A Story of Survival

By Alick Dowling. Letchworth, England. Ringpress Books. 1989. 220 pages. Hardcover. +14.95.

Danuta Z. Hutchins

This is a true story of a young Pole's experiences. It begins with his student days, continues with his imprisonment in Soviet labor camps, and culminates with his joining General Wladyslaw Anders' Polish Army which fought on the western front in World War 2.

Janek Leja originally joined the Polish Army after the Nazi attack in September 1939. His squadron was intercepted by the Soviets who, instead of helping the Poles to fight the Nazis, surrounded and disarmed them. Janek manages to escape but, in trying to join his family, is again captured, pronounced a spy and sentence to twenty-five years in the gulag.

The story is narrated by Janek's brother-in-law, Dr. Alick Dowling, a British physician from Bristol who has known Janek for forty years (the two men married sisters). Dowling wrote the book as a tribute to Janek, his wife Mary and their five children. From his Acknowledgements and Introduction we learn that Janek Leja collaborated extensively with the author. Dowling says that he felt compelled to tell Janek's exceptional story of "survival over incredible odds" because its "extraordinary combination of gallantry, humor, ingenuity and determination... was typical of the Polish response when their country was invaded by Germany and Russia in 1939." (p.1)

Parts I and III are an easy and unhurried narrative referring to Janek in the third person and describing world events surrounding the story. Part II was written by Janek Leja himself, and is a recollection of his prison camp ordeals. This Part surprises the reader by a total lack of bitterness, resentment, or hatred toward Janek's persecutors. The book is richly illustrated with photographs and maps, one of which shows Janek's journey from Przemy>l (then under Soviet occupation) to Nikolaev, marking his imprisonment in the Przemy>l Fortress (January-March 1940), the cattle wagon ride to Nikolaev Prison (19-24 March 1940), and his sentencing in August 1940. Other maps and photographs came from the Hulton Picture Company, the Imperial War Museum, the Polish Institute and the Sikorski Museum in London. There are two appendices: "Miniature Biographies" of politicians and personalities, and a synchronic table of Janek's experiences and the historical events of those times. The bibliography features sections on "Prisoners' and Deportees' Experiences" and "Memoirs by Participating Characters."

The first three chapters outline Janek Leja's life from his birth in May 1918 until the beginning of World War 2. Janek came from a peasant family who owned a farm of four hectares (eight acres) in Grodzisko, a village near the town of Przeworsk in southeastern Poland. Dowling compellingly portrays Janek's modest life and his tenacious progress as a student in the Mining Academy. Then the war came.

Janek's own narrative begins with Chapter 7. The story of his imprisonment by the Soviets is one of many but it is especially interesting as his survival was partly due to his pretended illiteracy. His cellmate friend, Boris Gumenuk, a Belarussan who was a chemical engineering graduate, was driven to despair by sleep deprivation caused by continuing night sessions of interrogation. Janek observed that Boris "became less coherent with rambling self-accusations about spying and he died within a week." He knew then that in order to survive, he had to conceal his true identity and scrupulously act out the new person he was supposed to be. "I was fortunate," he writes, "that my original claim to be illiterate was accepted so I only had to undergo interrogation twice.My main problem was to remember my cover story which had to be repeated in all detail at the start of every interrogation session. I also had to make sure that I was not caught reading or trying to decipher notices. If I went into an unfamiliar room where there was a choice of doors I had to remember not to automatically head for the one marked EXIT in Russian. I still recall the satisfaction I felt when I damaged their pens by digging the nibs clumsily into the paper when I was asked to sign each page of the interrogation with a cross." (p. 59)

American readers might be tempted to file in their memory this story as another example of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." Yet the Russians, who treated their own citizens the way described by Solzhenitsyn, certainly treated the Poles much more ruthlessly. Janek himself warns us that Ivan Denisovich's life was "palatial" by comparison with his own experience in the Pechora district. (p. 77)

The reader witnessing the story of Janek Leja's survival is helped along by a clear and unemotional explanation of concurrent historical events supplied by Dowling. The British doctor points out that the Soviets manufactured information about Poles they had captured, and then fed this information to western sources which further disseminated it among the English-speaking reading public. Dowling says that during the evacuation negotiations with the Soviets, General Anders insisted that "all Polish citizens, irrespective of their racial origin," be included. The Soviets refused that request and allowed only the Christian Poles (or what was left of them) to be evacuated. When the families of Polish Jews pleaded to be evacuated, they were told about the prohibitive regulations. When they then turned to the NKVD, they were told that "it was the Polish military authorities who had refused their passage." (p. 128)

Dowling also points an accusing finger at the Soviets in the case of the four thousand Polish officers imprisoned in the Starobielsk area near Kharkov, and the six-and-a-half thousand at Ostashkov near Kalinin. While Gorbachev's perestroika made possible Soviet public acknowledgement and even "contrition" over the Katyn massacre of five thousand Polish officers, no Russian official has yet made an official apology for the Soviet masterminding and execution of these other officers. Nor have the criminals been named, one by one. Nor have the relevant documents been made public. Dowling recalls that historian Louis FitzGibbon concluded that "the inmates from Ostashkov were sent to Viazma by train and killed at Bolgoye, two hundred miles west of Yaroslavl. Those from Starobielsk were sent to Kharkov and shot at Dergachi, nearby. None were seen again, but reports circulated shortly afterwards that Polish officers had been locked inside barges which were then sunk in the White Sea." (p. 145)

Dowling details the pleadings of the Polish Government-in-exile with the British military to send a mission to Poland to report on the activities of the Home Army. The mission would have counteracted slanderous Soviet propaganda, and it would have made the supply of arms to the Warsaw resistance movement more likely. "To avoid offending Stalin, this had been repeatedly shelved." The British military mission was finally sent on 3 January 1945, when the Polish Underground State "lay in ruins." (p. 174) This reviewer remembers that lack of weapons was mentioned by her father during personal recollections as one of the main reasons for the fall of the Warsaw Rising of 1944. Her father was a commander in the Zoliborz district and, mindful of the Soviets' treachery, he never did declare his former leadership in the Home Army when the Soviet-controlled communist government in Poland declared an "amnesty," justifiably convinced that obeying their demand would place him in prison.

Through a singular example, Dowling's book conveys the uniqueness of the entire nation. Janek was one of the many thousands of people, now scattered around the globe, who lived through similar miseries, humiliations, and tortures. They are the lucky survivors; many millions died, unmourned and unknown. In the course of his ordeals Janek discovered a dimension of existence which the poet says is "better left in silence, for our notions of decency and morality have nothing to do with it." One wonders how the West would behave if it had to face this secret dimension.

Danuta Z. Hutchins teaches Slavic languages and literatures at Teikyo Westmar University, LeMars, Iowa.

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