The death march from Minsk to Chervyen
Let us remind and warn next generations of another Katyn, an almost unknown case of Polish people’s martyrology. The unexpected and sudden Hitler’s attack against the Soviet ally on 22 June 1941 completed surprised Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party of Bolsheviks. The attack of the German army changed the Soviet war plans. The panic and chaos in the Soviet Army did not stop the genocide of the Polish people that the Soviets had planned. The Soviet troops and the NKVD units, which were quickly withdrawing, began fulfilling, with all cruelty, the top secret order issued on June 1941 by the highest Soviet authorities (according to the so-called Suvorov directive), concerning the execution of the prisoners defined as ‘I category’ in the Belorusian and Ukrainian lands. This top secret directive embraced all prisons in the territory of the so-called Western Belarus and Western Ukraine as well as the territories of the newly established Soviet republics: Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. The prisons were filled with thousands of prisoners, mainly the political ones. Those who survived the Soviet gehenna remember well how Stalin and his people began destroying ruthlessly all Polish elements after the Red Army had treacherously entered the Polish territory on 17 September 1939. That moment was the beginning of the Soviet aggression against Poland that was fighting with the Germans, and ‘the Polish Golgotha of the East’ started. At once the Soviets began arresting numerous people, mainly the Polish intelligentsia, soldiers and youth. The Soviet kangaroo courts began bloody activities, giving death sentences without any trials to thousands of Poles. In the second half of January and the beginning of February 1941 the most dangerous two day session of the Highest Military Court of Justice, presided over by the bloody and famous General Vasilij Ulrych, sentenced hundreds of Poles illegally; they were mainly young people from the so-called Western Belarus, i.e. the northern borderline Polish lands. Many of them were sentenced to death. They were immediately executed. 17 February 1941 was the day of numerous executions. During that time (1 February 1941) the death sentence was passed on Ryszard Kaczorowski (later President of the Polish Government in Exile). Then his death sentence was changed to 10 years in labour camp and he sent to Kolyma. He left the Soviet Union with General Ander’s Army. The second term of the kangaroo court was held towards the end of May 1941. Numerous death sentences were passed. Almost all of the arrested Poles, who were sentenced by the kangaroo Soviet courts in Lida, Grodno, Lomza and Bialystok, were transported to prisons in Lithuanian Minsk. Another day of the mass executions of the Polish elite by the Soviets was 24 June 1941 when the majority of the prisoners, sentenced to death by the Soviet murderers, were killed or poisoned in jails. The executions were conducted everywhere and in a hurry, for example Lieutenant-colonel Jerzy Dabrowski and Lieutenant Zareba were shot in their hospital beds on 24 June 1941 just before the evacuation of the prison. The other prisoners who had not been executed before 22 June 1941 were forced to eat poisoned meal or the poison was forcibly poured into their mouths or they were murdered in their cells. When the German army reached Minsk, on 24 June 1941, the remaining prisoners (the sources mention various numbers, certainly not less than 7,500 people) were brought out of the central jail at 1 Wlodarski Street, the former Sapieha’s castle, which before 1917 had also been called provincial or city castle, and out of the NKVD prison in Uricki Street (commonly called ‘American’ or ‘rotunda’). Groups of 150-700 people were formed and guarded by Soviet soldiers, carrying automatic pistols and rifles with bayonets. The prisoners were raced off somewhere to the East. This was the beginning of the ‘death march’, i.e. the evacuation of the prisoners from Minsk to Chervyen on 24-27 June 1941. Below are some reports of the few prisoners who survived the horror caused by the Russian companions (!), taken out of the book entitled ‘Marsz smierci’ [The Death March] by Joanna Stankiewicz-Januszczak.
They are racing us off through the city, shouting, ‘Do not watch back!’ The city is full of lorries, armoured vehicles, cars, troops and people. Someone throws a cigarette towards the prisoners. At once some Jew begins furiously reprimanding that man and accusing him to the EKWD soldiers. It was clearly visible that people felt sorry for us but the Jews derided and shouted, ‘Why are you racing off this contra-revolutionary army. They should have been killed long time ago! (p. 75)
After having covered some 15 km from Minsk we were forbidden to look right but we could see what was there. At the edge of the pinewood forest there were prisoners lying in two rows –ca. 300 people (p. 67).
Later I managed to speak to two prisoners who were among the group lying in the forest and who were saved in an extraordinary way. They told me that there was a specific trial on the spot. Two lieutenants and three NKVD privates judged them. During the trial all prisoners had to lie huddled, with their noses to the ground. The judges called them individually and questioned them what they had been sentenced for. Probably 12 out of 300 people were saved because at first every 25th prisoner was released. Those who knew the criminal code well and could lie, for instance the one that had been sentenced according to paragraph 153 (robbery) could have been saved because they ordered him to go to the road? Those who followed the order and did not escape in the forest were caught again and shot. The rest, who were as if sentenced, were brought into the forest and executed by two shots in the backs of their heads. They must have released every 25th person so that those who were lying, having a slight hope for rescue, could peacefully wait for their fate? (p. 68)
One could hear the shots at the miserable, tired people as far as in Chervyen. According to our calculations, the NKVD murdered about 500-600 people during the march (p. 109). The NKVD executed the prisoners near Chervyen in the night of 26/27 June. Only several people out of 750 survived. The group behind us faced the same fate (p. 123).
We heard the voices of the arrested and the sounds of their executions in the evening of 24 June. We heard the cell doors opened; we heard groans, struggling and a shot from time to time. Later we learnt that poison was forcibly poured into the prisoners’ mouths. We cannot define the number of people who were executed in this way… One of the heaviest bombardments over Minsk took place during those days. The executions of the prisoners were stopped for some time and after the bombardment all cell doors were opened and prisoners were ordered to go out. We were raced off to the prison yard… We were surrounded by many guards and raced off through burning Minsk. Our group counted ca. 200 people. After leaving Minsk we were stopped for a rest in the forest, 5 km away from the city. All the arrested from the Minsk prisons were brought there. The number of prisoners was almost 20,000 (p. 134). I and several other prisoners were in the group on the left. The group consisted of about 700 prisoners. We were escorted from the prison during the night and raced off towards the east. After having covered some 3-4 km on a sandy roadside we entered the forest. We heard shots from behind. The Soviets began shooting the last rows of prisoners, grabbing every prisoner by the collar and throwing the bodies aside. We quickened our pace and then the NKVD on both sides of the road began shooting at us. We fell… After a while the escort ordered, ‘Run to the forest. We are going to shoot.’ I was lying on the roadside beside Witold Daszkiewicz from Lid, holding his hand. When he wanted to stand after hearing the order I stopped him. Most prisoners stood up and then our guards began shooting at them using their automatic guns and additionally, they threw grenades. The roar of the shots jammed the shouts and groans (p. 136).
The right group from Chervyen was brought from the prison to a forest clearing, surrounded by automatic arms and shot. To check whether there were some alive left cars ran over them. One seriously wounded man survived from this group (p. 137).
The group that moved to the right of the gate saw a macabre sight in the forest: the road was covered by massacred bodies of 700 prisoners who had been selected the previous evening. The battlefield was 1.5 km long, on the road from Chervyen to Bobrujsk (p.22).
All the saved prisoners spoke with one voice that the Soviets killed prisoners using automatic guns and they also finished the wounded off using small arms, bayonets and camp shovels. Those who fell in the middle of the road and did not die immediately were run over by tanks and cars (p. 20).
Nobody knows the number of prisoners in Chervyen and how many were killed but certainly not less than 1,000-1,500 people (p. 19).
Only 85 out of all the groups that were massively liquidated survived. So the overall death toll is horrifying (p. 22).
Today most generations know what happened in Katyn, Charkow, Miednoje as well as in Kolyma and Siberia. The knowledge concerning the horrible genocide of Polish young people in Ponary is small. But very few people know how much the present Ukrainian or Belarussian lands were soaked with innocent Polish blood. Very few people know how determined the Soviets were to introduce the policy of genocide of our brothers and sisters. We must not forget this. Of course, we must remember it not to take revenge but to resist future satraps. ‘A nation that loses its memory loses its identity’, said John Paul II.
Most descriptions have been taken out of the book ‘Marsz smierci’ [The Death March] by Joanna Stankiewicz-Januszczak, edited by Oficyna Wolumen. Rada Ochrony Pamieci Walk i Meczenstwa, Warsaw 1999.
Anyone that wants to contact the author and participant of those horrible events can call 0048 – 58 620-84-96.