Monday, November 15, 2010

On being a Pole during World War II

Many years ago, I hitchhiked from Paris to Perugia with this young woman. She was Polish--born in Lwow in the southeast, her father likely murdered in the Katyn Forest massacre, herself sent to Siberia with her mother and sister. They were among the minority of deportees who were rescued after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and Stalin was persuaded to scratch up a Polish army to fight on the western front. They were sent first to Iran, then the women and children were scattered all over the world, an experience that left Basia fluent in Russian, Arabic, French, and English, and Polish of course; in the spring of 1955, when I took this photo, she was heading to Perugia to perfect her Italian.

This all came alive to me again while reading the magnificent Bloodlands, an account of central Europe's agony from the 1930s to the 1950s. This in turn led me to borrow The Polish Deportees of World War II, containing first-hand accounts of this great hegira and the suffering it entailed. (Roughly ten percent of the Poles died in Iran or en route to it, of disease and malnutrition from their Russian exile--and these, remember, were from the select groups that actually got out of the Gulag, and those in turn were the hardiest of the deportees, who survived weeks in cattle cars or horse-drawn sleighs en route to the Russian outback.)

Lots of those Polish young men died in the Italian campaign, at Monte Cassino and elsewhere. I wonder if Basia knew that? Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

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