- The Polish Deportees of World War II: Recollections of Removal to the Soviet Union and Dispersal throughout the World
Tadeusz Piotrowski is a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, and he is passionate about the history he seeks to uncover, explain, and preserve. His latest book is an attempt to bring to English-language readers a complicated story of ethnic relations in the eastern lands of Poland during World War II. The Polish Deportees is a selection of primary sources, both published and unpublished, that provide first-hand accounts of the experience of Soviet deportations, forced labor [End Page 155] in Siberia, exodus from the Soviet Union, and sojourn in refugee camps scattered around the globe.
As a consequence of the non-aggression treaty signed on 23 August 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union and the subsequent German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty, Soviet troops seized control of Poland's eastern lands, where they subjected the Polish population to a reign of terror. Violent persecution reached its climax in the four major waves of deportations of Polish citizens in February, April, and June 1940, and in June 1941 until the German invasion of the USSR on the 22nd of that month. Estimates of the scale of the deportations vary, ranging from 320,000 people deported on the low end to more than 1.5 million on the high end. The majority of those deported were ethnic Poles. Jewish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Lithuanian citizens of Poland accounted for the rest.
The deportees were transferred by cattle cars to Arkhangelsk, Komi, and Kolyma in the north; to Siberia; or to the border regions of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Living in conditions defying imagination and subjected to back-breaking labor in harsh climes, the deportees remained in exile until the end of July 1941 when the Soviet and exiled Polish governments signed an agreement providing "amnesty" to all Poles in Soviet custody. Amid a chaotic and tragic exodus, most deportees made their way southward, crossed the Soviet border, and found themselves in refugee camps scattered from India and New Zealand to Mexico, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, and South Africa.
At the end of the war, the refugees from Communism became one of the central issues in Cold War diplomacy, and both sides repeatedly used these people as bargaining chips or for propaganda benefit. The exiles themselves constituted a vehemently anti-Communist group who sought to promote and lead an international struggle to free their countries from Soviet domination. In the early postwar period, the International Refugee Organization resettled nearly 400,000 Poles in forty-seven countries, with sizeable populations settling in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United States. The Siberian deportees, together with Poles from the displaced-persons camps in Germany and Polish civilian refugees and veterans of the Polish armed forces in the West, accounted for the bulk of the Polish postwar diaspora and were in the forefront of the struggle against Communism. Yet the exiles' wartime plight is still not widely recognized either in scholarship or in collective memory, and Piotrowski attributes this to a "conspiracy of silence" among the Western allies after the Yalta agreement allowed the Soviet Union to "preserve the 'good name' of . . . [the] evil empire" (p. 12).
Piotrowski sets out to break the silence with voices coming from people who were eyewitnesses to the human toll of the deportations. He deftly translates into English 124 accounts from roughly fifteen Polish-language sources. In eight chapters arranged chronologically (Deportation, Soviet Union, Amnesty, Near and Middle East, India, Africa, New Zealand, and Mexico), Piotrowski chronicles the experiences of men, women, and children who tell the reader in their own words about the exhaustion, hunger, and disease that decimated their ranks, as well as about the strength, love, sacrifice, and resourcefulness that allowed them to survive. Some accounts are especially [End Page 156] striking because they describe an ever-present tragedy in an almost dispassionate way. The...