The Pogrom of Catholics in Suwałki,
July 1225, 1945
In July 1945, in the Suwałki-Sejny region of northeastern Poland (the voivodship of Białystok), tens of thousands of Soviet NKVD and Red Army soldiers took part in the hunt for members of the Polish Resistance during the Second World War (Armia Krajowa). The operation had gigantic proportions, considering the territory comprised only two counties. The action took place between July 12-19, 1945, with a mop-up ending July 25, in Suwałki and Augustów counties and in parts of Sokółka county. The victims came from some 100 villages and settlements between Sokółka in the south and Wizajny in the north. The number of victims, whose burial site remains unknown, is between 600-800 people. The few “lucky” ones were shot while attempting to escape, and were buried by their relatives and friends. The figure of 600-800 pertains to those whose fate remains a mystery as of July 2005. Where and how they were killed, and where their remains were deposited, is a secret known only to those who issued and executed these terrible orders. The victims included thirty women. The youngest victims were Stanisław Cieślakowski from the village of Białogór and Jan Kulbacki from Płaska. Both were sixteen. The oldest, Jan Markiewicz from Bierzałowice, was 69.
Sources indicate that 45,000 Soviet operatives took part in the operation; part of that force was located on the other side of the Lithuanian border. The Soviet-controlled Polish police (MO and UBP) were also implicated, as were two detachments of the First Prague infantry regiment of the Polish Army, formed under Soviet auspices on Soviet territory and commanded by the Soviet-appointed generals. In his July 1945 report detailing the campaign to “liquidate” the anti-Soviet underground in the Białystok voivodship, the military commander of the Lublin region said the following : “Between 15-25 July 1945, 120 operatives from the First Prague infantry regiment, together with the Belarusan Soviet Front in the Suwałki Region, liquidated numerous bandit groups. The total of those liquidated or imprisoned was 1,600 persons.” The Internet page maintained by veterans of that army presents matters in a more subdued way: “After the Second World War ended, the division was directed to the Białystok voivodship to stabilize social and economic life there.” [This Internet page could not be found as of October 2006. Ed.]
The consecutive stages of this affair were prepared with criminal perfection. Places for detainees were reserved ahead of time in houses, barns, or sheds. Nothing is known about the ways in which interrogations were conducted because no one survived. Apparently all the accused confessed to being guilty of anti-Soviet activity. After Poland regained independence in 1989, those who had lived nearby and survived testified that they heard men howling from pain during interrogations. In the village of Giby, where a large number of people were kept in a livestock shed, those not arrested testified that when the operation was over, they found a bathroom tub filled with bloody water in the house in which prisoners were interrogated. This was an indication that prisoners were revived after torture. The walls of the shed showed traces of inscriptions that had been wiped off. Villager Józef Kucharzewski, who had not been arrested and was sixteen when these events were taking place, testified that for a number of years he kept needles used by torturers for driving under the prisoners’ nails. Apparently forgotten by the torturers, they were left in the shed.
The perfection with which this pogrom was executed is astounding. The Nazis also perfected the ways to kill fellow humans, but they have hardly ever managed to kill large numbers in such a way that no witnesses slipped away. For instance, of a hundred Polish Catholics dragged out of their homes in the Wawer suburb of Warsaw in 1939, one escaped and seven survived by pretending to be dead under the pile of corpses. Of the six to eight hundred prisoners from the Suwałki hunt, no one survived. Not one person escaped and no one provided any information. These simple people did not carry pens or writing paper with them, and they must have been stunned by what happened.
The “hunt” was a taboo subject for many years. One did not talk about it when children were present: they could blab something at school. At the same time, the victims’ families were branded as the families of bandits. The son of one of the victims applied for admission to a university; first person who read his application returned it to him with the advice to remove the personal information. Only after 1956 did some victims’ families begin to make inquiries, writing letters to the Polish Red Cross and to International Red Cross. Others wrote on their voting ballots: “Tell us where our families are buried.”
In 1987, an inhabitant of one of those villages found human remains near the road between Giby and Rygol. The story gained publicity and foreign correspondents arrived. The remains were exhumed, but turned out to be those of the Wehrmacht soldiers. The exhumation prompted the local inhabitants to form a Citizens’ Committee for Search of the Suwałki Region Inhabitants Who Disappeared in July 1945. The Committee collected oral histories and testimonials of relatives and friends of those who disappeared. Poland was still militarily occupied by the Soviet Union at this time, and shortly after the Committee had been formed its members began to experience harassment and attempts at intimidation from the local political police Słužba Bezpieczeństwa). In 1989 the second exhumation took place. It confirmed the conclusions of the first one: these were Wehrmacht soldiers and not local villagers. The fate of the Suwałki-area Catholics remains unknown. Rumors have it that their remains were interred in present-day Belarus, in the military fort of Naumowicze near Grodno.
In January 1994 the Polish Embassy in Moscow addressed the Procurator General of the Russian Federation, asking for documents and an inquiry. One year later, an answer came. It contained the following:
Signed by the deputy procurator general of the Russian Armed Froces, lieutenant general V. A. Smirnov.
Historians from the Białystok branch of the Institute of National Memory, who began their own investigation of these matters, are convinced that information about the location of the victims‘ remains can only be found in the Moscow or Minsk archives.
Every year people come to Suwałki and Sejny to honor the memory of those who perished. Among them are representatives of the county offices in Sejny. There streets still bear names such as “22 July Street” [the date when the Soviet-imposed government issued its manifesto, Ed.]; Świerczewski Street [the name of the Soviet general of Polish background who came to Poland with the Soviet army to serve his Moscow masters, Ed.]; Nowotki and Marchlewskiego Street. The same Marchlewski who waited so impatiently for the defeat of Poles in the Polish-Soviet war in 1920, and the same Nowotko who, before leaving the Soviet Union for Poland as one of the designated rulers of postwar Poland, wrote: “We started the engines and, to say goodbye to our Soviet homeland, we sang the song “Sziroka strana moia radnaia” [one of the most popular Soviet songs, Ed.].
In the village of Budwiec, hidden deep in the forests of Suwałki county, the wooden barn that witnessed one instance of these arrests is still standing. In 2005 it towered over the miserably poor village at the side of a dirt road. Sixty years ago in July 1945, villager Bolesław Radziewicz was fixing the roof of his barn. The Second World War ended May 9, 1945, and farm repairs were in order. Suddenly a line of soldiers with kalashnikovs at the ready emerged from the forest. They ordered Mr. Radziewicz down and took him with them. “Perhaps, if he did not climb that roof, he would be with us here today,” his brother and sister reflected during an interview. They had witnessed the event from their nearby house. “He was clearly visible from the forest,” they said calmly. Their bitterness and despair had worn out during years of hardship. Neither then nor now do they know any conceivable reason for their brother’s arrest. All they wish is to know where he has been buried. From the neighboring village of Zelwa, village mayor Stanisław Zabicki and forester Józef Cymon were seized.
When the Red Army marched through Poland in 1944-45, there were many reports that the NKVD came in with lists of people to arrest. The arrests and “people hunts” had already started in spring 1945, before the war officially ended.
The orders from the top routinely demanded that the leading and visibly patriotic members of rural society be destroyed. On the level of NKVD operatives in the Suwałki-Sejny region, the apparently random genocide most likely arose out of the necessity to hurry up, the notorious sloppiness of Soviet record keeping, and laziness mixed with fear. It was easier to arrest a man plowing his field than one who fled to the forest and became a partisan. What mattered was numbers: a certain number of people had to be arrested in a given locality, and the NKVD operatives religiously followed the orders regarding the prescribed number of victims. The Soviets disseminated disinformation in order to justify the arrests. A Red Army captain was allegedly killed in a village in Sejny county, and the hunt was a form of revenge. The local people claim that the captain died in a fight over a girl, and they dismiss the fabricated story.
This article, published in Rzeczpospolita on 9 July 2005, is based on the author’s interviews with inhabitants of the region and on materials gathered by the Institute of National Memory, Białystok branch (Instytut Pami´ci Narodowej w Białymstoku, ul. Warsztatowa 1A, 15-637 Białystok, Poland).
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