On the morning of 17 September 1939, the Red Army crossed the eastern border of Poland, thus acting on the terms of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The invader immediately commenced deportations, transporting hundreds of thousands of Poles away from their homes and deep into the Soviet interior, to the wild steppes of Kazakhstan, the Arkhangelsk region, the Altai Krai, and to the autonomous Soviet republics of Yakutia and Komi.
The outbreak of the Soviet-German war in June 1941 and the signing of the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement raised hopes amongst deportees that they would somehow free themselves from their desperate predicament. However, the road to liberation was far from smooth – unwillingly, the Soviets allowed General Władysław Anders to raise an army, but acted to prevent people from reaching its recruitment posts using all means possible. The climate and harsh travelling conditions also took a heavy toll on the lives of the recently released Poles.
The policy of the Soviet Union towards subjugated nations was marked with ruthlessness. Persons constituting a potential threat to the occupier – military personnel, civil servants, teachers and social activists – were deported from newly-seized areas together with their entire families. In February, April, May, June and July 1940, and also in May and June 1941, over 300,000 Polish citizens, including Belarusians, Ukrainians and Jews, faced forced displacement (some estimates put the figure as high as 1.5 million). In addition, more than 100,000 people were arrested and sentenced to punitive labor in the Gulag. Many POWs, in violation of international law, were also sent to the camp system and used as slave workers.
Władysław Anders came to the assistance of them all. When the “amnesty” was proclaimed (in actual fact, it was not an amnesty, as the deportees had not committed any crimes, at least not in our understanding of the term), the majority of the expellees could set off for recruitment posts in order to enlist in the newly forming Polish Army. There, they received tangible material assistance – food and shelter – and soon regained their conviction that Poland was not yet lost. Their children were properly taken care of, while the elderly and the disabled were accepted into service, although under normal circumstances they would not have been admitted to the armed forces. General Anders’ foremost goal was to help the deportees, not to create a potent military force, although he succeeded in the latter as well, as evidenced by the capture of Monte Cassino in May 1944.
Many expellees had to cover thousands of kilometers to reach the Army. Left to their own devices in a foreign country, without a knowledge of its language and with no means of subsistence, hounded incessantly by the NKVD, whole families trudged southwards, to the southern periphery of the Soviet Union. Their destination were the towns of Totskoye, Kermine and numerous others in which recruitment posts had been set up:
I was released on 10 August 1941 and sent to a small town called Lysva. Ragged, hungry and destitute, I had to find a job there. A few days later, the local militia forced me to perform hard work in a military equipment factory. I had to work 12 hours per day but earned very little; besides, there was nothing to buy. In the meantime I learned that a Polish army was being formed, and I wanted to join it. The local authorities didn’t grant me permission to leave, and I was even threatened with detention. I didn’t let them intimidate me, and on 12 September 1941 I simply fled. After a month’s journey I reached Totskoye, where the army was being raised. – recounted Tadeusz Chudecki, who had been arrested for membership in the Shooting Union, and subsequently imprisoned and tortured by the NKVD.
Poles released from the labor camps and prisons lacked any means to support themselves, and were therefore forced to find work. Moreover, freedom of movement in the Soviet Union was very much restricted. Those travelling without a passport or a permit of leave were in danger of arrest. Obtaining the latter was however well-nigh impossible if the job one performed was important for the war effort.
Chudecki travelled alone. But others traversed the USSR with their entire families, having to take care of elderly parents or small children. Below is a fragment of the account of Helena Borasińska and her daughter Jadwiga, who were deported with their family up north, to the Arkhangelsk Oblast:
Indeed, on 15 August 1941 the amnesty was proclaimed. They couldn’t come to terms with it, they choked on the words “you’re free”, because they couldn’t forget the words which they had been using to convince us before.
On 24 September 1941 my whole family set off on a journey, with the hope that we were going to join the army. However, we made the rounds of various kolkhozes instead. We suffered new hardships, maybe worse than up north. We didn’t even see any bread there. We had to work – but this time not in the woods or in the snow, only at digging canals. For meeting the work quota we received 200 grams of barley. We had to live on this. In the kolkhoz, old and dilapidated kibitkas served as our quarters. It was cold and we were hungry.
Then my oldest brother developed pneumonia. He had already been in poor health back in the north. Due to all this hard work he suffered from lowering of the stomach. The life we had was horrible. We took him to the hospital – Father, Mother and my younger brother (…) We were very miserable there and every day seemed hopeless, as there was no one to comfort us. We went to the hospital every other day. Father joined the army directly from the place he had been taken to. Mother didn’t know that Father had joined the army, and she came back to us. (…) On the second day after she returned, my brother and I went with Her to the hospital. We came just in time to say goodbye to Tolo. Oh God – on 6 February 1942 the sad blue eyes of my darling brother looked at us for the last time. He died, poor thing.
On the second day after the funeral, both my little brothers went to join Father, as he had sent us a message that he was in the army in Guzar. My brothers and I joined the army students’ corps. Mother and I spent one more month in a kolkhoz. We couldn’t leave because Mother fell ill. We received letters from Father, he kept writing that we must come to Guzar. It was difficult to escape the kolkhoz, as despite all our efforts the NKVD didn’t want to release us from labor. I made the rounds of a great number of offices, trying to obtain the various papers which we needed to be able to leave. The certificate of release and the tickets were the most difficult to get. We arrived in Guzar on 29 March 1942, and we found Father there. We made strenuous efforts, we submitted applications for admission into the army. Our applications weren’t turned down. On 3 April 1942 we joined the ranks of the Women’s Auxiliary Service of the Polish army.
The army students’ corps and the Women’s Auxiliary Service (WAS) were auxiliary formations of Anders’ Army which enabled the formal enlistment of women and children.
Reaching the recruitment posts called for no mean guile and ingenuity. One group of Poles who were released from a settlement came up with a bold idea – they made rafts in order to swim downriver to a town where they could board a train:
On the evening of 13 September a Soviet committee came to the hamlet, organized a meeting and proclaimed the amnesty. Finally, the long-awaited event had taken place. It was virtually impossible to leave the hamlet.
We were not helped, but on the contrary – obstructed. A military settler from our group, Mr. Bocheński, hit upon the idea of making rafts that would take us to the station in Kotlas.
His project was met with enthusiasm, and we built the rafts day and night. The NKVD came to prevent us from leaving. They wanted to stop us by hook or by crook, but neither requests nor threats had any effect on us, and towards the end of September we set off in the direction of Kotlas. From there we went by train to Southern Russia, in the direction of Uzbekistan. In Guzar, on 5 February 1942, I joined the army – recounted Stefania Dziekońska, a forester’s daughter who had been displaced together with her father and entire family in a mass deportation of Poles on 10 February 1940.
The Soviets also expelled those Polish citizens who had escaped from regions of the country occupied by Germany. The Soviet authorities regarded them with suspicion – the way they treated everyone who came from without. This category of deportees included Bolesław Augustyn, who was transported into the bowels of the USSR together with his family:
Everyone who left the German-occupied territories was required to register at the local administration office (the commune or city board) and at the militia station. (…) The severe hardships I suffered in Russia actually began upon my release from the settlement in which we stayed. Having been told that it was necessary for me to leave, I was thrown out of my lodging and deprived of the right to buy bread or anything else to eat. It was at the end of August 1941. Forced to sell the rest of our bedding, I managed to set some money aside to go to Buzuluk in order to join the army there and to consign my wife and children to the care of the Polish authorities. Upon reaching my destination, I learned that the Polish army units in Buzuluk had already been fully assembled. I was advised to go to Tashkent. There is insufficient space here to describe all the nights spent on the streets of Samarkand (about three weeks). The Soviet authorities saw us Poles walking around but offered no help. My family and I had run out of all the material means we had at our disposal, and were left with no other option but to search the streets and marketplaces for some leftovers still fit for consumption – lost potatoes, vegetables etc. We also had to scavenge for tree branches to get a fire going and cook the “products” we had found. It is easy to imagine that under such conditions we were ridden with lice. Lice, physical exhaustion, hunger, filth and cold – these are all factors likely to result in typhus fever. We all fell ill, even though I was at the time living in a kolkhoz near Samarkand. My children were the first to develop the disease, then my wife, and finally I. My wife never recovered. She died on 21 January 1942. Once my children had recovered from this terrible illness, I sent them – emaciated and starving – to the Polish orphanage. They went on their own. Still burning with fever, I remained. I had no strength to stand up. The orphanage was twelve kilometers away from where I lived. Two weeks after my children’s departure, the crisis of my illness passed and, thanks to people’s help, I recovered to the point of being able to go to Kermine and join the Polish army there. I wish to add that at that time typhus had already reached epidemic proportions, but the Soviet authorities offered us no help.
The people flocking to General Anders’ Army could not count on any help from the local authorities. Very often, this lack of assistance was tantamount to a death sentence. Those who survived the hardships of the journey arrived at the recruitment posts emaciated and gaunt, their health destroyed by hard work and the inhospitable climate. General Anders himself doubted whether this “army of beggars” could be turned into a cohesive military force. As it turned out, it could: Anders’ Army took an active part in the fighting in Italy, while its crowning achievement was the capture of the monastery atop Monte Cassino hill on 18 May 1944.
The above quoted depositions, collected by the Documentation Office of the Polish Army in the East, are just a small selection from the thousands of accounts currently stored in the Archives of the Hoover Institution and published on an ongoing basis in the “Chronicles of Terror” digital repository.