The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. Sixteen days later, the Soviet army invaded the Eastern border, as per the secret pact agreed to by Hitler and Stalin. On February 10, 1940, Stalin began the first of four deportations of an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Poles to slave labour camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Under gunpoint, entire families were hurried to waiting trains, crammed into cattle trucks and deported as disposable labour into the depths of Stalin's Russia.
Deportation in Cattle Wagons
In the months following the Nazi/Soviet partition of Poland, the Soviets began a policy of ethnic cleansing to weed out what they called socially dangerous and anti-soviet elements. Many citizens described the terror:
- "We were awakened in the middle of one cold winter night by a loud voice and banging on the front door. When the door was opened, we saw three uniformed NKVD men crowded into the room. Grabbing my father they pushed him into a chair and placed a bayonet into his mouth demanding that we hand over our weapons."~S. Buczak-Zarzycka
- "They gave us 3 hours to pack our belongings as we would be re-settled, destination unknown." ~B.Trybuchowski
- "The trip took over 3 weeks. Cold, hunger and dirt were our constant companions. By the time we reached the labor camps of Siberia about 10% of the people had already died....Since the train seldom stopped, the dead were sometimes kept in the boxcars for the entire day." ~ T. Pieczko
Working for 300 g of Bread per Day
The deportees were forced to work in extremely harsh conditions with rampant disease and little for food.
- "Legs and hands frost-bitten, consittutions drained from hard work, hunger and lack of vitamins...My legs were ulcerated and covered in wounds which would not heal." ~S. Kukla (nee Lukasiewicz)
- " There was always a shortage of food...Bedbugs and lice were always a nuisance to us." ~T. Pieczko
- "After 42 days the long, macabre journey came to an end. We arrived in Siberia, the land so awfully well-known in history. We learned that our destiny was to be a concentration camp, whose main project was the building of a railway on the vast Siberian plains....Unquestionably the technique of the Russian leaders to destroy a human being is slow and methodical." ~E.Sowinska.
When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin agreed to releasing the deportees to help with the Allied fight against Hitler. By then, many had already died from starvation, disease, and the rigid demands of labour in harsh climates. Once released, many more died on their long journey south from the arctic labour camps, enduring severe malnutrition and disease on their way to their freedom in Persia (now Iran).
- "In the course of such journeys many families fell victim to separation....people left the train in search of food and water. Weeks passed before families found each other again, but not all of them. That was true despair." ~ S. Kukla
- "After a few weeks, father arrives, finds his wife unconscious and us children with a high temperature in a shed as the Russian woman was afraid that we would infect her son with typhoid." ~ B. Trybuchowski
Evacuation to Iran
"The first evacuation- although this was originally justified as an evacuation of military personnel, large numbers of civilians also came: the first evacuation to Iran in March, 1942 included 12,408 Polish civilians, the second in August, 1942 brought another 26,094....The civilians, like the soldiers, reached Pahlevi on the Caspian Sea suffering from the effects of the prolonged starvation, hard labour and lack of health care that had characterized their exile in the Soviet Union." ~ H. Kochanski.
"On March 24, 1942 we boarded a Russian ship called Zdanov to Pahlavi, Iran. The seas were very rough. Many people became sick and died on the way. I did not dare move from my blanket for fear of coming in contact with the smelly mess that covered the deck of the ship." ~A Paschwa (nee Kozicka).
Kresy-Siberia Foundation: Rather than add resources here I recommend exploring this thorough site dedicated to the research, remembrance and recognition of Polish citizens struggles in Eastern Poland and in forced exile during WWII. Includes an excellent virtual museum and many resources. Some of the photos on this website were gratefully provided by Kresy-Siberia.