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They came in the night when she was just a girl.
At gunpoint, soldiers of the Soviet Union’s Red Army lined her and her family up against a wall and ordered them to get dressed and pack only as much as they could carry.
Anna (Szendzik) Kochel never forgot the sight of the soldiers’ thick black boots and rifles.
She was one of approximately 1.7 million Poles forcibly removed from their homes by the Soviets in four waves of mass deportations from February 1940 through June 1941. When she died July 11 at 92, she was one of the last remaining Siberian exiles in Seattle.
Anna survived the gulag as well as life in a series of displaced-persons camps before settling in Seattle in 1952 as a young wife and mother. She served as president of the Ladies Auxiliary of Seattle’s Polish Home Association in the 1960s.
In 2008, Anna and her two half-sisters were among 14 survivors to receive the Cross of Siberian Exiles from the Hon. Paulina Kapuscinska, the Los Angeles-based Consul General of the Republic of Poland. It was among the proudest moments of her life.
The 2010 animated documentary and graphic novel “A Trip to Nowhere” was based largely on the experiences of women in the Ladies’ Auxiliary, including hers. Anna was interviewed and contributed photos for the project, and was one of six survivors to attend the film’s screening at the University of Washington.
Anna was born in a village in eastern Poland. Her father, Wladyslaw Szendzik, was a forest ranger. Her family farmed and lived in a ranger station made of logs.
Her mother, Prakseda Jarosz, died when Anna was still a young girl, and she was raised by her grandmother, whom she always remembered with great fondness.
Anna was taken in the first wave of deportations in Poland’s Kresy Wschodnie, or Eastern Borderlands — along with her father, sister Nadzieja, brother Piotr, stepmother Olga, and half-sister Helena. They were transported in cattle trucks to city hall in the nearby town of Derewna along with the families of teachers and other government employees who had also been rounded up.
At dawn, they were loaded into train cars meant for cattle and cargo, and traveled for days to a forced labor camp in the frozen Siberian forest. Anna never saw her beloved grandmother again.
Her second half-sister, Janina, was born in the camp in the Arkhangelsk district, near the Arctic Circle. Life in the barracks was overcrowded and filthy. Prisoners began dying of starvation, exposure, overwork and disease. Many perished.
By the time so-called amnesty was declared and Poles were freed to help fight the Germans, Anna was suffering from typhoid and dysentery and was so weak she could hardly walk. Though the journey was difficult, her family made it to Uzbekistan, where the Polish Army was forming, her older sister died, and the family split up. Men left for war. Women and children went to refugee camps.
Anna, her stepmother and half-sisters traveled from Kermene to the port city of Krasnovodsk, then Pahlavi, Iran. After a year in Iran, they traveled to Karachi, then part of India, now part of Pakistan. There, Anna underwent surgery on her eyes and her eyesight was saved.
A few months later, they traveled to Mombasa, Kenya, and then finally to Camp Koja, Uganda, where they lived for about six years in a thatched hut and Anna studied English, learned to sew, and completed three years of high school.
When the war ended, she recalled, bells rang throughout the camp, and they all danced and cried and sang the Polish national anthem.
In 1948, when Anna was 18, she traveled with her family to Nairobi, Kenya, then England, where they lived in several displaced-persons camps. Anna was reunited with her father and older brother, and she met her husband, Jozef Kochel, a gulag survivor and veteran of the Polish II Army Corps in World War II.
They came to America with their first-born, living with their sponsors on a farm outside Almira, Washington, before settling in Seattle where Jozef had a sister, Sally Jurewicz.
Jozef worked in a cabinet shop and meat packing plant. Anna worked as a seamstress doing piecework and in a bakery as a manager of the night shift. They built their own home in West Seattle and had three more children.
Anna and Jozef were faithful members of Holy Family Parish for more than 40 years. They were proud that their children attended Catholic schools and not only graduated from college but that three earned graduate and postgraduate degrees. All five grandchildren also have graduate and postgraduate degrees.
Anna and Jozef were both active in the Polish Home Association. Jozef drove the children to Polish School. Anna was president of the Ladies Auxiliary, sang in a Polish women’s choir, staffed bazaar booths, organized dances, and sewed Polish costumes.
She was an avid gardener, growing vegetables and nurturing her beloved roses. She had a big laugh. And she made the best pierogi in the world.
Her love for Poland never wavered. But she never returned to the Old Country. Her village in Poland became part of the Soviet Union and is now part of Belarus.
“We couldn’t go back,” she said in an interview with one of her granddaughters before her death, adding, “When I look back now, I think it is a miracle I survived.”
Anna was preceded in death by her husband of 53 years, Jozef, and their son, Richard. She is survived by two half-sisters, Helena Szendzik and Janina Kolozak, both of Castle Pines, Colorado; three children — Alicja (Ron) Baker of Mill Creek, Miroslawa “Mira” Kochel (Juan Martinez) of Lynnwood, and Tadeusz (Melanie) Kochel of West Virginia — five grandchildren — Adriana Janovich (John Guenther), Ileana Janovich (Brian O'Connor), Maddie Freiberg (John Gainza), Harrison Freiberg (Julie Serafim), and Jordan Kochel — and a newborn great-grandchild, David Jozef "DJ" Gainza.
In lieu of flowers, please make donations in her memory to Florence of Seattle. Contact Laurie at 206-767-3137
Please share memories, condolences & photos on the Tribute Page, located above.
Arrangements entrusted to Emmick Family Funeral Home of West Seattle