Saturday, 12 November 2011

History Lesson

In 1939, Stalin began forcibly removing Polish civilians and transporting them to various parts of the Soviet Union (primarily Siberia and Kazakhstan), where they were effectively enslaved. Between 1.5 million and 2 million people were taken in this way, by cattle truck and barge boat, ending up, after horrendous and gruelling journeys, in Kolhozes (communal villages) or Gulags (forced labour camps). Nobody knows the exact numbers of people taken. Unlike the Germans, who recorded everything in ruthless detail, the Soviets kept no such records.

In 1941, when Stalin switched sides and joined the allies, these Polish people were, for a very short window of time, "allowed" to leave the Soviet Union. These people were starving, penniless and sick. They had no means. No resources. No way of leaving was offered to them. Individually, they began journeys, each of which deserves a book in its own right. They headed south, often on foot, hearing rumours that an army in exile may be forming, and following those rumours with every last ounce of their heart and soul. These were journeys of thousands of miles, and the destination was unknown.

General Anders, himself recently released from a Soviet labour camp, had begun gathering together a raggle taggle army in exile. Meagre, grudging rations were granted to this army (these "allies") by the Soviet government. However, there was nothing for the tens of thousands of civilians, women, children, unfit men, who were also congregating at the army recruiting centres, in the hope of finding a way of escape. Then something extraordinary took place; something which bears testimony to the greatness of what is best in human nature. This army, under General Andres command, decided to take the women and children with them. Starving men shared their inadequate food with starving women and starving children. The helpless, the vulnerable, the weak, were not abandoned, but recruited into the army and given papers.

In total, 115,000 Polish men, women and children left the Soviet Union.. Less than one in ten of those who had been taken there. They travelled with Anders army overland, then across the Persian Sea, arriving in Pahlevi to be quarantined and slowly nursed to health by the British Red Cross. Of these 115,000 people, 15,000 were children. My mother and my father were amongst these children.

In a time of war, having already lost everything, as they prepared to go to fight, probably to die, these men, this army, looked at the bigger human picture and, individually and collectively, did what it could to bring the weak, the helpless, the sick, the vulnerable. I owe my existence to this compassionate human impulse, which allowed my parents to survive.

This honourable compassion shaped my parents into their adult survival. Many times, in my childhood, in that strange land of exiled poles in Britain, that sense of honourable compassion was visible around me. Remember that all these people were survivors. They had seen and lived through times and experiences I can barely begin to imagine. But I felt that dignified, honourable connection as we stood, seven, eight, nine, ten year olds at summer camps, and watched as the sun set and the Polish flag was slowly, reverently lowered in the stillness of an english country evening, words of a Polish hymn reverberating through the stillness. This was more than patriotism. I felt it when, on Christmas Day, my father and I drove many miles to visit the old priest whose mind had gone, in the mental hospital, bringing him Polish christmas fare - their connection stretching back all the way to Siberia. I felt it on Sundays, in the dark old church, crowded, aisles full of standing Poles, as the whole mass of people as one fell to one knee as the first words of the hymn "Upadnij na kolano" ("Fall to your knee") rang out around my five year old ears.

Over a million and a half Polish people did not make it out of Russia. Among them, my grandfather; - taken off the cattle truck and left by the Soviets in some railway station when he fell sick. My grandmother; - died of typhus somewhere in Kazakhstan. My uncles and aunts; - died one by one of sickness and starvation after losing their parents, in Russia.

This morning, as I sit in a warm, comfortable, secure home, looking out over beautiful, peaceful mountains bathed in sunshine, I notice the impulse arising, for me as for so many, to fret and worry the weekend away over my financial concerns. I stop myself. I remind myself instead of the miracle that allowed my parents to survive. I try to connect to that impulse of honourable compassion that allowed starving men to gladly share what they had with starving women and children. The best of what is human.

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