Film documents brutal story of Stalin's atrocities in Poland
By Tom Hundley
The Chicago Tribune
May 28, 2008
For 50 years, the word was never spoken, only whispered: Katyn, the
forest where in spring 1940, six months after Germany and the Soviet
Union secretly agreed to carve up Poland, more than 21,000 Polish
military officers, intellectuals, priests, doctors, Boy Scouts and
others were murdered by Joseph Stalin's secret police.
This was quickly followed by mass deportations. Between 1.2 million
and 1.6 million Poles, many of them women and children-"enemies of
the state"-were transported to Siberia in cattle cars. Stalin's plan
was to help himself to a large hunk of eastern Poland by
exterminating its leadership class and depopulating the territory.
Within 18 months 760,000 were dead. About one third of the victims
German troops discovered the mass graves of Katyn in 1943, two years
after their invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin immediately blamed
the Germans for the atrocities. Roosevelt and Churchill knew better,
but unwilling to risk their new alliance with Moscow, they went along
with the cover-up.
After the war, textbooks in Poland, vetted by Moscow, sustained the
lie. It was not until the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in a
terminal state of decrepitude, that the truth began to leach out.
Travelers to Poland in those days might have noticed a discreet
memorial in a corner of a parish church-a cross, a candle, a simple
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the truth flooded out, but
even today, 68 years after the terrible events, the truth does not
sit easily. This was evident last month when several survivors of the
deportations gathered at the Gallery Theater on Milwaukee Avenue for
the screening of a new documentary by Chris Swider, a filmmaker on
the faculty of Columbia College.
Deeply felt emotion
Swider's "Children in Exile" is a reflection of the deeply felt
emotion unleashed when Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader,
acknowledged in 1990 his country's role in the Katyn massacres.
Scores of public memorials to the victims have sprouted across
Poland, including an impressive monument to the victims of the
deportations erected in the center of Warsaw.
In 2004, the Russian government agreed to make all documents relating
to Katyn available to Polish researchers as soon as they were
declassified. The process has been slow, but a number of scholarly
works already have been published.
Last year, Andrzej Wajda, Poland's most celebrated film director,
released what is arguably his masterpiece, titled "Katyn." For Poles,
viewing it has almost become an obligatory act of patriotism and
To this growing body of work, Swider has added an important new
chapter. "Children in Exile," which made its local debut at the
Chicago International Documentary Festival, tells the story of the
civilian deportations through the testimony of the survivors. It is a
story that has lived within Swider for much of his life, but one that
he never expected to tell "because I never thought that communism
would end in my lifetime."
Swider's father, a captain in the Polish Army, narrowly escaped death
at Katyn. He had been dispatched to a Soviet slave labor camp in
Russia's far north a few days before the killings started.
Eventually, he was "amnestied" by Stalin after the Nazi invasion of
the Soviet Union; he ended up in the Polish battalions that fought
alongside U.S. and British troops in Italy.
Swider's family immigrated to Chicago in 1951 when he was 6 months
old. He said he grew up "surrounded" by the wartime stories of his
parents and their émigré friends, but it was not until communism
collapsed and he was able to access his father's KGB files that he
began to see the documentary potential.
"Children in Exile" has been 16 years in the making. The story of
Poland's wartime miseries and its aftermath is so complex, that
Swider's first problem was how to winnow down an overabundance of
He said he decided to focus on the plight of exiled children for two
reasons: Their story has not received much attention, and they are
still around to tell it.
His technique is simple. "You turn a camera on and listen," he said.
One of Swider's early decisions was to include an extended interview
with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader.
During Q&A sessions that followed the screenings in Chicago, members
of the audience, mainly Polish-Americans, sharply criticized
Jaruzelski's presence in the documentary. One man asked Swider why he
put "this Polish traitor" in the film.
"Because at the time he experienced what he experienced, he was a
child, not a traitor," Swider replied.
Afterward, Swider explained his thinking on Jaruzelski: "I wanted a
pro-Russian communist. Whether you like him or not, his presence
confirms and verifies the truth of what the others say."
One of the "others" in Swider's documentary is Wesley Adamczyk, a
Deerfield resident whose father was murdered at Katyn. Two months
later, Adamczyk, who was 7 at the time, was sent to Siberia with his
mother, brother and sister.
For two years, Adamczyk endured malnutrition and disease before
escaping with his mother and sister to Kazakhstan, and then on to
Iran where his mother succumbed to dysentery, malaria and general
Adamczyk, then age 9, would spend the next seven years in various
orphanages and refugee camps, a journey that took him from Tehran to
Baghdad and eventually Beirut. For one year, he lived by himself, a
virtual hermit, in an empty schoolhouse in Lebanon before relatives
in Chicago managed to locate him and bring him to America in 1949.
'This is difficult'
Adamczyk buried his traumas. He graduated from DePaul University,
built a career as a senior chemist for Lever Brothers in Hammond,
Ind., and became an accomplished tournament bridge player. He rarely
spoke of his previous life.
That changed in the early 1990s when Adamczyk began to search for the
truth about his father's death. This led to a memoir, published in
2004, about his own childhood exile.
Now 75, Adamczyk is a gregarious man. He was warmly received by the
audience at the Gallery Theater.
"Saying this is difficult, because I love this country," he told them
after the lights went up. "But what happened has an American
connection in that the West helped Stalin cover up these crimes."
It is too late to bring the perpetrators to justice-virtually all of
them are dead. But there is still time to establish a full record of
these crimes, and good reason to do so: "We shouldn't cover up crimes
like this because if we do, they will repeat themselves," Adamczyk
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