Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of interwar eastern Poland's borderlands were removed from their homes, put onto cattle trains and taken into the Soviet Arctic and Siberia in February 1940, a time when the Soviet Union was still an ally of Nazi Germany and had invaded eastern Poland. Many died of hunger, cold and disease. Those that survived were forced to scavenge for food and work. About 120,000 half-starved individuals 80,000 fighting men and 40,000 dependants and orphans eventually left the USSR with the Polish General Anders (himself freed from Lubyanka Prison) when Stalin agreed on their "amnesty" after Nazi Germany attacked its erstwhile ally.
This book tells the story of one of those families the Giedroyc mother, two daughters and young son, the author. There have been quite a few descriptions of these events by direct participants or their relatives but there have been few book-length accounts, especially by the higher echelons of society such as the Giedroyc family.
The Giedroyc background is that of an illustrious family (on both sides) going back centuries into the heyday of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth the descriptions of their lives read a bit like Jane Austen, with a constant round of balls and problems with run-down estates (e.g. which stately pile to give up when times are hard, the town house overlooking Wilno/Vilnius, or the country seat).
The author's world view and that of his milieu is multiethnic "liberal but pro-Church", typical, he says, of interwar eastern Poland. In other words, it is pro-Pilsudski, although critical of the interwar Marshal's illegal takeover of the Vilnius/Wilno area after the end of the Polish-Bolshevik War. One reason why many people in the borderlands were supporters of multiethnic liberalism was because they lived among huge minorities (in some cases majorities) of other nationalities, such as Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ruthenians and of course Jews. In the Thirties these other nationalities were often discriminated against, even attacked, not just politically but physically, by ultra-nationalists. However, you find nothing of this in the book, which is surprising perhaps there were no nationalist excesses in the Nowogrodek area where the family lived (although there definitely were quite a few in the city of Wilno not so far away, as experienced by my own father at the time). Giedroyc paints instead a picture of an enlightened landowning family developing run-down estates with contented locals providing labour and produce.
The book describes the network of connections of the ancient Giedroyc line (there is even mention of a relative in the even older Tyszkiewicz family). It is a completely different world, as he himself admits the "passing of an Old Order". Although the author is modest about his own achievements, the family were clearly very talented and brave, and this helped them cope with the ordeals that were to come. One cannot help thinking, though, that he was lucky in some senses to have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, and the family connections certainly helped once they had left the Soviet Union both in the Middle East and in the UK. However, the illustrious connections also had a downside his much decorated and heroic father was arrested when the Soviets took over eastern Poland under the Soviet-German Pact, to be tortured and killed near Minsk.
There is a huge amount of fascinating information in the book about three worlds: one is the Old Order that disappeared the landowning classes with their servants, their long histories, manors, titles and connections; another is the brutal world of the treacherous Soviets and the war, complete with the incarceration and then release of the borderland Poles; and thirdly the formation of the Polish Army in Russia under General Anders ("the Polish Moses"), its transfer to the Allied front, and finally its demobilisation and dispersal around the world when post-war Poland was handed to Stalin.
The book is thoroughly readable: I was interested to see how Michal Giedroyc coped with the many problems facing the author of a memoir the reluctance to abandon information precious to family memory but irrelevant to the outsider, the narrative challenges, and the identification of an appropriate audience, to name just a few. Giedroyc uses three voices one is the competent historian with a confident grasp of turbulent times (informative but accessible, rather like the style of Norman Davies and Hubert Zawadzki, both known to the author); another is the genial family raconteur with a huge fund of amusing anecdotes that bring alive a host of people and past times; and the third is the reluctant young hero who experienced many of these events at first hand and whose adult research has made sense of it all.
The family memoir problem (which order of events to use when telling the story) is resolved here by starting with the events leading up to the forced exile into Kazakhstan, and then going back to introduce the earlier history of the family and its place in the events and the land. Also fascinating is the account of the author's teenage education in Cairo, Palestine and Beirut in the educational crucible General Anders set up for all those exiled youngsters, a crucible that was much admired by other military forces.
The author is at pains to establish his credentials as a friend of liberal Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Jews and Russians but not of the Soviet regime. Equally, though, he does not shrink from referring to nationalist atrocities such as the Ukrainian massacre of Volhynian inhabitants or Menachem Begin's involvement in the blowing up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (Begin came over from the Soviet Union with General Anders).
One experience that readers whose own families were caught up in these events will not find here is the Displaced Persons refugee camps from 1947 onwards. He mentions that before they came to the UK he and other teenagers had to be trained as "building site assistants", whereas they hoped for something more befitting their education. The author was lucky to get a university place instead of a job on a building site like thousands of others, and twice lucky not to have to live in the camps that dotted the UK, where the genuine refugees lived with nearly 5,000 former Waffen SS members also brought over by the myopic British authorities.
In one respect Giedroyc is fortunate to have had a ruthless editor, which makes the book readable, but there is surely also a huge amount left over on the "cutting room floor" that is both obviously priceless and informative, so it is to be hoped that the author's papers will be left to a university for posterity and other historians.
My book, Worlds Apart: Surviving Identity and Memory, is available from online retailers, e.g. Amazon. There is more about the book and the context behind it at www.henrypavlovich.com (ISBN 978-1-84728-226-2)
Some photos are on www.pbase.com/pavlovich