Obituary, Teresa Vass, Gulag survivor and charity supporter

Teresa Vass, Gulag survivor and charity supporter. Born: 3 March 1930, near Kamionka Strumilowa, Lviv, Poland. Died: 16 March, 2021 in Tayport, Fife, aged 91

Teresa Vass in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Growing up on the family farm in Poland young Teresa Sklepkowicz enjoyed the simple freedom of the open fields and the rural life. She was the baby of the family, the youngest by far of nine children born to woodcutter Basil and his wife Katryna, and a carefree schoolgirl when the Second World War broke out.

By the time it ended she had endured deportation, deprivation, starvation and an epic journey of more than 5,000 miles from the edge of the Russian Arctic to Uganda. She would never see the farm or some of her siblings again.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A number of her brothers and sisters had already grown up and were leading their own lives when Russia invaded Poland from the east in September 1939. Germany had marched into Poland from the west two weeks earlier, sparking the start of the worldwide conflict. And on the night of 10 February 1940, Russian troops arrived at the farm, giving the family just an hour to pack up and leave.

Nine-year-old Teresa, her parents and two sisters were among the tens of thousands of Poles then transported in cattle trucks to a camp in the gulag system in Kotlas near Archangel. A wide range of civilians were targeted for deportation and her father’s First World War service as a soldier for the Austro-Hungarian empire may have accounted for their exile. Over the tortuous journey of two or three weeks, they suffered hunger, intense cold and unsanitary conditions. At the camp they shared one room with other families, her older sister worked as a lumberjack and Teresa settled into a routine of attending a Russian school and learning the language. Rations were inadequate but they foraged for food and helped each other as much as they could. In 1941, when Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement not to invade the Soviet Union, the deportees were freed. Anyone with the means to leave did so and the family raised cash for their passage out by selling foraged berries, fruit and mushrooms to Russian troops.

Meanwhile, newly released internees were forming a Polish army in exile – eventually to be led by General Wladyslaw Anders – and the fleeing families moved with the soldiers on an odyssey that took them by any form of transport they could muster. They initially left by boat, then train and travelled south until Uzbekistan, where they were forced to sleep outside in the snow before heading for a spell working on a cotton collective. Sometimes during their long and gruelling journey the hunger was so great they ate grass. Sometimes the troops shared their rations to help keep the refugees alive.

The family moved on to Kazakhstan, where Basil died, then sailed across the Caspian Sea to northern Persia, now Iran. Teresa contracted typhus and ended up in an orphan’s hospital in Tehran for treatment. By this time it was evident the youngster was a born survivor.

The family then made their way to India, which was still under British rule, and were sent by British officials to Africa. They sailed to Kenya and were settled in a refugee camp at Masindi in central Uganda. They were among around 18,000 Polish refugees who arrived in Africa in 1942/43 and, after a hugely disrupted education, Teresa, now aged 12 or 13, went back to school.

She remained in Uganda long after the war ended. Unable to return home after hostilities ceased, the family eventually had the chance to go to countries including Argentina or the United States. But sister Maria had contributed to the British war effort in North Africa, serving in British uniform with the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and in 1948 Maria, Teresa, their sister Emilia and mother all emigrated to Britain. They were billeted in a camp near Birmingham and Teresa, now 18, was put to work in the Welcombe Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon. Also working there was former Royal Engineer Alistair Vass, from Nairn, putting in time before intending to sail to Australia on a £10 ticket.

The young Polish Catholic was initially disinterested in the Scottish Protestant but he was a persistent suitor and on 19 December 1952 he was baptised a Catholic, the day before their wedding in Leamington Spa. They began married life in Warwick and the first of their six children arrived the following year.

They moved to Scotland in 1954 when Alistair was transferred to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, after contracting TB. It was thought the fresh Highland air would be beneficial and they lived for a time in Nairn before his convalescence in Edinburgh. The family later moved to the West Midlands, where Teresa’s sisters had settled, before ending up firstly in London, then Welwyn Garden City when Alistair worked for Marconi and ICI. Over the years the busy mum-of-six worked in a baker’s shop and further education college, but in 1976 she suffered a heart attack and it was thought she may not last the year. However, the resilient anddetermined Teresa defied that prediction and returned to health.

After Alistair retired in the late 1980s they decided to move back to Scotland and chose Tayport, where Teresa joined the Tayport Singers and volunteered at Tayport Charity Shop for more than 20 years. She supported a range of causesduring her life, particularly those helping people with learning difficulties, along with seafaring charities and hospital ships. She never forgot what it had been like to go hungry and a favourite charity was Mary’s Meals, which has strong connections with Africa. She returned to Poland numerous times over the years and went back again a couple of years after being widowed in 2006. Among the places she visited was Lviv, now in Ukraine, where her father had once promised her a trip for her tenth birthday.

The family also visited Monte Cassino, where so many Polish troops, under the command of General Anders, fought and died. In the Polish cemetery they found the grave of a young neighbour who had been due to marry one of her sisters. Though she had two sisters in Britain and one in America, the fate of the rest of her family, fragmented so suddenly 80 years ago, still remains unclear.

Teresa Vass is survived by her six children, Nicholas, Maria, James, Anna, Jan and Katherine, and extended family.

Obituaries

If you would like to submit an obituary, or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]

A message from the Editor

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.