Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 31, 2002
The forgotten Polish deportees
Second World War brutality killed, maimed, displaced innocent peoples
By WILLIAM CHODKIEWICZ
Special to the WCR
February and April carry special significance in the hearts of those Poles whose roots originate in pre- 1939 eastern Poland and who were deported to Siberia in 1940's.
Those who survived commemorate these months with sorrow and reflection, as they remember painful personal tragedies. They grieve the loss of loved ones, while at the same time marvel at the miracle of their deliverance from the Inhuman Land, known in Polish as Nieludzka Ziemia.
"Why me, and not others," asks a survivor, who at eight years of age, was one of the three who escaped alive, while five members of his family perished. Yes, his father, mother, and three siblings all gone in less than two years, while he and two others were left to uncertain fate.
Such stories stagger one's imagination and pierce one's heart. But it was not unusual and sadly reflects the reality of these brutal deportations.
Thousands living now here in Canada could relate similar personal tragedies. Most stories will never be told, as many find it too painful to give voice to this tragedy. Others took their memories to the grave.
In February, 1940, during severe cold, 110 cattle trains, each carrying 2000 people, transported their victims - mostly women and children - to various hostile destinations in northern Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other former USSR republics.
In April 1940, 160 trains transported 320,000 people. On June 28 and 29, 1940, 420,000 victims followed into forcible exile. Deportations continued until June 1941.
They resumed in 1945 following an interruption during the German-Russian hostilities of 1941-1944.
The condition of the "human cargo" jammed in the cattle cars defies description. Deprived of food, heat and the most basic sanitary conditions, thousands perished during the trip.
Thousands more died shortly after arrival.
Altogether, close to two million were deported prior to the outbreak of the German-Russian war in June 1940.
These figures do not include the prisoners of war deported to Gulag. One in three of those poor souls also succumbed to the torturous conditions.
By 1942, half of the nearly two million deported civilians were dead.
The dead were tossed out as the trains rolled relentlessly onward. Such was their last good-bye on this earth. Almost all were denied the basic right of a Christian burial.
The trains of death rolled on, stopping only at pre-determined points.
The priests were not among the women and children, who were deported in winter 1940. They, along with officers, professionals and prisoners of war were arrested in autumn and winter 1939 and executed in cold blood.
Thousands were found. Each one had hands tied behind his back and a bullet in the base of his skull.
Some were buried in mass graves of the Katyn forest (4421 bodies) Starobielsk (3820), Ostashkov District (6311). Thousands of others perished in remote sites, some still unknown.
Most were doctors, university professors, engineers, teachers, diplomats, civil servants and religious leaders.
Of the 2,009,665 deportees only 554,000 were alive and accounted for by 1945.
Mass graves discovered
In 1943, when the occupying German army announced the discovery of the mass graves in the Katyn forest, (Western Belarus), the Stalinist regime blamed the Germans for the atrocity. Successive Soviet regimes perpetuated the lie for 50 years. But in 1993, a democratically elected Russian government admitted the crime and issued a formal apology.
By the summer of 1942, those who survived were walking skeletons. Many thousands died during the exodus from northern Russia, the frozen Siberian taigas, and the barren steppes of Kazakhstan on the way to the friendly destinations of Iran, Iraq, Middle East, India, and Africa.
The "able bodied" men and women --, after months of recuperation -- were organized into the army under the leadership of General Wladyslaw Anders. They joined thousands of their compatriots who found their way to France in 1939 and 1940, and after France's fall and evacuation of Dunkirk, to the U.K.
A formidable fighting machine, the Poles constituted the fourth largest contingent among the Allied Forces. They distinguished themselves on many fronts: The Battle of London, Narvik, Tobruk, Ancona, Bologna, Monte Cassino, Arnhem and many other points in Holland, Belgium and Western Europe.
Dependants of the fighting men and women and those, too frail or too old for combat duty, spent the war years in various settlements in Africa, India, and the Middle East. The unfavourable political situation caused by the betrayal at the conferences in Yalta and Teheran, kept the vast majority from returning home.
There was no place to go.
"The Allies" (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) decided to redraw the map of Eastern and Central Europe, and consigned Poland to the "Soviet sphere of influence".
Return, to many, meant death, or another trip to Siberia.
So they settled in the UK, U.S.A., Canada, France, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South America and several other countries.
The sad and tragic chapter of the 1940's deportation is still alive. In Kazakhstan alone, 120,000 people can trace their Polish origins. And there they remain, often in abject poverty. Many are of mixed marriages -- mostly Ukrainian, German and Russian.
Ethnicity their 'crime'
Millions of Ukrainians suffered deportations in the '20s, '30s, and 40's, while millions perished at home because of hunger and famine engineered by the brutal Communist regime.
The Germans -- mostly from the Volga area -- settled in Russia for generations but were uprooted as the "enemies of the people" and deported after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Just like the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and others before them, their only crime was their ethnicity.
The youngest of the original Polish deportees of February and April 1940 is 63 now. Only a small number still survive. The children of the deported long to return to the land of their ancestors.
The question remains -- "How"?
There is a famous proverb: "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness".
In order to light that single candle, the Polish Canadian Humanitarian Society of Edmonton was organized. Since our incorporation, in December, 1997, we have raised over $145,000. This was done through the generosity of many individuals and organizations.
We particularly note the generosity of the following: The Polish Canadian Society of Edmonton, Knights of Columbus- Council #11334, Polish Federation of Women Branch # 3, Canadian Polish Congress, Alberta Branch, Polish Combatants Association Branch No.6 of Edmonton, Polish Heritage Society of Edmonton, Polish Ladies Auxiliary, Seattle Washington, Polish Combatants Association Branch No. 3, Vancouver, as well as other individuals and organizations.
Light one candle
In the past four years, we have joined hands with several organizations, volunteers, Non-Governmental Agencies (NGOs ) and local government bodies, known in Poland as Gminas(equivalent of our counties). These are the entities that sponsor and guarantee accommodation and other basic needs before the repatriation process can proceed.
So far, in cooperation with these organizations and Gminas, we have assisted in repatriation of nine families.
We have also provided aid to hundreds of orphans and special needs people in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland and other international and local groups and needs.
Let us be mindful of a single candle. Polish Canadian Humanitarian Society, 8543-67 Ave.,Edmonton, AB, T6E 0M7.