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Poland: Former Gulag Prisoner Seeks Compensation

  • Bogdan Turek

Warsaw, 12 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An association of Polish prisoners in the former Soviet gulag camps has called on the Polish government to demand financial compensation from Russia for their slavery work.

Ryszard Reiff, president of the Polish Association of Siberians numbering some 90,000 former gulag prisoners, said last week (Jan. 10) in Warsaw that the group does not intend to "scratch old wounds" but wants some compensation from Russia. This, he said, would speed up the process of reconciliation between the two nations.

"We want to offer remembrance to those who died and reconciliation to those who survived," he said. "We distance ourselves from hatred."

Reiff said that the former leftist government ignored the issue of compensation from Russia. "The new team of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek has a more favorable approach to us," he said, adding that "The new government should open negotiations with Russia to get funds for payments to the people who were forced to do slave work."

Reiff said the ordeal of Poles began in September 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked Poland, took over one third of its territory inhabited by some 12 million people, and placed it under Soviet occupation. He said some 1.6 million Poles were deported to various labor camps and half a million died.

Reiff also said that the association wants to overcome a long-lasting "Siberian syndrome" in the Polish-Russian relations. Following a series of partitions suffered by Poland at the hands of Prussia, Austria and Russia in the 18the century, thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia as punishment for staging protest uprisings against Russia.

"We want to get out from this syndrome," he said, noting that for Poles "Siberia" means torture, deprivation, separation from families and death. Reiff said that his association will propose talks at the end of 1998 with the Russian Memorial, a Russian organization which is exposing Stalinist crimes, to finally reach reconciliation between the Polish and Russian nations. "We have to tell the whole truth to each other,' he said.

Zbigniew Kumos, chairman of a foundation that offers financial aid to former labor camp prisoners, said Russia has repeatedly refused to pay compensation to Poles. "(Russian President Boris) Yeltsin did it twice," he said.

Kumos said the Poles who were forcibly transferred from the former Polish eastern territories should get compensation from the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.