History You Didn’t Learn in School

(First appeared on U of W Press Blog, 2016)
By Donna Solecka Urbikas

With the publication of my hardcover book in 2016, I’ve had many opportunities to present a much under-reported history of World War II Poland and eastern Europe, which has reverberations even today.  Most people, especially Americans, are not aware that not only did Hitler’s Nazi Germany attack Poland on September 1, 1939, but so did Soviet Russia under Stalin just a couple of weeks later, on September 17, 1939.  I’ve learned that that history can be much distorted today when it occasionally emerges from Russia.  Most Communist-era Russians will say that they “liberated” Poland from the Germans, reluctant to mention, if they even know about it, that Russia and Germany had a secret protocol to their Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 23, 1939, better known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which the two aggressors agreed to divide up Poland.  The following graphic, courtesy of author Wesley Adamczyk (When God Looked the Other Way, University of Chicago, 2004), depicts that division.

That secret protocol was a terrible sentence for my mother and my then five-year old half-sister and the hundreds of thousands of Poles and others living in the eastern borderlands of what was then Poland, known as the Kresy.  Taken at gunpoint by the Soviet secret police in the middle of the night on February 10, 1940, my mother and sister were deported to a labor camp in Siberia, traveling long hard weeks by cattle car and sled.  Today, those lands where they lived in Poland are Belarus.

My mother’s arrest and the aftermath of her ordeals surviving hard labor, saving my sister from hunger, diseases, and the sheer harsh climate, impacted my life many years later.  It was only after I became a mother myself could I begin to understand my mother’s war trauma

My father also suffered as a result of that secret protocol when he was called to duty as a Polish Army officer to fight against the German and Russian invaders.  He was later captured by the Russians and sent to a prisoner of war camp near the infamous Katyń forest where over 20,000 Polish officers and other imprisoned Polish educated men were murdered by the Soviets. 

When the mass grave sites were first discovered in 1943, the Soviet Russians blamed the Germans for the murders. Only in 1990/91, with the fall of Communism, did Russia admit their crime, but have since retracted from those assertions.  With the current regime in Russia, it is uncertain whether they will ever take responsibility for such atrocities, invasions, and deportations.

I was born several years after the war ended when my parents were re-united in England, both afraid to return to Communist Poland.  Shortly after, we immigrated to America and my life became far different from my sister’s childhood, thus we had very different experiences of the same mother. 

Our mother never really left Siberia and Russia mentally as she relentlessly told her stories. I grew up with World War II as if I had been through it all with them.  Trying to assimilate in America was difficult enough without having to relive the war.

My book is that story of growing up with a mother so impacted by the war that she could not reconcile what had happened to her and my sister.  It is more importantly a good history lesson within a family story of surviving war and its after effects, prevailing over the dark forces of war by not only surviving but thriving.  Thus, it is a story of perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

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My Sister's Mother

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