Crater’s Edge: A Family’s Epic Journey Through Wartime Russia, by Michal Giedroyc, Bene Factum Publishing, £19.99, 224 pages, FT Bookshop price: £15.99
Poland’s tragic history has been brought back into the headlines by the death of president Lech Kaczynski and nearly 100 others in the recent air disaster near Smolensk.
Kaczynski and his entourage were travelling to western Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre – in which some 22,000 Polish officers were shot on Stalin’s orders.
The massacre was part of a broad assault on Poles living under Soviet occupation in 1939-41, during which a total of about 1.45m people were deported into the depths of the Soviet Union. An estimated 300,000 (the numbers are disputed) died from hunger, cold and disease before the war ended. A fortunate 120,000 managed to leave the Soviet Union in 1942 under the terms of a so-called amnesty and eventually made their way to the west.
Among the lucky ones was Michal Giedroyc, the son of landowners with an estate in eastern Poland. Aged 10 when the second world war broke out, his are the memories of a child and then a teenager, supplemented by research and by the recollections of others in the family who survived.
In Crater’s Edge, he paints a picture of his pre-war childhood at the manor in Lobzow, with its cows, gardens and an ice-house that allowed the cook to produce “delicious ice-cream.” This idyll ended on September 20 1939 as Soviet troops occupied eastern Poland in agreement with Nazi Germany. Giedroyc recalls that as Soviet soldiers plundered the manor an officer pulled a gun on him and yelled, “I will kill this puppy.”
His father, Tadeusz Giedroyc, a former soldier and a senator, was arrested, imprisoned and later shot. Michal and his two sisters were taken with their mother Anna and deported to an impoverished settlement on the steppes. A friendly Russian peasant took them as lodgers and they survived “just above the starvation line”.
For Anna, life was a desperate struggle shot through with constant worry about her missing husband (whose death she learned of only after the war.) But for Michal life in a Soviet collective had its high points, not least wrestling with the new friends he made at the local school.
In June 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and Stalin released his Polish deportees as part of his new alliance with the west. But it still took huge efforts for the Giedroyc family to reach newly established Polish military camps near the Caspian Sea and join the units that were later allowed to leave the Soviet Union by ship to Persia.
The family spends time in Tehran, and Giedroyc gleefully writes of the joy of release, the flirting between Polish girls and young British soldiers, and trips to the cinema to pursue a bizarre interest in Soviet films. Later, he is transferred to Palestine and a Polish cadet school – all lessons, uniforms and drill.
As the war ends, reality dawns on the Poles in the Middle East, and they learn that their country has been abandoned to Soviet control, its eastern region incorporated into the Soviet Union, and with it the manor of Lobzow. Giedroyc and his family settle in Britain, where he becomes an aircraft designer and, in his spare time, a medieval historian of central Europe.
Giedroyc is nostalgic about the lost manor – but realistic enough to know that change would have come anyway. Any memoir written after more than 60 years raises questions. How much does he really remember from his childhood? How much did he learn from his mother, who died in 1976, or his two sisters? He does not say. It may be impossible for him now to distinguish his own memories from those of others. As a historical record, the book has limitations. As a well-written family story, it is a moving account of one of the many tragedies of the second world war.
Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s former eastern Europe editor