They were jolted from their sleep, jostled into cattle cars and deported thousands of kilometres away, forced to live and work in labour camps from Siberia to Soviet Asia in -40 C conditions.
It was February 1940 when it began, and the families of Krystyna Szypowska and Christine Tabbernor would find themselves as only a mere handful of some 1.7 million people deported from Poland’s eastern borderlands in little more than a year at the onset of the Second World War.
It’s a little known bit of the war’s complex history, but the two Winnipeggers are hoping to pull it into focus.
On Sun., April 21, the Ogniwo Polish Museum will play host to the international Kresy-Siberia Foundation who will present From Siberia to Cyberia: How the Internet has brought this little-known history to light.
"It was confusing for the Poles because, at the time, they thought the Russians were coming to help fight the Germans," said Szypowska, a Westwood resident who serves as executive director of the Warsaw-based Kresy-Siberia Foundation and its Canadian affiliate.
"They didn’t do anything. It was an easy takeover. By the time they realized they weren’t coming to help, it was too late," she said.
The foundation runs the Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum (www.kresy-siberia.org), a growing catalogue of personal accounts and documents of the deportations.
Originating from a small Internet discussion group formed in 2002, the foundation has grown to more than 1,200 members worldwide, and amassed nearly 11,000 photos and other documents, Szypowska said.
The deportations were sparked by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939, which included provisions that Germany and Russia would divide the country between themselves. A week later, on Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland.
Russia followed 17 days later, and in February 1940 the first of four waves of deportation began, which affected people across religious and ethnic backgrounds, many of them women and children.
"After the war, because Poland was under Communist rule, none of this was talked about. You couldn’t discuss the deportations. It wasn’t mentioned in any history books. It was like a blank page. It never happened," Szypowska said.
"My mother rarely spoke of her experience. When she did mention it, she mentioned it in comparison with the Holocaust. How the entire world knew about the Holocaust but not what happened to her family.
"That got to me. I had to find a way to make it more public," she said.
Tabbernor, Ogniwo museum president, said many of the deported who survived and were eventually freed were able to find happier endings— much like her mother and father, who met in Canada and married. Her great aunt, however, was never able to find her children after years of poring through piles of records.
As those who lived through the deportations continue to die off, the museum and lecture is an opportunity to connect with those searching out their roots, Tabbernor said.
"It’s important to bring this whole topic to the second and third generation Canadians simply because it’s such a painful reminder that many people who experienced this didn’t talk about to their children," said Tabbernor, who lives in Riverview.
"If you’re looking for some answers to your parents’ or grandparents’ history, this might be a good place to look."
The lecture begins at 2 p.m. Admission is free.
The Ogniwo Polish Museum is located at 1417 Main St.
For more, call 204-586-5070 or email email@example.com.