Lesser known horror of Stalin’s Great Purge which saw over 100k Poles massacred goes on display in harrowing new exhibition
An exhibition examining the ‘Polish Operation’ carried out by the NKVD during the Great Terror in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s in which around 111,000 Poles were murdered simply for being Polish has opened in Odessa, Ukraine.
The killings, which constitute one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, have been described as a genocide, yet this tragic chapter in Polish history remains relatively unknown, both internationally and in Poland.
The exhibition organised by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which was opened yesterday by the institute’s president Jarosław Szarek in Odessa’s Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a small step in addressing this lack of awareness.
It uses photographs and documents provided by the Ukrainian State Regional Archives as well as documents obtained from the Memorial Society and the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.
The fact that the 16-panel exhibition has already appeared in the Ukrainian cities of Vinnitsa, Khmelnytskyy and Kamianets-Podilskyi, as well as the cooperation with the Ukrainian state archives, is no accident, as around 40% of the genocide’s victims were Poles living in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The first five panels show the situation of Poles in the Soviet Union after the Treaty of Riga of 1921, which ended the Polish-Soviet war.
Subsequent panels show the individual fate of selected victims of one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. Three additional boards show scenes of arrests, interrogations and executions made by a reconstruction group.
The title of the exhibition, ‘Order No. 00485. Anti-Polish Operation of the NKVD in Soviet Ukraine 1937-1938’, refers to the top secret order signed by Stalin’s notorious henchman Nikolai Yezhov, which aimed at the arrest of “absolutely all Poles” and confirmed that “the Poles should be completely destroyed”.
The order lead to the targeting of 139,835 people, of whom 111,091 were murdered, in most cases with a shot to the back of the head.
Stalin targeted what he called “Polish filth” as he believed that many were members of the Polish Military Organisation, a fifth column that allegedly carried out espionage and subversion on behalf of Poland.
The vast majority of the victims of the Polish Operation were Poles, but the victims also included Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Jews and members of other nationalities and ethnic groups living in the USSR.
In the follow-up under Order No. 00486 of 15 August 1937, also issued by Nikolai Yezhov, the wives and children of the convicted “traitors to the Motherland” were also swept up.
The women were generally sentenced to deportation to Kazakhstan for an average of five to 10 years. Orphaned children without relatives willing to take them were put in orphanages to be brought up as Soviet, with no knowledge of their Polish origins.
The parents of the executed men and their in-laws were left with nothing to live on, which usually sealed their fate as well. It is estimated that the total number of Polish victims in 1937–1938 was around 200–250,000.
The Polish Operation was only a peak in the persecution of Poles, which spanned more than a decade. Soviet statistics suggest that number of ethnic Poles in the USSR dropped by 165,000 in that period.
Despite the enormous scale of the atrocities, the NKVD’s Polish Operation is shrouded in general ignorance. The IPN’s website dedicated to the genocide (https://operacja-polska.pl/nke) says: “In the time of the Polish People’s Republic, the topic of the terror of the 1930s was condensed to the ‘period of Stalinist errors and aberrations’ whose victims were members of the Communist Party of Poland. On the other hand, the West identifies the Great Terror exclusively with the show-trials of high-ranking Bolshevik leaders.”
Residents of Odessa will be able to view the exhibition until 20 September.