Prisoners of the Soviet Union
It must be remembered that the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany until June 22, 1941. As Hitler's ally, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, ordered the Red Army to invade Poland, on September 17, 1939. The invasion and subsequent occupation of the country was a dark time, where execution, imprisonment, and deportation to the death camps of Siberia were common happenings. This is the very history that the current Russian government is trying to play down.
The majority of the veterans of the Polish Combatants' Association in Canada were victims of the Soviet Union. They, and often their families, were deported to the Soviet Union and imprisoned or enslaved. Many lost friends and family. The road to Canada began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941. To quote the book Road to Freedom:1
"The invasion of the USSR by Germany in June, 1941, made possible the formation of Polish Army units in the Soviet Union. The two powers which invaded Poland in 1939 now fought one another. This inspired hopes that the occupation of Poland might come to a quick end. On July 31, 1941, the Polish government-in-exile signed an agreement with the Soviet Union. Under its terms, the Polish government was allowed to form an army comprised of Poles who had been deported to the Soviet Union when it invaded Poland. For the Soviet Union, this agreement meant that a bigger army would oppose the Germans. For the Poles, it meant much more. In addition to the opportunity to fight Germans, it also meant freedom for some of the over two million Poles who had been deported to Siberia and the Asian republics. They lived in deplorable conditions in labour camps and suffered from hunger and sickness caused by malnutrition. Many of them died before they had a chance at freedom. Stalin's machinery of oppression put many of them in prisons; others barely subsisted, hungry and humiliated, dying a slow death. An opportunity to enlist in the Polish Army, even if it meant death in battle, seemed like a miracle. As news of the formation of the army spread, thousands made their way over great distances, however they could, to the recruitment centers. Seeing the white and red Polish flag and the Polish crowned eagle, they broke down and wept."
General Wladyslaw Anders, who had been freed from Moscow's notorious Lubyanka prison and was now organizing this army of exiles, describes first contact with the liberated Polish soldiers. From his autobiography Army in Exile:2
"With great difficulty, I obtained at the end of August (1941) permission to visit and fly to Griasovietsk Camp.. I went slowly along the lines of soldiers, seeking personal contact with the men, the contact I had lost long ago. With great emotion, I recognized the emaciated faces of many old friends and fellow officers.
"On September 14 (1941), I paid my first visit to the camp at Totskoie, which consisted of small tents pitched in a forest, where the 6th Infantry Division was being formed. There, for the first time, I saw 17,000 soldiers paraded for my arrival. I shall not forget the sight as long as I live, nor the mingled pity and pride with which I reviewed them. Most of them had no boots or shirts, and all were in rags, often the tattered relics of old Polish uniforms. There was not a man who was not an emaciated skeleton and most of them were covered in ulcers, resulting from semi-starvation, but to the great astonishment of the Russians, including General Zhukov, who accompanied me, they were all well shaved and showed a fine soldierly bearing. I asked myself whether I could ever make an army of them, and whether they could ever stand the strain of a campaign. But I found an immediate answer: it was sufficient to note their shining eyes, to see the strong will and faith there. I passed slowly along the front line, we looked enquiringly into one another's eyes and the first ties were formed for the soldierly journey we had to undertake together. Old soldiers cried like children at Mass, the first they had attended for so many months, and when the hymn Our Free Country Give Us Back, O Lord was sung it seemed as if the surrounding forest echoed a hundredfold answer. For the first time in my life, and I hope the last, I took the salute of a march past of soldiers without boots. They had insisted upon it. They wanted to show the Bolsheviks that even in their bare feet, and ill and wounded as many of them were, they could bear themselves as soldiers on their first march towards Poland."
The Need for the Association
As World War Two progressed and the tide turned against Germany, the Western Allied leaders began to consider the options for post-war Europe. The first major conference on the fate of Europe took place at Yalta. The Poles, major contributors to the war effort, were not invited and post-war control of Poland was handed over to the Soviet Union by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, and the Soviet propaganda machine relentlessly attacked the honour of the Polish Forces in the West and insisted that he would take care of Poland.
On July 5, 1945, Great Britain and the United States withdrew their official recognition of the Polish government-in-exile and recognized instead Stalin's "new" Polish government. Hundreds of thousands of Poles fighting with the western Allies were bitterly disappointed to have their hopes of returning to a liberated country crushed. Having made the decision to stay in the West because of Stalin's domination of Poland, the Polish military authorities quickly began to act, to prepare the exiled Polish soldiers for a new life.
By October, 1945, the first issue of the Bulletin of Mutual Assistance of the Army (Samopomoc Wojska) was published and distributed to the soldiers. It reassured them that they would be looked after by the Polish authorities. The main goal of the "Soldiers' Mutual Aid Association" was to help the ex-servicemen to adapt to civilian life, gain professional education and find employment in the very new and different social and cultural environments of their countries of residence. Furthermore, by maintaining contact among the men, it provided an assurance that even though they were dispersed around the world, they would retain some form of unity and be able to preserve the special bonds forged during military service.
The Association had eighty branches with 11,000 members organized by the time of its first convention in May, 1946, which took place in London. (The Canadian branch had been roughly organized in Falconara, Italy, a few months before the Polish soldiers were shipped off to England to join the demobilization of the Polish forces.)
Many in the British government wanted the Poles to return to Poland. For example, Home Secretary E. Bevin, in March, 1946, issued a pamphlet to the Polish soldiers stressing that they were expected to return to Poland. The British government negotiated for favourable conditions for their return with the Soviet-dominated Polish Provisional Government of National Unity but future events would prove that communist reassurances were a sham. (Anyone exposed to the West was tainted, according to Soviet thought, and could not be trusted.) For its part, the Provisional Government in Poland, specifically the Warsaw Repatriation Mission, promised the Poles preferential treatment upon their return home to Poland. Again, this was propaganda, mostly to pacify the British government, and the truth was quite the opposite.
Further anti-Polish propaganda was aimed at the Poles who had been forced to serve in the German Army or the Todt Organization (slave labour for major construction projects of all kinds). The Soviets considered them to be traitors, as if they had a choice. Some echoes of these groundless, yet persistent efforts at defamation would also be found later in Canada. The Soviet and Polish Communist lies were so voluminous that it was very easy for the naive Allied nations to begin to believe them as truth. The misinformation campaign is still having an effect today.
British authorities had expected that up to one-third of Polish soldiers would return to Poland. This would have eased Britain's relations with Stalin (who absolutely detested the anti-communist fervour of the Poles) and lessened the burden of demobilization. To their credit, the British were not about to further betray their former allies and forcibly repatriate them..
Some soldiers did return. In the People's Poland of 1945, soldiers who returned, but were not communist sympathizers, were often accused of being Volksduetschen (in this context: Poles of German descent, who sided with the Germans), in addition to the standard accusations of being "Anders' sheep," capitalist spies, fascists, and traitors. Regardless of how far-fetched and absurd were the accusations against veterans of some of the most glorious battles of the Western front, they served as sufficient reason, without the need for any proof, for repression and stiff jail sentences. An accusation of spying for the West not only meant long imprisonment, but quite often also led to deportation to the Soviet Union's infamous Gulag system. Those naive or unfortunate enough enough to trust the Warsaw regime's declarations, especially officers, often paid a very high price, if not immediately upon their return, then later during a series of staged political trials in the 1950s.
News of the fate of the Home Army (a huge and sophisticated arm of the Polish Armed Forces, fighting as best they could on Polish soil) soldiers was slow in coming out of Soviet controlled territory. In fact, once the Soviets entered former Polish territory (from 1944 onward) thousands of Home Army soldiers were arrested; many were taken to Soviet prisons and labour camps and some were murdered. Following the end of the war with Germany, the Soviets continued mop up operations against Home Army members well into 1948 with the goal of capture or execution of as many as possible. Deportation of Poles to the Siberian gulags continued until 1957.
The final blow to the Polish forces in the west was the order for them to disarm and demobilize, an order that Minister Bevin delivered publicly in May, 1946. The Poles had no say in the matter. However, General Anders' final orders stressed that "Our service not finished, our march toward a free, undivided and independent Poland continues!" This sentiment was echoed in the soldiers' press: "the goal of our military service has not been achieved. Our country has not regained independence; therefore, according to our soldiers' oath, we have to continue our struggle for its liberation."
The former Polish Forces in the West now also required an association to keep up the battle for a free Poland.
Immigration to Canada
Efforts to open Canada's door to Polish ex-servicemen began in 1945. Many Canadians did not want the Poles, for a variety of reasons:
As a result of the Great Depression, Canada's borders had been closed to all immigrants in March, 1939;
No immigration should be allowed until all returning Canadian veterans had settled in and gained employment;
Growing anti-Polish propaganda unleashed by the Kremlin was conducted by numerous groups subservient to Moscow. Canadian Communists, naive of the true reality of Soviet communism, used their contacts in the press and in the Federal government to attempt to discredit the Polish war effort, and the Polish quest for freedom, democracy and independence;
By mid-1946, a number of factors had turned the tide of opinion both in Canada and in England. It took a lot of lobbying by, among others, Group Captain Stefan Sznuk, former chief of the Polish Military Mission in Ottawa, former Polish diplomats such as Mr. Victor Podoski, and the Canadian Polish Congress. These groups were aided by many Canadian officials who could clearly see the advantages of bringing these veterans to Canada.
A wonderful stroke of luck occurred on April 12, 1946, when Field Marshal Viscount Alexander of Tunis, was appointed Governor General of Canada. He was the former commander of the Allied Forces in the Mediterranean and was quite familiar with the Polish 2nd Corps, holding its soldiers in high esteem for the bravery they had displayed. Moreover, many Canadian wartime commanders could be counted upon to support the immigration of Polish veterans to Canada. Canadians fought side by side with Polish soldiers and a bond of respect and friendship developed between them.