Tuesday, 10 February 2015

“Grace Revealed: a memoir” by Greg Archer

Bedford (USA) 2015

I read the book thanks to the author's courtesy. 
Thank you!

After on 17 September 1939 Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) had shaken their hands over Poland, the mass deportations of Poles to Siberia began very soon. The deportations consequently became one of the main tools of the Soviet policy of occupation. This policy was designed to make the ethnic cleansing and destruction of the Polish political, economic and intellectual elite. The identical goals guided the Third Reich, which was still a devoted ally of the Soviet Union at that time. So, the first mass deportation of the Poles began during the night from 9 to 10 February 1940. It related to the Polish people living in the lands that after 17 September 1939 had been annexed by the Soviet Union. That deportation concerned mainly the Polish officers, the Forest Service as well as civilians. The Poles displaced during that period were sent to Krasnoyarsk Krai, Komi, as well as they were resettled in such districts as Irkutsk, Archangelsk and Sverdlovsk.  

Another part of deportations took place two months later. It was in April 1940. It included the representatives of the Polish elite (officials, judges, teachers) and family members who had been deported in February 1940. There were the families of the Polish officers who were brutally murdered in Katyn in the spring of 1940. This time, the main place of exile proved to be Kazakhstan. However, in June 1940 the deportations to Siberia primarily included the Poles living in the central and western Poland, who after the outbreak of war had sought their refuge in the Borderlands (in Polish: Kresy) from the Nazi occupiers. There were also Poles of Jewish origins among those people. They were sent mainly to Arkhangelsk and Autonomous Republic of Komi as well as into the territories lying to the east of the Urals.

In May 1941 the Soviet Union authorities decided that there should be further “cleansing” of the eastern lands of the Republic of Poland. Therefore, on 22 May 1941 the next mass deportation was launched and a month later citizens living in the Baltic States, which a year ago had been incorporated into the Soviet Union, were displaced. There were the Poles among those people, too. During the night from 19 to 20 June 1941 (two days before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet) the mass deportation of the Poles began again. It related to the people settled in the areas of so-called Western Belarus. However, it was not finished because of the outbreak of the Soviet-German war. So, this part of the transports stuck on 22 June 1941 and finally did not reach their destination.  

This painting shows some Soviet soldiers taking Polish citizens to the Siberian labor camps. 
Photo: Artist unknown
Source: The Sikorski Polish Club, Glasgow, Scotland 

During nearly two years of the so-called first Soviet occupation, i.e. 1939-1941, several times more Poles than for almost two hundred years of Russian domination over Poland before 1917 were exiled. Between 1939 and 1941 the Polish citizens were deported in the depth of Siberia regardless of their nationality. The Poles were the vast majority (80 percent). There were also Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians and Lithuanians having the Polish citizenship. At that time the morality among the displaced people was much greater than in the tsarist Russia. It is said that then the morality reached up to twenty-five percent of the deported people. For them their dramatic and extremely tiring journey started when the NKVD invaded their homes, and Soviet soldiers gave them a few minutes to pack their belongings. Then there was lasting several weeks’ transportation to Siberia. People like herrings in a jar crowded in the cattle boxcars with the cold which reached even fifty degrees Celsius. Often a place of their destination was the snowy steppe or taiga, and the mortality increased due to the murderous work in the mines of gold, nickel, coal and uranium. Also, we cannot forget about the backbreaking work with the cutting down of trees.

That’s enough about history. Now let’s focus on the book. Grace Revealed: a memoir is the extremely moving nonfiction in which the author tries to deal with the traumatic past of his family. Greg Archer’s grandparents – Jadwiga and Jacenty Migut – were in the first group of the Polish displaced people. Their family’s nightmare began on 10 February 1940. The Soviets gave them only thirty minutes to be able to pack the most necessary things, and then remained them just a dramatic journey into an unknown place marked by pain, suffering and above all unimaginable fear for themselves and their loved ones. They were crammed into the cattle boxcars where they had to lie down or sit on the bunks or suitcases without a change of their clothes for several days. On the other hand, the children who were deprived of fresh air, physical movement and proper diet began seriously ill. Stressed and tired people made an unbearable atmosphere there. The NKVD soldiers standing just next to them only were shaking their bayonets and vulgarly insulting the Polish people.

This drawing presents the conditions inside the barracks of a northern Soviet  labor camp.
Source: The Sikorski Polish Club, Glasgow, Scotland 

Grace Revealed: a memoir is also a kind of the special monument that the author has issued his family to commemorate those tragic events. Some people claim that the family traumatic experiences, which occurred even a few decades ago, can seriously affect the future generations who had nothing to do with them. This book is a perfect example for it. It implies that the deportation problem of the relatives into deep Siberia has struck in the author’s mind for a long time. I think that eventually the time has come for the author to discover his feelings in the book. This moment was preceded by "signs”. In fact every word and every sentence is the author’s deep emotional bond with his relatives, especially with his grandmother Jadwiga, who was a really brave woman. In the face of the huge threat not only to her own life but also her husband and children, she did not give up but heroically faced up to the cruel reality, while keeping her own dignity to the end of those events.  

In 2012 Greg Archer visited Poland and went to the place where all had begun. It was the Subcarpathian village called Łąka located near Rzeszów. For the first time Greg Archer’s grandparents met in the small church dedicated to St. Onufry. It was during one of the festivals held in the courtyard. Then they were the children and it took many years to get that acquaintance turned into something more serious. The author’s grandfather – Jacenty Migut – came from the neighboring village called Łukawiec. However, they made their marriage vow in the church where they had met. After that they had a son Ted, and then the next children: Mary, Janina, Joe, Stanley, John and Bronia. After some time, the family moved to Liczkowce. It was a village located near Ternopil (now Ukraine). It was quite risky because then these areas were situated too close to the border with the Soviet Union, but they still belonged to Poland. There, the family lived very well. The war and consequently the mass deportation into Siberia meant that the family had survived the nightmare before they could live in peace, but in a different place. But before it happened somehow they had had to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones.

On the one hand the Greg Archer’s book is a specific document showing the drama of that time, while on the other hand it is a tribute to the author’s family. Reading this book we can ask a series of difficult questions to ourselves. Why it happened? For what reason did those innocent people have to suffer so much? Was the war inevitable? What motivated the occupants to give such cruel fate to hundreds of thousands of people? These are the questions that I think we will never find the right answer. Historians doubtless have their own opinions on this subject, but I mean an ordinary human explanation of the facts which cannot be understood.

The St. Onufry' s church in Łąka near Rzeszów (Poland).
In this church the author's grandparents met for the first time.
Photo: Czczysuav Peplynsky

In his book Greg Archer shows as if the two faces of the war drama and mass deportations. On the one hand there are the quoted authentic memories of those who survived, while on the other hand the author reveals his own emotions to a reader. Thanks to it the reader is able to understand the author’s feelings in a better way. Greg Archer discovers not only the secrets of his career but also a little his private life. Sometimes the author does it in a very humorous way, such as talking about his stay in Poland and strenuous attempts to communicate with the Poles whom he met on his way. Of course, everything is related to the Stalinist crimes committed years ago. Reading this book we can also improve our own knowledge of history regarding the policy of Joseph Stalin and his associates. The whole is enriched with a few drawings and photographs.

I really hope that one day Grace Revealed: a memoir will be translated into Polish because these books are still needed and they should reach every country in the world. Never mind that times have changed. Never mind that for any of us the war seems to be abstract and unreal. Never mind that today’s military conflicts look quite different than in the past. Each generation must remember the people who were taken everything precious. But in spite of that those people never lost their dignity and no invader could deprive them of it.

Today we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of those tragic events. Therefore, let’s remember those who survived and those who had died before the end of the war and then they could not live in another safe place in the world.

If you want to find out more about the mass deportations, please click here.
If you want to find out more about the book, please click here.
If you want to buy the book, please click here
If you want to read this review in Polish, please click here

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