IT started with a bang on the door in the dead of night.
And it ended seven years later when her ship docked in Liverpool.
Now Zofia Bialkowska of Edgerton has been recognised as one of the thousands of Polish civilians deported by the Soviets in appalling conditions.
The 83-year-old was among former refugees who received medals from the Polish government at the weekend.
Zofia and her family were deported from their home in Glebokie in 1941. Their epic journey took in Siberia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Lebanon and Palestine before they reached England, three years after the war ended.
Zofia said: “The way that we couldn’t return to Poland, it pains me.”
She grew up in Glebokie, which today is in Belarus, but back then was a Polish town 40 miles from the Soviet border. Her parents Stefan and Maria were renovating their home overlooking a lake when war broke out.
As the Germans overran western Poland, the Soviets invaded from the east.
Zofia remembers their arrival. She said: “They said they had come to liberate us, but from what? After the Russians arrived there was nothing in the shops and we had to queue for bread. Everything was scarce.”
The Polish population of the town was deported to the Soviet Union in waves. Zofia said: “Virtually everyone in the town was deported because the Russians wanted to cleanse the area of Polish people.”
On June 20, 1941, it was Zofia’s turn.
She said: “The Russians came at midnight, banging on the door and demanding we turn all the lights on. They told us we had one hour to pack.”
Zofia, her parents, grandparents Dziadek and Babcia, twin sister Wanda and younger brother Janusz were loaded into cattle wagons at the railway station.
Zofia, who was 15 at the time, said: “There were 70 wagons with thousands of people from Glebokie and surrounding villages. Each wagon had four levels and we were packed in like sardines.
“There was a big hole in the middle of the wagon where you had to go to the toilet. The food we brought with us ran out after a week.”
Ten days after they left their home town, the family arrived in the Siberian town of Barnaul.
But while they had been on the train, Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. From being enemies, the Poles and Russians were now technically on the same side.
Zofia and her family were placed in a barracks. Her father, who had been a book-keeper, was forced to make bricks while Zofia’s mother and grandmother sewed military uniforms.
Conditions in Siberia were tough. Zofia said: “When the winter came on they moved us to a house but there was no heating and it was -60C. We had to wear all our clothes.”
On November 1, 1941 Zofia’s father boarded a train heading south to find work. His family never saw him again.
The following year Zofia and her family were allowed to leave Barnaul to reunite with her brother Tadek, who was in the Polish Army’s 5th Infantry Division.
Zofia, whose maiden name was Stokarska, said: “The Polish government paid for families of soldiers to meet them in the Middle East.”
The family found Tadek in Uzbekistan. Zofia said: “We arrived in April 1942 and spent about five months there. It was very hot and there was no food ration. Every day we were hungry.”
From Uzbekistan the family moved on to a camp in Iran. Zofia said: “Polish people organise very quickly. We set up a school, but there were no books so the teachers taught from memory.”
In February 1945 the family moved again, to Lebanon where Tadek studied politics and Zofia completed her high school education in a Polish school.
However, the family were unable to return to Poland at the end of the war. Instead they travelled to the Palestinian port of Haifa where they boarded the Franconia for Liverpool.
Zofia moved to Leicester and met Witold Bialkowski, who had served in the Polish Cavalry during the war. The couple married in 1952 and moved to Huddersfield.
Zofia said: “We moved around a lot, from Spring Street, South Street, George Street. Every time we moved we had to report to the police.”
The couple eventually settled in Abbey Road in Fartown where they had nine children.
Zofia became a stalwart of Huddersfield’s Polish community, teaching in the Polish Club on Fitzwilliam Street. Witold passed away in 1985 and Zofia moved to her home on Imperial Road in Edgerton eight years later.
On Sunday she was honoured, along with 40 other survivors at a ceremony in Manchester. They each received a Siberian Cross from the Polish government.
Zofia said: “It’s good to receive the medal, but it’s a medal for suffering.”
Zofia has mixed feelings about the Russians.
She said: “The high-up people in Russia were really bad but with the ordinary people it was different. They also lived in very bad conditions and were deported from Ukraine to Siberia.”