80 Years Ago

Eighty years ago today, multiples of locomotives continued to pull multiples of dark, wooden carriages, towards the far reaches of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The carriages previously carried cattle, but there was not a cow among the cargo. It would have helped if there were.

The crude wagons contained people who Stalin considered no better than cattle, Polish men, women and children corralled at gunpoint and under darkness by Soviet soldiers earlier that month. The soldiers took their orders from the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police officers.

Stalin excused his actions towards the Poles by labelling them “anti-Soviet elements” and hunting them down. His troops invaded eastern Poland 17 days after his Nazi allies invaded western Poland the previous September, and had systematically stripped their occupied area of anything they valued. Factories, machinery, and anything and anyone disappeared into the USSR. Lower-ranked Soviet soldiers emptied the Polish shops of things they could not buy at home, soles for shoes among the first to go, then soap, paper and sugar.

The vast majority of the 175 million people living in the USSR at the time led simple lives beyond the cities. As the communist machine systematically took away their livelihoods, they retained the legal status given to them by the ousted Tsars—identical to that of pigs and goats.

Those cattle trains carried around 200,000 Polish civilians, between 30 and 60 to a carriage, ordinary people, families mainly from farms throughout eastern Poland. They were pioneers and innovators who created productive farms from wasteland after the 1919-1920 Polish-Soviet War. Many of the men in the trains were veterans of that war, and WW1. In the USSR they were destined for NKVD forced-labour facilities that operated  under a “labour for bread” regime, and that were scattered along railway lines being built as part of Stalin’s on-going five-year plans to industrialise his vast territory.

Eighty years ago today, those Poles had been trapped inside those dark wagons for the third week. Survival depended largely on what the Polish families had been allowed to take with them, the kindness of their prisoner companions, and whether their captors gave them the occasional bucket of watery soup. Their kidnappers’ unkindness varied. Some Soviet soldiers said the Poles had needed to gather little for their “Siberian vacation” while other soldiers suggested food and warm clothing.  Three weeks on, mothers watched in terror as Soviet guards threw out their dead babies into the snow. The oldest, too, stood little chance. What grandparent could eat while their grandchildren cried of hunger?

Newspapers published the record low temperatures in the northern hemisphere that winter of 1939–1940, and survivors remembered the squeak of deep snow as they walked out of their homes to the sleds that took them to the railway stations. Those train journeys wheedled out the most frail—those who would not be productive in the forced-labour facilities—but others died or disappeared when they left the train during re-fuelling stops, stops that could last a few minutes, hours, or days. Mothers, fathers, or brothers left trains to fetch water or barter for food, but the trains holding their families left without notice.

I am many years older today than my grandparents were 80 years ago, and I know that whatever I imagine of that time, it would have been far worse. Thoughts of them, aged 42 and 35, and 31 and 30, and of my parents, four uncles and a two-year-old aunt, trapped inside those dark, wooden carriages, wrench my heart. Each carriage had a hole in the floor intended for the passing of excrement, a stove without fuel, and some crude slats along the walls for sitting or sleeping. Armed Soviet guards outside made sure no one escaped, and regularly swept through the carriages to toss out the dead.

Those babies and infants who starved to death transferred their suffering to their parents, who strove to protect their other young children. My mother, then a very new six-year-old, did not remember much, something I regularly hear when interviewing survivors, and I am glad that time became a blur to some.  Jan Kaźmierów’s father told him and his brother to keep a watch through the crack in the double doors. They did, their focus taken away from the misery inside.

I do not question who suffered the most, or what would have been the worst to bear—the hunger, the thirst, the filth, the stink, the freezing cold, or the fear, the sheer horror of a situation that did not seem to end. History had taught the older Poles, however, that the train journey would end, and they knew where it would end—in Siberia, that place of desolation, destitution and despair they had heard about, where for more than a century Poles had been sent to after daring to rise against their Russian oppressors, or even for minor perceived infringements against them.

The trains in that first “transport” took an average of three weeks to reach their destinations in northern Russia, longer if they went to geographical Siberia to the east of the Ural mountains, where they disgorged my younger maternal grandparents, and their four children. Taishet, near Lake Baikal, had been classified a gulag before the Polish families got there, and returned to the same status after they left late in 1941.

The NKVD rounded up around 700,000 more Polish civilians in similar transports, in April and June 1940, and in June 1941, the latter curtailed only because Hitler turned on his ally Stalin, who suddenly found his need to defend Moscow more pressing than his need for Polish forced-labour. My various calculations of numbers involved have made me accept that eight percent of the Poles taken, escaped the USSR.  

My father, 12 in February 1940 and the eldest sibling, wrote afterwards how the lice in the train “bit them without mercy.” The lice, I can forgive. It is different with Stalin and his henchmen, the people who engineered this atrocity, and those who carried it out. All displayed a complete lack of humanity, heavily intertwined with active cruelty.

I wish that I could believe that we have learnt the lessons of history, but I fear that oft-repeated saying that history continues to repeat itself.

All I can do in mitigation is honour my brave grandparents, and all the Poles who bore the same types of injustices. As long as I am able, I will continue to write their stories.

—Basia Scrivens

10 February 2020


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