After six weeks of squatting with friends and another six weeks of tackling travel writing assignments and endless piles of boxes, we’re (nearly!) settled in our new home…which means, at long last, I can return to my book.
Inspired by a recent visit from my cousin-once-removed, Michel (visiting New York from Brazil), I thought I’d give you a glimpse at what it took for me to uncover his father’s WWII survival story.
I knew very little about Genek, the oldest of my grandfather’s four siblings, at the start of this project. What I did know—that he and his wife Herta were deported to a Siberian gulag during WWII where their son Josef (Michel’s older brother) was born, and that later he fought for the Allies under a Polish general by the name of Anders—was intriguing, to say the least. Why was he deported? Where exactly was he deported to? How did he end up in the army?
Michel and Josef shook their heads when I asked. “One of the only stories my mother told us,” Michel said, “was that when Josef was born, it was so cold in their barracks, his eyes would freeze shut; mother used drops of her breast milk to coax them open.” This small detail left me breathless as I tried to imagine what it must have been like, giving birth to a child in a Siberian gulag.
I decided the first step in my research would be to familiarize myself with the history of Stalin’s Siberian labor camps. I was astonished to learn that hundreds of thousands of Poles (some estimate up to 1.5 million) were exiled to gulags during WWII…and that when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin released these prisoners (those still living), granting them “amnesty,” on the condition that they would fight for the Soviets, who now sided with the Allies. “Amnesty” was an interesting word choice, for as far as I could tell, most had committed no crime. Approximately 40,000 Polish exiles, including Genek, went on to form Anders’ Army.
My head spun as I tried to digest it all. So one day Genek is a prisoner of the Russians, the next he is asked to fight for them? Talk about twisted irony.
Anders’ Army, I learned, traveled across Russia, Kazakhstan, and over the Caspian Sea to Persia, and from there, through Palestine to Egypt and into Italy. What must that journey have entailed? And where were Herta and Josef throughout? The more I learned, the more I needed to know. The answers were out there—they had to be—the question was how to find them.
Stay tuned—my search continues next with, “The Night Eight KGB Agents Burst Into My Flat.”