MINELRES: Kazakhstan's 'forgotten Poles' long to return
Mon Jan 6 09:33:29 2003
January 2, 2003
Kazakhstan's `forgotten Poles' long to return
Thousands in Asia since Stalin's era
By Cheryl Collins
Special to the Tribune
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The knock on the window came on a summer's night in
The summons was repeated thousands of times across Soviet Ukraine. It
signaled the start of a journey that would take the Polish and German
villagers of Zytomierz from their prosperous farms to lives of hardship and
deprivation thousands of miles away in the vast steppe of Central Asia, in
what is now Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan, part of the Soviet Union until 1991, was a place of internal
exile and deportation for many victims of Stalin's purges, much as Siberia
was. Thousands of Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Chechens, Koreans and others
were relocated to the vast unpopulated region, whose rolling grassland had
been used for centuries as the grazing grounds of the nomadic Kazakhs.
For the Poles, the first wave of deportations came in 1936. Stalin,
foreseeing war, wanted to move those of uncertain loyalty away from the
western front. He also wanted to cultivate the rich soils of the steppe.
Polish farmers had worked the fertile lands of Ukraine for hundreds of
In Zytomierz, the Polish and German men were summoned to the village
council and were told that, "for their own good," they and their families
were being sent away. They were not told where.
The doors were locked, and the men were held in custody for a week as their
families packed belongings, sold livestock and prayed.
Maria Murawicka remembers that summer well. Her prosperous family was among
those sent by cattle car on the two-week rail journey to the heart of
Murawicka, then 6, has a memory that burns so brightly she attributes its
power to God.
She vividly remembers the shock and panic that swept among the deportees as
they arrived at their final destination: a desolate spot in a sea of
endless high grass. A newly dug well and a signpost were all that marked
Village Number 2.
She remembers people screaming, "Where are the rivers, where are the lakes?
How will we build houses if there are no trees?"
The men said, "Perhaps they have brought us here to shoot us."
The steppe of Kazakhstan is a place of extremes, marked by intense sun and
dry blazing heat in summer and heavy snow with freezing temperatures in
The deportees were forced to learn new techniques for survival in the harsh
environment. Officials taught them to make bricks from mud and straw, and
explained how to burn animal dung for fuel.
According to Jan Kozlowski, the Polish consul in Almaty, Murawicka's
village was lucky. Many deportees were dumped onto the steppe with no
instructions or tools, forced to fashion crude homes dug from the earth.
Many died their first winter there.
The next wave of Polish deportees came after Stalin and Hitler divided
Poland in 1939, and Poles to the east of the Oder-Niessen line found
themselves new citizens of the Soviet empire. In 1940 and 1941 as many as
1.5 million Poles were deported, mostly to Siberia and Kazakhstan.
Village named Bright Meadow
Murawicka's village eventually was renamed Yasnaya Polana, or Bright
Meadow, but that did not change a harsh reality. Deprived of the identity
papers and internal passports needed to travel and considered "enemies of
the state," the deportees were in effect living in rural labor camps.
Movements were strictly monitored. They lived under an all-consuming fear
of arrest and worse.
Maintaining cultural traditions, observing their faith and speaking Polish
were illegal. Even colored Easter eggs were to be kept out of sight of the
local Communist Party officials.
Many Poles were able to leave in 1941 when Gen. Wladyslaw Anders assembled
an army of prisoners of war, deportees and their families and in an epic
journey marched from Soviet Asia through the Middle East, arriving in
Europe. Fighting for the Allies in Italy, Anders' heroic Polish II Corps
captured Monte Cassino in May 1944 from the Germans after earlier attempts
by British and American troops failed.
Harder life after war
For those left behind--mostly those who had not lived within Poland's
boundaries--life became even harder after the war, Murawicka remembers, as
official propaganda crudely linked the Poles with the German aggression.
It was not until 1956, in the thaw after Stalin's death in 1953, that these
so-called special settlers finally were issued passports that allowed them
to travel within the Soviet Union.
Some visited Ukraine, hoping to realize their long-held dream of returning.
What they found was a land devastated by war and populated by new residents
who had no memories of those who had left 20 years before.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story of the "forgotten Poles"
slowly came to light, and the Polish government made efforts to repatriate
those who qualified.
In addition to an interest in Polish culture and religion, one of the
conditions for repatriation is proof of accommodation, that they will be
able to fend for themselves and not depend on welfare. This creates a
painful situation for Poland's consul. He regularly sees many of the older
generation, who, he says, burnished cultural traditions during repression
and who speak "the most beautiful, archaic" Polish, whose poverty prevents
them from returning.
Many of the younger generation, on the other hand, are more removed from
their heritage and often seek to live in Poland for economic reasons.
According to the census, less than 10 percent of the ethnic Poles in
Kazakhstan speak Polish.
The most difficult cases are those such as Murawicka's. The applicants are
ethnically Polish but did not live in Poland when deported, according to
Kozlowski, whose job it is to decide "who is a Pole."
According to the most recent census, in 1991, about 47,000 remained in
Kazakhstan, a drop from about 65,000 in 1981. In contrast, almost all the
"Volga Germans," as the ethnic Germans are known, have migrated to Germany,
a sign of the greater resources of the German state.
Hopes for aid
Kozlowski's fondest wish is the creation of a fund by those from Poland's
vast Diaspora to support these elderly Poles seeking to spend their last
years in Poland.
For people such as Murawicka, who lives on a tiny pension, the only hope
lies with the small possibility of finding a place in a subsidized senior
home in Poland, where there is space for few.
"My parents taught me, even if you are forced to speak Russian, you will
always be a Pole," she said.