Almost two million of Poland’s citizens suffered this “Eastern Gehenna”. Many died in the Soviet labor camps from hypothermia, lack of nutrition, or diseases like typhoid or malaria. Others died at the hands of the Germans or Ukrainian murder squads. About 100,000 survived to join the Polish Forces under Allied command, battling Nazi Germany in Africa and Europe, or to see out the war in civilian refugee camps in the Middle East, Africa, India, New Zealand and Mexico. Most never returned to their fatherland, because it was annexed by the Soviet regime after the war.
The Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum, and the Foundation behind it, are “dedicated to research, remembrance and recognition of Poland’s citizens fight for freedom and survival in eastern Poland and forced exile during World War II”. It was established by the survivors and their descendants in order to tell the stories of the “Polish Gehenna” to the world. We have an active discussion group, a website, a Facebook page and a virtual museum with over 65,000 names on our Memorial Wall, nearly 1000 recorded Survivor Testimonies and an online gallery containing over 35,000 photographs and documents.
From its humble beginnings, our collection quickly began to grow. We started to envisage the possibility of making the collection more readily accessible to a greater number of people. This seemed all the more relevant as a goal, given that other historical images and information, such as those housed in the Karta Centre in Warsaw, the Hoover Institution in California and the Sikorski Institute in London, remain stored in archives and not as readily accessible as they might be for study and display. In addition, we were conscious of the march of the time taking its toll on the last of the survivors – and as they leave us, we risk losing the memories of their historic and heroic experiences.
We are committed to honouring these memories by telling the world about the “Polish Gehenna.” At first, we believed that the appropriate means to honour and display our families’ documents and possessions would be through the establishment of a physical museum, similar to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or to the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw. In the absence of a physical venue commemorating this history, however, we began to conceive of a virtual museum as a more practical undertaking, as well as one that has the potential to be more effective in reaching people throughout the world. Our solution, therefore, has been to work with key partners in order to create a virtual museum on the Internet and to make our collection accessible to the world. This, we have begun to do.
Although our virtual museum is still in its online infancy, it already contains a number of elements designed to shape the visitor’s experience in learning about an almost unknown chapter of World War II. Most notably, the museum has separate galleries, documenting various historical episodes related to our families’ sagas. For example, one gallery includes documents about the deportations to forced labour camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Another gallery contains documentation about Anders Army. The number of exhibitions is not pre-determined nor constrained by a physical structure. We hope that the galleries will be an ongoing project with unlimited potential for growth as we add more and more documents from different sources. Our ambition is to join forces with organizations that possess documents related to the “Polish Gehenna” and to the Polish Armies in Exile of World War II in order to facilitate the display of the most complete collection possible. Eventually, we also plan to create educational modules, conduct seminars, and feature music as well as film clips of survivors telling their stories.
Clearly, an enterprise such as this one will require a range of technical and archival skills to create and maintain the Virtual Museum. Key partners in Poland and elsewhere are already helping us with this work. The funding for the work and ongoing operation of the Virtual Museum is assured by the Kresy-Siberia Foundation. This is a huge undertaking, but also a greatly important historical one, requiring the financial assistance, time and energy of many groups. Organizations that share common goals with the Kresy-Siberia Group are partnering with us to reach these goals. We have already benefited from the generosity of our benefactors, and hope to attract others who will assist us in growing the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum.
Kresy-Siberia Founder and Foundation President