WW2 left the Poles scattered across many continents. Soldiers and civilians alike covered hundreds of kilometres in the Soviet Union, Middle East and Western Europe. They marched on hoping to return to a free country.
.Dead horses, abandoned cars, long columns of refugees carrying suitcases and bundles. In September 1939, Polish roads bore silent witness to the drama of the first days of WW2. Besides the army that was succumbing to the might of the Wehrmacht in spite of heroic resistance, the country was also full of thousands of fleeing civilians who left behind their homes in search of safety. At first, the wave moved east to the areas where there were still no Germans. The situation changed dramatically after 17 September when the east of Poland was overrun by the Red Army. Many soldiers and civil servants had just managed to cross the border with Romania, Hungary or, less frequently, Lithuania and Latvia. This gave them an opportunity to arrive in Western Europe and continue the fight against the Germans. The Polish government in exile was first based in France and then, after France fell, in the UK. Its Prime Minister was General Władysław Sikorski. In his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, he set about rebuilding the Polish military on foreign soil.
From Siberia to Monte Cassino
.Although fighting between regular forces in Poland stopped in October 1939, the flow of civilians continued unabated. Some fled the German occupation to the areas controlled by the Soviets to reunite with their families. Others, including many Jews, moved east because they hoped for a better chance of survival. However, even there the population was exposed to repression. Between 1940 and 1941, about 315,000 Poles were exiled deep into the USSR – to Siberia, Kazakh steppes and other faraway regions – as part of four big deportation actions. Many of them died due to harsh conditions during transport and at their destination.
Those who were still alive saw a glimmer of hope when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Faced with the rapid advance of the Wehrmacht, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had to change his policies regarding the Poles. The authorities in Moscow re-established diplomatic relations with the Polish government, signing a mutual military agreement. It provided for a Polish army to be set up “as soon as possible” in the USSR. Subordinate to Władysław Sikorski as Commander-in-Chief, the new force was supposed to fight against the Germans alongside the Red Army. It was made up of the Poles released from prisons, camps and exile locations. General Władysław Anders, appointed as commander of the Polish Army in the USSR, had also spent almost two years in Soviet prisons.
The emerging army lacked everything: weapons, food and clothes. The only thing that was in large supply was pluck. “It was the first, and I hope to God the last, time I have reviewed a parade of barefoot soldiers,“ reminisced Anders later. “They insisted they wanted to march. They want to show the Bolsheviks that their bare, wounded feet are capable of beating the military rhythm to mark the beginning of their march back to Poland.”
In the spring of 1942, Anders’ soldiers were still malnourished, ill-equipped and, worst of all, plagued by diseases. It was agreed with the Soviet authorities that the Polish army and the group of civilians who stayed with it would be evacuated from the USSR, first in part and later in their entirety. The civilians – almost 38,000 people, including 9,000 children – found shelter on four continents in such places as East Africa, India, Mexico and New Zealand. The number of evacuated soldiers was nearly 80,000. They covered a long distance, travelling through Persia, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, to finally reach Italy where, as the Second Polish Corps, they made their name by capturing Monte Cassino, Ancona and Bologna, among others. The famous US general, George S. Patton, wrote after a meeting with Anders that the Polish troops were “the best looking troops [I have seen] including the British and American.”
For the freedom of Poland and the world
.When the Second Polish Corps fought fiercely in Italy, the First Armoured Division led by General Stanisław Maczek blazed its own trail of glory across France, Belgium and the Netherlands all the way to German Wilhelmshaven.
In addition, the soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces (at the peak of the war, the army numbered close to 200,000) played an important role on many other fronts, participating in the battles of Narvik, England, Tobruk and Arnhem. Together with the British, Americans and representatives of other nations, they fought for freedom, dignity and peace not only for themselves, but also for others. Their contribution to the victory over the Third Reich leaves no doubts.
Still, the end of the war brought solutions that were a far cry from Poland’s freedom aspirations. Power in the country was seized by the Soviet-controlled communists. Generals Anders and Maczek, who, like many of their compatriots, chose the difficult life of émigrés, were deprived of Polish citizenship. About 120,000 soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces decided to return to their homeland, but they often faced harsh repressions. Many of them did not live to receive the recognition they had deserved.
Saving from oblivion
.Today, we can make sure that their heroic efforts are known to future generations. This is precisely the objective of the “Trails of Hope. The Odyssey of Freedom” project implemented by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a Polish state institution dealing with modern history. This gigantic undertaking planned for 2022–2025 will cover a few dozen countries on several continents. We will reach all these locations with an exhibition available in various languages and versions adapted to local audiences to introduce the visitors to the efforts of the Polish Armed Forces during WW2 and tell the stories of Polish civilians who wondered across the world at that time. We also plan many accompanying events in the form of concerts, competitions, scientific conferences, etc.
.Importantly, the project will also focus on finding the traces of wartime Polish presence – photographs, documents, accounts – and renovating the forgotten places of remembrance such as commemorative plaques, monuments and cemeteries scattered all over the world. The Institute of National Remembrance is counting heavily on the support of local communities. After all, Polish soldiers and civilians, who made hundreds of kilometres during the war, wrote not only their own history, but also the history of the places they visited.