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The Polish Deportees of World War II

Recollections of Removal to the Soviet Union and Dispersal Throughout the World

Theresa Kurk McGinley

Edited by Tadeusz Piotrowski. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004. 248 pages. ISBN 0-7864-1847-8. Hardcover. $45.00.

After the Second World War, the world press permanently documented the horrors of the Nazis, while the Nuremberg trials revealed a view of evil that haunted the international community for years to come. At the same time, Soviet evils were largely ignored. As an international prosecutor at Nuremberg the Soviet Union blocked an attack against itself. At Nuremberg no mention was made of the Soviet purges or of the Soviet deportation of Poles into the wastelands of Russia. It seemed that Katyn, among other incidents, was buried forever. The dismissal was so successful that few students know the historical record that the Soviet Union invaded the eastern half of Poland simultaneously with the western invasion by Hitler in September 1939. The alliance of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany is off the radar screen. The “60th anniversary” events held in Moscow in 2005 highlighted Stalin’s victory in the Second World War. Some representatives of the international community rejoiced in the fanfare. The idea of raising statues to Stalin reappeared on the Russian agenda. Ironically, we have just torn down the statue of Saddam in a symbolic gesture of freedom. One wonders what the erection of statues to Stalin would symbolize.

For fifty years, unspeakable oppression existed in the Soviet bloc. The histories of the Polish deportees, displaced persons, refugees, and the fate of the military incarcerated by Soviet forces are important in order to fully understand the complexity of the Cold War. Spurred on by nation-making events in Poland-the rise of Solidarity, the leadership of John Paul II, and the collapse communism-American scholars have increasingly recorded the Polish survivor tales of the war. As time waits for no man, it is history’s great task to preserve and protect these records for the future.

With access to personal recollections of the war, many written in Polish and appearing in English for the first time, Professor Piotrowski has compiled the personal stories of a large number of Polish citizens deported to the Soviet Union between 1939-1941. These are the histories of the Soviet gulags and aftermath, of the precarious amnesty which freed incarcerated Poles and set in motion an immigration wave which reached the shores of nations around the world. Polish survivors write of travel in horrible conditions inside the Soviet Union, surviving the “amnesty,” the march with Polish General Władysław Anders to rest in temporary refugee settlements that existed in the Near and Middle East, particularly in Iran, Iraq, and India. Africa, New Zealand, and Mexico are later important chapters in the book indicative of the movement of Poles around the world. The book is divided into eight chapters, with five of them specifically focusing on the above-mentioned destinations. The largest chapter is Africa, the site of the largest concentration of Poles who survived the Soviet experience.

More than one-half of the Polish civilians who traveled with General Anders out of the Soviet gulags found refuge in the countries of former British East Africa. This segment of East Africa, or “Polish Africa,” became the destination for postwar Polish refugees whose camps were closed in other areas of the world. To get there, however, the refugees had to first gain sanctuary in the Near and Middle East. Geographically, southern movement from the Siberian gulags meant initial entry points in these locations. The mercy shown for these skeletons of humanity is well documented in Piotrowski’s book, but death was often inevitable due to exhaustion, evidenced by the existence of numerous Polish cemeteries in the Middle East.

Assisted in an elementary way by English authorities, the Polish Government in exile (in London), the Catholic Church, Red Cross agencies, and other organizations, the refugees moved on. Iran was the first major stop for General Anders’s army. His weary battalions consisted of men freed from the Soviet gulags and their families. Twenty temporary camps also existed in Tehran housing thousands of orphaned children. Tehran’s moniker became “The City of Polish Children,” many of whom were laid to rest there, not being able to recover after near-starvation in the Russian Stories of kindness, lush gardens, and an abundance of food left a lasting impression on those who survived.

Most heart-wrenching are the stories of orphan children who suffered the loss of entire family units. In Africa and Mexico particularly, settlements became minuscule Polands, with the establishment of ethnic schools, churches, and scouts to retain linkage with the homeland and identity as Poles. An important, albeit too small chapter discusses the Santa Rosa refugee settlement in Mexico. With agreements secured by General Władysław Sikorski, nearly 1,500 Polish refugees were allowed entry into Mexico before the end of the war. One story describes the hope and frustration of young Polish survivors landing in the United States for one brief moment, before being whisked away to a quarantined and secret life across the border in Mexico. Curiously, though perhaps symbolically, Mexico appears as the last chapter in the book, with only four survivor stories recorded. The beacon of liberty, the United States, was next door, but its golden lamp continued to flicker just out of reach for these Poles. This brief chapter of a Polish community in Mexico during the war should generate more research in the area.

Surprisingly, the Polish American Congress founding president, Charles Rozmarek, is not mentioned in its introduction. This is an important omission considering the extensive political lobbying-never again duplicated-of the Polish American Congress on behalf of Poland and the Polish refugees in the postwar world.

Canada is omitted altogether as an immigration entry point, and New Zealand is mentioned but not Australia. The diplomatic and political problems caused by the alliance of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Second World War affected the immigration policy of war survivors, especially Poles into the United States. U.S. immigration policy did not change until 1948 with the passage of the Displaced Persons Act, and even then the law was restrictive. Considering the significant change of national borders and politics in Poland at the hands of the allies, the welfare of the wartime displaced and refugees became a contentious issue in both the United States and abroad, fueling the fires of the Cold War.

Professor Piotrowski is to be commended for his research. It is no small task to breathe life into a painful subject that so many choose to ignore. The book is written in such a way that it will surely inspire more research.

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