Since the first of the year I have been meeting with a Polish translator once a week. She reads letters written in Polish to me and I take notes. There are stacks and stacks of letters that my mother saved from that time in her and my dad’s life. I have much more information about my mom and than I do about my dad during the early war years.
So what happened to my dad after the unsuccessful Polish Defensive Campaign of September 1939? This I am trying to learn from letters he received from his parents, sister, an aunt and a cousin. Much of the problem with getting the desired information is that these letters are one-way conversations. I have learned some interesting details about they dad’s family while learning details about my dad is challenging. So far there is little information about my dad’s time from 1940 through 1941.
The first letter my dad’s family received from him was dated July 7, 1942 which was a year after Stalin granted amnesty to imprisoned Poles. My father was in Kermine, Uzbekistan, while the family wrote from Kojbagor, Kazakhstan.
In their letter back to my dad, he learned that they had been on a “kolkhoz or sovkhoz”, Soviet state run collective farm with oppressive conditions but over the past year they were on “novostrojka”, a new building site, building a new rail line and his sister worked 10 hour days shoveling dirt and carrying stones, earning a ” few sorry rubles”. Her health was deteriorating from all the physical labor and they lived in a barracks that housed 22 people and the winters on the steppes of Kazakhstan were brutal. My grandfather wrote pleading for my dad to come and rescue them but at the time my dad was in Kermine, training with the newly formed Polish Second Corps under General Wladylaw Anders in the Soviet Union. After all, Stalin let the Poles out of the Gulag, they needed to help him fight the Nazi’s. At the bottom of this letter there is a very warm personal note from my grandmother to her son saying that she always felt and had dreams that my dad was in a Soviet prison somewhere not far from them and had not been able to make it to the West.The majority of information learned about the family has been from letters written in 1946-47 right after dad’s family returned to Poland from Siberia.
In one of those post-war letters, I learned that my aunt, had married in 1938, just one year before the war. In September 1939 her husband Adam, a Polish Army officer went off to war and they never saw each other again. Unknown to her at the time the letters were written, was that Adam was murdered in Katyn, April 1940, seven months after the war broke out. She knew that he was in the Soviet prison, Starobielsk, and that they were taken somewhere north – and that they vanished “like a stone in the water”. She expressed agony about not knowing his fate, longing for his return, and knowing deep down inside that he was dead. These letters were dated 1947, pleading with my father to try to find out more about Adam’s whereabouts, grieving and still hoping he was alive somewhere after seven years. My dad’s parents and sister did not leave Siberia until June 1946 when they were repatriated and resettled in Poland after being deported on April 12, 1940. They were resettled in an area that prior to the war was Germany, since their home, Stryj, Poland was now Stryj, Ukraine SSR.
The Katyn Massacre, as it has since become known, was the murder of 14,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in the spring of 1940. There were three sites that collectively are referred to as the Katyn Massacre. The officers were taken out of the prison camps, shot in back of the head execution style, and buried in shallow graves. The Germans, as they were taking over Soviet soil in 1943, found these graves. The Soviets blamed the Nazi’s, but independent forensic evidence clearly pointed to the Soviet Union for the murders. History goes on to prove this beyond a doubt.
Another deportation story coming out of these letters was about my dad’s cousin’s family. The cousin wrote dad that while in Siberia her husband was interned in Hungary, but then spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. Other letters revealed that he was released after the war, returned to Poland, took up with another woman and had two kids. All the while his wife, my dad’s cousin, went through Siberia with her mother, to the middle east, and then they got stuck in Beirut, Lebanon. Meanwhile her father had been with them in Siberia, but had his documents stolen, therefore could not leave when his wife and daughter got out. Feeling hopeless, in 1943 he committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. At the time it was reported that he died of typhus to spare the surviving family the gruesome details.
Such tragedies! Lives derailed and in many cases futures ruined.