This realization from my Poland trip came as a bit of a surprise. I had all the information before my travels – my father-in-law’s recollections & my knowledge of Polish history from September 1939 to June 1941 – but it wasn’t until I visited Poland that all the pieces fell into place.
The nonaggression pack between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which was signed on August 23, 1939 contained secret protocols in which the two nations divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Per these protocols, Poland was to be divided roughly in half. Germany invaded Poland from the west nine days later and the Soviet Red Army invaded from the east sixteen days after that.
Poland’s current eastern border is fairly close to the line of division agreed to by Stalin and Hitler for the 1939 pact, so a substantial portion of pre-war Polish territory is now part of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Some German and Prussian lands were annexed by Poland in 1945 which means that the country had shifted to the west following War World II.
The Aftermath of Stalin’s Invasion
The Eastern Polish territories taken over by the Red Army were scrubbed of Polish identity. There is a long history of such actions. When the Assyrians captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 740 BCE, they instituted forced migrations of the Jewish inhabitants to other regions of the Assyrian empire, and moved non-Jews into the capital city of Samaria. The Jewish identity was lost in the conquered kingdom due to intermarrying and the inability to worship freely or form Jewish communities. The Lost Tribes of Israel are precisely these tribes from the northern kingdom who were unable to retain their identity.
Stalin wanted to do the same with Polish identity. He removed everyone whom he considered a threat along with their families, and sent them to Siberia and other regions from which return is difficult. Nearly 1.7 to 2 million Poles were sent to the gulags and slave labor camps in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Eastern Asia. Supporters of Stalin and the military moved into the conquered regions, and any Poles who were not considered enough of a threat to move were forced to become good soviets and learn Russian.
My Father-In-Law’s Experience
His father was an officer in the Polish army, and consequently a threat. In the middle of the night within weeks of the invasion, Red Army soldiers came to the house and gave them only minutes to gather up whatever belongings they wished to take with them. They were going on a journey, but they were not given the destination.
They were taken by truck to the train station and loaded into train cars designed for moving cargo or livestock, not people. Days later, they arrived in Siberia and his father was imprisoned in one of Stalin’s gulags. The rest of the family – wife, two sons and three daughters – were sent to a nearby work camp where the first order of business was to cut down and process trees into lumber to build the shelter needed for the brutal winter to come. It was already quite cold in October.
My father-in-law’s father died in the gulag and his young sister died in the labor camp. The food supply was insufficient to sustain those imprisoned. All lost weight; many died of hypothermia, malnutrition, typhoid and malaria. My father-in-law tells how he and other teens were beaten by the Red Army soldiers for stealing a little kerosene. It wasn’t needed for warmth, but a more urgent concern. They rubbed it into their hair, then on their faces, necks, arms and chests. They kept going – torso, crotch, upper legs, knees. Then they would visit with the Red Army’s ducks and geese. They would eat the lice off the boys lower legs and feet now that the rest of their bodies were uninhabitable because of the kerosene. This was life in the slave labor camps.
How Stalin Saved My Father-In-Law’s Life (Maybe)
Once Hitler had subdued Western Europe and built strong defenses against an invasion from the U.K., he turned his attention to the east. Breaking the nonaggression pact in spectacular fashion, Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union through eastern Poland with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.
For the first couple months, the invasion was a great military success for Germany, but not the political success Hitler had anticipated. Within a month, the Germans had advanced more than 400 miles along a 1,800 mile front and had captured hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops, and important fuel and food producing regions. Hitler had expected that the Russian people would rise up and overthrow the Soviet government as a result of these embarrassing defeats, but the German army’s brutality worked against that outcome. Russians felt that an overthrow of their government would put them completely at the mercy of the Germans who seemed to have no regard for the lives of the Russian people.
Germany’s brutality was a directive by Hitler himself. In a March 30, 1941, secret meeting, Hitler warned his generals that the invasion of the Soviet Union would follow different rules – it would be a fight to the death between Germany and “Judeo-Bolshevism.”
Hitler: “The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion. This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves of obsolete ideologies. I know that the necessity for such means of waging war is beyond the comprehension of you generals but . . . I insist absolutely that my orders be executed without contradiction.”
The German S.S. followed quickly behind the advancing army and orchestrated the killing of every communist official, Jew and other undesirable that could be identified.
It is likely that my father-in-law – the fourteen year old son of an Polish army officer – would not have survived this campaign. He is alive today because he was tucked away in Siberia under deplorable conditions, but not in the line of fire.
Out of Siberia
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin began to work with the allied powers, including the Polish government in exile in London, and granted amnesty to some Polish soldiers held in Siberia. Evacuations began in March 1942, and those who were considered able to help the war effort were allowed passage to British controlled Iran and Palestine for medical care and assignment.
My father-in-law eventually made this journey, but not in the earlier evacuations; he was not healthy enough. When he arrived in Palestine for rehabilitation, he was 6′ 2″ tall and weighed 80 pounds. The British gave every new arrival a health status classification and my father-in-law got the lowest rating of D. He regained his health, though, and still a teenager, was sent to North Africa to perform non-combat roles for British troops.
And that is his story. The war eventually ended and he rejoined the rest of the family in a refugee camp in France. They were offered passage to Australia, but his mother refused because she had a superstition that the country was full of Devils. We wonder now if she misunderstood someone talking about Tasmanian Devils.
The family eventually made it to Ontario, Canada, and my father-in-law settled in Western New York as a result of his first marriage. A few years after her death, he remarried a wonderful, smart and resourceful women visiting Buffalo from communist Poland on a tourist visa and the rest is history. He turns 90 in a few months and has a long, fascinating life from which to entertain the staff and fellow residents at the assisted living facility where he now lives.
All of this may have been made possible by Stalin’s brutal treatment of Polish people in the regions he conquered. Go figure!