The Bolsheviks inherited dislike of Poles from the fallen tsarist regime. During their rule, successive transports of "Moscow's enemies" ended up in Siberia. The journey itself was an introduction to the Gulag hell awaiting the exiles. How do the prisoners remember her?
The Bolsheviks - just like the tsarist officials before that - knew perfectly well how to fight the Poles. After all, mutual aversion has been growing for many centuries, although it was the collapse of the First Polish Republic and subsequent uprisings that sparked the spiral of forced resettlement. The work was completed in the 1930s and 1940s, which finally allowed the USSR to free from the Polish population the areas considered to be "the area of Russian culture domination".
Few places of exile went down in the history of Poland as badly as Kolyma, where Poles were deported from the areas of today's Kresy and central Poland. This is how Sebastian Warlikowski, one of the authors of the book “Kołyma. Poles in Soviet labor camps ":
Kolyma - a synonym for death, slow dying and a different world where no rules apply and a human being is just an insignificant element of a larger machine . A group of forced labor camps in the land of almost eternal frost, where exhausting winter lasted for almost 10 months [...].
"Almost all dead bodies were brought in"
However, before the expelled people found their way to this horrible land, they had to make a journey of many weeks. The first victims of deportations appeared already at this stage - many physically weaker people were not able to survive the inhuman conditions of transport.
The road to Kolyma was multi-stage. Traveled by various means of transport, including train.
The road to Kolyma was multi-stage. The prisoners had to change their means of transport several times. They reached the place of hard labor by ship. Leonarda Obuchowska, whose memories are included in the collection “Kolyma. Poles in Soviet labor camps ” , this is how she described her way to exile:
[…] we were loaded onto a cargo ship like cattle and driven towards Mahadan. The journey took over 1 month. Here again there were thousands of people of different nationalities, men and women together. Throughout this journey by ship, everyone was sick with the so-called seasickness. People could not eat anything but lay down, and those who were weak died one by one. Almost all dead bodies were brought to the destination, not alive people .
Interestingly, the Russian people encountered along the way did not have a bad attitude towards the prisoners. This can be explained by the fact that innocent people have been imprisoned for generations in the interior of the country. Poles heading east could count on pity on the part of civilians, and even soldiers moving in the opposite direction! Janusz Siemiński wrote about them:
The soldiers we passed threw bread and tobacco at the barred windows of the wagons [...]. Bread was most often given to the privileged prisoners, who pushed us to the window, while the bagpipe scattered in the wagon and we could sometimes collect the crumbs [...].
At the Kirov station, opposite our wagon, a wagon with young people going west to rebuild the devastation stopped [...]. A young girl saw me through the grille. for a long moment our eyes met, her - they expressed sympathy, mine - admiration for her beauty. Finally the girl began to sing as if with regret. The first words of the verse stuck in my mind: Young boy, why did you get behind bars, my heart is crying for you .
"The only law was a strong kulak"
It should also be remembered that the exiles had to fear not only the guards, but often also their fellow prisoners. After all, the "political" ones were mixed up with common criminals and recidivists. The latter repeatedly played an important role during the transport (and sometimes later were responsible for discipline in the camp). The law of the stronger was the only rule, and the lack of respect for others was a matter of course. Maciej Żołnierczyk, whose memories are included in the collection "Kolyma. Poles in Soviet labor camps ” , this is how he remembered the death of another Pole on his way to exile:
Urbanski died slowly, rattled and mumbled something. […] Then a young żulik crept up and, seeing the dying man, quickly lowered his pants and began to kill Urbański on his feet. [...] I growled at the Ruthenian who quickly fled as he came, but left his "seal". Later, from a distance, I saw others crawl up to the dying Urbański and take care of themselves, simply because he could neither defend nor protest .
This was normal on this transport where the only law was a strong kulak. It must be remembered that the ship sailed almost two weeks. There must have been around 3,000 people. As I can judge, the four symbolic latrines on the pier had no meaning.
The soldier added that, especially at the end of the hellish journey by ship, "Żuliki seemed to go crazy". They began to torment their companions with misfortune - as a former prisoner wrote, "every night you could hear inhuman screams, groans, the howling of one of their victims".
Prisoners often discovered traces of their countrymen along the way - for example crosses on the graves of Polish exiles ... Illustrative photo.
Another terrifying experience of the exiled Poles was discovering the traces of compatriots who ended their lives in exile. In the Far East, in the interior of Russia, successive generations made their presence felt. Zbigniew Lewicki remembered one of the stages of his journey to Kolyma in 1939 as follows:
After Baikal, in the architecture of the housing estates I encountered, I noticed some familiar element. Houses made of hewn beams, not round, porches on posts, corners and roofs, well cranes, hearts cut in shutters, mallow under windows, and finally cemeteries full of crosses of Polish exiles .
End of the war!
During the Second World War, the deportations of the Polish population did not stop, although the Soviet authorities had "temporary" problems due to the attack by the German army. However, they ended as soon as the Allies began to gain an advantage at the front.
Paradoxically, the end of the war was not a cause for joy for everyone. Even on May 9, 1945, another transport set off to the east. Janusz Siemiński was among the exiles:
We were called to transport on May 9th. [...] We were entering one by one, counting down, to the cattle cars. I was already inside when I heard shots, screams, screams […] On the platform, soldiers hugged and kissed. It's the end of the war! End of the war! We have waited five long, bloody years for this day, and we are living it in a transport to the East with a sentence of fifteen years of hard labor ...
Deadly frosts awaited the exiles. Illustrative photo (Vorkuta).
Poles who experienced it a year after the end of hostilities, when the Soviet propaganda proudly presented the USSR as the "liberator" of Poland, also write bitterly about the deportation. Małgorzata Giżejewska in her book "Kołyma 1944-1956 in the Memoirs of Polish Prisoners" recalled the account of Stanisław Jachniewicz, one of the arrested and deported in 1946. It is clearly visible that the "brothers" from the east did not give up cleaning the areas they considered "their" :
First, we were glad to be driven east, not north. In order not to Vorkuta. There was a change of escort in Irkutsk, we realized that it was only half way. We were led to the bathhouse. 40 degrees frost, December. The bathhouse was frozen, we didn't feel like going in there, but we were fasted with dogs and we went.
There were showers and they gave each a small piece of soap. We were terribly dirty, because the conditions in the carriages were terrible and we didn't wash, there was nothing. Even if we even got a little water, there was not even enough water to drink. We scraped the frost off the walls and so quenched our thirst .
In the "free and democratic" People's Poland, more than one "enemy of the people" has tasted the hellish journey. We had to wait far too long at the end of the terrible shipments…
- Małgorzata Giżejewska, Kołyma 1944-1956 on the memories of Polish prisoners, Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences 2000.
- Zbigniew Lewicki, Diary , The Theological Institute of Missionaries 2000.
- Janusz Siemiński, My Kolyma , KARTA Publishing House 1995.
- Collective author, Kolyma. Poles in Soviet labor camps , Fronda 2019 publishing house.