“Nothing Would Satisfy The Poles.”
These are the words of Winston Churchill at the Teheran conference in 1943 when he, Roosevelt and Churchill were, in effect, determining the borders of post war Poland. They were making decisions for Ally Number One, without any Polish representation at the meeting, in order to appease Stalin and to defeat – Enemy Number One – Hitler’s Germany.
The “Big Picture” elements of WW2 are relatively well known but there are many sub-stories which are not well known or forgotten or buried. Much like the bodies of the 20,000 Polish officers and reservists buried at Katyn and two other sites in the Soviet Union on the orders of Stalin and his acolytes. For example, it is well known that Germany and the USSR partitioned Poland between them under the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. It is also well known that around six million died at the hands of the Nazis on Polish soil. However, little is known of the “Forgotten Holocaust” which the Poles use to refer to the genocide of millions of ethnic Poles not only at the hands of the Nazis but also by the Soviet invader.
As early as February 1940 mass deportations were taking place, of what eventually was hundreds of thousands of Poles, into the prisons and work camps of the USSR. The clear intention was to work these class enemies to death but at the same time to decapitate Polish society by removing from Poland its elites. That is, anyone that might be in a position to foment within the Polish masses any opposition to the Soviet takeover.
While Germany waged a race war against those that they regarded as sub-human, the Soviets waged a class war against the Poles which was no less extreme than that conducted by the Nazis. Norman Davies suggests; “Having longer experience in political terror than their German counterparts, the Soviets had no need for wasteful experimentation.”(Davies in God’s Playground Vol. 2.p.331.) By the time of the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 the NKVD had effectively infiltrated and destroyed the Polish underground in the area of Poland they had occupied. The numbers deported are not definitively known but number somewhere between 500,000 (Snyder’s estimate in Bloodlands) to 1,692,000 (Orzell’s estimate in The Impossible Alliance).
Stalin’s plans to be ready for a German assault by 1942 fell apart when the invasion occurred in June 1941. Stalin agreed to enter a military agreement with the Poles while he was in a state of panic, with the Soviet armed forces in total retreat following the loss of over three million military personnel in the first few months of the invasion. Under the terms of this agreement Poles in Soviet captivity were to be given an amnesty and a Polish army under direct Polish command was to be formed in the USSR. The agreement was silent on the border issue.
I had heard of this Polish army, led by a General Wladyslaw Anders, from my mother, who was Polish. I decided to find out the true story of this army and what had happened.
Anders had been taken prisoner by the Soviets in September 1939. By the time of the German invasion in 1941, Anders was being held in the Lubianka prison in Moscow. In August 1941 he was informed by Beria that he was to be released; about the Polish-Soviet agreement; and, that he was to be in command of the Polish army on Soviet soil. In 1949 Ander’s had his book –An Army in Exile-published and in it he made it clear that he trusted neither Stalin nor the Soviet system. Subsequent events showed that he was right in his assessment.
From the outset, the release of the prisoners and support for the Polish army was not genuine. Many Poles were never notified of the amnesty. Of those released many were immediately re-arrested on new charges. However, hundreds of thousands tried to make it to marshalling points to join the army. It was not only men who tried to escape captivity. Women and children also made the effort. At its high point Anders had some 70,000 men and 40,000 women and children under his control. However, the Soviets would not supply them with sufficient or adequate clothing, medical supplies, armaments or food. At one stage, rations were cut to supply only 22,000 people.
Anders came to the conclusion that, if any were to survive, they must leave the USSR. The Polish Government in exile in London wanted a Polish army in Soviet territory. This army was intended to enter Poland from the East with the “liberating” Soviet forces. The purpose was to act as a symbol of Polish independence and a focus for the Polish people to rally around. Such an outcome was totally unacceptable to Stalin. Without Polish government input (but strong support from Anders) an agreement was reached between the British and the Soviets that Anders’ army, of some 115,000 men, women and children, was to be evacuated to British Palestine. The army want on to distinguish itself in the campaign in Italy.
The Poles had been exhorted by their British and American allies to put their trust in Soviet good faith. They also trusted their allies to support them in their territorial claims and the pursuit of the Katyn war crimes. Their trust was totally misplaced on all counts and they found themselves marginalised, ignored, betrayed and eventually forgotten.