Tag Archives: history

Book Review: The Ice Road

The Ice Road is a remarkable book both because it tells a little-known but important story of human suffering and because it does so in a way that doesn’t leave you wanting to slit your wrists. It is the autobiographical tale of 14-year-old Polish boy Stefan Waydenfeld and his family who were exiled to Siberia during World War II. The book traces their journey in the cattle wagons and goods trains of the Soviet Union from their home in Poland to a Stalinist labour camp in the frozen north and then on to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Persia.

The mass deportations of its citizens to remote and primitive corners of the Soviet Union during World War II is of monumental importance in the history of Poland. Between September 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in consort with Nazi Germany, and June 1941, when Hitler turned on Russia, the Soviet authorities forcibly exiled some 1.7 million people from the Polish territory under their control. They were sent to labour camps in the forests of northern Russia, to mines in Siberia and to arid regions of Soviet Asia. Precise figures will never be known, but it is estimated that about half of the deportees died from starvation, disease and the cold. Survivors and their descendants can still be found scattered across the fragmented Soviet empire today.

It sounds like a grim read, but it isn’t—the main reason that it isn’t being the fact that the author was a lively 14-year-old boy at the time of his deportation and, with the customary flexibility and innocence of youth, treated many of his experiences as grand adventures. The author himself explains this early in the narrative: “as is the privilege of youth, I lived my own life and only many years later; when I thought of our times in Siberia, did it strike me how ignorant I had been… of the sufferings of others and of the enormous difficulties of everyday life… I am almost ashamed to admit it, but at times I enjoyed my time in Siberia.”

The Waydenfelds were relatively lucky to find themselves assigned to an established logging encampment. A Russian inmate tells them: “You don’t know how lucky you are. When we were brought here twelve years ago this was virgin forest. We cleared it, pulled the roots out with our bare hands and built Kvasha where nothing stood before. Not many lived to see it finished.” They were also lucky not to have been sent to the Siberian mines with their horrendous mortality rates. It’s clear from Stefan’s narrative that they didn’t always have enough to eat, but nobody starves. Working conditions were harsh, especially in the minus-40-degree winter, but we don’t hear of anybody dying. It isn’t clear if this lack of tragedy is a result of the author’s confessed youthful solipsism or a realistic picture of one particularly fortunate fragment of the gulag.

There were certainly Boy’s Own adventures. Stefan recalls the thrill of bareback riding through the forests singing Russian songs and galloping from awakened bears, being sent alone into the wild to mark timber for the cutting crews, and an escape by raft that sounds too fantastical to be true. The raft episode marks a startling twist in the tale, and in history. Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Russia, Stalin released all deported Polish citizens and gave them a free pass to wherever in the Soviet Union they wanted to go—at least those that hadn’t already been shot in the back of the head or frozen to death. It was the kind of whimsical and hypocritical act of which only true dictators are capable, but it probably saved the Waydenfelds lives. A similar whimsy prompts them to name Astrakhan, a city thousands of kilometres away on the Caspian Sea, as their destination of choice.

This decision, about a third of the way into the book, is the start of a journey far more extraordinary than the one that took the family from Otwock to Siberia. It reads like an escape fantasy inspired by snow-crazed starvation, but it’s true and it was the experience of hundreds of thousands of Poles in 1941 and 1942. Stefan and his mother and father travel across the insane and panicked breadth of wartime Russia in cattle wagons, on luxury river cruisers, in buses and on foot. They live in unlikely sounding far flung cities like Chimkent and Yangi-Yul, glimpse the blue towers of Samarkand across the steppe, and bribe their way into and out of luxury and danger with alarming regularity. It’s an illuminating picture of a state in utter chaos where a few 10 rouble notes mean the difference between lice-ridden death and sleeping on feathers.

All along the way the Waydenfelds meet Poles like themselves making for rumoured Polish Army staging areas, many in rags, a few in luxury and all wondering what has happened to the officers—most of whom are in mass graves just outside Katyn. The book closes in a British refugee camp in the Iranian port of Pahlevi. Through epilogues and annexes we learn that Stefan later joined the Second Polish Corp and fought his way along the length of Italy. After the war, he married a Polish girl he met in Yangi-Yu, became a doctor and settled in London’s Kentish Town.

The Ice Road is not a sophisticated read, but it is a story you’ve never heard and would barely believe if history wasn’t there to tell you it was true. The book is published by Aquila Polonica—a publisher with the unlikely but laudable goal of telling “the greatest story never told… Poland in World War II” Read it, you won’t regret it.

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Poles must stop living in the past

Friday, 1st of August, was a day devoted to remembrance of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Its heroism and glory, that had to be concealed during the years of communism. Now in full shine thanks to the massive media coverage… hours of live broadcasts on all news channels, metres of tape and pages of text have been devoted to various analysis, diaries, transcripts, comments, interviews…

The remembrance celebrations for the 64th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising have become another episode in an endless celebration of history while the needs of the current inhabitants of Poland are being neglected. We should be focusing on making new and innovative things happen.

So let’s dash the burden of our troubled past and start living in the present.

Celebrations of history have become festivals of pride – of Polish pride. Pride for “our” people, for “our” struggle, for “our” greatness. But history is not something I want to be proud of. This is not a real achievement of the people of this country. The fact that we decide to focus all our popular celebrations around history means that we feel we have no achievements in the present. Or no other interests. And we know it. Festivals of music, festivals of flowers, festivals of wine, festivals of anything else never get quite the coverage as dead people festivals do. Will we ever see a festival of, let’s say, art that brings the whole country to a halt? That gets the attention of the VIPs? That sees parades and concerts all around the country?

OK, we have a country, we have freedom. Very well. Many people don’t. But what do we do with it? Where are our talents of music, drama, comedy, architecture, science, literature, management, politics… etc.? Why doesn’t our system encourage creative people to do great things? Things we can be really proud of. Things we can see as real and present achievements. Where is the innovative music and style? Architecture that makes an impression. Experimental media… outstanding performances… We don’t let our talents flourish, we offer second-hand culture. Half of our television programmes are imports from the UK (while our public television pays millions for substandard soaps), most of what is shown in cinemas is American, while the music in our iPods is half British half American. The things our system and our people create don’t even appeal to ourselves, so no wonder we don’t feel proud of our creativity.

Is the past is the only area of greatness in our minds? We must stop living in the past in order to move on.

It is very difficult for Polish people to ever dare to see things this way. We are raised with certain patterns of thinking, we are socialised to certain myths, and most of our schooling concentrates on preserving our National sentiments; sentiments for partitions, war, and communism. We are manipulated into the romantic notions that surround Nation. Analysing the past we take sides and engage emotionally, instead of remaining cool observers. Television programmes, papers and books are filled with sweet-like-sugar pictures of heroes. Pictures people seem to fall for, but these are pictures I never believed. For I know life, and things are always complicated and people are full of passions and fears, truths and lies, and are never one-dimensional. We are manipulated into being hysterically Polish. Like our parents. And their parents. This leads our schooling to neglect the practicalities of life, like communication skills, tolerance, organisation, work ethics – which cost us so much trouble… Is remembering really the main task of the Polish people? Shouldn’t we primarily concentrate on developing some other qualities?

We, the people of Poland, remember our history too much, too often, we try to hard, we concentrate on it too much. We put too much emphasis, and heart, into it.

Furthermore: history and common experiences (war, pain, victories over enemies, lashes from greater powers) are a feature of a discourse that talks about Nation. And Nation talking always shifts our focus from everyday things – Nation serves romantic high purposes. Nation talk also excludes non-Poles.
I would prefer our present focus to be on the inhabitants of Poland, and their happiness. Inhabitants you will note, is a broader notion than Nation. It doesn’t exclude anyone.

Another things is that the national remembrance excitement is becoming obligatory, and I really hate when I’m being told what to think and what to feel. Just as “Słowacki was a great poet”.

“If you’re Polish and you know it,
And you really want to show it,
If you’re Polish and you know it,
Clap your hands (Clap, Clap).”

I hate these never ending celebrations of dead people. As someone said, Poland is ruled by coffins. And the coffins that rule Poland and the minds of people of this country are both the coffins of great Polish people, and of Polish victims.

But the worst thing is that all those celebrations strengthen the wrong parts of Polish thinking. They concentrate on the past, on finding those guilty for all that present Poland lacks… And provide a good excuse. An excuse that we are never reluctant to use when something substandard is pointed at. An excuse that comes very handy to all those lazy bastards who complain and complain but won’t lift a finger to change anything. I always say this to people: nothing will change itself, you have to make it happen. If you don’t like something, like for instance the slow pace in which roads are being built: associate with others who share similar opinion, create a pressure group, influence the government. That’s how democracy works. Decision makers will not take notice of you unless they have to.

And I hate to hear all those hypocrites who one moment criticize everything about Poland, and the Polish people, and then suddenly on another occasion, praise such remembrance occasions. So you celebrate the existence of this failed state that disappoints you so much? Why should you celebrate something you don’t like? Something that you never felt good with, something that causes you only headache and embarrassment?

Stop! Wake up people! We are alive, why don’t start living for eff’s sake? Concentrating on the present and the future. On work and fun.

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Lech Wałęsa: a hero / a lesser hero / a traitor. Choose your title.

[edited June 20th, 3pm]

This is a follow up from Ian’s post just below. Read his post first, and then come back to mine.

Done? Ok. The book in qustion was not published yet. However it has already become the subject of a heated debate. Fragments were published in one of the dailies. Television presenters parade around their studios carrying massive files containing this book photocopied before publication. News channels and front pages are not talking about anything else for at least three days.

The book came as a special gift for the 25th anniversary of Wałęsa’s Nobel Peace Prize and Wałęsa’s nameday – which he is celebrating this Saturday.

Those, who criticise he book, say it is based only on Secret Service paperwork, and not cross-examined with other possible sources (like party files, interviews with communist figures, former oppositionists, diaries, etc…. and impossible sources like the vast archives in Moscow, to which there is no access). They also say that where proves cannot be found, authors make guesses and assumptions that prove their theory.

The book authors are educated historians, however some people claim their clear political agenda allows to call them politicians. They are employees of the IPN, the Institute of National Remembrance. It is an institution that was created to educate about the history of Poland, investigate unknown facts, and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against the Polish nation. Many of its employees have a clear opinion about the recent Polish history, that is corresponding with the ideas of the Kaczynski brothers (see below).

Notice that when talking about Secret Service inkjob, I am deliberately  not using the word “documents”, as in my vocabulary this word only applies to paperwork produced legitimately.

How did the Secret Service work?

Lets try to have a look at how were they getting their their paperwork. They had their own people lets call them secret servicemen. The secret servicemen were trying, among other things, to infiltrate the opposition and do all sorts of things to disturb them. And give information about what is going on to those who were holding political power. What were the ways of disturbing? First that come your mind are probably arrests, beating, threatening, detention – yes that of course was there. But also trying to make some oppositions distrust others (giving for instance false evidence of some of them conspiring with secret services), to make them quarrel, to strengthen personal dislikes among them, to make the opposition look bad in the eyes of the general public (once for instance fake recordings of Lech Wałęsa discussing how to fraud Solidarity money was broadcast in tv). Using various methods they tried to gain their agents (“tajny współpracownik”) among the oppositionists. Agents were (mostly, but not always) those who were aware that they were talking to the Secret Services. Sometimes they were worked on, someties they wanted to co-operate, sometimes they were forced to. They could be threatened, given money in exchange for information or “favour”. Agents had code names, and could also be given tasks – in order for instance to orchestrate some situation, or gain information from someone else. Apart from agents, there were also “sources of information” (who were also given codenames). People labeled in  such way in the papers may or may not have known that they have supplied Secret Services with information. They could be thinking they were talking to a friend or a co-worker. Or someone might have installed a bug in their flat. Etc.
Apart from that Secret Services are known for creating fake “agents” and “sources of information” in their paperwork, to use these papers later somehow. Information for such fake papers could come from person A, while attributed to person B. It could come from recorded telephone calls, from anecdotal knowledge, from serviceman’s imagination etc. etc. Why? For producing good and interesting results, Secret Servicemen were, for instance given more money, or promoted. Alternatively such papers could be shown to one oppositionist to make them think someone else was a traitor. Et caetera.. Secret Services were very creative. For instance special actions could be organized, like kidnapping of agents-oppositionists, just to make them more credible in the eyes of their opposition colleagues.

Apart from that some people could have been registered as candidates for agent (“tajny współpracownik”), there could be their signed pledge for cooperation in files, while they did not take any action whatsoever.

People’s attitudes towards Secret Services were different. Some were afraid and talked “with caution” trying not to spill the beans, some wanted to play their game with them and trick them… Only when in late 1970s an instruction was issued by Komitet Obrony Robotników (Workers’ Defence Commitee – an intelligentsia opposition organization) people became aware they shouldn’t talk with Secret Services at all, and shouldn’t sign anything.

Credibility of Secret Service files is questionable, and it is difficult to say what is fake and what is based on facts. Many files were destroyed or hidden in various moments in time: some most likely during the times of transition in 1989-1990.

Basic claims in the book

The book reportedly claims that Lech Wałęsa was giving information to the Secret Services in the early 1970s, as “tajny współpracownik” – agent. He was not a known figure back then, he was an ordinary person, taking part in opposition demonstration in Gdańsk and engaging in the movement. The Secret serviceman whose report is in the file, writes that he has paid “Bolek” 13000 złotys. However there are no receipts. Nothing signed by Wałęsa, nothing hand-written at all.

And then, when Wałęsa became president he requested to view his file. When the files were reopened during the presidency of Aleksander Kwaśniewski, it turned out several hundred pages were missing.

However the index is still there, it is therefore known what is missing. And these are typed reports of this agent “Bolek” – of being whom Wałęsa is being accused. Among the missing papers there are no signed or handwritten papers or receipts. Therefore the material missing would only be handy for cross-examination with other sources.
It is not certain when the pages were taken away and who did it. Pages were not checked when the file was being delivered to Wałęsa, and Wałęsa reportedly did not check them either.

What does Wałęsa say?

Wałęsa says that if had done what thay say he did, he would have said long time ago. He denies any involvement with Secret Services. He claims he never gave them any information, never gave in his colleagues. He claims he was not important enough then for the Secret Services wanting him for an agent. He is very angry, and thretens to sue the authors of the book. He says he did view his file during his presidency, however he did no remove anything from there. He wanted to check whether the files contain any materials from his and his wives sexual lives.

What do others say?

Other oppositionsts are divided. Some of them, who believe in the vision 2, believe these accusatins are true. Other’s don’t, and are talking about how the reality of the time is difficult to explain.

What is the political context?

What the book does is to try and put Wałęsa in a certain context, of an alternative interpretation of Polish history and current Polish affairs.

The history most people know looks like this: Solidarność fought our freedom. And thanks to the Round Table Compromise between Solidarność and communist government Poland was able to enter the path to independence and democracy. It also opened the possibility for democratic change in other countries from the Eastern Bloc. And this was one of the greatest moments in Polish history.

The alternative version of history (let’s call it version 2) has it that Wałęsa and Solidarność were orchestrated by the Secret Services, the Round Table Talks were the moment when Polish nation was betrayed. That the elite of Solidarność betrayed the ideals of the workers, and, conspiring with the communists, sold Poland. Sold the companies and factories, the market, the people as work-force. To the foreign capital, to foreign banks… Arranging the new reality in such a way, that post-communists (incl. Secret Servicemen), intelligentsia and elites are well-off, while workers are poor and disrespeted. Elites did not care for them.
Ian in his previous post rightly points that Kaczynski brothers and their party, who also have a deep personal dislike for Wałęsa, strongly believe in the second version (although Lech Kaczynski took part in the Round Table Talks himself).
There is also a claim, that Wałęsa’s policies, which are interpreted as againt lustration, during his presidency, were because of his problems with his own past.

The book is a supporting the version 2, reportedly being such an interpretation of certain facts from Lech Wałęsa’s past (and assumptions of Wałęsas 1970s agentship) to make the version 2 work well together.Some of those who prefer this version believe that Wałęsa is controlled by ex-Secret Servicemen until this day.

What is the general context?

What I would like people to remember from this story is not the fate of Wałęsa, who EVEN IF was broken by the Secret Services was also a victim. A victim of Police state, a victim of Secret Services who imposed themselves on people’s lives, who destroyed people, whowere paid by the state to disorganise, to plant distrust…

Wałęsa is still a great figure in Polish history, he was chosen by workers as their representative. In the 1980s had the strength and courage to stand up. He was a real leader, he had the skills, he had the talk, he had the charisma.

Epilogue

So was Wałęsa or was he not an agent? Did he or did he not remove his papers from the file? That depends on what you want to believe. It can’t be proven that he is guilty. It can’t be proven he is not guilty. Do you prefer to assume innocence or guilt?

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See a Polish news report with Lech Wałęsa (youtube).
Have a look at other news from Poland.

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Schindler’s List Death Camp: Krakow – Off the beaten track

THERE’S MORE LIKE THIS ON OUR NEW SITE – POLANDIAN.COM

In 1992 Steven Spielberg built a replica of the Nazi’s Płaszów Labor Camp for his movie Schindler’s List. The remains of this highly realistic set can still be seen today a short distance from the center of Krakow. Rebuilt using the original plans, the replica of Płaszów was constructed in a quarry only a few hundred meters from the location of the real camp. The Liban Quarry, the site of the reconstruction, is one of the places where inmates of Płaszów were worked to death or randomly murdered.

Today the Liban Quarry is a peaceful spot, famous for it’s populations of rare lizards and endangered wild flowers. Young trees and shrubs were bursting into the supernaturally bright green of spring when I visited this early May weekend. After a slightly perilous scramble down unmarked chalky paths we found our way to the floor of the quarry and pushed through the burgeoning saplings to see what we could see. The most obvious features are visible from the lip of the quarry, but it’s worth finding your way down for a closer look.

Liban Quarry from the south side of Kopiec Krakus

Traces of the Schindler’s List set and other features

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The tombstone road

The real Płaszów camp was built partly on the site of Jewish graveyards. In a typical piece of Nazi theatricality the tombstones were used to pave the road into the camp so that inmates were compelled to trample over the relics of their ancestors on their way to and from work. This is shocking from our safe and distant perspective, but I’m sure it was the last thing that really worried the men and women who were trying to survive there. In the reconstructed camp concrete casts from real headstones were used to build a similar road. It would be interesting to find out exactly which original headstones were cast.

The reconstructed road of tombstones (it’s ok to walk on them, they’re not real)

Detail of the reconstructed road of tombstones (look carefully for the repetitions)

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The fences

The original Płaszów camp had an inner and an outer fence. The corridor between these fences was patrolled by SS guards. This is reproduced exactly in the Liban Quarry copy. The remnants of the movie set are incredibly convincing. The timber looks decades old, rather than less than 20 years old – did the set builders use timber from an older source? If so, I’d love to know what that source was. According what I’ve read, the real camp had concrete fence posts, but maybe this wouldn’t have looked ‘authentic’ enough in the movie (I was certainly surprised to find that the fences at Auschwitz have concrete posts – too many war movies I guess). Also, I have no idea if the original fences were electrified – the insulators on the fake fence posts suggest that they were but this could also be a touch or artistic license.

Corridor between the inner and outer fences

Another view of the fence posts and barbed wire

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The lime kilns

From my memory of reading Schindler’s Ark, the book upon which Schindler’s list is based, I recall that the work on Liban Quarry was focused on the production of quicklime rather than the quarrying of limestone for its own sake. To produce quicklime you need a lime kiln, and that’s what I believe those tower-like structures at the back of the quarry are for. Limestone goes in the top, burning coal or charcoal goes in about half-way down, and quicklime comes out the bottom. Looking closely at these structures they are clearly many decades old, not movie sets. It’s possible they are remnants of the quicklime producing facilities from the Nazi’s war time operation, but they could also date from after the war, when the quarry continued in use. Again, something it would be nice to discover the truth about.

Dark satanic mills – but from what period in history?

Detail of the lime kilns

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Visiting the ‘fake’ Płaszów camp is a confusing and disturbing experience. The remnants you see are the remnants of a movie set, not the remnants of the actual labor camp – the real labor camp was destroyed and tidied away by the Germans before the Russians arrived. Despite knowing this one can’t help but be moved by the remains of the fake camp. It looks and feels exactly as you would expect an abandoned and overgrown Nazi death camp to look and feel, but it is – literally – just a movie. These are not the fences that enclosed the pitiless and brutal murder of thousands of people, but they stand on the ground where exactly those things happened. These are not the smashed remnants of centuries-old Jewish culture reduced to paving slabs, but they are exactly like them and the lie on the ground where Jewish people were worked to death. The coincidence between the ‘Hollywood’ version 50 years later and the reality beneath your feet is deeply confusing and thought provoking. To my mind, the reconstructed Płaszów camp lies at the heart of our struggle to understand – a living essay on the power of film blatantly and horrifically tied directly to the reality that film tries to portray. I’m inclined to believe that the remnants of the reconstructed Płaszów Camp were perhaps the chief reason for the making of the movie… but that’s just me.

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How to get there

The Liban Quarry is on the south side of the Vistula River. From the center of Old Krakow simply walk down through Kazimierz (Krakowska Street) and cross the Piłsudskiego Bridge (an unmistakable iron bridge painted pale blue). From there, follow the map below up to the Krakus Mound from which there is an excellent view down into the quarry. If you do decide to try and make your way down into the quarry itself please remember it is an environmentally sensitive area and it is dangerous.

(Click for a larger version)

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