Victoria Reilly, teacher. Born: 10 September, 1937 in Kiwatycze, Poland. Died: 12 June, 2018 in Dundee, aged 80.
Victoria Reilly was the very essence of the indomitable spirit that sustained a generation of Poles banished from their homeland in an unremittingly bleak chapter of the Second World War.
Barely two years old when the Russians invaded and annexed eastern Poland, she and her family were deported to the wastes of Siberia. There, having survived a forced labour camp, starvation conditions and the brutal cold, they eventually joined an exodus on a tortuous journey to freedom, leaving the Soviet Union for Persia, Africa and finally Britain.
By the time she arrived at her ultimate destination in Scotland, almost a decade had passed since Poland was attacked by both Hitler and the Red Army and she had grown from a toddler to a feisty 11-year-old.
Miraculously, a number of relatives had also survived and the family settled in Dundee where, despite the language barrier, the determined youngster thrived at school and went on to become a well-respected teacher.
Born Wiktoria Prus in Kiwatycze, eastern Poland, in September 1937, she was the daughter of peasant farmers Jozef and Katarzyna Prus and spent the first two years of her life with her brothers, sisters and parents, living near the vast Bialowieska forest where bison and horses roamed.
Then, in the late summer of 1939, as war loomed across Europe, the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was signed, an agreement between Hitler and Stalin that neither country would attack the other and which assigned to Russia the part of eastern Poland where the Prus family lived.
That September Hitler invaded Poland from the west and days later the Russians made their move, annexing the eastern section of the country. Deportations began in the freezing cold the following February.
The Prus family was exiled in one of three waves of depatriation that saw hundreds of thousands of Poles brutally forced from their homes, with very little time to gather belongings or food. Crammed into cattle trucks, each containing up to 60 refugees, they were transported in appalling conditions to camps across the Soviet Union.
Many went to a kolhoz, a type of collective farm, or labour camps in Siberia, the Urals or Kazakhstan. The journey could take six weeks. With little or no water or food and a hole in the floor for a latrine, sickness was rife and the weak, the very young and the old often perished. Bodies piled up under the snow alongside the railway lines.
Victoria or Vicky, as she was known in Scotland, ended up in Siberia where many Poles spent two desperate years in camps trying to scratch a living to keep their families alive. They faced persecution, as Roman Catholics, and indoctrination of their children by the Russians who, Vicky recalled, encouraged the youngsters to pray to Father Stalin in return for sweets from the heavens – an exhortation that fooled no one.
But she also remembered that, despite the harsh conditions and their own poverty, the Siberian people would share what little they had with the refugees.
Release came when Hitler tore up the non-aggression pact and launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941. Poles from the labour camps were freed, allowed to move on and to join the Polish Army under General Wladyslaw Anders who insisted men, women and children could all go with him as he transferred to Persia and came under British command. But by the time the exodus began – most left in summer 1942 – half of those who had been repatriated were dead and the survivors faced a truly harrowing journey. Some escaped overland by truck, others by train before sailing across the Caspian Sea to Persia, now Iran. Vicky was on the last transport train before the transfers stopped.
She later travelled to Africa, where she spent some time in a transit camp, and recalled rushing off, armed only with sticks, to “hunt” a lion after hearing one of the big cats had been spotted nearby. Finally she, her teenage sisters Wanda and Janina and their mother, left the Kenyan port of Mombasa on the Carnarvon Castle, arriving in Southampton in June 1948.
Their odyssey of almost 8,000 miles ended in Dundee where they became squatters, living in an empty property. Vicky, then only 12 and with very little English, knew there was a procedure for acquiring better accommodation and marched in demanding to see the City Factor to arrange improved housing conditions, something she successfully achieved.
Now at school in Dundee and clearly a clever child, her lack of English left her unable to pass the 11-plus exam – the passport to a better education. She could so easily have been written off had it not been for a teacher who, realising her potential, devised an alternative way of tackling the intelligence test. She passed and went on to the city’s Lawside Academy before studying at Dundee College of Education where she met her future husband, Jim Reilly.
After qualifying as a primary school teacher she taught at various Dundee schools, including at St Margaret’s Roman Catholic primary school for a number of years, before taking a career break to raise their two children. She later returned to teaching, first as a supply teacher and then as a class teacher at SS Peter and Paul RC Primary, where she remained for the rest of her career.
A strong, resilient woman, she relished teaching the more challenging pupils, encouraging them to step up to the plate and deliver, something that perhaps resonated with her own astonishingly difficult childhood.
She returned to Poland several times, although never to her birthplace, now part of Belarus, and continued to maintain Polish traditions in her adopted home, particularly the festive custom of setting an extra place at the table for an unexpected guest.
As for the rest of her own Polish family, the fate of her father is unknown. One of her brothers died in childhood, while another brother made it to Guernsey and a third may have ended up in Australia. But she was the last of the line, one of the final few who can testify to that dreadful dark period in her homeland’s history.