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Poland: History of a Betrayed Ally

Poland: History of a Betrayed Ally

Olivia Morin

September 15, 2022

Polish Independence Movement after WWII

The fact continues to remain that despite Poland’s important and unfailing role in World War II, the nation’s military achievements and struggles following the resolution of the battle in Europe fail to be thoroughly acknowledged to this day. The Polish hardships over the past decades in particular have much to blame on the Yalta Conference of nineteen forty-five, which placed the nation under the Soviet regime and essentially sentenced the population to live their lives completely in fear for years to come. Citizens were methodically deported, killed, and tortured as they lived under the terror-based rule of the Soviet Union, but hardly anyone recognizes the devastating losses the Polish population sustained before they became a free nation and held their first democratic election in nineteen ninety-one.

To begin the history of Poland’s oppression under the Soviet’s rule, it must be acknowledged that most articles identify the Yalta Conference as a success because “the Soviets did make many substantial concessions,” and praises are given for the ability of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin to reach a compromise that would allow the three nations to heroically defeat the Japanese and German forces. However, some articles acknowledge that the agreement made at Yalta was not a success for everyone, as “Yalta means a betrayal of their countries and the United States’ abandonment of its core values on the altar of Great Power politics.” Truly, Roosevelt made an agreement on the fate of an entire nation without consulting their government; a fatal mistake when the entire war was started with the invasion of Poland due to its coveted location between the two hostile nations of Russia and Germany. The promises made by a dictator who had always had a stake in Poland’s fate should never have been taken so lightly, but Roosevelt still claimed: “it [was] the best [he could] do for Poland at [the] time.” Despite this belief, there were multiple reasons why the Yalta Conference spelled disaster for the Polish people.

Not only did the Big Three decide that an entire one-third – or approximately seventy-thousand square miles – of Polish land would be taken over by the Soviet regime, but they also chose to alter the borders by essentially shifting the entire nation of Poland to the west, and giving them territory previously controlled by Germany. This additional land may have seemed like a perk of the agreement, but it came at a time when Poland was already being taken over by the Russian regime, and the gaining of land meant nothing when so much was simultaneously being stripped from them. As far back as nineteen forty-three, that is two years before the Yalta Conference came to be, Russia was already refusing to acknowledge the Polish government, and was actively replacing those in power with their own people in the Polish Committee of National Liberation until creating the provisional Lublin Government in nineteen forty-four. This provisional government was “almost universally regarded as a puppet regime,” but still accepted by both Roosevelt and Churchill during Yalta. This means that all Polish land, including that which was stripped from the nation and that which was meant to be gained, was entirely controlled by the Soviet Union.

USSR Murders 16 Polish Leaders

In late March of nineteen forty-five, sixteen leaders of the exiled Polish government were invited to speak with Soviet commanders on the topic of the results of the Yalta Conference and chose to attend in the hopes that Russia would be willing to compromise. Upon their arrival, they were taken into custody by the NKVD – or Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in English) and held in the Lubyanka prison, where the USSR’s secret service headquarters were located.

This brutal political police captured the Polish leaders under the false accusation that they had planned “an attack on the Soviet Union together with the Germans,” and all sixteen of them endured a four-day-long staged trial in Moscow after “the Poles were interrogated for almost three months and evidence was prepared against them.” The trial, which found thirteen of the accused to be guilty after each of them pleaded as such, was in complete violation of international agreements that had no guidelines for putting citizens of another country on trial. While a few of them were released and the longest prison sentence that was issued was a maximum of ten years, three of the sixteen never returned to Poland. General Leopold Okulicki, Jan Stanisław Jankowski, and Stanisław Jasiukowiczere were all said to have died in prison, though there is a very likely conspiracy that Okulicki was murdered in the Lubyanka after other members of the sixteen said they “heard Okulicki being led out of his cell, to which he never returned.” The false trial proved to be exactly what Stalin needed to cement his hold on the Polish people, as the exiled government was nearly annihilated by the loss of the sixteen leaders.

Unfortunately, the show trial that upended the Polish underground was not the last tragedy to befall the nation in the year nineteen forty-five. Only a few months later, thousands of anti-communists and Home Army sympathizers were arrested for their actions in a series of operations the Polish underground planned against the Soviet presence in Poland’s northeastern territories. Although many of those arrested are said to have been released, at least six hundred of them were loaded onto military tracks and never seen again. A relatively recent discovery of a Russian telegram suggests that these people were systematically executed by a special operations unit from one of the Soviets’ counterintelligence groups.

Despite multiple extensive investigation efforts over the past decades, the remains of those missing six hundred Poles have yet to be found in the present day. This event – known as the “Augustow Round-Up” because of the location of the event in the Augustow region and also known as “Little Katyn” – is often referred to as “the largest crime committed by the Soviets on Polish lands after World War II.” The name “Little Katyn” itself suggests an exceptional tragedy, as it references the Katyn Massacre of approximately twenty-two thousand military officers by the Soviet Union in the midst of World War II. Multiple articles comment on the heartbreak of those who were left behind after their loved ones and family members were kidnapped – touching on how this was more than a historical event; it was personal to many citizens of Poland. The unjust and unsolved death of so many people continues to leave behind a legacy that calls for action against the “perpetrators [who] remain unpunished to this day.”

However, some people still held out hope and despite all of Russia’s crimes against the Polish people, believed that the best approach to their survival and freedom included a coalition between the exiled Polish government and the communist party in Warsaw. One of the most prominent figures who held this belief was Stanisław Mikolajczyk, who had been a part of the Polish government in one way or another for much of his life.

A brief history of Stanislaw Mikolajczyk

Mikolajczyk’s story begins with his volunteering for the Polish army in nineteen twenty and fighting the Soviet forces away from the River Vistula under the leadership of Marshall Pilsudski. After that, he was injured and returned home where he joined the Farmer’s Party.  Subsequently, he stood up against the same Marshall Pilsudski, blaming him for setting up a military dictatorship. He remained politically involved as a member of Parliament until joining the army again in an effort to fight off the German invasion of nineteen thirty-nine.  After their loss, he fled to Paris in pursuit of the Polish government in exile, which later moved to London. Mikolajczyk quickly moved up the ranks of the exiled government and, in nineteen forty-one, became the Minister of the Interior at the signing of the agreement with Stalin “to fight against Hitler’s imperialism.” He took over as the Minister-President of the government in exile in nineteen forty-three after the tragic death of his predecessor General Sikorski, at which point Stalin’s communist puppet government was in the process of formation in Poland.

Mikolajczyk resigned from his position in the exiled government and joined the government in Warsaw even before it was recognized as the true government of Poland in nineteen forty-five. That is when diplomatic relations between the Allied countries and the legitimate Polish government in London were broken off. However, his position in Warsaw was not long-lasting, as his efforts to recreate the Farmer’s Party and speak for the Polish people resulted in death threats. He fled for his life in nineteen forty-seven.

Known as a communist traitor to the Polish people, he received too much hate in his homeland and was forced into exile in the United States where he spent the rest of his life as the Chair of the International Farmers Union. Much of the information on Mikolajczyk’s life is drawn directly from his personal memoirs, which were published in Washington in nineteen forty-eight. Any information not provided by him was likely provided by his son Marian. The “scope and content” section of these memoirs, provided by Stanford University, explains that “while the London years are well documented, the period from 1945 to 1947, during which Mikolajczyk served in the provisional government in Warsaw, is not.” These years made up a period of time in which Mikolajczyk’s mission “had been following the same aim” as the Polish government in exile, despite the adversity he faced from the communist leadership. Ultimately, he was unable to make the coalition work towards the freedom of Poland as he had hoped, and brought about yet another accidental setback in the nation’s long history of struggles.

Mikolajczyk’s role as Minister President brings about the most important part he played in the history of Poland, as he was the one who “agreed to a coalition under Communist leadership” with Stalin in nineteen forty-four. He quickly realized, much like Roosevelt learned of his mistake in trusting Stalin’s words at the Yalta Conference, that by this move he had taken even more power away from the Polish people.

Barbaric methods of Russian secret services

The death threats received by Mikolajczyk, the disappearances of the six hundred Polish citizens during the Augustow Round-Up, and the staged trial that took down sixteen leaders of the Polish underground without reason were only a few of many illegal and brutal acts performed by the Soviet’s secret police – the NKVD. The discriminating history of the force is hardly surprising, considering that such organizations operate “for the most part in secrecy and especially for the political purposes of [their] government, often with terroristic methods.” Britannica also confirms that “secret police tactics include arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution of political enemies and intimidation of potential opposition members,” most of which have already been seen in the topics of this essay.

Russia’s secret police agencies have undergone multiple reconstructions over the decades. Most recently known as the GRU, it was preceded by the KGB, MVD, MGD, NKGD, NKVD, and more as the agencies were often rebranded with each major political shift. These agencies sometimes included only the secret police, and sometimes included all police forces – those meant to serve and protect the public and those operating above the law for political benefit. The NKVD – led most notably by Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov, and Lavrentiy Beria – primarily operated under Stalin, and was responsible for many atrocities acts of terrorism against the Polish people and other prominent non-Russian groups of the era – such as the Ukrainians in nineteen forty-one.  The UB – Urząd Bezpieczeństwa or the Polish “Ministry of Public Security” – was the Polish secret police force, similarly controlled by Stalin as part of the NKVD, though it mostly dealt with prisons.

The Soviet extermination crimes of the secret police stretch back even farther than the second world war, beginning with the “Polish Operation” in nineteen thirty-seven where Stalin ordered the death of over two-hundred thousand Polish citizens who were tortured and forced to falsely plead guilty to committing horrific crimes as part of the Polish Military Organization.

The torture methods used to bring about the confessions included “whips, batons, bayonets, rifle butts and at times even electricity” and are said to have also been “used in occupied Poland from 1944 onwards.” These terrible deaths were often covered up as nurses and physicians were required “to write down fake causes of death such as a heart attack or illness – for detainees that had been killed.” Each killing ultimately led to more and more deaths, as “individuals were forced to provide names of alleged co-conspirators… they were the names of friends, family members, and co-workers.” Each unjust death was used as an excuse for additional violence – sending the widows and children of murdered men to prison or labor camps – or if they were young enough to orphanages where “attempts were made to strip them of their Polish identity.” Parents and grandparents of the accused individuals would be left out on the streets as the police confiscated their homes and their belongings – many of these family members being older and unable to work, at which point they often did not survive the winter months.

Similarly, discriminant events followed as Stalin continued to search for methods that would allow him to “kick and clean out [the] Polish…for the good of the Soviet Union”.The “Great Purge” or the “Purge Trials” included a series of three staged show trials in which some of Stalin’s greatest political opponents and critics pleaded guilty to numerous charges such as forming a terrorist organization, working for Germany and Japan, or assassinating Sergei Kirov – a prominent supporter of Stalin. Later investigations into the trials indicated that the “cases were fabricated by the secret police” and the “confessions were made under the pressure of intensive torture and intimidation.”

For Stalin and the NKVD, there was no limit to the actions they were willing to take to bring about the extermination of the Polish people.

Many Polish citizens – whether politicians, fighters, or family members – were detained by the police and placed in prisons to live out unjust terms. Among the most infamous of these were the Mokotow Prison, the Lublin Prison castle, the Fordon Prison, and the Inowroclaw Prison. The Mokotow Prison is more commonly known as the Rakowiecka Prison, as it is located on Rakowiecka Street in the borough of Mokotow. It is perhaps the most notorious of these prisons. The Polish Army officer Witold Pilecki, who wrote “Witold’s Report” on the Auschwitz concentration camp in nineteen forty-three was imprisoned in the Mokotow Prison after being detained by the UB. The Rakowiecka/Mokotow Prison is often identified as “the worst prison in Poland” during the Soviet occupation.

Pilecki himself claimed that “compared to [Rakowiecka] Auschwitz was just a trifle” in a letter to his wife.

Pilecki, along with many others, underwent severe torture while being held in the Mokotow prison, and following yet another show trial he was found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed by Staff Sergeant Piotr Smietanski, a man known as “The Butcher of Mokotow Prison.”

Lublin Castle was more distinctly noted in history for its time under the German occupation of Poland, during which the Third Reich tortured and executed thousands in the span of five years. In the last hours before the German forces were evacuated from the city, approximately three-hundred prisoners were murdered. The oppression failed to end with the defeat of the Third Reich, as the NKVD quickly secured control of the Lublin Castle and filled it with thousands of Polish prisoners again. One article claims that prisoners in Lublin at the beginning of the Soviet occupation described how “the cells were still wet from the blood of the victims of the execution” that had taken place in those last hours before the Germans escaped. The cells were overcrowded with both falsely accused civilians and true criminals – many who had been previously detained under the German regime were now confined together in the same cell with their torturers, who had been captured by the Soviets by the end of the war. Lublin Castle is thought to have seen the highest numbers of inmates during the Soviet occupation, with a predicted thirty-two to thirty-three thousand inmates having been recorded over the span of ten years. Unsurprisingly, the Russians maintained similar practices to the Germans that had come before them – prisoners were brutally tortured, interrogated for false pleas and information, and often executed if they remained alive after their interrogations.

The two remaining prisons – despite being the crime scene for thousands of murders and torturous acts – were more difficult to find adequate sources on. The Fordon Prison and Inowroclaw Prison are hardly recounted at all, besides a couple of interviews given by inmates years after they were released from their sentences. The inmates of these two prisons were unique from those sent to the other prisons as most of these were women. The women of Fordon are known for typically having had young children with them or being pregnant and giving birth whilst in confinement, while those of Inowroclaw were often nuns. One article by Monika Scislowska details the accounts given by three women, two of them had been pregnant and gave birth in Fordon, one was forced to bring her young son with her, and all of them lived in horrifying conditions and underwent harsh treatment just to keep themselves and their children alive. Fordon, although it may not have been the prison that contained the most gruesome torture events, was infamous for its own kind of brutality. To bring women and children into such an environment just to cause them and their families pain is, in itself, the cruelest of acts. A similar account from the survivors of Inowroclaw quotes Sister Zofia Luszczkiewicz in her reference to Inowroclaw Prison as the “Polish Auschwitz.” Many of the sisters gave accounts of specific methods of torture that went against their fundamental practices as nuns. Often times these women were raped or forced to remain naked whilst doused in water and left in freezing or damp cells. Accounts confirm that it was “typical of Poland’s nuns” to refuse to collaborate with their prosecutors and thus sentence anyone else to such treatment by extension. Though often seen as feeble old women tasked with teaching unruly children and caring for the elderly, these women held a strength beyond their own belief and typically remained steady against every cruel attempt by the Soviet regime at gaining information.[ For more information about Fordon and Inowroclaw prisons see:  M. B. Szonert, Null and void; Case Study on Comparative Imperialism,” University Press, 2008 https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780761840282/Null-and-Void-Poland-Case-Study-on-Comparative-Imperialism]

Danuta “Inka” Siedzikowna

As with many events in history, women played a greater role in liberating Poland from the control of the Soviet Union than is often acknowledged. A lot of these women suffered greatly for their cause; undergoing severe torture, encountering disease, and suffering starvation like the women of Fordon and Inowroclaw. Some other women on the Polish front were more like Danuta “Inka” Siedzikowna, a seventeen-year-old nurse in the Home Army, who was sentenced twice to death in addition to a fifteen-year prison term. Siedzikowna joined the Home Army during the German occupation, determined to aid her nation in gaining freedom after being raised in a very patriotic home with a family that took great pride in their country and her people. After her father was deported in nineteen forty, and her mother was murdered by the Gestapo in nineteen forty-three, Siedzikowna saw no other option for her future besides fighting for their values and beliefs in free Poland. As the Germans were pushed out of Poland and the Soviet occupation began, Siedzikowna continued to subscribe to the Home Army – fighting against a new enemy, but for the same dreams of liberty and freedom. Besides performing as a nurse for injured members of her brigade, Siedzikowna went out on missions on behalf of liaison officers, often to trade supplies or retrieve information. During a mission to obtain medicine and information on the disappearance of the brigade’s commanding officer, she was followed and arrested by the UB. Despite the fact that “she did not have military training and did not participate in hostilities,” and that she was underage, Siedzikowna was found guilty of numerous false allegations and was sentenced to death.  These charges included “shooting at a policeman and inciting the killing of security service officers” even though she possessed no weapon. She was murdered by the communist security services in August 1946 at the age of 18.

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate facts of the struggles of the Polish people to fight off the Soviet occupation is that it fails to be acknowledged in the present day.

All of these people who were arrested, put on trial, forced into overcrowded cells, beaten, tortured, and executed are forgotten by the people of the present day – especially those of us in the United States. To us, those are events and figures of the past, but as we look at the battles currently going on in Ukraine, it becomes clear that “that which is done is what shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.”

The tragedy in Ukraine, where the Russian occupation is being fought against every day, and where it has been revealed that the Russians left mass graves in their wake, is the same treatment that has already been exemplified in Poland. Did we not learn exactly how much the Soviet Union covered up for years in terms of the treatment of the Polish people?

Have we really forgotten all that pain and brutality, such that we are willing to let it happen again?

The Ukrainian people have made it clear that they are suffering and that they need help, and yet the world watches as history repeats itself and people are unjustly murdered today. The history of Poland is long, but that does not mean it should be forgotten – it should be learned and used instead as a call to action.

 

Bibliography:

 

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