The Sikorski-Mayski agreement was signed on 30 July 1941 and, among its provisions, an “amnesty” was granted to the Poles who had been exiled to the Soviet Union in 1940 and 1941, freeing them from their camps and kolkhozes.
The use of the word ‘amnesty’ was allegedly an error since the word generally suggests some previous wrongdoing on the part of the person being amnestied whereas the majority of the deportees had never been tried nor sentenced. According to Retinger, an adviser to Sikorski, the word should have been ‘release’ but was accidently replaced by ‘amnesty’ by a Polish diplomat who drafted the document.
Preparing for the departure was far from an easy and straightforward exercise. Heartbreaking decisions had to be made:
In some cases, the NKVD facilitated departure, issuing tickets and directing the Poles to trains, but some did not receive any assistance. Sometimes family members had to be left behind because they were too sick to travel. Poles in the northernmost parts of the Soviet Union needed to make rafts to drift down the rivers to reach the nearest railway.
Release document, permit to buy food and rail tickets.
typical route map for deportees leaving camps after the "Amnesty".
On 22 June 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa by invading eastern Poland, the Kresy, with an attack on the Soviet occupation forces stationed there. Whilst it turned out to be the ‘invasion too far’ that would lead to Germany’s ultimate defeat four years later, it proved to be the salvation for and of many of the Polish exiles.
Amongst the requirements of the Sikorski-Mayski agreement, an agreement which was not without its disputes, and lengthy negotiations, Poland would collaborate in the common fight against Germany, a Polish army would be formed on Soviet soil or be transported elsewhere, if that was considered more desirable, all Polish military and political prisoners were to be freed, and Polish civilian deportees were to be released.
The Sikorski-Mayski pact was followed by other important agreements, including the opportunity for Polish citizens in the Soviet Union, both men and women, to volunteer for the Polish Army.
News of the “amnesty” filtered slowly, inconsistently and unreliably to the deportees. Some Poles received the information from the NKVD, while others saw the news published in the Soviet newspapers or heard it broadcast on the radio. In some areas, the Poles were called to formal meetings with the NKVD and given special release documents and food rations and directed to the nearest railway station. Others in the labour camps heard of the "amnesty" in October but were not released for another month. The Gulag authorities realised that they would be unable to fulfil their quotas without Polish manpower and adopted delaying tactics in releasing the information.
However, the reaction of the Poles to the news of the "amnesty", when they did receive it, stunned the Polish and Soviet authorities and caught them totally unprepared for the wholesale movement from the frozen north to the warmer climes of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the south where the Polish Army was being formed under General Władysław Anders, into which Poles either sought to be recruited or where they desperately hoped to find protection.
Whilst liberty appeared to be within reach, the sufferings of the Poles had not ended. The journey south proved to be another nightmare. There were not enough trains. The railway system was straining to move the Red Army westwards and evacuating factories and workers to the east, as well as coping with the flow of Poles from the north to the south. Food and water were difficult to obtain. Families became separated as some members left the train to scavenge for food and then missed its sudden and unannounced departure. Already weakened by disease and starvation, the train journey was the end for many as continued hunger and illness took their toll.
And then, once reaching the south, there was not enough food to sustain them all and they were sent to kolkhozes where they had to work digging irrigation ditches and picking cotton for their food rations. Conditions were dire and in many cases worse than the labour camps they had left. Thousands died along the way, mostly due to an epidemic of dysentery, which decimated men, children and women.
Unfortunately, for various reasons, not all Poles who had been deported to Siberia made their way to the evacuation port of Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea.
Agnieszka Borsuk (nee Lichwa)
Hania Kaczanowska: Long Road to the Army
The signing of the Sikorski-Mayski agreement, London, 30 July 1941
British Prime Minister Winston S.Churchill (middle);
Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (on Churchill's right) ;
General Sikorski sits on the left of photo;
a British official R. Dunbar, standing to his left;
Ambassador Maisky with his assistant, Novikov, sits on the right.
© Kresy Family
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