80th anniversary of WW2
The year 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of WW2. For the Poles, it began with a secret pact between Russian and Germany...
23 August 2019
80th Anniversary of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
August 23rd 2019 was the 80th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin saw Poland carved up between them and set the scene for Stalin’s deportations of my husband’s mother Janina, her family and 1.5 million others.
The existence of the pact was not admitted by Russia until 1989, but according to an article by Guardian correspondent Andrew Roth, the Kremlin is now trying to justify it and rewriting history in the process.
In a statement about the exclusion of president Putin from a key WW2 ceremony in Warsaw on 1 September 2019, the Russian foreign ministry said, “No place has been provided for our country despite its decisive contribution to defeating Hitler’s Reich and the liberation of Poland from Nazi invaders.”
It is true that 11 million Soviet soldiers died fighting the Nazis, and without them Germany may not have been defeated at all. However, my husband’s family might quibble with the description of their treatment as ‘liberation’.
Their 'liberation' consisted of being forced out of their comfortable farm at 4am in winter, packed into cattle trucks and sent to a labour camp in Siberia. The temperature was well below zero for months of the year. Along with 1.5 million others they were held for two years of unspeakable misery and suffering. Basic food was currency for labour, the old and the ill who couldn’t work died of starvation. In total only around 10% of them survived.
This was mass murder; not through concentration camp ovens but through malnutrition, disease and cold. However it has not become part of western collective memory, unlike the images of Nazis marshalling Jewish people onto cattle trucks to Auschwitz. Partly this is due to embarrassment on the part of the West, since the Allies imposed no sanction on Stalin, who retained his conquered land after the War. The survivors dared not return to their homes and had to make new ones across the globe. My husband’s relatives are spread across England, Canada, and the USA. The family farm is now in Ukraine and lost forever.
The Poles themselves were also not taught what had happened for many decades. The communist education system in force after the war ensured that generations of schoolchildren did not learn about the deportations.
A spokesman for the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, has stated that the invitations to the WW2 ceremony in Warsaw were issued according to a contemporary, not a historical context. So the Russian leader has been excluded because of his country’s illegal annexation of Crimea, complicity in Syrian atrocities and the Salisbury poisonings, not because of WW2.
But this only makes remembering the past today more, not less important. There has been no attempt at reconciliation with the dispossessed Poles and no reparations have ever been made. What happened to them remains in living memory. Whilst that is the case, they will continue to talk of what they saw with their own eyes. Lest indeed, we all forget.
Jane Raca 23 August 2019