Polish POW’S

Weddings and Anniversaries – a Tribute

Recently I attended two weddings. The first one was my own daughter’s wedding, my youngest, which was in the planning process for months and the other one was  my niece’s wedding. Both were well organized and each was a distinctive celebration. Each wedding had a beautiful weather day, with a striking setting, and both receptions were good parties. But I must admit my daughter’s was by far the best. I may be a bit partial, however.

Anniversaries are time honored milestones in a marriage and recently my son and daughter-in – law celebrated their 8th anniversary. Remembering my own wedding 46 years ago feels like it was not that long ago. Then I recall the day my parents celebrated their anniversary every year, October 3rd, which is today. They would have been married 74 years had they lived. My dad predeceased mom by 30 years and every year when October 3rd rolled around, mom would count the number of years they would have been married had he lived. Many people seem to revel in the numbers as if it were a badge of courage they wear surviving so long with their partner.

Getting back to the two weddings I recently attended, I can only speak to the preparations for my daughter’s wedding. She painstakingly made sure all her details were nailed down. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. Her wedding was perfectly orchestrated and simply lovely, a fairy tale wedding. She was a radiant bride who also had fun at her own wedding.Samantha and Braden 162

The wedding planning process seems to change over time as new concepts and fun activities for guests or wedding party members enter into the planning. Being married almost a half a century, at the time of my wedding, there were no bachelorette parties. Comfort items for guests now include goody bags at hotel check in for out of town guests.  Receptions are usually elaborate to keep guests entertained and well fed.

My thoughts now go back to when my parents were married. It was October 3, 1943 in an army tent, in the Palestinian desert. Their life was in the middle of World War II. They were both in the Polish Second Corps which was the reorganized Polish fighting force made up of both men and women, many of whom were once exiled to Stalin’s Siberia. In Stalin’s Soviet Union they were slave laborers deported out of their homes, political prisoners, or POW’s following the invasion of Poland in September 1939. My parents each had their horror stories from the invasion of their country and all the repercussions that followed.

They had met each other the winter before the war started in mom’s home town, and somehow miraculously found each other during the war, after each was released from captivity and then struggled to make it to where the army was forming. My mom was able to join the protection of the army by becoming an auxiliary support person, a nurse. She received nurse’s training in Tehran, Iran and my dad became a fighting soldier again, as a light artillery specialist, which was his training before the war. Many of their stories I share in my upcoming book, “Letters from the Box in the Attic, A Story of Courage, Survival and Love”.

Their many post-war struggles kept them together for 36 years, until my dad died in 1979. It amazes me that I’ve been married 10 years longer than they were. I am very fortunate to still have my spouse and to keep clocking up those years. Wedding vows usually say, for better or for worse and my parents kept their devotion to each other alive during their married life, even though some of the time their relationship was rocky. Here’s to devotion and for better or for worse!

Happy Anniversary, Mama and Tatuś! I hope you are able to celebrate 74 years on this your anniversary.

Then What About My Dad?

While my mother was going from one jail to another, off to a gulag, then gets released and travels hundreds of miles, mostly on foot to freedom, but then what about my dad? Where was he and how did he get to Ander’s Army?

The answer is I don’t know, and I don’t think there is a way for me to find out for sure. As stated before, I never asked the right questions at the right time.

When the Germans invaded Poland, the front line kept moving east, and with the Soviets invading from the east, the Polish military was stretched in many directions trying to defend what they could.  One of the last cities to defend was Warsaw.   As a result of fighting and destruction thousands of people, going through the horrors of war, were moving towards unoccupied regions.  The Polish military, if not caught and imprisoned, too moved toward safe borders. Many civilians and soldiers escaped into neutral countries:  Romania, Hungary, Lithuania and Latvia.

My dad was one of those Polish soldiers, trying to avoid capture by crossing into Lithuania in late September 1939. The only documentation of this that I have is from stories told during my childhood, that tatus (dad) was interned in Lithuania along with 14,000 others, according to the Lithuanian Red Cross.  Not exactly a story, because the details are sketchy.  The word ‘escaped’ was used in telling the story, but after all the years, I don’t remember if he meant that he escaped into Lithuania to avoid capture, or out of Lithuania after he was interned. My childhood fantasy has him heroically escaping from the Lithuanian POW camp! That possibly did happen but probably not in dramatic fashion, as the Lithuanian authorities welcomed retreating Polish soldiers and set them up in transitory camps which were not hostile.  They in fact looked the other way as many soldiers simply left. The Lithuanian authorities did this because it cost the government too much per soldier to house.  By June 1940, when the Soviets took control of Lithuania, there were only 4,000 Polish internees left in Lithuania and they were shipped off to Soviet prisons and camps.

So what happened to my dad?  Did he or did he not leave Lithuania before Soviet annexation? If he did leave, where did he go, and how did he find himself in a Soviet prison after all?  Since the outcome is still the same, landing in prison, I’ll fantasize that he escaped, in Steve McQueen style, out of Lithuania and then got arrested.

Correspondence my dad had with his parents and sister in the summer of 1942 recounted that he indeed was in a Soviet prison and he told them “he did not think he would ever be the same again.”  This remark disturbed his family, but since the letters were only one sided conversations, they to him, I don’t know what he wrote them about the horrors that left him scarred.

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Detailed Russian map of all camps. Double click on the photo to see how many dots there are!

Had my dad stayed in the Lithuanian internment camp and had not ‘escaped’ before the summer of 1940, when the Soviets annexed the Baltic republics, he along with other interned Polish officers would have been transported to camps in Kozielsk and Juchnowo, located southwest of Moscow. Interestingly, several Soviet prisons were former monasteries which the government forced to shut down following the Russian Revolution and the institution of communism. There is much documentation about Polish POW’s, from those two named prisons, later being transferred to Griazowiec prison. It seemed as though everyone eventually went through Griazowiec, which was a former monastery.

Until September 1941 over 20,000 Polish POW’s remained in Soviet captivity, then released after the signing of the Sikorski-Majski agreement, allowing for amnesty.

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Fall of 1941 – Polish Soldiers, recently released from Soviet camps, lining up to register for Ander’s Army.

Since I don’t know when my dad was released or from where, what I do know is that he became a Polish soldier again on January 7, 1942 for the Polish Army in the USSR.  It had to have taken him a long time to get to a recruitment site.  From the photo on the left, hundreds were signing up sooner, but overall the journey for thousands took months with men pouring out of hundreds and hundreds of prisons and civilian collective farms and state run mines.

 

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Early 1942 photograph of my dad.

Is it possible that both my mom and dad were in the same area at the same time and did not know it?
On March 18, 1942, due to the Soviet authorities inability to provide adequate rations for the growing Polish Army, which was even then sharing its limited food with an also growing civilian population, Stalin agreed to evacuate part of the Polish Army to Iran. The military and civilians were transferred across the Caspian Sea to the port of Pahlavi, known today as Bander-e Anzali, Iran. After the first evacuation wave in March and April, more military and civilian men, women and children were transported in August, again by ship and by land to Iran.

 

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Identification Document issued in the USSR, 1942.

My dad stayed on Soviet soil and trained with a light artillery unit in Kermine, Uzbekistan, putting him in the second evacuation wave, while my mother was in the first wave.
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