Death in the Forest: who murdered the prisoners?


War and Exile, 1939-1948

Dinner in Warsaw, September 1945
Dinner in Warsaw, September 1945

1945: the war ends, but for Eastern Europe it's a bitter peace

Magdalena Grzebalkowska's Poland 1945: War and Peace, is a remarkable book, brilliantly translated into English. Starting in the 1990s with the rise of women's studies to a privileged place in American universities, we began to read about the home front in the Second World War, and how a woman standing in line to buy rationed food was supposed to be equivalent to, say, being shorn of one's arms and legs in a mortar blast. Ms Grzebalkowska has redeemed this fatuous nonsense by writing a chronicle of Poland in 1945, the year that most of the Western world regards as a triumph of good over evil. Not so in Eastern Europe, as Joseph Stalin and the Russian Red Army revenged themselves upon Germany and Poland alike. Poles were expelled from eastern Poland; Germans were expelled from eastern Germany, and the forcibly imposed Communist government moved millions of refugees from one place to the other, as Poland itself became "the country on rollerskates," shoved 150 miles to the west. The book is divided into 12 chapters, each introduced by a spread of classified advertisements from Polish newspapers, each a tiny novel in itself:

"Joseph Gruss, New York, Broadway, is looking for his daughter Johanna, age 8, and his mother Mrs. Zelanizkowa, and will be grateful for any information about them. Until May 1944 both were in Belsen."

Like Hemingway's masterful vignettes in the Paris edition of in our time, there's a whole world of pain in those few words, at least to those who know that many of those who survived the Bergin-Belsen camp were dispatched to Auschwitz in May 1944 for final disposition. Though the book sags a bit in the middle, most of the chapters following these advertisements have the same concentrated power. For Eastern Europe, the peace treaty of May was just a pause in years of horrific suffering. Take a close look at the dust-cover photo at the top of this page, showing a family at dinner in Warsaw in September 1945, wearing overcoats in a room with no outside wall. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

Poland's Daughter

Poland's Daughter The Second World War -- the worst thing that ever happened. It started in September 1939, with Hitler's Wehrmacht invading Poland from the west, while Stalin's Red Army stormed in from the east. Among their victims was a five-year-old named Basia Deszberg. The Russians shot her father and brother in the Katyn Forest, then loaded Basia, her sister, and her mother into a cattle car for a horrific three-week journey to the steppes of Kazakhstan, there to survive however they could. Over the next eight years, they would escape through Persia, Lebanon, and Egypt to find safe haven in England.

Meanwhile, I was growing up in a United States mired by the Great Depression. Europe's agony was America's windfall! I went from hardscrabble poverty to a college degree and a fellowship that took me to the English university where Basia was also a student. This is the story of our meeting, our travels, and our parting. "It's an extraordinary book, highly original, gripping, at once full of joy and of sorrow" (Cosmopolitan Review).

Available as a paperback or an ebook at Amazon and other online bookstores.

Files about Poland's wartime agony

Stalin's order to shoot 22,000 Polish prisoners
An American eyewitness to the Katyn exhumations
Operation Unthinkable: Churchill's plan to push the Red Army back to the prewar border
A voice from the grave at Bykovnia

Some background reading

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (Stephen Kotkin)
Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination (Stephen Fritz)
The Eagle Unbowed (Halik Kochanski) and Isaac's Army (Matthew Brzezinski)
Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov (Geoffrey Roberts)
Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union (Katherine Jolluck)
The Russian Origins of the First World War (Sean McMeekin)
The Inhuman Land (Joseph Czapski)
The Polish Deportees of World War II (Tadeusz Piotrowski, ed.)
George Kennan: An American Life (John Gaddis)
When God Looked the Other Way (Wesley Adamczyk)
Revolution From Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's West (Jan Gross)
Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (Cienciala et al)
A Concise History of Poland (Lukowski & Zawadzki)
Bloody Foreigners: Poles in Britain (Robert Winder)
The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsym)
Summit at Teheran: The Untold Story (Keith Eubank)
The Dark Side of the Moon (Zoe Zajdlerowa and T.S. Eliot)
Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg (Steven Zaloga)
The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia (Tzouliadis)

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Poland's Daughter

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