The Polish Experience through World War II A Better Day Has Not Come
Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 2013Lanham-Boulder-New York-Toronto-Plymouth,UK
978-0-7391-7819-5 • Hardback May 2013
978-1-4985-1083-7 • Paperback January 2015
978-0-7391-7820-1 • eBook May 2013
“A remarkable and highly personal account of the human suffering the victims of both Hitlerism and Stalinism had to endure … beyond comprehension of most Americans.”-Zbigniew Brzezinski,
“Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm has written on a wide variety of subjects. But she writes with particular feeling when describing, as she does in this new book, the heroism and suffering of Poles during the Second World War. These are stories that must be told -- and she tells them very well, indeed”.-Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, authors of A Question of Honor: The Kościuszko Squadron -- Forgotten Heroes of World War II.
“In World War II the Poles suffered oppression and murder from both Nazi Germany and the USSR , which attacked their country and divided it between them in September 1939. The Wartanowicz and Michalak families were deported from former eastern Poland to Soviet labor camps near Archangel or farms in Kazakhstan. Freed after the German attack on the USSR, they left in 1942 with the Anders Army for Persia (Iran) and then scattered all over the world. Reserve Captain, Pilot Witold Krasicki was shot by the Soviets in spring 1940, along with thousands of Polish POWs and other prisoners. His family survived the German occupation in Warsaw, including the two-month Polish Home Army uprising against the Germans in 1944. Wanda Ossowska worked for the Polish resistance, survived brutal Nazi torture, three Nazi death camps, and risked her life to save a Jewish girl. In the author's interviews with the survivors and their relatives, they tell their poignant stories with vivid, personal memories of wartime life and death, as well as their lives in postwar Communist Poland or elsewhere. We should be grateful to Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm who has saved these memories for us.”
- Anna M. Cienciala, University of Kansas
These accounts of Polish family life in Russian and German camps during World War II describe people subsisting on weeds and horse heads, living sometimes in pig sties. Children watch as fathers and mothers wither and die amidst “the calm of terror.” Bodies are thrown out of running trains. Prisoners shiver in the intense cold of long winters, always hungry, amidst bedbugs that somehow survive even the coldest nights. Meet Wanda Ossowska, interrogated 57 times by the Gestapo, tortured “to the limits of her endurance,” refusing to name names. It’s another time, another world, “the true valleys of death,” when even hospitals were “houses for dying”—genocide one by one, or by the thousands (as in the Katyn massacre). These evocative, descriptive accounts become terrifyingly haunting and personally intimate.
An unforgettable picture of the martyrdom of women and children sent from Poland behind the Urals. A powerful work of art that should be read and re-read.
“Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm tells stories that are the substance of history and of dreams. She tells the stories of individuals who are both ordinary and heroic…The book is an easy read in spite of its spellbinding intensity.”-Ewa Thompson, Rice University
“I particularly liked Joanna's story - she is truly a remarkable person to have experienced genuine human evil, and still keep the capacity to appreciate and recognize the goodness in most people!I agree with Professor Pease in that most readers (especially Americans) will be familiar with the main historical events of the period, but they cannot appreciate what it would be like to have actually experienced this first hand. The stories from the people you have written about can help us do that.
You have written a very important book that will help satisfy a public need here.
Let us all hope that a better day has now dawned for Poland!”
-Robert Ackerman, New Alexandria, PA June 11, 2013
Dear Aleksandra:A million thanks for sending a copy of your great and so well written book. It is an often painful but always inspiring read. You are fantastic! Your courageous research must have been terribly difficult but so important for the readers to understand the true grit, bravery and ingenuity of the Polish characters you chose to show the touching, enormous and incredible human sacrifices during the tragic events.
My book: CHINA MISSION: A PERSONAL HISTORY FROM IMPERIAL CHINA TO THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC (LSU Press) deals with some similar events. It will be out in October and I will send you a copy.
Much love and admiration
Your friend Audrey
-Audrey Topping, NY, June 18, 2013
“Ziolkowska-Boehm brings the reader into the hearts and souls of four women who have survived bloody massacres, hardships, deportation and concentration camps through their oral histories..
Each told their story over a period of time, the author often travelling to Poland to find them, and able to verify their stories through birth certificates, photographs and remarkable recollections. With the German and Russian invasion, the women, without their husbands and often without their children, were forced to travel the wilds of Siberia. When amnesty was declared in 1941 they travelled to Persia, Africa and Italy. Many journeyed further to New Zealand, Britain, Canada and United States. For some women it was difficult to reveal their horrific past, but they were convinced that memories must be told and recorded for posterity. They often began their stories with descriptions of childhood memories before the war, and compared it to their presents living condition.
Also included are the histories of officers killed or taken prisoner and the families they left behind. The author continued the interviews with after-war deprivations under Communist rule, bringing the survivors to present time. A heart-wrenching book that should be read by all”.
Florence Waszkelewicz Clowes, Books in Brief, Polish American Journal, October 2013
"While it may seem offensive to quote Josef Stalin on any subject, there is one wellknownremark of his that seems apt here: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a
statistic.” This observation, turned on his own unrestrained power and cavalier attitude about
the lives of others, signals him as the lead author of innumerable personal tragedies that generated
the dire statistics that are the subject of conventional histories that deal with nations,
states, and the relations among them, i.e., history from the top down.” Ziolkowska-Boehm’s
collection of deeply affecting personal and family narratives returns us to the level where
individuals are caught up in historical events that changed their lives forever, and tells us how they
The intended spoils of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were, for the Russians, the eastern half of Poland and the Baltic States. With their military occupation of eastern Poland during late September 1939, Soviet authorities, working through the NKVD, undertook vast “cleansing” operations, including targeted murders, mass killings, and large deportations of Poles whom they considered to be potential
oppositionists (the grisly details are described in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands). Though aimed
at removing Poland’s leadership class from the region, the criteria of “selection” for deportation
were gross, doctrinaire, and often arbitrary.
During the cattle-car transports and upon arrival at their destinations, death by malnutrition,
illness, and exposure to extreme weather was considered “natural” by the authorities. Joanna
Synowiec’s journeys through this hellish passage are emblematic of thousands of Polish
children who were orphaned and used as expendable labor by the Soviets during this
terrible period. Her gloomy odyssey – Archangelsk, Uzbekistan, Iran, Mexico, the
United States––killed her parents early on, leaving her as the family’s responsible “mother”
at the age of twelve, unable to prevent the death of one of her two brothers. Her imperative to
rescue what could be rescued was so stark that she lost the ability to cry. While she managed to
build a decent life in the United States, she never truly recovered from the succession of blows
that hammered her during the war years. Her happy memories of a childhood on a prosperous
farm near Szemiatówka (today in Belarus) have not vanished, but have been transformed by the
nightmare that followed into a constant reminder that such everyday happiness could never be
hers again. Hers is a story of irretrievable losses (“A better day has not come”).
The longest chapter in this book, “Wartanowicz Family Vineyards in Podole,” is
an intergenerational saga of an extended family, one branch of which stems from the Armenian
immigrations into Poland during the late middle ages. In the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries the parents of the family branch considered here (Eugeniusz and Teofila and
their four sons and one daughter) established large and successful vineyards, orchards, and a
manorial estate at Dźwiniacz in the vicinity of Zaleszczyki (now in Ukraine). The family’s
history and fortunes are told by several of the children and grandchildren of these five siblings,
and gathered through family letters, diaries, and conversations with the author. The brief wartime
story of Józef Wartanowicz’s family records executions by the Gestapo and deaths and
dispersions at the hands of the Russians.
The central story of Marian and Krystyna Wartanowicz’s family, who owned another
family property near Dobropole, comes from Krystyna’s diaries and the reminiscences of their
daughter nicknamed Anulke. She experienced her tenth through twelfth years as a deportee to
Kazakhstan, followed by refugee status in Tehran, Pakistan, and South Africa, where the
family chose to settle after reuniting with Marian and a brief English interlude at the end of the
war. Fate was kinder to Anulke than to Joanna Synowiec. Anulke’s father survived a German
POW camp and her mother held the rest of the family together during their exile, demonstrating
a fortitude that surprised those who knew her as a diminutive, stylish, and sheltered young
woman before the catastrophe. Once again the strong contrast between the prosperous and
pleasant conditions of the family before the war and the disruption, misery, and anxiety of the
war years is central to personal memories of the era. But the most important thing––an intact
family––survived and lived to build new lives in South Africa, England, Canada, and France.
What happened to those who remained behind in Poland, those who were not killed or swept up
and deported by either Hitler’s or Stalin’s minions, is illustrated by the story of Anna and
Ewa Bąkowski. Anna was the only daughter among the Wartanowicz siblings, marrying into
the Bąkowski family and helping to manage the large agricultural estate Kraśnica near Opoczno
in south-central Poland. Her husband, Jerzy Jaxa Bąkowski, was captured by the Russians
and murdered as part of the Starobelsk-Kharkov “liquidation.” Her daughter Ewa was a young
teenager during the WWII years and, along with her mother, played a role in assisting local
underground units of the Home Army. This credential in itself was enough to create
problems for mother and daughter in the communist state––you could only be anti-Nazi
on Russian terms, i.e., with a strong communist Party orientation, a rarity in itself in Poland
during the war years; any other form of democratic or political or civil activism made
you automatically suspect. Finally resettling in Gdańsk, they had to conceal their “bourgeois
origins” in order to avoid punitive actions that would have affected Ewa’s educational and
employment prospects. Other than vivid prewar memories of Dźwiniacz, Dobropole, and
Kraśnica, all links to the family estates were severed for this generation of the Wartanowicz
family and their children, never to be reconstituted.
Ewa Bąkowski’s cousin, Janusz Krasicki, is at the center of the next family narrative in thebook. As a boy of seven he saw his father, Captain Witold Krasicki, an air force pilot, leave
for duty on September 3, 1939. His mother received several postcards from her husband
while he was in Russian captivity. All communication ceased in spring 1940, when
Captain Krasicki was among the 4,000 Polish POWs at the Starobelsk camp executed by the
NKVD––one contingent of the many slaughtered by the operation now called the
Katyń Forest massacre. The postwar years in Warsaw were as difficult as the war years for his
family (“bourgeois origins” again), but Janusz, fascinated by aviation and inspired by his
father’s career, managed to become a civilian aviator in the face of obstacles created by the
regime, becoming a lifelong official of the Aero Club. The story of his love of flying and pulling
himself up by his bootstraps is actually a happy one.
“Wanda’s life is a dramatic essence of the fates of the war generation. Fate led her through
the underground flight in the Home Army, through the Gestapo headquarters in Szucha
Street in Warsaw, the Pawiak prison, the camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz––to repressions in
the postwar times of Stalin’s rule.” So begins the biographical sketch of Wanda Ossowska, the last
in this collection, with its cautionary title “Let Our Fate Be a Warning to You.” The bare facts
of this opening sentence are filled in with the details of her brutal treatment by the Germans
who interrogated her fifty-seven times (leaving her with permanent physical damage) but were
not able to break her. Before, during, and after the war her vocation as a surgical nurse brought
help and encouragement to her countrymen for fifty years. The book ends with the moving
story of Ossowska’s determined and successful effort to save the life of Ida Grinspan, a fifteen year-
old French-Jewish orphan and only child in the Neustadt-Glewe concentration camp.
One final observation should be made here. With the exception of Janusz Krasicki’s story,
this book is one in which women’s voices and actions predominate. During the war years
Polish women undertook many difficult tasks to preserve both their families and their nation.
Their efforts and perspective are given exposure here in a way that impresses the reader hitherto
unfamiliar with their achievements. Ms.Ziolkowska-Boehm is to be congratulated for making their voices heard".
Terrence O’Keeffe, History from the Ground up, THE SARMATIAN REVIEW,
(…) The book’s subtitle, “A Better Day Has Not Cone”, and the title of the last chapter “Let Our Fate be a Warning to You” are grim reminders that the end of the war brought little comfort to most Poles. One occupying power was replaced by another. The first one, however, at least had the perverse merit of not claiming to come in friendship. The second did, and it is little wonder that it is taking the Poles a long time to shake of the emotional trauma of that “friendship”.
The Polish Experience Through World War II is a series of unrelated narratives collected by the author, of several Polish families' experiences during the terrible years of war and, in some cases, they lives afterward. The narratives describe the poignancy of utterly ordinary people caught up in a cataclysm facing unimaginable hardship, sorrow, and anguish. They put as human face on the statistics of deportations, slaughter, and cruelty. The travails of families taken into the depths of the USSR are described in detail. Then there are the personal tragedies: the death of a beloved little brother; the vivid and unspeakable image of mothers knowing that their children are being burned alive nearby; a first person description of the violence meted out to a young Polish woman by the Gestapo.
Yet through all this runs a strong strain of grim optimism. The book is about survivors, and how the got through this hell with mixture of courage, persistence, and, needless to say, good fortune. Many ended up in very different places: Mexico, India, Rhodesia, the United Kingdom. There is too the heartwarming cameo of a little girl giving her mother a birthday gift during the Warsaw Uprising".
Jarek Garlinski, The Polish Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, 2014, pg 99-101University of Illinois Press
The latest book from that most prolific chronicler of Polish WWII experiences, Aleksandra Żiolkowska-Boehm, tells the stories of four families, all of them subjected to the horrors of Poland’s double, Soviet-German, attack. Decades after the brutal and bloody alliance of those two lethal regimes, the Soviet role is still either not known, or is excused – perhaps for no better reason than historical convenience.
Żiolkowska-Boehm has no choice but to provide a background in her introduction, which she does succinctly and clearly. The four family histories that follow are emblematic of Poland’s special position in Europe’s greatest conflict in which both aggressors had as a stated objective nothing less than the annihilation of the Polish state.
The longest story, that of the Wartanowicz family, one branch with roots in the settlement of Armenian immigrants during the late middle ages, is the archetypal narrative of a family decimated by both the Russians and the Germans. Executions by the Gestapo, German POW camps, and deportations to the Soviet Gulag, while those in Poland took part in the Home Army resistance… and paid a price for it after the war when the communists took power. At war’s end, the family was scattered across the globe: Europe, America, Africa and Canada.
Yet another story is that of Wanda Ossowska, whose work for the underground resulted in torture by the Gestapo, periods in concentration camps – Majanek and Auschwitz, where she cared for and saved a French-Jewish teenager. She too suffered at the hands of the communists.
And finally, there is a young girl deported to Russia where her parents died and she, at age 12, was left to care for her younger siblings. One of them died in her care, leaving her inconsolable. Still she journeyed on across other continents until she arrived in the United States where she managed a decent life, but never recovered from her hardships. It was she who said, “a better day has never come.”
These are harrowing tales but important and well told. They speak more about the role of Polish women during the war, a departure from the idea of resistance as understood only in the conventional sense of the word. The care and rescue of family and others, and the preservation of identity and culture are also important elements of resistance and Polish women have long played an important part.
A wonderful book and well worth reading. Illuminates the human tragedy of the dual Soviet-German attack that Poland endured.
A Transatlantic Review of Things Polish, in English