A tribute to my mother's heroic struggle for survival and search for loved ones under Nazi and Soviet genocide. An expanded reprint from The Toronto Star, Oct. 3, 1999 - Chris Gladun.
|There were twenty-five
proud graduates in 1936 from Krzemieniec High School, famous as Poland's
Eton. From their graduation photo they smiled confidently -- university
and illustrious careers awaited them in a Poland that had recently arisen
from the ashes of World War One. A Nobel Prize in their chosen field was
a legitimate ambition.
|Janina Sulkowska, my mother, was one of the lucky students. She was on her way to becoming an educator, but she never dreamt she'd be taking care of dying orphans in Persian and Indian refugee camps, or later conducting Polish language lessons in Canadian basements. "Janka" certainly never foresaw the years of imprisonment, suffering and permament exile that would afflict her and her family andfriends. My mother, who died in 1997 at age 83, spent the rest of her life lamenting her lost studies and crushed hopes, and searching for her missing classmates. Janka's graduation photo became an icon of what befell Poland under the tyranny of Nazism and Communism.||
Matura (Graduation): Class of 1936, Krzemieniec Lyceum.
Krzemieniec: Birthplace of Poet Juliusz Slowacki.
|The city of Krzemienec (pop. 25,000) in southeastern Poland, was first terror-bombed by the Germans before being occupied on Sept. 18, 1939, by the Red Army, which immediately began a campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at Poles. Thousands were brutally murdered, arrested or dispossessed of their property and positions. Janina's beloved Krzemieniec High School was turned into a nightmare based on a Soviet model; teachers and students disappeared.|
At the start of the war,
Janina's family helped the thousands of refugees streaming into the
city escaping the Nazis, including many embassies from Warsaw. But her
father Jan would be arrested by the Soviets and sentenced to labour
camps for five years for associating with "kulaks" and "speaking
of the low quality of Soviet goods." His real crime was being Polish.
One night in early 1940,
a Jew and a Ukrainian, both neighbours, burst into the Sulkowski home
bringing a Soviet soldier with them. They gave Janka's mother, brother
and 14-year-old sister just thirty minutes to pack before herding them
with bayonets and guard-dogs to the rail station where they were loaded
into cattle cars on a train bound for Siberia. The Sulkowski property
was divided among the collaborators and Soviets; what couldn't be used,
such as personal things and photos, were thrown into a fire. Natalia's
Janka (left) with mother Natalia, father Jan and sister Wanda.
Photo by brother Czeslaw.
Poland was attacked from two sides...