Searching for the Missing Polish Officers in the Soviet Union

The Inhuman Land: A Wartime Journey Through The USSR Book Cover

The Inhuman Land: A Wartime Journey Through The USSR

Joseph Czapski

ISBN 1681372568
New York, NY: New York Review of Books



94 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

Joseph Czapski, a Polish painter and soldier, was imprisoned by the Soviets after their invasion of Poland in 1939. For almost two years he was held in prison camps at Starobelsk, Pavlishchev Bor and Gryazovets. On 2nd September 1941 he was released.

Nazi Germany had attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. An agreement between Stalin's Russia and the Polish government-in-exile in London, led by General Wladyslaw Sikorski, was signed in August 1941. This agreement saw Stalin grant an amnesty to all Polish citizens held in the Soviet Union. A Polish army, under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders, was to be formed on Soviet territory.

Finding the Polish Army

Joseph Czapski left the prison camp at Gryazovets along with 1,700 other Polish prisoners. They were marched 7 kilometres to the railway station. They sang Polish soldier songs. At the station they were told the train to take them on their journey would not arrive until the next day. They stood in the pouring icy rain. Thoroughly soaked they boarded their train at 5am.

Their journey took them from Gryazovets, near Vologda, mid-way between Moscow and the White Sea, south through Russia to the Volga Steppes. All the railway stations were crowded with Poles who had been released from Soviet captivity. They were ragged figures dressed in threadbare foufaïkis (quilted coats). They had come from all over the Soviet Union and were heading south-west to join the Polish Army.

On 8 October 1941 Czapski's train crossed the river Volga over the longest bridge in Europe. Eventually they arrived at a place called Totsk and walked 5 kilometres to a Polish Army camp which contained a small collection of wooden huts and tents.

Regularly, each day, 50, 200, 500 men who had been formerly deported would arrive in groups from the station...And what a state they were in! - tattered, with bundles of rags tied with string doing duty for shoes, exhausted by their experiences in the labour-camps, weakened from lack of food on the journey, and by long periods of under-nourishment. (p. 24)

The weather at the camp was terrible. From mid-October until they left in January the temperature reached a low of -55 degrees centigrade.

Searching for the Missing

Joseph Czapski was asked to organize an Assistance Bureau. Gather information from the new arrivals and answer their questions. The new arrivals had two concerns:

  • Save their comrades who had been left behind in the camps.
  • Get news of their families deported over the entire Soviet Union.

Joseph Czapski drew up lists of names and addresses of their relations. This information was then passed to the General Staff of the Army and the Polish Embassy. He also asked the new arrivals if they knew anything about the Polish Officer prisoners held at Starobelsk No. 1, Kozelsk No. 1 and Ostashkov. Nobody had any news of them. Nothing had been heard of them since they were evacuated from the camps by the Soviets in April and May 1940.

That these men would ultimately turn up became, with me, something like an obsession. I had so clear a recollection of that year at Starobelsk, ... many ... had become my most intimate friends, that I found it impossible to believe in their disappearance. (p. 27)

There were rumours that Polish officers were held in the Arctic regions and in Kolima, in the far east of Russia. In the hope of saving these men Czapski took his records to Polish Staff HQ in Buzuluk. He met the Chief of Staff Colonel Okulicki.

[Okulicki] ... been in several Soviet prisons. All his teeth had been broken...In 1944, Okulicki was parachuted into Poland at about the same time his son was killed at Monte Cassino. He became one of the leaders of the resistance...after the Russian advance he was treacherously invited by some Soviet officers to a "Conference"...He was arrested and sent to Moscow, condemned during the "Trial of the Sixteen", and was again deported to an unknown destination. (p. 38)

Okulicki ordered Czapski to draw up a detailed report stating all he knew about the men at Starobelsk, Kozelsk and Ostashkov.

Asking the NKVD for Help

Early in 1942 Czapski left for Moscow with letters of introduction to the high dignitaries of the NKVD. The letters stated with great firmness that the promises made by Stalin about the release of all Polish prisoners should be implemented. Before travelling to Moscow he met with Ambassador Kot at the Embassy in Kuybyshev.

[Kot] was said, read personally every letter and every note that came into the Embassy...He was familiar with every detail in this matter of the missing officers. He had discussed it with Stalin in October or November...Monsieur Kot was the first to dispel any illusions I might have. "Go, by all means, if you want to," he said, "but it won't serve any purpose." (p. 97)

Upon arrival in Moscow Czapski took his letters of introduction to the Lubianka, NKVD HQ. After many days he was told to report to the Lubianka for a meeting with General Reichman. Czapski told Reichman that only 400 of the 15,000 officers at Starobelsk, Kozelsk and Ostashkov had been accounted for. Reichman said he knew nothing about this but for the sake of General Anders he would look into it.

Twelve days passed before Czapski received a late night telephone call from Reichman telling him that all documents relating to Polish prisoners had been passed by the NKVD to the Russian Foreign Office. Czapski told him that the Polish Ambassador had applied eight times to them for information without success.

I knew no more now than I had done then about where my friends might be found, nor even whether they were still alive. There was no other door in Moscow on which I might knock in the hope of having it opened to me. (p.130)

Czapski took the train, a five day journey, back to the Embassy in Kuybyshev. He reported to Ambassador Kot who replied:

"Didn't I warn you that you'd get nothing out of them?" (p. 148)

The Katyn Massacre

By the time Czapski returned from Moscow to Kuybyshev the Polish Army had been transferred south to Turkestan. The new Polish Army HQ was located at Yangi-Yul, close to Tashkent. Czapski travelled to Yangi-Yul to resume his duties.

My superiors made no attempt to conceal from me that the prime object of all this work was rapidly losing any actuality it might have had, and that any hope of saving the lost men was daily growing less. (p. 162)

Czapski received some new information. He learned that the Bolsheviks in October 1940 had asked a Polish Colonel called Berling to form a Polish Army under Soviet control. Berling agreed to form the army and asked that the Polish prisoners formerly at Starobelsk, Kozelsk and Ostashkov be part of that army. The reply from the NKVD was that: "No, not those men. In dealing with them we have been guilty of a gross error."

Czapski went to General Anders and told him what he had learned. Anders replied:

"You know, I think of them all as comrades and friends whom we have lost in action. (p. 164).

In April 1943 the Germans announced that they had found a mass grave at Katyn in Russia. The grave contained the bodies of thousands of Polish Officers. Joseph Czapski's search for the Polish officers had been in vain.

Escape from the Soviet Union

In March 1942 the Soviets cut the rations issued to the Polish Army to 26,000. The Polish army had 75,000 men and it was growing every day. Stalin wanted to cut the number of Polish divisions from seven to three plus a reserve regiment. The excess men would be sent back to the collective farms, mines or labour camps.

Anders realized that this new decree marked the beginning of the liquidation of the Polish Army as it had been planned in December 1941, when General Sikorksi had visited Moscow. He knew that by accepting it he would be condemning one half of our a life of slavery and starvation...[Anders] got the dictator to agree that he should be allowed to evacuate such formations as the Russians could not feed to Iran. (p.171)

The news that Poles would be evacuated from the Soviet Union led to increased numbers of Poles flocking to the Polish camps in Turkestan.

The flood of Poles which had been rolling like a torrent from north to south, setting towards us from the remotest kolkhozes and camps, grew even larger. Innumerable civilians, women, old men, children, all of them emaciated as skeletons, began to swell our Divisions...only kept going by the hope that they might, perhaps, be able to get out of Soviet Russia in the wake of the Polish troops. (p. 171)

General Anders had two objectives:

  1. To create conditions which would make it really possible for us to build a modern Polish army.
  2. To save as many people as possible.

In July 1942 Joseph Czapski became ill with both typhus and malaria. By the time he was released from hospital at the end of August the evacuation of the Polish Army to Iran had been completed. Only a skeleton staff under the command of General Szyszko-Bohusz was left. Czapski travelled by train to Ashkhabad, on the frontier with Persia. He spent one day there before crossing the border into Persia.

Some of the seriously ill Polish children who had escaped from the Soviet Union were cared for at the American hospital in Meshed, Persia. The lack of nourishment and tropical diseases had taken its toll on them. Joseph Czapski visited the hospital and was shown the body of a child who had died that day. He would be buried the next day in the Armenian cemetery, in a small packing case, as there were no more coffins left.

The priest Abbé Cienski officiated at the child's funeral.

This priest, who had been tortured at L'vov, imprisoned in the Lubianka, condemned to death, and released...had taken advantage of the few months during which the Polish uniform had protected even priests from the NKVD, to cover hundreds of kilometres on foot, and thousands by train, visiting the most distant kolkhozes of Turkestan in order to say Mass and carry the Sacraments to those of our people who had been deported. (p. 290)

The priest said the last prayers for the child who had died exiled from his homeland.

The Poles had finally left the Inhuman Land.
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