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Chicago Tribune
January 2, 2003
Kazakhstan's `forgotten Poles' long to return
Thousands in Asia since Stalin's era
By Cheryl Collins
Special to the Tribune

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The knock on the window came on a summer's night in 1936.

The summons was repeated thousands of times across Soviet Ukraine. It signaled the start of a journey that would take the Polish and German villagers of Zytomierz from their prosperous farms to lives of hardship and deprivation thousands of miles away in the vast steppe of Central Asia, in what is now Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan, part of the Soviet Union until 1991, was a place of internal exile and deportation for many victims of Stalin's purges, much as Siberia was. Thousands of Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Chechens, Koreans and others were relocated to the vast unpopulated region, whose rolling grassland had been used for centuries as the grazing grounds of the nomadic Kazakhs.

For the Poles, the first wave of deportations came in 1936. Stalin, foreseeing war, wanted to move those of uncertain loyalty away from the western front. He also wanted to cultivate the rich soils of the steppe. Polish farmers had worked the fertile lands of Ukraine for hundreds of years.

In Zytomierz, the Polish and German men were summoned to the village council and were told that, "for their own good," they and their families were being sent away. They were not told where.

The doors were locked, and the men were held in custody for a week as their families packed belongings, sold livestock and prayed.

Maria Murawicka remembers that summer well. Her prosperous family was among those sent by cattle car on the two-week rail journey to the heart of Soviet Asia.

Murawicka, then 6, has a memory that burns so brightly she attributes its power to God.

She vividly remembers the shock and panic that swept among the deportees as they arrived at their final destination: a desolate spot in a sea of endless high grass. A newly dug well and a signpost were all that marked Village Number 2.

She remembers people screaming, "Where are the rivers, where are the lakes? How will we build houses if there are no trees?"

The men said, "Perhaps they have brought us here to shoot us."

The steppe of Kazakhstan is a place of extremes, marked by intense sun and dry blazing heat in summer and heavy snow with freezing temperatures in winter.

The deportees were forced to learn new techniques for survival in the harsh environment. Officials taught them to make bricks from mud and straw, and explained how to burn animal dung for fuel.

According to Jan Kozlowski, the Polish consul in Almaty, Murawicka's village was lucky. Many deportees were dumped onto the steppe with no instructions or tools, forced to fashion crude homes dug from the earth. Many died their first winter there.

The next wave of Polish deportees came after Stalin and Hitler divided Poland in 1939, and Poles to the east of the Oder-Niessen line found themselves new citizens of the Soviet empire. In 1940 and 1941 as many as 1.5 million Poles were deported, mostly to Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Village named Bright Meadow

Murawicka's village eventually was renamed Yasnaya Polana, or Bright Meadow, but that did not change a harsh reality. Deprived of the identity papers and internal passports needed to travel and considered "enemies of the state," the deportees were in effect living in rural labor camps.

Movements were strictly monitored. They lived under an all-consuming fear of arrest and worse.

Maintaining cultural traditions, observing their faith and speaking Polish were illegal. Even colored Easter eggs were to be kept out of sight of the local Communist Party officials.

Many Poles were able to leave in 1941 when Gen. Wladyslaw Anders assembled an army of prisoners of war, deportees and their families and in an epic journey marched from Soviet Asia through the Middle East, arriving in Europe. Fighting for the Allies in Italy, Anders' heroic Polish II Corps captured Monte Cassino in May 1944 from the Germans after earlier attempts by British and American troops failed.

Harder life after war

For those left behind--mostly those who had not lived within Poland's boundaries--life became even harder after the war, Murawicka remembers, as official propaganda crudely linked the Poles with the German aggression.

It was not until 1956, in the thaw after Stalin's death in 1953, that these so-called special settlers finally were issued passports that allowed them to travel within the Soviet Union.

Some visited Ukraine, hoping to realize their long-held dream of returning. What they found was a land devastated by war and populated by new residents who had no memories of those who had left 20 years before.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story of the "forgotten Poles" slowly came to light, and the Polish government made efforts to repatriate those who qualified.

In addition to an interest in Polish culture and religion, one of the conditions for repatriation is proof of accommodation, that they will be able to fend for themselves and not depend on welfare. This creates a painful situation for Poland's consul. He regularly sees many of the older generation, who, he says, burnished cultural traditions during repression and who speak "the most beautiful, archaic" Polish, whose poverty prevents them from returning.

Many of the younger generation, on the other hand, are more removed from their heritage and often seek to live in Poland for economic reasons. According to the census, less than 10 percent of the ethnic Poles in Kazakhstan speak Polish.

The most difficult cases are those such as Murawicka's. The applicants are ethnically Polish but did not live in Poland when deported, according to Kozlowski, whose job it is to decide "who is a Pole."

According to the most recent census, in 1991, about 47,000 remained in Kazakhstan, a drop from about 65,000 in 1981. In contrast, almost all the "Volga Germans," as the ethnic Germans are known, have migrated to Germany, a sign of the greater resources of the German state.

Hopes for aid

Kozlowski's fondest wish is the creation of a fund by those from Poland's vast Diaspora to support these elderly Poles seeking to spend their last years in Poland.

For people such as Murawicka, who lives on a tiny pension, the only hope lies with the small possibility of finding a place in a subsidized senior home in Poland, where there is space for few.

"My parents taught me, even if you are forced to speak Russian, you will always be a Pole," she said.

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