There was a significant difference between the deportations of Poles to Siberia in the past and those that the Russians conducted during the World War II era. Before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Russians primarily deported those who actively resisted their oppression, the insurgents, while the deportations in the 1940-1941 period involved exiling entire social groups from their homeland. They did not know why they were being deported or even exactly where. The Soviet authorities simply designated certain social groups as their enemies or, as they put it, “anti-Soviet and socially dangerous elements,” and every person belonging to those groups was deported to Siberia, the far reaches of the Soviet empire.
The “socially dangerous elements” was an open ended category and could be applied by the Soviet authorities to anyone they chose. In 1940-1941 Russians deported not only members of the targeted professions but also their immediate and even extended families. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put his finger on this practice when he wrote, “The heart of the matter is not personal guilt, but social danger.” In practice, elimination of this social danger meant extirpating and destroying all “nests of socially hostile elements.” Terenia and her grandmother, not to speak of mother and myself, fell into this category.
It is interesting to note that in the past other imperial countries also exiled their undesirables. Britain exiled its criminals to Australia; France incarcerated its convicts on Devil’s Island, just off the coast of French Guiana. However, these were British or French subjects convicted of serious crimes in courts of law and then removed as far from their home countries as possible. In the Russian case the opposite is true. The exiled were millions of citizens captured in their own countries—Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania—and forcibly deported into the empty spaces of Asiatic Russia. They were deported for purely political reasons, principally because the Kremlin leaders saw them as dangerous obstacles to Moscow’s expanding empire.
These were Russian military operations. I consciously use the term “Russian” in this context because the centuries-old practice of capturing neighboring peoples and deporting theminto their own vast territory was a characteristically Russian practice. Using the term “Soviet” in this connection would not be correct because it would imply that Belorussians, Ukrainians, andTartars, all of whom were Soviet citizens while the Soviet Union existed, bear equal responsibility for the deportation policies. This clearly was not true because, as a matter of historical fact, at one time or another they themselves had been victims of such deportations. Even the terms “Bolshevik” or “communist” do not fit the situation precisely because Russians deported neighboring peoples long before communism even existed.
The Russians began their campaign of terror directed against Poles before World War II. The first victims were the Poles who had been left on the eastern side of the post-World War I border between Poland and the Soviet Union. Between 1936 and 1938, 150,000 Poles, mostly men, were executed and 1.2 million expelled from their ancestral lands into the depths of the Soviet Union, just because they were Poles.
The Soviets continued the ethnic cleansing in eastern Poland after they occupied the Kresy in September 1939. In four mass deportations—February 1940, April 1940, June 1940, and June 1941—over one–and–a half million people were uprooted from their homeland and exiled to Siberia. Both of these operations, which together claimed approximately 1.7 million victims, were examples of Stalinist social engineering, the practice of enforcing Stalin’s policies by physically eliminating those social groups that he felt stood in the way of his plans. In the Soviet system the use of terror and mass extermination to achieve policy results was routine.
When such large masses of people, as during the sixteen months between February 1940 and June 1941, are moved under the conditions of an ongoing war, the exact numbers are difficult to determine. However, a number of studies of the problem by such respected authorities as Professor Tadeusz Piotrowski, Bogdan Podolski (who, as a member of the “Press
The lagerniki were sentenced to hard labor, often under the harshest conditions of northern Siberia which, in effect, meant that they were not expected to survive their imprisonment. For example, of the 10,000-12,000 Poles deported to Kolyma in 1940-41, only 583 survived by the time “amnesty” was declared a year later; of the 3,000 Polish policemen sent to the lead mines of Czukotka, 90 percent died during the same period. A measure of the terrible conditions under which the deportees were forced to live was their overall mortality rate, which, according to Keith Sword’s study, reached 30 percent per year. Clearly the Soviets’ intention was to kill them, either outright or by condemning them to work as slave laborers in the harshest regions of the Russian arctic regions.
Prisoners of war, like those kept in labor camps, were completely deprived of freedom and were not allowed to have any contact with the outside world. Inexplicably, of all the Polish POWs captured by the Soviets, only those seized in the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania were given post office privileges. In the majority of cases, specpereselency, consisting of women, children, and the elderly, were located in already-populated settlements in which they were expected to remain permanently, work, and periodically report to the local NKVD station. They were given post-office privileges and were even permitted to travel to nearby towns. This curious loophole of mail privileges permitted my father to communicate by mail with my uncle in ?u?ki to whom we had written soon after our arrival in Kanonerka, and find out exactly where we had been deported. Father’s and our fortuitous access to postal services made our eventual rescue possible.
Civilian exiles made up the largest group of those forcibly deported to Siberia. The Soviets accomplished this massive uprooting of people in four well-organized, secretly prepared, and tightly controlled deportations. They had to have the knowledge of the precise locations where the thousands of their victims lived, requisition the surrounding farmers’ horse-drawn sleighs or carts, assign each to a specific victim’s address, and organize the NKVD-led three-to-five-man arrest teams, which usually consisted of an NKVD officer, two or three soldiers, and a local activist informer. They had to ensure that all these parts of the deportation machinery, usually sent out in secret between two and four in the morning, worked as planned. The Russians had experience in this kind of work throughout their history, but especially since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The indiscriminate terror used by Stalin against his own population during the late 1920s and 1930s, the transfers of entire national groups, purposeful engineering of famines, killing of wealthier peasants during the collectivization of agriculture, and application of arbitrary and indiscriminate terror against the population in general during the “Great Terror” of the 1930s gave the NKVD a lot of experience to perfect the skills needed to carry out the deportations from the Polish Kresy.
The first deportation from the Kresy took place on February 10, 1940, during one of the coldest winters in local people’s memory. This first wywózka included entire families of local government employees of all levels, civil service personnel, judges, policemen, the settlers, veterans who fought the Bolsheviks in the 1920 war, foresters, and well-to-do farmers. The victims were taken in the dead of night, loaded on sleighs, and driven in frigid temperatures to railroad stations, often tens of kilometers away. Many infants froze to death on the way; the little corpses, forcibly taken away from their wailing mothers and thrown overboard as the sleighssped toward the waiting freight trains, were found when the snows melted in spring. The 220,000 deportees were sent to the northernmost parts of Siberia where the death rate in the subarctic weather and primitive living conditions was the highest of the entire Russian gulag archipelago.
The second deportation took place under climatically kinder conditions, during the cooland rainy spring night of April 13, 1940. The deportees consisted of families of men who had been previously arrested or captured by the Soviets, or held in prisons and in Siberian labor camps, and of prisoners of war of all ranks, including Polish soldiers who had been previously interned in Latvia and Lithuania. My father was in this last group. Also included in this deportation were teachers of primary and secondary schools, university professors, social and political leaders, and Byelorussian, Jewish, and Ukrainian nationalist activists. This was the largest of the four major deportations, consisting of some 320,000 people, all sent to Kazakhstan.
One aspect of this deportation deserves special attention. On March 5, 1940, Stalin andhis Politburo henchmen signed the order to execute the 25,000 Polish officers held in Soviet POW camps. At precisely the same time, in April 1940, the NKVD squads were murdering these men, their wives and children were being deported to the far reaches of the Soviet empire. Many of these families had been told that they were being moved to rejoin their husbands and fathers, an instance of especially perfidious cruelty.
The third transport of exiles took place on June 29, 1940, and involved Polish citizens who had escaped to eastern Poland, ahead of the German armies invading from the west. Among them were engineers, lawyers, teachers, university professors, journalists, artists, and approximately 72,000 Jews who, after they realized the harshness of the Soviet rule in eastern Poland, decided to return to their homes in the German-occupied part of Poland. The German Gestapo registered them, taking care to obtain their secret addresses, and turned the lists over to the NKVD. The latter scooped up the biezhentsy (escapees) overnight and deported them to the Soviet interior along with the about 240,000 others.
The fourth mass deportation, numbering about 200,000 to 300,000 persons, took place between June 13 and 22, 1941. Its victims, almost entirely from Wile?szczyzna and the adjacent Baltic states, which the Soviets had overrun in June of 1940, consisted of deportees whose relatives had been deported in the preceding three deportations but, for whatever reason, were missed at the time. Terenia and grandmother fell into this category and were deported to Barnaul, Kazakhstan. This last deportation occurred just as Hitler’s Germany was about to attack its erstwhile ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Germans attacked on June 22 and may have interrupted a more-extensive Soviet deportation effort. Grandmother told us later that, as their train sped eastward, German fighter planes were already attacking and strafing their train.
If we add to the 1.7 million of deported, arrested, and interned Polish citizens in 1940-41 the 1.25 million Poles “cleansed” from their land on the eastern side of the Polish-Soviet border in the late 1930s, then the number of Poles murdered or expelled from their native lands by the Russians during the World War II era was close to 3 million. Ethnic cleansing on such a gigantic scale was an act of Stalin’s total war against the Polish people and their culture, and can justifiably be defined as genocide.
SIBERIA IN THE POLISH EXPERIENCE
The Russian Empire and its two reincarnations, the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1991 and now the Russian Federation, stretches over eight time zones and includes some of the most inhospitable, cold, and remote places on earth. Russian rulers have used this vast expanse of practically uninhabited land as a gigantic prison, a tool of repression, and a dreaded threat to terrorize neighboring peoples. Their policy was simple: capture those who are deemed hostile to or actively resist Russian designs and exile them to a place from which there is no return. In the collective memory of Poles, particularly those from the Kresy, that place has been Siberia.
What was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as wywózki began back in the fifteenth century as state-sponsored kidnappings of peasants and skilled artisans from the lands situated west of Moscovy (now Russia), and settling them in the remote regions of the vast hinterland. Since the forbidding climate in Siberia did not attract voluntary settlers, Moscow leaders brought them there by force. Over the centuries the reliance on slave labor, supplied by the forced resettlement and deportations, became a deeply ingrained practice of the Kremlin leaders. Deportation of Poles to Siberia assumed mass proportions beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century. After the 1772, 1791, and 1795 partitions of Poland, the Russians deported to Siberia tens of thousands of Polish soldiers, nobility, townspeople, peasants, and anyone who resisted Russian aggressions. Most of them did not survive the ordeal of primitive transportation, malnutrition, cold, disease, and harsh labor conditions in the Russian subarctic north. After the uprisings of 1830-1831 and 1863, tens of thousands of insurgents were again carted off to Siberia (Sybir in Polish), the name that by then had come to represent less of a geographic term than a synonym for katorga, a place of torture, extreme suffering, and death.
Adam Mickiewicz, regarded as the most renowned Polish poet, captured the image and the emotional impact of the deportation of prisoners to Siberia after the 1830 Uprising. In his classic play Dziady (“Forefathers”), Mickiewicz describes a dramatic scene of prisoners, beaten, bleeding, their ankle chains clanging against the cobblestones, being paraded through the streets for all to see. The stunned, terrified people stand silently, ashen-faced, many grieving as their loved ones are marched toward the kibitki (large covered wagons used by Russians to transport prisoners), loaded, and driven away to Siberia. Through the words of one of the characters in the play, Jan Sobolewski,1/ Mickiewicz vows, a vow deeply felt by generations of Poles to this day,
I zostana w mej mysli,—i w drodze zywota
Jak kompas pokaza mi, powioda, gdzie cnota:
Jesli zapomne o nich, Ty, Boze na niebie,
Zapomnij o mnie.
[And they will remain in my thoughts,—and on my life’s journey,
Like a compass, will show me, lead me, toward virtue:
And if I forget them, You, O God in Heaven,
Forget about me.]
What Mickiewicz wrote in Dziady repeated itself with minor variations after the 1863 Uprising and in much larger numbers during and after World War II. Thus Poles’ preoccupation with their country’s history, whether in prose, poetry, music, or paintings, is a natural outgrowth of their experiences as a nation during the past three hundred years. A wise political analyst once observed that, “Statesmen drive their vehicles of state looking in the rear view mirror.” Poles’ history, which since the middle of the eighteenth century has been especially difficult one, has been their “rear view mirror.”
However, Stalin’s, and Hitler’s, brutality surpassed anything that the human race had ever experienced. Although tyrants always existed, in the twentieth century the tools with which they could pursue and justify their appetites changed radically.
“GENGHIS KHAN WITH A TELEPHONE”
The twentieth century was the century of totalitarianism, made possible by advancements in weapons, communication, transportation technologies, and totalitarian ideologies. What tyrants couldn’t do to their subjects in the preceding centuries they could inflict on them in the twentieth century. The territories Genghis Khan could conquer and hold in his time were limited by how far his horses could go. In the twentieth century, as one observer put it, technology made “Genghis Khan with a telephone” possible. Horses were replaced by motorcars, trains, and planes; bows and arrows gave way to machine guns, artillery, and aerially delivered bombs; horse-drawn carts and small sailing vessels became outclassed by trains and huge ships. Tyrants now equipped with modern technology and a mindset devoid of moral restraints could do infinitely more harm than their primitive predecessors.
From the very beginning, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis were quite open about how they intended to establish their respective future world orders. There was nothing secret about their goals or the murderous means they planned to use. The communists promised paradise on earth, but only after they had destroyed the propertied classes and abolished private property, which they considered the root of all evil in the world. Their leaders warned from the beginning that, as N. Bukharin declared, without “mass repressions and executions we will not build communism,” while Vladimir Lenin, their supreme leader, called for a complete “extermination of the enemies.” These were extreme words that were subsequently followed by equally extreme actions. The promised Soviet communist “paradise,” however, turned into a horrifying killing orgy that cost 25 million human lives in Russia alone.
Like its communist totalitarian sibling that advocated conflict between social classes, Nazi ideology preached war against all races inferior to the Aryans. Hitler declared that, “Our strength is our quickness and our brutality. I have given the order that the aim of this war does not consist in reaching certain designated lines, but in the enemies’ physical elimination …. to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language.” 2/ As a direct consequence of Stalin’s and Hitler’s policies, Poland’s losses during World War II were proportionally larger than those of any other country involved in the war. On the eve of the war Poland had a population of 34.7 million people; when the war ended only 22.6 million remained within its borders. Its material losses exceeded 35 percent of its prewar national wealth, and its cultural losses of various kinds are beyond estimation.
Germany and the Soviet Union pursued parallel and coordinated policies of extermination in occupied Poland. Both made every effort to murder the country’s leading elites, reduce the rest of the population to servile subjects, and thus extinguish any hope of the Polish nation ever again living in its own independent state. Both annexed large parts of Poland’s prewar territory, and both deported millions of Poles to extermination camps or to die slowly as slave laborers. Historically, the Germans sought to expand into and colonize the lands to their east; the Russians pushed westward to establish themselves as one of the principal powers of Europe. Poland stood in the way of both.
1/ Jan Sobolewski was not a fictitious character. He was a student and a member of patriotic student societies committed to the cause of Poland’s independence. He was deported to Russia’s subarctic region near the city of Archangelsk and died there in 1839 at the age of thirty. Mickiewicz dedicated part III of his Dziady to the patriotic students and their ordeal of imprisonment, torture, and exile.
2/ The Obersalzberg Speech to Wehrmacht commanders, August 22, 1939.
Sovietization of the Kresy involved more than just establishing military control over the region. Poland and the Soviet Union (now Russia) belonged, and still belong, to two very different civilizational models, i.e., two very different paths of social, economic, and political development. The western model to which Poland belongs had its origins in a well-ordered social hierarchy with the ruler (sovereign) on the top, and the nobility and lower classes below. Over a period that lasted centuries, the lower social strata challenged the monarch’s unlimited power, a process that eventually led to the emergence of a Western type democracy and, alongside it, the market economy and the freedoms of speech, religion, and the like.
Poland has a long history of evolution of Western religious and political traditions. The foundation of the Polish State reaches back to 966 when Mieszko I accepted Christianity from Rome and, with the help the new religion as a unifying agent, was able to centralize and strengthen his state.
Poland’s constitutional tradition, specifically the principle that the power of the executive is limited and that it must act with the consent of the governed, reaches back to 1228 and is one of the oldest in the world, second only to England’s Magna Carta, adopted thirteen years earlier. Poland’s Third of May Constitution of 1791 was the first written constitution in Europe, and second in time only to that of the US Constitution.
In contrast, the Russian model evolved from the primitive, eastern system in which there was only the ruler and his subjects. The Russian tzar ruled his subjects as an omnipotent monarch until Nicholas II was ousted by the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to the emergence of the communist system in which the communist party assumed total power and laid claim to infallibility in all aspects of the country’s life. This meant that the party planned the country’s economy, controlled all social organization—labor unions, professional organizations, and even sport teams—and imposed communist ideology as the official and only legitimate belief system. Consequently, the Soviet attack on Poland in September 1939 and the ensuing sovietization the eastern part of our country was not just a military operation, it was an onslaught by an alien political system against the Western democracy of Poland, and a carefully planned, ruthless effort to transform it into its opposite, the eastern communist model.
For Moscow, sovietization meant killing any one who could even be a potential enemy. In the case of the Kresy, the Soviet terror machine was directed primarily against members of the Polish local administration, professions, and civic leaders, teachers, post office workers, the remaining military personnel, well-to-do farmers, and labor union leaders. As soon as the NKVD could identify them, usually with the help of local collaborators, they were arrested, deported to Siberia, or shot. They were replaced at top levels by functionaries brought from Russia while local collaborators were appointed to run revcoms and sielsoviets, the municipal governments. An integral part of sovietization was to deny us all means of communicating with the outside world by confiscating radios, controlling the communication media, and shutting down all cultural activities outside of communist control. The new communist rulers forbade private citizens to own even typewriters. An uninformed or misinformed mass of population is easier to manipulate and consequently easier to control.
This Soviet war against everything Polish assumed monstrous proportions even before the Soviets occupied Kresy in September 1939. Deviating from the ideologically dictated targeting of “class enemies, ” Moscow designated in August 1937 all Poles, i.e., the entire national group, as enemies of the Soviet State. Extermination and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Poles residing in the USSR followed. During the early stages of the war, Stalin ordered the murder of 25,000 Polish officers in Katyn and the simultaneous deportation of nearly 1.75 million Poles to Siberia. Even after the war ended, between 1945 and 1955, the Soviets murdered thousands of the Home Army (AK) soldiers, and political, military, and intellectual leaders. Physical extermination of all opposition, whether actual or suspected, was a standard practice in the process of sovietization of the Kresy and, after the war, of entire Poland.
Religion and independent church organizations were some of the primary enemies of the system. Because of its organizational strength and the clearly defined faith, the Catholic Church constituted an organizational and ideological challenge to the communist system and, as such, became one of the targets of the Soviet occupation forces in the Kresy. Churches and the clergy were assessed taxes so high that, even with the help of the faithful, they were unable to pay. Consequently churches were closed, the clergy arrested and deported to Siberia, and church buildings converted into movie theaters, clubs, warehouses or, as in the case of the St Michael’s Church in ?u?ki, turned into a military tank garages.
Young people and school children became targets of the communist anti-religious indoctrination, resorting to ridiculing of religion as their method of choice. The children were told that there was no God, that He could not give them anything but, if they prayed to Stalin, he would give them candy. They would then distribute some to prove their point. Crosses were taken down from classroom walls, older students were arrested, and all instruction was to be in the Byelorussian language. This created confusion and fear among younger children, not to mention the fact that most of them, as well as most of their teachers, did not speak Byelorussian.
Like the churches, wealthier landowners were also taxed very heavily and were forced to meet those requirements both in money and deliveries of farm products. Those who were unable to meet their quotas had their homesteads confiscated and their entire families exiled. Although the assessments were very high and exceeded the owners’ abilities to pay them, the ingenuity of the local farmers gave them some breathing space at times. I remember my uncle telling me that deliveries in kind had to be taken first to a weigh station, where the deliverer would be given a certificate indicating the weight of the goods he was delivering. Since the warehouse where the goods were to be delivered was some distance from the weigh station, the farmers would drop off and hide a portion of their assessments on the way to the warehouse.
As a form of cheap propaganda and a way of convincing the local peasants, at least initially, that the Soviet Union was their friend and liberator, the NKVD would bring in a number of the poor peasants to a wealthy farm, expel the owner and his family from the premises, and tell the peasants that they were free to take anything they wanted from the farm. The farmland itself would then be subdivided and distributed free to the peasants. The cruel irony was that within months after they received it, all that land was taken away from them and combined into kolkhozes (collective farms), on which they worked as simple laborers.
By November the Soviets imposed full-scale nationalization of manufacturing enterprises and businesses. In this way the pre-invasion relatively successful Polish market economy was destroyed and the Soviet-style command economy was forced upon the local population. Soon after the Soviets’ arrival in ?u?ki, long lines for food and other commodities for everyday use became a permanent feature of our lives. Shortages, shabbiness, and lawlessness became ever present in our life under the Soviets.
In politics they used the same terms as we do—representatives, elections, and democracy—but in practice they used them to mean quite the opposite. Candidates listed on election ballots were either unknown to the local voters or were simpletons that they held in contempt. This did not matter because they had been chosen by the NKVD, with the sole criterion being loyal to Moscow. In many cases these candidates had been brought in from the Soviet Union.
For communists elections were important because their purpose was to demonstrate the population’s nearly universal support for the system and its policies. This was why everyone was not only expected but compelled to vote. If they had not voted by a certain time of the election day, the NKVD officers and their local supporters would go to the peoples’ homes, order them to vote under threat of arrest, and even provide transportation. Trucks or buses would bring voters to the polling places so that no one could claim distance as an excuse for not voting. Even the sick in hospitals voted. Failure to vote was regarded as a form of disloyalty or even opposition to the regime. Equally dangerous was a refusal to attend pre-election meetings, which were mandatory for all individuals between eighteen and sixty. The outcomes of the elections, as announced by the government, were always in the upper nineties of percentiles in favor, with the remainder declared as invalid. By Western standards these numbers are laughable, but in communist systems they were common.
The psychological effect of this type of election was also meant to weaken and demoralize any opposition that might exist. Isolated from each another by suspicion, by widespread spying, by fear, and without trustworthy social connections, people would begin to wonder, so the communists hoped, whether there was some truth to those high numbers of favorable votes and begin to weaken in their opposition to the oppressor. We learned from our own experience that the only natural antidotes to such psychological isolation and social disintegration were close family ties, trustworthy friendships, and strong cultural self-awareness.
The Soviets occupied the Kresy in the middle of September and held a general election a month later to decide the future of the region. Election results, all in the high nineties of percentiles, were announced on October 25. The People’s Assemblies, the elected bodies, met on October 26, and after a brief debate, accomplished the deed for which they had been elected, namely, to pass a resolution petitioning Moscow Supreme Soviet to incorporate the Kresy, which they called Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine, into the Soviet Union. On November 2 the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet legislature, graciously acceded to the petitions. By this fraudulent act, the place of my birth was absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Thus, the Soviet attack on Poland, and the ensuing sovietization of the Kresy, was more than just a military operation against us. It was an onslaught by a fundamentally different culture and an alien political system against our own. At stake were not only their military control of our territory but, most importantly, the survival of our national and cultural identity, of us as a nation.