All of Us Are Still Alive

By Martin Stepek

18 August 1940

Oh my dearest!

We received your letter of 7 July luckily. All of us are still alive. There are now lots of berries and mushrooms so we're eating them and some we're selling. Somehow we're managing but what will winter make of us? Will we still be alive after that? All of us are barefoot and the winter lasts eight months and starts in two months' time. I don't know how we'll cope with that. We're missing everyone but life has to go on.

I could write quite a lot but we can't write about some things. It's such a good thing you know where we are. Henrik and his family were taken to Russia as well. We don't have any news of them. Gutek Konopnicki is in Russia too. Irena is in Lwow. She is having to get through her tragedy alone. Please don't forget about us and try to get us out of here. Send my love to Cziek's family.

Janina

 

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I sometimes try to imagine receiving this letter. Your wife and your three teenage children have been taken from your home in your absence, and sent by cattle truck to a Soviet labour camp at the edge of the Arctic Circle.

The man who received this letter, my grandfather Wladyslaw, had evaded execution by the Red Army and at the time he receives this letter is in hiding from the Nazis. He is in the Polish resistance. The great world issues whirl around him: the fight for democracy against  fascism and communism; the giant figures who symbolise these ideologies - Hitler, Churchill, Stalin; the slaughter of Poland's Jewish population whom he had advised on land issues, the mass enslavement and murder of his fellow Poles. It is the second time in barely twenty years he has had to fight for his country's freedom, having led a local insurrection at the end of the First World War.

But now he has confirmation that his wife Janina and his three children are still alive. What do war, power struggles, grand ideologies matter when your twelve year old daughter is barefoot in the Soviet GULAG? She had just finished primary school for God's sake.

This letter is my connection with the grandparents I never knew, and with the lost way of life for the thirty million citizens who lived in the Polish Second Republic of 1918-1939. Wladyslaw and Janina were not to be reunited. Janina was never to set foot on Polish soil again.  She and her three children - my father Jan and his two sisters Zosia and Danka - were released a year after she wrote this letter and made their way south through Russia, eventually reaching Persia in the summer of 1942. But it was too late for Janina. She died of starvation in a hospital in Teheran on 25th October 1942. My father was twenty at the time, recovering from typhus, still fighting dysentery and malaria. He could put his hand round his thigh and touch his finger and thumb. Zosia was sick from a series of illnesses and Danka weighed 3 stone 12 pounds. She was fifteen.

How do you begin to understand this? Hundreds of thousands of their fellow Poles deported to Russia died there. Their graves are spread through every part of the massive Soviet landmass. Unnamed, unmarked, unvisited. My family are lucky. Janina has a headstone, even though the neat cemetery in Teheran in which she is buried masks a colder reality. Underneath the gravestones are mass graves with lines of coffins laid out beside each other. The names on the headstones bear no relationship to precisely where in the cemetery each body is buried. But at least we know Janina lies somewhere there. Much of the vast Polish diaspora scattered around the world after World War Two can never find out where their parents, siblings, grandparents lie in the unimaginable vastness of what was the Soviet Union.

Pre-war Poland was a remarkable but volatile mix of Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Germans and other minorities. The dream of regaining independence in 1918 turned into the nightmare of the Holocaust in which almost all of Poland's three million Jews perished. The same number of ethnic Poles were murdered or starved. Warsaw was completely destroyed by the Nazis. Stalin annexed the eastern half of the country. The post-war communists expelled the entire German Polish population, and over a million Poles were forcibly relocated to new lands taken from Germany. Wartime resistance leaders were executed after the war by Stalin's secret police. All this in just six years. Poland was then subjected to forty-five years of communist dictatorship under Soviet command. Only in 1989 did Poland finally emerge from the direct consequences of the Second World War. It will take generations for the country to fully come to terms with what happened to it.

The epic tragedy of multi-cultural pre-war Poland is a country that is now scarred by death camps from Nazi occupation, the still unhealed heartbreak of the Holocaust, the Katyn massacres, the little-reported shooting of children in reprisal for their parents committing the crime of helping a Jew. All of this pours out when I hold the letter my grandmother wrote to her husband in 1940.

But it reduces to this. I never knew her. Nor him. I was not to be Polish, but Scottish. I was never to play in the family farm's fields of corn, never to skip school or church in order to pick blueberries in the fertile soil of beautiful Haczow, where Wladyslaw lies buried. He had died of cancer in 1943 unaware that his children had escaped to freedom.

This letter awakens my private world of deepest love and grief for two people I never knew, of an alternate life unlived. It opens up a universe of inhumanity I can scarcely imagine. This is my heritage. I don't seek to understand it, just to feel it.