Polish starved Soldiers Mass Graves Kazakhstan
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Ethnic Poles remember soldiers who died before their time
CHIMKENT, Kazakhstan (UCAN): Two dozen people gathered to honor members of a largely forgotten army who never saw battle, only hunger and death.
Using a table covered by a Polish flag, Catholic priests led a Mass May 27 amid 250 graves in a cemetery in Chimkent. Every year some Catholics of the Polish community in this predominately Muslim city pause to reflect on the death of these soldiers during the tumultuous period of World War II and Soviet communist rule.
Dmitry Burminsky, from St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Chimkent, told UCA News, "Commemorating the death of these people is one of the best things we can do, and for me it is twice as good when priests are also involved."
According to Stanislav Tarnopolsky, chairman of the Polish Cultural Center in Chimkent, the 250 Polish soldiers buried in the cemetery were members of the Polish II Corps led by Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders. Coming from the Polish families deported to Kazakhstan by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the late 1930s or from other places including prison camps in the Soviet Union, the men joined what became known as "Anders' Army."
However, some of the contingent assembling here in southern Kazakhstan, about 1,000 kilometers south of Astana, the present capital, never saw battle.
"The Polish troops were training near Chimkent and were in great need. Some died of hunger and were buried in Chimkent," Tarnopolsky said. They perished in 1942, at a time when the German invasion had damaged the Soviet Union's infrastructure and food was scarce.
General Anders, previously an officer in the Tsar's army in World War I, had been jailed by Soviet communists during the conflict between Russia and Poland, but Moscow released him in 1941 in the hope of rustling more soldiers to counter the German invasion that June. Although Moscow was initially reluctant to mobilize deported or imprisoned Poles, uncertain of their loyalty, this unit went on to distinguish itself. It is remembered most for its role in the Allied victory at Monte Cassino in 1944, during what is known as the Battle for Rome.
Tarnopolsky said the well-kept graves of the Polish solders are under his center's care. A three-meter-high stone monument crowned by the Polish national symbol, the eagle, stands in the center of the burial area, which is surrounded by Muslim and Russian Orthodox graves.
The cultural center in this city, 1,000 kilometers south of the capital, was founded in 1997.
"Those who study Polish well at our center have an opportunity to go to study in Poland. And together with the Polish Embassy, we send two or three children to spend their holidays there," Tarnopolsky said.
Argentine Father Roberto Ezequiel Ayala is stationed temporarily in Chimkent and had not previously taken part in the graveside commemoration. "It was my first time here to celebrate Mass, but everything I could see today shows the Polish presence at this place used to be quite strong. For unknown reasons, we don't have many Poles in our community," he told UCA News.
"We shouldn't forget," Burminsky pointed out, "that we used to live in a Soviet state where religion officially didn't exist." He estimates that 1,500 ethnic Poles live in southern Kazakhstan but says many of them became atheists or joined the Russian Orthodox Church and lost their cultural roots.
"Even I was baptized in the Orthodox Church because there wasn't any Catholic Church in our city," he said.
Spanish diocesan priests founded the Catholic parish in Kazakhstan's third-largest city in 1998. In 2006, the parish was entrusted to the Argentina-based Institute of the Incarnate Word. Two Incarnate Word priests currently work here. Father Ayala, one of them, is on loan from Tajikistan.
Malvina Tarnopolska, an employee of the cultural center, said most of the 100 people who regularly join its activities are ethnic Poles, including members of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches.
Kazakhstan has about 250,000 Catholics, many of them ethnic Poles. About 7,000 belong to the Oriental-rite Greek Catholic Church, introduced by Ukrainian deportees. Muslims account for about 60 percent of the country's more than 15 million people, and another 30 percent are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.