Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, September 17, 1939. By this time in 1939, the Poles were already fighting the Germans from the west and needed to protect themselves against the Red Army coming from the east. It was because of Stalin’s orders that 1.7 million Poles from that region were forcibly taken from their homes and deported to Siberia in 1940 with only 500,000 surviving two years later.
How fitting to have this be the first day of the Kresy-Siberia Foundation Conference in Warsaw. We attended a large memorial tribute and service at the Monument of the Fallen in the East (those that died and were murdered during and after deportation) marking this milestone in history. The tribute had a full military review of Poland’s finest along with dignitaries, speakers and the clergy.
There was an outdoor Mass for the masses! Prior to attending this tribute we visited the Monte Cassino monument which had Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna engraved on the face. This is a very familiar phrase used in Poland when speaking of patriotism and love of country. I found this phrase embroidered on a little fabric pouch of my mother’s which she clearly embroidered herself while in one of the Soviet prisons. The phrase means God, Honor, Country, in that order. Pre-war Poland would have included a Catholic Mass but probably not had an ecumenical blessing for all those that died so many years ago. This event included several faiths: Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish and Muslim, each offering a blessing.
Poland does not and never has separated church from state. It was refreshing to see people pray for their fallen while publicly honoring their country in prayer.
As the conference participants gathered in Poland’s Senate building, I was struck by how many of the attendees spoke Polish and how old they were. Since I figured there would be no actual survivors traveling in their 90’s, these must be survivors who were children when they were deported. Their language lived on even after never living in Poland after the war. Many were resettled with their families in the Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.
I was also surprised with how many live in Poland today. Last night I met woman who is 85 years old and spent seven years in Siberia before going back to Poland. She left a child and came back a young adult. She spoke of not knowing how to read Polish anymore when she returned, not appreciating the taste of sugar, and having a real front door to the house she lived in after living in the Steppe’s of Kazakhstan for so long.
I met a woman from Massachusetts who like me was a descendant of survivors. Her parents unlike mine where children survivors during the war. I enjoyed spending time, listening to her stories, and sharing the same passion for this era in history. Another woman was two years old when she was deported. The stories go on and on.
Tomorrow we go to the Katyn Museum which should be a very moving and powerful experience.