Finding Poland by Matthew Kelly

Did you know there was an Association of Poles in India? Did you even have the faintest idea that there had been Poles by the thousand in India during the Second World War and in the first few years afterward? I certainly didn’t, and I know a thing or two about Poles and Poland.

Which is to say that I figured right in my previous notes about Finding Poland by Matthew Kelly when I wrote that there would be “more for me to just enjoy in the other four-fifths of the book, as Kelly tells a story of what happened to members of his family.” Kelly, a historian at the University of Southampton, applied his professional training to the Polish side of his family. His narrative centers on his great-grandparents who settled in the eastern part of interwar Poland, in Hruzdowa, a small settlement in what is now northwestern Belarus. That’s a part of the interwar republic that went to the USSR under the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and following the Soviet invasion in 1939, Kelly’s forbears were deported in April 1940. His great-grandfather Rafał was most likely captured and taken prisoner by the Red Army. His great-grandmother, along with her two daughters, was packed into a railroad car and taken, along with thousands of other Poles from the borderlands, to serve the state in Kazakhstan.

The Soviet ethnic cleansing of the kresy [borderlands] is shadowed by a heavy irony. After 1940 the deportees were always behind the front line. They were not in eastern Poland during the Nazi occupation (1939–45) and did not experience its attendant brutalities; they were not exposed to the ethnic conflict of the kresy, which raged throughout the war; they were in a place of relative safety at the time of the battle of Stalingrad (the death toll from fighting, illness and hunger: 2 million) and the ‘900 days’ of the siege of Leningrad (aka St Petersburg; death toll from fighting, illness and hunger: 1.5 million). For those in the kolkhoz [collective farm], as the next chapter will explore, their lives were comparable to those of other Soviet civilians at a time of great shortage and hardship. Though the deportations led to thousands of premature deaths, Stalin’s attempt to liquidate the Polish ‘kulaks’ from the kresy ensured, indirectly, that they survived.

Unlike many thousands of other Poles, especially officers, taken prisoner by the Red Army, Rafał survived. Kelly cannot determine from documentary evidence whether he was simply released in 1940, as some were, or whether –- as family legend had it — he escaped and lived for a while under a false identity. Other male relatives disappeared into the maw of the war and are never heard from again; no remains, no graves, no documentary evidence of their fate has ever come to light. The female relatives endured an odyssey of hardship and freezing temperatures across the Soviet interior, working for a time as farmers on the steppe, for a time as railroad laborers, eventually reassigned as labor for work brigades in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Amazingly, letters between Rafał and his family criss-crossed the Soviet Union, and they never lost touch completely.

All of that movement, settling and resettling occurred before June 1941, when the German Army invaded the Soviet Union and changed the Poles’ situation yet again. They went from being class enemies and representative of a defeated (and in Soviet propaganda, feudal) state to allies — if extremely awkward ones — in the fight against fascism.

Two further crucial agreements were reached. First, Stalin agreed that Polish POWs would be released and a Polish army might be formed on Soviet territory under a commander appointed by the Polish government … Second, all Poles ‘who are at present deprived of their freedom on the territory of the USSR either as prisoners of war or on other adequate grounds’ would be amnestied.
The general amnesty of Poles was an extraordinary and unprecedented event in the history of the Soviet Union. A decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet freed 50,295 from prisons and camps, 26,297 from POW camps, and 265,248 from special settlements and exile.

This last category included Kelly’s great-grandmother, grandmother and great-aunt.

As with many things Soviet, the promise and the delivery turned out to be quite different from one another. Yet Poles, including Kelly’s forbears, made their way toward the Soviet borders and gathered in particular places as an army was gradually assembled. Through an utterly improbably series of events, Rafał found his wife and daughters in Uzbekistan. No blessing being unmixed in those days, he promptly caught typhus.

Recovering just enough to leave the hospital, Rafał helps his family and others make it to “Little Poland” in Jakkobad, where the army is assembling under General Anders. The story follows both parts of the family after they separate again upon the army’s deployment; he is fighting in Italy while they are leaving the Soviet Union, spending a year in Persia under British supervision, and finally waiting out the rest of the war, and indeed some time afterward, in British India, first in Karachi and then in Kolhapur, about 250km south of Bombay. After the war, the family’s former home was well within the Soviet Union, and their experiences in that country had left them with no desire to live under its rule again. Both sides wrote with bitter irony about the Soviet “paradise,” and while they were sad not to return to their home, there was no question about living under Stalin.

Eventually, Churchill made good on his pledge that Poles who had served in Allied forces would be resettled in the United Kingdom. For Kelly’s family, that meant at first a former military field hospital in West Devon. In time, they gathered funds from disparate cousins and purchased a farm not far away that had become derelict. Setting up and farming there was not unlike what his great-grandparents had done in the east of Poland, before war came. Kelly remembered the place from his childhood, and had particularly strong memories of his grandmother’s time at the farm. By the end of the main narrative, he has come full circle.

Kelly does much more than tell his family’s tale. True to his profession, he has gathered many more stories, as well as statistical accounts. From interviews, personal travel, primary documents and secondary sources, he weaves the larger historical accounts in and out of the family narrative. He shows where they were typical, for example in being deported, and where they were exceptional, for example in being reunited and having almost all family members survive. He shows where this particular Polish experience fits as part of Soviet history, how it compares with other Polish fates, and how they come together in broader European history of the time.

The only part of the book where I thought he was on less certain footing was in his afterword, in which he makes the academic subtexts and concerns of the book more explicit, and in which he attempts to address the fate of Poland’s Jews during the war. He writes, “haunting any examination of the Polish experience during the Second World War is the fate of Poland’s Jews. It is a subject of such moral presence that it threatens to subsume all other questions.” Indeed. As a reader, as someone with fairly rigorous historical training, I think it’s defensible for Kelly to tell the story that he did without trying to fit in a story of Polish Jews as well. Where there were Jewish people in the lives of his subjects, his forbears, as there were in the town where they lived between the wars, their Jewish neighbors appear in the book. That is as it should be; not every Polish story of the Second World War is a Holocaust story, and the afterword is an odd fit.

There’s much more in the book than I have been able to discuss here, from the politics of Anders’ Army to the incidentals of resettlement in Britain, to the interactions between Poles and Indians at the height of the war and the waning of the Raj, to experiences on collective farms on the steppe. Kelly brings them all to life, and puts them into context, linking small details — such as the Association of Poles in India — to the big picture.

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