Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, perhaps the worst mass killer in human history with the blood of tens of millions of people on his hands, once inadvertently saved Polish Jews from the Nazi death camps and gas chambers by deporting them to Siberia and other parts of the USSR.
In 1940, one year before the Nazis commenced their program of extermination, Stalin ordered the deportation of some 200,000 – perhaps as many as 300,000 -- Polish Jews from Russian-occupied Eastern Poland to Gulag labor camps deep in the Soviet Union.
Notwithstanding his virulent anti-Semitism (and his own sanctioning of the killing of Jews within Russia itself), Stalin’s order ironically saved these Jewish lives – indeed, these deportees represented the bulk of Polish Jewry who survived the Nazi Holocaust.
In 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, Poland boasted a Jewish population of some 3.3-million, or about 8.5 percent of the total (and almost one-third of Warsaw’s population).
By 1945, at war’s end, only about 300,000 to 350,000 Polish Jews remained.
The tragic fate of the Polish nation was sealed in August 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union signed the so-called “non-aggression” pact, leading to Germany’s spectacular blitzkrieg of Poland the following month and the eruption of the Second World War.
Under the Hitler-Stalin pact that was signed by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Germans annexed western Poland, prompting thousands of Jews to flee to the eastern region, now controlled by the Soviet Union. (Those who didn’t escape in time perished in the Nazi death camps.)
Poles who fled to the Soviet-ruled part of the country did not escape misfortune either. Stalin’s troops arrested thousands of people, including policemen, soldiers, bureaucrats, judges, and even teachers and priests – anyone accused of being “class enemies.”
Many were executed on the spot, while others -- the "lucky ones" -- were deported to labor camps in Russia.
Initially some Polish Jews welcomed the arrival of the Russians, viewing them, with good reason from their viewpoint, as a “lesser evil” than the Germans. In fact, some Jews occupied positions of authority in the Soviet-occupied Polish government infrastructure prior to the deportation order.
On the whole, approximately 1.5 million Poles (including Jews) were deported to the Soviet Union.
Many of the deported Polish Jews died in appalling conditions in Siberia, where they were forced to work excessive hours in extreme cold and little food.
However, by September 1941 (three months after Germany attacked the Soviet Union), following negotiations between Stalin and the Polish government-in-exile (in London), an amnesty was granted to the deported Polish citizens (both Jews and Catholics). They were compelled to form a Polish army within the Soviet Union to fight the Germans. Menachem Begin, the future Prime Minister of Israel, was one of these survivors.
All told, about 6 million Poles died in World War II, about half of them Jews, primarily in the Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmno. The ones who survived, largely did so through the bizarre (and unintended) intervention of Stalin.
The story of how these Polish Jews survived the war had remained largely unknown until decades after the fact.
In 2007, a Polish-born American documentary producer and director named Slawomir Grunberg released a film called “Saved by Deportation” which told the story of some of the Polish Jews who were spared the death camps by being transported to the Soviet Union. The documentary charts the story of Asher and Shyfra Scharf, two Polish Jews who were sent to the Muslim-dominated regions of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, as well as Siberia.
Another Jewish deportee, a woman named Sylvia Becker, told the filmmakers of her harrowing tale of fleeing the Germans in western Poland for the east, eventually ending up in a labor camp near the Arctic Circle.
“The knock came in the middle of the night,” she said. “We were allowed just a few moments to gather our belongings. If your name was on the list you were taken to a train depot in horse-drawn wagons. Then, we were loaded onto one of several cattle cars and waited several days, until the train finally headed off to Siberia.”
Another interviewee, Alexander Schenker, the scion of an upper-middle-class Jewish family from Krakow, told of the extremely hard work he was forced to do in Siberian forests, cutting down trees in bitter cold weather.
“Even though it was very difficult, I don’t regret the time I spent in Siberia,” he said,
“In some way, strange as it sounds, it was the first time I felt human.”
But Stalin had no humanitarian interest in saving Jewish lives – indeed, his extreme anti-Semitism was well-documented, despite the fact that many of his Bolshevik colleagues leading up to and after the Russian Revolution were themselves Jews.
Robert Conquest, who wrote “Stalin: Breaker of Nations,” said that while Stalin held anti-Jewish views from his Georgian youth, his hatred did not become an obsession until after the defeat of Hitler and the beginning of the Cold War.
“Stalin’s attitude [towards the Jews] seems to have been based in part on what he took to be Hitler’s successful use of anti-Semitic demagogy,” Conquest wrote.
“It was certainly also due to his increasing Russian nationalism, to which he felt, most, or many, Jews were not truly assimilable. And the idea of a special Jewish predilection for capitalism is of course to be found in Marx. He especially opposed Jews who were Bundists [Yiddish-speaking socialists], or religious activists, or ‘cosmopolitans,’ or secessionists, or Zionists, or were agents of American-Israeli organizations.”
Conquest also noted that after Golda Meir arrived Moscow in late 1948 as Israel's first ambassador (and was warmly received by many Soviet officials), Stalin started another purge of Jews in the country, leading to the notorious “Doctors Plot” of 1952-1953 when Stalin arrested Moscow physicians (most of them Jewish) whom he charged with seeking to poison and kill Soviet leaders on behalf of the British and Americans. [Stalin died in March 1953, which put an end to this episode.].
After Stalin’s death, it was also revealed that Stalin had wanted to deport Russia’s Jews to Birobidjan, a remote part of Siberia, near China’s northeastern border, almost 5,000 miles east of Moscow, according to P.K. Ponomarenko, the Soviet ambassador in Poland.
Stalin defended the decision, citing that he and the Soviet Union were the targets of a “Zionist and imperialist" plot. The proposal was rejected by Marshal Klementi Voroshilov, one of Stalin’s top military officers. Molotov, who had a Jewish wife, also expressed his reservations. Reportedly, an enraged Stalin died soon thereafter, canceling that particular deportation order.