Harrowing artefacts of those exiled to Siberia, including a child's 'dead teddy bear', go on show at new museum in Białystok
The fate of Poles and other nationalities exiled to the depths of Russia is the subject of a new museum of ‘worldwide importance’.
The Sybir Memorial Museum in Białystok, which opens today on the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939, is the largest and most important institution dealing with deportations to Russia and later the Soviet Union.
At its centre are not the political forces that led to the deportations but rather the experiences of its victims.
One display features photographs of deportees from all around the world: Italy, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, Georgia, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Japan, Australia, the USA, Luxembourg, Latvia, the Middle East, Holland and many other countries.
A central feature of the permanent exhibition are the items that deportees decided to take with them in the hurried moments after the dreaded knock on the door.
A standout exhibit is the teddy bear of Renia Jackowska, who was deported from the vicinity of Lwów to Irkutsk, and then left the USSR with the Ander’s Army.
In Jerusalem, Renia passed the bear on to her friend, Basia Świderska. After the war, it ended up in England with her, and several decades later it came to the museum in Białystok, completing its own odyssey.
It is now one of the 6,000 exhibits forming the core of the collection that spreads over 2200 square metres of exhibition space.
When the museum tested its tour on people with personal connections to the wartime deportations, there were many tears and some people even fainted.
The location in Białystok is significant. Piotr Popławski, the head of education told TFN: “This is not just a museum but also a place of remembrance. Białystok is the only city within the current borders of Poland that was a centre from where people were exiled.
"The other places of remembrance are either on the other side of the border or deep in Russia or Kazakhstan.”
Its site a kilometre from Białystok’s centre in a former army warehouse is also important.
“It was used by the Soviet military to gather those selected for exile. They were sent away from the Poleski train station just next to our building,” Popławski added.
The train line from that station actually runs into the main museum building. A railway wagon used for deportations sitting on it acts as a symbolic gateway through which visitors walk to enter the main exhibition.
Although the name of the museum, Sybir, is not the Polish word for Siberia, it is the name Poles have used for a long time to mean forced exile to the depths of Russia.
This was often to Siberia, but equally it was to the north of European Russia or to the ex-Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan. The victims are collectively called Sybiraks.
Their numbers are hard to define but they are many. Popławski said: “The more we go back in history the harder it is to say how many people this affected. However, from the time of the partitions, the Kościuszko rebellion and the Napoleonic wars we know that tens of thousands of people were deported."
Two notable exiles featured in the exhibition are the Piłsudski brothers, Józef and Bronisław. The younger of the two, Józef, said that his time in exile forged his character and made him the man who he became.
His time in exile also left a physical mark. In Irkutsk, a guard smashed his front teeth in with the butt of his rifle, which meant that Józef had to grow the famous bushy moustache he would become known for to cover the wound.
Bronisław, meanwhile, was sent to Sakhalin island, where during his exile he carried out anthropological research into the island’s inhabitants.
He recorded their stories and language. The Japanese consider the islanders to be forebears of their nation and for that reason they consider Bronisław a hero.
Sybiraks were usually sent to either the taiga or the steppe, which would have a huge impact on their experience and chances of survival.
Being sent to the taiga often meant felling trees using rudimentary tools under NKVD supervision. The harsh winter temperatures were only replaced in the summer by the torment of insects.
Obtaining food was always a problem. Prisoners would eat grass, tree bark and mushrooms just to get nutrients.
In the steppe, often in Kazakhstan, Sybiraks would work on farms. Working with food, though, did not mean easy access to food.
“The temptation to steal just to survive placed a great moral dilemma on the deportees,” Popławski said.
After working for 15 hours a day, they would have to endure another three hours of teaching about how benevolent the Soviet Union was.
For the Sybiraks, maintaining their national identity was a priority and a struggle. The museum’s exhibition contains many everyday items that Poles decorated with national symbols to remind them who they were.
The final chamber that guests visit is a moving Katyń memorial. The names of 18,000 of the 22,000 victims of the Stalin-sanctioned massacres are punched into metal columns that are placed throughout the room.
At the centre is an image made from uniform buttons of a kneeling officer waiting for the death shot.
The officers and other Poles murdered by the Soviets are not classified as exiles, but their families are. The prisoners were allowed to write letters home, which the Soviets cynically used to trace the families who they sent into exile after the 1939 invasion so that there would be no one left to ask what happened.
The main wave of deportations came in the winter after the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War Two.
Popławski said: “In 1940 and 1941, it is estimated that 330,000 Poles were deported from areas previously part of the Second Polish Republic. But there were than one million victims of the Soviet repressions as they included victims of mass murder and forced conscription to the Red Army and people sent to gulag camps.”
The last groups are those deported at the end and after the war. These included those living in the Polish new territories and members of the Home Army.
The museum is ambitious and claims that it is of world importance, saying that it does not just deal with the experience of Poles exiled to the East but highlights that this was a global phenomenon affecting countries around the globe.