William Chodkiewicz and Janina Muszyńska
On Sunday, February 20, 2005 the Polish Community of Edmonton gathered at the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the mass deportations of Polish citizens from the eastern Poland. The solemn ceremony commenced with the celebration of the Holy Mass, and concluded with the dedication of the memorial plaque to the victims of the mass deportations.
Poland was invaded on September 1, 1939 by Nazi Germany. In September 17, 1939, while the Polish nation struggled desperately and alone against the might of Nazi Germany, the Soviets, having concluded the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Nazis Ally only a short week before, delivered the treacherous blow from the east. The Western Allies declared war on Germany but offered only moral support. Purges, terror, murder and the mass deportations followed Poland’s defeat.
In February 10, 1940 during severely cold weather, (the temperature dipped to minus 40C that night), 110 cattle trains, each carrying 2000 people, transported 220,000 victims mostly women and children, to various hostile destinations in the USSR. Deportations followed in April and June, 1940, and continued until June 22, 1941 when Germany attacked the USSR. By that time close to two million Polish citizens were condemned to the remote areas of northern Russia, Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan and other remote locations of the vast USSR
The conditions of the “human cargo” jammed in the cattle cars defies 0description. Deprived of food, heat and the most basic sanitary conditions, thousands perished during the trips. Thousands more died shortly after arrival. The trains did not stop to allow for proper religious burials. The victims were simply tossed out as death trains rolled onward to their destinations.
The clergy was not among the women and children. They, along with officers, professionals, and others, were arrested in autumn and winter of 1939 and executed in cold blood. Thousands of remains were found. Each one had their hands tried behind their back and a bullet in the back of their skull. Some were buried in the mass graves of Kharkov, Tver, the Katyn forest (4421bodies), Ostashkov (6311), and Starobielsk (3820). Thousands of others perished in remote sites, some still unknown. Most of the victims were officers, professors, teachers, doctors, diplomats, civil servants and religious leaders. Of the two million deportees only 554,000 were alive and accounted for by 1945.
In June 1941 when Germans turned against their Soviet Ally, Stalin declared an “amnesty” for the Poles. To the innocent victims the word “amnesty” was a sham, for their only crime was their Polish citizenship. Thousands of deportees, walking skeletons, were released from the Gulag and the slave labour camps. As they trekked toward freedom across thousands of kilometers of the barren Siberian taigas and steppes, thousands died of the cold, disease and malnutrition. Buried in unmarked mass graves, the remain there, forgotten by all but their loved ones.
In 1943, the advancing German army announced the discovery of the mass graves in the Katyn forest (West Belarus). The Stalinist regime blamed the Germans for the atrocity. Polish Government in Exile asked for investigations by the International Red Cross. The Russians refused to agree. Successive Soviet regimes perpetuated the lie for 50 years. The British Government kept numb for decades, and indeed strongly discouraged the Poles to make representations or to speak about it. By 1993, the Russian Government, new democratically elected, finally admitted the crime and issued a formal apology.
Under the leadership of the Polish Government in exile based in London, with the support of the friendly British, the Polish Free Forces were being organized. The leader was General Wladyslaw Anders, just released from the Soviet prison. The exodus to Iran, Iraq, and Palestine followed. The newly formed Polish Army joined thousands of their compatriots who found their way to the UK after Poland’s defeat in 1939.
A formidable fighting machine, the Polish Free Forces constituted the fourth largest contingent of the Western Allies. They fought in the air, sea and land and distinguished themselves on many fronts: The battle of Britain, Narvik, Tobruk, Ancona, Bologna, Monte Cassino, Holland, Belgium and other points on the Western Europe. The less fortunate Poles, who did not leave with General Anders, were organized by the Soviets into Polish divisions and fought on the Eastern front under the Russian Command.
The Polish organized resistance, in occupied Poland, was the largest in Europe. Poland, an exception in the German occupied Europe, did not have a Quisling government. All the efforts by the occupiers to form a collaborative government failed. In German occupied Poland, hiding, aiding or providing food to a Jew was punished in execution of the whole family. This was not the case in the western European Nazis occupied countries. Despite of that, thousands were saved. German occupied Poland was the only country in Europe that had an organization solely dedicated to saving of Jews from the infamous ghettos. It was known as “Zegota” and it was instrumental in savings thousands of lives. On a per capita basis Poland lost more citizens than any other country, over six million of its citizens dead, half of the Jewish faith at the hands of the Nazis.
The end of hostilities in May 1945 found hundreds of thousands of Polish deportees with no place to go. Their homes in the former eastern Poland were given away at the Yalta, Teheran and Potsdam conferences Roosevelt and Churchill ever so willing to accommodate Stalin’s ambitions at the “First Ally’s expense.
Poland, lay in ruins, totally devastated. Return to the many of the deportees meant imprisonment, deportation or death.
Poland, the “first ally” lost one third of its territory and was confined to the Soviet sphere of influence from which it did not emerge until 1989. To add insult to injury the British Government, ever so sensitive not to offend good old “Uncle Joe Stalin”
Did not invite the Poles deportees eventually found their way to Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, UK, South America and friendly countries. There are thousands of former deportees, their children and grandchildren in Alberta and Canada. They are grateful and proud Canadians contributing in every field of human endeavor. For many of the deportees, who are now in their seventies and eighties, the escape from the living hell of the Stalinist Soviet Union is still considered a miracle. On Sunday February 20th, 2005 they sadly commemorated the deaths of their loved ones, thanked God for their deliverance, and prayed that no one, ever again, will suffer such cruel inhumanity.
William Chodkiewicz and Janina Muszynska,
Kolo SPK No. 6 Edmonton