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New book explores fate of Polish women exiled to the Soviet Union during World War II

"In Poland a worker's horse was treated better than a person in Russia, although they say that the working class in Russia is treated the best. ... The Bolshevik idea is beautiful only in tales; in reality it's hell in place of life."

-- A Polish girl who was 15 when she was deported to the Soviet Union


In her new book, Exile and Identity, historian Katherine Jolluck focuses on a largely unknown chapter of World War II -- the tragic story of Polish women and children deported to the Soviet Union after the Red Army invaded and annexed eastern Poland in 1939.

The book looks beyond the more public activity of men going off to battle to focus on the largely private efforts of women to preserve home and culture while under attack. "I'm interested in what happens to civilians during war," Jolluck, a senior lecturer, said during a recent interview. "It has always irked me that people don't bother to write about women and children during wartime. When you go into a war, it's not just bombings and soldiers being killed. Something bigger happens that involves civilians."

In addition to providing an insight into mid-20th-century Polish society, Jolluck's book argues that gender is central to conceptions of nationality. As a consequence of communist rule, the historiography of eastern Europe has lagged, she said. "Until recently, there was a complete gap on research about society in eastern Europe, especially during the war," she said. "These were societies that were just steamrolled."

The Polish deportees' story reflects a broader experience suffered by many national groups living within and next to the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II. After the Red Army invaded and annexed eastern Poland in 1939, Communist authorities began a series of carefully orchestrated deportations. Similar events took place in the Baltic states and to many ethnic groups within the USSR. It is estimated that between 1 million and 2 million Poles were sent in cattle cars to the Soviet Union. Of those, about 600,000 were women. Exile and Identity focuses solely on women deportees, most of whom were never charged with a crime. The Soviet objectives were to rid the occupied regions of suspected disloyal or counterrevolutionary elements and to provide cheap labor for the remote, harsh and unpopulated regions of the USSR.

In exile, Poles lived in extremely brutal conditions in prisons, collective farms and labor camps in Siberia, the Arctic north and Central Asia. Separated from husbands and fathers, women were forced to work long days at hazardous jobs for meager wages. Mothers were made to give up their children to Soviet orphanages or watch as they starved to death. Other women faced sexual abuse or engaged in prostitution to survive, Jolluck noted.

What is unusual about the Polish experience, compared to that of the other deported groups, is that an estimated 115,000 people were permitted to leave Soviet territory in 1942. After the German army invaded the USSR, the Soviets turned to the Poles as allies. The 1941 Sikorski-Maiskii Pact called for the formation of a Polish army in the USSR to fight the Nazis and it promised an amnesty to all Polish citizens inside the country.

Jolluck explains that a Polish general, Wladyslaw Anders, was released from a Moscow prison to form what became known as the Anders army. In the summer of 1941, waves of Poles began arriving in the southern portions of the USSR in search of the military outposts. Most were in poor physical condition and desperate to leave. They were among the lucky ones.

"Although the Soviets were supposedly amnestying everyone, they tried to hold people back by not giving travel documents or money," Jolluck said. "Soviets would divert trains to collective farms and force people to pick cotton. Women sold their last possessions -- like a sweater -- to buy food. Many of those people were stuck there for good."

As part of the amnesty, two evacuations took place in 1942 from Soviet territory across the Caspian Sea to Iran. More were promised but did not materialize because Soviet-Polish diplomatic relations broke down following the 1943 discovery of the massacre in Katyn, Ukraine, where Soviet authorities murdered 4,400 Polish army officers in 1940.

Shortly after arriving in Iran, evacuees were asked by Polish officials to write about their experiences under the Soviet regime. The objective was partly to collect information that would be used to help nullify the annexation of eastern Poland after the war ended. The exiles also formed the first large group of people in about 20 years who were exposed to life in the Soviet Union and then allowed to leave. "The testimonies may constitute a precious source enabling us to reveal to world opinion the truth about Russia," one official noted in the book. Of the tens of thousands of handwritten reports collected, about 20,000 ended up in the Hoover Institution, including at least 2,000 written by women. Children too young to write drew pictures.

Jolluck, who teaches in the History Department, learned of the collection while working on a paper as a graduate student on campus. "It just snowballed from there," she said. Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union During World War II is based on Jolluck's doctoral thesis. "These descriptions of recently experienced events, written from memories still fresh, retain an immediacy and an often extraordinary recollection of detail," she noted in the book. "It's an incredible story," she added during the interview. "These people experienced things that were absolutely horrendous, but they survived."

For example, a Polish woman employed as a cook for a field crew described what happened when she was forced to walk 5 kilometers a day carrying buckets of potatoes:

"The metal handle of the bucket stuck into my hand. When that went on for a week, my hands swelled and cracked. ... It got so bad that blood ran into the soup."

Jolluck writes that work in the camps was organized according to a so-called norm. Each job had a quota that had to be met for the worker to receive full food rations and avoid punishment. Payment for a day's labor, if the quota was fulfilled, typically consisted of 500 to 600 grams of bread and some watery soup. But almost every account in the documents describes the norms as impossibly high, far beyond the women's strength. For example, Aniela Pawliszak wrote that she was sent to build snowbanks. Each woman was supposed to make 20 embankments a day, 15 meters long, 1 meter wide and 1 meter tall. With great exertion, Pawliszak said she could complete four. As a result, deportees usually received drastically reduced food rations.

In addition to harsh living and working conditions, the exiles endured assaults on their nationality, culture and religion. An important theme of the book is how Polish women struggled to maintain their identity despite these attacks. In pre-war Poland, "proper" women worked in the home and regarded themselves as dependent on their fathers and husbands. In Exile and Identity, Jolluck shows how Polish women struggled to maintain traditional norms -- despite their radically altered circumstances -- as part of a broader strategy for survival.

"Because their national identity was attacked and their sense of what they should be doing as women on a daily basis was attacked, it made them insist even more that 'this is who we are' and 'we have to stay this way in order not to become what the Russians are trying to make us,' " Jolluck said. "These women were often surprised by how strong they were even as they clung to their traditional identity of being weak and helpless. This experience teaches us about the incredible resourcefulness and determination people are not even aware they have."


Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union During World War II, 356 pages, published in 2002 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.



By Lisa Trei

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