Welcome to the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum
Film Introduction – A Forgotten Odyssey
This is an abridged version, edited exclusively for the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum, of London-based Jagna Wright and Aneta Naszynska’s breakthrough film, ‘A Forgotten Odyssey’. It tells the story – in the words of the Survivors – of what happened after the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 under the Nazi-Soviet Friendship Treaty.
These are the stories of the survivors of the forced Soviet annexation of eastern Poland, when entire towns and communities were brutally deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan to Soviet forced labour camps. By the time the Nazis attacked their Soviet allies in 1941, perhaps half of the labour camp inmates had died from disease, starvation, and the harsh labour conditions. Because the Soviets were brought into the anti-Nazi Alliance, the remaining survivors were given an amnesty and many made their way across the vast and foreboding Soviet landscape to join the freed Polish Army being formed in the south. This army became a key element of the Allied forces in the European South-East, and was evacuated though Iran to join the battle with the Nazis in Africa and Italy.
Despite the defeat of the Nazis, Poland’s Soviet enemies ended the war on the side of the victors. The 110,000 citizens and soldiers who had escaped from Soviet Russia went on to be refugees from a pre-war Poland who could never return to their former homeland, which was left in Soviet Communist hands after the war. Their Forgotten Odyssey never reached its destination, and they remained a people in exile throughout the world.
“Commemorating a virtually unknown episode of World War II”
Poland’s citizens – of all ethnic and religious backgrounds – fought for freedom and survival during World War II in eastern Poland (the “Kresy”) and in forced exile, against 3 brutal enemies:
- Soviet Russia – which oppressed, imprisoned, executed and deported them to captivity and slave labor;
- Nazi Germany – which oppressed, imprisoned, executed and deported them to captivity and slave labor;
- Ukrainian Nationalists – who butchered them and forced them to flee to forge an ethnically pure state.
Almost two million of Poland’s citizens suffered this “Eastern Hell”. Many died in the Soviet labor camps from hypothermia, lack of nutrition, or diseases like typhoid or malaria. Others died at the hands of Nazi Germany or the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. About 100,000 were released by the Soviets to join Polish Forces battling Nazi Germany in Africa and Europe or to live out the war in civilian refugee camps in the Middle East, Africa, India, New Zealand and Mexico. Most never returned to their homeland, because it was annexed by the Soviet regime after the war. Others were incorporated into the victorious Red Army and had to return to a Poland under communist control.
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 in forced exile during World War II”. It was established by the survivors and their descendants in order to tell the stories of this “Eastern Hell” 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.
WHAT IS THE KRESY-SIBERIA VIRTUAL MUSEUM?
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.
HOW WILL WE CONTINUE TO “BUILD” THE KRESY-SIBERIA VIRTUAL MUSEUM?
Clearly, an enterprise such as this one requires 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
We invite you to visit this Virtual Museum, dedicated to the Polish citizens who fought in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland, and in forced exile, during WWII. The families of those murdered at Katyn, along with tens of thousands of residents of the pre-war ‘Kresy’, were deported into the depths of the Soviet Union, where their unspeakable suffering marked the road of Poland’s “Golgotha of the East”. Others were left behind, only to suffer under the Nazi Germans and the Ukrainian nationalist partisans.
The 29 Galleries of the Virtual Museum will show what life in the Borderlands was like before the war, what happened in this area during the war, the various repressions they endured from the Soviets and the Nazis, all the way to the fate of these citizens after the war. The Galleries are a work in progress. Several are already opened, and the rest will be opened over the next 2-3 years. Through our efforts in Poland and abroad, we are constantly working to enlarge our collection of archival documents, photos and testimonies, and to add new materials to the current and future Galleries. We invite you to share in the building of the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum by sharing your personal materials with us.
In addition to the Galleries, the Virtual Museum includes:
- special exhibitions, where we will present unique overviews of Polish history
- the Wall of Names, where we include profiles of all those who experienced the events covered by our Museum (we invite you to add information about your family members to this Wall of Names)
- the Hall of Memories, where members will be able to upload and share photos and documents from their personal collections
- the Hall of Testimonies, where audio and video testimonies will be available for educational and research purposes
- the Museum Store, where visitors can order gifts, books and movies and can donate funds for the further development of the museum
In the planning stages are the Museum Club, which will be a meeting place for our members to exchange ideas, and the Chapels, which will showcase the role of faith and religion in providing hope and strength through these terrible times.
We invite you to return frequently and visit our Museum, to see what has been added since your last visit. We also invite you to contact us with your ideas and opinions about our project.