NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Dr. Stefan Waydenfeld

GET UPDATES FROM Dr. Stefan Waydenfeld
 

'The Ice Road': My Life In A Siberian Labor Camp

Posted: 03/15/10 01:22 PM ET

"A thrilling adventure, all the more remarkable for being true."
--Norman Davies, foreword to "The Ice Road"

A few days after I turned fifteen, I found myself crammed into a cattle car with dozens of other people, lying on a long shelf. Luckily, I had a slit of a window. I kept thinking, soon I will be out of Soviet-controlled eastern Poland, on my way home near Warsaw -- though it might be a different home living under the Nazi occupation.

Dawn was coming, I couldn't sleep -- something was wrong. And then it hit me. The sun was rising on the wrong side. The train veered slightly to the left and I saw the reddish gold disk just over the horizon. I tried to think straight. On the map the railway line was perfectly straight. It went west to Warsaw and then Berlin, or east to Moscow. We were supposed to be going west.

Days later, the doors opened on Siberia, our worst fear.

We deportees, including old people and babies, were herded outside a log hut. A colonel raised his right arm, silence fell. He spoke calmly; the settlement was called Kvasha and we would spend the rest of our lives here. "You will live by the basic tenet of socialism: He who does not work, does not eat."

Later, Father told me: "Mother was assigned to a forest brigade. I could not allow it. I am sorry, but it means that you will have to go to work in her place. On this condition they agreed to leave Mother alone. Because of your age you will work only a six-hour day. I am sorry...I am sorry," Father kept repeating, visibly upset.

"Never mind," I said. "Honestly, Father, I am glad that you did it. I was wondering what I would do here all day. Really, I don't mind the slightest bit." Mother had tears in her eyes. She hugged me and I was embarrassed, but not too much. I felt grown up and, suddenly, it was all right to be hugged by my mother, even in public.

My life was hard labor in a Siberian logging camp, working all year round, maintaining an ice road for the transport of timber in subzero temperatures. Why? I had done no crime. I watched my father's health deteriorate and my mother quickly grow old. The Soviets told us we were "enemies of the people," here to be re-educated, but we were just individuals trapped by the vicissitudes of war. Nowadays refugee camps in Africa, Bosnia, Afghanistan, are full of people like us, hostages to history.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland, one and a half million Poles were arrested by Stalin who, having signed a pact with Hitler, annexed half of Poland in 1939. He kept it after the war ended, with the tacit approval of our allies Britain and the U.S. At the end of the war, though I eventually fought for a free Europe, I had no country to return to.

There are families who lose everything in the catastrophe we call history. I was sure I had lost my future. With no hope of school, my dream to become a doctor, like my father, was a memory -- just like my idyllic childhood in our villa near Warsaw. I was too tired to think of anything but a way to survive.

I became a bystander, a person who had lost one world and not yet found another. These stories have to be told, no matter how long it takes. I finally wrote "The Ice Road" for my American grandsons so they would know what happened.

I also wrote it because the history of WWII in Europe has become that of the West -- yet the role of Poland, the first of the Western Allies to fight Hitler, remains in the shadows. Most people, including even some Poles, have never heard this story. And it should be remembered, that this war was not just some glorious enterprise of good fighting evil. It was not as clean as the victors would like it remembered. Stories like mine are evidence of what really happened.

After the war ended, I could not envisage going back to Poland and spending more years under a communist rule. Instead, I found a new life in Britain. And though it seemed impossible, because of my lost years, to become a physician, I did become one. I also married my wartime sweetheart Danuta, whom I had met on the shore of the Caspian Sea after escaping from Stalin's paradise. We have now been married for 61 years.

In some ways, my life seems to have been an accident -- of fate or providence, whatever you call it. There were coincidences that kept our family together when others were separated and when so many -- more than half of the Poles deported by Stalin -- died. And the most absurd irony is that had that train returned to Nazi-occupied Poland, we would most likely have died in concentration camps.

Siberia made me grow up fast, and that wasn't all bad. Life was a great adventure! I was proud that at fifteen I was doing a man's work. I found a first love and enjoyed wild bareback rides in the forest. But the most important thing I gained from my travels -- escaping Siberia on a self-made raft, life in Soviet Central Asia, crossing Kazakhstan's mountains, the Caspian Sea, reaching a Persian beach -- was the knowledge that one could achieve anything with determination and an ounce of luck.

If you are suddenly caught in a whirlwind you need to mobilize all your skills. And, never knowing what crises might arise, I also learned the habit of lateral thinking, which helped me to solve problems quickly. But these are consolation prizes for the fortunate, for those who survived.

Individuals get caught in conflicts not of their making. Their stories must be told -- though it may be too much to hope that in the future nations will pause before repeating the errors of history...