Marek’s Coat by Joseph Skarżeński

Immersive and heart-wrenching

Marek’s Coat is a memoir written by Joseph Skarżeński, who as a Polish child in April of 1940 was transported to Siberia. The events of that time were so traumatic that the author recalls them with clarity eighty-four years later. Immersive and heart-wrenching, the narrative begins with a pounding on the door at four o’clock in the morning. Roused from their sleep, seven-year-old Marek, his mother and two sisters are ordered to dress and vacate their home. They are then led by a Russian soldier on a two kilometre walk to the town’s railway station.

Many people were already milling about in front of the train. At first Marek thought they were pushing each other, but soon he realized they were being pushed into the rail cars. It was very noisy. This was no ordinary train. There were no windows, no steps to get in. It was a freight train. Suddenly Marek felt scared.

Joseph’s first-hand account takes the reader inside the rail car as they travelled, hungry and thirsty, for a several days journey across the U.S.S.R. and through the Ural Mountains to a farm in Siberia. Living in primitive dormitories, the family is put to work, including young Marek, who is assigned to labour with a kindly shepherd, Abdul. Gradually, as Marek matures, he begins to develop an awareness of what is happening around him. Much of life is explained to the small boy by Abdul, and it is through such conversations, that the reader learns of the many Poles who were deported from their homes by the Soviets. Marek’s mother, fortunately, was not entirely unprepared for the event and, unknown to Marek, had converted much of the family’s wealth into gold coins which she had carefully sewn into the lining of Marek’s winter coat.

Through their harsh months of servitude on the farm, Marek’s family was somehow able to purchase small favours and goods that bettered their situation. Marek did not learn until many years later, how his coat had concealed their limited but life-saving resources. Two years later, after the Polish people were given amnesty and freed, Marek found himself heartbroken to part from the familiar Abdul.

After walking for about an hour, Marek stopped suddenly and turned around to take a last look. He said nothing, but Sophie could see tears flowing down his cheeks. She took him by the hand and said, gently, “This is not the last time you will leave behind someone you love. Abdul will always stay with you, as you will with him. Try and look ahead.

Marek’s mother bravely guided a small group of displaced Poles across miles of country until, after many days of walking, they reach a train bound for Tashkent. Although the family had by now run out of gold coins, they were able to sell Marek’s winter coat and receive enough payment to provide their entourage with food. Following direction from posted officials, the group continued onwards to India, where they were eventually welcomed into an orphanage/displaced persons camp funded by the kindly Maharajah Jam Sahib of Nawanagar.

His family had a house in Switzerland adjacent to the property owned by the Polish pianist and politician, Paderewski. They visited each other often and young Jam Saheb became interested in Polish history and culture. Many years later, then as Maharajah of Nawanagar, hearing of the plight of Polish deportees leaving the Soviet Union, he felt compelled to help.

There were many adjustments for the growing boy, including learning how to live in a country so markedly different from his own; rather than Soviet soldiers, there were snakes, crocodiles, the Monsoon and a host of dangers that were unfamiliar to Europeans. The children were given life-saving instruction by a local priest,

This is a tropical country, full of dangerous snakes and insects. Number one on the list is the cobra. Cobras are easy to distinguish from other snakes because of the hood just below the head. The surrounding area is full of them. Its bite is fatal. Yet it is revered by the local population, therefore you must not try to harm it. Number two on the list is the scorpion. Its bite is not as deadly as that of the cobra but nevertheless very painful. This creature lives in the ground and under rocks and stones. Make sure to examine the inside of your shoes before putting them on. Number three is a mosquito. The bite of a mosquito is not painful, but it carries a parasite that causes malaria, which is a severe sickness that can last for several weeks.

Marek, his mother and sisters lived in India for five years during which time partition and large upheavals took place across the country, including the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.

For Marek the life in a camp with all those other children was very restrictive. There was no room for individuality. Everything had to be done with a crowd of others. Except for the orchestra, where he felt somewhat special, he was just number “133”.

Marek’s resilience as a young boy is writ large in the pages. His growing appreciation and love for India is apparent in his descriptions.

Travelling by train in India was like nowhere else in the world. When the train would stop in Valivade on the way to Kolhapur, it would already be full! In India, it meant that not only the inside was packed with people like sardines, but there were also people on the steps, hanging onto the doors, and on the roof as well. Sometimes even the roof was full with no way of getting up there.

In time, Marek’s older sister Sophie left the encampment to join the air force, and his other sister was transported to an orphanage in Pennsylvania. Eventually, Marek and his mother established connections that facilitated their move to England. From there, Marek emigrated to Canada.

This is a survivor’s poignant account of having been deported, imprisoned, and made homeless. Marek, like so many others, lost not only his home and his country but also his childhood. Filled with moments of fear, loss and grief, Skarżeński‘s story is particularly significant as we consider the current plight of so many political migrants in today’s landscape. Highly recommended.

Joseph Skarżeński was born in Poland and deported with his mother and sisters to Siberia during the Second World War. Following the end of the war, he lived in England and Canada. He now lives in Ottawa.

Publisher: Goose Lane Editions (March 5, 2024)
Paperback 8″ x 5″ | 160 pages
ISBN: 9781895488609

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Lucy E.M. Black (she/her/hers) is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, Stella’s Carpet and The Brickworks.  Her new short story collection, Class Lessons: Stories of Vulnerable Youth will be released October 2024. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer.  She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.

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