Kaia’s father was expelled from Poland for conspiring against the Russian czar. She spent her early childhood near Altaj Mountain and remembered Siberia as a “paradise”. In 1922, the family returned to free Poland, the train trip taking a year. Kaia entered the school system, studied architecture, and joined the Armia Krajowa in 1942. After the legendary partisan Hubal’s death, a courier gave Kaia the famous leader’s Virtuti Militari Award to protect. She carried the medal for 54 years. After the Warsaw Rising collapsed, she was captured by the Russian NKVD in Bialystok and imprisoned. In one of many interrogations, a Russian asked about Hubal’s award. When Kaia replied that it was a religious relic from her father, she received only a puzzled look from the interrogator. Knowing that another interrogation could end differently, she hid the award in the heel of her shoe where it was never discovered.
In 1946, Kaia, very ill and weighing only 84 pounds, returned to Poland, where she regained her health and later worked as an architect to the rebuild the totally decimated Warsaw.
Introduction: The Message of Isaac B. Singer
Chapter 1. Poles in Siberia
Chapter 2. The Szemiot-Iljin Family
Chapter 3. Zaysan at the Foothills of the Altaj
Chapter 4. 11 Months by Train from Siberia to Poland
Chapter 5. Poland, Bialystok
Chapter 6. Vilnius
Chapter 7. Warsaw, the 1930s
Chapter 8. Outbreak of the War
Chapter 9. Zamosc
Chapter 10. Warsaw under the German Occupation
Chapter 11. The Hubal Soldiers
Chapter 12. Arrest of Modest and Death in Auschwitz
Chapter 13. “Buzzard”, a Hubal Partisan
Chapter 14. The Organization
Chapter 15. The Warsaw Uprising
Chapter 16. “Thank you, I have a lollipop”
Chapter 17. Eastbound Journey to Bialystok
Chapter 18. Arrest
Chapter 19. NKVD Camp 41 in Ostashkov
Chapter 20. Back from Ostashkov
Chapter 21. After the Return
Chapter 22. Marek Szymanski
Chapter 23. Inprisonments: the Lublin Castle and Wronki
Chapter 24. Released, then arrested again
Chapter 25. Finally, back to normal?
Chapter 26. Rebuilding of Warsaw
Chapter 27. Trips and Travels
Chapter 28. Poland’s Attraction: Kashubia and Sudovia
Chapter 29. Communism in Poland
Chapter 30. Marek, the Loyal Hubal soldier
Chapter 31. Friends
Chapter 32. Animals and Pets
Chapter 33. Major Hubal’s Virtuti Militari Cross
Chapter 34. Farewells
Chapter 35. Marek's Death
Chapter 36. Poland Independent, Poland Westernized: Fears and Anxieties
Chapter 37. Departing
Appendix: Images of Siberia and Warsaw Uprising
"In the clutter of books arguing the propriety of the Warsaw Rising, whether it should have taken place or not; in the avalanche of statistics and strategies, the flesh and blood people who lived through the heroic trauma are often overlooked. Ziólkowska-Boehm is a fine writer in the grand tradition of reportage established in Poland by her mentor, Melchior Wankowicz and her friend, Ryszard Kapuscinski. This sensitive and moving portrayal of Kaia deserves a place on the same shelf with Miron Bialoszewski's inimitable Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising."
"In pages of striking contrast, Kaia moves from a colorful, nearly idyllic life by Polish exiles in southern Siberia earlier in the last century to the graphic horrors of Nazified Poland—and then to the moving aftermath of loss and recovery."
"Kaia’s memories, excellently recorded and commented on by Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm, give the story of her happy childhood and early architectural work in interwar Poland; her active resistance to Nazi occupation; Soviet imprisonment; and of her part, as an architect, in the rebuilding of Warsaw in postwar communist Poland. It is also the story of her husband, Marek Szymanski, deputy to Major 'Hubal,' commander of a Polish Army unit, who refused to surrender in September 1939. Hubal’s Cross of Military Valor served Kaia both as a talisman for survival—and as a key link to her marriage. This is a 'must read' for all those interested in the history of World War II as it played out in a country fatefully placed between Germany and Russia."
"I read Kaia, Heroine of the 1944 Warsaw Rising, I always believed that Siberia was only a terrible place of suffering and dying, where very few of the expelled people survived the primitive conditions and harsh climate. For me, it was an eye opener to read about the role played by exiled Poles in places like Irkutsk and other Siberian cities and about those who went there voluntarily to participate in the building of the trans-Siberian railroad, as well as numerous Poles who became prominent Russian scientists, engineers, and writers. Kaia’s description of her heroic actions is so lively and masterfully presented that I felt like I was going with her from place to place, witnessing the wounding and death of several fighters and following Kaia through the underground canals. I liked very much the large number of photographs of participants."
Ziolkowska-Boehm has provided a fascinating biography of a young woman, beginning with her simple childhood in a small town of Djungaria, near the Russian-Chinese border of the Altai Mountains. People have lived there for centuries, still in yurts, drinking camels’ milk or delicious tea flavored with sheep grease. Kaia spent much of her time roaming in their large estate and extended family.
This childhood was soon destroyed, when Djungaria was overtaken by the Bolsheviks in 1921. Some of the Polish families returned to Poland, others stayed. Kaia and her family began their year-long journey, first to Barnaul, then Moscow and finally Bialystok. The family settled on a vast property on the outskirts of town, with two wooden houses, gardens and vast fields. Many ethnic groups lived side by side, with Polish organizations, such as the Falcons, and colorful festivals held throughout the year. By 1933 Kaia had graduated from school in Vilnius and entered the Architecture Department of the Warsaw Polytechnic School, where her brother was already a student.
During the 1930s Poland was just beginning to develop its Second Republic and identity. Erased from the map for more than 100 years, the task was daunting. By 1939 Kaia had completed her studies and written her thesis, but was unable to progress further, when her academic advisor died as war broke out. Poland was attacked on both sides, and soon the Soviets had prepared a list of compulsory removal of Poles. Kaia and her friend, Dzida, were able to escape to a railroad station and eventually Zamosc. She was told Polish military officers were being arrested by the Germans. Papers needed to be prepared and civilian clothing found. Thus began Kaia’s life of the underworld, preparing ID cards with seals and photographs, switching to sewing pajamas whenever the Germans approached. Shortly after, the girls returned to Warsaw and to the school apartment, now in shambles. She was able to obtain work with a company helping with the reconstruction of destroyed buildings. Underground schools were established when Polish was banned from the German controlled schools. The Polish secret educational network was a unique form of resistance seen nowhere else in Europe. Kaia’s apartment became a meeting place for resistance workers to gather. There was always a pot of warm soup for the exhausted workers.
Kaia was able to visit her parents, Bronislawa and Modest Iljin who were ordered to move to the small village of Ostashki, which was taken over by first the Soviets and Germans, and lastly, the Soviets again. Modest was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where he died in February, 1941. In 1943 Kaia was assigned to monitor the covert training in sabotage techniques. It included providing explosives, maps and other instructional materials. She was responsible for the safety of the instructors and cadets, and safe escape for the participants.
At the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising Kaia provides a vivid description of the valor, fright and bravery of the workers. For 63 days they fought, avoiding death at all costs. Some were not that successful, with many slaughtered on the streets or tortured in jail. These interviews were provided to the author many years later, but still vivid in Kaia’s mind. She is even able to provide humor in the grotesque conditions.
The People’s Republic of Poland was established in 1945, but a state subordinate to Soviet Russia. Many trials were held, in full mockery of justice, resulting in deaths or life imprisonment.
This book provides a personal view of the struggle of Poland and its people to overcome the horrors of war. Kaia is a symbol of hope for the future of Poland—her undaunted faith in the freedom of man, her bravery in helping others and her love of life. A heartfelt book."
Florence Waszkelewicz Clowes, A Vivid Description Valor and Bravery, Books in Brief, POLISH AMERICAN JOURNAL, September 2012, pg. 15
“The book opens with Kaia’s childhood in Siberia, and here the reader is in for a surprise. Siberia, it is revealed, is more than a land of prisons and slave camps. It is a vast country of great beauty, rich in natural resources, and many Poles went there when Poland was still partitioned in search of a better life. Better educated than the local population, they established thriving communities, owned successful farms and other enterprises, and many Polish engineers worked on the Trans-Siberian Railway. True, for decades, the Tsarist regime had exiled thousands of Poles to this distant land and the exiles, once freed from confinement and still not permitted to return to Poland, found solace among their fellow countrymen.
The violence and ideology of the Russian revolution put an end to all that and the Poles fled back to their homeland, freed by Piłsudski’s Legions at the end of WWI. The weeks-long train journey home is an adventure in itself, and finally Kaia’s family settles near Wilno (Vilnius). Families are reunited, adults establish new homes, children resume school. Kaia gifted both academically and artistically, chooses architecture for her career. A bright future awaits her and her interesting, animated, highly motivated friends.
In September of 1939 all that came comes to an end. The double invasion by Germans and Russians, the cruelty under occupation, the dangers of underground resistance, and finally the horror and brutality of the 1944 Rising. Finally? Their ordeal was far from over. As the Germans retreated the Soviets entered, bringing their second reign of terror with them. Both occupiers focused on destroying the best and brightest, and so it continued. Kaia, and her surviving friends were once again hounded, arrested and sent to the gulag. And yet, she and her husband, Marek Szymanski, returned to a Warsaw in ruins and set to work to rebuild it. They had time for neither hatred nor self-pity. They worked, they traveled, and they enjoyed life, remembering everything but living very much in the present.
(…) Note also the social history implicit in the narrative. The friendships and the collegiality of the young men and women, the unquestioned equality, their mutual respect and affection; the value attached to education; the high spirits combined with a strong will; the love of freedom and the commitment to their society. It was a very special generation and Kaia is an inspiring example of it.