THE SECOND WORLD War was not the simple story of good versus evil that Hollywood would have us believe. Not least because in order to defeat the horrors of Nazism, the Western Allies had to form an alliance with a very nasty regime indeed—Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. And, as Halina Szopinska found out in the summer of 1944, Stalin could be just as duplicitous and brutal to his “allies” as he could to his enemies.
In August 1944, Szopinska was in her 20s, a freedom fighter with the Polish Home Army that was then taking on the Germans in the streets of Warsaw. The Red Army was poised just east of the city, but Stalin had ordered his forces not to push into the Polish capital to help the Poles.
Under pressure from the Western Allies, Stalin did have his air force drop supplies for the Polish Home Army. But, as Szopinska told me when I filmed an interview with her a few years ago, Stalin’s help was not what it seemed. “They had these small planes and would throw dry bread without a parachute, and when it fell down it would just break into powder,” she said. “They would drop guns without a parachute—ammunition as well. There was no way we could repair it. So they pretended they were helping. They were doing it in such a way that it wouldn’t really help us.”
Stalin wanted the Germans to defeat the Polish Home Army, because even though the Polish freedom fighters and the Soviets were officially on the same side, Stalin hated the Poles. He expected them to cause problems once the Red Army occupied Poland and—as Szopinska found out—he wanted to be rid of them.
After the Germans eventually retook Warsaw, Szopinska managed to escape from the city. She was captured by the Red Army and interrogated by an officer from Stalin’s secret police. When Szopinska revealed nothing of substance, he “hit me, beat me…. He called me ‘whore, bloody whore’ in Russian. ‘You’ll die,’ he said. He had hatred—hatred, hatred— for Poles. That’s how he was brought up,” she said. “For them we were spies. They said we were cooperating with the English and the Germans—that together with the English and the Germans we were fighting the Russians.”
The Soviets sentenced Szopinska to 10 years in prison. “[They said] that I was spying for the Germans and the English. That’s what I was accused of…. It was enough for you to be a member of the Home Army.”
Early in her sentence she gained an insight into her captors. Prisoners were asked if they had any complaints about the way they were treated. “I said: ‘Yes.’ In the basement—it was December—there were three water taps and three toilets and 20-something people had to wash and piss in 10 minutes. Is it possible? No!” After she and other prisoners complained, a guard said, “OK, now you’ll have time to wash.” Szopinska and the other women who had spoken out were taken to the freezing basement that contained the toilets and water taps, and told to take off their clothes. Naked, they were forced to stand there all night; the next morning they were paraded past the other cells so that “all the inmates would see what happens if you complain to the authorities.”
In the damp prison Halina Szopinska contracted tuberculosis and was fortunate to survive. She served her full 10 years, and learned on the morning of her release that her husband had found another partner and started a new family. She did her best to begin a new life—without her husband and without her health, just one casualty of the Soviet occupation of Poland. There were many, many more.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.