Daily Archives: 21 May 2005

Polish Diaspora from the Gulag

On July 30, 1941, a month after the launch of [Hitler’s Operation] Barbarossa, General Sikorski, the leader of the Polish government-in-exile in London, and Ambassador Maisky, the Soviet envoy to Great Britain, signed a truce. The Sikorski-Maisky Pact, as the treaty was called, re-established a Polish state–its borders still to be determined–and granted an amnesty to “all [1,500,000 or more!] Polish citizens who are at present deprived of their freedom on the territory of the USSR.”

Both Gulag prisoners and deported exiles were officially freed, and allowed to join a new division of the Polish army, to be formed on Soviet soil. In Moscow, General Wladyslaw Anders, a Polish officer who had been imprisoned in Lubyanka for the previous twenty months, learned that he had been named commander of the new army during a surprise meeting with [NKVD Chief Lavrenty] Beria himself. After the meeting, General Anders left the prison in a chauffeured NKVD car, wearing a shirt and trousers, but no shoes….

Other Polish prisoners were released from camps or exile settlements but not given any money or told where to go. One ex-prisoner recalled that “The Soviet authorities in Omsk didn’t want to help us, explaining that they knew nothing about any Polish army, and instead proposed that we find work near Omsk.” An NKVD officer gave Herling a list of places where he could get a residence permit, but denied all knowledge of a Polish army. Following rumors, the released Polish prisoners hitchhiked and rode trains around the Soviet Union, looking for the Polish army.

Stefan Waydenfeld’s family, exiled to northern Russia, were not told of the existence of the Polish army at all, nor offered any means of transport whatsoever: they were simply told they could go. In order to get away from their remote exile village, they built a raft, and floated down their local river toward “civilization”–a town which had a railway station. Months later, they were finally rescued from their wanderings when, in a cafe in the town of Chimkent, southern Kazakhstan, Stefan recognized a classmate from his school in Poland. She told them, finally, where to find the Polish army….

Employees of the Polish Embassy, deployed around the country, were still subject to unexplained arrest. Fearing the situation might worsen, General Anders changed his plan in March 1942. Instead of marching his army west, toward the front line, he won permission to evacuate his troops out of the Soviet Union altogether. It was a vast operation: 74,000 Polish troops, and another 41,000 civilians, including many children, were put on trains and sent to Iran.

In his haste to leave, General Anders left thousands more Poles behind, along with their Jewish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian former fellow citizens. Some eventually joined the Kosciuszko division, a Polish division of the Red Army. Others had to wait for the war to end to be repatriated. Still others never left at all. To this day, some of their descendants still live in ethnic Polish communities in Kazakhstan and northern Russia.

Those who left kept fighting. After recovering in Iran, Anders’s army did manage to join the Allied forces in Europe. Traveling via Palestine–and in some cases via South Africa–they later fought for the liberation of Italy at the Battle of Montecassino. While the war continued, the Polish civilians were parceled out to various parts of the British Empire. Polish children wound up in orphanages in India, Palestine, even east Africa. Most would never return to Soviet-occupied, postwar Poland. The Polish clubs, Polish historical societies, and Polish restaurants still found in West London are testimony to their postwar exile.

After they had left the USSR, the departed Poles performed an invaluable service for their less fortunate ex-fellow inmates. In Iran and Palestine, the army and the Polish government-in-exile conducted several surveys of the soldiers and their families in order to determine exactly what had happened to the Poles deported to the Soviet Union. Because the Anders evacuation was the only large group of prisoners ever allowed to leave the USSR, the material produced by these questionnaires and somewhat rushed historical inquiries remained the only substantial evidence of the Gulag’s existence for half a century. And, within limits, it was surprisingly accurate: although they had no real understanding of the Gulag’s history, the Polish prisoners did manage to convey the camp system’s staggering size, its geographical extent–all they had to do was list the wide variety of places they had been sent–and its horrific wartime living conditions.

After the war, the Poles’ descriptions of their experiences formed the basis for reports on Soviet forced-labor camps produced by the Library of Congress and the American Federation of Labor. Their straightforward accounts of the Soviet slave-labor system came as a shock to many Americans, whose awareness of the camps had dimmed since the days of the Soviet timber boycotts in the 1920s. These reports circulated widely, and in 1949, in an attempt to persuade the United Nations to investigate the practice of forced labor in its member states, the AFL presented the UN with a thick body of evidence of its existence in the Soviet Union…. The Cold War had begun.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 451-454

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