February 10, 1940 – the second most important date, after the Soviet invasion of September 17, 1939, to engrave itself in the memories of the residents of the eastern kresy (borderlands) of the Second Republic. The first mass deportation of Poles to Siberian camps, officially known as „resettlement”, began at dawn on February 10th, seventy years ago. More than 220,000 people were taken – state officials (including judges, prosecutors, and policemen), self-government activists, foresters, landowners, and those in the military with families. The deported were taken to the northern regions of the Soviet Union, near Archangelsk, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Komi. An estimated one and a half to two million Poles were taken to this „inhuman land” by the Soviets during four deporations, lasting until June 1941.
The deportations were a complete shock. Nobody knew why or where they were being taken. For some, the deportations meant a quick death; for others, they meant several years, or forever, living on this „inhuman land”. In his book The Soviet Treatment of Poles in the Eastern Lands of the Second Republic, 1939-1941, Albin Głowacki writes, „The temperature dropped as far as -42 degrees Celsius. Armed functionaries of the NKVD banged on the doors of the apartments of those on the list to be deported. Once inside, they gathered the residents, torn away from their sleep, into one place, allowed them to get dressed, confirmed their identities, and began a detailed search of the home, ostensibly in search of weapons but finding people in hiding (at times they were able to take the most valuable objects, documents, or photographs, etc.). The men, under armed guard, stood immobile, unable to openly oppose such chaos. The decision about resettlement, which could not be cancelled, was read. To the question where, the response was generally vague; it was usually dismissed or answered with a lie about some other region or district or perhaps the birthplace of the parents of those about to be deported.
According to the NKVD, 220,000 settlers and foresters, together with their families, were resettled during the first deportations; they were taken to twenty-one different Soviet regions and districts. The majority of them worked in the People’s Commissariat of the Forest Industry or the People’s Commisariat of Transportation, and the People’s Commissariat of the Mining of Colored Metals. Others were sent to other Commissariats, for Manufacturing, Iron and Steel Mills, Construction, Weapons, or Building Materials, or sent to the camps of the NKVD.
The dry names of commissariats mask the tragic fates of those in the camps. The deported worked in heavy snow, in old, deep mines, in the worst sanitary conditions and in the worst weather (terribly cold winters and brutally hot summers with mosquitoes), without even minimal concern for their health. They died or suffered from exhaustion, cold, and hunger. Poles were treated as people of the lowest category – deprived of all rights as „enemies of the people” and as „bourgeouis”. At each step along the way NKVD officials repeated: „There will never be another Poland.”
Today we know that Poland has not yet perished. The nation’s lasting determination and strength has been greater than Soviet cruelty. Now we can speak openly about this period, recalling with pride the heroism of our ancestors and wishing that their experiences will ignite the spark of patriotism in the hearts of younger generations of Poles.
A Kresy-Siberia discussion group was started online in 2001, attracting more than 850 members from around the world, mainly members of Polonia in the West, whose families had roots in the former kresy of the Second Republic. As a result of the events of the Second World War, and, not least, Soviet repression, the families of many in Polonia met the tragic fate of deportation and exile and had to fight for survival in foreign lands. For more information, see:
Red. Translated by Sean Martin