Posts Tagged ‘Anders army’

Jozef Czapski: Inhuman Land

May 7, 2021

     Reading this book was part of my ongoing research into what my father and his comrades went through during their imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War. Almost all of them are long dead, but many accounts survive in memoirs like this one, and are very interesting to read, when you finally come across them. Czapski lectured on Proust to his comrades in the Soviet concentration camp where they spent two years; you have to admire this. And the book has an excellent contextual introduction from Timothy Snyder, who, along with Norman Davies, has currently the greatest knowledge of time and place. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is also Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, has produced this recent version of Czapski’s memoirs. It reads well: she’s done an excellent piece of work.

So: the nation erased from the map, the Nazis experimenting freely in the western part and the Soviets eliminating all trace of Poland in the east, deporting people in the tens of thousands as well as murdering thousands of officers and intellectuals. Then all change in June 1941 when Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and suddenly from reviled class enemies the Poles are allies, released from captivity and all striving to make their way to the middle of nowhere, where the Polish Army is reforming, and is eventually, grudgingly and with much hindrance and impediment, allowed to leave for Persia.

Czapski’s account only covers the first year of this gathering of the diaspora. There is a real sense of the atmosphere of liberation as men travel en masse to join up, tinged with the tragedy of countless deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation, topics which my father only ever alluded to very briefly. Yet in this account figure all those details he mentioned, and the places, too. And there is the attempt to piece together where all the Poles are who have been dispersed thousands of miles in every direction; in particular, just where are all those missing officers? Czapski had been one of them and had strangely, along with a few others, escaped their fate…

Czapski provides a general account which is enhanced by his artist’s eye for detail and sympathy for others. There are several interesting digressions on art, poetry and literature. He is a thoughtful writer, and not afraid to be critical of his fellow-countrymen and officers at times; he’s aware of the shortcomings of his nation and people, as well as very aware of what they face.

There is also a sense of futility and impending despair, as he’s constantly fobbed off by the Soviets in his searches; they obviously know something has happened to the missing officers. He catalogues the craziness and the misery of the countless deportations of so many peoples and nationalities for so many different reasons, and if we didn’t already feel this, we can see why his book has the title it does.

Czapski eventually comes to run the Army propaganda department as well as taking responsibility for getting education up and running for the younger refugees; he’s well aware of the need to build cohesion among Poles from such disparate origins and backgrounds. As I’ve been discovering recently, he catalogues the willing help and support for the Polish diaspora from many countries; as I know from my father’s story, disease – typhus and dysentery in particular – and starvation exacted a dreadful toll on those who survived the ‘Soviet paradise’.

There is a quite lengthy concluding section appended to this translation, written after the war, in which Czapski expresses the bitterness of his countrymen at how the Allies reneged on the promises they made to Poland. His final analysis is very thoughtful and challenging, particularly when it comes to reflecting on the relationship between Poles and Germans. I have read a good deal over the years about these times and these events, and Czapski’s account is one of the best, from the perspective both of detail and of balance.

Urszula Muskus: The Long Bridge

July 20, 2020

51zCItVj88L._AC_UY218_     The generation of Polish exiles from after the Second World War has virtually died off now, the people and their sad stories largely forgotten. I’m only aware of it because of my origins, and there is no way to sensitively phrase the idea that my father had an ‘easier’ time than many of his fellow-countryfolk – only two years in a Stalinist concentration camp, hundreds of miles of trekking, avoiding starvation and disease eventually to reach Britain via Persia and South Africa. Then never going home or seeing his parents again… Some of his comrades did return after the war, lured by homesickness and propaganda. They disappeared.

Too few of the Poles who suffered when their country was wiped from the map in September 1939 after a secret agreement by two international thugs (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) have consigned their stories to print so that the memories of those days and their aftermath may be preserved. I have slowly amassed a small collection of these over the years, and Urszula Muskus’ story is one of the more remarkable of these.

For starters, it’s a woman’s story and there are fewer of these, and in many ways women, with their children, had a harder time than their menfolk who were mostly soldiers and in some vague and notional way treated as POWs by Stalin’s henchmen, or else were intellectuals and so quickly murdered. Most of the ordinary footsoldiers eventually found their way to Britain, then to battle at Monte Cassino, Normandy or Arnhem. Mothers, wives and children seem to have been dispersed much more widely across the vastnesses of the Soviet Union; their journeys to some kind of freedom were so much longer and more difficult; I am still discovering new routes that they took… And being civilians, as well as technically Soviet citizens, made their lives harder.

Urszula Muskus was carted off into imprisonment with her family; although she did not find out until much later, her husband was shot soon after because he had been involved in Poland’s war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Briefly she was involved with the formation of General Anders’ army in 1942 before being spirited away by the secret police and sentenced to ten years hard labour for ‘espionage’. Having served out her sentence she was then sent into internal exile until an eventual amnesty allowed her to leave…sixteen years of her life taken away, her children growing up away from her.

What impresses most is the measured, factual tone of her narrative, and her innate good will: nothing seems to throw her, although of course the account is written with many years of hindsight and reflection. She retains her sensitivity to the beauties of nature – and there are many in the depths of Kazakhstan, where she spent most of her time – despite the privations, clearly seeking and managing to derive spiritual comfort and support from them. Through a litany of personal tragedies – separation from her husband and children being only the beginning – her strength of character comes across very powerfully, as does the utter inhumanity and perversion of Stalin’s gulag system. And there are many kind and like-minded people of all nationalities she encounters, sharing her life with briefly until they are separated again at the whim of the authorities. In her summative comments and reflections on her experiences in the closing chapters there is no bitterness at what she has had to endure; life goes on in a new place, and she is at last reunited with her children who have long been in England.

One of the reasons so many of these stories have vanished into history is the understandable unwillingness of so many to recall and recount what they went through: my father let small details and general facts be known, but little more. What he and his Polish comrades used to talk about among themselves in Polish I never knew, and he wouldn’t say. But I think it’s really important that these stories not be forgotten, and books like this preserve them.

On a 75th anniversary

May 5, 2020

This week sees the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and commemorations somewhat muted under current circumstances. I have to say, I’m in two minds about this.

I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the war, my father’s two years in Siberia ending in his joining the Anders army, coming to England where he eventually met our mother… his war was a horrific experience of destruction, starvation and disease which separated his family in different directions, and he never got to return home and see his parents again.

I shall be glad that the celebrations in the UK will be muted. We’ve heard enough nonsense about the famous ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and surviving ‘the Blitz’ in connection with the current virus pandemic, from all sorts of idiots who weren’t even alive in the war. My mother was a schoolgirl, and her memories of those awful years were rather different: knitting gloves and scarves for sailors in the Arctic convoys rather than getting an education, and a father who was very frightened as Germans flew over their peaceful bit of the Yorkshire countryside on the way to bomb the hell out of the docks in Hull…

And yet, even more strongly, at a time like this I feel that the ending of that war must not go unremembered. It was fascism that was defeated, an ideology that triaged people into human and non-human prior to extermination, an ideology that subjugated and enslaved humans to a war machine. I carry no brief for Stalin and Soviet communism, but we are not aware in our comfortable West that without the immense sacrifices of the Soviet Union, the war may well not have been won. And the post-War short-sightedness of Western leaders soon plunged us into the Cold War, a mistake that some of our current ‘leaders’ are apparently eager to ape in their posturing towards China at present.

One aspect of George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-four which is often overlooked is his notion of the three world power blocs being constantly at war. That has always been the case and is still going on, if you look closely enough at those parts of the world which slip out of the news bulletins because of the lack of entertainment value: the major powers are fighting proxy wars all over the planet and thousands of innocent people are being killed every year. This supports capitalism’s immensely profitable arms industries, as well as allowing nations to attempt to corner the market in various natural resources which may be in short supply…

Where I’m heading with this is the notion that a lot of us so-called thinkers and intellectuals, particularly in the “free” West, have the idea that we are so much more liberal, tolerant, civilised nowadays, and that therefore the horrors of the past are safely locked away in the history books. We delude ourselves. Capitalism embeds competition and sees no higher cause; collaboration and co-operation removes profits and cannot be allowed. So those organisations which aim to foster international collaboration are emasculated and underfunded – the WHO, the UN – or vilified – the EU.

Human memories are short: the survivors of the last war are dying out. And history has a way of repeating itself if we are not careful. I cannot help thinking that we are actually living in rather dark times.

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