Death in the Forest: who murdered the prisoners?

On being a female captive

Women do not fare very well in wartime, especially if they happen to be on the losing side. When the Red Army swept into Germany in 1945, the Soviet soldiers infamously raped virtually every woman they could, from eight to eighty years of age, in numbers that will always remain unknown, though estimates range from tens of thousands on up to two million. The Japanese Imperial Army was equally notorious for its practice of conscripting conquered civilians as "comfort women" in military brothels.

In Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union during World War II Katherine Jolluck takes up the question of whether and to what extent Polish women in exile were similarly abused by their Soviet overlords. She was early struck by the almost total lack of such incidents in the extensive accounts left by these women after they escaped to freedom in 1942. (Jolluck is a senior lecturer in East European Studies at Stanford, and the written reports are on file at the Stanford's Hoover Institution.)

Comparing the "traditional estimate" with the more recent revisions by Gurjanow and Glowacki, the 980,000 civilians in the four deportations in 1940 and 1941 are reduced to 315,267/319,000, or less than one-third. p.13

"Before the war, Polish Catholic women continually received reminders of the necessity of covering their bodies.... [T]he Catholic monthly Rycerz Niepokolanej (The Knight of the Virgin Mary), by far the most popular journal in Poland, placed the burden of chaste deportment, seen as crucial to the health of the family and the nation, on females. Catholic writers denounced short skirts, thin fabric, low-cut or sleeveless blouses, skin-colored stockings, and short hair--anything, that is, that revealed or highlighted the contours or the skin of the female body.... It was the duty of females to 'defend virtue, faith, and noble-minded influence on public and private decency.'" p.160

Difficulties of women in the Gulag almost never mentioned by women and rarely by men. One male exception wrote: "The lot of women in the work camps was horrible. I can say that it was worse than that of animals. They were treated like 'goods' to be used, traded for a piece of bread. If one didn't want to have a 'protector'--a so-called 'camp husband'--then she was ill-treated, her life made disgusting, so that we must really give the greatest credit to those not numerous Polish women who came through the hell clean." Jolluck notes the irony that this effort to honor women nevertheless accepts the notion that those who succumbed to force or necessity were made dirty by the experience. "This man's characterization of the plight of women in the camps makes it clear why the women themselves would choose, even had to choose, to remain silent." p.174

"Though greatly concerned with hygiene and washing, women avoid the topic of menstruation. There are only two references to this bodily process in the women's statements--one of which is oblique and purely incidental--and two in reports by men." One woman noted that the NKVD officers confiscated all personal belongings: "They don't want to return even the belt indispensable at certain times for a woman." Another spoke of the difficulty in obtaining enough cotton wool to make menstrual pads. (Most women stopped having periods in the camps, which they attributed to a food additive but more likely was the result of malnutrition. A few had constant bleeding. "The hygienic conditions were appalling and cotton wool was not to be had." p.176

Poland's Daughter

"Pregnancy itself is discussed only in certain limited contexts. [One woman's] unusually frank account of harrassment by her interrogator is the only one that touches upon the possibility of conception. Otherwise, only a few men register the occurrence of illegitimate pregnancies. [One man] recalls 'an unpleasant incident' in his settlement in Kazakhstan: 'namely, one of the Polish women, the wife of a policeman ... with two children, had a third child with a Russian, the head of the cafeteria. It happened undoubtedly in order to ensure her subsistence.' Despite the many allusions to rape and forced prostitution, women never mention fear of pregnancy, actual pregnancy, childbirth, or abortions that would accompany sexual encounters and attacks. If any of the exiled women struggled with the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy, neither their agonies nor their solutions were passed on in written form after evacuation from the USSR." p.177

(Elsewhere, Jolluck cites letters from two Polish women to their husbands confessing to their formal or informal marriage to a Soviet citizen, asking their forgiveness, and stating their inability to leave the USSR or their choice not to do so.)

In exile, "the able-bodied adult communities were largely and unnaturally female. The unfamiliar and unsettling demographics of exile undermined the coherence and authority of the uprooted Poles, who countered by reinforcing their own conceptions of national boundaries and gender certainties." They were especially likely to condemn the sexual mores of Russian and Kazakh women, and likewise those from Polish national minorities. p.186

Though judging them harshly in exile, this was not the impression they brought with them from Poland. "In fact, most Polish women seem to have initially considered the national minorities as their own, as fellow members of a collective, of one broad fatherland." (That is, Polish citizens of Ukrainian and Jewish ethnicity.) p.189

"Traditional estimates" of the exiles from Poland were 58 percent Poles, 19.4 percent Jews, 14.9 percent Ukrainians, 6.3 percent Belorussians, 1.4 percent other nationalities. p.199

"Forced by Soviet authorities to live in Asia, in close proximity to its native inhabitants and in material conditions more destitute than they had previously known, the women from Poland refused to fit in, rejecting any blurring of the boundaries they perceived between themselves (Westerners) and the Central Asians (Easterners).... The boundary between Polish women and Central Asian women is a chasm that separated, in the Polish imagination, the civilized from the barbarous." p.221 (One wonders how Jolluck herself would have fit in!)

"In a recent study, Piotr Zaron estimates that as a result of the four deportations [but primarily that of April 1940], approximately 150,000 Polish citizens--80 percent of them women and children--were scattered in at least 1,206 different localities in Kazakhstan." p.222 (quoting a 1999 Polish study)

"The Russian government began exiling Poles to Kazakhstan in the late eighteenth century, and continued to do so throughout the period of the partitions, particularly after the failed rebellions of 1830 and 1863." p.223

"Most of the actual encounters with locals that the Poles recount are frightening." The locals are usually men, a society "without the civilizing order of gender, and, therefore, more akin to animals than humans." p232

"the Poles effectively erase the women of Soviet Central Asia from view." p242

"On the whole, Poles did not identify with Russian politicals [that is, Russian citizens who had been exiled like themselves] and rarely crossed national lines to form friendships with them." 256

"The widespread characterization of Russian women as openly and aggressively sexual alone signals their otherness to Polish women. For these Poles, in accordance" p268 "with Catholic doctrine and tradition, female sexuality is legitimate only within the bounds of marriage, and it constitutes an exceedingly private and taboo subject." p269

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