poland. At that time it was illegal to distribute this genre of books in Urszula’s home country so it had to be smuggled in.


I first read a translation of my grandmother’s manuscript as a teenager, probably around 1968, before the final chapters were written. At that time it was a sheaf of scruffy papers, of different sizes, typed on different machines using different coloured ribbons. I was fascinated by my family history, my roots, because my father had said very little about his past, probably a defense mechanism against the hardships and horrors that he had experienced. I now had knowledge of the gulags at a time when many Socialists in the UK still believed that the USSR was a Utopia. Sadly I was not ready to ask my grandmother the many questions that have arisen, that I can no longer get an answer to.


The translation I had was by a Pole, whose English was less than perfect, so in later years I had the translation transferred to disc so that I could correct the more glaring grammatical errors, format the manuscript and print it for the family. I was never very happy with the ending and, on comparing it with the original Polish publication, realised that several closing chapters were missing. I asked my father to translate these last chapters.


I now had the complete story in English which I could print at home. Copies were put into our self catering holiday homes and I received very positive responses from all those who read it. So much so that, in 2000, I determined to have it published professionally and distributed widely. Submissions to publishers were all politely rejected. I persevered, but with a young family and other commitments time slipped by.


In 2005 I sought and received two professional assessments of the English-language version. Both were extraordinarily positive. The first spoke of Urszula as ‘a woman of truly noble spirit and humanity, with the fine eye of a novelist’. The second ‘regards it as a privilege to have read this memoir’.


All of this made me still more determined to properly publish Urszula’s book, this apart from the declaration by my daughter that she wouldn’t read the story until it was published!


An agent agreed to take on the manuscript and he established interest from over twenty publishers at the London Book Fair, but all were eventually rejected. All avenues appeared to be closed until, in 2009, a chance meeting by my brother-in-law with an old friend, Iain Gordon, at the Nairn Art and Books Festival established that Iain was now a Director of Sandstone Press. Also knowing Iain I approached him and he read Urszula's book with enthusiasm. He recommended publication to his Board and, to my delight, they agreed.


This impelled me to investigate every word, place and name and, in the course of this work, I have learned much and been in touch with many helpful and interesting people around the world. They include the Memorial Society of Russia, a Kazakh journalist, a Polish translator, an American history professor and Amnesty International. On I found the story of Janina Nowak who was deported on the same train from Rawa Ruska as my grandmother and father, sent to the same collective farm and mentioned Urszula by name. A German friend located the address of Walter, the German POW who became her friend in the gulags in 1948, and, to my absolute joy, we found him alive and well at the age of 96.


Among these many communications I received an unforgettable email from a 27 year old Kazakh woman who helped me with my research.  On completion she accompanied her corrections with this casually disturbing message:-


‘It's quite sad, but I don't know that much history about that period of my country. It was forbidden and many documents were destroyed. All I knew is from Soljenitsyn's book about gulag and people who suffered there. I also read articles and some other stuff, but the thing is that after Kazakhstan became independent in 1990 and they started to dig out the truth it was not easy. We have the memory day for people who were in camps and prisons during Stalin's time, but we don't talk about that much. It's quite a political issue and of course there are not many victims left. Just recently I've read an article from a man who was born in these camps in Kazakhstan and it's quite horrible in a way that as a child he played with human bones that used to be remains of former prisoners who were buried there. My generation doesn't know anything about it and people don't talk that much. It's quite sad really. I'm happy that your Babusia survived and saw her family and wrote a book at the end.’


Aliya’s plea for knowledge defines in a nutshell why I believe that Urszula’s memoir needs to be published, and hopefully one day, in Russian. Few are aware that Stalin may be responsible for the deaths of 15 million people, and yet some in Russia still idolize him to this day.


There are many people I want to thank. First and foremost is my wife, Therese, who has supported me throughout this extended project. Robert Lambolle wrote a very eloquent and positive evaluation which gave me the encouragement to keep going. Robin Wade, the literary agent who believed the manuscript had potential and gave it a good go, ultimately having to give up without making anything for himself. Aliya Boranbayeva helped with Kazakh spelling. Professor Steven Barnes of George Mason University, Virginia USA, for locating the gulags. Nicky Parker and Amnesty International for their support. The many friends and family who encouraged me and helped with research and proof reading. Last but not least Robert Davidson at Sandstone Press for his sensitive editing and enthusiasm for the project.


Urszula lived her closing years out frugally but fully, intent on laying down her testimony before her time was done. When she died her pension had served her well enough and she was left with just £50 in her post office savings. As my sister, Ann, has put it, she was ‘a woman with little baggage, just a book.’


Peter Muskus




July 2010