Polish 2nd Corps
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west, and Russia invaded from the east two weeks later. Life changed completely under Russian occupation. Then Stalin put into action his plan to ethnically cleanse the eastern borderlands of Poland - he ordered the deportation of an estimated 1.7 million Poles to Siberia.
On 10 February 1940, Roman and his family were forced at gunpoint from their home in northeastern Poland and taken by cattle train to a labour camp in Siberia. It was a particularly brutal winter, with temperatures dipping into the minus 40s Celsius, so the conditions in the unheated cattle cars were beyond belief.
Born in 1924, Roman was 16 years old when this happened. He remembers how the area was both beautiful and horrifying. The snow was as white as can be, and the sky was blue, so very blue. And he can never forget the extreme cold and the unrelenting hunger.
In the years since, Roman has often wished he could forget what happened in Siberia. For many years, he did not talk about it. Now in his 80s he is part of a shrinking group of survivors that remember the horrors of the deportations.
On the long journey to Siberia, Russian soldiers dumped the bodies of those who had starved to death beside the railway tracks. The sight of bodies disposed of so unceremoniously would stay with the deportees for the rest of their lives.
Conditions were no better at the labour camp, where innocent people toiled through long days for a meagre piece of bread and some watery soup. Everyone was so hungry that they were reduced to stealing food whenever they could, even though they could be shot for doing so.
In June 1941, Germany invaded Russian-held territories. So, Russia, which had been Germany’s ally, now became its foe. The Polish government-in-exile negotiated an ‘amnesty’ for the Poles, so that they were freed from the camps. The men were allowed to join the Polish army that was being formed in the southern USSR to fight the Germans.
Roman enlisted and said goodbye to his parents, and he never saw them again.
The army trained in the USSR for some time, but when the Russians failed to provide the proper equipment and provisions, General Anders negotiated their evacuation to Persia (Iran). Roman evacuated with the army, aboard a tanker that crossed the Caspian Sea to the port of Pahlevi.
The army continued its training in Persia, Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt, before sailing to Italy and fighting in the Italian Campaign.
In Italy, Roman was part of a reconnaissance unit during the Battle of Monte Cassino. He saw his friend get blown to pieces by an enemy mortar. Sometimes, Roman would pinch himself to make sure he was not dead too. After everything he had endured since his deportation, he was surprised to be alive.
Roman keeps his military medals wrapped in plastic inside a shoe box. When he dies, the box will go to his son, so that he and his children can learn about this forgotten history.
Memories like these are burned into the minds of the Poles who lived through the brutal Siberian deportations of 1940-1941. Wherever they found new lives after the Second World War, the survivors bore the physical and mental scars caused by abuse, starvation, and grief.
The plight of the Poles deported to Siberia has been largely ignored or forgotten by the world. Some of them call it the “forgotten holocaust”.
Survivors cannot survive forever. In time, the Poles who endured Siberia will be gone, leaving only their tattered diaries and documents as reminders of their ordeals.
Memories like these are burned into the minds of the Poles who lived through the brutal Siberian deportations of 1940-1941. Wherever they found new lives after WW2, the survivors bore both the physical and mental scars caused by abuse, starvation, and grief.
Many refused to talk about their ordeals in Siberia, fearing reprisal from the same Soviet System that had enslaved them. Others remained silent because they could not find words to convey the horrors.
But now, as the decades pass and the legacy of the deported Poles fades deeper into historical obscurity, more and more survivors are sharing their stories.
Those old enough to remember Siberia are now old. They want to tell the world what happened while they still can. This is what Roman is trying to do.
Source: KPF interview
Polish: Bronze Cross of Merit, with swords