Explore touching stories of Polish citizens victims and witnesses of totalitarian crimes

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The first mass deportation into the bowels of the Soviet Union

Michał Bronowicki

 

The annexation of the Polish Eastern Borderlands, carried out by the Red Army in the autumn of 1939, marked the onset of far-reaching political changes that were accompanied by brutal repressions against the local populace. Among the most severe and vicious of these were the deportations into the Soviet hinterland, executed in four main waves during the years 1940–1941. The first was conducted just a few months after the formal incorporation of the Eastern Borderlands into Stalin’s totalitarian state.

The establishment of the communist order in “Western Byelorussia” and “Western Ukraine” – as the appropriated lands were called in Soviet nomenclature – made it necessary to render all and any persons who posed a potential threat to the new order incapable of resistance, if necessary through their physical elimination. People thus defined as “dangerous” included, among others, military[1] and civilian settlers, representatives of the Polish forestry service[2], and also lower-ranking civil servants. In consequence, these groups became the first victims of the planned winter deportation. On 4 and 5 December 1939, the Political Bureau of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR adopted decrees on the deportation of persons from the abovementioned social and professional circles. Next, on 29 December 1939, the Soviet authorities approved an instruction regulating the operational procedures of the whole process, and organizational issues connected with the special settlements in which the deportees were to be placed. Preparations for the campaign were brought to a close in January 1940 with the compilation of lists containing the surnames of Poles – as well as of Ukrainians and Byelorussians, although relatively smaller in number – earmarked for expulsion.

 

Evicting the “enemies of the people”

During the night from 9 to 10 February 1940, functionaries of the NKVD forced their way into thousands of homes in the annexed lands[3]. The residents, clearly surprised, were ordered to pack their belongings immediately and prepare for travel. According to the previously adopted guidelines, they were allowed to take with them 500 kg of luggage per family, including food and money. In practice, the bewildered people – terrified by the immediacy of the situation and hounded to hurry up – were in the main unable to think rationally and gather their most important belongings[4]. They had at most half an hour to ready themselves, however it was common practice for this to be limited to fifteen or ten minutes – or even less. At the same time, the so-called troikas – made up of NKVD functionaries and representatives of the local Soviet authorities, which arrived in the company of armed escorts – deliberately misinformed the expellees, frequently stating that they were being moved to a neighboring district. The actual place of deportation was only rarely named. Assistance was provided on an equally sporadic basis. Nevertheless, there are testimonies in which people mention that they were advised to add at least warm clothes to their luggage. Their immovable property, if not plundered straight away, was seized by the Soviet state.

The evicted people were driven to concentration points[9], where they were forced to wait until larger groups gathered. Next, they were sent to preselected railway stations[10] and crammed into waiting railway cars. From then on, they would be supervised by NKVD Convoy Troops, who had been specially chosen as guards. Pursuant to the Soviet instruction, individual trains were to be made up of 55 goods wagons (each intended for 25 persons), complete with a sanitary wagon, an isolation ward car for the sick, a grocery kiosk wagon, and a separate car for the escort. Transports were planned to be dispatched immediately after all those figuring on the lists had been detained. The reality, however, differed substantially from what the directive prescribed. Theoretically, deportees were to be assured medical care (each train was to have a medical auxiliary, nurses, and a stock of drugs) and regular meals (one hot meal per day and 800 grams of bread daily). But their actual situation was far removed from what had been arranged on paper, and their tragedy was compounded by the terrible atmospheric conditions, for the campaign took place in the severe cold of February. It was not unusual for transports to leave a number of days late and without the recommended number of single-window, barred wagons – as a result, up to 50 people would be crammed into one car. Inside, there were plank beds and primitive heating stoves, while toilet holes were cut out in the floor. Firewood and food were at a premium[11]. In the initial stage, when they had been loaded into the wagons, the deportees were frequently given nothing more than boiled water in buckets, whereas later they would receive completely insufficient bread rations and – irregularly – some soup of nearly no nutritional value. People supported themselves with the rapidly dwindling supplies taken from home, sharing them with their companions in misery, while water was obtained from snow or the hoar frost forming on wagon walls[12]. The appalling hygienic conditions guaranteed the rapid spread of disease, particularly amongst children and the elderly. The weakest fell victim to ailments with which they had to cope on their own, without any drugs, for the guards did not let anyone out of the wagons once they had been locked shut, and themselves had no medications that they could have given to the deportees. In any case, it was difficult to expect any real assistance from the Soviets, since in accordance with contemporary propaganda the expulsions concerned “enemies of the people”[13], rabid haters of the “homeland of the proletariat” who deserved absolutely no compassion.

 

In the “inhuman land”

It usually took a transport three or so weeks to arrive at its destination. While passing through the townships situated along the prewar Polish–Soviet border, the hapless exiles quickly realized that they were headed much further east than they had been told. Having been barbarically removed from their homeland, they were now deprived of any real hope of returning, and their mental trauma increased. The word “Siberia” was well known to them all, and they were fully aware of what banishment there had entailed for past generations of Poles. Their physical torment, in turn, was aggravated by the bitter cold that swept into the wagons through the floor openings. Extremely hostile conditions of travel, hunger, and increasing exhaustion all served to raise mortality. It is no surprise therefore that, according to the estimates of contemporary historians, the highest death rate was observed amongst those deported in February 1940. Worse was to come, however, for these “special deportees – settlers” (as they were known in Soviet terminology) were headed straight for the “special” settlements administered directly by the NKVD.

As individual transports neared their destinations, wagons would be detached in succession and unloaded at designated stations; it was less common for the whole transport to be offloaded at a single stopping place. The voyage would then be continued over frozen rivers and roads, either on sleighs or on foot, while journey’s end was approached in smaller groups. Exhausted and hungry, the deportees soon came to realize that their only prospect was torturous labor and life amidst conditions that were an affront to humanity[14]. Settlements would be peopled with those families that had not been previously separated, some 100 to 500 souls per hamlet. For them, this marked the beginning of a new stage in their hellish experience of the “inhuman land”.

The first mass deportation was the worst organized of all four carried out until June 1941. One of its most grievous and at the same time telling effects was the complete elimination of Polish military colonization from the Eastern Borderlands. Hastily prepared and conducted during a period of weather that was similarly unfavorable to the Soviets, this badly planned operation, performed without due logistical support and contrary to the most basic instructions (although in this it did not differ from the other campaigns), was at once the largest in terms of the number of expellees. In its course, some 51,000 people from “Western Byelorussia” and more than 89,000 from “Western Ukraine” were uprooted and brutally moved to Siberia and the European part of the USSR, whereas nearly one half of those resettled – that is approximately 58,000 – were children. The deportees were sent to the following Soviet Republics: the Russian (to the Arkhangelsk, Chelyabinsk, Tchkalovo, Gorky, Irkutsk, Ivanovskaya, Yaroslavl, Kirov, Molotov, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk and Vologda oblasts), Komi, Yakutsk, and Bashkir, and also to the Krasnoyarsk Krai and the Altai Krai. A small group ended up in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic[15]. From then on, their fate lay completely in the hands of the NKVD commandants who supervised the special settlements.

 

Bibliography

Ciesielski Stanisław, Hryciuk Grzegorz, Srebrakowski Aleksander, Masowe deportacje radzieckie w okresie II wojny światowej, Toruń 2004.

Ciesielski Stanisław, Materski Wojciech, Paczkowski Andrzej, Represje sowieckie wobec Polaków i obywateli polskich, Warsaw 2002.

Stobniak-Smogorzewska Janina, Kresowe osadnictwo wojskowe 1920–1945, Warsaw 2003.

 

Michał Bronowicki – a graduate of the Faculty of Historical and Social Sciences of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University. An archivist, Sovietologist, long-standing employee of the East Archive of the KARTA Center and the History Meeting House, and the managing editor of a series of academic albums about the Second World War for the general public, published by the company “New Media Concept”, he is also the author of a few dozen articles printed among others in “Karta”, “Zesłaniec”, “Kresowe Stanice”, and on the website of the Kresy-Syberia Virtual Museum, concerning mainly the history of the Eastern Borderlands of the Republic of Poland and the repressive measures applied by the Soviets against residents of the region. He is currently the coordinator of the “Spoken History Archive” program and the curator of the permanent exhibition at the Józef Piłsudski Museum in Sulejówek.

 

[1] Cf. the account of Mieczysław Długoborski.

[2] Cf. the account of Stefania Dziekońska.

[3] Cf. the account of Kazimierz Łojek.

[4] Cf. the account of Stanisława Iwańczuk.

[5] Cf. the account of Helena Borasińska.

[6] Cf. the account of Jan Cieślak.

[7] Cf. the account of Jadwiga Ciecierska.

[8] Cf. the account of Emilia Bielska.

[9] Cf. the account of Józef Banasiewicz.

[10] Cf. the account of Weronika Dziem.

[11] Cf. the account of Bohdan Doliński.

[12] Cf. the account of Jan Bełski.

[13] Cf. the account of Julian Badach.

[14] Cf. the account of Weronika Burghard.

[15] Cf. the account of Antonina Balawender.