Siberian Cross bestowed on Polish WW 2 prison survivor

2010-03-09 00:00

WHEN close to a million Polish citizens were held captive by the Russian army during WW2, they were confined to labour camps and prisons in Siberia.

The journey to the vast, forbidding region of Russia was marked by starvation, typhoid and other diseases that claimed the lives of children and the elderly in particular.

In a quest to redeem Poland, its allies, the Western powers, intervened and the Soviets were forced to free Polish prisoners.

Former University of Natal academic Janusz Banach was one of them.

Banach (70) received the Siberian Cross medal on Saturday in Westville, Durban.

The medal is given to Poles who suffered in the Russian camps.

The honour was bestowed on Banach by the Polish honorary consul, Andrzej Kiepiela, and his wife Photini.

Three weeks after Banach’s father was taken away by the Russian army, they came back for him, his grandmother, mother, and 10-year-ol­d sister.

They were given 20 minutes to pack and join a crowd of prisoners on a cattle truck going to a part of Kazakh­stan that was then part of Siberia. Banach was two months old.

His grandmother died two months after settling in Kazakhsta­n, along with many whose lives were lost through starvation and typhoid among other diseases.

Many Polish prisoners, including Banach’s family, were freed after Western intervention and Germany’s offensive against Russia.

From Russia, they were moved to refugee camps in Tehran, the Iran capital, and about a year later, many were deported to refugee camps elsewhere.

Some were sent to Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, and the Banach family ended up in what is today Zambia.

“I received my schooling in Northern Rhodesia, but matriculated in South Africa and attended Rhodes University, where I obtained a B. Comm honours degree in economics with first class, and then a masters degree.”

Banach was appointed an economist with Barclays Bank in Johannesburg and later joined the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg “as I had always wanted to be an academic”, he told The Witness.

Banach insists the Siberian Cross bestowed on him belongs to his late mother, Zofia, who died in 1998.

“It is my mother who should be receiving this award as a … courageous, hard working, loving, sacrificing and dedicated woman.

“I survived because she breast- fed me for three years.”

Banach retired in 2005 and lives in Pietermaritzburg.

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