Excerpts of his story by his son, Michael Kulik
(Copyright Michael Kulik)
THE MUD HUTS
On leaving the train at Osh, my family were loaded onto open trucks and then commenced a perilous journey through numerous mountain passes, along hairpin roads, for which the driver showed scant regard or respect. After a nerve wracking 20 or so miles, during which several times it seemed to the passengers they would leave the rough track and plunge to their deaths, the trucks pulled into a tiny village and here they were literally dumped. A few orders were barked to the village head and then the Russians left - leaving a bewildered and dazed people to the mercy of their reluctant host.
In order to make way for his unexpected and extremely unwelcome guests, the village head had to move out a number of local villagers following which my family were allocated space in one of the mud huts. Here in a single room, situated near the door, they were provided with a metal stove with a built in cauldron on which they were expected to cook what meagre food their anticipated labour on the communal farm would provide them with. Straw on the rough dirt floor was to serve as their sleeping quarters.
According to my father, a short time only was spent in this first village as a strange disease of some sort began to affect the villagers, causing several fatalities. Shortly afterwards this affliction spread itself to the recently arrived Polish people who, due to their recent experiences, had little or no immunity with which to combat its creeping and silent effect. After the first few deaths, Russian soldiers returned to the village and the newly arrived guests were collected and moved on elsewhere. This was, perhaps, just as well as the locals were none too pleased with their Polish brethren who had taken to cutting down the village apricot trees for fuel. Transported once more by open trucks my family were taken to another communal farm in the area of Nau Kat. Here again, more mud huts awaited them - this is where they would spend Christmas 1941.
In order to provide for themselves it was again, in accordance with the infamous Russian maxim “he who does not work does not eat”, expected that they would work to ensure their continued survival. Jan Kulik recalls this constant struggle for food, of any sort, and the increasing obsession that dictated the daily routine:
‘I was sent into the fields, working near a stream that was used as an irrigation channel. Here you were meant keep the area free of weeds and then, when they were ready or you were instructed, harvest and collect the ripened crops. When no one was looking you would slip a few things under your garments or, on the occasions this did not prove possible, I would search the field for any items that had been missed or rejected as unusable or diseased.
‘I recall that the 2 Jewish brothers I had met in Kotlas, the ones who had stripped their dead father bare at the railway station, in desperation ate some roots they had found in the ditch we were working one day. Not knowing exactly what these roots were, I declined the offer of sharing their find. My caution was rewarded as within a couple of hours the brothers fell violently ill, it was touch and go for a few days whether they would survive but, miraculously, they pulled through.
‘Another time I managed to find work in a granary store, this proved to be a vital source of food. The charge-hand, seeing I was hungry, let me in on a scam he had long since devised: I was instructed to tie my trouser legs up and then, having first ensured that our actions were not being observed, grain was then poured down my trouser front. Your father was also allowed to join me and with our legs, now somewhat impossibly swollen, we would walk as best as we could and return our booty to our parents. Tobacco, stolen from the nearby plantation, would also come into our possession, this we used for bartering or sold onto the locals, for whom this was a most desirable commodity.’
In contrast to the hostility my family had experienced in the first village to which they were allocated on arriving in Osh, the villagers at the following communal farm were somewhat more welcoming. Indeed, during the celebrations that followed the Muslim festival of Ramadan3 all male adults, Poles included, were invited to take part. For some reason my grandfather declined this offer but Jan Kulik and my father, at the urging and insistence of the locals, accepted and took full advantage of this unexpected opportunity recalls Bogdan Kulik:
‘I don’t know why my father didn’t attend but, for Jan and me at least, it was a most welcome invitation. A feast with unimaginable amounts of lamb and rice was laid on, more food than we had seen for a long time - where had they got it all from I wondered? We both stuffed our trousers with what we could and then returned it to our family.’
My father had also, at this time, become friendly with a local Kirgizian boy:
‘This boy’s father was a teacher but neither he, or his son for that matter, couldn’t comprehend that we were Polish, or that we came from Poland - they would insist, quite adamantly, that we were Russians. They even brought me an atlas and to my complete shock when I turned the pages to where Poland should be, I could not find it - it had disappeared, the Russians had wiped all evidence that we ever existed.
‘My father had made some baskets, by hand weaving, and seeing these the teachers son suggested that I accompany him to his home village - here, he said, I would be able to exchange them for grain. This we did and, for two days, we walked ever higher into the surrounding mountains staying overnight at relatives of the boy. I was away for about two weeks during which time I managed to sell every basket that we had carried with us. Seeing my success, and pointing out the free availability and abundance of food, the Kirgizian boy urged me to stay. Something, however, was gnawing away at me and whilst I was well aware that my absence meant it was one less mouth for my mother to feed, I was anxious to return.
‘Perhaps because he thought I would change my mind, the boy declined to return with me and so, plagued with an overwhelming fear that my family had moved on without me I walked and then increasingly ran as quickly as the terrain would allow me. A few miles short of my destination, exhausted and but well aware that I must resist a strong desire for sleep, I nonetheless lay down with the intention of resting for only a few minutes. I must have fallen asleep for I awoke to find a Kirgizian man shaking me, and then forcing me to my feet telling me I would freeze to death if I stayed where I was.
‘Eventually, having returned in just over one day, I staggered back to our mud hut where, literally, I fell into the arms of my brother. Two days later my instincts were proved right - we were moved on.’
It is not clear why my family were uprooted once more; one theory is that due to the deaths of Poles on nearby farms the local authorities needed to replenish their still rapidly diminishing workforce. So it was, still in the vicinity of Nau Kat, they found themselves on a third communal farm when in early February 1942 a Polish delegation arrived looking to enlist men into the armed forces.
As part of the Polish-Russian treaty of 30th July 1941, a Polish Army was being formed from the remnants of the 200,000 prisoners that the Russians had captured during their invasion of Eastern Poland in September 1939. Most of these prisoners, like my family, had been deported deep inside the Soviet Union; barely half were now still alive. To these the Polish authorities, headed by General Wladyslaw Anders, hoped to add, and therefore bring under their protection, any other men that were deemed fit for military service.
The original intention, and stipulated requirement of the Russians, was that this Polish Army would fight alongside the Soviets against Nazi Germany. Anders, however, had become increasingly suspicious of the true intentions of Stalin following several terse discussions with the Russian leader and, with British encouragement, had decided to evacuate his forces to the Middle East.
Jan Kulik, now aged 19 years, and my grandfather, veteran of two previous conflicts already, attended the initial inspection praying that they would both be accepted and therefore obtain a passage out of Russia. It was also strongly rumoured, but as yet unconfirmed, that families with one or more person serving in the Polish Armed forces would also be granted the right to leave their Russian nightmare behind - an end to their suffering was possibly in sight. Unfortunately only Jan Kulik passed the initial inspection my grandfather, now aged 48 years, was deemed unfit and, in his then poor physical condition, of no use to the armed forces.
Subjected to lengthy delousing and disinfecting, and weighing not much more than 100 pounds, Jan Kulik’s experience of the Russian paradise was coming to an end.
He assumed his family would soon follow.
Jan Kulik, along with other men that had been deemed fit for military service, was taken to the small town of Gorchakov, crossing the border from Kirgizia into the neighbouring republic of Uzbekistan. Here he registered the details and whereabouts of his family to the military authorities hoping that some assistance at least would be given to them until their eventual hoped for departure.
In normal times, Gorchakov would be best described as an insignificant, rather nondescript, place but in the February and March of 1942, this town had became a magnet for any Pole wishing to leave the Soviet Union. Consequently it became literally besieged by crowds of desperate, starving and barely alive people; some with relatives that had enlisted but many who simply followed the army and its personnel wherever it went and wherever they could find it - hoping against hope that they would fall under its protection.
Following his formal acceptance into the Polish armed forces Jan Kulik, with no further use for his winter coat and hat, and having prevented these items at least from being burnt by the recruiting authorities, returned them to an associate who had failed the final admittance medical. The intention was that this man would return the clothing to my grandmother who then, perhaps, could sell it for food. However, for some reason, Jan Kulik’s request was not carried out as recalled by my father:
‘One day I was walking in Nau Kat, I had been trying to find food, and then I saw him - without a care in the world, but wearing what I recognised as my brothers coat and hat. I went over to him and asked what he was doing, He went white but then recovered his composure sending me on my way with a boot to my backside. Concerned, I returned to my mother and told her what I had seen.
‘Our worries increased over the next few days when we became aware of a steady trickle of people all leaving for Gorchakov and who, like us, had a relative in the armed forces. There were also a few people who, not really knowing what they should do, simply moved when anyone else did - people who had travelled thousands of miles to get this far. Shortly afterwards it was decided, by mother I think, that we too should travel to Gorchakov.
‘We were taken to a small mining village; I do not remember the name, where before we were even allowed into the railway station we had to undergo delousing3. A certificate was then given stating that you had been treated, no certificate meant no travel - the authorities were terrified that we would spread disease. We got to Gorchakov but we were too late! All the transports out of Russia had been organised, we were stranded again.’
A few thousand fortunate souls, both military personnel and civilians, were evacuated from Gorchakov and other departure points during March and April 1942. Sometimes by train, occasionally by trucks, they were taken to the port of Krasnavodsk where they were packed onto ancient Russian oil tankers for a perilous journey, lasting 2 days, across the Caspian Sea to the Persian port of Pahlevi4.
Jan Kulik, one of those fortunate souls evacuated from Russia during March 1942, describes his departure from Krasnavodsk:
‘We were loaded at night onto a boat which looked as if it would struggle to get out of the harbour, never mind a 2 day voyage across the Caspian Sea. It was obvious that they were aiming to get as many people as possible out of Russia, packed in like sardines as the boat gradually began to lie lower and lower in the water. I did not actually witness it myself, but I learned later that, due to previous denunciations, a number of grudges were settled during the journey and a few bodies were thrown overboard.
‘We spent about a week on the beach at Pahlevi living in tents, whilst trying to recover our lost strength and from the various illnesses that we had brought with us. Several people were suffering from chronic dysentery but I was fortunate in this respect - I had sold a pair of boots before leaving Russia and with some of the money, I bought a bottle of red wine, to celebrate if you like. I think, perhaps, it was this that saved me.’
The remaining members of my family were, however, still in Gorchakov and like the many other thousands of people stranded there, they besieged the Polish Consulate and welfare centre that had been set up to offer assistance to their fellow citizens. Here, aided by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), a severely stretched organisation did their best to distribute what little aid was possible. Clothing, food (normally biscuits) and a small cash allowance of 150 roubles per adult and 50 roubles for each child were handed out before supplies were exhausted. A fortunate few also received medical help, albeit of a somewhat limited and extremely basic nature.
After a few days spent literally on the streets my family were directed to yet another communal farm by the Polish authorities. Here it was reasoned they could sustain themselves for a little longer whilst additional transports out of Russia were organised. In addition, assurances were given that their whereabouts would not be forgotten and that word would be sent to them to return shortly. Reluctantly they left what they considered at least, the safety of Gorchakov.
Life again became centred on that most basic human instinct - survival. In order not to succumb to the by now almost tempting alternative of death, people were reduced to eating oil cakes (normally used for cattle feed), boiling nettles or setting traps for hedgehogs, lizards or even crows. When even this proved impossible to obtain, people ate grass or the bark from nearby trees. People, however, were continuing to die and each morning the cruel ritual of collecting the dead would be played out.
Heart rendering scenes would be witnessed, as grief stricken mothers would refuse to give up their children for burial; even resorting to hiding the emaciated corpses. Young children would wake to find their mothers cold and themselves now alone in an increasingly cruel world. Other mothers would sometimes take these new orphans under their wing, although struggling to feed their own families. The other alternative to this act of humanity would result in the crying child being taken away to a Russian orphanage where, no doubt, attempts would be made to ensure the child eventually lost knowledge of their ancestry.
My father at this time began to make the first of what would be several return journeys to Gorchakov and other surrounding towns and villages. The reason for this was two fold, as he explains:
‘I used to travel the few miles into Gorchakov, and occasionally other nearby towns, either to buy, steal or exchange items for food. Another reason was to find out about the likelihood of any further transports being organised out of Russia. I would normally travel by train without, of course, any tickets - this would mean sneaking on and then jumping clear of the train once it slowed to avoid the attention of the ticket inspector.
‘Once I had taken some socks that we had been given to try and exchange, or sell, them for food. I remember I was in a railway station somewhere, maybe Gorchakov, selling these socks when a Russian officer beckoned me into his carriage asking to see what I had. With him was a very attractive looking lady and I managed to get a loaf of bread in exchange for the socks. Just at that moment, I heard the ticket inspector in the corridor outside and much to my surprise, and gratitude, the officer pushed me under his seat using the woman’s coat to cover me. When the coast was clear he helped me out, wished me well, and told me to go quickly before the train left.’
On another rail journey, my father experienced a similar narrow escape, his account continues:
‘I had managed to obtain some tobacco, which I had stolen from the communal farm. This I would dry out, crumple the leaves and then sell by the glass. Normally the practise would be to let people try some - if they liked it, then they bought some. On one occasion, I was on a train and I had sold several glasses but I became very uncomfortable with the close attention that my sales had attracted from several Russian youths. Fearing I was about to be robbed, I pretended I needed the toilet and, sure enough, I was followed. Fortunately, at that point, the train slowed so I leapt clear - leaving the train and my likely assailants behind. I walked the remaining miles alone.’
Following this, my father changed tack and noticing a lorry that used to pass by the communal farm each morning, began to use this as an alternative mode of transport:
‘I noticed a lorry used to pass at a similar time each morning, slowing at a certain point as it turned ready to climb a short incline. So I stood on the corner and as the lorry passed I jumped onto the axle next to the spare wheel. Luck was with me, the lorry too was on its way to Gorchakov.’
Returning from one of his many forays into the surrounding area my father learned that my grandfather had left the communal farm, in a further attempt to enlist in the armed forces:
‘I asked my mother where father was; she just shrugged her shoulders and told me he had gone. A few days later, I saw my father in Gorchakov, still in civilian clothing, standing over a pot. He beckoned me over and asked me if I wanted, or needed any food - I shook my head and told him I had my own.’
Shortly afterwards Alina Kulik also left the communal farm following her acceptance into the Women’s Auxiliary Service, this too would result in her eventual departure from Russia and freedom. This now left my grandmother, praying for salvation, alone with her three remaining children: Hela, Stefa and, of course, my father.
Meanwhile following an extremely long run of good fortune, my father’s luck was about to run out:
‘Sometimes, in Gorchakov, a small market would be held on an enclosed square where there was one way in and one way out. I watched with interest as I saw a number of Russian hooligan’s upturn some stalls and then make off with the resultant spillage. Instead of attempting to leave the square, they made their escape through the nearby toilets, where planks had been loosened to assist their departure. Intrigued I watched this spectacle happen again a day or two later and I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss. Unfortunately, the Russian police had discovered the escape route and I found myself being arrested and taken to the police station for questioning.
‘Here they wanted to know who I was and where I was from. Due to my Russian, which by this time was quite good, they thought I was an evacuee from the front. I tried to convince them that I was Polish but it wasn’t until the consul from the Polish Embassy arrived, and spoke for me, that I was allowed to go.’
Another incident, again involving my father, resulted in my grandmother deciding to move her family on once more. It would appear that my father had taken to stealing apricots from a nearby orchard during the cover of darkness.
Emboldened by this, and seeing further considerable amounts of apricots lying rotting on the ground he decided to chance his arm during daylight hours; this time accompanied by his sister Stefa. Unfortunately, an Uzbek caught my father and struck him across the spine with a hoe. Slumping to the floor, my father shouted to Stefa to run and fetch help - meanwhile his assailant fled.
Fearing for their safety they moved on, this time to Fergana and it was about this time my father first became aware of my grandmother’s increasingly fast descent into ill health:
‘I had been so concerned with the urge to survive that I had missed what was taking place in front of my own eyes - my mother was slowly dying. Once or twice, I had noticed that she did not appear to be eating, she always said that she had eaten earlier; or made some other excuse. To make matters worse dysentery was beginning to take a hold, causing her to lose blood. She had aged so much in such a short time.’
On moving to Fergana, in an attempt to support her remaining three children, my grandmother found work in a factory. According to my father, each day she would leave her children in a park hut of some sort, returning hours later having earned a few roubles. Shortly afterwards even this employment came to an end as Russian soldiers arrived in the park and, commandeering all the huts, instructed them to leave.
It was now June 1942 and one final move awaited my family - they moved to what my father describes as a “modern farming complex”, again in Fergana. Here living in tents, under cloudless skies and with the thermometer north of 100 degrees Celsius, they again attempted to eke out an existence that became yet more miserable with the passing days. My grandmother, though, was fading fast and because of this the farming authorities ordered that Stefa Kulik, still not yet 10 years of age, be placed under the care of a nearby orphanage - it was also arranged that my father would accompany her.
Accounts differ as to what period of time was spent in this orphanage. However, what is certain is that my father continually used to abscond, returning frequently to the farming complex searching out his mother and sister Hela. It appears that following one of his many returns to the orphanage my grandmother was taken to hospital leaving Hela, only, living under canvas.
My father meanwhile, on his own initiative, had decided to abscond for good from the orphanage but, this time, he would do so with his younger sister. His account continues:
‘It was a Russian orphanage with, other than us, very few Polish children. The first few days were not too bad - we were treated well and had plenty to eat. However, things soon changed and the food soon disappeared along with the gentle attitude towards us. I do not remember exactly what caused me to decide to run away although I vaguely remember some children being collected by what I took to be their parents - this perhaps, the fear of being forgotten, prompted my action.
‘I told my sister Stefa of my plans and arranged with her to be at a particular place at a certain time. I left the orphanage for the last time, promising I would return. When I came for her, she was not there. Where was she? Concerned, I waited - hours passed by. Then she appeared, her worried face searching for and hoping to see me. I beckoned her over to me and, by scaling a fence and wading across a brook, we left the orphanage behind.’
Whilst this had been taking place, Hela Kulik had arranged for my grandmother’s release from hospital. This meant that on returning from the orphanage the remaining members of the Kulik family were, once more, vitally reunited.
FLIGHT FROM RUSSIA
For the members of my family still remaining in Russia, alive but seriously emaciated and weakened following months of desperate survival, events would now move with an ominous urgency. Prompted once more by the tell-tale trickle of people departing for Gorchakov, my grandmother, summoning what little remained of her strength, made moves to make one final attempt to save her children.
Due to my grandmother being seriously debilitated by chronic dysentery, a sum of money was somehow found and an arrangement struck with a local camel owner who had agreed to provide transport to Gorchakov. However, after only a short distance, they were left abandoned at the roadside as the camel owner, perhaps already having sensed an opportunity to make a killing, made off with the money so trustingly handed over. Just as they wondered what to do, a faint outline of a truck could be glimpsed slowly approaching. My father continues:
‘Seeing us at the roadside, the truck pulled over and a Russian soldier jumped down; ambling slowly over to us - perhaps help was at hand? As he got closer, he must have realised who we were and, in those few short steps, his demeanour seemed to change. He stopped looked us up and down and turned as if to go. My mother, speaking faultless Russian, shouted after him appealing for help - telling him that if he didn’t wish to save her then he at least could save us, her three children. This must have struck a chord with him, perhaps the thought of his own mother came into his mind, and he beckoned us over. A minute or two later we were on our way to Gorchakov - riding in a Russian Army truck.’
They found Gorchakov once more in turmoil and the Polish Consulate under siege from hundreds, if not thousands, of its citizens - diseased and desperate, many in rags; many sobbing for any sort of assistance. Eventually my grandmother, her turn arriving at the head of the queue, registered her details stating that she had provided three members of her family for the armed forces. This was acknowledged and, after the names and details of her children was recorded; departure papers were prepared and handed over. The end of the nightmare was, thankfully, almost in sight.
The authorities then ordered further delousing before the news that everyone had been praying for was given - they were leaving. My father describes the scene at the railway station:
‘Russian soldiers were guarding the station and the trains on which we were to leave, carefully checking and then rechecking everyone’s papers. This time we were to travel in real passenger compartments, not the cattle trucks to which we had become accustomed. As we boarded we experienced a surge behind us as those poor people without departure papers tried to storm the train. Russian soldiers beat them back with rifle butts and well aimed fists and feet.’
It was now August 1942 and with precious little water or food on board, the train began its final journey to the Russian port of Krasnavodsk - a small matter of a further 1,000 or so miles. Under cloudless skies, just across from the baking and vast deserts of Turkmenistan, freedom was waiting.
Despite almost all of the passengers being seriously ill, with one disease or another, the atmosphere on the train was one of cautious optimism. Although the memory of their lost loved ones, buried at regular intervals in shallow graves throughout Russia, or abandoned at the rail side continued to haunt them, they now allowed themselves to believe that at last salvation was at hand.
My father’s account continues:
‘We travelled via Tashkent, which we had first reached some nine months earlier, then onto Samarkand - a place I remember for its beautiful blue mosque, and then through Bukhara. The journey itself was not without incident as on the way to Krasnavodsk the rear carriages of our transport, which were packed with orphans, suffered a collision with a locomotive. We were all ordered to jump down from the train, as there was a real risk of an explosion. Although very aware of the danger, we did so most reluctantly, fearing that we would not be allowed to re-board. However, after an hour or two, we thankfully continued on our way.
‘We were constantly tormented by the lack of water and I remember that at one place, Kizyl I think, I made my way to the front of the train and begged the driver to spare me some water; offering him some biscuits in return. He beckoned me to help myself and, although contaminated with oil, I gratefully gulped it down before returning what remained to my sisters and mother.
‘As the train pulled out of Ashkhabad railway station something occurred that made a huge impression on me and filled me with pride and hope at the same time. A Polish soldier, some said it was a General, appeared on the platform and stood there saluting us - saluting us, a train of half-alive women and children. Blinking back the tears, this made me even me determined to survive.’
A few miles short of Krasnovodsk the train ground to a halt and its passengers ordered down from their carriages. Flanked either side by armed Russian soldiers they were informed that the remaining miles to the harbour area at Krasnavodsk were to be covered on foot. This alarmed my father:
‘My mother was now desperately weak and as we walked I steeled myself to react quickly in case she should fall. Miraculously we made it and we were directed to an enclosed compound in the harbour area where again our papers were inspected. Here we were to spend several days, sitting on a filthy beach right against the sea, tormented by dust storms and the ever present heat.’
Although freedom was now literally within touching distance, people were still dying and each morning bodies would, once more, be taken away to some unknown resting place. Those that were teetering on the edge of death, unable to move, relieved themselves where they lay. Surrounded by this suffering, and undaunted by a thick layer of floating oil2, my father took to swimming out to a nearby raised pontoon where he would spend a few hours each day. Tragedy though was about to strike.
Stefa Kulik continues:
‘My sister Hela sold our last remaining possession, my mother’s eiderdown, in exchange for a battered kettle and some drinking water. Barely conscious, and unable to move, my mother’s life was slowly fading away. The day before we boarded the ship, medical staff came and took my mother away to hospital. You see if you were unable to stand unaided, or walk onto the boat unassisted, the Russians had already said that you would not be allowed to leave. I watched as my mother was carried away.’
My father meanwhile, unaware of the heart-rending drama unfolding, returned to find his mother gone:
‘I came back to find she had been removed to hospital - a thousand sensations pulsed through my body and I suddenly became faint and nauseous. What should I do? Should I go and try to bring her back? Adults nearby, perhaps sensing what I was contemplating, told me to forget such ideas and that I should save myself. In any case, I was told, she will follow in a few days.
‘The very next evening we were ordered to board - we were on our way. As we began to congregate I noticed two boys, about my age, carrying their stricken mother towards the boat. What would happen? Would they be stopped? Despair gripped me again, they were allowed to pass - my mother could have been saved. When we reached the gate, a final check was made and a Russian soldier again inspected our papers. He remarked that the papers gave four names, one was missing? I told him my mother was no longer with us.
‘On board we were packed in like sardines, people everywhere - if you attempted to walk you could only do so by treading on some poor soul who would weakly protest at your lack of consideration. Those that could, relieved themselves over the side of the boat otherwise people simply, without any warning, emptied their bowels where they sat or lay. Many who left Russia as free people were to die before even reaching Pahlevi, it was almost as if they had decided that they could now rest in peace.
‘As the boat4 left the harbour my mind raced through the events of the last two and a half years, as if on fast forward, and then the question I dreaded; although I knew I had to ask it: could I have saved my mother? Had I failed? Russia was slowly disappearing on the horizon and then it hit me, as a cold shudder ripped through my body, the sudden realisation - my childhood was almost gone - I was 14 years old and alone in the world.’
History has never been kind to Poland and 1945 saw a new chapter added to the seemingly never-ending Polish tragedy. Whilst the world celebrated the end of hostilities, after six long years, Polish soldiers realised with disillusionment that their efforts had resulted in everyone else’s freedom but their own.
This despite the fact that at the end of World War II their armed forces in the west outnumbered those of the Czechs, Dutch, Free French, Norwegians and Belgians put together. Although Polish blood had been spilt in Norway, North Africa, Italy, Western Europe and, it should not be forgotten, the Battle of Britain this, in the end, counted for nothing but resulted in a new, and what was to be extremely painful, period of foreign domination - this time Russian.
Russian troops had crossed the former 1939 Polish-Soviet border in January 1944 after which Polish forces, that had remained underground during the German occupation, came out into the open, in full battle formation. They declared themselves ready to fight against the Germans under the military and tactical command of the Russians but also their intention to remain under the political leadership of the legal Polish authorities in London. Despite serious, and as it turned out well founded misgivings, the Polish Home Army was also instructed, by the Polish government-in-exile, to attempt the re-establishment of cordial relations with the incoming Russian forces.
At first, it seemed that this policy would prove successful as Polish forces, in close collaboration with the frontline Russian forces, helped to liberate the cities of Wilno3 and Lwow4. However, once the frontline moved ever westward Polish units who attempted to restore national sovereignty to the newly liberated territories found themselves being placed under arrest, imprisoned and, if refusing to accept complete integration into the Russian army, then deported to Russia. Those that attempted to resist were simply shot.
The Polish tragedy then gathered pace culminating in that most heroic, but ultimately futile, act of resistance - the Warsaw uprising of August 1944. For 63 increasingly desperate days the Polish population fought to liberate, by their own efforts, their national capital from German occupation whilst on the opposite bank of the River Vistula, Russian forces watched the ensuing slaughter. Polish units outside the capital that attempted to march to Warsaw’s aid were arrested and disarmed. Stalin watched, with ill-disguised glee, commenting how “decent it was that the German’s were still prepared to tidy up Poland for him.” Seemingly abandoned by the Allies the Poles surrendered on October 2nd whilst, in the smoking ruins of Warsaw, lay almost 200,000 citizens of Poland.
In the aftermath of this disaster bitter accusations of betrayal, in essence well founded, began to be made by the Polish government-in-exile towards their Allies; accusations that future events would do nothing to lessen. This sense of betrayal voiced, if in private, by the overwhelming majority of Poles is best summed up, with almost prophetic foresight, by the final radio message sent to the west by the Warsaw insurgents:
‘This is the stark truth. We were treated worse by the Allies than the Allies treated Hitler’s satellites, worse than Italy, Rumania, Finland. May God, who is just, pass judgement on the terrible injustices suffered by the Polish nation, and may he punish accordingly all those who are guilty.
‘Your heroes are the soldiers whose only weapons against tanks, planes and guns were their revolvers and bottles filled with petrol. Your heroes are the women who tended the wounded, and carried messages under fire, who cooked in bombed and ruined cellars to feed children and adults and who soothed and comforted the dying.
‘Your heroes are the children who went on quietly playing among the smouldering ruins. These are the people of Warsaw (you have betrayed).
‘Immortal is the nation that can muster such universal heroism. For those who have died have conquered, and those who live on will fight on, will conquer and again bear witness that Poland lives while the Poles live…’ - a few moments later, the radio line went dead.
In January 1945, the Russians finally liberated what was left of Warsaw and promptly installed their own government. The promise of Winston Churchill, “to restore a strong, free and independent Poland” seemed further than ever away.
Worse followed when, on February 13th 1945, the decisions of the Yalta conference were announced, confirming that Poland was to lose a vast chunk of her territory to the Soviet Union, and that what was left of the country would, to all intents and purposes, remain under Soviet domination. Almost half of the pre-war Polish territory had been signed away without reference, of any kind, to an increasingly isolated government-in-exile.
This act was particularly cruel to the men of the Polish armed forces in the west, the vast majority of whom came from the eastern territories ceded to Stalin, effectively meaning that for them there was no homeland to return to. Perhaps realising the gravity of this betrayal several station commanders at British airfields took the precaution of confiscating the side arms of all the Poles under their command, under pretence of issuing them with new ones, fearing a mutiny. Fearing something similar might happen to the Polish 2nd Corps presently fighting in Italy, the War Office was consulted about the measures to be taken in the event of a wholesale-armed rebellion. But there was little, or no, trouble and Polish loyalty to the allied cause continued undiminished right to the bitter end8.
In Poland itself, the following month, the Russians issued invitations to sixteen leading political and military figures, ostensibly to discuss Polish-Soviet relations and also how to implement the decisions reached at Yalta. On revealing themselves, they were arrested and put on trial in Moscow for alleged anti-communist activities, after which they simply disappeared.
On 5th July 1945, less than two months after VE Day9, Britain and the United States announced that they no longer recognised the Polish government in London as the lawful government of Poland - thereby formally accepting the legality of the regime busily being installed by the Russians. This turned the Polish forces overnight into what one British judge called “the largest illegal private army ever known in this country.” From being a useful ally in the war against Germany, the Polish soldiers, sailors and airmen had become an object of acute embarrassment to the British government, and what to do with them a major headache.
There could be no question of transferring them to the command of the Communist Warsaw regime, as it had requested. But they could not be treated the same as British or Empire troops; they had no homes or jobs to go back to, they would get no pensions and no war gratuity, and, most crucially, they were no stateless. Added to this were the thousands of dependants of these service men who were still spread around the world - my family amongst them.
Whilst this uncertainty continued British public opinion, especially in certain media circles, began to turn significantly against the Polish troops stranded in their country. In Blackpool, a Polish pilot riding on the Fleetwood tram with his wife was beset by a group of trawler men and their wives, shouting, “Go home, you dirty Pole!” There were even instances of Polish Air Force officers being spat at in the street; walls near Polish Air Force stations were daubed with “Poles go home” and “England for the English.” Several Airmen were beaten up by unknown assailants and hospitalised. Even in the houses of parliament, more than once, certain left wing Labour MP’s were heard to say, “we don’t want the Poles here10.”
In March 1946, the British government announced that the Polish forces remaining under their command were to be disbanded. A statement from the Warsaw regime inviting all Poles to return to Poland was circulated to all servicemen, with a covering letter from Ernest Bevin, the new Labour Foreign Secretary, politely urging them to go11. Nevertheless, very few showed any willingness to comply. A large proportion of them had spent two years in Soviet gulags and had no intention of risking another stint by returning to Poland. So the British government had to think of alternative arrangements.
On 20th May 1946, Ernest Bevin announced the formation of a Polish Resettlement Corps. This was to be a British Military Unit to which Polish serviceman would be invited to join. On doing so, they would cease to be members of the Polish armed forces, but they would not find themselves on the streets. As nominal members of the British forces, they would receive pay and full medical care. They would be employed in a number of tasks such as bomb clearing and helping with the harvest while civilian jobs were found for them, they would be released from the ranks of the Resettlement Corps as and when they found employment.
The men could not legally be forced to join the Corps, and for a time it was doubtful whether the scheme would work at all. Most Polish servicemen were loath to leave the Polish ranks and pass into a foreign force. Their trust in the British had fallen so low that many were suspicious, and wild rumours circulated concerning the consequences of joining up. Also, while the British government was promising one thing, the British trade unions were saying another and were adamant that no “foreigners could be admitted to their industries.”
The final insult was delivered on 6th June 1946 when, at the Victory Parade held in London, detachments from every allied force-marched past proudly between the jubilant crowds lining the pavements. But there was one ally missing from the parade - Polish units were not allowed to take part, so as not to offend Stalin, who had declared them to be “Fascists”. Flight lieutenant Jan Preihs, who had flown a Spitfire in defence of Britain, turned and walked away from the parade. An old lady came up to him and asked “why are you crying, young man.”
What had it all been for?