Journey from Innocence
Reviewer: Patricia A. Gajda
By Anna R. Dadlez. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, no. DXIII (distributed by Columbia University Press), 1998. ISBN 0880334118. xii + 308 pages. Hardcover.
This is a memoir of Anna Ga˛sowska, a young Polish girl from Lwów/Lviv born in the years between the two world wars. Her life is forever changed in September 1939 when her country is invaded by powerful neighbors. Her father, a respected jurist, is separated from the family and never heard from again when she and her mother are deported to the Soviet Union by eastern Poland’s new occupiers. The book recounts the long and tortuous route she and her mother took, first as deportees in Soviet Asia, then as wartime refugees in Iran and Lebanon, and finally as postwar displaced persons in the United Kingdom.
The writer reveals herself as a precocious and confident child, interested in her extended family and friends, who copes with a disability so well that she never allows it to curtail her curiosity or her impulse to take part in events occurring around her. She becomes a determined student, doggedly pursuing education in exile but also remembering her wellspring of Polish patriotism and culture. She draws from the national literature her understanding and expectations of human nature. Her world view is colored by naive and romantic notions such as the chivalry and strength of General Władysław Anders and the inevitability of Allied assistance, even a third world war, to restore a free and independent Poland.
The adult Anna Gąsowska Dadlez tells us of her two purposes in writing: to examine her wartime decisions and their consequences, and to couch her memoirs in an accurate historical context. In the first of these she succeeds admirably, but in the second her success is uneven. When she writes about what she knows best, for example, her life in Lwów/Lviv, her descriptions and analysis have a ring of truth and confidence. In other chapters, when she engages history and the world of diplomacy, she sometimes surrenders credibility. For example, she states that the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, “demonstrated a failure of British policy-makers in their efforts to convince Stalin to join the anti-Nazi alliance,” giving the impression that Britain seriously courted Stalin, whereas contemporary insiders make it clear that Britain actually dragged its feet on the issue, passing time and assuming that Stalin’s anti-Fascist ideology would naturally dictate his alignment with the western Allies. She effectively places her experiences into historical context at several points. For example, after getting word in Persia of the Katyn massacres, the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, and the mysterious plane crash that killed General Władysław Sikorski (Soviet spy Kim Philby was in charge of the British intelligence at Gibraltar when Sikorski boarded the plane at that locality), she discusses the 1943 Allied conference held in nearby Teheran that included no Polish representative and engendered fear among Polish refugees that their homeland was being “sold to the Russians.”
Besides telling her own story, Dadlez is a good observer of society. She frequently exhibits or describes a kind of class consciousness in recalling the workings of prewar Polish society, the relationships between peoples among whom the Polish deportees and refugees found themselves in wartime, and their postwar experiences as displaced persons. For example, in Persia she is conscious of no longer being a deportee as she had been in the Soviet Union, and thinks that her new, more dignified status as refugee calls for her to give up her old rags and to find real shoes to wear. In more important and insightful accounts, she observes that among expatriate Poles tensions sometimes developed between those who had “joined the Home Army, those who had undergone torments in prisons, and those who had been incarcerated“ in the German prisoner of war camps. Because the Germans in charge of these camps were thought to have at least in part abided by the terms of the Geneva Convention, the POWs were sometimes referred to as “our countrymen, who surrendered to the Nazis and spent the war in peace and comfort.” In Britain, she observes a definite categorization. On one hand there were the displaced persons like her family, who had arrived by way of the Soviet Union and the Middle East; on the other, there were ex-officials of what had been the Polish government-in-exile and the professionals who had serendipitously found themselves in the West when war began, “who never lived through even a minute part of our unhappy experiences.” Finally, she analyzes the demobilized Polish soldiers in Britain, for the most part demoralized, with no education, riddled with self-doubt, and not well served by their countrymen who had arrived long before them. In contrast to them were the Home Army (AK) survivors, imprisoned by the Germans after the collapse of the Warsaw rising of 1944 and later liberated by the Allies. Unlike the others, with whom they usually did not associate, the Home Army survivors had been able to retain their self-confidence and belief in their country’s coming restoration.
Poignantly recounted is the difficulty, indeed the trauma, of deciding to emigrate, to start again from nothing, to make up one’s mind to stay in the West in a harsh postwar world absorbed by youth and consumerism.
In the end, the reader is left curiously unsatisfied on several scores. Although many references to the author’s health and disability appear throughout, the reader never learns whether ultimately there was a diagnosis and solution to those problems. A few almost oblique references to the woman who “would become my mother-in-law,” and to her older sons, Tomasz and Jerzy, never quite fill out the story of her life. There is no mention of her marriage, so it is only in the dedication page that we learn that it is Tomasz who became her husband. Her account ends in Britain, giving the impression that she lived out the rest of her life in that country. She never discusses coming to America or any of the circumstances that brought her here, yet she shifts viewpoint midway in her closing observations about life in Britain to include musings about the American condition as well.
The author tells an important story, but it is compromised by several factors. This book is weakest when the author tries to use historiographical methodology instead of concentrating on her experiences and valuable observations that are, after all, the most precious elements in the account. The reader is never sure whether it is little Anna’s voice we are hearing or that of the mature woman she became. Too much repetition is evident in the frequent reintroducing of the same person, item, or event. Endnotes appear to be erratic, sometimes erroneous (54, note 12), sometimes repetitive (150, notes 20 and 26), sometimes ill-chosen (standard textbooks), or unnecessary. Because the organizing principle, for the most part, is the author’s location, the chapters vary too much for easy and orderly reading; one focusing on the Soviet Union is nearly sixty pages long and the following one describing the escape from that “Paradise” spans little more than ten pages. This book needs a proofreader and deserves a better editor. ∆
Back to the April 2005 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 5/25/05