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The Siberic Gehenna
The Millions of Poles Deported to the USSR in 1939-41

by Peter K. Gessner

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Soviet troops crossed Poland's eastern border on September 17, and, by prearrangement with the Germans, occupied half of Poland. That fall and in the following year they set about deporting all those whom they judged as potentially able to oppose their plans for Poland. That was to include those who had held any position of authority, mayors, policemen, schoolteacher, station-masters, and all members of the intelligentsia. Exactly how many were deported may never be known, but it has been estimated that together with their families they probably numbered between 1 and 1.8 million people.

Deportation to the far regions of the Russia, and later of the Soviet Union, continued to be a constant in the history of Poles during the last couple of centuries. Visitors to Siberia tell of Polish villages there, peopled by the descendants of 19-century deportees. During the period when Poland was partitioned, Poles who rose in armed rebellion against the Russian yoke in the Uprisings of April 1794, November 1831 and January 1863, if captured, were usually sent to Siberia. So were those whom the Tzarís secret police agents deemed too patriotic. Nor did the deportations end with the reestablishment in 1918 of a sovereign and independent Polish Republic. Poland's eastern border, as stipulated by the treaty of Riga which brough closure to the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1920, left substantial Polish minorities on the Soviet side of the border. In 1934-35, by order of Stalin, all Poles that lived near the Polish border were deported to Kazakhstan.

Following the June 22, 1941, invasion the Soviet Union by Hitler's armies, Stalin concluded, upon the urging of the British government, an agreement with the Polish Government-in-Exile. The Poles in the Soviet gulags were to be freed so that a Polish Army could be formed that would fight the Germans at the Soviet's side. A general "Amnesty" was declared and the Army began to assemble.

Short of armaments, supplies and food, the military capabilities of this Army, as it stood, were limited, At the same time, the existence of an independent foreign organization within the Soviet Union was troubling to Stalin. Hence an agreement was reached with the Soviets that the Army would leave the USSR. transhipped across the Caspian Sea to Persia, then in the British sphere of influence. There it would be trained, equipped, and deployed to protect the oil fields of the Middle East, then threatened by the German advances into the Caucasus. Together with the Polish Army of some 77,000 men, some 39 thousand civilians were allowed to leave the Soviet Union by this route.

Later, beginning in November 1943, a second Polish Army began to be formed on Soviet territory. Commanded by Colonel and later General Zygmunt Berling, it was to be called colloquially "Berlingís Army." It was partly made up of deportees who had not managed to join in time the one formed earlier. However, as the Russians advanced into what had been Polandís eastern territories, many of its soldiers were recruited there. By August 1944, its strength had grown to 113,500 soldiers.

Of the remaining 1939-1940 and earlier deportees, many thousands perished. Thousands more remained trapped in the Soviet Union, where, until its dissolution, they were not free to admit their nationality. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, many seek to be repatriation of themselves and their families. This has sparked a great debate in Poland: how to provide for these usually unskilled, impoverished people with marginal fluency in the Polish language in a country which has a substantial unemployment rate and is itself seeking to recover from decades of Soviet domination.


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