Surviving by deportation : Soviet purges in eastern Poland and the Baltic countries 1939-1941



Following the pact signed by the German and Soviet foreign ministers Ribbentrop and Molotov, the Soviet Union annexed Poland’s eastern territories in September 1939 (as western Ukraine and Belarus) and the three Baltic countries in July 1940.


The political, economic and military elites of the various “nationalities” (in the Soviet sense of ethnic group: nacionalnost) living in these territories (Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Belarusians) were arrested and sentenced to forced labour in Soviet labour camps or deported and placed under house arrest in Siberia and Central Asia.

In eastern Poland, from 1939 to 1941, the Soviets arrested and sentenced to forced labour 107,140 persons, of whom 23,590 Jews. At the same time four major waves of resettlement were held to purge the eastern regions of “undesirable elements”. Each resettlement operation had a precise target from the outset.


The first, in February 1940, was aimed mainly at the osadnicy settlers, the Polish Army veterans who had fought during the First World War or in the Russian-Polish war of 1920 and had been allotted land with the strategic objective of establishing a Polish presence in the border areas. Among the 140,000 resettlers there were also other categories of people: farmers and employees of the former forestry administration.

Poles of Jewish origin were mainly deported during the second and third operations in April and June 1940. Whereas in April, those deported were mostly representatives of the former Polish law enforcement authorities (urban and rural policemen, prison warders, administrative staff), members of the propertied classes (landlords, self-employed craftsmen, manufacturers, shopkeepers) and relatives of those already purged, in June 1940, the category targeted was refugees, for whom the Soviets created the term “special settler-refugees” (spetspereselentsy-bezhentsy). People in this category were those who had fled from western Poland when it was occupied by the Germans and then, for fear of not being able to return to Poland, where their families still were, had refused to take Soviet citizenship and had applied to the Soviet-German population transfer commission to be allowed to return to western Poland.

Rumours of the brutality of the NKVD agents during the first deportations and the risks for those who refused passports and citizenship caused these refugees to put their names on the lists of the population transfer commission. “Some decided to cross over to the German side of the border,” writes one witness. “Admittedly, the Nazis put the Jews in ghettos, but they did not have a Siberia. Of the two evils (there were no gas chambers as yet), some Jews thought they were choosing the lesser, since they could not imagine that it would have been Siberia that was the ‘lesser evil’.”

All those who were not allowed by the Germans to return to the western part of Poland were deported by the Soviets. Of the 77,000 deportees in the third wave of June 1940, 80% were of Jewish origin.

The fourth and last operation, in June 1941, covered not only the Polish eastern territories but also the three Baltic countries and Moldavia (annexed in August 1940). The aim was to “cleanse” these territories – the word used in the Soviet decrees – of anti-Soviet, criminal and “socially dangerous” elements. In this operation, ten categories were targeted and divided between those who were to be arrested and sentenced to hard labour and those who were to be deported and put under house arrest in special settlements. The active members of counter-revolutionary and nationalist parties, former police officers, rural policemen, prison warders, senior civil servants and former officers compromised by written evidence, land owners, industrialists and businessmen, and criminals were to be sentenced to from 5 to 8 years’ forced labour; their property was to be confiscated and once they had served their sentences they were to live in internal exile for 20 years in distant regions of the USSR. The families of people in these categories and German refugees who ought to have been repatriated to Germany but had refused the transfer – for whom there was evidence of anti-Soviet activity or suspected contacts with foreign counter-espionage – were to be deported for 20 years to special settlements and have their property confiscated.

Marta Craveri