Lights of remembrance: Poignant trail of candles light up ‘horror tracks’ used by Soviets to deport Poles to the East
Commemorations are underway to honour the memory of the first wave of deportations that took place in Soviet-occupied Poland 82 years ago.
Gathering at the Sybir Memorial Museum last night, museum officials, scouts, local politicians, and groups representing the deported families lit a trail of candles and lanterns on the remains of the train tracks that once took Poles east.
Occurring on the night of February 9th and 10th, 1940, around 140,000 Poles were roused from their sleep in the first of four wartime deportation actions that would see several hundred thousand forcibly exiled from their ancestral home.
Dr. Piotr Popławski of the museum told TFN: “all of these were equally well-planned, so because of the records kept by the NKVD we know a lot about the people that were targeted.”
In principal, where the first wave was concerned, this meant forestry workers and settlers that included members of the military, two groups that the Soviets had identified as a threat.
“It wasn’t a coincidence that these groups were targeted,” says Popławski. “The forestry workers were an armed service and they obviously knew the woodland well – if any uprising were to occur, the Soviets knew that these workers would be deeply involved.”
Deporting military settlers, meanwhile, was construed as a settling of old scores.“This was something of a revenge against the people that had fought the Bolsheviks in the 1920 war.”
Although other groups also fell foul of the round-up, it was these two groups that suffered the most during the initial action.
“Later, deportations mainly focused on the towns and cities,” says Popławski, “but this first one was strongly angled at demilitarizing and de-Polonizing the villages.”
“It caught people completely by surprise,” says Popławski. “When the Soviets turned up in the middle of the night it was completely unexpected. Some people were given less than thirty minutes to pack their belongings and leave.”
Surviving accounts reveal the shock that greeted the bombshell news. “Some reacted by just snapping up some token religious items,” says Popławski. In a state of dazed distress, one mother simply opted to pack a bottle of vodka; children, meanwhile, had little time to pack anything other than a favourite toy.
The weather compounded the situation yet further. “It was around -30 in Poland’s Soviet-occupied regions, so you can imagine how cold it must have been in Siberia,” says Popławski.
“At least people knew what to expect during the deportations that followed,” adds Popławski, “but this first one sent people into confusion, they just didn’t know what was happening.”
Dubbed ‘Light of Remembrance’, last night’s event was further supplemented by a ceremonial wreath-laying at the Monument to the Heroic Mothers of Siberia as well as the signing of a cooperation agreement between the museum and the Białystok scouting association.
Taking place at noon, today will also see more commemorations taking place around the city’s Tomb of the Unknown Siberian Deportee. Less sombre, remembrance runs are also to be held in the coming days.
“We’ve found this is a great way of raising awareness,” says Popławski. “Last year, we couldn’t hold a proper run due to the pandemic situation, so instead we organized one in the virtual world. People from around the world downloaded the app and joined us, including runners from Canada, America, UK and France.
“It was great knowing that the message that the museum existed had reached so many people, so this year, while we’ll hold a normal city run on Saturday, we’ll also again do a virtual run that people can do in their own time over the course of the month.”
Speaking of the unity that this action has helped foster, Popławski is adamant that such positive ideas reinforce the museum’s message and spread knowledge of this often overlooked chapter of history.
“When you look at the Poles that survived Siberia, you can see that they were real survivors,” he says. “They worked together to overcome their hardships, and never lost their sense of identity. In many ways they were inspirational.”
Likewise, says Popławski, events such as these runs can also bring people together for a greater good.