Throughout World War II, the arrests and forced deportations of Polish families to labor camps by Soviet Russia received practically no mainstream media coverage in the United States. After the Soviet Union became an important military ally against Nazi Germany with the sudden collapse of Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and his attack on Russia in June 1941, the propaganda agency of the Roosevelt administration–the Office of War Information (OWI)–deliberately covered up Stalin’s crimes, both the deportations of millions of people to Siberia and the mass executions of Polish prisoners of war.
A statement made on the floor of the U.S. Senate on February 8, 1940 by Senator John A. Danaher (R-Connecticut) may have been the first major public reference in the United States to the 1940 deportations of Poles and other nationalities to Gulag forced labor camps in the Soviet Union. Senator Danaher inserted in the Congressional Record the text of a resolution adopted by of the Star of Liberty Society, Group 803, of the Polish National Alliance in Stamford, Conn. It mentions in one sentence “the deportation of large numbers of Poles to Siberia.” The Polish-American organization in Connecticut adopted the resolution on January 14, 1940. By then the news of the first deportations of Poles from Soviet-occupied eastern Poland to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union had already reached some Polish-Americans but was not known to most Americans.
Following the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact and the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, which started World War II, the Soviets began the first mass deportation of Poles on February 10, 1940 from the occupied eastern part of Poland. Whole families were arrested, usually early in the morning, and sent in overcrowded cattle train wagons to forced labor camps in the depths of Siberia and in other parts of the Soviet Union. Many elderly and infants died during the transport–bodies of some of the children tossed by guards into the snow; others left behind at various stops during the journey lasting many days with little food or water. Many more prisoners would die later in the Gulag camps, work settlements and collective farms from slave labor, harsh weather conditions, starvation, and lack of medial treatment.
There was almost a complete media silence in the West about the deportations. Western journalists either did not know or were afraid or unwilling to report on what was happening to millions of Stalin’s prisoners. In addition to Polish citizens, the Soviets also imprisoned and deported Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Tatars, Jews and members of many other ethnic and religious groups. Even after the war, the story of the deportees was rarely told. Many of those who had survived the Gulag camps, became refugees in the West unable to return to their homes.
Wojtek can you hear me?
By Anne Kaczanowski
Wojtek can you hear me?
Wojtek do you still remember me?
Wojtek czy pamietasz? Wojtek czy jeszcze pamietasz mnie?
The penetrating sound of friends transcend the pages of time
And the bear turns his ear as the bell of the universe chimes
He remembers as though it was yesterday as he looks back
He was a little brown bear tightly held by a child in a sack
The waves of the Caspian brought to Persia many broken souls
A cascade of hopeful, starving and helpless deported Poles
They were housed in civilian camps with clothes and a meal
And Persia allowed them many gifts just to help them heal
One day a Polish soldier appeared with a young girl he can’t forget
He traded the boy a handful of coins and bought the girl a pet
She took her gift into a civilian camp but quickly saw her error
This was not the place to raise this mischievous, little bear
After three months he was given to a group of Polish army men
With blessings that he could become their mascot in a pen
The young soldiers accepted their gift with excitement of a boy
They fed and hugged the little bear and filled his heart with joy
They nursed him from a vodka bottle filled with sweet milk
And cuddled him in their sleeping bags like a tiny piece of silk
They taught him how to play and showered him with love
And he believed that he had been given a family from above
He was no different than the soldiers who took him in
They had both been abandoned in a world full of sin
The soldiers had suffered a lot and the bear gave them hope
And together they were bound like a tightly twisted rope
They taught him how to smoke and how to drink their beer
And when he wrestled them to the ground, everyone would cheer
The rays of the Middle East sun would become a soldier’s wrath
But a hole was dug in sand with water so the bear could have a bath
He was a smiling little warrior and from the wild easy to tame
And so the soldiers decided that Wojtek should be his name.
They taught him to speak Polish and showed him that they cared
And recognized him as a Polish spirit wrapped in the body of a bear.
Wojtek never thought of himself as anything other than a man
He lived his life in unison under a highly orchestrated plan
They battled the Mediterranean but their greatest challenge lay ahead
But Wojtek was refused the ship to Italy and their hearts filled with dread
Someone said he was a bear and only soldiers could be on the ship
So they enlisted him as a Private so he could make the trip
So now he had a number, was a soldier in every sense of the word
And nobody in the 22nd Transport thought this was absurd
He continued to boost the morale of soldiers fighting to death
And became legend for many who had taken their last breath
He watched the ammunition being carried by exhausted men
It was just as easy for him to do the same job as a team of ten
So he proudly carried the boxes to show his soldiers that he could
And they cheered and bestowed their pride as every soldier should
The battle had been fought for so long on this shattered, bloody hill
But this time it would take more than just courage and skill
The thirst for freedom was carried in every soldier’s boot
And Wojtek did everything but pick up a gun and shoot
He was a story to many who heard about the things he had done
He enlightened and uplifted the soldier’s spirits with Polish fun
The battle raged and the smoke of thunderous canons filled the air
And alongside the Polish soldiers fought this majestic bear
He become the mascot of the regiment that he served so well
And their emblem became Wojtek carrying the bloody shell
And when the war was over the soldiers had to rebuild their lives
But where do you put a bear that was strong enough to survive?
They took him to Scotland where many soldiers had decided to go to
And finally realized that Wojtek’s best home would be Edinburgh Zoo
Wojtek had come on a long journey and for a time been free
Walking on the grounds with soldiers and enjoying the shade of a tree.
It broke every soldier’s heart to leave their brother behind the cage
He was one of them, but now the reality of life was on a new stage
So the Polish soldiers who stayed, visited him every chance they had
And shared a cigarette as they talked of good times and bad
The dimensions of time take Wojtek back to where he is today
But if you speak Polish ……he can hear what you say
Wojtek czy pamietasz ? Wojtek czy pamietasz mnie?
Wojtek do you remember ? Wojtek do you still remember me?
And Wojtek turns his head and looks the soldier square in the eye
And tears stream down the cheeks of both in a silent, bonded cry
Tak braciszku pamiętam, tak braciszku jeszcze cię pamiętam
Yes my brother I remember. Yes my brother I still remember you.
Wojtek we will all remember you.
We will never forget you.
hania kaczanowska 2015
A Soviet-instigated plan to kill an anti-communist woman journalist in the early years of the Cold War was linked to her attempts to tell the story of thousands of Polish children who in 1940-1941 had been deported with their families from eastern Poland to Siberia and Central Asia where many died from brutal treatment. The assassination plan was revealed in 1953-1954 by a defector to the West from communist-ruled Poland and was never carried out.
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