Survivor of Soviet Deportation from Poland
75 years ago, beginning on September 8, 1944, mass deportations from Poland to the Soviet Union began. This forced resettlement in the border areas was agreed upon at the end of World War Two - between 1944 and 1945. Yet another horrific page in history resulted in over half a million Ukrainians being forced to leave their homeland.
In this picture, five-year old Stepan Barna and his father are at his grandfather’s grave. After 74 years, Stepan, already having a son, they are trying to find the burial ground.
“It’s a different cross. This means that ours is somewhere here. I’m telling you, it should be here. Can you see anything, guys?” Barna says.
Among the dozens of abandoned graves, the right one was never found. Candles and flowers were left at another burial place by friends of the family.
In the former Lemko village — the present territory of Poland — Stepan lived with his parents until 1945.
“The Poles here treated us very well. Only one Pole lived here in this village. All the others were Lemkos – Ukrainians. But then the war began and the Germans came,” Barna said.
After the Second World War, the Entente of countries defined new frontiers in post-war Europe. The USSR and Poland were divided along the Curzon line: the lands inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians — Lemkivschyna, Pidliashchia, Nadsiannia and Kholmshchyna — became the territory of communist Poland. In September 1944, Warsaw and Moscow agreed to exchange the population of the border regions: send the Poles to their historical homeland, and Ukrainians to evict the USSR.
When the deportation began, Stepan was only six years old. But the horrors of these events are still imprinted in his mind.
“All were deported. My uncle was taken to Dniepropretrovsk region. We were under the impression that we could stay. But this was not the case. Two soldiers came and, as I remember it, they took my father who was tied to a wheel. We started crying. Then my father was taken up the mountain. That’s when they hit in him and he fell down. My mom went after him and she was punched, too. We started to scream. The Pole said that we should better not be here by the next morning. We returned home, our father ran to get his books. We left with nothing, taking our horse and the cows. We arrived at the next village 20 kilometers from us. It was called Tovst in the Ternopil region,” Barna said.
482,000 Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes and move to the USSR. Refusing could lead to repercussions and confiscation of property. For the first time in 35 years, Stepan was able to return to his birthplace.
“I have come several times to this village, starting somewhere in the 80s. Since the times of the Soviet Union. Something just makes me want to come back,” Barna said.
Now it’s hard to recall these places. Old houses were demolished and in their places, new buildings and roads have been built.
“The difference is a meter, ten, twenty. But the house stood somewhere here!” Barna said.
“It was not rich. There was no asphalt. The road was strewn. Here is where there was a house. A little to the right,” he tells the story.
At the time of the deportations in the 1940s, they kept only one house in the village. It was bought by a Pole, who turned it into a miniature museum of Lemko culture.
“I live in an old Lemko style house — called a hut. It is already 100 years old. I do not make modern repairs here, on the contrary — I try to keep it in the original style,” a resident says.
After the deportations during 1944 to 46, Ukrainians remained in Eastern Poland. Soviet authorities refused to accept them on their territory which led to people being deported to the sparsely populated territories in Poland’s north and west, territories that previously belonged to Germany before the war. Over 140,000 Ukrainians were forcefully resettled and were often placed in abandoned houses. The operation known under the name ‘Vistula’ is considered to be a crime against Ukrainians by the Polish communist regime.