The atrocities of the Soviet system and punishment of Poles after the invasion of Poland in 1939 remains one of the greatest kept secrets of World War II. Everyone knew what the Germans intended and swiftly carried out in early September 1939, but not so the Soviets. After the secret signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, their combined aim was to eliminate Poland. Although estimates vary widely (30–45) million people died during World War II. It is estimated that more than 6 million Poles died at the mercy of Germany and the Soviets. They were mostly non-combatants. The deaths represent the largest losses from any past wars in human history. Many of the losses were not recorded. Burial records were created for some, but most of the deaths from mass murders, starvation, and exposure was not only neglected, but also the casualties were secretly hidden.
Mostly the deaths were among the non-combatants: executions, mass murders, starvation and exposure and were among the severest atrocities of the war in Europe. It was estimated that nearly 3 million Poles died after being evicted from their homes and deported to the thousands of prison/work camps throughout the Soviet Union (Gulags). Those deaths were in addition to the Polish losses from the Germans, who had invaded Western Poland three weeks prior in September 1939, when the Germans immediately began an organized slaughter of Poles.
After the Soviet army invaded Eastern Poland in 1939, Polish families were evicted from their homes or work and deported to thousands of prison camps throughout Siberia, as well as other remote sites. The Poles were made to work under the harshest conditions, which included inadequate food, lack of protection from exposure and overwork until they dropped from exhaustion. Stalin needed their forced labor to support the Soviet military, build armaments and supply labor in regions where the men had been drafted into armies to fight the Germans.
By 1942, Stalin began to fear that the Germany army might succeed and occupy the USSR. At first he wanted to release eligible Polish males from the Gulags to serve in the Red Army. However, his plan was based upon inserting only one or two Polish individuals into each of the Soviet military units. Stalin was fearful that an independent Polish army might become organized to attack the Soviets instead of the Germans. Outside political pressures from the British and Americans forced Stalin to recognize Col. Władysław Anders, who was imprisoned in Moscow at Lubyanka. Eventually Anders was released from prison and placed in charge of the Polish exiles that had been discharged from the Gulags. He recognized the need for exiles to first rest and recover before they would be able to participate in any strenuous battles against the Germans. However, it was the Polish army of exiles under Anders, who added the necessary force to defeat the Germans at Monte Casino in Northern Italy (1944), which in turn changed the balance of the war against the Germans. At the time, Stalin also made plans to release other non-combatants from the Gulags. They were released on their own recognizance, and had to walk to the West to safety where they either joined “Ander’s Army” or returned to their former homes. Starvation and winter exposure caused the deaths of about half of estimated 1,700,000 deported Poles.
The released prisoners were taught that they could never reveal the facts of their imprisonments in the Gulags; they were terrified of Soviet retribution. Most of those released prisoners died without ever revealing the truth about their deportations and forced labors. They were not permitted to discuss those matters even with spouses. That historical era was expunged from Soviet textbooks and all other references. After the war, the same restrictions were enforced among the Eastern Block nations that became part of the Warsaw Pact, who were brought within the Soviet military sphere. Many of the released prisoners later died from natural causes, but never revealed their past Gulag imprisonment. Other inmates, who failed to be released from their Gulags, either died in the camps, or after later release, were forced to remain in the USSR and died as Soviet citizens without their family’s knowledge of their whereabouts or fates.
This chapter of the Polish Genealogical Society of California’s website has been created to provide direct links to the documents and archival records of the Polish deportations and fates. The most extensive archival records were housed in London, England. For researchers, this information is provided to expedite research to locate relevant war records. The contact information is listed among the archival files in this website chapter. One of the most extensive collections of the Polish prisoner and war records can be searched in London. Contact information:
Margaret Goddard or Barbara Kroll
APC Polish Enquiries, Building 60
West End Road
Ruislip, Middlesex HA4 6NG
Phone: 0044 (0) 208 833 8603