Last night I attended a fascinating and moving talk by Dr Hubert Zawadzki – author of A Cambridge Concise History of Poland – about his mother Irine’s WWII journey. Her terrible plight mirrors that of large numbers of Poles during the War. It’s an epic story little known in the West, and goes (in brief) like this:
When the Germans and Soviets divided up Poland during the War, the former moving in from the West and the latter from the East, the Soviets deported up to 1 million Poles to Siberia. They were of all hues: Catholics, Jews, gentry, and so on – but with the common theme that the Soviets accused them of not being conducive to Communist ideology.
Irine came from a relatively well-to-do gentry family, and fairly soon found herself carted off in steerage across almost the entire length of the Soviet Union. The journey took 3 weeks. Over the succeeding years she encountered temperatures as low as -40, malnutrition and disease, but clearly made of very strong stuff, cheated death on every occasion. Eventually, along with many other Poles, she took advantage of Stalin’s amnesty – when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin, under pressure from Churchill, agreed to release Polish prisoners – and headed for the Middle East where a Polish army was being formed under General Anders. It ended up more than 100,000 strong, including combatants and accompanying civilians.
Irine’s remarkable story continued, with amazing and at times – amidst the darkness – amusing twists and turns, reaching a largely happy ending. But you don’t live through an experience like that, including witnessing death all around, without it having an indelible effect on you, as it did on Irine. The full story – which promises to be a gripping read and emotional roller coaster a la Karski’s memoirs – will come our way when Dr Zawadzki completes his work. This will take a little while whilst he incorporates elements from the treasure trove that is his mother’s lifetime of letters.
We look forward with great anticipation to publication. In the meantime, Aileen Orr’s Wojtek the Bear, though a very different story as its title suggests, actually covers the same episode in WWII history. The recent kindle version I bought included a very good Epilogue describing the same. Polska Dotty takes a look at the entire sweep of Polish history, and how it may help explain some of the attitudes I encountered in Poland when I lived there in the much more recent past.