Scraps of lives:

Polish Jews in Central Asia during the Second World War

Olga Medvedeva



Published in  Zachor, The Newsletter of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Number 2, 2003




During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews found themselves in Central Asia.  Numerous documents preserved in the Samarqand Provincial Archive in Uzbekistan (a former republic of the Soviet Union) shed light on the experiences of these Jews.

When the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the western border of the USSR remained open for refugees. However by the end of 1939 the passage from Poland to the USSR became illegal. At the same time the Eastern Polish territories were taken by the USSR, forcing Poles to accept Soviet citizenship.  Some Polish Jews considered Russia an area of destruction of traditional Jewish life, and a place of violation of freedom in general. Others believed it the site of an attractive social experiment. Both soon learnt how the dream of social and national equality was actually being implemented in the USSR. To the Soviets the Poles were strangers, local people called them "the westerners". The authorities in Moscow considered the Poles, now concentrated in great numbers at the frontier to be "an undesirable element". From February 1940 to July 1941, hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens, about a third Jews were deported to the most remote regions of the USSR. They were often deported on political charges ("intention to fight against the Soviet Union"), and were imprisoned or put into labour camps in Siberia, in the north of Russia, or in Eastern Kazakhstan.

In June 1941 Germany invaded the USSR. Soon after Poland allied itself with the USSR. As a result, the Soviet government and the Polish government in exile established diplomatic relations and signed a treaty granting former
Polish citizens the right to regain their Polish citizenship. In December 1941 Soviet authorities deprived national minorities, including Jews, of this right. Through an amnesty negotiated by the governments, the Poles  were released from prisons and labour camps and resettled to Central Asia, a region with milder climate.

In the fall of 1939 when, in chaos and turmoil, many Jews left Poland and headed eastward, they assumed that they would stop no further east than in the city of Lvov. Instead, history brought them to an unusual environment, among foreign peoples, languages, ideology, religion and culture in the foothills of Tien Shan and the Pamirs.


One example of refugee life is that of Mikhail Blumenkopf who was born in 1913 in Warsaw. He had received his University degree in 1935, worked as an engineer in Warsaw, and had been a member of the Communist Party of Poland. In 1939 he found himself a refugee in the USSR. He first lived in the Voroshilovgrad  region (Ukraina) and then in Sverdlovsk (Ural). In 1942 he went first to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then worked in the Ural mines. In 1944 he returned to Tashkent.

Another file describes the journey of refugee Rebecca Ferstenberg. She left for Lvov in December 1939, where her husband had already settled. She walked most of the way with her nine-month old child. In June 1940 she was
sent to Arkhangelsk (in the north of Russia). She stayed there until 1941. Then settled in Kyrgyzstan working on a collective farm, Yangi Turmush (New Life) Lenin region, then was resettled to Lenindzhol. Her husband was called to the Labour Front in Siberia. These were the main routes for refugees who finally arrived in Central Asia.

In May, 1943 the office of the Representative of the Department of the Special Trade of the Ministry of Trade of the USSR (Uprosobtorg Narkomtorg SSSR) was established in Samarqand to take charge of food supplies to "evacuated" Poles. The documents in the Samarqand Provincial Archive are filled with resumes, applications, references, and health certificates of the refugees which reveal a great deal about the life of Polish Jews in Central Asia.

Many of the Polish Jews who arrived in Central Asia were from cities, others from small shtetls. Some of them were deeply religious and others were assimilated. Some were highly educated and some semiliterate. There were those who were well to do and others who were paupers. The war evened them all.

Most were settled in villages where they lived in overcrowded and unsanitary barracks or in warehouses, the more fortunate - in hostels and rented mud-huts. Jews, mostly craftsmen and shopkeepers, were placed in agricultural work where they picked cotton and looked after camels. Others worked in the mines as rock breakers or coal haulers. They worked hard and lived in constant want. "I am naked and barefooted…", “I am dying of hunger...”
   A plea for clothing and food can be found in the applications for aid that were sent by the thousands. There are official documents, such as instructions on the use of defective (or simply rotten) eggs in the canteen for Poles.  Numerous medical certificates attest to the fact that many of them died from hunger, severe cold or diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, typhus, and
intestinal dysentery.

Polish Jews faced constant uncertainty. They did not believe they would see the end of the war. They felt that their lives had already been laid behind them. They tried to collect some information about the fate of their loved ones, many missing for years. They applied to the organizations that dealt with Poles. Generally the answers received showed that there was no hope. For example, the letter of Mrs. Pekler on March 28, 1944 sent in a home-made envelope (written on an invoice from a bakery) sent from Chew in Dzhambul region (Kazakhstan) with photo enclosed, possibly, the only photo preserved from her former life. She wrote: "I have not known anything about my husband since 1941. Do you know something about the fate of my husband Pekler Abraham Isakovich. I am sending my husband's photo to you. May be you will not manage to keep his name in mind, but this photo may help you to recognize him. I ask you, very-very much, for a reply." There is a brief instruction of a clerk: "Send the photo back. Advise that Pekler is not known to us". It had been sent back to Mrs. Pekler, along with the photo. It came back to the office with a note on it: "Returned in view of the removal of the addressee from the list of residents."  This letter is a symbol of the vain hope of finding someone lost between two totalitarian states. It is unknown whether Mrs. Pekler had died, or moved. All these fragments, including the photograph are the only remnants of the Peklers unhappy life.

It appears that these starving Polish Jews were strengthened by their nostalgia for Poland. The further they moved away from their native land in time and space, the more they dreamt about an idealized Poland. In spite of the pre-war discrimination they had experienced there, they dreamt of returning. The stronger the attempts of the Soviet regime to convert them into citizens of the "the Motherland of proletariat" were, the more they struggled at any cost to restore their Polish citizenship.  Poland still remained a homeland for them.

They lived in an atmosphere of total bureaucratic and administrative control. The governmental decisions that concerned Polish citizens in Central Asia, such as protocols, explanatory notes, and reports are preserved in the archive. Messages streaming to Moscow and, in turn from Moscow to Samarqand, are full of instructions for the most ludicrous occasions, often in a threatening tone: "In case of misuse...." One report is on the results of an inspection of a Polish home for the handicapped on June 10, 1944: "The most part of food does not get into the right pots and goes elsewhere". The Samarqand office was obliged to communicate with the centre on any single question, even the least important ones. Permission from local officials was necessary for solving even the most minor problems; the director of the orphanage for children of Polish Jews in Koqand, Uzbekistan had to file an application to approve the exchange of
three pairs of foot-wear for a larger size.

An excessive bureaucracy resulted in an excessive number of applications. All applications containing requests for aid were sent to Samarqand from all over Central Asia. Applications had to be certified by the seal of the place of work of the applicant and then signed by the chief of the institution. Sometimes two seals and signatures were required. Medical
certificates had to accompany the applications coming from sick people. Everything was checked and rechecked, confirmed and reconfirmed: a certificate is given regarding the fact that a minimum ration of bread was obtained or that a minimum ration of bread was not obtained, permission for the repair of foot-wear was issued or it was not. Papers created more papers. Any draft was kept, apparently it made easier to avoid the charges of misuse. These documents reflect the atmosphere not only of poverty, but also of the total suspicion and distrust.

The very paper used for applications is significant to understanding the living conditions of those applying. Applications were written, literally, on scraps of paper, on anything that fell into their hands: on passes, on luggage receipts, on draughts, on ballot paper, on the parcel's wrapping paper with the sender's address somewhere in Palestine, on a postcard addressed to someone in Lvov, which had never been sent. People wrote on top and across the text, which had been written on earlier. Sometimes the same scrap of paper had been used three times. It was a kind of palimpsest,
crowned by short but expressive words: "I am asking for help."  Pages of newspapers and books were used like blank sheets of paper. Text in a language that Polish Jews did not know was of no value to them. The tactics of communication demanded they know Soviet "newspeak", spoken by those who distributed the goods necessary to survival. Survival also required you join the Communist Party or the Young Communist League. Among the Polish Jews were staunch communists and opportunists and also freethinkers, but there is little proof. Some documents in the archives were written "on Stalin". Paper was scarce, but not for propaganda. A letter dated January 2,1944 was written on the back cover of Stalin's book in the Kazakh language. It was sent to the Representative with a request to
locate parcels which had been sent from the Polish Red Cross in Palestine in 1941 and 1942.

In another example: the Representative, himself a Polish Jew, nominated by Moscow to work in the local office in order to avoid complaints on the misuses of aid wrote his message to the officials in Moscow on the page of a book bearing Stalin's image. It testifies to the state of his spirit. The senders dared to write "on Stalin". Like anybody in the Soviet Union at that time fear was not foreign to Polish Jews. But in contrast to the Soviet citizens, they were not charmed by a love for Stalin, and were not paralyzed with dread when seeing the name of the "father of the nation". It also indirectly proves that the myth about the perfection of the Soviet system, the illusion of which many in the Soviet Union had been living for a long time, was perceived by many Polish Jews as a well realized idea of a bad social system or as a badly realized idea of a good society.

In July 1945 Polish citizenship was granted back to all former Polish citizens, who had had Polish citizenship before September 17, 1939. Polish Jews exercised their right to repatriation. More than 200,000 Jews returned to Poland from the USSR. A large number of them had survived in Central Asia. Back in the motherland they found ashes. Their homes had been destroyed. After the pogroms of 1945-1946 many of the repatriates who had just come to Poland, moved again.  They will repeatedly recall life under the hot sun of Central Asia in their new country - Israel.






Photo 1, 1a. A letter written by a Polish Jew to the officials in Moscow on the page of a book bearing Stalin's image.