I was born in Poland, eight years before the start of WWII. In those days, many western intellectuals believed it was their duty to help build the first non-capitalistic social order. And so my parents, Polish communists, took their infant son and emigrated to the Soviet Union. Blinded by idealism, like so many others, they were unaware of the brutality and violence Stalin was imposing on the Soviet people. The price for their naivete was very high. Foreign helpers, who were first welcomed, were subsequently declared “enemies of the people” and either executed or imprisoned.
We lived in a shared apartment from our arrival in the USSR in 1932. Most people in our block were also idealistic emigrants from western countries, including Germany, Hungary, the USA, etc. The three of us had one room and a Hungarian family had the other. The kitchen/dining room was so small that both families could not use it at the same time. The shared bathroom was also very small. My father was an engineer, my mother a nurse at Moscow's 39th Polyclinic.
Here is an early recollection. I am in the Moscow kindergarten at the age of four or five. I clearly remember my classmate Irma, who allowed me to explore the difference between boys and girls. I also remember the large portrait of Stalin, holding a little girl in his arms. He is our great leader, we were told, he is the father of all Soviet children. He loves us and we love him.
As a declared “enemy of the people,” my father was arrested in 1938. He was taken away at night, while I slept. My mother and I never saw him again. Our apartment was subsequently sealed and we became homeless. We had no place to go. There was no question of returning to Poland; borders were completely closed at that time. It is clear, with hindsight, that had we left, we would most likely have perished in the Holocaust, along with most of our relatives in Poland.
For a short time we “lived” in the Polyclinic; during the day my mother worked and I played in the waiting room. At night we slept on couches in doctors' rooms. On the other side of the wide street was the NKVD (secret police) office. I remember going there with my mother when she tried to find out my father's whereabouts. I also remember waiting in long lines at a prison; I have no idea which prison it was. Later we moved to a settlement called Dedenievo, about 30 miles north of Moscow. There my mother worked in a nursing home. I started attending a local elementary school at the age of eight, and became a Red Pioneer. I still remember the oath--“to faithfully serve the cause of Lenin and Stalin.”
A reviewer of my printed autobiography wrote, referring to the arrest of my father: "anyone would feel that this must have been a terrible trauma for a young child, but the book expresses no such trauma." That is correct; I do not remember any trauma, neither when I was a child nor much later. Of course I missed my father very much, and our family life and living situation changed drastically. My mother explained the arrest as a mistake that would be corrected. Father will soon return, she used to say. And I believed her for a long time. We received several letters, postmarked Buchta Nagayevo, Kolyma (Eastern Siberia); in one my father expressed hope that his dossier would soon be reviewed in Moscow. We lived in hope. But it was not to be. He died in a concentration camp, about two years after being arrested.
How can the absence of trauma be explained? I never thought about this, till now. Is it possible that it existed but was suppressed? I would be tempted to speculate about this, if I were a psychologist. But would this be appropriate? My role is to describe what happened, and not to speculate about questions raised by readers. In my opinion, a memoir, like life itself, should trigger questions in readers' minds; it should be their food for thought. My goal is to turn a pile of private notebooks into something worthwhile reading. I am not a psychologist. Why did Stalin kill idealistic foreigners who came to help him? That is also a difficult question. Knowing that thousands were actually killed should not be confused with speculative explanations.
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union became political allies in the late 1930s. But this ended in June of 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR. I was nearly ten years old. Five months later we were between two armies, for about a week. The Red Army retreated from Dedenievo (after blowing up the railroad bridge across the canal) but the Germans did not enter; they stayed about two miles away in Jachroma. Our settlement was heavily bombed by their airplanes. Most of the nursing home residents died from cold after windows were shattered by explosions. My mother carried some patients to the nearby hospital, on her back. Then she worked in that hospital, just across the street from the shelter where I was hiding, the basement of a church destroyed after the revolution. About 100 people sat there, on tons of carrots and potatoes; the place had been used to store vegetables delivered to the government from surrounding collective farms.
I remember another dramatic moment. At a quiet time between bombings my mother came to the church basement and said that I would be better off in the hospital with her. As we prepared to leave, bombs started falling again. One hit the wooden hospital building, burying about one hundred people. We heard calls for help but nothing could be done. Then the fire started; those who survived the bomb were burned alive. The first Soviet WWII victory, pushing Germans away from Moscow, took place where we lived. A week later I walked to Jachroma and climbed into an abandoned German tank.
Ludwik in Dedenievo, 1942
The constant roar of cannons became weaker and weaker. That was the beginning of a very difficult two or three years for us, due to the limited food supply. Like most people around, we grew our own potatoes. I was able to help by bringing home mushrooms and fish during the summers. Winters were very cold. My ability to gather wood, sometimes stealing rejects from a local sawmill, was essential. We lived in a barrack, each family in a single room. Half the room was used to store potatoes, which we rationed to last until the next summer. In springtime we depended on eggs from birds nests, and on fresh nettle. A little later in the season we ate birds, schav, berries and mushrooms. We were hungry most of the time.
In 1943 my mother started working for a Polish organization established in Moscow. That is how I ended up in a summer camp for Polish children. Relearning to speak Polish came easily to me; I was exposed to it at home, before they took away my father. Then my mother became a nurse in a Polish orphanage near Moscow. Here I entered a Polish elementary school. Most children were Gulag survivors; they, and their families, had been deported from eastern Poland occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939. In the spring of 1946 the orphanage was repatriated to the capital of Poland, Warsaw. Much of the city was in rubble.
. . .
Warsaw in ruins. Most of it was systematically destroyed by the German Army in 1944. It took about five years to rebuild the capital. As high school students we often participated in reconstruction activities.
My mother worked at an undamaged orphanage, called Nasz Dom; we lived in a little room there. Like most of the kids, I was a student at a progressive gymnasium. There I joined a communist-oriented organization of Polish youth. My mother belonged to the Polish Workers Party [a Stalinist organization]. She told me that some victims of Stalins purges, including my father, were innocent. She also warned me not to talk about this with others. It could be dangerous, she explained. After high school graduation I was accepted to the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute. Two years later I joined the communist party.
After becoming an engineer, I specialized in electro-medicine, learning how to design electro-medical tools. My graduate degree project was based on research conducted at Warsaws Radium Institute. After graduation I applied for admission to a nuclear laboratory in the Soviet Union. This was in 1956. But my application was rejected. My mother was happy; she did not want me to study in the USSR. Fortunately, another opportunity presented itself. The director of the Radium Institute, Cezary Pawlowski--God bless his memory--was an assistant of Marie Curies before WWII. He gave me a letter of recommendation to study in France.
My fathers sister Tunia survived WWII in Paris and I went to visit her. She took me to see Joliot-Curie (Nobel Laureate 1935), who accepted me at once. I had a chance to start working under his personal supervision. Unfortunately, he died one year later. But I remained in Joliots new laboratory for six more years. In 1963 I defended my Ph.D. dissertation, specializing in nuclear physics. I returned to Poland and started working in an academic research laboratory. A year later I came to a scientific conference in the US and stayed on to become a research associate with Professor Jack Miller, Department of Chemistry, Columbia University.
My teaching career began in 1969, at Montclair State College in New Jersey, and lasted till 2004, when I retired. Four years later I published a book about well-known horrors of Stalinism. The complete title of the book you are now reading--Tyranny to Freedom: Diary of a Former Stalinist--was suggested by the publisher. Tyranny is an appropriate word to characterize a country, such as Poland, whose ideology was "proletarian dictatorship." Freedom, on the other hand, is a well-known reference to the ideology of our country. I lived in both tyrannical and free countries, as described in my diary. Are extracts from that diary worth sharing? I think so.
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Chapter 01 Brief Summary click
Chapter 02 Extracts From My First Notebook click
Chapter 03 Anya, Ika and Other Problems click
Chapter 04 Death of Our Leader click
Chapter 05 Last Years at Polytechnic click
Chapter 06 Beria was the Villain click
Chapter 07 Aftermaths of the 20th Congress click
Chapter 08 Warm Welcome in France click
Chapter 09 Communists Killing Communists Again click
Chapter 10 Fourth Year in Paris click
Chapter 11 Climbing Toward the Doctorate click
Chapter 12 The End of the Tunnel is Not Far click
Chapter 13 Back to Poland With the Doctorate click
Chapter 14 Missing Diaries click
Chapter 15 Year of Blessings click
Chapter 16 Appendix for Questions and Comments click