Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Massacres & Miracles: A WWII Story

by Cindy K. Stewart

When: Beginning of WWII (1939-1941)

Where: Eastern Poland / Western USSR

What: In a surprise move on the 17th day of the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. The Nazis and Soviets had secretly agreed the month before to divide the country. Because the Polish military leadership had ordered the Polish forces not to engage the Soviets, the Red Army advanced rapidly with little opposition.

Problem: Stalin and the NKVD (the secret police and forerunner of the KGB) planned to quickly transform the eastern portion of Poland into a communist society and incorporate it into the USSR, but the educated classes stood in the way. 

Courtesy of

Lvov, the third largest city in Poland, was under German attack when Soviet troops arrived on September 19, 1939. Polish General Langner rejected German demands to surrender and abdicated to the Soviets. The negotiated agreement called for the 30,000 Polish troops in the city to surrender at 15:00 hours on September 22. The soldiers would be allowed to return home and the officers to cross the border into Romania or Hungary. 

The officers assembled at the designated time and laid down their arms, but the Soviets surrounded them and marched them off to be transported around the country for four days without food or water. 

At station stops the soldiers scrounged for roots in unharvested gardens and strangers thrust food at them. They eventually landed in prison camps to the east.

Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army
after the Soviet invasion of Poland - Wikipedia

Before the war, the Polish government had required every nonexempt university graduate to become a military reserve officer. University professors, physicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers, journalists, pilots, and chaplains made up the pool of reservists mobilized when Germany invaded. Those that weren’t captured in the initial surrender were easily rounded up later and transferred into the custody of the NKVD, including police officers, border guards, landowners, refugees, and a prince.

From October 1939 through February 1940, the prisoners endured lengthy interrogations and constant political agitation in concentration camps established on the former grounds of orthodox monasteries in the western USSR. If the captives showed resistance to the Soviet government, they were condemned to die as enemies of the state. 

In March of 1940, Stalin signed the death warrant for over 20,000 officers, soldiers, and civilians. They were secretly shot and buried in mass graves. 

One such grave site was in Katyn, Russia. Although the captives were executed and buried in various locations, “Katyn Forest” became the symbol of the atrocity. In all, the NKVD annihilated almost half of the Polish Officer Corp.

Katyn Memorial in UK - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Professor Stanislaw Swianiewicz was condemned to die at Katyn, but a NKVD colonel pulled him out of line while he was waiting to board a bus which would have taken him to be executed. The professor had studied in Moscow before the Russian Revolution, was an internationally recognized expert on forced labor in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, and had written books on the Soviet economy. He was sent to various prisons, interrogated, and eventually imprisoned in Siberia.

General Anders - Courtesy of Wikipedia

General Wladyslaw Anders commanded a cavalry brigade which engaged in heavy fighting with the Germans. While fleeing to the Hungarian border in late September of 1939, he and his troops fought the Soviets. He was injured, captured, and eventually sent to prison in Moscow, avoiding the same fate as his fellow officers. 

The NKVD arrested, tortured and killed thousands of other Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and Belorussians from 1940 to 1941. Estimates vary among historians who’ve stated that 300,000 to 1.2 million Poles were deported to Siberia and Central Asia during this time period. 

Many died in transit or in exile. 

After the Germans overran Eastern Poland and attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviets formed an alliance with Great Britain and the Polish government-in-exile in London. As part of their agreement, 

Stalin released all surviving Polish prisoners with the understanding they would assist in the fight against the Nazis. 

General Anders was freed and given command of the Polish Army in the east. It was his responsibility to gather and train the recently released Polish prisoners to form the new army. When inquiries were made regarding the whereabouts of the thousands of missing Polish officers, Stalin claimed that he had lost track of them in Manchuria.

Germany discovered and exposed the Katyn atrocity to the world in 1943. The Soviets denied responsibility, claiming the Germans had killed the soldiers found in the mass graves. The Polish government-in-exile objected, so Stalin broke off relations with them. Great Britain and the United States chose to accept the Soviet explanation of Germany’s guilt rather than rouse the ire of their ally. It wasn’t until 1990 that 

Russia admitted responsibility for the massacre and expressed “profound regret” for its actions.

General Anders led his freed Polish troops through Iran and Iraq to Palestine where he successfully organized and trained them to fight the Germans. The Anders Army went on to fight in the Italian Campaign, capturing Monte Cassino in 1944. He and his soldiers engaged in other major battles before the war ended. He died in London in 1970.

The Polish War Cemetery at Monte Cassino - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Professor Swianiewicz was released from Siberia, and left the Soviet Union in 1942. He worked with the Polish government-in-exile in London and informed them of the number of Polish officers that were held in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1940. Later he wrote about the Katyn Massacre and lectured at numerous universities around the world. He died near London in 1997 at the age of 97.

The Soviets also released thousands of Polish civilians who left the Soviet Union with the Anders Army, including many women and children. 


Poland Betrayed by David G. Williamson massacre


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-eight years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.

1 comment:

  1. In my head I realize that lots of trickery takes place in secret negotiations both in wartime and peace behind the scenes to accomplish what at times might be described as a "greater good", but the ambush that took place at the beginning of your post broke my heart a bit. But we need to hear these points of history. Thanks for your research.