Katie Willkomm was three years old when she was separated from her mother, but the memory is as raw as if it was yesterday. Born in Romania, she was a little girl when Stalin’s troops invaded her village in 1944 and took her mother to a slave labour camp in Russia. Seven years later, they returned and took Katie and the rest of her family.

Remarkably, Katie survived – she is now 76 and lives in Booze in Arkengarthdale – but the fear has never left her. As the only one in her family left who remembers the full brutality of Stalin’s regime, in which millions died, she has written her memoirs and continues to share her extraordinary story.

Katie lived in Romania with her mother and grandparents, who had a poultry farm. Her father was away in the war when, in 1944, Russian troops surrounded their village and an armed guard entered their home. “He told my mother she had to go,” recalls Katie. “I hung onto her. I hung onto her until we were out on the street, then he pulled me away.” Katie didn’t see her again for 12 years.

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Around 170 people were taken from the village, including Katie’s grandfather, who was sent to a mine in Russia. Forced to work on his knees with water dripping onto his back, he became ill and in 1947, returned home. Katie barely recognised him. “He was like something out of Belsen,” she recalls. “He was skin and bones. He was barefoot, his trousers were frayed to his knees, his hair had been shaved. I was shocked.” Having survived on discarded potato peelings, he told how he’d stopped at one farm and begged for water and was refused because he couldn’t pay for it.

Katie’s mother had also been taken ill and was put on a train to East Germany which stopped at every station on the way out of Russia to unload the dead.

Some time later, Katie learned her mother and father were in England and realised her mother would never come back, so she lived with her grandparents. Then in 1951, under nightfall, Russian troops entered the village again.

“My grandmother said, ‘We will sleep in the same room tonight. If we have to die, we will die together’,” Katie recalls. “There was a knock on the door. I looked into the yard and saw armed guards pointing guns at us like we were criminals. We were told to pack food for a fortnight, summer and winter clothes and hammers, shovels and spades.”

One of the hardest things was leaving her great grandfather, who was ill in bed. “We said to old great granddad, ‘you will have to be strong great granddad, so you are here when we come back - and we will come back’,” she recalls. “He was shaking his head, poor fellow and died a month later. We were bunged in a cattle truck, then they closed the doors and put an iron bar across. I was nine years old. It was absolutely terrifying.”

It took two weeks to reach their destination. Rumour was they were being transported to Siberia, but as the route had been bombed by the Americans, they were taken to a field in a remote part of Romania. “Where we were sent was bad enough, but I did not want to see Siberia,” says Katie. “I will be forever grateful to the Americans for that.”

There was no food, shelter, water, nothing. They used holes in the roadside for toilets. “I was always hungry, always thirsty,” says Katie. Surviving on grass and the odd stick of carrot, Katie eventually collapsed and had to be revived with poppy tea.

They endured Siberian-style blizzards, lived in hovels and were forced to clear piles of snow with bare hands from the guards’ living quarters. “We all had frostbite,” says Katie.

The children were fed Stalinist propaganda and Katie’s grandfather was tortured for four days for trying to contact the outside world – a ‘crime’ he didn’t commit. “The fear was the worst,” she says. “Not knowing what was going to happen next. A lot of people cried, grown-ups mostly. Us children somehow kept going. I never quite lost hope.”

Later on, Katie’s parents applied through the Red Cross to bring her to England and she was interrogated by the secret police. They wanted her to write to the British Embassy to say she wouldn’t go but she refused, which made life a lot harder. “There were people screaming, being tortured, it was horrendous,” she says. “I was not kindly treated.”

Finally, after Stalin’s death and five brutal years in camp, on January 3, 1956, Katie was set free. “It was wonderful,” she says. She returned home with her grandparents, aunty, uncle and their little girl.

Then one day, a letter arrived saying Katie was going to be sent to England to live with her parents. “It hit me like a bolt out of the blue,” she says. “It wasn’t elation, but fear. I didn’t know my parents and they didn’t know me.”

Katie begged to be allowed to stay to provide for her grandparents, who had no one to look after them, but was given no choice. She waved them goodbye at the airport in Bucharest, and never saw them again. “That was the hardest, most painful thing I have had to do in my life, leaving the two people that were nearest and dearest to me,” she says. “We had been through so much together. They had looked after me all this time. I would rather have died.”

Yorkshire felt like a different world. Katie suffered homesickness and her relationship with her parents was never the same, but she made a new life. She learnt English from the BBC, and when her mother was told, ‘she’s speaking too posh - you’ll have to teach her to speak Yorkshire’, she picked up the local dialect (albeit with a Romanian lilt).

Katie now lives with her son Josef and is secretary to the parish council, but even the peacefulness of the Dales cannot heal her suffering. After all these years, she still has trouble sleeping.

“It gets worse as I get older. It had such an impact on my life,” she says. “The fear never leaves. It will stay with me forever, I think.”

  • To order Katie's book, Wrong Time, Wrong Place, send a cheque for £15 (plus £2.95 P&P) payable to Katie Willkomm, to Fountain Farm, Booze, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL11 6EY

If anyone is interested in telling their life story, Caroline Brannigan, ghost writer of the Katie Willkomm memoir, can be contacted on carolinebrannigan.com