Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty


War and Exile, 1939-1948

Sarah Cameron's The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan is a tough slog, though enlivened by flashes of good prose that are unusual in an academic work. (Kazakhstani nomads in the same family group might be pasturing their animals "many kilometers apart across a howling expanse of wind and snow.") It can also be hard reading, as she tells us about people so hungry that they abandon one child in order to feed another, or turn to eating the dead and perhaps killing the nearly dead for food, or starving children taken to orphanages only to be so hungry there that they fled these supposed refuges. With Marxist-Leninist zeal combined with ignorance of local conditions, Moscow demanded that the nomads be settled in collective farms, meanwhile supplying grain and meat for Russian cities. The Kazakhs had to sell their animals in order to meet the quotas, and then had nothing for themselves. The result was famine. Perhaps 90 percent of their animals were sold, were butchered for meat, or themselves died of hunger. The toll among the Kazakhs was 1.5 million people out of 6.5 million -- fewer deaths than the more famous famine in Ukraine, but far worse as a share of the affected population. I am left wondering how people can still tout the virtues of socialism, when starvation seems always to result, first in the Soviet Union, then in China, and more recently in Venezuela.

What does this have to do with Poland? Even before the famine of 1931-1933, Kazakhstan had served as a dumping ground for Polish, German, and other ethnic groups, and a large part of the "Hungry Steppe" had been cleared of the native population in order to build the Karaganda slave labor camp. And in 1940, just seven years after the famine ended, fresh thousands of Poles were exiled to the same ravaged territory, there to survive as best they could. They included Basia Dezberg and her mother, sister, aunt, cousin, and half-brother, whose story I tell in Poland's Daughter. 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 as best 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, 2014)
Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination (Stephen Fritz, 2011)
The Eagle Unbowed (Halik Kochanski, 2012) and Isaac's Army (Matthew Brzezinski, 2012)
Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov (Geoffrey Roberts, 2012)
Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union during World War II (Katherine Jolluck, 2002)
The Russian Origins of the First World War (Sean McMeekin, 2012)
The Inhuman Land (Joseph Czapski, 1987)
The Polish Deportees of World War II (Tadeusz Piotrowski, ed., 2007)
George Kennan: An American Life (John Gaddis, 2011)
When God Looked the Other Way (Wesley Adamczyk, 2004)
Revolution From Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Jan Gross, 2002)
Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (Cienciala et al, 2007)
A Concise History of Poland (Lukowski & Zawadzki, 2006)
Bloody Foreigners: Poles in Britain (Robert Winder)
The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsym, 1973-1974)
Summit at Teheran: The Untold Story (Keith Eubank, 1985)
The Dark Side of the Moon (Zoe Zajdlerowa and T.S. Eliot, 1947)
Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg (Steven Zaloga, 2002)
The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia (Tzouliadis, 2008)

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

Poland's Daughter

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Posted February 2019. Websites ©1997-2019 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.