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'They had nothing': Polish museum honours Siberian deportees

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a man sitting in front of a book shelf: Elzbieta Smulkowa's father was killed by Soviet troops and the rest of the family deported to Siberia © Wojtek RADWANSKI Elzbieta Smulkowa's father was killed by Soviet troops and the rest of the family deported to Siberia

Eighty years on, the emotion is still raw for Elzbieta Smulkowa when she remembers her deportation to Siberia in 1941.

"The worst was the hunger, the lack of heating and how it was impossible to help my mother any more," the 90-year-old told AFP at her home in suburban Warsaw.

Smulkowa, her little sister and their mother were forced to leave their hometown of Lviv, then a part of Poland, when it was taken over by the Soviet Union during World War II.

Her father, a forest ranger, had been arrested and, unbeknownst to his family, killed by Soviet troops a year earlier.

The history of Soviet deportations is the subject of a new museum opening in Bialystok in northeast Poland on Friday -- the anniversary of the Soviet assault on Poland which followed soon after the Nazi German invasion that triggered World War II.

a display in a store: Pictures of people exiled to Siberia are displayed in the museum © Wojtek RADWANSKI Pictures of people exiled to Siberia are displayed in the museum

The museum traces the history of the hundreds of thousands of Poles deported to Siberia during Tsarist Russia and Soviet times set in the context of the millions who suffered the same fate.

a train is parked on the side of a building: The Sybir Memorial Museum is housed in a former military depot where deportees left from during World War II © Wojtek RADWANSKI The Sybir Memorial Museum is housed in a former military depot where deportees left from during World War II

It is housed in a former military depot "in the exact spot where deportees left from" during World War II, Wojciech Sleszynski, the museum's director, said at a press preview.

- 'We had their love' -

At a time when the last deportees are passing away, the museum showcases their oral and written accounts as well the simple objects with extraordinary stories that accompanied them.

Museum researchers said they had found representatives of around 60 nations and ethnicities among the deportees to Siberia.

"The museum gives a Polish perspective because we are in Poland" but it addresses "a universal experience of totalitarianism, suffering and forced migration," Sleszynski said.

Museum researchers said they had found representatives of around 60 nations and ethnicities among the deportees to Siberia © Wojtek RADWANSKI Museum researchers said they had found representatives of around 60 nations and ethnicities among the deportees to Siberia

The Soviet deportations in 1940 and 1941 affected more than 330,000 people in what was then a very multi-ethnic Poland -- entire families were taken away, including 130,000 children.

After a six-week journey, Smulkowa's family ended up in the village of Ust-Selga in the middle of the vast taiga forest -- 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) from their former home.

"There were two Polish families, four Ukrainian ones and six Latvian ones," said Smulkowa, who went on to become a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Warsaw and Poland's first ambassador to independent Belarus in 1992.

Smulkowa's mother worked in the fields.

"We, the children, had our mothers as protection and we had their love. They had nothing. They had lost their spouses, their homes, everything," Smulkowa said.

- 'Sky was bluer' -

The museum also includes the stories of Polish deportees who helped advance scientific knowledge about Siberia such as the zoologist Benedykt Dybowski or Bronislaw Pilsudski, an anthropolgist who documented Siberian tribes.

Among the exhibits in the museum is a sewing machine that allowed deportees to make clothes to survive the harsh winters and a violin that a 10-year-old deportee gave to his Soviet guards to allow his family to return to Poland.

After the war, the deportees began to return to their country.

When she crossed back into Poland in 1946, Smulkowa remembers thinking "the grass was greener and the sky was bluer".

The deportations continued after the war, however.

Around 100,000 more people were deported from Poland, including ethnic Germans and Poles from the anti-Nazi resistance.

In all of European history "every country has seen instances of deportation," said Sleszynski.

"Let's try and talk about it, without mutual accusations but by concentrating on the universal themes and the suffering."

sw/dt/ach 

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