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Often overlooked in accounts of World War II is the Soviet Union's quiet yet brutal campaign against Polish citizens, a campaign that included, we now know, war crimes for which the Soviet and Russian governments only recently admitted culpability. Standing in the shadow of the Holocaust, this episode of European history is often overlooked. Wesley Adamczyk's gripping memoir, When God Looked the Other Way, now gives voice to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Soviet ...
Often overlooked in accounts of World War II is the Soviet Union's quiet yet brutal campaign against Polish citizens, a campaign that included, we now know, war crimes for which the Soviet and Russian governments only recently admitted culpability. Standing in the shadow of the Holocaust, this episode of European history is often overlooked. Wesley Adamczyk's gripping memoir, When God Looked the Other Way, now gives voice to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Soviet barbarism.
Adamczyk was a young Polish boy when he was deported with his mother and siblings from their comfortable home in Luck to Soviet Siberia in May of 1940. His father, a Polish Army officer, was taken prisoner by the Red Army and eventually became one of the victims of the Katyn massacre, in which tens of thousands of Polish officers were slain at the hands of the Soviet secret police. The family's separation and deportation in 1940 marked the beginning of a ten-year odyssey in which the family endured fierce living conditions, meager food rations, chronic displacement, and rampant disease, first in the Soviet Union and then in Iran, where Adamczyk's mother succumbed to exhaustion after mounting a harrowing escape from the Soviets. Wandering from country to country and living in refugee camps and the homes of strangers, Adamczyk struggled to survive and maintain his dignity amid the horrors of war.
When God Looked the Other Way is a memoir of a boyhood lived in unspeakable circumstances, a book that not only illuminates one of the darkest periods of European history but also traces the loss of innocence and the fight against despair that took root in one young boy. It is also a book that offers a stark picture of the unforgiving nature of Communism and its champions. Unflinching and poignant, When God Looked the Other Way will stand as a testament to the trials of a family during wartime and an intimate chronicle of episodes yet to receive their historical due.
— Arnold Beichman
— Gordon Haber
— Andrew Wachtel
— Piotr Wrobel
— Anna M. Cienciala
— Douglas Carl Peifer
Foreword by Norman Davies
Part I. Poland
2. The Hunt
Part II. We Are Enslaved
3. A Knock on the Door
4. Train to Nowhere
Part III. The Inhuman Land
5. The Russian Steppes
7. Winter and Wolves
8. The Petroviches
9. War and Shortages
10. The Interrogation
11. Holding On
12. Starvation and Vodka
14. The Culture of Communism
Part IV. Escape to Freedom
15. The Escape Plan
16. Jurek's Ordeal
17. Aboard the Kaganovich
Part V. The Bitter Taste of Freedom
18. The Beach at Pahlevi
19. The Air Force Hangar
20. The Darkest Hour
21. An Unexpected Visitor
22. Shattered Hopes
24. Desert Games
25. The Orphanage
26. The Silver Case
Part VI. People without a Country
27. At the Crossroads
28. "Where the Sun Never Sets"
Part VII. Journey's End
29. The Magnificent Aquitania
30. Thanksgiving Day
31. Making Peace with God
Part VIII. The Passage of Time
32. For Whom the Bells Toll
33. The Circle Closes
Afterword: Circumstances Surrounding the Katyn Tragedy
Appendix: Letters to America
... The atmosphere in and around our home began to change, becoming more gloomy and secretive. Army officers came to our apartment to speak with Father privately, and young people came to our door to collect empty cans and other metallic objects we no longer needed. My parents and nanny took to speaking in whispers when I was around and refused to explain why. Even Zosia began acting toward me the way Mother did, telling me not to be concerned and abruptly changing the subject.
Now and then I overheard my parents talking about imminent war with Germany. The uncertainty of what life would be like frightened me. Would the war last only one day, like the battles of old my father told me about? I wanted to know, but nobody would give me an answer.
On the first day of September 1939, the Germans attacked Poland across its western border. I did not understand what being at war meant, so I asked Mother. She only held me close and said she would explain some other time. Later that day, I overheard Father say to her, "Do not tell the children yet. Do not tell them what might happen."
That evening I overheard Father expressing his fear that the German attack might spread into a wider war. He explained that the Soviets could easily take advantage of this situation to also attack Poland in an attempt to get back the land Poland had recovered after the victory over the Bolsheviks in 1920. If that happened, Poles could be in grave danger from local Belorussians and Ukrainians, whose relationship with the Poles was uneasy at best. For the first time in my life, I had the scary feeling that all the good things I took for granted-my family, my home-could be lost.
Several days after the German invasion, this feeling intensified as our nanny left our home in Luck, advised by Father to stay with her relatives in Warsaw. Then Mother told us that our father, a captain in the Polish Army, would be leaving us to join the troops. That evening, a short time after my parents told me to go to bed, papa came to my room.
"Dear Wiesiu, I must say good-bye to you." He picked me up and kissed me. "Take care of your mother," he said. Overcome with fear, I felt that our life would never be the same again. Somehow I knew that I would never forget the moment when my papa kissed me, and I hoped it would not be for the last time. Even today, when I recall that moment, I am filled with a boyish wish that I could have stopped the clock and given Father another chance at life.
After he left, our life began to unravel. The Germans attacked with warplanes. Sirens blared, bombs fell, and we ran and hid in previously dug trenches by the river Styr. During the bombing I could taste the dirt that fell on us while Mother held my head close to her body to protect me. For the first time, I feared for my life and the lives of my family. Although the German Army did not advance as far as Luck, the bombing raids continued, and Mother decided we should return to our country home in Sarny, which was smaller and less likely to be a target.
On September 17, however, a second horror began. The Soviets, despite having signed a treaty of nonaggression with Poland and without declaring war, entered from the east on the pretext of helping the Poles fight the Germans. With the Germans winning and occupying the country in the west, chaos had ensued, and the Soviet double-cross worked. Small Polish Army units, composed mainly of reservists, that were scattered along the eastern border were surrounded by massive Red Army forces and were forced to lay down their arms or die. In the confusion some furious fighting broke out, but it was too little too late. Within a very short time, the Soviets took about two hundred thousand Polish soldiers prisoner.
Officers, including my father, were separated from the others. For months we knew nothing of what happened to him. Some time later we started receiving letters from him and learned of his capture. He had been taken to the Starobelsk prison in the Soviet Union along with other officers.
Just as the Gestapo followed in the wake of the advancing German Army, the Soviet secret police followed the Soviet troops and began to plunder villages and arrest, torture, and murder civilians. Soon after entering Poland the Soviet story changed from "We are protecting you from the Germans" to "We have come to liberate the workers from the Polish bourgeois oppressors." The Soviets also announced that the liberated lands would be annexed to the Soviet Union to satisfy "the will of the people." Suddenly the battle's theme changed from defending Polish territories from the Germans to class warfare. The intent now became clear: it was to take over Poland permanently and to spread the Communist revolution westward, something the Bolsheviks had failed to do twenty years earlier.
The Soviet secret police, or NKVD, was equivalent to the Gestapo. In the beginning the NKVD sought out professionals and army officers and then their families. Because our father was a banker and an army officer, we were prime targets for arrest. I sensed how my mother's fear for our safety intensified, which made me more afraid. I had the horrible feeling of being hunted. I could not, however, understand why I was anybody's quarry, nor could I understand why people would want to kill other people.
In February 1940, shortly after my seventh birthday, word began to spread that the Soviets were forcibly deporting Poles to the Soviet Union, particularly those whom they viewed as a threat to the Communist takeover. The time soon came when persons with any kind of material possessions, including peasants who owned small plots of land, were targeted as well. All were considered members of the bourgeoisie and thus "enemies of the people" who were prime subjects for deportation.
Our family's bank account was seized for the benefit of the Soviet treasury. Firearms, if found, were confiscated, too. Late one night, Jurek gathered all of Father's guns, oiled them, wrapped them in rubber sheets, and placed them and some jewelry in a steel box, which he buried among the fruit trees in our orchard. At that point I realized that we would soon be leaving our home behind and had to prepare for that day. Mother busied herself designing ways to hide our jewelry from the invaders. Since our return to Sarny, she had been making dried bread. "It is for emergencies," she would say. But I watched her insert into the dough many pieces of jewelry including her grandmother's gold earrings, a gold crucifix, and gold bracelets. After the bread had baked, I helped her and Zosia cut it into large pieces. Later the bread was dried in the oven and packed into large potato sacks. How Mother identified the pieces with jewelry hidden inside, I have never learned. Mother and Zosia sewed other small pieces of jewelry and gold coins inside hems of dresses.
We had heard that watches and clocks were of great value in the Soviet Union and had observed for ourselves that the Soviet soldiers walking the streets would ostentatiously wear many watches on each arm, some proudly displaying many alarm clocks attached to their belts. We gathered together all the family's watches, even those that didn't run, and I watched as Mother and my sister spent long hours sewing them into the hems of winter coats.
On the night of May 14, 1940, we went to sleep anticipating the next day's celebration of Zosia's name day. In the middle of the night, however, we were awakened by heavy pounding on the front and back doors. Jurek, Zosia, and I jumped out of our beds to see what the commotion was about. It was 2:00 a.m. We came out of our rooms to see Mother standing in the middle of our guestroom, trembling. Her face was ashen, her black hair tumbling in disarray over her white nightgown. Her feet were bare and her hands were clasped together as though in prayer. She stood frozen, looking toward us as we ran up to her. I had never seen Mother like this before. Her usual smile was gone, her eyes were distant and filled with fear, and her lips were open as if she were trying to tell us something.
"Who is it, Mother?" Jurek whispered.
"Dear Lord! The Russians have come to get us!"
In haste, she motioned us closer and embraced us.
"Listen carefully, children, to what I am going to tell you. No matter what happens, God will be with you. Whatever they do, do not talk back. Keep your composure because they can kill us all. Remember, no matter what they ask, you know nothing."
The pounding on the door became louder, and we heard male voices shouting something in a language I did not understand. As we started toward the door its latch shattered and it swung open; soldiers rushed in with rifles and fixed bayonets extended before them. The next thing I knew, Jurek was lying on the floor bleeding from his face, Mother bending over to help him. The first soldier who came in pushed her away toward the wall with his rifle, screaming at her not to touch Jurek. Zosia was crying. I was petrified, thinking that they would kill us. Nobody had ever treated my mother or my brother so terribly. When gentlemen guests had come to our house, they had always kissed her hand and bowed with respect. Now this brute had shoved her against the wall with a rifle. The soldiers charged into our home with all the manners of the wild boars that Father used to shoot in the forest. If only Jurek had not buried all the guns in the orchard, I thought, maybe I would shoot them all the same way.
A half-dozen soldiers rushed through the rooms, knocking down lamps, crystal vases and decanters, paintings, and furniture while two soldiers with fixed bayonets stood guard over us. They all looked alike-short and stocky with round faces, drab-looking green uniforms, and hats adorned with red stars. I looked into their blank eyes and expressionless faces. I had never seen such people before. It took the invaders fifteen minutes to ransack our house. Then they left through the front door, leaving us huddled together in the middle of the room. A minute later, two of them returned with an officer, a captain of the Soviet secret police. He was dressed in a bluish-gray uniform with red stripes running down his trouser legs and a round hat with a blue band around it and a red star in the middle. He looked directly at Mother and said something in Russian.
When Mother replied that she did not understand, he switched to broken Polish.
"Is your name Anna Adamczykova?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered.
"Your husband is Jan Adamczyk, captain in the Polish Army?"
"You have three children: Jerzy, age seventeen; Zofia, age thirteen; Wieslaw, age seven?"
"You are all under arrest."
"But this must be some mistake," Mother protested. "We have done nothing wrong."
"You are Polish elite," he said scornfully. "You are Polish lords and masters. You are enemies of the people."
"We have no enemies," Mother replied.
She was right. How could she, my brother, sister, and I be enemies of the people? I was getting angry. Everybody knew we had nothing but friends and I wanted to tell the man that, but I remembered what Mother had said about keeping quiet.
The NKVD captain ignored her, and we stood quietly as he issued orders. He allowed us one hour to pack our things. We could take anything with us except guns, jewelry, money, and books.
Mother asked where he was taking us.
"To our great country," he answered.
We had all heard the stories of how the Soviets were deporting innocent Polish people, killing many in the process, stealing money and jewelry, and confiscating their possessions. We had a surprise for this Russian, however, because there were no guns or jewels for them to find. But still we had only one hour to pack, to choose what we valued most and leave everything else behind. Mother told us to collect our things and not to waste any time in the process. We rushed to our bedrooms and began to gather underwear, summer and winter clothes, boots, heavy scarves and hats, mittens, and shoes, which Mother packed into suitcases and bundles made from bed sheets.
On the third or fourth trip to my bedroom, I began to gather my toys and fairy tale books, which I loved so much. Before I could take them to where Mother was packing, the NKVD captain with the red star on his hat blocked my way and barked, "Where are you going with all of this, little Polish prince?"
"These are my toys and books," I answered. "I am taking them with me."
"No!" He turned to Mother and ordered her to tell me not to pack such things. There was no need for them where we were going. "Russia is a great country," he explained. "In Russia, we have everything. He will read Russian books."
He paused for a second, his eyes bulging with anger. Then he roared, "Everything! Everything! Even matches, we have in our great country."
I replied that I wasn't interested in matches; I only wanted my toys and books.
"No!" the man bellowed.
Jurek ran up to me, clearly shaken, and grabbed me by the arm to drag me back to my bedroom. He pushed me toward my bed.
"Sit here, brother, and listen. Don't you remember what Mother said? You must be quiet or you will get us all in big trouble."
I sat down, frustrated and angry. All I wanted to take with me was my toys and books, but the man with the red star kept bellowing, No! No! No! Why was he so angry? Why would an adult talk about having matches in his "great country"? We had plenty of matches in our home. So what? I did not understand what was happening. The longer I sat, the more distraught I became. If I could not have my toys and books, then maybe all of us should escape. Maybe we could all sneak one by one through a back window of the house into the orchard and then into the forest. After a while, seeing that no one watching me, I went on a scouting mission from window to window in the back of the house. To my amazement, outside each of them I saw one or two soldiers with rifles with fixed bayonets looking straight at me. Each one wore a hat with a red star in the front, the same red star worn by the soldiers who had burst into the house. I looked at them, but they just stared back at me without moving. They stood there like the tree trunks in our orchard. Their round faces were all the same, no smile and no expression at all.
As I moved from window to window, even the blank faces of the soldiers seemed to disappear. I could no longer distinguish people but saw only red stars and bayonets reflecting the dim moonlight. There was no escaping. If only Father were here, I kept thinking, he would shoot them all just as he did when they attacked Poland earlier. If only Jurek hadn't buried the guns.
Someone put an arm around me. Startled, I turned. "Come, Wiesiu," Zosia whispered in my ear, "you cannot look out the windows any more. We have to leave in a few minutes."
"But I do not want to go.
Excerpted from When God Looked the Other Way by Wesley Adamczyk Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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