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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

Stalin's deportations of the Poles

page 20

Stalin's deportations of the Poles

During the first three decades of the 20th Century, two diametrically opposed ideologies were ascendant in Europe. On the one side, in the non-industrialised USSR, communism, with Russia as its champion after the bloody revolution of 1918, became a great political magnet for the liberation of the supposedly oppressed working classes. Communism promised the working classes a "workers' paradise" to free them from exploitation by the capitalist-dominated nations.

For a time, many workers genuinely believed in communism and were rather sympathetic towards the Russian style and its leaders – Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. This belligerent class-struggle-oriented brand of Russian communism engendered a suspicious, anti-communist mentality that lingered on for many years in the democratic Western societies.

On the other side, in industrialised Germany, national socialism (finally Nazism) gained power in the 1933 election under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. National socialism stood for German supremacy as the "master race", with racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Slavism, re-armament and state control of the economy. Though these two ideologies (Russian communism and German Nazism) opposed and hated each other, events showed that they could conveniently ignore their differences to achieve a common goal – territorial expansion. And both were ruthless when it came to attaining their ends.

When Hitler and his Nazi Party gained power in Germany, he decided to pursue a policy of "revisionism" to rectify the supposed injustices that had been perpetrated against the German people by the victorious nations after Germany's defeat in World War I. This set him on a course which led to starting World War II – first by annexing Austria in 1938 and parts of Czechoslovakia in 1939, and then by attacking Poland on 1 September 1939.

No one could imagine that World War II would give rise to so many unprecedented phenomena that affected the lives of masses of people for ever. It produced highly organised exterminations, gas chambers, genocide on an incredible scale, concentration camps, stateless people, displaced persons, millions of refugees, and the upheaval of community and family life to an extent unimaginable before.

Poland was the first country to fight against the German aggression. Unaided by its allies Britain and France, it put up a brave resistance but was quickly overwhelmed by the better prepared and equipped German army.

On 17 September 1939, while Poland was reeling under the might of the German invasion from the west, Russia, without declaring war, invaded page 21Poland from the east. This sudden and totally unexpected entry of Russian armies into Poland was a painful, demoralising and brutal blow to the Polish people. Furthermore, it also put a definite end to any hopes that Britain or France would come to Poland's aid under the existing agreements and guarantees.

Having overrun Poland, Germany and Russia immediately subjected its people to a well-organised reign of terror. But there was a subtle difference between the two occupants because they had different aims. In western Poland, which was occupied by the Germans, the Nazis intended to turn the Poles into slaves. So, after incorporating some parts of Poland into the "Greater Germany", they set aside parts of central Poland for Poles but under complete German control and administration.

Eastern Poland was incorporated into the USSR and a policy of intense "russification" of the annexed area began. This was primarily achieved through breaking down the social structure in the community by mass arrests and deportations (or ethnic cleansing) on a great scale.

The so-called "enemies of the state" (those who held government jobs, politicians, merchants, teachers, army officers, artisans, "kulaks" or well-to-do peasants, soldier settlers, foresters and clergy) whom the Soviets thought might oppose them were either immediately arrested, imprisoned, liquidated or deported into the sub-arctic wastelands in the White Sea region of Northern Russia; east of the Ural Mountains into Siberia proper; or to the Central Asiatic Republics, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Stalin's deportations were a part of a carefully planned aggrandisement policy which had a twofold purpose. First, a political one to destroy the opposition. Second, to boost the economy in neglected regions of Russia. People were deported into those areas of the USSR where, due to geographic and climatic conditions, it was difficult to get a voluntary native labour force to exploit Russia's vast natural resources.

So Russia used slave labour that was made up of its own nationals whom it considered politically to be enemies of the state and common criminals. Then it simply supplemented this already huge existing labour force, which it held in forced-labour camps (gulags), with the deported population from Poland and other occupied territories.

Preparations for deportations from Poland were systematically planned. Typically, the deportation squad would burst into the house in the middle of the night so as to catch the entire family. The shocked and stunned people were ordered to pack as quickly as they could because they were being transferred to another region where everything would be provided for them. The entire household was searched for arms, creating a mess and at the same page 22time often robbing or looting valuables. No one was ever told where they were being deported. People were assembled at local schools or stations, loaded into specially adapted goods and cattle trains, and then transported eastwards into the unknown.

It is reliably estimated that along with the captured soldiers and civilians escaping from the German front and the mass deportations of civilians that started on 10 February 1940, plus sporadic deportations up to June 1941, between 1.5 million and million Polish citizens were deported to the USSR. Most of these would have perished, as was intended by Stalin, if it was not for Germany's unexpected attack on its former ally, Russia, on 22 June 1941.

Stalin did not expect an attack, despite being warned by Britain. So when it did come, the Soviet Red Army was unprepared and initially crushed. Soldiers died in their multitudes, 3.5 million Red Army soldiers surrendered by the end of 1941 and the rest retreated eastward in disarray.

In this chaos, the Russian Secret Police was masking all the nefarious deeds that it had committed in Poland. They quickly murdered as many prisoners as possible and the rest were driven east by forced marches. Those prisoners that could not keep up were simply shot.

As a direct consequence of Hitler's attack on Russia, Britain, Poland and Russia suddenly found themselves fighting a common enemy. With Britain's backing, the Polish Government-in-Exile re-established diplomatic relations with Russia on 30 July 1941. This rapprochement led to an amnesty being proclaimed for Polish citizens who were detained in the Russian labour camps and prisons. Among other things, it also provided for the formation of a Polish army inside Russia.

As the war initially unfolded unfavourably for the Allies, some of that Polish army was needed in the Middle East to protect the Western Allies' oil fields. Consequently, 77,000 soldiers and 43,000 civilians, including about 20,000 children, were evacuated under the amnesty from Russia to Iran and the Middle East. From there, the Polish soldiers went on to fight in North Africa and Italy.

The civilians who were previously in the Russian forced-labour camps were treated in Iran as refugees. They could not stay there indefinitely and were relocated to parts of the British Empire, such as East Africa, South Africa and India. They had nowhere else to go because their homeland was still in the war zone between Russia and Germany. Among those evacuees stranded in Iran were many children whose parents did not survive the inhuman conditions in the Russian forced-labour camps or whose fathers had joined the Polish Army formed in Russia after the amnesty.

The Polish Government-in-Exile appealed to the members of the League of page 23Nations to accept these people. Several responded, among them New Zealand. In 1944, the New Zealand Coalition Government led by Prime Minister Peter Fraser invited a group of 733 children and 10 accompanying guardians for the duration of the war.

The war was nearing its end. On 4 to 11 February 1945, the victorious Allies held a conference at Yalta. At that conference, Britain and the US agreed to Russia's annexation of eastern Poland and its control of Eastern Europe. Poland received some territorial compensation from Germany, which came to be known as the recovered territories because they originally belonged to Poland.

The political and territorial changes created a great dilemma for all Poles who were abroad as a result of the war, and the various deportations to Germany and Russia. Most of them, as was to be expected, wanted to return to a free Poland and not a communist Russian-controlled and dominated state. However, Poland became a Russian satellite, and Poland's legitimate Government-in-Exile was no longer recognised by the Allies, who found it politically expedient to collaborate with Stalin and agreed to recognise a Russian-installed and sponsored communist government in post-war Poland.

In practice, this meant that those Poles who decided not to return to Poland were regarded as traitors by the new communist government. Some of those who did return were either arrested or treated with suspicion for having been in the capitalist West.

The new government knew about the group of Polish children in New Zealand and made an effort to have them repatriated to Poland. The New Zealand Government offered a solution – it undertook to take care of the children. This enabled them to remain in New Zealand until such time as they reached maturity and were able to decide for themselves whether or not they wished to return to Poland. Most of them had no option but to stay in New Zealand.