Siberian families are mines of history! The story of the Miliński family shawl - Muzeum Pamięci Sybiru

15 February 2023

Siberian families are mines of history! The story of the Miliński family shawl

A granddaughter and great-granddaughter of the Sybiraks from the Miliński and Świeży family, Marcelina Jakimowicz, PhD, told the Museum about a commemorative woolen shawl brought from Kazakhstan and about the adventure of discovering her family’s history.

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The January exhibit of the month is exceptionally on display until the end of February — among other things, because a representative of the donor family was unable to attend its presentation in January. We had to wait until February 15 for the meeting with Marcelina Jakimowicz, PhD, from Wroclaw, but it was worth it! High school students who came to the meeting had the opportunity to listen to a short, but very concise and interesting lecture.

A granddaughter and great-granddaughter of the Sybiraks, an ethnographer by education, she deals with oral history and research on terror. She is the author of dissertations and articles, including on the Masurian settlement in Eastern Podolia. “These are still existing villages after Chmielnicki [the town known until 1954 as Ploskirow], for example Hredczany, Maćkowce founded in the 18th century by settlers coming from Masuria. Until the 1930s, this population remained in one place, marrying only within its community” — the researcher explained. The Polish dialect is spoken there to this day. “It was in Maćkowce that my great-grandmother Maria Milińska was born” — she added the thread of her family to the story.

Under the Treaty of Riga, which ended the Polish-Bolshevik war, the eastern borderlands of the young Polish state became part of the Soviet Union and became the territories of the Soviet republics: Ukrainian and Belarusian. The Polish population of these areas was repressed in the 1930s: deportation deep into the Soviet Union in 1936 and genocide within the framework of the so-called Polish Operation of the NKVD in 1937-38. Explaining the realities of life of her ancestors in the Ukrainian republic, she recalled the memories of her great-grandmother’s brother, Stanisław Miliński, about the nightmare of the Great Famine and hiding food leftovers from the authorities.

In 1936, the Miliński family was deported to northern Kazakhstan. “I only know about Maria’s great-grandmother’s brother, Stanisław Miliński, that he fought in Berling’s Army, but that’s where my knowledge ends. I know many stories, but I am unable to verify them,” — said Marcelina Jakimowicz, PhD.

Parallel to the history of her family, the descendant of the Sybiraks talked about the process of learning the history of her family, but also from the perspective of a researcher, she emphasized the psychological and anthropological aspects of this experience: “I knew many stories related to terror and labor camps, but when it concerns our family, the experience of these people becomes closer to us, that’s the value of family stories” — she said. “I encourage everyone to learn about their family history.” Jakimowicz honestly spoke about the numerous understatements that the family had maintained over the years.

In 1938, Maria married Józef Świeży. She moved to his estate called Novorosiejka and her daughter Walentyna was born there. Her godmother was a local Kazakh woman who gave the mother and the child a woolen shawl as a gift. “Water baptism and accidental godparenting — such a thing in traditional culture was possible only in a situation of danger. It is possible that quick death of the child was feared that’s why the representative of the indigenous people appears in this story” — explained Walentyna’s granddaughter.

Józef Świeży soon disappears from the family history. “I got to know three extremely different stories about his fate,” — said Jakimowicz. “Extended family, still living in Ukraine says he died in prison for stealing bread. Great-grandmother Maria dismissed her daughter for years, suggesting that he died in Katyn. It is also possible that he was incorporated into The Trud Army where he disappeared”.

Maria and Walentyna managed to join the group of repatriates, but they paid a very high price for it. Maria had to falsify documents to be officially an unmarried woman with a child. If she had kept her husband’s surname, she might not have been allowed to leave Kazakhstan. “It cost a lot of bribes.” For many years, Maria was afraid that someone would report her secret and condemn her to another deportation. Her daughter was also silent for a long time. “Great-grandmother transferred this fear to her daughter. Grandma Walentyna never considered herself a Sybirak and did not join the Association of Siberian Deportees. She said: My whole life, I’ve been afraid of being deported.

Marcelina Jakimowicz said that the shawl currently presented at the Sybir Memorial Museum was used every day in the family for years. “It was something functional — it was used for two generations, the children were wrapped up in it during cold walks. During my studies, my mother would put the shawl on her back in the winter, considering it as an interesting ornament.

“If we are not aware, we do not treat things as souvenirs. We just see an ugly ladle and throw it away — such a ladle was in our family, made in Kazakhstan made of sheet metal from a downed aeroplane.” — As admitted by Jakimowicz, PhD, the person who threw the item away, unaware of its value, regrets it to this day…

Being asked by Piotr Popławski, PhD, from the Sybir Memorial Museum for an impulse to discover her family history, she admitted: “It happened while tidying up the apartment after the dead. I asked to keep the memorabilia. I began to ask questions and progressively the family reminded some stories. I encourage everyone to collect such stories, find out about family heirlooms. I am very happy that the shawl, which is now in the Museum, has its own history today.”

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