While Europe had already enjoyed peace for a hundred days after the capitulation of Germany, out in the north-eastern corner of Poland, Soviet soldiers and communist security forces were perpetrating what was to remain Europe’s greatest post-war crime right up to Srebrenica in 1995. This systematically planned genocide ran simultaneously to the Big Three conference in the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam which was convened to regulate problems connected with the end of the war and organising the post-war world. The fate of people being “reorganised” Stalin-style in north-eastern Poland was not on the Potsdam agenda, and some 2000 victims remain unaccounted for even today. Indeed, there are families of Polish and Lithuanian nationality who continue searching for the graves of their relatives who fell victim in this deliberate act of genocide. Their executioners, however, managed to evade earthly justice.
Author: Sławomir Moćkun
Soil drenched in blood
The residents of the Suwalki, Augustów, Sejny, and Sokółka districts of north-eastern Poland, a densely forested area reaching the river Niemen in the Grodno region forming the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian borderlands of today, had already experienced Soviet occupation in September 1939. At that time, the Red Army had invaded and occupied eastern Poland as Germany’s ally, in the implementation of the terms of the Ribbentrop- Molotov Pact of August 1939. Following some fierce clashes in the eastern areas of the Augustów district, (the battles of Sopoćkinie and Kodziowce), the Soviets entered Augustów on 23 September and into Suwałki a day later. The first war crimes in this context were committed then, and they left no illusions as to the way the occupants intended to rule. In the vicinity of Sopoćkinie, Brig. Gen. Józef Konstanty Olszyna-Wilczyński, the commander of Region no. III in Grodno was arrested and murdered. Behind the Soviet soldiers came operational-chekha groupings. Soviet forces remained in the Suwałki region and the northern part of the Augustów district for two weeks before the new German-Soviet frontier was finally agreed on the strength of their treaty of friendship – signed in Moscow on 28 September. Further to that treaty, the course of the frontier was rectified, and these territories were incorporated into the Third Reich. Augustów, together with the remaining part of the district, was added to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The meetings of the Soviet-German frontier demarcation commissioners, as indeed the ceremony itself of handing over Suwałki to the Germans, left no doubt that there were two occupants acting in concert.
Mass deportations of residents to Siberia had already begun in Soviet-held territories in the winter of 1940/41. The last – fourth great wave of deportations – occurred in April 1941, just before the Third Reich decided to attack its ally. Whole families were deported – professional soldiers, police officers, middle and lower-ranking civil servants, forestry and railway officials, teachers, and social activists – that is, people regarded as capable of running a state. The German occupation was no less severe; from the start, it was also characterized by terror and arrests, with executions and mass-scale evictions being the day’s sombre order. In spite of any counter-measures that may have been taken, the pro-independence partisan resistance movement survived, standing in defence of the local population terrorized by both Germans and Russians. In mid-1944, about 5000 people were engaged in the Home Army’s underground resistance activities in the Augustów and Suwałki regions.
The Soviet army that re-entered these territories towards the end of 1944 was no liberator. One occupant was replaced by another, familiar to the residents of these areas not just from September 1939, but from the time of the partitions and the January Uprising of 1863. The installation of the communist authorities was accompanied by arrests, plunder, and rape. A particular slackening in discipline in the Red Army moving across Poland was noticeable after Berlin’s capitulation.
Cooperation with Soviet partisans and the Red Army was tantamount to blowing the cover of Home Army partisans. This lesson was already learnt in the Wilno region where, under the guise of talks on collaboration, the Soviets disarmed the detachment of 2nd Lt. Antoni Burzyński (“Kmicic”) in August 1943, and executed nearly a hundred Home Army soldiers. Upon the liberation of the city of Wilno itself from the Germans, an operation in which Soviet and Polish forces cooperated, the commander of the Wilno District Home Army, Lt. Col. Aleksander Krzyżanowski (“Wilk”) was trapped similarly, and this was followed by the arrest of about 8,000 Home Army soldiers. Several thousand members of the Polish underground resistance were killed. Similar acts of Soviet duplicity occurred in all regions of Soviet-occupied Poland. It was no different in the districts of Augustów and Suwałki, where, in late 1944 / early 1945, about a thousand people were arrested. The scale of restraints made the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army decide to dissolve the organisation in January 1945. That did not put an end to the repressions – in February 1945, under the pretence of negotiations, sixteen leaders of the Polish Underground State were abducted to Moscow. Thousands of Home Army soldiers found themselves held in NKVD camps.
A new organisation – the Citizens’ Home Army (AKO), based on new command structures, arose in the province of Białystok. Counting nearly 30,000 members, this organisation conducted active combat operations, successfully clashing with Polish communist and Soviet security operational groups, which remained on these territories after the Berlin-bound Soviet forces passed through. The AKO effectively hemmed in communist power in the biggest district towns. In spring 1945, the communists knew perfectly well that it was not they who controlled the territories surrounding the sprawling Augustów Forest areas. Reports on the helplessness of the Public Safety Offices were reaching high ranking Soviet military leaders, in this the members of the War Council of the 3rd Belarusian Front. The activities and successes of the partisans were so great that reports of 8,000 partisans, equipped in artillery and ten tanks operating in the area, landed on the desk of the People’s Commissar of Defence, Gen. Nicolai Bulganin. Indeed, in the Suwałki District, about 1,500 people were engaged in underground resistance activities, and in the Augustów District, the figure was over five hundred. Similar figures were quoted in the reports of district Public Safety (UB) offices in Augustów and Suwałki. Exaggerated data on AKO numbers and armaments influenced the most important Soviet decision-makers on the scale of the roundup, and possibly on what to do with the partisans arrested in its course. Talks on how to smash the partisan movement were held on 16 May during a conference of representatives of the Białystok provincial authorities and the Soviet security forces. Decisions on the pacification of the Augustów Forest areas and contiguous areas by Soviet forces, however, must have been taken at an even higher level. Indeed, publicly known documents show that what was to be called the Augustów Roundup, was ordered by Joseph Stalin himself.
The Soviets also had control over the lowest rungs of the public safety authorities. The district UB office leaders in Augustów – ensign Aleksander Kuczyński and his deputy Ryszard Caban – and in Suwałki – sergeant Zygmunt Mossakowski could always depend on Soviet backing. As elsewhere throughout the country, Soviet advisors watched over the workings of the security apparatus. In Augustów there was Maj. Vasilenko and Corporal Poltoratsky, who were effective of higher rank than their Polish comrades.
Safe journey for Stalin
Being hyper-sensitive on the question of his safety, Joseph Stalin avoided air travel. Hence, his route to the Potsdam conference (17 July – 2 August 1945) was to take the safest course – bypassing Warsaw, and via East Prussia. The biggest threat to the armoured train by which Stalin usually travelled was the Augustów Forest. In the end, the route finally chosen was 200 kilometres away from the forests under partisan control. According to numerous historians, Stalin’s safety was precisely the safety of his way to the Big Three conference, which was the main factor determining the scale and course of the Roundup. Unprecedented security measures were adopted on the occasion with over ten thousand NKVD men delegated to protect Stalin’s railway route. What is significant is that an important route from Germany and former East Prussia ran across the Suwałki region; this route was used not only by Soviet soldiers returning from the West, but also to transport the property they plundered. One of the documented theories is that there was an idea to link the new Russian acquisition, nowadays known as the Kaliningrad Regiont with Belarus, which required the annexation of part of the Suwałki region. A less radical hypothesis is that in the event of the need to pacify the anti-Soviet insurgency in Poland, the line would provide an obstruction-free corridor for transporting troops from Minsk to Kaliningrad (Konigsberg).
In mid-May, the Soviets already commenced concentrating their forces in the vicinity of the Curzon Line. Towards the end of the month, they began operations to establish full control of the municipalities in the border region. They reconnoitred the partisan organisational structures. On 27 June, Soviet forces, with the support of Polish communist militia and public safety officers, cleared the forests in the border regions, notably in Giby, Sejny, and Sztabin of the partisans. Subsequently, this operation was to be called “the small roundup.” Over a hundred people were apprehended, scores of whom were arrested as members of the underground resistance movement.
That, however, was merely a prelude to the main operation a fortnight later. About 45,000 soldiers were to take part in it. The actual operations in clearing the Augustów Forest and its contiguous territories from anti-communist partisans was carried out by detachments of the 50th Army of the 3rd Belarusian Front, two rifle divisions of the 48th Army, units of the 62nd Division of the Interior Troops of the NKVD, and two companies (160 soldiers) of the 1st Praski Infantry Regiment, commanded by lt. Maximilian Sznepf. The local Public Safety Offices and their networks of agents were also engaged in this operation. The whole operation was commanded by Maj. Gen. Nicolai Garnich. The “Polish” units were also subordinated to him.
Combing the forests and villages in search of pro-independence partisans and their supporters commenced on 12 July, and continued for over a week. In the Augustów district, a curfew prohibiting travel between 21.00 and 8.00 was imposed. Roadblocks and checkpoints were set up, and a number of field fortifications were built to thwart any attempts to break out of the forests, chiefly in the south-easterly direction.
Soviet detachments surrounded villages, searching them house by house. Forests were combed by lines of soldiers spread out no more than a couple of metres apart. In strategic points, permanent blockades were set up so that no one, including anyone who managed to hide and evade immediate capture, could not leave the roundup area. Certain places were combed repeatedly. Those arrested were handed over to a separate formation, which verified their identity and did personal searches. The Soviets also allocated support units composed of armoured and artillery detachments. Apart from “the catch” in the Roundup proper, separate arrests were made in Suwałki and the municipality of Wiżajny. Children and elderly people, men in their prime, and even pregnant women, were arrested. In the absence of a father hiding, they would take his teenage son or some other unfortunate hostage. Those arrested were placed in about fifty temporary filtering camps, usually in private buildings selected as best suited to keep and interrogate prisoners.
Over a hundred places in an area of about 35,000 square kilometres were searched. In houses, during field work, in the forests or on the roads, 7,049 people were held over the week, who were handed over to Smersh officers. They separated 1,685 Lithuanians from this total, which included Polish partisans who, after the pacification of the Wilno region, found shelter in the Augustów Forest. Some Lithuanians were handed over to the NKVD forces of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic with 252 designated for liquidation, and 262 remanded for further investigation.
News of this large-scale operation quickly spread throughout the forest. In all probability, people could be accused of belonging to or collaborating with the anti-communist resistance movement, insofar as was possible, trying to hide. Some of the surrounded partisans, knowing the fate of their comrades from the Wilno region, preferred to die with arms in hand in the unequal struggle against hundreds of well-armed soldiers. Already on the first day of the roundup, about 7,000 NKVD soldiers managed to surround the AKO detachments of the Augustów District of Sergeant Władysław Stefanowski (“Grom”) which were encamped by lake Brożane, and of 2nd Lieutenant Józef Sulżyński (“Brzoza”) of the Suwałki District. About 170 partisans fought for five days, and upon running out of ammunition and food, tried to break through the tightening Soviet noose. Being under relentless machine-gun fire and mortar bombardment, about seventy partisans died in this fight. Fifty-seven soldiers were taken prisoner. The Soviets took them by trucks on the Belarusian frontier direction where all further trace of them disappeared.
Pigsties, barns, dugouts, and all manner of outbuildings served as temporary prisons. Soviet-style interrogations with beatings and torture were held most often in the cellars of private houses requisitioned earlier. Local villagers could easily imagine the suffering these victims were put to –based on both the terrifying sounds coming from these places, and the traces of blood left there. Floors and walls were red with blood. A large proportion of those arrested, who were accused of collaborating with the anti-communist underground, subsequently found themselves in the cells of the district Public Safety Office in Augustów. Others were held at the District Public Safety Office in Suwałki, likewise guarded by Soviet soldiers for the time of the roundup.
A similar pacification operation was carried out by the Red Army with the support of the NKVD in the Mariampol district in Lithuania in August 1945. For several consecutive months, Red Army soldiers were responsible for protecting the border with the right of entering Polish territory up to a depth of 30 kilometres in hot pursuit.
Similar operations, but on a smaller scale, were also conducted in the forthcoming weeks, with the arrest, among others, of Ludwik Wysocki and his two daughters – Kazimiera and Aniela – in Biała Woda on 28 July. The Roundup was also carried out in the municipality of Filipów, in the vicinity of Suwałki, Jeleniew, Sejny, Giby and Kopciew, as well as in forests on the Belarusian side of the border. The Soviet command controlled the roundup from start to finish denying the Polish authorities information on the results of the whole campaign.
On 20 July 1945, a special group of officers led by Maj. Gen. Ivan Gorgonov, the deputy Commander-in-Chief of Smersh (the Military Counterintelligence High Command of the Peoples’ Commissariat, of Defence of the USSR), arrived in Olecko from Moscow. This group was supported by Gen. Pavel Zielenin, Smersh counterintelligence chief of the 3rd Belarusian Front. Olecko, about 30 kilometres north of Suwałki inwhat was East Prussia, thus in an area still controlled by the USSR, that constituted an excellent base for sorties into the Suwałki region which was held by the AKO.
We know that 7,049 people were arrested from the document published in 2011 by the Russian historian Nikita Pietrov. We are speaking here of the telegram dated 24 July from Victor Abakunov, the Smersh commander to Lavrentiy Beria, the Peoples’ Commissar of Internal Affairs of the USSR. In this document, Gen. Abakumov requested permission to “liquidate the bandits arrested in the Augustów Forest”, giving the number of 592 people. He also informed that a further 828 people were being vetted. In turn the report of the 50th Army command quotes the total figure of 5,169 people under arrest. For the second time, the number of 592 “bandits” was quoted as earmarked for extermination in five days.
Thus, at least 592 people were selected for extermination, which should be added over 800 people “still being vetted”, and all those arrested after 24 July. The final figures for the Roundup victims should be increased by the soldiers who fell in battle at Lake Brożane and those who died in individual skirmishes not wanting to lay down their arms and fall into enemy hands. Members of the anti-communist resistance movement in the Lithuanian and Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republics constituted further victims. The number of victims of the Roundup thus reaches about 2000. Stefan Chełmiński of the Polish Red Cross managed to establish over 1130 names of missing people in the 1950s. This figure is incomplete because, after the intervention of the Public Safety Services, he was forced to cut short his inquiries into the issue.
Both Gen. Abakumov in his telegram mentioned above, and the 50th Army command in its report to the War Council of the 3 Belarusian Front, denied the exaggerated figures regarding AKO strength in terms of numbers and possession of artillery. Both sources estimated that “there were about seven detachments jointly counting 300–400 active bandits” operating in the Augustów Forest region.
Neither those arrested nor their nearest ones, expected their release from communist hands. They expected that the same fate awaited them as those who were deported to Siberia during the war. Those earlier deportees were frequently able to correspond with their people back home, and some of them even managed to return home. What happened in places like Katyń and Kuropaty, or the murder of those kept in prisons in western Belarus in 1941, was not common knowledge at the time.
Those arrested were taken away in trucks. According to witnesses, the prisoners kept at the Public Safety Office in Augustów were taken in Grodno’s direction. After several hours those same trucks would return for fresh consignments of prisoners. Those arrested in the Giby region were also taken in the course of the Belarusian frontier. It seems that, to the very end, those prisoners were convinced that, like in the first years of the war, they were being taken to mass assembly points from which they would be taken to Siberia or Central Asia. They most probably found themselves tightly surrounded by Smersh soldiers in forest clearings on the Belarusian side of the border, where they were executed with a Katyn-style shot to the back of the head. Their bodies were thrown into mass graves. This operation was carried out professionally, as can be seen from the fact that despite interminable searches and investigations, we can still merely guess at the details of their fate. The above-mentioned Soviet report reassured: “The Smersh battalion already tried and tested by us in numerous counter-intelligence operations, will carry out the executions.”
Despite further pacification operations, the anti-communist resistance movement in the Suwałki region continued, albeit on a restricted scale, right up to 1952.
Families were never officially informed about the arrests of their nearest and dearest, and no proof of their guilt was ever produced. The arrest of a family member was only the beginning of the suffering of the whole family. The initial ability to supply food and personal effects to those arrested and exchange secret correspondence with them, was soon replaced by complete isolation and silence. Parents waited for news of their children, wives for news of their husbands, fiancées watched out for their sweethearts. Successive months passed by without communication, and this did not bode well. Soon it became clear that searching for children, parents, husbands would become a lifelong mission. “It would have been better if he had died from German hands. Death at the hands of the Russians was something unspeakable” – the families of victims would say to each other.
The victims of the Roundup were murdered without court sentences, even without theatrical show trials. The missing individuals were husbands, children, frequently the only family bread-winners. This caused legal problems – were widows indeed widows and were the children orphans? Especially in post-war conditions, it was difficult to survive without a family, a man running a household, without social benefit or family supplement. After all, no death certificates were issued. The authorities sought to cover up the Roundup and all surrounding facts with a veil of silence, which had insuperable legal repercussions.
The memory of those missing individuals became a liability. The families of the victims were subjected to invigilation by the communist authorities. Careers were impeded; children had restricted opportunities for gaining a good education. The communist regime could not afford to let the truth come out. As the fate of the officers murdered in Katyn, the Augustów Roundup was not a subject that could be aired in public. The authorities let it be clearly understood that any activity in establishing the fate of those who disappeared was not just fruitless. Still, it would also rebound to the detriment of entire families making ill-advised inquiries. The memory of the victims was, therefore preserved in the privacy of homes. Indeed, the youngest household members were often brought up ignorant of the facts so as not to burden them with problems. But the pain, though hidden, remained no less excruciating.
The situation was all the more galling as secret informers and infamous interrogators were climbing high in their careers. Polish communists and agents, and ordinary local villagers, were engaged in selecting suspects for arrest and investigation. The identities of these collaborators were known to the families of those arrested. One such traitor was Mirosław Milewski who, during the Roundup, was a dedicated worker of the District Public Safety Office in Augustów. He subsequently held supervisory posts in the Polish Peoples’ Republic’s public security organs, climbing to the post of secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party during the martial law period in the 1980s. In turn, Jan Szostak, identifying the persons to be arrested during the Augustów Roundup for the NKVD, continued his career in the security apparatus and, in the process, acquired the nickname “the Augustów executioner” among the local inhabitants. He also presided over the Urban National Council. Still, although he adopted the guise of a mild peasant sculptor in the final years of his life, he was unable to shake off his bloody reputation right down to the end of his days.
Condemned to oblivion?
The residents of Giby made their first appeals to the authorities on behalf of over a hundred people taken from their community way back in November 1945. A municipal delegation went to the then head of state Bolesław Bierut, appealing for their release or the acceleration of court procedures. Of course, such appeals could meet with nothing other than a stonewalling response from the powers that be. Likewise, with other interventions were addressed to all rungs of authority, from district and provincial levels, to the Presidium of the Council of Ministers and the Polish Embassy in Moscow. Appeals were also made to the Red Cross section in Warsaw and its international office in Geneva. Many families also undertook searches on their initiatives.
In communist Poland, the fact of the Roundup having ever occurred was never officially admitted. Only towards the end of the 1980s, together with the slow collapse of communism, could the families loudly demand the truth to be told. In 1987, a Citizens Committee of Search for Residents of Suwalki Who Disappeared in July 1945 was called into being. The Association of Remembrance of Victims of the Augustów Roundup of 1945 is also active. In 1992, an investigation was undertaken by the prosecutors in Suwałki. However, it was quickly suspended due to the lack of materials. They managed to gain confirmation from the Main Military Prosecutors Office of the Russian Federation as to the “arrest during the roundup by Smersh units of the 3rd Belarusian Front of a group of 592 people who supported the anti-Soviet Home Army.” The Russians also informed that no charges were laid against those detained and that their cases had not been tried in courts. According to the Russians, the subsequent fate of those arrested was unknown. In 2003, the Russians announced that they have no documents that would confirm the execution of partisans in the Augustów Forest in 1945. All that was confirmed in the correspondence was that the 62nd Division of the Internal Forces of the NKVD had operated in the Suwałki region, but without its combat logbooks being appended. Consecutive further requests of the Polish prosecutors and the Institute of National Remembrance in 2006, 2009, and 2011 remained without response. The Russian side hid behind the argument that the case was time-barred and could not be prosecuted, or that no new documents pertaining to this case were available. This was an obvious lie since simultaneously they refused to issue to the Polish side the already mentioned documents published by prof. Nikita Pietrov, in 2011. In parallel, the Memorial Association published deciphered reports concerning arrested “bandits” addressed to Lavretiy Beria. The FSB’s responses to the requests of the families of victims giving dates and places of arrest were some breakthrough. However, its letters state curtly that “the documentary archival materials do not speak of the charges brought, the sentences handed down, their rehabilitation or their further fate”.
Despite the efforts that have been undertaken, the graves of the Roundup victims have still not been found. Some hopes sprang up with the discovery of mass graves in the vicinity of Giby. However, the exhumations that were carried out showed that they were German soldiers buried there during the war.
Contemporary researchers tend to subscribe to one of three theories. According to one of them, the mass-murder was carried out in the Romincka Forest, which, today, lies within the boundaries of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. In turn, the Russian historian prof. Natalia Lebedieva believes that the Poles could have been taken to a secret camp where they were subjected to chemical or biological weapons experiments.
However, the most probable theory seems to be that they were killed immediately upon crossing the Curzon Line. On the basis of witness accounts regarding the direction and frequency of the expedited transports and satellite photographs, historians and prosecutors have managed to identify probable mass grave sites of the Roundup victims in Kalety near Grodno the edge of the Augustów Forest. Unfortunately, the Polish prosecutors’ requests in 2014 and 2016 for legal assistance addressed to the Belarusian authorities were turned down by Minsk.
Every year, on the second Sunday of July, in Giby, the families of those rounded up in 1945 meet at a symbolic grave. These occasions are accompanied by prayers and even words of forgiveness, as well as tears of helplessness. Despite decades of concentrated effort, it is still impossible to say a prayer and light a candle on the grave of a husband, daughter, or grandfather. “How many more such Sundays must pass?” they ask.