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Memories from Deportation to Kazakhstan - Banya

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Banya

From the letter to the family in Poland:

"Every week we steam in the banya, a sauna. This is a real show. The temperatures in the sauna reach 55 C and one has to be really healthy to stand it! We enter the sauna after the local people, the Kazakhs) and this makes it a bit cooler for us Poles.

Not everybody in the village has a banya. Only rich and thrifty farmers own one. So the invitation to the banya shows respect or friendship. Banya is a turf building about two meters high and three meters long. It has an oven made of bricks and clay in one corner. There is iron ribbing along the walls. Usually all sorts of scrap iron and bricks are heaped on the top of the oven to sustain the heat.

A fire is lit in the oven. Near the oven there are containers of water - barrels, buckets, pots - whatever is available. The water heats up from the heat in the oven; the coal smoke is vented out the oven door that is slightly open to outside. Near the walls lie the plank beds made of birch trunks. Every person has his own birch switch. The switch is made of young branches of the birch tree which are cut during the late Spring. Their branches are bound together in a big knot and heated in water. After heating in the water the birch leaves became greener and softer. When not being used for the sauna, they are stored in a dry place in the loft of the house.

When the iron piled on the oven is red and the fire is stabilized with no coal smoke, the temperature in the banya is finally right for people to enter. All take off their clothes and, completely naked, enter the banya. Everybody comes together - men, women, and children.

They sit on the straw covered planks or on the floor. The water is poured onto the hot iron producing a lot of hot steam. After about 15-20 minutes we take our birch switches and whip our bodies and the bodies of our neighbors top to toe, back and front. There is no soap to use, they rub their bodies only with a wood ash or potash.

Children are whipped and washed first since they cannot stand such a hot temperature for very long. After the sauna children run home completely naked whatever the weather and temperatures are outside. They do it even if it is very cold and a hard freeze (-40 C) and a snow 1 meter high. At home children have their cleaned clothes waiting. After they dress they lie beside stove to warm up and rest."

I realized that during the six winters we spent there, I did not recall any child with even a mild cold. In spite of the fact that the distance from the banya to the house was often more than 100 meters (300 feet).

When the children are gone, the adults still keep on whipping each other. All try to clean the backs and heads really well. Then the men leave put on their clothes outside only women remain in the sauna. When only women remain the real fun begins. There is lots of chatting, gossiping, laughing, crying, like in a cafe, just the coffee cups are missing. Local ladies were able to sit there up to two hours, only sporadically pouring more water on the hot iron to produce more steam and heat. All women were really jolly and happy."

What is interesting, during this communal washings - there were no jokes or gestures of any sexual nature. We really liked these baths, and we used it with great enjoyment through all our stay in Kazakhstan.

Recommended reading(s):

When God Looked the Other WayWhen God Looked the Other Way: An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption (Paperback) by Wesley Adamczyk



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