Survivors of brutal labour camps gathered in Bradford to commemorate the 74th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of more than a million Polish people to Siberia.
The ceremony, at the Edmund Street Polish Centre, was organised by Bradford Polish Veterans Association and attended by 110 people, most of whom were sent to Siberia with their families as children and teenagers.
Following the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939, the Soviets began transporting men, women and children to an annexed region known as Siberia. The transportations started on February 10, 1940.
Forced onto cattle trucks, they were taken to camps where they worked like slaves; felling trees, building roads and railways and working in coal mines.
Wieslawa Swiercz, who came to Bradford aged 12 in 1948, was four when she was awoken with Russian soldiers banging on the door one night.
She and her parents and younger brother endured a long rail journey in freezing temperatures.
“Sometimes the train suddenly stopped and people would get out to find berries and water. Once it started moving again, but many women were still outside and they had to run,” she recalled.
“I remember screaming ‘Mama!’ Somehow she managed to get back on, but some people were just left in the wilderness.”
Yesterday’s event, which followed a commemorative mass at the city’s Polish church, included speeches, poetry readings and a performance from singer Katy Carr, who has written an album, Paszport, inspired by Siberian deportations and other experiences of Poles during the Second World War.
“Through songwriting I hope to reach younger people who don’t know what happened to this generation because it isn’t taught in schools here,” she said.
“It is so important that we keep the memories of these people alive, for future generations to learn from.”
Polish Veterans Association president Romana Pizon said: “Siberia is not just a geographical region; it is a symbol expressing the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands of Poles fighting with a murderous system which never had any respect for human freedom or dignity.
The word ‘Siberia’ became synonymous with oppression, slave labour, martyrdom, captivity and struggle for independence.
“It is important that we raise awareness of what happened.”
The memories of survivors of Siberian labour camps who later settled in Bradford are being recorded for a ‘virtual museum’ chronicling the deportations. For more information visit kresy.siberia.org.