Family’s courage to survive

2017-02-20 10:54
(Left) Janusz Banach was a Polish refugee born amid the terrible violence of World War 2. (Right) Zofia Banach, who survived the Siberian labour camps, has been described as one who possessed the ‘courage of a lion’.

(Left) Janusz Banach was a Polish refugee born amid the terrible violence of World War 2. (Right) Zofia Banach, who survived the Siberian labour camps, has been described as one who possessed the ‘courage of a lion’. (Omega Moagi/Supplied)

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Pietermaritzburg resident Janusz Antoni Banach’s poignant tale is one of self-sacrifice, hard work and remarkable perseverance. The 77-year-old is among a few remaining survivors of the USSR labour camps during World War 2 where Polish families were uprooted and subjected to extreme starvation, typhoid and other diseases.

In accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Pact against Poland, the Soviet Union acquired about half of Poland populated by over 13 million people.

Millions of families were uprooted from their homes and deported to labour camps in various parts of the USSR. In the camps, the Poles worked in exchange for scraps of food.

Born to Zofia Banach in Lwow, Poland, in 1940, Banach’s early life was literally a battlefield. “When I was six weeks old, my father was taken by the Russians and we never saw him alive again. When I was two months old, they again came in the middle of the night and told my mother to pack. We were put in cattle carts and spent 17 days travelling to Kazakhstan. During this travel many died from starvation. People would hand over the babies to the Russian soldiers because they could see they wouldn’t survive,” said Banach.

Banach’s grandmother died two months after reaching Kazakhstan. However, Banach and his mother and sister would survive the full brunt of Russian labour camps for the next three years. “My mother had to breastfeed me for three to four years to keep me alive. There was another woman in our camp who couldn’t produce breast milk anymore and so my mother breastfed her child too,” said Banach.

In 1943 Russia, now a member of the Allies, was forced to redeem the Poles after intervention by the Western Powers. Banach and his family were among the Poles who walked for three days to get to a train which took them to designated Polish refugee camps. His family ended up in Tehran.

Banach says his mother almost did not board the train with him and his sister. “There wasn’t enough space for all of us and my mother said she would get left behind. Another man on the train agreed to take her in under the false pretence that he was her husband and so she travelled as this man’s wife,” he said.

When the Banachs arrived in Tehran, three-year-old Janusz was paralysed for six months due to starvation. “I had to be fed raw liver. My mother said she would go every day to the temple to pray for me.”

A year later they were among 36 000 Poles who were transported to India, Palestine, New Zealand, Africa and Mexico as refugees. The Banachs ended up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where they survived on Banach’s mother’s wages as a seamstress and musician. “We stayed in one room, where we cooked, slept and did everything in. I remember when I was six years old my mother bought me a Coke. I’ll never forget how excited I was. To this day I always make sure I buy ample amounts of food because of those days of starvation.”

Banach matriculated and then obtained his Masters in economics in South Africa at Rhodes University, where he was offered a position as a junior lecturer straight after getting his undergraduate degree.

He then went on to become chief economist for Barclays Bank and it was during his travels for Barclays that Banach fell in love with Pietermaritzburg. “I was standing on Church Street and admiring the beautiful building around me and I decided that I want to live here. I went to the local university and asked if they had any opening. They did and three months later I got an offer,” he said. Having started in January 1966, Banach retired from his lecturing position at UKZN in 2005, five years later than the recommended age because he was asked to stay on by the university.

In 2010 Banach was given an honorary Siberian Cross to honour his time and survival in the USSR labour camps, an award he insisted was meant for his mother. “It is my mother who should be receiving this award as a courageous, hardworking and self-sacrificing dedicated woman,” Banach said.

His mother, Zofia Banach, died at 93.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  world war 2

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