89 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain
Deportation to Siberia was the fate of many Poles after the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939. Nazi Germany attacked Poland on 1st September 1939 and the Soviets followed suit on 17th September. They had agreed to divide up Poland between them.
Anna and Norbert Kant, together with their two children of 5 years and 17 months, fled east to escape capture by the Germans. They travelled by pony trap at night as during the day the German air force would straf the roads killing civilians. They managed to get to Lvov, a city of 300,000 with another 200,000 refugees, now occupied by the Soviets.
Norbert managed to get a job as an inspector of food shops but this only lasted until the spring of 1940 when the Soviets liquidated the shops. The Kants lived in one room in a flat and life was very difficult with no work. One night in late June 1940 the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) knocked loudly on their apartment door. They had come to arrest Norbert's sister who was living illegally with them. Norbert was not there as he was spending the night sleeping in a shop that belonged to friends as it was safer there.
Anna told the NKVD that if they took her sister-in-law they should take her and the children too. Anna was taken by the NKVD to a court-yard next to a factory where she waited for her husband. Norbert arrived at 10am and told his wife:
Don't cry and don't despair. You'll see, those who remain here will one day envy us. (p.18-19)
Norbert believed that the friendship between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany would not last. War would break out between them and they would be saved because they had been deported.
The NKVD took them to the railway station in Lvov. They were put on board a cattle-truck on a train of about 25 trucks. There were about 15-18 trains of similar length. The train left Lvov and took them on a lengthy journey to a place called Soswa in the Siberian Taiga. At Soswa they were put on river barges and sailed for about 6 or 7 days. In the second half of July 1940 they arrived at a settlement of wooden houses. This was to be their new home.
A Soviet representative welcomed them to the settlement with a speech:
You must forget about Poland. Poland doesn't exist now and never will...The only way you can stay alive in the Taiga here is through hard work. (p. 26)
Conditions in the settlement were tough. They were given 400 grams of bread a day and once a day a hot meal of balanda: boiled water with flour and sometimes with barley. The daily temperature was 40c and they were plagued by insects. In the winter snow lay from October until May and the temperature reached -50c.
Norbert asked himself why did the Soviets deport the Poles to Siberia.
It's obvious that there was only one purpose in deporting all these people; men, women and small children into the Siberian Taiga. It was to exterminate them. (p. 37)
In the summer of 1941 news reached the camp that the Germans had attacked the Soviet Union. In September Soviet officials arrived at the camp and told the Poles they were now free. An amnesty had been agreed for them between the Soviet government and the Polish government-in-exile in London. Each of them was issued with a certificate of amnesty. A few days later a telegram was received at the camp from the Polish Embassy in Kuybishev which said:
All officers, soldiers and all those able to serve in the army, are asked to report at once to the nearest headquarters of the Soviet Army, from where they will be directed to the new Polish Army. All Soviet authorities have got the correct information. Those who report will receive the necessary travel documents and food. (p. 59)
After almost 16 months in the Siberian Taiga the Kants and the other Poles set out to find the Polish Army. They travelled to a town called Gari and got a barge down river from there to Soswa. From Soswa they hired a cattle truck which was attached to a passenger train. They weren't sure what route the train was taking but were glad to be on the move. It was the middle of October 1941.
They wanted to get to Kazakhstan where the climate was warmer. After a number of days on the train they reached the station at Tomsk. From there they were attached to another train and this took them to the city of Novosybirsk. After a long stop the train continued on its journey and the snow gradually disappeared. They eventually arrived at Alma Ata the capital of Kazakhstan. It was the first days of November. From Alam Ata they got a connecting train to the town of Dzambul.
They found a place to stay in Dzambul. The weeks went by with no work. On 2nd January 1942 Norbert took a train to Alma Ata to seek the advice of the representative of the Polish Embassy. He met with the delegate, Mr Wiecek, and as a result of their conversation Norbert was offered the position of Trustee of the Polish Embassy for the region of Dzuvalin. He was to stay in Burnoye.
Polish Soviet Agreement
Mr Wiecek explained the outcome of the Polish-Soviet agreement made in the summer of 1941.
- Amnesty was declared for all Polish citizens
- Polish Army was to be formed
- Polish Embassy to be established in Kuybishev
- Ambassador Kot was appointed
- Polish Embassy had power to create delegatures in various regions and to appoint Trustees
The role of the Trustees was to help Polish citizens in accordance with the orders of the Polish Embassy. Mr Wiecek gave Norbert some money so that he could run the diplomatic post in Burnoye. One of the duties was to compile a register of the Poles who came to see him.
The joy of the people who came to my office is hard to describe. It wasn't the ration cards that caused the joy, but the fact that there was a Polish diplomatic seat right here, in the middle of Asia...Nearly everyone spoke with tears in their eyes, they now had hope that they wouldn't die in Kazakhstan... (p. 85)
News about the existence of the Polish Trustee spread through the collective farms in the area and the numbers of Poles registering increased every day. In February Norbert paid a visit to the delegature in Tchymkent. He gave a report of the situation in his area and learned the following:
- 8th Division of Polish Army was forming in Tchok-Pak
- Delivery of arms to the Polish Army was completely inadequate
- Commanders in the Polish Army were concerned about the total lack of information on the 15,000 Polish Officers that had been held in Starobielsk, Kozielsk and Ostaszkow camps.
Norbert was asked by the delegature to visit the Polish Army in Tchok-Pak. He was told that the health of the men arriving to join the Polish Army was ruined. Many of them were suffering from typhus, dysentery or malaira. The death rate was extremely high. Norbert spoke to a Major Ossowski who said that he did not believe the Soviets were interested in the formation of a Polish Army.
The division in Tchok-Pak was liquidated at the end of March 1942. Those soldiers and officers who were still alive were sent to Jangi Jul. The large cemetery was all that remained of the rest.
In June 1942 Major Ossowski visited Norbert and told him that:
- Stalin had halved the amount of food issued to the Polish Army
- General Anders was trying to get the Polish Army out to Persia
- Polish-Soviet relations were becoming increasingly strained
- After the Polish Army leaves the Soviet Union there could be new repressions against the Polish people, and especially against the employees of the Polish Embassy including the delegates and Trustees
Major Ossowski advised Norbert to come with him to Jangi Jul where he would be admitted into the army and he could leave the Soviet Union. Norbert replied that he felt that he couldn't leave his diplomatic position.
In June and July 1942 General Anders' Polish army left the Soviet Union for Persia. Polish Ambassador Kot left at the same time and was replaced by Taduesz Romer.
Autumn of 1942 was approaching and the first signs that the freedom guaranteed by the Amnesty was ending...start of renewed persecution of Poles scattered all over the USSR. (p. 105)
In April 1943 the Germans announced that they had discovered the mass graves of murdered Polish officers at Katyn. The Germans accused the Soviet Union of the crime, the Soviets blamed the Germans. In response to a request by the Polish government-in-exile for the International Red Cross to investigate Katyn the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with the Poles.
At the end of May 1943 the issue of passports began, Polish citizens were called to the passport office in the police station in Burnoye. They were told to hand in their Amnesty documents, as the documents were now invalid, and they had to fill in a form to obtain a Soviet passport. (p. 115)
The Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) arrested and put in jail those who refused to comply. Life for the Poles in the collective farms and settlements deteriorated.
The loss of help from Polish diplomatic posts not only had an effect on the material well-being of the people, but their morale as well. The Polish people felt abandoned, they felt no one cared about them any more, any hope of getting out of the clutches of the Soviets was gone. (p. 121)
Arrest and Interrogation
At the end of September 1943 the NKVD told Norbert to report to their office. He was put in a prison cell: 2 metres by 8 metres with 26 men in it. After six days he was released.
On the 3rd March 1944 Norbert was teaching in the Polish school. He was called away from his lesson and was arrested at gun point by two NKVD officers. He was again put in a prison cell. Most of the Polish Trustees who had not left their diplomatic posts had been arrested nearly a year earlier in April 1943.
Norbert was taken to the NKVD prison in Tchymkent, a town in southern Kazakhstan. There his money and wedding ring were taken from him. His belt was removed and all the buttons were cut off his clothes. He was left standing naked for a long time. The guard then explained the prison rules to him.
When the guard bangs the door with his key in the evening it means you must lie down on your bunk...You are only allowed to lie on your back not your side. Your hands must be pulled up to your neck. Your face must be uncovered. If you disobey any of these rules you will be heavily punished. (p. 145)
Norbert was interrogated by NKVD officers on many occasions. They wanted him to confess to crimes against the Soviet state. He was interrogated during the night and the sleepless nights left him very tried. During one night he was taken to meet Kozlov, the man in charge of the interrogation department. Kozlov told him:
If we are suspicious of someone, as in your case, then we observe, collect evidence and documents, and when we have all the material then on our recommendation the public prosecutor issues an order for an arrest. We then conduct the interrogation and when we have all the poof we write out the charge, we propose a punishment, and the rest is simply a formality. We have never had an incident where the arrested person wasn't charged. (p. 160)
The NKVD wanted to know about his meetings with Major Ossowski, the staff officer of the Polish Army division in Tchok-Pak. They accused Norbert of spying. He became increasingly weakened.
I really was at the end of my tether. I forgot about the interrogation, about the threats of death. I thought only of one thing - sleep, sleep, sleep. (p. 165)
The interrogator advised Norbert to admit to spying for the USA as he would get a maximum of 10 years in jail. Norbert wrote out a made up confession. He was taken to meet a NKGB colonel who told him that his confession was very unconvincing and they would check if the basis for his arrest was judged correctly. This gave Norbert renewed hope that his case would be reviewed.
He began to receive more food.
[the guard] poured in some groats sprinkled with sugar. For the first time since I was arrested I received some tasty food - warm groats and sugar! The duty officer explained I would get this extra ration each day. (p. 197)
One evening a guard brought him a can and a basket. They contained food sent by his wife. The can contained honey and the basket bread, cheeses, dried fruit and cigarettes. This gift of food gave him great joy and hope that he would soon be free. The food parcels now began to arrive fairly often.
One Saturday evening the guard opened the cell door and told Norbert to gather his things. He was taken to the prison governor and the governor told him:
I am glad that I can inform you that according to the resolution of 5th August you are now free. Your interrogation has shown that the charges placed against you were unjustified. (p. 223)
The prison governor took him to a small iron gate, shook hands with him and bid him goodbye. Norbert Kant was once again a free man. He was reunited with his wife and children. Norbert believed that his release must have been the result of a decision taken at the highest level in Moscow.