A Forgotten Odyssey

Romuald Lipinski is a survivor of the USSR, originally deported from Poland in the summer of 1941. He provides a general overview of the mass deportations from Poland to the USSR. A portion of his memoirs can be found here.

Public knowledge about deportations of Polish citizens from the territory occupied by Soviet Russia in 1939 is next to nil. Somehow, the world wants to forget about it. And yet, if we consider the size of the mass of people deported, it is an event that deserves more attention. These deportations took place between February 1940 and June 1941. They were carried out right up until Germany invaded Russia. Through my private correspondence with a resident of Brest Litovsk, I learned that the Russians were in a process of transporting Poles to the train waiting for them at the railroad station when German troops were seen advancing towards the town. The Russians left their trucks and ran for their lives leaving everything and everybody behind them.

There have been several attempts to establish the number of Polish citizens in Soviet Russia as a result of hostilities between Poland and the Soviet Government. It is not an easy task. Nobody knows exactly how many died there as a result of malnutrition, disease, executions, and other reasons. According to Zbigniew S. Siemaszko[1], Polish citizens who found themselves in Soviet Russia during the period of September 1939 and June 1941 can be divided into the following into the following groups:

1. Military personnel - 184,000 (12 percent of the total)
2. Civilians, jailed by the Soviets - 250,000 (15 percent)
3. Civilians deported with families (specposielency - "special deportees") - 990,000 (60 percent)
4. Drafted into the Red Army after invasion in 1939 - 210,000 (13 percent)

Total 1,634,000.

It is well known that about 22,500 of Polish officers were murdered by the NKVD. Officers, including 41 generals, were imprisoned in several locations: Starobielsk, Oshtashkovo and Kozielsk, Griazoviec and Pavlishchev Bor. About 4,500 of them were found in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, in a mass graves, each killed with a single shot in the back of the head. The graves were discovered by Germans when they occupied that area. Soviet authorities denied that the executions were carried out by the NKVD, but an international commission established that they took place sometimes in spring of 1940, thus at a time when this area was under Soviet jurisdiction. During the Nuremberg Trials, the Katyn massacre was on the agenda, but at the insistence of the Soviet government, there was no judgment in this case “due to lack of evidence”. The fate of the remaining 18,000 officers was never determined, and to this day, remains a mystery. Some sources say that they were loaded on barges and sunk in the North Sea. The enlisted men were placed in various locations, mainly as miners and road builders.

During the time that the Soviets occupied Polish territory, most of the Polish intelligentsia was jailed, sent to Gulag camps, or simply murdered by the NKVD. This group consisted of people who were leaders in any social or political activities, landowners, and owners of stores or factories-- in other words anybody who might have some influence on society. Their fate was probably the worst of all deportees. In Gulag camps, they worked in inhumane conditions, often in mines, being exposed to terrible Russian winter, without proper clothing or food and without any medical care. They were there to die a slow death. Nobody knows how many perished. Some survived and were saved by the “amnesty” (see below).

After annexation of eastern Poland, all Polish citizens were forced to accept Soviet citizenship. Consequently, young people were drafted by the Soviets into the Red Army and dispatched to various parts of the Soviet Russia. Though the Sikorski-Maysky agreement presented to them an opportunity to be allowed to join Polish Army, the Soviets resisted. In some cases they were punished. Some deserted from the Red Army. How many were detained in the Red Army is still unknown.

There were three major periods of deportations of civilians: February 1940, April 1941, and June 1941. Deportees were arrested during the night or the early morning hours. They were given couple of hours to collect their belongings, transported to a train of box cars, and shipped to some area in the Soviet Union. Conditions under which civilians were transported were brutal. They were packed in unheated box cars, about 60 to a car, without food or sanitary facilities. The journey to their destination often took two weeks or more. People who died during the trip were simply unloaded at the first opportunity, after which the train continued onward.

The main destinations of these transports were in vicinity of the Archangelsk or Kazakhstan. In some cases, the deportees were just dumped in the middle of a forest and told to build their own shelters. In other cases, they were moved to various collective farms, the “kolhozs” (collectivnoye hoziaystvo). Upon arrival, they were given various work assignments without consideration of their strength or abilities. As a result, many women were working as lumberjacks, on railroad tracks laying railroad ties, and so on. The Soviets deported entire families so there were many children who were without any care or supervision. Many of them became orphans as their mothers were too weak to endure the working conditions and died. Men were usually taken away to work in the Gulag.

Soon after the invasion of Russia by Germany in July, 1941, the Soviet government signed an agreement with the Polish Government known as The Sikorski -Maysky Agreement which gave Polish citizens an “amnesty” and allowed them to organize the Polish Army on Russian soil. Needless to say, the “amnesty” was greeted by Poles in Russia with joy. For many, it was a salvation from certain death. The Polish Army was originally organized in Tockoje, Tatishchevo, and Buzuluk, near Kuybyshev. In the spring of 1942, it was moved south of Russia, to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kirgistan, with its headquarters in Yangi-Yul, near Tashkent. Upon hearing about formation of the Polish Army, from all over Russia, Poles came to the Army where they could be given some protection against the Soviets. They also hoped to get more food as the Russians did not allow any extra food rations except those for the military. Soon the Polish military had to feed roughly 50,000 civilians out of the rations for their soldiers, who also numbered about 50,000. Famine was widespread, and with that came disease. There were two epidemics: typhus and dysentery. Weakened by malnutrition, the people could not resist disease. They were buried without coffins, in mass graves. Those who were afflicted the most were the weakest: children. Nobody knows the exact number that died during this time period.

In 1942, there were two evacuations of the Polish Army and the civilians who made their way to military camps in Persia. The first was in March and the second in August. It is estimated that as a result of both evacuations slightly more than 100,000 people were transported to Pahlevi, Persia via the Caspian Sea. Roughly half of those were soldiers and half were civilians. This constitutes about 7 percent of all Polish citizens who were in Russia between September 1939 and June 1941. How many remained in Russia, how many died, how many were allowed to return to Poland after the war can be only speculated. Men, able to carry arms, together with the Carpathian Brigade that was already fighting under British command in Africa, formed the 2nd Polish Corps which fought gallantly in Italy and made significant contribution to victory over Germany. They distinguished themselves in the famous battles of Monte Cassino (the first patrol to enter the monastery after 5 months of bitter fighting was from the 2nd Polish Corps), Ancona and Bologna. Women and children were sent to various refugee camps in India, East Africa, and Mexico. After the war they were allowed to come to England where soldiers were discharged. Today, their children and grandchildren are spread all over the world.

The above is a short history of the “Forgotten Odyssey” of Polish citizens, who during World War Two, for one reason or another, found themselves in Soviet Russia. It is obvious that it cannot be described adequately in a couple of pages. Each of these close to two million people has a story to tell, a story of a crime committed on innocent people, whose only crime was that they were born as Poles. The graves of those who fell during this odyssey are testimony of their suffering and they call for justice, that these crimes be remembered and lessons learned. It is a duty of civilized world to remember this, so that it is not be repeated in the future.

fn1. Abigniew Siemaszko. “W Sowieckim Osaczeniu” Polska Fundacja Kulturalna, 1991

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