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Chapter V

Berling's Polish Army

Following the departure of the Anders Army from the Soviet Union, relations between the Polish and Soviet governments steadily worsened with time. The Poles kept asking what happened to the missing Polish officers that the Soviets took prisoner in 1939. Thousands of Polish officers were known to have been taken prisoners yet no one knew where they were. The Soviets kept giving evasive answers, claiming that they were investigating or checking on the matter. Months passed and still thousands of Polish prisoners–of–war officers were missing. The Poles began to suspect the Soviets of foul play. Early in 1943, the Germans released information to the effect that hundreds of Polish officers had been found dead in the region of Smolensk. They accused the Soviets of killing these men. The Soviets denied the charge. In Fact, the massacre was prompted by NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria's proposal to execute all captive members of the Polish officer corps, dated March 5, 1940. The proposal was approved by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, including its leader, Joseph Stalin. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000. The victims were executed in the Katyn Forest in the Soviet Union, in Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. About 8,000 were military officers imprisoned during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, another 6,000 were police officers and the rest were arrested were members of the Polish intelligentsia including doctors, lawyers, landowners, officials and priests.

When the news reached the London–based Polish government in exile, it asked for an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Stalin immediately severed diplomatic relations with it. All Polish offices related to the London Polish government were closed throughout the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union claimed that the victims had been murdered by the Nazis in 1941 and continued to deny responsibility for the massacres until 1990. To date, nobody knows the reason for the mass killings of helpless Polish prisoners in Soviet hands.

Stalin closed all Polish offices and organizations in the Soviet Union. He ordered all Polish officials who represented the London Polish government to leave the Soviet Union. All ties between the Soviet Union and Poland were severed. But the Soviet Union had a serious problem: the Soviet armies were advancing to the Polish borders and he had no Polish government behind him. He realized that the Poles were not going to accept Soviet officials managing Poland. Stalin then ordered the Polish communists in the Soviet Union to form an association, which they did, calling it the Union of Polish Patriots (Society of Polish Patriots, Polish: Związek Patriotów Polskich, ZPP). This association became very active in the Soviet Union in 1943. In May, 1943, ZPP was involved in the creation of the first infantry division named the Tadeusz Kosciuszko division of the Polish People's Army under the command of general Zygmunt Berling. Kosciuszko was a famous Polish military man who even fought with the American colonies against Britain.

 

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General Zygmunt Henryk Berling

 

Zygmunt Henryk Berling was a Polish general and politician. He fought for the independence of Poland in the early 20th century. Later, he became the commander of the 1st Polish Army in the Soviet Union and played an important role in the post–war Polish government. Zygmunt Berling was born in Limanowa on April 27, 1896. He joined the Polish Legions of Józef Piłsudski in 1914. At the end of the First World War he joined the reborn Polish Army, and served as an officer until 1939 when he retired. He was arrested by the Soviets in 1939 following the defeat of Poland. He was released from prison and joined Anders army but remained in the Soviet Union. He was appointed head of the new Polish Army created in the Soviet Union.

 

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About 11,000 Polish recruits were gathered at a camp at Sielce near Ryazan, Soviet Union,
in May, 1943 where they were presented with the Polish flag,
the beginning of the First Polish Army in the East under the leadership of General Zygmunt Berling.

 

As mentioned earlier, the second Polish Army in the Soviet Union was called the Polish People's Army. It was created in 1943 and headed by General Berling. He was appointed to head the army and received Stalin's blessings. He launched an appeal to all Polish citizens in the Soviet Union to join the Polish army and help liberate Poland.

Yeshayahu Drucker heard the appeal in a labor camp. As mentioned previously, he had been rejected from the Polish Army and found a job as a technician. He and his brother worked as tractor technicians until one day, all people without proper identification were arrested and send to a labor camp. The Drucker brothers claimed that they were Polish citizens but the commander of the camp told them to join the Soviet Army and they would be released from the camp. Both brothers did not feel like returning to another labor camp and decided to join the new Polish Army. They were immediately provided with train tickets to Moscow and given the necessary papers. [1] They appeared before a military commission that consisted of a Polish Jewish doctor and a Polish Jewish male nurse. They were soldiers number 81 and 82 of the new Polish Army and were sent to a place called Dibibo where the Polish Army began to organize. More and more Poles joined the army, among them many Polish Jews. Military training began and they were prepared for battle in the area of Lenino near Smolensk. While undergoing military training, Yeshayahu heard that the Polish Army was in the process of establishing a Catholic chaplaincy for the Polish soldiers. Yehshayahu wrote a letter requesting a similar office for the Jewish soldiers. He never received a reply.

 

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Letter written by Yeshayahu Drucker to General Berling's headquarters. [2]
Below the Hebrew text is the English translation.
“With Respect, General Berling, Commanding Officer
First Kosciuszko Division, Wanda Wasylevska
Polish Army January, 1944 Moscow
Commanding Officers
My name is Yeshayahu Drucker, a soldier in the Second Regiment of the Division. I humbly turn to my commanding officer to ask that he concern himself with my plight and that of my comrades, the Jewish soldiers in our regiment, so we are able to receive the religious services provided to soldiers.
We have come to understand that religious services have already been organized and provided to those Polish soldiers of the Catholic faith. And I believe that the same services should be provided to Polish soldiers of the Jewish faith.
Our regiment has received orders to prepare for battle with our cruel enemy, and it is very desirable that we have a chaplain, or at least a person who will be responsible for the Jewish soldiers in our regiment, who can lead them in prayer and speak to their hearts before they go to war. I have no doubt in the interest of your honor to increase the motivation of the soldiers to fight for their Polish homeland and to receive thanks for this from all the Jewish soldiers in the Polish army.
With the utmost respect,
Yeshayahu Drucker
Second Regiment of the Division
No reply was received from the Polish Army.”

 

While training, Yeshayahu Drucker realized that Yom Kippur was about to be celebrated. He organized the service and even published the announcement in the regimental paper. Yeshayahu conducted the services from memory. He was assisted by Moshe Schiff, another Polish Jewish soldier. Many soldiers showed up for the “Kol Nidrei” service. There were no reprimands for this illegal military action. Of course, the higher echelons, including Berling, decided to ignore the event. Berling was a member of the ZPP whose president was Wanda Wasilewska, a Polish writer born in Krakow and known for her left wing writings. The ZPP officially created a Directorate (“Zarząd”) that slowly assumed the form of a government with full Soviet backing. It began to publish newspapers and publications, and created a Polish infrastructure within the Soviet Union that replaced the one created by Sikorski, which Stalin had closed. In 1944, ZPP formally recognized the State National Council (Krajowa Rada Narodowa) and was responsible for the formation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego) that would in effect assume the role of the Polish government in the Soviet Union and would administer all matters pertaining to Polish interests, including signing border agreements with Polish neighbors such as the Soviet Union and Lithuania. On July 22, the Polish Committee of National Liberation was informed that Berling was appointed deputy commander of the Polish Army in the Soviet Union.

Yeshayahu Drucker's regiment, part of the Kosczusko Division, first division of the Polish People's Army, went into action on October 12, 1943, at the battle of Lenino in the Mogilev region of White Russia. The entire division had started to train only four months previously and still lacked the necessary physical stamina for a well–oiled military unit. Most of the soldiers were former inmates of Soviet prisons, gulags and labor camps. They lacked ample supplies. But their motivation was high. At last they would face the enemy face to face. The division had a sizable number of Polish Jews. The battle plan called for a direct frontal attack. The flanks were supported by Soviet military units. At first, the attack went well, but on the second day the Germans recaptured their lost ground since a Soviet relief forces did not arrive. The Kosciuszko division held its ground but sustained very heavy losses. The division was withdrawn from the battle for rest and replenishment of the ranks. This was the first engagement of a large Polish military division against well–trained German soldiers.

Yeshayahu Drucker's unit was resting and recuperating when they were transferred to the city of Berditchev for further training. Berditchev was a typical Jewish town in the Ukraine before the war. It was frequently referred to as the “Jerusalem of Volhynia.” The city had been home to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a prominent Hassidic leader, and to Rabbi Yitzhak Ber Levinzon, a famous advocate of Jewish Enlightenment.

 

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Big Choral Synagogue in Berditchev (pre–Revolution photo)

 

In 1926, there were 30,812 (55.6%) Jews in Berditchev and in 1939 there were 23,266 Jews. The Germans exterminated the Jewish population of Berditchev during World War II. In 1944, Yeshayahu Drucker found one Jewish woman and her daughter in Berditchev who had survived the war in the city. The woman's father was a religious slaughterer, a shochet, in the city and had a Torah scroll at home that survived the war. [3] The woman gave the torah to Yeshayahu for the use of the Jewish soldiers.

Passover was fast approaching in 1944 and Yeshayahu approached Eduard Ochab, political adviser of the second regiment, with a request for flour to bake matzot and potatoes. Apparently Ochab was familiar with Jewish traditions and granted the request on condition that the Jews bake their own matzot. Yeshayahu organized a seder for the soldiers.

Edward Ochab was born in 1906. He was a Polish communist, social activist and politician. As a member of the Communist Party of Poland from 1929, he was repeatedly imprisoned for his activities under the Polish regime of the time. In 1939, Ochab moved to the Soviet Union, where he became an early organizer and manager in the Union of Polish Patriots. In 1943 he joined General Berling's Army as a political officer and quickly advanced in its ranks. In 1944, he was a member of the Central Committee of the Polish Workers' Party (PPR) and in 1945 he became minister of public administration.

The retraining finished, Yeshayahu's regiment proceeded to execute General Rokossovsky's military orders. Aaron Drucker was sent to an officer course to become a weapons maintenance officer. The two brothers separated and would meet after the war. Each Polish division was attached to a Soviet general. At this time, there were already many Polish divisions. Many of the officers were Russians but they claimed to be Poles. Yeshayahu Drucker gave them lessons in Polish. He became the political officer of the unit that explained the great problems to the Polish soldiers, namely that the Germans had killed the Polish officers. Yeshayahu also explained to the Polish soldiers the great shift of the Polish borders to the west where there was an abundance of coal.

Yeshayahu's second regiment was again on the move. Cities, hamlets and villages were liberated but there were practically no Jewish survivors. There was terrible destruction everywhere but all evidence of the Jewish community, such as synagogues or cemeteries, had been decimated. The front moved rapidly forward and soon reached the Bug River, the new Polish–Soviet frontier. The Soviet–Polish forces pressed on and liberated Polish cities where the Polish forces were received like heroes. Yeshayahu and the other Jewish soldiers found no Jewish survivors in the once predominantly Jewish places. The local Poles were not terribly upset by this factor and some even praised Hitler for a job well done. [4] All Polish forces rushed in one direction, to the Vistula River that crossed Warsaw, the Polish capital.

On August 1, 1944, the Polish underground, one of the largest paramilitary organizations in occupied Europe, launched a city–wide rebellion against the retreating German army in Warsaw. The leaders of the revolt assumed that the Soviet–Polish forces would continue their military advances. They were dead wrong. Stalin had no intention of helping the revolt led by the Polish underground and dominated by the Armija Krajowa that was closely connected to the Polish government in exile in London. Stalin ordered all Soviet military operations to stop in the Warsaw area. This decision gave the Germans time to regroup and crush the revolt. The Poles fought bravely but were no match against battle–hardened German troops who leveled Warsaw house by house, similar to the crushing tactics used against the Jewish revolt in Warsaw a year earlier. The Jews in that revolt had begged the Poles for weapons but the assistance did not materialize. Now the Poles were begging for help but the Soviet Union refused to listen. The fighting lasted about 63 days, resulting in thousands of Polish deaths and the deportations of thousands of Poles to concentration camps. The Polish soldiers were furious but the Soviet command had given the orders. [5] Several weeks later, the Germans evacuated the city of Warsaw for fear of being surrounded by Soviet troops. The Soviet–Polish forces began to move and took the city. Most of the city was destroyed. The second regiment was ordered to move in the direction of Auschwitz. Yeshayahu Drucker knew it was a terrible place but did not know the real facts. His unit arrived at Auschwitz that had just been liberated by four Soviet divisions. Yeshayahu saw an empty place with huge piles of shoes and talitot; he took one talit for personal use and also picked up a small bag that contained phylacteries used for daily morning prayers. The little bag had an inscription; the phylacteries had belonged to a Rabbi Weiss from Budapest, Hungary. [6] Yeshayahu and the other Jewish soldiers now saw the full tragedy of the Jewish people.

The second regiment of the Polish army was selected to represent Poland in the attack of Berlin. The unit returned to Warsaw where Yeshayahu went to visit his old school but the only thing left was the road. The road in front of the seminary was paved with wooden blocks to reduce the traffic noise so that the students would not be disturbed in their studies. The entire area had been destroyed beyond recognition. He continued to march without paying attention to any point along the road. During a break in the march, Yeshayahu sat with some other Jewish Polish soldiers and saw the steps leading to the Vistula River consisted of Jewish tombstones that had been removed from the Jewish cemetery of Modlin. Yeshayahu was deeplymoved by the scene. Next to him sat a former leader of the Zionist youth group, Gordonia, in Krakow, who said “these stones are the reason that I joined the Communist Party in order to get some revenge.” His name was Bleifarb and he became the head of the U.B. or Polish NKVD. Of course, he changed his name. He eventually had to flee Poland. Yeshayahu does not know what happened to him. [7] He was not the only Jewish soldier to join the Polish secret service.

Yeshayahu continued to march forward with his unit. On one occasion he was sent on errands for the unit and picked up a couple of hitchhikers. The couple talked among themselves in Yiddish. This was the first encounter that Yeshayahu had with Polish Jewish survivors. He dropped them off and they continued their journey. The unit helped liberate the women's concentration camp of Stutthof where there were Jewish women. But the regiment moved at a fast pace across Prussia. He already saw signs stating that Berlin was so many kilometers away. The race to Berlin was on. The second regiment reached a village named Neuzitzing and bedded down for the night. Suddenly an alarm sounded. Yeshayahu's unit was being attacked by a band of members of the so–called Werewolf organization. This was the name given to a Nazi plan, which began development in 1944, to create a resistance force that would operate behind enemy lines as the Allies advanced through Germany. The unit's commander Sinicki was away but his assistant Oshmilowicz directed the defense and attacked the gang. [8] With daybreak the Polish troops saw a number of dead bodies while the rest of the Nazis apparently escaped back to their base. The regiment received orders to advance to Berlin where fighting was raging everywhere in the city. Slowly, house by house, the city was being captured. Yeshayahu's regiment fought its way into Berlin and entered the city on May 1, 1945. Fighting continued for a few days. Then the Germans capitulated on May 8, 1945. The next day, the regiment received permission to tour the city. They saw the well–fed and well–dressed American soldiers while they themselves were underfed and poorly clothed.

Yeshayahu's Polish unit participated in the great victory parade in Berlin. They saw a procession of 700 German generals being led to detention camps for prisoners of war. The Jewish soldiers were very pleased with the scene.

The Soviets did not like the idea of fraternization among the various Allied forces and began to send their own military units to the rear. Yeshayahu's unit returned to the Polish city of Siedlice. With ample time on his hands, Yeshayahu toured the city and met many Jewish residents, some of the survivors from the camps and some repatriated Polish Jews from the Soviet Union. Yeshayahu received a letter from his brother Aaron Drucker who was in Czechoslovakia.


Footnotes

  1. Drucker, Testimony Return
  2. Kurtz. p. 19 Return
  3. Drucker, Testimony p. 27 Return
  4. Drucker, Testimony, p. 30. Return
  5. Drucker, Testimony p. .31 Return
  6. Drucker, Testimony p. .31 Return
  7. Drucker, Testimony p. 32 Return
  8. Drucker, Testimony p. 34 Return

 

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