Retired Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Senior Scientific Intelligence Officer S. Eugene (Gene) Poteat Analyses the April 10, 2010 Crash of Polish Air Force One TU-154M Near Smolensk, Russia: "Russian Image Management - The KGB’s latest intelligence coup, and NATO’s latest intelligence disaster".
Even though many years have passed since that fateful summer in 1945, the families of the missing haven’t lost hope in finding their loved ones. “I hope that my husband is still alive. He surely is somewhere in Russia. Now, he will come back, because many things have changed over there [in Russia]. We will still see each other in this world” - how strange these words sound coming from the mouth of an old, ailing woman. Others - and they are the majority - only want to know the truth. They want to know where the graves of their relatives are. Are they somewhere far away in the East, in the “inhuman land”, or maybe here, in some unknown corner of the woods ?
In July 1945, the units of the NKVD [Rus. Народный комиссариат внутренних дел Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del, NKVD, (НКВД), the Soviet secret police] carried out mass arrests and deportations of people suspected of being members of the Polish Home Army [abr. AK – Armia Krajowa] in the Augustów forest area. During the roundup, as it is called by the locals, thousands were arrested. From among those, hundreds had disappeared without a trace. - “We do not know where to pray for them. Where do we go to light a candle for a father, a husband, or a brother?”- ask the inhabitants of Giby, Płaska, Balinka, Mikaszówka and dozens of other villages in Suwalszczyzna who during the beginning of the first post-World-War-II summer, were surrounded by a cordon of armed Soviet soldiers.
Part 1: BEFORE THEY CAME
It was scorching hot that July. Each morning the farmers looked up to the sky. How long will this weather last? Would they make it on time with the haying? The harvest time was just around the corner. Still, plenty of work was left in the farmyards. The military front-line, as it was moving towards Germany, didn’t spare these areas at all. The leaky roofs of the dwellings were being patched; the damaged cowsheds and barns were being repaired.
“The Russians are coming!” - the children shouted excitedly as they ran to take a closer look at the Red Army soldiers. The adults calmly observed the marching troops. Already, by the end of June, the dirt roads and clearings in the forests were full of the Russian soldiers. But, the people found a rational explanation: “They are coming back from Berlin. They are going home [to Russia].”
“They must have brought-in an entire division” - recall the witnesses today. They set up their artillery and tanks by the Biebrza River and the Augustów Canal. They chose the best cottages for their accommodations in the villages, and occupied the barns and sheds. Only now, it is clear that they had made careful preparations for what was to come. They made those preparations well in advance …
In May 1945, Colonel Władysław Liniarski, nom de guerre "Mścisław", who was the commanding officer of the AK district, and later the Delegation of Armed Forces at Home for the Białystok region, reported to the Polish Government in Exile in London: “The NKVD in the Białystok region persistently, and one-by-one, executes all soldiers of the former Armia Krajowa by taking them into the woods. In order to cover up their tracks, they bury those they had murdered in mass graves of the victims of earlier Gestapo executions that took place in 1944." The report that followed was even more alarming: “The NKVD battalions arrived in the towns and municipalities in the Białystok region and are being quartered in schools and larger concrete buildings. A large number of cellars are being readied as makeshift prisons (…) This is a large scale operation accompanied by mass arrests. During the roundup operations, usually during the mornings, villages are surrounded by NKVD units armed with machine guns; whoever does not manage to escape is immediately murdered.”
Six months earlier, the war had ended for the majority of former partisans, among them "Żwirko", “Konwa” and “Roman”. They returned home and were more interested in farming than politics. The Radziewicz family was celebrating the return of the twenty year-old Antoni from a German forced labor camp. A couple of dwellings down the street, they were preparing for a wedding. There were many weddings occurring then, as people were hastily catching up for lack of them during the war.
Tailors were very busy turning and repairing suits dug out from old chests. They wanted to make them as presentable as possible without causing an embarrassment to those wearing them at the altar.
A dozen of young people were preparing for their final “Matriculation Exams” at a Sejny High School. The exams were rescheduled for July. Stanisław Malinowski, who until then was known only under his nom de guerre “Wrzos”, was pondering the complexities of trigonometry. A few students were dragged out of their classrooms by the NKVD and were deported to Siberia.
For the majority of the partisans the war ended a year and a half earlier.
People spoke often about these arrests and deportation, but only by whispering. Major Kazimierz Ptaszynski, nom de guerre ‘Zaręba’, the district's commanding officer, and a deputy-superintendent of the Armia Krajowa in Suwałki, was sent to the East via cattle car again – though he had just returned from Vorkuta after having been there for ten long years. Many partisans from the Colonel Antoni Dąbrowski “Zajac's” unit had suffered the same fate. “
"My parents lived in Białogóry. I returned home after the so-called 'liberation'” - says Stefan Milewski, nom de guerre “Kozak”, a partisan from the “Orli Szpon” unit.
“The Ruskis came for me in the spring time; I was transported away to Suwałki and was kept in the dungeons there." - continues Stefan - " During the interrogations I wasn’t admitting to anything. I maintained that I had encountered the partisans only by chance, and that I only did the kitchen work for them. I was released after five days. I dug out a bunker next to my cowshed. After a month, the NKVD came back again. They didn’t find me this time. Soon after I packed my belongings and went to the forest. There were a dozen of us hiding in the old “Zwirko” encampment near Gruszki.”
The return to the forest was more, and more frequent - especially in Augustów County, which in the 1939 was under Russian occupation. Its inhabitants remember well the terror of the “First Soviet” occupation. During that time, entire villages were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. The last such transport to Russia was taking place while German bombs were raining down on them. Before leaving Augustów in June 1941, the NKVD murdered several dozen prisoners whom they did not manage to evacuate with them. Earlier, in September 1939, a group of Polish officers and police was executed near the lock in Białobrzegi by the Russians.
According to the reports by an anonymous author (“I do not wish to reveal my name because they [the secret police] have long arms” – he writes): "The Platoon Leader, Władysław Stefanowski, nom de guerre “Grom”, a Home Army partisan since mid-1943, was injured during a military police station siege in Lipsk (03/11/1943), he avoided being arrested by the NKVD and began forming his own unit. By the end of May 1945, that unit consisted of some 200 partisans. It was stationed by the Lebiedzianka River in Balinka."
"In April 1945, the Polish Peasants' Battalions [pol. Bataliony Chłopskie, abr. BCh] lead by “Snop” gathered a unit of approximately 120 to 150 soldiers in the forests of Sztabin Foundation, near Wrotki. A professional sergeant, Wacław Sobolewski, nom de guerre “Sęk”, organized a group of some 40 partisans near Krasne, Skieblewo and Jastrzębna. In 1945, “Sęk” was executed by Red Army soldiers who were transporting him to the Augustów. Moreover, some 50-60 former partisans of the AK were individually hiding as they were still being hunted by the PUBP [pol. acr. Powiatowy Urząd Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego - County Office For Public Security, Polish secret police] in Augustów, in order to have them deported to the USSR."
Jadwiga Rewińska (née, Stefanowska) is “Grom’s” sister.
“I saw my brother a couple of times before the roundup operation [began]. He used to come [home] armed, in his uniform, and he would say that they fought for a different Poland. [He would say] that instead of the German occupation now we had the Soviet occupation.”
Jadwiga Rewińska’s younger brother, Lucjan Stefanowski was also an Armia Krajowa partisan. He was forcefully conscripted into the Polish People’s Army [Pol. Ludowe Wojsko Polskie, abr. LWP] after the war. His whereabouts are unknown from the time he was in the city of Toruń, from where he had allegedly deserted.
“I’ve heard that he came back to our area and joined Władek, short for Władysław. Perhaps they both died?” - ponders Rewińska. “I know nothing for certain, and I will probably never know [for sure].”
In May 1945, on the Grodno highway, “Grom” relieved the Red Army from about 350 cows that they had earlier stolen and were herding to the USSR. He gained support from the escort of some 20 Polish People’s Army soldiers, commanded by a Platoon Leader from Lwów. The Polish soldiers joined the “Grom” partisan unit.
Isolated incidents used to take place near Suwałki as well. [For example] a Russian major and a motorcyclist were shot near Krasnopol. Apparently, the incident involved a girl, and not politics. In Wychodno the boys from the forest demolished a Communist People’s Militia [pol. Milicja Obywatelska, abr. MO] station.
“They [the NKVD] were looking for a commanding officer and accidentally they popped into my parents” - recalls Józef Wasilewski, currently a resident of Dubeninki district. "The village was surrounded by the UB [members of the notorious Polish secret Police, the UB]. They took my brothers, seventeen-year-old Stanisław and nineteen-year-old Piotr. Only the younger one was released, whereas Piotr was taken to Suwałki."
On Sunday, May 20, 1945, a traditional Zielone Swiatki [Pentecost] fair took place in Studzienniczna, near Augustów. It was the first such celebration after the war. Thousands of worshipers had gathered around a wooden church, and a small chapel nearby. Since the mid-seventeenth century, the Studzienniczna had been a place of religious worship widely visited by pilgrims. It was a nice, sunny day. A church service was taking place, when suddenly, a machine gun burst sounded.
"Military vehicles arrived, and the place around the church was full of soldiers. They were both the Russians and the UB men.” - recalls Maria Roszkowska from Przewięź.
“They fired into the air, just to scare everyone; the leaves were falling from the trees. There were crowds of people, many screaming and wailing. The priest was trying to calm everyone down; he gathered the children by the altar to avoid them being trodden down by the adults. No one knew what was going on."
The priest intoned [an ancient Polish hymn]: ‘Pod Twoją obronę’["Beneath thy protection Lord"]” - adds Jadwiga Gruszewska. [Hear it here ->>>]
“All the worshipers sang, then as we started to leave the church, the [Russian] ‘Boytsy” [a slang word used to describe the Russian henchmen] stood with their guns by the road. They checked the men’s ID papers as they looked for the partisans. Some of the men saved themselves by swimming through the lake."
Antoni Kaczmarek was twenty-something years old then. He came to Studzienniczna from Gorczyca. He left his bike at his relatives’ place in Wojciech. He was late for the mass; he only attended its later part. He caught the attention of the NKVD men. He was young, was dressed in army-style trousers, and wore stylish combat boots known as “Angielki”. They were sure! He was one of the “gangsters”. Did Kaczmarkek have any contacts with the partisans, or not, is of course, uncertain!
“They pulled him to the side. They gathered some forty men by the road to Augustów” - reports Kaczmerek’s cousin who asks to remain anonymous. “Some of the men were released, but many of them vanished into thin air.”
The detained were placed in the cellars of the “Turek’s House”, in Augustów. It used to be a confectionery before the war; as fate has it, it was provisionally changed into a prison. People even used to say, “They went to Turek’s to get some cakes”. It’s a grim joke. Many of the prisoners never came back from the “confectionery”. The others regained their freedom only after many years.
Among those arrested in Studzienniczna was Józef Zbierajewski, nom de guerre “Bystry”. He lived in Wojciechowo. In his unpublished work entitled “The Resistance Forces during the years 19391944 in the Białystok area”, Władysław Zajdler-Żarski wrote about him as follows: “a reserves’ platoon leader since 1941, he was a soldier of the Polish Home Army (…) in the Augustów district. He was the liaison officer between Polish and Russian partisans, arrested by the Gestapo and was placed in a penal camp in Augustów … he organized an escape. In May 1944, he was awarded a Silver Cross of Merit with Swords and in November 1943, a Bronze Cross of Merit; in May 1944, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.”
The detained were placed in the cellars of the "Turek’s House", in Augustów.
Today, Zbierajewski is 93 years old. ‘He struggles to speak, however he has a good memory’. “In Augustów they held me for a week” - reminisces Zbierajewski. ‘”[Lieutenant Jan] Szostak made everyone’s life very miserable. He was like a vicious dog. He treated people very badly. He used to frighten prisoners with his gun, and shouted that he is going to kill them. My situation improved a bit when they moved me to the prison in Białystok. I was held there for six months.”
Even today, there are various interpretations of Zbierajewski’s release from prison. What price did he have to pay for his freedom? Why weren’t the others so lucky? He explains, “In Białystok I was interrogated by a Russian officer. I told him that I was a scout for the Russian partisans. They released me, and even gave me five hundred złoty to buy a ticket.”
Antoni Kaczmarek found himself among those who never returned. “Will they [the secret police] come at night and do the same to me as they did to the [Solidarity priest], Jerzy Popiełuszko, if I told you a story?” – hesitates a seventy year-old woman. She doesn’t want us to publish her name.
“It happened in 1945, in the late spring, or perhaps an early summer” – the old woman couldn’t remember. “I used to work planting trees in the forest near Sajenko; not far from the road to Lipsk. You would form a ‘ring’ out of soil using a hoe and then you would place a small pine plant into it. One of the women caught a piece of cloth with her hoe. She pulled on it once, then twice, and found a black jacket. There was a dead body when she dug deeper. People recognized that it was Antek [tr. note: Antek is short for Antoni Kaczmarek. There were some eight bodies there. They were covered on top only with approximately 30 centimeters of sand, and nothing else. At night, Kaczmarek’s body was collected by his family and was transported to a cemetery. The others are probably still laying there. But, the forest got really big by now.”
In mid-June 1945, the NKVD conducted a pacification operation of the village Domuraty near Biebrza, and arrested thirty young men. They were marching them to the Suchowola and every couple of hundred of meters or so, they murdered their next victim - one after another. They were all killed. At the same time, in Szczebra, Olszanka and Nowinka, the NKVD announced that they are going to award medals [to the former Polish partisans]. The former partisans were to turn up at their local municipal [Gmina] council.
During the Nazi occupation, Józef Szwarc was active in the “Roman” partisan unit. To this today, he is proud of his cautiousness. “As the front moved forward, a Soviet general was lodging at my place. He liked to drink moonshine; they all liked it. One time, we drank heavily, and I told him about the partisans. He warned me then to keep quiet about it, otherwise, I will be sent to spend time with the white bears [in Siberia]. Therefore, I did not fall for their trick with the medals.”
On the 12th of July, by Brożane Lake, the Red Army surrounded and defeated the “Grom” unit. All the wounded and those they took prisoner, were murdered with a single shot the back of their heads – in the Katyn Massacre style. To this day no one knows where they were buried.