Tag Archives: Siberia

SECRET LETTERS FROM THE GULAG

Dlugi Most, Long Bridge in SiberiaSamples of letters smuggled out of the Soviet labour camps have gone on display in Moscow. Urszula was not so lucky. I am not aware of her sending or receiving a single letter during her 10 year sentence. Even after she was released to the settlement of Long Bridge in the Siberian taiga a parcel sent by her sister was “returned to sender”. That is why we still have the address label pictured here. I am not sure how Urszula’s sister knew her address, but I do know that Urszula’s British friend in Long Bridge, Jane Wilton who had been married to a Russian aristocrat, was visited by her Russian daughter – messages travel in mysterious ways in these circumstances.

Some of the samples displayed at the exhibition are heart renderingly beautiful.

Letter sewed with a fish boneThis piece of cloth sent by Kozlov to his wife and daughters must have taken many days to embroider using a fish bone and thread taken from his socks.

The full article maybe read in The Siberian Times at http://siberiantimes.com/other/others/features/f0020-heartrending-letters-from-within-the-soviet-era-siberian-gulags/

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THE RICH AND FAMOUS

Sir Alex FergusonUrszula could never have guessed as she toiled and froze in the gulags that one day her story would be rubbing shoulders with overpaid ‘fitba’ managers Sir Alex Ferguson, Dennis Bergkamp and Harry Redknapp, plus the actor David Jason OBE and the pop star Morrissey at the top of the Amazon Best Seller list. But then reading on a Kindle would have been as likely as meeting a little green man from Mars in the 1940s!
I am so happy that this memoir is being enjoyed by so many, and that the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Poles deported to Siberia is now better known.

DEPORTATIONS FROM POLAND – DISPUTE OVER NUMBERS.

Polish deportations

from Kresy-Siberia.org

From September 1939 – July 1941 Stalin and his Soviet administration controlled Kresy, the eastern borderlands of Poland. They used this period to deport many families to Siberia and Kazakhstan, with educated and upper class citizens targeted to pre-empt any opposition to their dictatorial rule. The deportations were based on four mass arrests, but the reported numbers arrested have varied widely over the years.

10th February 1940. Osadniks (ex military given land to farm on leaving the army), foresters and their families were sent to gulags and forest camps, mostly in the north of Siberia. This group had the highest death rate due to the unexpected night arrest in the middle of winter.

13th April 1940. Mostly women and children were arrested as “dangerous social elements” and sent to forced labour on the kolkhozy of Kazakhstan. These were mainly the families of the 22,500 men murdered in the Katyn Forest massacre. As Urszula says, ‘It appeared that the Russians had arrested the husbands of nearly all the women in the wagon.’ My father aged 14 was one of these deportees along with his younger sister.

Urszula writes that she was arrested on the 13th Aprilin Rawa Ruska, changed trains in Lwow on the next day, and arrived at Alga 13 days later. Karta lists 49 trains leaving eastern Poland 13-20 April 1940. The one that has the closest match is listed as having left Rawa on the 20th. I cannot explain the discrepancy, but a single train from Rawa to Alga is not possible because of the change of track width in Lwow. This train carried 1333 deportees, slightly above the average number.

June/July 1940. Refugees who had escaped from German occupied western Poland, including many Jews, and were now living in the Kresy.

June 1941. Sent from the Lithuanian SSR to gulags and work camps.

Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum*

Victims of Repression 2009**

10 Feb 1940

220,000

140,000

13 Apr 1940

320,000

61,000

Jun/Jul 1940

240,000

78,000

Jun 1941

200,000

41,000

TOTALS

980,000

320,000

It is important to qualify that there is documentation of 320,000 deportees but we don’t know the full number because some archives remain closed and some documents no longer exist.

* Based on figures previously used by the Polish Government

** The publication of Institute of National Remembrance “Poland from 1939 to 1945. The Personal Losses and Victims of Repression under Two Occupations “, edited by Wojciech Materski and Tomasz Szarota, Warsaw, 2009. Based on research of NKVD train records by Dr. Alexander Guryanov and published by Karta. Some observers claim that the NKVD records are incomplete.

These four mass deportations by no means account for all the hundreds of thousands of Poles deported and murdered, the total is probably over a million. The death rates are estimated at 16-50%,  and maybe a quarter escaped from the USSR, mostly with General Anders.

DAD’S WW2 AFTER ESCAPE FROM KOLKHOZ IN KAZAKHSTAN

Muskus 1946

Zbigniew Muskus 1946

Dad was lucky not to have been sent to the gulags in Siberia when he was deported from Poland. From Kazakhstan he reached Persia (Iran) in April 1942. He convalesced in Teheran for 2 or 3 months to recuperate and gain strength after two years of starvation rations. Then in British Army lorries he travelled to Palestine and, wanting to become a pilot, he volunteered for the Polish Air Force based in the U.K.

He boarded the Aquitania in Port Said as one of 300 guards for 2000 prisoners from Rommel’s Africa Core. The British thought that the Poles might shoot the Germans so issued them with very old rifles, five rounds each, and only enough rifles for those on duty. At the end of each watch they had to go around a corner and hand the rifle to the next guard. There were however, two machine guns covering the exercise area manned by British sailors.  They sailed through the Suez Canal and stopped at Madagascar, Cape Town and Freetown before heading for the U.S.A. In mid Atlantic they found themselves in the middle of a large German fleet spread out on the horizons. Sailing under full power (very uncomfortable with engines throbbing and life jackets on) they zigzagged between the German warships for three days.  Dad has no idea how, with four funnels, they were not recognised!  Leaving the ship and prisoners in Boston he travelled to New York and waited for embarkation on Manhattan Island.  Sailing on to Halifax they waited for a convoy to form and arrived in Liverpool in the autumn of 1942. We pinpointed the timing of this trip because he remembers seeing the three great liners (Aquitania, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth) in New York at the same time. This appears to have been the first few days of September.

While doing his induction for the Polish Air Force it became apparent that Dad was still under 18. This prevented him from training as a pilot, an occupation with a short life expectancy and set in motion a different military career:-

  • 316 Squadron where he loaded machine guns and prepared Spitfires for flying.
  • RAF school at Halton he learnt English and qualified as an electrical fitter.
  • Training at No. 9 Radio School RAF Yatesbury as a RDF (Radio Direction Finding) mechanic.
  • Posted to RAF Exminster
  • Posted to RAF Hope Cove in February 1945. It had been reduced to a skeleton staff as the war moved eastwards, but it was kept alert to watch for any threat from German planes or submarines. There were no raids and it was a very relaxed posting, almost like a holiday camp.  It was here that he met my Mother. In July 1946 he was responsible for closing the station down, padlocking the gate and sending the keys to Group 60 Command.
  • Posted to RAF Sandwich he was made a Corporal in charge of two mechanics, and put the station back on air after the operations room had been burnt down.
  • Enlisted into the PRC (Polish Resettlement Corps).
  • Released from the PRC/RAF to study at Woolwich Polytechnic on 12th July 1947.

To be continued.

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

GulagI think that this is the only book that I have ever bought at an airport. I was on my way to visit my father for his 80th birthday in 2005, he was in Ecuador doing voluntary work! Not the most suitable holiday reading, but very appropriate considering that dad had been deported from Poland in 1940 at the age of 14 to do forced labour on the kolkhozy (collective farms) of Kazakhstan for 2 years. The hard work, starvation and cold did not leave any long term health effects, but made him determined to make a success of life – which he did in a big way. He spoke little of his experiences until late in life when he told me of his war experiences, but that is for another day.

Applebaum’s book is a very comprehensive study starting with the three centuries of forced labour brigades in Siberia, concentrating on the big expansion following the Russian Revolution in 1918 leading to maximum numbers in the 1950s, and charting their demise in the late 1980s. It contains new research from Soviet records and personal interviews of gulag survivors. It is an excellent reference book.