Historical Context - WWII Poland

On 1st September 1939, Poland was invaded from the west by Germany.  This is a relatively well-known fact.  What is less well-known is that on 17th September 1939, Russia invaded Poland from the east. 

Hitler and Stalin, on 23rd August 1939, had signed an agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which agreed that neither would attack the other and they also agreed secretly to carve up Poland between them, along the line of the Narew, Vistula and San rivers.  The Russians already had a non-aggression pact in place with Poland, which had been signed in 1932, but they chose to ignore it.

In 1939 many Jewish Poles and other ethnic and minority groups, who were being persecuted by the Nazis, started to move east to what they believed would be relative safety in the Russian-occupied Kresy (the eastern borderlands of Poland). For some, like my father, who moved east to Lwow in December 1939, it also gave them a possible opportunity of escaping to France and Britain, to join the Polish Army which was amassing there.

From the time of the invasion in September, the Russians, in an attempt to get rid of the Polish 'intelligentsia', started arresting Polish military personnel, officials and academics. Many of these were later found to have been murdered at Katyn in 1940. Estimates give the number murdered as between 21,000 and 22,000.

Then between 1940-1941 Russians started arresting entire families from the Kresy region. There were four mass deportations which took place  during this time and it is estimated that up to 1.7 million people were arrested.  My father was one of these. Those arrested were then deported to Siberia and taken to collective farms and Gulags, to act as slave labour for the Russians. 

In 1941, despite their pact, Germany invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa. There is evidence to show that Russia also had had plans to attack Germany. Obviously the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact had only been meant as a holding exercise! Germany's action against Russia convinced Stalin to join the Allies in their fight against the Nazis. 

As a result of this, in 1941, the Polish government in exile, in London, was able to negotiate an 'amnesty' for the Polish deportees in Siberia, who were then released by the Russians and, under their own steam, made their way south to the southern USSR (now Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) to join the newly forming Polish army under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders. My father joined this army in Tatischewo.

The surviving Polish Gulag prisoners arrived at the various recruitment centres in a horrendous state, suffering from malnutrition, exhaustion and diseases such as dysentery. Many had died on the way and others died after they had arrived at the recruitment centres.

The remit of General Anders and his staff was to help these soldiers to recuperate and regain their strength for what was to follow. As soon as possible the Poles started their army training. However Stalin's lack of support meant that this potential army was not supplied with adequate food or equipment and General Anders decided to get the Polish soldiers, and as many civilians as possible, out of Russia.

In 1942 the Polish soldiers crossed the Caspian Sea to Iran where they continued to recuperate and train. Now part of the 2nd Polish Corps, the soldiers continued their journey through Iraq, Palestine and Egypt. They finally landed in Italy in 1944, where they played a crucial role in the Italian Campaign, most notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino.

 

The Background to the Book

When our mother died in 2002, my sister and I found some notebooks which had been written in Polish by my father, my sister's stepfather. They were journals that my father kept between 1940 and 1945, in which he wrote about his experiences during World War II, including his imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag and his participation in the Italian Campaign.

Neither my sister nor I were able to read the notebooks, because I had never learned to read or write Polish and my sister, who could read some Polish, found his writing difficult to decipher, because of the discoloured and fragile state of the notebooks. I don't know whether my mother had read the journals or not. It is possible that she never looked at them because she was herself traumatised by her experiences during the war. I should probably mention at this point that my father died in 1967.

 

The Notebooks. All the original notebooks are now in the USHMM Collection.

Disappointed, we put the notebooks back into the suitcase in which they had been kept for many years.

Seven years later, with my daughters grown up and having left home, I once more started to speculate about what was in these notebooks.

By chance, somebody was able to suggest a Polish translator who lived in the US.  He was able to decipher the writing and agreed to translate the notebooks. We sent him scanned copies of the pages, and to make it less expensive, he suggested putting the translations onto voice files, which he then emailed to me.

Strange as it may seem, I had absolutely no knowledge of what my Jewish-Polish father and my Catholic-Polish mother went through during the war. Perhaps it was because my mother never spoke much about the war.

The translations started arriving and I was horrified by what they contained.  Now I understood why, as a small child, and a 'faddy' eater, I was told to stay at the table until I had finished everything on my plate.  I was often sitting there for three hours or more! 

I started transcribing the translations, whilst researching the facts on-line. The list of books and articles that I read grew. My husband and daughters were equally engrossed in this history.

I realised that my father's paintings and drawings, which were in the same suitcase as the notebooks, were related to the journal. I found myself, more and more, wanting to see for myself some of the places which my father had written about.

 

Travels in my Father's Footsteps

One of my daughters was at this time doing an MA in Photographic Studies in London. She decided to base her final Masters project on her grandfather's journal and to this end she decided to photograph some of the places mentioned in the journal.

In February 2010, she traveled to Rybinsk in Russia with her boyfriend, to the area in which her grandfather was imprisoned in a Gulag. At that time of year the rivers were frozen and the temperatures never got above minus 20 degrees Celsius. Even wearing thermal clothing, frostbite was always a possibility. Her camera lens once froze onto the camera and the hydraulic fluid froze in her tripod. It seems unbelievable how my father and his fellow prisoners survived in these conditions, most of them still in the clothes in which they had been deported.

In March my daughter went to Egypt, accompanied by her father, to photograph the type of desert terrain in which her grandfather had done much of his army training.

Egyptian Desert  (Photo M Mew)
 
Egyptian Desert  (Photo M Mew)

 

 
Egyptian Desert  (Photo M Mew)

Later that March, I travelled with my daughter to Italy, to explore the area around Monte Cassino. We had a wonderful guide called Danila Bracaglia who took us to all the places we had asked to see and which my father had written about, some of which turned out to be extremely remote. It became clear, seeing the rugged and boulder-strewn mountainous terrain, why it was so difficult for the Allies to break through the tenaciously defended German Gustav line. There were two places which made a particularly strong impression on me. One was the remotely located Aquafondate, which my father had written about so poignantly, and the other was the Polish war cemetery at Monte Cassino. The cemetery is beautifully situated on the slope of a hill, with the stunning monastery of Monte Cassino overlooking it on one side, and the snow-capped mountains on the other. The atmosphere was unbelievably peaceful. There we found the graves of the men my father mentioned as having died at Aquafondate. Danila explained to us that all the bodies of the fallen Polish soldiers were eventually moved to the Monte Cassino cemetery, from the surrounding battlefields where they had originally been buried. Seeing the graves of some of the men my father had written about in the journal, brought his story to life, something which was quite shocking and emotional.

 

Aquafondate, Italy (Photo K Mew)

  

Shrine to Polish Dead at Aquafondate (Photo K Mew)

  

Monte Cassino Monastery from Polish War Memorial (Photo K Mew)

  

Polish Cemetery at Monte Cassino (Photo K Mew)

  

View of Monastery from Polish Cemetery (Photo K Mew)

  

"And finally Lucek Czerkowski, the quiet Lucek, who if it was necessary, would bully his team into such effort, that with him we felt we could conquer hell." (page 180)

 

  

Polish War Memorial Overlooking the Monastery (Photo K Mew)
  

In May, my daughter and I traveled to Lódz in Poland, where my father and his mother were living in 1939. Their basement apartment in Ulica Narutowicza was still there, but was now an office for a driving school. Having done some research on the wonderful 'jewishgen' website, I knew that my father's mother had perished in the Lódz Ghetto and was buried in the Lódz Jewish cemetery. I was even able to find out her cause of death and her grave number. We were shown the area where she was buried, but the grave was unmarked. It was very upsetting to realise that so many of those who died in the Ghetto had nothing on their graves to identify them.

37, Narutowicza Street, My Father's Pre-war Address (Photo K Mew)
 
Jewish Cemetery, Lodz (Photo K Mew)
 
 
Site of My Grandmother's Unmarked Grave (Photo K Mew)

 

Finally in June my husband and I took a trip to Russia, having discovered that there was a river cruise which would take us from St. Petersburg to Moscow, passing through some of the areas where my father was imprisoned and forced to work. We saw the vast, still mainly uninhabited, areas of pine forest on either side of  the rivers we sailed down and it gave us some idea of how isolated the prisoners must have felt and how difficult escape would have been. We passed through many locks, including the Sheksna and Rybinsk, close to the hydroelectric plants where my father was forced to work. It was very strange to see, on entering the Rybinsk lock, the spit of land that my father had described in the journal as somewhere he used to swim from. It was difficult to believe that my father had been in this very place under such dreadful circumstances 70 years previously.

 

Never-ending Russian Pine Forests (Photos K Mew)

Sheksna Lock (Photo K Mew)

Rybinsk Lock (Photo K Mew)

 

The narrow spit of land at Rybinsk that my father swam from. (Photo K Mew)

 

Publishing the Journals as a Book

Back home I continued to transcribe and edit the translated journal material as best I could, the difficulty still being that some words and even sentences were illegible.  In another journal I found some of my father's letters, written to family members, between May 1944 and January 1945, in broken English (for the censor) and I decided to add these to the English 'manuscript' as I felt they were relevant.

By July 2010 I decided to try and get the resulting 'book' published. It was difficult to find a publisher who would even accept a manuscript and the few that did, rejected it.

Eventually I decided to self-publish the book. The process was difficult, but I was pleased with the final result.

It has been a roller-coaster ride, but at least my father's story is now available to anyone who is interested. I am acutely aware that his story is not a unique one and that there are many more out there, but the rarity of my father's writing lies in the fact  that it was written as events were taking place, in real time.

For me it is important that this little known part of Polish World War II history is not omitted from the history books, is recorded accurately and is not forgotten.

On the subject of Polish World War II history, most people may not be aware of the fact that in World War II, Poland was the fourth largest Allied force, after Britain, the USA and Russia. That the Polish fought from the first day of the war, until the very last and that there were Poles present in every single theatre of war. Their contribution to the victory against Germany was significant, and yet by the end of the war the Polish had lost everything. The Allies had betrayed them and had ceded Poland to Stalin's Russia, leaving the Poles unwilling to return to their now communist-run country.

These displaced Poles dispersed across the world, having been forced to start new lives in new countries, where they had no knowledge of the language or the culture. The first-generation offspring of these Poles have also been affected by what their parents went through. Insecurity and cultural differences caused problems for some children at school and many had feelings of not 'fitting in'. Thankfully the next generation, with a more stable background, are more secure.

There are now few survivors still living to tell the world about Poland's plight during World War II, and so it has fallen to the children and grandchildren of those no longer with us, to try to have what happened during those turbulent years, recorded and recognised.

Krystyna Mew

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