Tuchola: Polish Death Camp for Russians

Tuchola: Polish Death Camp for Russians

In early November a memorial to «the victims of Maidan» was suddenly erected on the Wilenski square, Warsaw, no matter the plans had envisioned the restoration of the Brotherhood in Arms Statue devoted to commemorate dozens of thousands of Red Army soldiers who lost their lives to liberate Poland from fascism in the days of WWII. The fact sparked a wave of indignation but it was not the desecration of the soldiers’ memory that caused it. Here is a message posted to Kresy.pl – «Maidan means a square in Ukrainian. Ukrainians made Poles come to maidan before they were slaughtered (in Volyn. – Author’s note). In some populated areas the swamps with remains of the victims are still called maidans». 

Some time before that the plans to erect the memorial to Polish death camp victims (Red Army soldiers who died in 1922-23) in Kraków’s Rakowicki Cemetery had been cancelled…

To make clear what exactly happened to the victims in question I offer to have a look at what happened in the second largest concentration camp that was located in the vicinity of Tuchola. The camp was built during the First World War. In 1919 the place became a prison for the soldiers of Ukrainian and Belarusian formations, the civilians who had sympathy for the Soviet government and the interned officers of the White Army. 

In December 1920 Polish Red Cross worker Natalia Kreiz Velezhinska said the prisoners lived dug-outs with stairs going down. The interned slept on plank beds. There was no thatch or blankets to lie on and no clothes to change. The people were transported in wagons without heat or clothes to warm them up. They were coming to the place of internment cold, hungry and tired out. Some died right on spot; some were moved straight to hospital. 

Here is the letter written by an interned White Guard, «The prisoners are kept in barracks and dug-outs not suited for winter. The barracks are built of curved corrugated iron and covered by thin wooden planks with many cracks». The reminiscences of porutchik (Lieutenant) Kalikin can be found in the Russian state archive. According to him, «In Turna they told us the horror stories about the camp, but reality happened to be much worse». 

He wrote, «Just imagine a sand plain near a river surrounded by two rows of barbed wire with straight lines of half-destroyed dug-outs. Not a tree, no grass, only sand around. Barracks made of corrugated iron located near the gate. A strange chilling sound is heard as you pass them at night like if someone is crying. Upon being interned someone asked Polish Minister Sapegi what fate was in store for the interned. He answered that the prisoners will be dealt with as dignity and honor of Poland dictate. Was Tuchola needed to act in accordance with the dignity and honor? In a year 50% of women and 40% of men were ill, the majority hit by tuberculosis. Many of the people I knew died. Some hang themselves».

Red Army soldier V. Valuev was imprisoned in the camp in late August 1920. He witnessed, «The wounded were left without bandages for weeks with worms in their wounds. 30-50 men were buried daily. The injured were left in cold barracks without food and medicaments». 

In cold times the Tuchola hospital looked like a conveyor of death. Stephania Sempolovskaya, a well-known public activist, a member of Central Committee of International Society for Aid to Revolutionary Fighters (MOPR) and a representative of Russian Red Cross, wrote about her inspection in Tuchola in November 1920, «The patients were lying on nasty looking banks, no linen; only every fourth had a blanket. The wounded complained about being frozen…The medical personnel said there were no bandages and medical cotton. Typhus and dysentery were widely spread among the working prisoners. The numbers of prisoners were great, one of barracks were Communists lived was turned into a sick bay. There were over 70 patients there as of November 16». 

The camp was to have no inmates in 5-6 months as a result of the death toll caused by wounds, illnesses and chilblains. 

The Russian emigrant press published in Poland described Tuchola as a «camp of death». Warsaw-based Svoboda newspaper reported in October 1921 that 22 thousand people had died in Tuchola. 

The figure is confirmed by Lieutenant Colonel Ignazy Matushevsky, the head of the II department (intelligence and counterintelligence) of Polish General Staff who wrote in the report to Pilsudsky (February 1, 1922) that the attempts to run away were provoked by the conditions the Communists and other interned people were kept in (no clothes, linen, heating, poor nutrition and a long time to wait for the opportunity to go back to Russia, especially the camp in Tuchola which interned about 22 thousand Red Army men. 

The head of the General Staff’s second department in 1920-1922 was the most informed person on the situation in Polish concentration camps. He had solid documented and reliable evidence of the Red Army soldiers’ death in Tuchola. Those days Poland was still agitated over the letter by Georgy Chicherin, the Russia’s People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, dated November 9, 1921, where the Polish government was blamed in no uncertain terms for killing 60 thousand Russian prisoners of war. 

The formal admittance by I. Matushevsky of the fact that 22 thousand Russian prisoners died only in one camp (out of about 50 camps totally in the country – author’s note) shocked the nation. Later the officer’s report was corroborated by medical reports. 

Russian researchers S. Strygin and V. Shved have issued the research work called Rea Army Soldiers in Prison, 1919-1922. It informs that the realistic estimates on the Tuchola death camp could be based on evidence. It is really important because the Polish officials kept no record of the dead. This fact is confirmed by Stephania Sempolovskaya, the representative of Russian Red Cross and other witnesses. Simple arithmetic tells us that in the autumn of 1920 the death rate in Tuchola camp was 20-25% or 1600 out of 2000. Local dwellers also provide evidence. They say in the 1930s the ground went away under one’s feet where the human remains were visible. 

The second Rzeczpospolita (1918-1939) created an archipelago of concentration camps, stations, prisons and dungeons. It did not last too long – just about three years but dozens of human lives were lost during this period of time. Let’s not forget about it. 

Tags: Poland  Russia  USSR