Deportation

On the 10th February 1940 Kasia and her family were sentenced to expulsion from Poland. Forcibly evicted from her home at dawn and deported along with her family to a forced labour camp in the USSR, Kasia was never to see home, or Poland again.

The website Memorial/ Мемориал, dedicated to the victims of political terror at the hands of the USSR, includes an online repository of historical documents. And it was here that I found traces of my family in official documents related to their deportation. Originally in the ‘Memorial Book of the Komi Republic’ (Книга памяти Республики Коми) the extracts on the site relay the sentences of each Oko family member including the children, the youngest of whom was 2 years old at the time. Kasia’s sentence (translated from Russian) is entered as follows:

Oko, Katarzyna Michał

Year of birth: 1921

Residence: Tarnopolskaya Region, Kremenets District, Reshnevka.

Date of sentence: 10th February 1940.

Verdict: Banishment to the Komi Region, USSR: Noshul-base, Priluzskiy District.

Documents like these hold a plethora of information. But often they’re devoid of emotion, devoid of trauma, devoid of a certain form of reality that was experienced. It is in oral histories and the personal writings of people that I find an important aspect of history is held.

In her writings, Kasia describes the morning of the deportation as frosty and foggy. It was a Saturday and Michał, her father, was already up and preparing for the day ahead labouring on the farm. Maria, her mother, was also awake, baking bread. Everyone else was fast asleep. At around five o’clock in the morning a small contingent of NKVD officers walked onto their land and thus began the day.

“They approach the house and, although usually friendly, the farm dogs don’t allow them too near. But nothing deters the Soviets and they march onto our land and shout in Russian “Open up!” Doors open, they come in and ask if we have any weapons. We answer no but they don’t believe us. They search, ransacking our home, turning everything upside down. […] They search everywhere, the barns, the outbuildings, everything, looking in every nook and cranny and then turn to each other and say “There’s nothing”. “Good”. They start listing everything that we will have to leave behind. They write down: wheat, cows, geese, chickens. They ask us if we are hiding anything else. Because all this is still not enough for them!”

                                   – extract from Kasia’s entry entitled ‘On Survival’, February 1940

Five months earlier on the 17th September 1939, four days before Kasia’s eighteenth birthday, the Soviet Union invaded Poland. In August of that year Nazi Germany and Russia had secretly signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which they agreed to, amongst other things, the division and annexation of Poland. By the 6th October 1939 Poland ceased to exist.

soviet_invasion_of_poland_1939
Soviet invasion of Poland, 1939

With the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland a systemic purging of so-called socially dangerous and anti-Soviet elements began. In his book Poland’s Holocaust, writer and academic Tadeusz Piotrowski writes:

“In September, even before the start of the Nazi atrocities that would horrify the world, the Soviets began their own program of systematic individual and mass executions. On the outskirts of Lwów, several hundred policemen were executed at one time. Near Łuniniec, officers and noncommissioned officers of the Frontier Defense Corps together with some policemen, were ordered into barns, taken out and shot … after December 1939, three hundred Polish priests were killed. And there were many other such incidents.”[1]

There is no doubt that Kasia would have been aware of the atrocities unfolding, even more so given her father’s position as mayor of the village. Indeed, on account of my great grandfather, Michał, holding an influential position, the Oko’s were one of the families rounded up in the first mass deportation on the 10th February 1940. There were, however, families and individuals who had no political involvement, nor did they hold influential positions but were deported nevertheless by virtue of being ethnically Polish. Three more mass deportations followed: 13th April 1940, June-July 1940 and finally in June 1941. Estimates for the number of Poles deported vary from 320,000 to over a million. The Oko’s were eleven of them and according to the information on the website Strony o Wołyniu [in Polish], the only individuals deported from Rzesniowka.[2]

The deportations were meticulously planned, from details of what deportees were allowed to take with them, to step by step instructions on the procedures taken should a particular situation occur (e.g. if weapons are found at the premises of the deportees). A Soviet document, Order No. 001223, dated 11th October 1939 and signed by Ivan Serov (who at the time was Ukrainian Commissar to the NKVD), is just one historical source that sets out the instructions on deportations. Although this particular order relates to the deportation of so-called ‘anti-Soviet elements’ in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the order was also implemented in Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland.

The following is an excerpt from the document:

“On arrival in the villages, the operative personnel shall get in touch (observing the necessary secrecy) with the local authorities: the chairman, secretary or members of the village soviets, and shall ascertain from them the exact dwelling-place of the families to be deported.

After this operative groups, together with the representatives of the local authorities, who shall be appointed to make an inventory of property, shall proceed to the dwellings of the families to be deported. Operations shall begin at daybreak. Upon entering the home of the person to be deported, the senior member of the operative group shall assemble the entire family of the deportee into one room, taking all necessary precautionary measures against any possible trouble. 

After the members of the family have been checked in conformity with the list, the location of those absent and the number of sick persons shall be ascertained, after which they shall be called upon to give up their weapons. Irrespective of whether or not any weapons are delivered, the deportee shall be personally searched and then the entire premises shall be searched in order to discover hidden weapons.

[…]

 After completion of the search of the deportees they shall be notified that by a government decision they will be deported to other regions of the Union.

The deportees shall be permitted to take with them household necessities not exceeding 100 kilograms in weight.

1.Suits. 2. Shoes. 3.Underwear. 4. Bedding. 5. Dishes. 6. Glassware. 7. Kitchen utensils. 8. Food, an estimated month’s supply for a family. 9. Money in their possession. 10. Trunk or box in which to pack articles. It is not recommended that large articles be taken.

If the contingent is deported from rural districts, they shall be allowed to take with them small agricultural stocks – axes, saws, and other articles […][3]

Lutka, my great aunt, who was sixteen at the time, remembers hearing rumours of deportations in the weeks running up to that fateful February day. Even now, after more than seven decades, she finds it difficult to talk about. Some memories have become hazy but what she does remember corroborates a lot of the information detailed in the document above.

Following the instructions set out in Order No. 001223, in the early hours of the morning four NKVD officers, accompanied by two local Ukrainians (who were most probably Communist Party members), entered the Oko family home. As the soldiers entered, armed with rifles, they ordered Maria to wake up the sleeping children, and at gunpoint forced the family into a corner with their hands up. The atmosphere was pure terror, Lutka recalls. The soldiers ordered Michał to take an axe and wood saw with him. Lutka also remembers vividly one soldier smiling and telling her father that the place the family was being sent to was “khorosho” [(хорошо) ‘good’ in Russian]. The soldiers instructed the rest of the family to pack up what they could. They took quilts, pillows, a small amount of clothes and some podpłomyki (simple flat bread) that were ready, leaving the remaining bread still baking in the oven. After the family packed their possessions they were loaded onto a horse-drawn sleigh and transported to Karnaczowka Railway Station (approximately 7km from Rzesniowka), escorted by two armed NKVD soldiers.

This was the beginning. This was how the Oko family’s lives changed unimaginably. This was the day that was to set in motion a series of tragedies that cast long shadows over the Oko’s to this day. Kasia’s words however give me solace and strength. They defy time, and defy history and capture her quiet defiance in the face of terror and injustice:

“The time has come. Sadness envelops our hearts. We have to leave our family home. We ask them where they’re taking us. They answer “On a long journey”… We mount the sleigh and look back at our home. And as we move on, although we can no longer see it, we know forever where it stands.” 

                                                  – extract from Kasia’s entry entitled ‘On Survival’, February 1940

————————

[1] Piotrowski T. Poland’s Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947

[2] However, it would seem that the information on the website is incomplete as not only are the Oko’s neighbours – Laszczak and Szarek – not listed as inhabitants of the village, but I have also come across an account of another family, the Chuchla’s, being deported from Rzesniowka, who are also not recorded as inhabitants.

[3] Included in the Third Interim Report of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Communist Aggression, 83rd Cong. 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1954).

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