Time Witnesses: From Slave To Pilot
During the war Feliks Chustecki was forced to work as a slave in a Russian labour camp. When Hitler attacked Russia he became a pilot in the Free Polish Air Force and arrived in Britain.
For many more stories of wartime suffering please visit Timewitnesses.org/
My name is Feliks Chustecki and in my life I have been the following: Schoolboy. Slave labourer. Refugee. Cadet. Trainee Pilot. Teacher.
I was born in Poland but now I live in Coventry in England. I am on the panel of Elders because at 14 I was sent with my family to a slave labour camp in Russia.
In 1939 all the newspapers were full of the possibility of war. In Poland there were manoevres of the Polish Army as early as May 1939. I can remember watching a big parade of our Polish Cavalry. The sight of 300 horses made a big impression on me.
My schooling was interrupted at 14 when the Russians invaded Eastern Poland at the same time that the Germans invaded Western Poland.
The Russian soldiers came on 10th February 1940. They woke us at 2 am and told us we have one hour to get some things on the sledges and pull it to the station. My father was guarded by a soldier while my Mother and I collected what we could. We knew that we would all be shot if we tried to run or resist.
Of course now children are supposed to be protected from everything, but at that time we were just part of the game. There was no-one there to counsel us. We were pushed into cattle trucks with many other families and then the trucks were locked. There was no privacy, no food except the little bits we had brought. We could not get out for anything at all even if people were sick or died, and there were guards there to shoot us if we tried to escape.
Our journey would last a whole month. Every few days we were given water and for the first week we only got that, then after the second week we were given salt fish soup and some bread.
In the labour camp we heard nothing of the outside world, only rumours brought by strangers and of course they told us only that Poland was destroyed. We were in that camp for two years.
When Hitler attacked Russia an amnesty was declared and we were allowed to travel to southern Russia where a Polish army was forming. There were about 500 of us and first we travelled on barges drawn by tugs for hundreds of miles, then train - we had 1,000 miles to travel. During the journey we had little or no food - many died - until we arrived in Kazakhstan where Polish forces were forming. Sick and starving though we were it was a joy to see Polish soldiers and flags again.
I was to become a Cadet and have the honour of joining that army to fight to re-create my lost country. Cadet School was based on Military Discipline. We had visits from representatives of the Polish Air Force and the Army. This was to recruit us to one or the other. We were all eager to get into action after all the suffering we had been through and seen. We wanted to contribute something to the effort. I was recruited to become a Pilot in the Free Polish Air Force and so I came to Britain.