Six friends with a Detroit connection commemorate
the wartime ordeals of loved ones
On February 10, 1940, Soviet soldiers began rounding up Polish citizens, including entire families, and loading them, like cattle, onto freight trains. This was the start of brutal mass deportations which took hundreds of thousands of Poles to the desolate wastes of Siberia and other inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union. Many of them died or were murdered there and remained where they were buried, thousands of miles from Poland.
Of the Poles who survived the Siberian ordeal, most were eventually allowed by the Russians to leave, although they had to make the arduous trek to freedom, taking them even farther from Poland (and during which more of them died), with no help from their oppressors.
In 2019, to commemorate those Poles—known as Sybiracy—and help preserve their stories, the Siberia Memorial Museum (Muzeum Pamięci Sybiru) in Białystok, Poland, in collaboration with the Białystok Runs Foundation (Fundacja Białystok Biega) organized the first annual Siberia Memorial Run (Bieg Pamięci Sybiru). The run is always held in the winter, through forests near several Polish cities, including Białystok.
This year marks the 83rd anniversary of the first deportations, and the fifth time the run is being held. For the third year in a row, people around the world can also participate in a virtual run (bieg wirtualny). Six close friends with a Detroit connection took part in this year’s virtual run (an energetic walk for most of them). All had family members among the countless Poles who had been deported to Siberia early in World War II.
Alison Urban, originally from Windsor but living in San Diego, had participated last year and, along with Janina Żmurkiewicz, was instrumental in coordinating the group’s 2023 participation. She explained her participation in the Siberia Memorial Run:
“Why do I walk? Because eighty-three years ago today, my family walked in the cold onto train cars, having no idea Stalin had sentenced them to the labor camps of Siberia along the White Sea. Their crime? Being Polish. I walk for Babcia, I walk for Ciocia, I walk for the Sybiracy who survived and those who didn’t. I walk for the Ukraine of today and the generations eighty-three years from now. I walk because I know.”
The other five participants with local roots were similarly motivated. Janina Żmurkiewicz walked in memory of her aunt, Ciocia Jasia. Her brother Andrzej Żmurkiewicz, also in San Diego but originally from Detroit, ran (being a U.S. Marine) in memory of his and Janina’s mother, Helena Żmurkiewicz. Wanda Rej Szczepanik participated in memory of her late husband, Kazik. Zosia Sylwanowicz Ładak did it in memory of her father, Polish officer and harcmistrz (scoutmaster) Kazimierz Sylwanowicz. And Barbara Zaydel walked in memory of her late husband, Wiesław.
All of them had family members—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, husbands—who had passed through the inhumane labor camps of Siberia. Some of those family members remained there, consigned to graves in an alien and hostile land. But all of them live on in the memories of their loved ones, not only in Poland, but also in America and many other places.