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A Brief History of Poland
Article by Tom Dobrowolsky, Martha Golubiec, Grazyna Balut Ostrom

Historical Context

This section provides some historical context and a general timeline of the events surrounding the deportation of millions of Poles to Siberia by the Soviet Union during the early days of World War II. In order to understand the events of 1939 onward, as well as the Polish reaction to those events, it is important to recall some Polish history from well before the War.

Previous partitions and invasions

Polish people of the most recent few centuries have been no strangers to repeated partitioning and occupation of their nation. Even well before the fall of the powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth near the end of the 18th century, Poland succumbed to the geopolitical machinations of its neighbors. During the early 18th century, the Commonwealth's neighbors began interfering in its internal political affairs. Beginning in 1772, Prussia, Russia, and Austria began the first partition and the next partition followed in 1793 (1793 map). Finally, sensing civic unrest, the three powers ultimately dissolved Poland. By 1795, all traces of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been erased; Poland had ceased to exist on the European political map.

The second Polish republic

It was not until the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I in 1919, that both Poland and Lithuania each regained national sovereignty. Although it covered significantly less territory than the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was a sovereign nation nonetheless. The borders of the Second Polish Republic tended to shift physically and demographically in the first few years after the First World War. In general, however, they were located much further east than Poland's present boundaries though not as far east as the Commonwealth's.

map of Poland 1918
source: ancestry.com

The so-called Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 broke out over border disputes between the two nations. The Curzon line, initially proposed as an armistice line by British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon of Kedleston, was rejected by both sides at different times depending on each combatant nation's respective military fortunes at the moment. The 1921 treaty of Riga established Poland's uneasy eastern border with Russia. It advantageously gave Poland significant territory east of the Curzon line. Meanwhile, to the west, Poland's boundary with Germany was settled through both treaty and strife. The Treaty of Versailles established firm boundaries near the Baltic; however, the complicated frontier in the south was "settled" through uprisings, propaganda campaigns, a plebiscite, and finally a decision by the League of Nations. As a buffer against possible German aggression, Poland allied itself with France.

To the disappointment of those Poles who desired to see Poland resurrect herself to the stature of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the inter-war years were times of instability, uncertainty, and upheaval in the newly liberated republic. Separatist sentiments in Ukraine and the Baltic states practically assured that Commonwealth-like expansionist dreams would not be fulfilled. Meanwhile, attention to domestic affairs was occupied with rebuilding a war-ravaged economy and physical infrastructure in addition to re-unifying the demographics, legal systems, monetary systems, and rail systems of the three previously partitioned zones--all of which had diverged during many generations of separation.

Jozef Pilsudski acted as both Poland's Chief of State (1918-1922) and Commander in Chief. He led Poland's military campaigns against the Soviets and served in various capacities to defend and rebuild the nation. Although formally retiring from politics in 1923, he returned to power in a 1926 coup and ran the country with a more authoritarian hand until his death in 1935. Despite many controversial positions and acts, Pilsudski is generally held in high regard.

The interwar Polish Republic faced challenges to be sure. The old Commonwealth spanned an expansive area consisting of many ethnic and religious groups. Although it buffered the European, Christian frontier from "incursion" by eastern religions, it has been acknowledged as a generally tolerant regime that was somewhat more enlightened than its immediate neighbors. The Second Republic, in attempting to re-integrate classes, ethnicities, and other demographics separated during more than 120 years of partition, had a more difficult time in the social arena. Economic depression, rampant unemployment, and regional insurrections partly led to rises in ethnic conflicts and anti-semitism. Additionally, Poland's government had been drifting toward authoritarianism, which was accelerated after Pilsudski's death. On the other hand, slow progress had been occurring. Reforms such as the eight-hour day, free education, sufferage were enacted. Polish culture, language, and arts were revived. Most importantly, though, Polish identity and nationhood had been resurrected and reaffirmed after more than a century of active suppression by partitioning powers.

The march of progress, though, would be halted barely twenty years after Poland's re-emergence on the map. In the early 1930s, Pilsudski signed non-aggression pacts with both Germany and Russia. Largely symbolic, little faith was placed in these pacts and even Pilsudski himself did not trust Poland's two neighbors to honor them. History would show that such pacts were not only worthless as guarantees but that they were also duplicitous and actively hostile to weaker nations.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Germany and Russia signed their own secret non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939. However, the agreement called for more than just "strengthening the cause of peace" between the two signatories. Specifically, four articles of a "Secret Additional Protocol" outlined the partition of Polish lands as well as those belonging to the other Baltic states, including Finland. Moreover, Article IV of the protocol stipulated the agreement to be kept secret. The treaty expanded spheres of influence for both Germany and Russia by dismantling and absorbing the nations in between them. This partitioning is sometimes called the "fourth partition of Poland".

Descent into war and dismemberment of Poland

World War II began as Hitler's forces invaded Poland by air, sea, and land on September 1st, 1939 and Russian invasion on Sept. 17th. On September 3rd, Allied governments declared war on Germany. Remarkably, they failed to provide any means of support to the Poles. This lack of support, among other acts, is called the "Western betrayal" or "The Phoney War" by some. Allied powers would fail to undertake significant action against Germany until May of 1940, when France fell under attack.

The Seige of Warsaw started around the 8th of September and ended with Wehrmacht forces entering the city on October 1st, thus beginning the German occupation. Polish military units initially resisted the advance but, in the end, were no match for the heavily mechanized German forces, who invaded from tactically superior positions in Pomerania in the north, Germany in the middle, and Czechoslovakia in the south. With the passing weeks and without outside support, it was only a matter of time before Poland was overrun by the numerically superior Germans.

map of Poland 1939
source: ancestry.com

By the end September, some members of the Polish government, which never formally surrendered, left the city and entered into exile. They first formed a government-in-exile in Paris and later relocated to London. Incidentally, although it had little formal power after the war, the Polish Government in Exile would not cease operation until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, after which it finally transferred its authority to once-again-liberated Poland.

According to their pact, Russia invaded Poland from the east on September 17th, much later than the Germans wanted. With Polish attention focused on the West, the Red Army encountered little opposition. In fact, Soviet propaganda extolled Russians as liberators. Furthermore, the Soviet government played up the Allies' abandonment of Poland. The Soviets stopped at Brest-Litovsk, near where the two sides had met during World War I. A renewed partitioning had once again taken place.

In October 1939, Poland was again officially deleted from the European map. Western parts that belonged to Prussia before the Treaty of Versailles were annexed directly into Germany while the east was taken by Russia. Curiously, a small central and southern section of Poland, with its capital set at Krakow, was left as a quasi-autonomous state under the direction of Hans Frank. Called the General Government, it was administered entirely by Germans with the intent of incorporating it as a new province of Germany. These plans for eastern Europe would have deadly consequences for ethnic Poles as well as Polish citizens. German authorities ordered the genocide of Jews, mainly, and a combination of execution and deportation of Poles, with a small number of Poles to be spared as serfs serving Hitler's "master race". Because over 10 % of the population in Poland was Jewish (more than 3,500,000 people), Germany set up concentration camps for them in Poland. Once "cleansed", the area was to be repopulated by German colonists within 15-20 years. This state of affairs functioned until late 1944, when the Red Army overran the territory on their way to Berlin. In total, 6,000,000 Poles died in WWII (including 3,000,000 Polish Jews)

Under Soviet occupation

Much has been said and written about the treatment of Polish citizens at the hands of the Nazis. However, the atrocities perpetrated by the Soviet occupiers have come to light more slowly, due in no small part to silence by the United States and the United Kingdom because of Russia's status as an ally. Additional reasons for this silence include Soviet manipulation of information and the fear of Soviet retaliation on the Poles still living in Poland after the war. In many cases, too, the Russians were unlike their Nazi counterparts in that they kept little official records.

But similar to the Nazis, the Soviets wanted to deal with "undesirables". In a relatively benign example, sovietization involved the dismantling of Polish agencies and institutions and subsequently rebuilding them in the Stalinist vision. In another example, Soviets incited minority ethnic groups in the former Poland to take revenge on the previous 20 years of majority Polish rule. Like the Germans, Soviets desired to splinter the Polish national identity into smaller groups and turn them against one another, including turning Polish Christians and Jews against each other. In reality, however, the Soviets were no more sympathetic to minorities than they were to Poles.

Deportations to the Russian Gulag

In more stark examples, the NKVD (the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs--the Soviet secret police) began a campaign of terror against the populace. Following the September invasion and the subsequent fall of Warsaw, a few Polish navy, pilots, and soldiers escaped, most notably to Britain, where they fought for the Allies. Most of the others, however, were not so fortunate. The first victims of deportations were the Polish military, prisoners of war resulting from resistance to the September invasion.

Soon, the arrests, deportations, and murders were extended to all previous government officials, politicians, civil servants, members of the intelligentsia, scientists and any others deemed threats to the Soviet state. The NKVD, in concert with the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies (see also Brittanica Online), were responsible for the involuntary relocation of large numbers of Poles to forced labor camps scattered across the vast Russian frontier.

Finally, the deportations were extended to families: frequently the remaining women and children. An estimated 1,800,000 Polish men, women, and children were removed deep into Siberia, where they faced hard physical labor, squalid living conditions, harsh climate extremes, disease, and starvation. They died by the thousands.

Loosely speaking, there were four waves of deportation, starting as early as November 1939. The largest waves occurred during the early stages of the war, before the Soviet Union was an official ally:

  • February 1940 (220,000)
  • April 1940 (320,000)
  • June 1940 (240,000)
  • June 1941 (200,000)

It should be noted that Soviet deportations continued after the Germans attacked Russia and even after the war. They continued up until 1953, when Stalin died. In some cases, many Polish soldiers who fought against the Germans during the war found themselves deported to the Gulags after the war.

It is under these inhumane conditions of Soviet occupation and oppression that the events portrayed in ''A Trip to Nowhere'' begin to take place. The personal stories of involuntary deportation, as well as the disappearances of family members, are a direct result of the official policies of Stalin's government. The accounts of daily life and loss in the harsh gulag are the personal histories that, to date, have been largely missing, lost, and under-reported in the larger re-telling and historiography of World War II.

Personal accounts

The stories and photographs in this web site contain the personal accounts of some of the survivors. Although personal, numerous elements sound similar regardless who is telling the story:

Armed soldiers with arrest warrants would arrive in the middle of the night. In the rare instances were there were adult men in the houses, they were treated more harshly by the solders and were not allowed to leave the soldiers' sight nor were they allowed to help pack. More frequently, however, it was only adult women and children who were left in the houses; the men had either already been arrested or had gone into hiding. If grandparents or other relatives or friends were in the houses they were arrested as well.

Some families were given only 20 minutes to pack; the lucky ones were given 2 hours. They were allowed to take only what they could carry. Some were warned to bring food, others were not. Some thought to pack warm clothes, others did not. Some packed frivolous items that ended up having value for bartering. A few were somewhat prepared--having seen previous arrests of neighbors--and had sewn valuables into the hems of their clothes. But most, especially those in the first deportations were completely unprepared for what was to come.

Most of those arrested had no idea what was going to happen to them nor where they were going. Even those in the subsequent waves since no word had ever come back from those in previous deportations. They were taken to the train stations and packed into train cars suitable only for cattle or freight. These cars had no windows, no seats, no bathroom facilities, and no heating systems. Some had shelves around the perimeter that could serve as bunks. A hole in the middle of the floor served as a bathroom. Sometimes the hole was cut by the soldiers only after several days into the journey.

A trip to nowhere

Between 40 and 70 people were packed into each cattle car and the doors were locked. The trips lasted anywhere up to 4 or 6 weeks. Sometimes, the trains would stop and remain on side tracks for several days with the people locked inside. Through the cracks in the cars, the signs at passing train stations could be read and people knew they were heading eastward towards Russia. As the trains crossed the border, the Poles reportedly sang "Boze Cos Polske", a hymn asking God to protect Poland.

The first deportations occurred in the winter. Many people froze, being unprepared for the cold. For the rest, the process of starvation began. Those who had food had to decide how to ration it. Others had to try to somehow buy some or barter for it. Many Poles, primarily the infants and elderly died during this stage of the journey. Their bodies were unceremoniously tossed from the trains.

The ultimate destinations were forced labor camps located in the vast Russian expanse east of Moscow: either the barren north of Siberia or in the southern steppe such as Kazakhstan. The labor camps did not resemble what most would think of as prison camps with walls and fences. Rather, the immense, open landscape served, ironically, to confine people. The terrain was flat, barren, desolate, freezing cold in the winter, and sweltering hot in the short summer. The winds could be ferocious, with deadly blizzards in the winter and severe sand storms in the summer.

After arriving by train, some had to walk up to 200 miles to the camp to which they had been assigned. Upon arrival each family was assigned meager accommodations, such as a cramped bunk house or a room shared with another family. As these labor camps were not typical, fenced prison camps, people were sometimes able to barter different accommodations.

All adults were given jobs that involved physical labor. Physical work was required to earn food. Teen-aged children usually worked too. Alternatively, younger children could go to school, where they were instructed according to Stalin-approved curricula.

Life under such conditions was harsh and cruel. Securing food and clothes for survival was impossible without trading, and often necessitated lying and stealing. Starvation was a major problem as food usually consisted of watery soup and bread. Fruits, vegetables, and meat were largely non-existent. Many more Poles died in these conditions. They died of cold, starvation, physical fatigue, and disease.

So-called amnesty and, suddenly, allies again

The second major part of the survivors' personal stories begins with the drastic reversal in Russia's relationship with its former conspirator, Germany. This next chapter takes place within a different context of Soviet policy towards Poles which was precipitated by the German attack on Russia. Operation Barbarossa, the codename for Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced on June 22, 1941.

In order to secure support from the Allies, Stalin reversed his public policies with respect to Poland. Among his first orders of business was the recognition of the Polish Government in Exile as well as a declaration of "amnesty" for Polish "workers". In retrospect, "amnesty" was a ridiculous term because the deported Polish people had committed no crimes to begin with. For a large number of Poles, this resulted in an exodus from the gulags via Persia (Iran) and then onward to journeys to other countries willing to host these displaced individuals.

Stalin agreed to the formation of a Polish army. Two prominent Polish generals were given permission to begin formation of these armies: General Sikorski who was in London, and General Anders, who was released from the infamous, Soviet, high-security prison Lubyanka. Shortly afterwards, General Sikorski was killed in an airplane accident.

The Soviets were slow in getting the word out; in some of the gulags, news of amnesty did not arrive until at least a year later. In some areas, men, many of them either old or quite young, were given the option to join a Polish division of the Red Army. Wanda Wasilewska was instrumental in the formation this Polish Communist army alongside the Soviets.

In contrast to the Polish army forming on Soviet soil, General Anders secured permission to form his army in Persia (Iran) out of mistrust of Stalin. He was also able to secure permission for the families of the recruits to join them. Anders began forming his army primarily from the young men and boys who were arriving from the gulags, though they were emaciated, in tattered clothes, and untrained. Startlingly, none of the Polish officers arrested by the Soviets at the beginning of the war were arriving. Despite Anders' requests about these officers, the Soviets claimed no knowledge of their whereabouts.


Thus began the exodus of Poles to southern Russia, through the port of Krasnovodsk, and across the Caspian Sea to Persia. Some were able to leave because they had permission, being family members of army volunteers. Others forged the paperwork; still others bribed their way out. Many were not able to leave. Despite "amnesty", they were condemned to the gulags.

For those who did leave, the hardship did not yet end. The trains from Siberia to Krasnovodsk took up six weeks. The cruelty of their conditions mirrored that of the trains that brought Poles into Siberia in the first place. The policy of intentional starvation continued. Sometimes trains sat on the track in unpopulated places for days. Other times the trains would stop in towns and food had to be bartered for with whatever things of value that people still had left. Many more Poles continued to die along this part of the journey.

When they reached the Polish army in Buzuluk, Uzbekistan, and in Krasnovodsk, they boarded filthy ships and sailed south across the Caspian Sea for two days to Pahlevi, Persia (Iran). General Anders did not trust that Soviet permission to leave would last and wanted to get as many Poles out as quickly as possible. So he ordered the boats to be completely loaded with people, essentially standing room only. As a result, the journey was extremely unsafe and the boats were extraordinarily unsanitary, with no bathroom facilities. Many survivors recall with amazing detail these squalid conditions.

Arrival and diaspora

On arrival in Pahlevi, living conditions greatly improved. Good food was available compliments of the British army. For some, however, it was an ironic death sentence as they could not handle the relatively rich food after years of starvation. Many who arrived were orphans, having lost their parents on the way to the gulags, in the gulags, or on the journey to Persia. These children were often put in separate camps for boys and girls, thus further separating families. In some cases siblings were never reunited. Approximately 5,000 orphans went to Isfahan (Persia) or to India. Others were sent by British ships to New Zealand, South Africa, and Mexico.

The soldiers trained in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. Members of Anders Polish army were sent to the western front where they were formed into two corps attached to the British Army. The 1st Corps fought in Normandy and northwestern Europe. The 2nd Corps served in Italy where it won distinction as the first Allied unit to reach the peak of Monte Cassino.

From Pahlevi, the soldiers' family members were subsequently sent to other camps in Persia, notably Teheran and Ahwaz. From these temporary displaced persons camps, they were then sent to longer term displaced persons camps in India, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Many spent up to 5 years in these temporary camps. When these camps closed, Poles found permanent residence in England if they already had family members there or had a family member in the Polish army. Some stayed in Africa while others traveled to Argentina, Canada, the United States, and other countries. Most refused to return to Poland, not wanting to live under the Soviet control.

Of more than 1,800,000 Polish men, women, and children deported to Siberia, only 115,000, or about 7%, made it out to Persia.


Many Poles believe that Churchill and Roosevelt "sold out" the Poles and eastern Europe to appease Stalin. For Churchill and Roosevelt, defeating the Nazis, ending the war on British soil, and preventing the war from spreading to America were their primary concerns. Perhaps unwittingly, they became allies with an individual whose atrocities and crimes against humanity exceed those of Hitler.

Polish forces joined the Allies and greatly contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Extensive participation of the Polish Air Force, the Polish Navy, the Polish Army, and the Poles who were instrumental in breaking the German Enigma code significantly contributed to the Allied forces in defeating Germany. Yet, Poland was put under Soviet "protection" after the war. This was equivalent, in some respect, to re-instating the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by giving Poland back to the Soviets, along with the half that Germany took to begin with.

Although both the USA and UK had promised the Polish Government In Exile that they would protect a free Poland, this promise came to naught when negotiating with Stalin in Yalta. Earlier, during the war, in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of Russia, Stalin announced that the question of post-war Polish-Russian boundaries was once-again open to negotiation. In the end, Stalin received all of Poland.


Curzon Line

"...Stalin's demand that the post-war Polish-Soviet border be demarcated along the Curzon Line (rejected in 1920) was acceded to by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta Conference in December, 1944. The settlement shifted the borders of the Polish state 150 miles westward. Slightly more than half of its pre-war territory lies within the borders of present day Poland. 178,220 sq. km. were ceded to the Soviet Union. The Poles were compensated with 101,200 sq. km. of German territory lying between the old frontier and the new boundary along the Oder and Niesse Rivers. Five million Germans living in what the Communist termed "recovered territories" were quickly expelled to make room for Poles leaving the now Soviet eastern territories.

"However, the Curzon line was used by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as a significant argument in the talks with the Allied Powers during 1942-1945. Stalin argued that the Soviet Union could not demand less territory for itself than the British Government had reconfirmed via Curzon some two decades prior. This was a clever move on Stalin's part, as arguably it ultimately added more land to the Soviet Empire than a pure ethnodemographic study of the time would justify."

source: WikiMedia Commons; author: radek.s ; license: (GFDL ver. 1.2 or CC-by-sa ver. 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0)

The massacres at Katyn

As mentioned earlier, Polish military officers were among the first to be arrested and deported by Soviet authorities. We now know that they were executed at gunpoint. In March 1940, about 8000 Polish military officers and 14,000 others were victims of a mass execution and mass burial in the forests of Katyn, located near the city of Smolensk, 225 miles west-southwest of Moscow. The victims came from a number of POW camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov as well as political prisons. Although the massacre is referred to by this common name, it is more accurate to say that it involved executions in a number of locations during a concentrated period in 1940 in places including Moscow, Kharkov, Smolensk, Katyn, and Kalinin (source: Chief Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation). All of the executions were ordered by Joseph Stalin and carried out by the NKVD.

The mass graves were discovered by German forces in 1943 during their invasion of Russia. The Germans unearthed the mass graves, documented the method and the timing of the execution, and then told the world. However, the Soviets denied any knowledge of the mass graves and insisted that the Germans were responsible. After defeating the German forces and taking control of the Katyn forests, the Soviets conducted their own investigation and "proved" to the world that the Germans were responsible.

However, for the longest time, Poles suspected that the Soviets were responsible. It explained, for example, why there were no Polish officers to be found when General Anders was forming his army. Unfortunately, both the United States and Great Britain kept silent about the possibility of Soviet involvement for fear of upsetting the Soviet Union, an ally. Soviet authorities continued to deny responsibility for the crimes until 1989. Yet to this day, the Moscow government careful avoids calling the massacre a war crime or crime against humanity in order to avoid possible prosecution (BBC).

The rise of Solidarity and the real end of WWII in Poland

The Solidarity trade union, based in the Lenin shipyards of Gdynia, launched a strike in 1980 that shook the Soviet Union. The solid support of Poles internally and abroad and the strength of the strike amazed the world. It is considered an important factor in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. The Soviet controlled Communist party fell in 1989 along with the Berlin wall. For most Polish people, this marked the real end of WWII for Poland. Indeed, the London-based Polish Government in Exile, which never formally surrendered during the span of World War II did not formally cede power until December 1990, when Solidarity founder Lech Walesa became president.

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