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The legacy of the Documents Bureau in the collections of the Hoover Institution

Bartosz Gralicki

 

The Polish Armed Forces in the USSR was a particular formation which entered into the annals of history not only with regard to its military dimension but, first and foremost, with regard to the social and political functions it fulfilled. After the so-called amnesty, both soldiers (POWs recently released from camps) and civilian victims of the oppressive system (Soviet prison camp inmates, prisoners, exiles) headed to the Polish Army’s central collection point in vast numbers. For them, the army represented the only possibility to extricate themselves from Soviet hell, which is why everyone strove to put themselves as close as possible to it despite the difficulties of the journey, starvation and extreme physical exhaustion. In total, more than 100,000 Polish citizens were evacuated into the Middle East, whereby their lives were saved. The Polish experiences of Soviet occupation were tragic and at the same time were largely unknown to the broader public opinion, particularly in the West. Thousands of victims inured to practically all the categories of repression used by the totalitarian Communist regime left the Soviet Union, thus creating a unique opportunity to tell the world exactly what Soviet Russia was.

 

The Historical Division and the Documents Bureau

Just after the conclusion of the Polish-Soviet agreement of 30 July 1941 (the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement), a group of officers still interned at the POW camp in Gryazovets realized the need to collect materials and historical memoirs and to organize a unit modeled after the pre-war Military Historical Bureau in the newly-forming army. General Władysław Anders looked favorably on the initiative and ordered the creation of an Independent Historical Division of the Polish Armed Forces at the Armed Forces Command in the USSR. The director of the Division was Lt. Dr. Walerian Charkiewicz and his organization and work were regulated by the order of 17 December 1941. The Division’s main task was to create and maintain the Archives of the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR. Its remaining tasks included collecting and sorting documents and other materials regarding the organization of the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR, directing archival and chronicling work in groups, and keeping soldiers’ records and collecting their reports. The Division was also to provide information according to the current needs of the press and civilian and military authorities.

Organizational changes were implemented as a result of the evacuation from the Soviet Union and the merging of the Polish Army in the Middle East and the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR into an operational unit called the Polish Army in the East in September 1942. With the order of 15 April 1943, Gen. Anders brought the Documents Bureau into being, of which the Historical Division formed a part. The Bureau was intended to be a specialized unit documenting “the totality of Bolshevik activity in the occupied areas of Poland, the fate and the experiences of Polish citizens before and after their deportation deep into Russia, life and the state of affairs among the Soviets.” The stipulations of the Bureau’s work were thus significantly broadened in relation to the objectives that had been set before the Historical Division. It was to be not only an archiving institution, but also one which took care of the appropriate scientific work on the gathered materials with the thought to enable their being employed in anti-Soviet propaganda. In the ambitious “Organizational Project of the Documents Bureau”, there were plans not only for the preparation of scientific and popular-scientific papers, but also of articles for the everyday press, novellas, and even fiction novels. Based on the work begun by the Historical Division, the Documents Bureau was to lead a further charge in collecting reports and surveys, prepare both general and detailed catalogs, and “separate high-value materials from those with little value”. Thematically, the clerks of the Bureau dealt with a broad scope of issues including occupational politics on Polish lands, the Soviet penal system and labor camps, the fate of women and children, socio-political issues and policies with regard to national minorities. They were the key aspects of life in Kraj Rad [the Land of the Soviets] and its policies towards Polish citizens. The Documents Bureau had nearly completed or prepared for printing at least several dozen papers on the above topics by the time it was dissolved. The majority of them were never published.

 

The Survey Campaign

The greatest undertaking of both institutions, the Division and then the Documents Bureau, was without a doubt the collecting of testimonies from the POWs, internees, Soviet prison camp inmates, and exiles who managed to make their way into Anders’ Army. The task was split into several separate stages but the period documentation is often collectively referred to as the “survey campaign”. The idea was simple: in order to collect material about Soviet Russia that was both reliable and as objective as possible, they had to urge the eyewitnesses to record their experiences. Only such first-hand material would be worth anything as evidence in the eyes of western public opinion, one that was in general openly sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Yet worries arose that handing over total creative control to the authors of the reports might cause a blurring of the narrative line and would provoke continuous digressions and descriptions of issues that were of secondary importance. To prevent this, forms were drawn up with questions that would not give any hints as to how they should be answered and at the same time would standardize the narrative of a massive amount of incoming documentation. These questions were the key to the success of the entire campaign. Of course, this does not mean that the organizers demanded the unconditional fulfillment of the orders given in the questionnaires. Each case contained information that the form was to be treated purely as a guide if anyone believed that it did not cover his or her personal experiences.

The beginning of the survey campaign is dated as of spring 1942, just after Anders’ Army left Iran. The first to fill in the questionnaire were the POWs and prison camp inmates enlisting into the Polish Army. The campaign was regulated by Gen. Anders’ order of 19 December 1942 and gained pace at the beginning of 1943. It must be stressed that several different versions of the questionnaire were in circulation in the aforementioned period. Except for the most prevalent “questionnaire for former POWs – internees – prisoners – Lager inmates – exiles in the USSR”, a lot of weight was attached to the “plebiscite survey” which focused on gathering information on the fraudulent plebiscites in the regions occupied by the Red Army in October 1939. All of that material ended up in the Ministry of Information and Documentation (also currently  in the archives of the Hoover Institution). Other special surveys were also prepared in addition to the two “standard” ones, one of them being the “Jewish survey”. Although this latter questionnaire differed in form, the basic questions remained the same. The main questions concerned name and surname, age, occupation, marital status, and the circumstances surrounding arrest/deportation. These were followed by a series of general questions about the camp, prison, or place of forced labor: name, location, description, average daily routine, food, working conditions, the conduct of the NKVD, medical care, communication with home and family, and the circumstances surrounding release. Sometimes the answers were given very laconically and stuck purely to the facts, for example: “Ukhta lager”, “Sevpechlag”, “kolkhoz in Kazakhstan”. However, the questions were often merely a suggestion to expand on the written answer as a sort of memoir entitled “Biography”, “An account of my time in Russia”, “My life in Russia”, etc. Many of them possess great literary and journalistic value.

 

The later fates of the archive material

The decidedly largest collection of surveys, questionnaires, and reports can currently be found in the archives of the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California. How did the material come to find itself in the United States? Towards the end of the Second World War, when the Documents Bureau was still stationed in Rome as part of the Polish II Corps, questions started to be asked about what should be done with such a vast amount of cataloged and ordered source material which had only been examined to a minimal degree. The final decision was influenced by factors of a political nature. It could have been assumed that the Polish Armed Forces would soon lose its autonomy, especially after Great Britain and the USA withdrew their international recognition of the Polish government in exile in the summer of 1945. Fears arose that the archive material might end up in the hands of the Communists or of organizations sympathetic to them and that the survey respondents and their families might become the victims of reprisals. In the reporting statement [Raport Sprawozdawczy] from 28 August 1945, the head of the Bureau at that time, Bohdan Podoski, wrote:

“The material in the possession of the Documents Bureau has more than historical and propagandistic value. It can also be employed by the enemy who knows no mercy and who will spare no efforts in exacting revenge on hundreds of people for having spoken the truth about him. These people trusted their General and their Commander [Gen. Anders – author’s note], and therefore the military authorities must do everything within their power not to betray the trust of hundreds of their soldiers.”

It was mainly for this reason that it was decided that the best possible solution was the Hoover Institution, an organization with close ties to Poland and, moreover, a private body free from the influence of direct political pressure. Gen. Anders corresponded with the Institution in summer 1946, expressing his willingness to hand over the archive material which was then sent on in two parts: the first from Italy in late 1946 and the second from Foxley in England, where the Documents Bureau had been relocated, in November 1947. In order to further protect the archives from undesired surveillance at the hands of foreign intelligence, Gen. Anders was named the “sole keeper” of the entire collection which thereby became private property. For this reason, the entirety of the archives of the Documents Bureau in Stanford came to be called the Anders Collection.

In 1951, a part of the reports (around 9,000) was lent to the Library of Congress where it underwent a thorough examination by the CIA on the basis of which it gathered information on the network of Soviet forced labor camps. It was only in the 1970s that the collection was used by researchers and when Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzińska-Gross wrote their famous book “W czterdziestym nas Matko na Sibir zesłali…” Polska a Rosja 1939–1942 [“In 1940, Mother, they sent us to Siberia…” Poland and Russia 1939–1942] (1st ed. London, 1983) based on their findings. In 1993, the Director General of the State Archives concluded an agreement with the Hoover Institution whereby the Institution was required to transfer the documentation onto microfilm which then went to the Archive of Modern Records. They were also digitized and published by the National Digital Archives on the website szukajwarchiwach.pl, where other archival collections in the possession of the Hoover Institution are available in addition to the Anders Collection.

On 25 January 2017, an agreement was signed between the Hoover Institution, the National Digital Archives, the Archive of Modern Records and the Center for Totalitarian Studies, whereby the Center received copies of the digitized testimonies. The Center’s task is to put the collections in order, prepare transcriptions and translate the documents into English. Of great value for the project is the interactive map which gives the locations of the individual POW camps, Soviet forced labor camps, special settlements and other places through which the road to freedom took those who were fortunate enough to survive the Soviet hell. The results of the first stage of work on the huge collection, amounting to more than 18,000 testimonies, were published by the Center on 17 September 2017. The testimonies of more than 500 people can be found on the “Chronicles of Terror” website.

 

Bibliography

Register of the Wladyslaw Anders Collection, 1939–1946. Processed by Ronald M. Bulatoff, Stanford 1980. Available at: http://pdf.oac.cdlib.org/pdf/hoover/reg_344.pdf.

Stępniak Władysław, Archiwalia polskie w zbiorach Instytutu Hoovera Uniwersytetu Stanforda, Warsaw 1997.

Wieliczko Mieczysław, Biuro Dokumentów Wojska Polskiego na Obczyźnie w latach 1941–1946, “Annales Universitatis Mariae Curie-Skłodowska” 2006, vol. 66, pp. 185–200.

Zamorski Kazimierz, Dwa tajne biura II Korpusu, London 1990.

 

Bartosz Gralicki – graduate of the Institute of History, University of Warsaw. Researcher of the biological standard of living in the past, the works of Orthodoxy in Poland and the history of Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries.