Explore touching stories of Polish citizens victims and witnesses of totalitarian crimes

The second mass deportation into the depths of the Soviet Union

Michał Bronowicki


The Soviet occupation of Polish lands in the years 1939–1941 was characterized by omnipresent terror. This was a tool used both to effectively tyrannize the population, and eliminate real or potential enemies of the newly-installed authorities. All and any groups which the security apparatus of the Soviet Union deemed capable of putting up resistance were destroyed, among others, through mass arrests and deportations to prisons or forced labor camps; in particular, the policy of persecution was aimed against the intelligentsia. After lengthy preparations, during the night from 12 to 13 April 1940 the NKVD commenced the second mass deportation of Polish citizens to the Soviet hinterland. In accordance with the principle of collective responsibility – commonly applied in the USSR – the families of those previously persecuted were also subjected to transportation.


The families of the “enemies of the people”

The decree sanctioning the campaign was issued in Moscow on 3 March 1940. This was elaborated on the basis of the instructional document drawn up for the purposes of the preceding deportation, and regulated the general rules according to which the present wave of expulsions was to be carried out. The Soviets later issued more precise guidelines, and these determined among others the circumstances in which so-called operational troikas were allowed to use firearms, and also the quantity of luggage that the exiles could take with them – this time they were permitted to take up to 100 kg of baggage, that is five times less than during the previous deportation. Crucially, the daily bread ration for expellees was lowered from 800 to 600 grams, while at the same time the maximum number of persons permitted per wagon was increased from 25 to 30. Nevertheless – just like in February 1940 – in a mere two months the majority of these assumptions ceased to have any relation to practice. On 7 March the head of the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria, issued an order on the elaboration of lists of people earmarked for transportation. These included the families of numerous social and professional groups: the relatives of higher-ranking civil servants, employees of the judiciary, the prison service, police and military police, dispossessed landowners, all those who had been arrested for political crimes or had somehow managed to remain in hiding, and – finally – registered prostitutes (along with their children). A special category of persons intended for deportation were the families of those who had been sentenced to death two days previously as part of the Katyń massacre. The Soviets first drew up a list of Polish prisoners of war from Kozelsk, Starobilsk and Ostashkov, and those detained in prisons in the Eastern Borderlands, singling out their relatives for expulsion as well. These victims included wives[1], children[2], and also parents and siblings if they resided in the same household. Some time later, the families of those officers and policemen who had been left alive were removed from the lists.

On 20 March, Beria made a decision regarding the locations where the April expellees were to be sent, classifying them as “administratively deported”[3]. Namely, these “administrative deportees” were to be transported to the northern oblasts of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic: Kostanay, Akmolinsk, Aktobe, North Kazakh, Pavlodar and Semipalatinsk, some 15,000 – 20,000 detainees to each. The period of exile was defined with great precision – 10 years.

Basically, the campaign was carried out in the same way as the previous one. Surprised in the night or in the early hours, the luckless citizens were quickly informed of the deportation order and given no more than 30 minutes to pack their belongings. In short order, stunned and devastated, they were taken to the concentration points, and from there to preselected railway stations. The movable property which they left behind was confiscated by the local authorities, while all immovables were to be handed over to sovkhozes and kolkhozes, that is state-run farms and collective (co-operative) farms, or otherwise sold and the proceeds sent to the deportees. But the reality was altogether different: NKVD functionaries would rob practically everything of value already when conducting house-to-house searches, while what was left was regularly sold on the black market once the lawful owners had been transported.

At the stations, the crowds of helpless people – mainly women and children, who accounted for as much as 65–70 percent of all deportees[4] – were loaded onto wagons fitted with plank beds and a toilet opening in the floor; in order to provide at least the appearance of privacy, these primitive holes were immediately concealed behind improvised partitions. The present wave of refugees also suffered from the cold, however it was not as life-threatening as in February. But the filth and the diseases that it brought on – and in particular dysentery – were again omnipresent[5]. The lack of food was also a problem, even though the provisioning of transports had improved in comparison with the previous expulsion campaign, while the majority of people was to some extent prepared, having witnessed the eviction of the military settlers and forestry workers who had been taken to Siberia in the middle of winter[6].

Once again, NKVD Convoy Troops were selected to guard the transports; typically, they were deployed in groups of 22 soldiers led by a commandant who was responsible, among others, for transport documents and the elaboration of final campaign reports. In addition, two “political” functionaries would be attached to each group of deportees. On average, transports comprised from 1,100 to 1,800 people each, although some were considerably larger, containing more than 2,000 detainees. We should stress that these exiles were well aware of what was going on, and no one deluded themselves that the destination of their journey was any place other than the snowy desert of Siberia.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were suddenly faced with a number of organizational and logistic difficulties, which were due mainly to the fact that sufficient lengths of wide-gage rail tracks – normally used throughout the Soviet Union – had not been laid in time, and therefore not all of the stations that had been planned to be used in the deportation were accessible. The problem was solved by employing wagons with the standard European wheel base first, and reloading the detainees into Russian railcars at subsequent stopovers. While doing so, the number of people allocated to individual wagons would fluctuate, however the principle of non-separation of families – one of the few signs of humanity shown by the Soviets during the entire campaign – was observed.


Polish deportees in Kazakhstan

The journey to Kazakhstan took a long time, from three weeks to a month. During its course, contacts between the exiles and local residents were very infrequent, especially as the NKVD escorts took particular care to keep them limited. Although overall the route passed through smaller junction points, the accounts of expellees contain numerous descriptions of contacts with random Soviet citizens. In some instances, the residents of Russian townships – indoctrinated with Soviet propaganda – demonstrated their dislike of the deportees, cursing them as “enemies of the people”. Such incidents, however, were on the whole limited to the geographical zone before the Ural. In Siberia, where trainloads of prisoners of various nationalities were a common sight, the transports would rather be viewed with pity. The passage from Europe to Asia was full of symbolism, and would have a strong impact on the exiles’ psyche and imagination. Similarly to when the trains were leaving their initial points of departure in Poland, people would intone patriotic and religious songs, filling the wagons with a positive sound that helped alleviate the pain and tragedy of deportation. Joint prayers (“Under thy protection …”), mutual assistance in critical situations that cropped up along the route, and also the sense of commonness of fate all helped survive the most difficult moments and build relations that were of immense importance while in exile.

According to the final acceptance reports and protocols elaborated by the NKVD Convoy Troops, the campaign of deportation to Kazakhstan[7] resulted in the forced removal of 28,112 people from “Western Byelorussia” and 31,332 from “Western Ukraine”, that is of nearly 59,500 persons from the eastern voivodeships of the Second Republic of Poland occupied by the Soviet Union following the invasion of 17 September 1939. Of this number, some 69 percent were Poles, 13 percent Byelorussians, 12 percent Ukrainians, and 4 percent Jews, with a few other ethnicities accounting for the remainder.

Once unloaded from the wagons[8], those deported in April 1940 would be driven – usually on foot – to their final destinations: remote settlements cut off from the outside world, where they would oftentimes have to live with the local inhabitants under one roof. Because of their status, they were not under the direct supervision of the NKVD. They were located in ordinary housing estates and employed in kolkhozes[9] and sovkhozes[10]. Unlike those transported in February, they enjoyed the majority of rights due to citizens of the Soviet Union; similarly to their predecessors, however, they were under strict orders not to leave their designated settlements without official permission. An exception were the expellees who were sent to work in the Maykain-Zoloto region of the Pavlodar Oblast, where a small number of deportees from February 1940 were still detained. Exiles from both groups were forced to work in the gold mine or on the construction of the local electric power plant, and were classified as “special deportees”, that is persons who were the most severely victimized.



Boćkowski Daniel, Czas nadziei. Obywatele Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej w ZSRR i opieka nad nimi placówek polskich w latach 1940–1943, Warsaw 1999.

Ciesielski Stanisław, Polacy w Kazachstanie w latach 1940–1946. Zesłańcy lat wojny, Wrocław 1996.

Ciesielski Stanisław, Materski Wojciech, Paczkowski Andrzej, Represje sowieckie wobec Polaków i obywateli polskich,Warsaw 2002.

Czerniakiewicz Jan, Przemieszczenia ludności polskiej z terenów przyłączonych do ZSRR po wrześniu 1939 roku, Warsaw 1994.


Michał Bronowicki – a graduate of the Faculty of Historical and Social Sciences of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University. An archivist, Sovietologist, long-standing employee of the East Archive of the KARTA Center and the History Meeting House, and the managing editor of a series of academic albums about the Second World War for the general public, published by the company “New Media Concept”, he is also the author of a few dozen articles printed among others in “Karta”, “Zesłaniec”, “Kresowe Stanice”, and on the website of the Kresy-Syberia Virtual Museum, concerning mainly the history of the Eastern Borderlands of the Republic of Poland and the repressive measures applied by the Soviets against residents of the region. He is currently the coordinator of the “Spoken History Archive” program and the curator of the permanent exhibition at the Józef Piłsudski Museum in Sulejówek.


[1] Cf. the account of Zofia Hoffman.

[2] Cf. the account of Helena Figiel.

[3] Cf. the account of Krystyna Lubańska.

[4] Cf. the account of Alina Filipowicz.

[5] Cf. the account of Maria Chojecka.

[6] Cf. the account of Dorota Klaurucz.

[7] Cf. the account of Łucja Jachowska.

[8] Cf. the account of Janina Grodzińska and Olga Grodzińska.

[9] Cf. the account of Kazimiera Bala.

[10] Cf. the account of Jadwiga Chmielewska.