The Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum (KSVM) sheds light on the one chapter of World War II history which is the least well known. This large chunk of history was suppressed, ignored or simply not told. It was kept quiet during the Cold War by both the Polish and Soviet communist regimes because it would have revealed their brutality and disregard for human life. The subject was taboo in Poland until 1989. All war-time atrocities were blamed solely on the Germans and the history books were printed without any mention of the role of the Soviet Union as an aggressor during the war. In fact, the Soviet Union positioned itself as the liberator of Poland, delivering the country and its people from the yoke of Nazism.
This history was also ignored in the West, at least in part, because it revealed the murderous side of their World War II ally, the Soviet Union and its leader, Uncle Joe. It was also unbelievable to both the British and Americans that the Soviets could possibly be such pathological liars, and that the Soviet system could be so thoroughly corrupt and brutal. Aside from a period of thaw following the break up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Moscow to this day, has continued to deny, minimize and deflect blame for all of the atrocities it committed against Poland and its people.
The Soviet Union, at the time Hitler’s ally, invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, and like its Nazi collaborators, embarked on a systematic destruction of Poland’s leading elite from every walk of life: teachers, clergy, university professors, state administrators and clerks, doctors, landowners, police and military officers and anyone else considered a danger to the Soviet state (men and women alike). Once the men were taken care of, quite often, the wives and children would be subject to deportation and exile. By the time the deportations had ceased in 1957, nearly two million of these unfortunates had been seized, arrested and forcibly deported to Siberia, most during the war. About 35% of them were dead within a year, having been worked, starved or frozen to death in the labor camps of the Siberian far north, or, as in the case of the Katyn massacre of 25,000 Polish officers, brutally murdered.
It would be helpful to remember that in the 1930s, Poland had the misfortune of having Nazi Germany as its neighbor on its western border and the communist Soviet Union on its eastern. Hitler completely disregarded the Polish-German non-aggression pact of 1934 and instead, on 23 August 1939, joined his totalitarian dictator colleague, Joseph Stalin, in the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. This non-aggression pact contained secret protocols to partition Poland and, in fact, all of central and eastern Europe between the two powers. One week later, Germany invaded Poland and, two weeks after that, the Soviets attacked Poland to claim their share of the booty. Nazi and Soviet ethnic cleansing and extermination policies were instituted simultaneously and almost immediately.
The Poles then endured almost six years of brutal occupation, followed by years of civil war as the Soviets and the Soviet-backed Polish Communists smothered any hope of democracy and imposed their totalitarian regime on the country.
Polish soldiers who escaped to exile fought alongside Allied forces, on many fronts, against the German war machine. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Polish prisoners in Siberia were officially freed from bondage by Stalin. A Polish army on Soviet soil was formed and just over 100,000 men, women and children were able to leave via Iran with General Anders and his Second Corps. However, the vast majority of Poles remained stuck within the Soviet Union. To escape the camps and prisons, some volunteered (others were conscripted) for the “other” Polish Army formed on Soviet soil led by Polish officer General Berling, although under thorough and strict Soviet control. Underfed, undersupplied and inadequately trained, they were sacrificed as cannon fodder against superior German troops.
Other Polish exiles found their way to France and defended that country in 1940 and took part in operations in Norway. Following the fall of France, many found themselves in England. Polish pilots distinguished themselves during the Battle of Britain. Polish sailors fought across the globe with the Polish Navy. General Maczek’s 1st Polish Armored Division and General Sosabowski’s Independent Parachute Brigade fought valiantly in Northern Europe. Exiled soldiers, who found themselves in Syria in 1939, later helped defend Tobruk. Hundreds of thousands of those who remained in Poland joined the most effective resistance movement on the European continent. And the Polish Second Corps, men and women who had survived the frozen hell of Siberia, fought their way up the Italian peninsula with the British 8th Army.
During the immediate post-war period, a large number of the Poles who had been left behind in the Soviet Union were repatriated to Poland, given land or apartments in the eastern section of Germany, ceded to Poland as compensation for the Soviet annexation of Poland’s eastern “Kresy” (borderland) provinces. Many Poles however, remained in the Soviet Union. Few of the exiles returned to Poland.
The German extermination practices in occupied Poland are well known and documented. Soviet brutalities in eastern Poland, the Kresy, were a forbidden subject in the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites. Now this history is being told in the words, written accounts, documents, photographs, and original films of the victims themselves, the “Sybiraks”. Ironically, this part of World War II, kept in the dark for seventy years, will now be one of the most thoroughly documented phases of that murderous time in human history, thanks to the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum.
Why, one can ask, should this story of Soviet barbarity in the Polish Kresy be told now? For one, because only an uncensored history can teach lessons which may help us avoid such horrors in the future. Secondly, concealed depravities are condoned depravities, therefore more likely to be repeated. Thirdly, each descendant of the survivors, and of those who perished, has the right to know his or her family’s history. In the words of one young girl who, upon hearing her grandfather’s instruction that his military uniforms, a Polish one from World War I and an English battle dress from World War II, be thrown out because “who will have any use for them after I die,” exclaimed “Dziadziu (Grandfather), you have no right to throw them out. They are my family’s history. They belong to me!”
She spoke for her generation. We, the survivors, have no right to dispose of that part of our history as we please. Our past belongs to those who come after us. They need it, because from it they derive their identity, they draw strength from it, and in it they find faith in themselves and in God who, for so many of us, was the repository of strength and gave us the will to survive in the darkest of days.
The Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum was conceived and organized by the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the Sybiraks. Those of us who had the good fortune to survive the horrors of Siberia are grateful to them for the memory, for their commitment and hard work. We believe that, in this case, we speak also for those who perished in the snows of Siberia.
All of us take as our own the pledge Adam Mickiewicz made to the Polish patriots being exiled to Siberia after the November Uprising in 1831, “Jeśli zapomne o nich, Ty, Boże na niebie, zapomnij o mnie.” (“If I forget them, You, O God in heaven, forget about me.”)
Prof. Witold J. Lukaszewski
Director, Kresy-Siberia Foundation (2010-2014)