Thou Shall Not Stand Idly By
LEGACY OF INVINCIBLE SOLDIERS: Duke Mieszko I was the founder of the first independent Polish state, he ruled and united several Western Slavic tribes (Oleksiak). His vision of unity has been repeatedly challenged by devastating destruction and bitter upheavals caused by Poland’s neighbors. From dismantling the Polish state to waring between themselves, their goals typically involved crossing into Poland and causing destruction and chaos. The most recent example that salts old wounds, is the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian sentiments of erasing Ukrainian culture, sovereignty, and extermination are eerily similar when compared to the atrocities they committed against the Polish people. The parallels to the massacre at Bucha, where hundreds of civilians have been found in mass graves, the massacre at Katyn, and others, are a reminder of how history repeats itself if we do not learn (Russell).
Growing up in the United States has fortunately shielded me from the pain, scars, and fear of another potential invasion. I have always had a passion for history, especially when it involves information relating to Poland, my ancestral homeland. Writing this essay taught me a lot more about Poland’s history. In addition, it also led to me finding out that my aunt was part of Poland’s Solidarity Movement and performed a critical role in getting people involved. The Polish Solidarity Movement (1980-1989) was a nonviolent struggle against the authoritarian communist government in Poland (Bartkowski). Although it states that it began in 1980, it really began in 1945, as soon as Joseph Stalin’s grip over Poland was almost solidified. For her actions, my aunt was jailed in Mokotow Prison in Warsaw and interrogated. This prison was built in the final years of the foreign Partitions of Poland. It was extensively used by Nazi Germany and later Russians as a place of detention, torture, and execution of Polish political opposition (Schwartz).
Digging further into my background I was shocked to find that my grandfather’s uncle, Stanislaw Baczyk, fought in the 1939 Defensive War. He defended Polish civilians, sovereignty, and the very idea of Poland itself. This was very emotional to me because as a history buff, having someone fight in World War II, especially Poland, makes it more personal and interesting. In 1939 he was wounded and for his heroic actions was given the Order of Polonia Restituta (Order Odrodzenia Polski). This would make his life difficult after the war, during Soviet occupation, because in 1939 the Soviets invaded Poland too. On a trip to Poland, I was able to recover his helmet (Hełm wz. 31). This made me feel connected to him like his memory would live on through me!
The Yalta Conference is the next major event, much of Poland’s current events and recent history were shaped by it. No single issue created more distress between the United States and the Soviet Union during the final stages of World War II (WWII) than what was known as the “Polish Question” (Irons 5). The Yalta conference was where the West accepted the division of Europe and made no attempt to help establish a state for one of their most faithful allies. The fact is that Eastern Europe was already conceded to Josef Stalin by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as early as the Tehran Conference. At Yalta, the British and Americans tried to make a last-ditch effort to try to fashion some sort of arrangement to assure some freedom. Instead, in the end with no enforcement by the West, the Soviet promises of “some freedoms,” like elections being held and a free government, were not kept. This would lead to Europe being divided into two spheres of influence.
The issues of Yalta commenced with the Soviet government breaking diplomatic ties with the Polish Government-in-exile in London during 1943, hence ceasing to recognize the rightly elected Polish government (Schlesinger). Instead, the Soviets formed the Lublin Committee, also known as the Polish Committee of National Liberation, to govern the ‘liberated’ parts of Poland as they fell to Red Army control. This presented an issue because the Western Powers thought about the government-in-exile as legitimate, while the Soviets thought of their own puppet government as such. The issues were exacerbated by the government-in-exile being firmly anti-Soviet and the Lublin committee was exactly what they opposed. At the Yalta conference, this proved a challenging situation for the West (Schlesinger). They could not recognize the Lublin Committee Government in its current form, and they felt compelled by honor to do something about the situation. They pressed the Lublin Committee Government to include members of the Polish Government-in-exile until a free and fair election could be held.
This presented an issue because in 1942 the USSR entered the Atlantic Charter, which included the United States (U.S) and the United Kingdom (UK). It was based on these three principles. First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other. Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned. Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them (Stone). What the western leaders were contemplating at Yalta would be in violation of all three principles. They were not only ready to recognize the Soviet puppet government, but they were also bartering Polish territory without the consent of the Polish government or people.
With a stroke of a pen and without any Polish representation, Eastern Poland would be given to the Soviet Union. This was a third of the previous Polish state and comprised over 70,000 square miles. Poland would gain territory to the west at the expense of Germany, but the territorial gains were a net loss for Poland. This was especially painful for the Polish veterans because they had fought for the winning side. This would also cause massive population transfers/migrations. With the decisions finalized, the announcement would be called the “Declaration of Poland”, but in reality, it would be the declaration of a Soviet puppet state. The pledge by Stalin to hold free and unfettered elections based on universal suffrage, secret ballots, and free candidate selection would end up being a dream for Poles.
Just weeks later in March 1945, sixteen members of the Polish resistance, including General Leopold Okulicki of the Home Army, were arrested. (ZUROWSKI 319) They were tortured and eventually confessed to anti-Soviet activities. Their show trial was held on the same day of the conference on the composition of the new Soviet-backed Polish provisional government. This became known as the Trial of the Sixteen. The affair started in February 1945 when Soviet General Ivanov sent a letter to Jan Jankowski and Leopold Okulicki. Jankowski was the deputy premier in Tomasz Arciszewski’s Polish government in exile and Okulicki was the last commander of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa). This letter was an invitation to a conference to discuss alleged diversionary actions by the Home Army in the Red Army rear. Okulicki replied to the letter by stating that the Home Army had already been dissolved because it was formed only to rid Poland of the Germans and denied involvement in these actions.
To his response, a second letter was delivered to him with a second invitation to meet quickly and settle these matters in person, with the personal safety of the attendees guaranteed. The Soviets stated that this conference would be in the name of clearing the atmosphere of excess democratic parties and combining them into one democratic force in Poland. At the meeting held on March 11th, 1945, Jankowski stated that the four parties in the government-in-exile were willing to come out in the open to help reconstruct their country if certain conditions were met. These parties, the Socialists, National Democrats, Populists, and the Labourites, wanted guarantees of individual basic democratic freedoms (ZUROWSKI 318).
General Ivanov, under the authority of General Georgy Zhukov, said he had been assigned to conduct discussions with Polish political leaders about their future. Jankowski agreed to meet again and was to be given a plane to visit England and consult with the government-in-exile. On March 27th, Jankowski, General Okulicki, and Kazimierz Puzak, the General Secretary of the Polish Socialist Party, traveled to the town of Pruszkow for the meeting. On March 28th, thirteen more Polish leaders joined them at Pruszkow for the trip. Once on the plane, they did not fly to London. Instead, they flew eastwards toward Moscow. Once landed, they were met by the Soviet secret police (NKVD) and were told they were under arrest. These Polish leaders were falsely charged with maintaining an illegal underground organization, an illegal anti-Soviet army, operating illegal wireless radios, conducting espionage, and murder and terrorist acts against Russian civilians. (ZUROWSKI 318).
They were then hauled away to a prison in Moscow called Lubianka. There they were starved and given just enough to survive. On average there were 120 to 150 interrogation sessions per person. This was a common tactic used by the Soviets to get a person into a state of mental and physical exhaustion so that they would confess to something they did not do. None would end up cooperating and after much misinformation and suppression, the news eventually reached the world. Some in the West doubted that they would be harmed, but Winston Churchill took a darker view stating he believed they had walked into a trap set by the NKVD and were already dead.
This fear prompted the Polish government-in-exile’s ambassador to the U.S. to appeal to the American government and approach Moscow about their fate. After several more months of interrogation, the final charges were as follows, collaborating with Nazi Germany, carrying out intelligence gathering and sabotage at the rear of the Red Army, state terrorism, planning a military alliance with Nazi Germany, owning radio equipment, printing machines and weapons, anti-Soviet propaganda, and membership in underground organizations. The trial took place between the 18th and 21st of June 1945 with representatives from the UK and U.S press
The verdict on the 21st was no surprise, as mentioned most were tortured and coerced into pleading guilty by the NKVD, while General Okulicki’s witness for his defense was unreachable. It was a trial without evidence, without witnesses due to tampering, and just an attempt to influence the formation of the government by intimidation dominated by Moscow-backed collaborators (Lublin Committee). Of the sixteen defendants, twelve were given prison sentences from four to ten years, while four had charges dropped against them. After the trial, the Provisional Coalition Government of Poland was formed, although dominated by Lublin committee members. The show trial was just a prelude to what was to come.
The election would be postponed for two years and the Communists knew they would not win in a general election, so they used this time to destroy the opposition. Press, radio, and speech were strictly controlled, and oppositional leaders were falsely arrested. This led to thousands of Poles being incarcerated or murdered by the secret police and Red Army. Soon after the Augustow roundup would occur and be known as Little Katyn. Being hyper-sensitive of his safety, Joseph Stalin avoided air travel. When attending the Potsdam conference, which took place from the 17th of July to the 2nd of August 1945, he was to take the safest route in an armored train. This meant bypassing Warsaw and East Prussia, the route chosen meant Augustow Forest was his biggest threat.
According to numerous historians, Stalin’s safety was a factor in why the Augustow massacre happened. The main perpetrator of this crime was no one else but the NKVD with the assistance of the Red Army. Additionally, this route was important because it transported soldiers from the west and the property they plundered. There is also a theory that in addition to Stalin’s safety, it was a way to liquefy the population in and around the area of Suwalki. The purpose was alleged to annex it so that Kaliningrad could be linked with the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR).
As early as June 27th Soviet forces cleared the forest in the border regions like Giby, Sejny, and Sztabin of partisans. This prelude to the Augustow roundup was called the small roundup with over a hundred people being apprehended. These individuals were arrested and charged with being partisans without evidence. Just two weeks later more than 45,000 soldiers would take part in the actual clearing of Augustow Forest and the territories around it from anti-communist partisans. Roadblocks and checkpoints would be set up with fortification at certain points so that any thwart to break out would be futile.
The Soviets searched house by house without a warrant, mistreated civilians, and in line formations combed the woodlands. Those found were searched, identified, and put into makeshift prisons consisting of pigsties, barns, and dugouts. Everyone would be arrested in the area including children, the elderly, men in their prime, and even pregnant women. These people were later used as hostages to lure out the partisans in the woods resisting the roundup. Hundreds of structures in the area were searched, over 7,049 people were arrested, and some were designated for liquidation. Most civilians instead of dying decided to form pockets of resistance and battle the better-armed soldiers. One such example is when 170 partisans fought 7000 NKVD for five days and upon running out of ammunition and food, tried to break out. Unfortunately, being under crippling machine gun and mortar fire led to seventy being killed and fifty taken prisoner. The ones taken prisoner would be loaded onto trucks and never seen again.
The situation would get worse on July 20th, 1945, with the arrival of a group of officers led by General Ivan Gorgonov. We know that 7049 people were arrested from a document published in 2011 that contains telegram data dated July 24th, 1945. In the telegram, an officer asks for permission to liquidate 592 of the bandits arrested in Augustow. He also stated that a further 828 were being vetted. In another report, the 50th Army quoted 5192 people arrested and again 592 bandits marked for extermination. Some of those marked for extermination were fifteen children and twenty-seven women, including pregnant ones. Some of those arrested who were deemed missing could have ended up in Siberian concentration camps. According to witnesses those arrested and marked for execution were taken in trucks, taken to the woods, and shot Katyn-style in the back of the head. Their bodies were then thrown into mass graves. Many estimates place the casualties of the massacre at around 2000 executed and 600 deported. There is also speculation that this operation was approved at the highest levels of the Kremlin and done professionally. This is due to the fact that despite many searches and investigations, we can only guess the details of their fate.
Although the prospects of a democratic Poland were dwindling and violence rampant, someone still dreamt of a free, independent, and democratic Poland. Mikolajczyk became the Prime Minister when the famed Wladyslaw Sikorski was killed in a plane crash in 1943. In a broadcast to Poland on taking office he said:
“We do not wish to see only a formal democracy in Poland but a social democracy which will put into practice not only political, religious, and personal freedom but also social and economic freedom, the Four Freedoms of which Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of so finely. In any case, there is, and will be no place in Poland for any kind of totalitarian government in any shape or form.” (Mikolajczyk).
However, at this time his ambitions for Poland would be difficult to achieve, it was clear by that time that the Soviets, not the Western Allies would seize Polish territory. His fear was that communism would be imposed and a puppet Polish government.
In 1944, Winston Churchill attempted to have Mikolajczyk and Stalin negotiate but this would never work due to many issues. Major issues included the Katyn massacre where 22,000 Polish militaries, politicians, religious leaders, and intellectuals were murdered, and Poland’s post-war borders (Mikolajczyk). As a result, Stalin agreed to the Provisional Coalition Government of Poland, discussed above. Later a socialist and Moscow sympathizer, Edward Osóbka-Morawski, became the Prime Minister of Poland and Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka became one of the two Deputy Prime Ministers. Because of this the government in exile lost its diplomatic recognition as the legal government of Poland on the world stage and Mikolajczyk resigned. He then intended to return to Poland and become the other Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture.
Many Poles living in exile opposed this move as they thought the new government in Poland was an illegitimate puppet government. On his return to Poland, he immediately set to revive the Polish People’s Party (PSL or PPP). With an absence of Polish leaders such as himself, the Communists started to set up his former Peasants’ Party as their own. His arrival stopped this attempt, and he bolstered his ranks with the Peasants’ Party. The PSL party would soon become the most popular party in Poland and by far the largest at 600,000 members. He hoped that with such large political pressure and opposition, he could make Poland ungovernable by the Communists and the Soviets would accept Polish neutrality.
With the help of the Communists (unintentionally) they passed a land reform law that created a new class of small farmers that benefited from the reform and ended up becoming firm supporters of the PSL. When the 1946 Polish people’s referendum also known as the Three Times Yes referendum was held under the authority of the State National Council it was show time. The referendum presented an opportunity for the forces vying for political control of Poland following WWII to test their popularity among the general population.
This was exactly the opportunity Mikolajczyk was waiting for to “test” the puppet government. The PSL decided to oppose the referendum calling for the abolition of the Senate as a test of strength against the communists and perhaps showing the world the illegitimacy of the puppet government. Two-thirds of voters supported Mikolajczyk, way over the 50% mark, but the Communist-controlled Interior Ministry issued fake results showing the opposite results (Mikolajczyk). Between this time and the 1947 general election, the PSL and Mikolajczyk himself, were subject to ruthless persecution, with hundreds of candidates prevented from campaigning. From 1946 to 1948 military courts sentenced 32,477 people, with the charges being “crimes against the state”. Only after this was the general election allowed, let’s say “perfectly timed”, to happen.
When the elections finally took place on January 19th, 1947, the outcome was easily decided by a government campaign of arrests and voter intimidation. The non-Communist parties were destroyed, and leaders were forced to flee. The elections produced a parliament with 394 seats for the Communists and twenty-eight for the PSL (Mikolajczyk). This result could only have been achieved by massive voter fraud. Even with all the abuse and violence, PSL was still more popular. The opposition claimed that if the election produced the actual results, they would have won 80% of the vote. Mikolajczyk would have likely become Prime Minister had the election been honest, instead faced with the fabricated results, he resigned from his post in protest.
Facing arrest, he left the country in October 1947. Winston Churchill upon seeing him in London remarked “I am surprised you made it out alive.” (Mikolajczyk). Having “worked” with the communists, the government-in-exile marked him a traitor. Later Mikolajczyk immigrated to the United States, authoring several books and papers, forever being a staunch supporter of democracy. Unfortunately, by that time the United States and the United Kingdom had given up on the battle for Polish independence and thought it could do little, especially with the Cold War underway.
With the puppet government firmly installed and most Polish resistance quelled. It was time for the NKVD to clean up Poland completely. With torture dungeons set up at Mokotow (also known as Rakowiecka), Lublin Castle, Fordon, and Inowroclaw prisons. All of these followed a similar trend of being used by the Nazis and then taken over by the Soviets to do the same exact thing, weeding out resistance to their occupation (“History of the Lublin Castle”) (Courtois and Kramer). At Mokotow, heroes such as Witold Pilecki and Emil Fieldorf were tortured and executed. Pilecki had a traumatic existence being at Auschwitz and fighting in the war multiple times. Upon returning to Poland in 1945 he was under orders from Wladyslaw Anders to gather intelligence on the situation in Poland. Specifically, in terms of its prevailing military and political situation under Soviet occupation.
LEGACY OF INVINCIBLE SOLDIERS: Pilecki and Siedzikowska
Pilecki was arrested on May 8th, 1947, by communist authorities and tortured to extract information. In order to protect others, he sacrificed himself, bearing extricating pain, but never revealing the others to face the same fate. Later being executed by a shot in the back of the head in 1948 because of many false charges brought against him (Zgorzelski). Similarly, Emil Fieldorf was arrested for similar reasons, specifically being a resistance member and loyal to the government-in-exile. The puppet government offered amnesty to resistance fighters loyal to the exiled government and Fieldorf decided to come out of hiding. He was arrested and then taken to Mokotow for questioning via interrogation and refused continuously to corporate. For this, he was charged as a fascist-Hitlerite criminal and for executing Soviet partisans. He was sentenced to death by hanging on February 24th, 1953, at Mokotow (Stan).
The Communists had no mercy even going after Danuta Siedzikowna, a national heroine. Siedzikowna joined the Home Army when her mother was killed by the Gestapo and learned very valuable medical skills. After the Soviets took control of Bialystok, she started work as a clerk in the forest inspectorate. She was arrested in 1945 by the NKVD for collaboration with the anti-communists. Likely her convoy was attacked by partisans, and she was freed by Ex-Home Army commander Stanislaw Wolonciej, later assisting the unit. In 1946 she was sent to Gdansk to get medical supplies and arrested again. This time she was not as lucky and was brutally tortured and beaten but refused to give information. She was later charged with taking an active, violent role in the partisan army, and sentenced to death. They refused to give her clemency for only being 17, being a medic (noncombatant), and having no evidence. She was to be killed by the firing squad and refused to wear a blindfold. She was wounded during the execution, and they refused to kill her, eventually, she died of her wounds (Kalisz).
Lessons learned throughout this research experience were how fragile a country’s sovereignty and democracy are. The United States will likely never experience the same plight Poland has faced. Being surrounded by relatively weak and peaceful neighbors, we don’t have to face an existential crisis every twenty years as Poland has. However, similar tactics of destruction, genocide, and deception are taking place in Ukraine today as we have seen in Poland during WWII and the post-war era. The professional, state-authorized killings of civilians, torture, filtration camps of “undesirables”, and the deportation of populations to other regions are just some examples. Another series of hateful, power-hungry strikes from the same oppressor.
We see the barbaric Russian army hit civilian targets purposely and then feed a false narrative to the media. Poland knows this all too well and it’s inspiring to see the Polish population be so supportive of Ukraine. In contrast to sitting idle as the Western Allies did during the German and Soviet invasion in 1939 and later occupation. Poland did not have to be so welcoming to Ukrainian refugees and provide such support because they were in no real danger of being in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But it would be unlike the Polish people to see the same scale of brutely they experienced and do nothing. The people know all too well the crimes Russia has committed and will continue to do.
Instead, Poland is now facing economic backlash because of their support toward Ukraine. In my opinion, the most valuable lesson learned is that if we all stand up against injustice instead of being bystanders, the world could change for the better. I can almost guarantee Russia is regretting stepping foot in Ukraine because they did not expect such unity from the West, led by Poland and the United States. They were expecting the west to stay idle and complicit as they did in 1945 and 1939! This historical research contest encouraged me to research my family ancestry, go to Poland, and strengthen my Polish language skills. I am extremely thankful for this life-changing opportunity and the Polonia Institute.
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