First-generation Polish American Greg Archer has interviewed a multitude of celebrities – from Joan Rivers to Cyndi Lauper to Ewan McGregor. He’s an entertainment journalist, novelist and TV host. His family was deported to Siberia during World War II; only some survived. Greg’s book, Grace Revealed, is his discovery and exploration of his family’s ordeals, set against the backdrop of the double Soviet-German occupation.
Justine: When you talk to people who know nothing about this history, nothing about Poland, maybe very little about WWII, how do you describe this book? How do you explain what this project is – and has been – to you?
Greg: It’s my journey uncovering my Polish family’s journey of surviving Stalin’s mass deportation of the Poles in the 1940s and the ripple effects that remain today. And then they look at me and go, What? Stalin deported two million people? And I say, Yeah, pretty much.
Everyone’s very much aware of what Hitler has done, and they should be. But lost in the dialogue throughout the decades has been what Stalin has done to Poles and all people, really. The Death Valley of his atrocities are – there’s different reports but they fluctuate between 20 and 40 million. Because he became our ally in 1941 when Hitler attacked Russia, for a very long time after it wasn’t spoken about.
This journey for me to unveil my family’s particular story is just one part of a bigger kaleidoscope that’s now emerging.
How do people react – and I mean specifically people who don’t know this history? As Polish-Americans we know this story, and we’re also aware of the injustice of this story not being known.
They’re surprised. And then I unravel the tale: [my family] was sent to the Siberian gulag, they were there for at least 18 months, and then after the amnesty1. they were refugees and wound up in Uzbekistan and then they went to the Middle East, and then went to India and then my family went to Africa along with 18,000 other Poles2.
They’re like, what? Polish people in the Middle East? In India? In Africa? I’d never heard this story told. And I say, I know. I grew up hearing these remarkable tales told. First I heard about Africa and that intrigued me. And I kept asking for more: what happened before Africa? Oh, we were in India. Why were you in India? We came there from the Middle East. Why were you in the Middle East? I kept back-tracking until I found out: Oh, they were taken from their home in eastern Poland to the labor camps.
So the response I typically get is: I never knew this happened. How could we not know this happened? And it’s not just people who aren’t Polish.
It’s a great surprise to many people that this is a part of history.
Do you think these stories will ever enter the collective consciousness? What do you think it will take?
I’m optimistic that they will.
I know this: Everything that led me to produce this book has been filled with a kind of uncanny serendipity. It’s as if – without sounding like a cliché as a writer – it just had to emerge. It’s as if I felt haunted and hunted by my ancestors.
I’m optimistic that not just my particular book but others have been written about the subject3 I’m optimistic that now with the 75th anniversary this year, and especially the political climate in Russia and Ukraine – almost the exact location from where these Poles were deported – I’m hoping that some more eyes are now on this particular part of history.
It’s a part of history that should be illuminated. Especially for the Poles as they were so resilient and amazing during this time period. We can learn something from their actions and efforts.
I feel like these stories not being known is now part of this story. There’s this ultimate injustice at the end that they just vanish into the ether. If these stories were known, how would that impact the people who lived through them, their descendants?
There would be a kind of collective healing and a justice being served. Attention to a culprit, to an instigator whose political decisions affected many lives. The two million that were deported – nearly half of them perished during that whole odyssey. My hope is that by bringing this story to light, me being just one part, that a collective healing can be possible.
In your book, you don’t shy away from really digging deep within yourself and being honest about what’s happening with you. And it’s the same thing that your family did – by sharing these terrible experiences, they also had to bare their souls. Did you make a conscious decision or did it just happen?
I didn’t plan on revealing all my neuroses but I knew that some book needed to come out of me and their stories needed to come out of me. I was going to write, Ok, this is what happened and then this is what happened. And a very smart and shrewd and creative person back in California said, You are now part of the story and you should write it in [that] way.
I’m really grateful for that. I think that’s why I resisted it for years – we all want to learn and grow and move forward in life but sometimes moving forward in life is not comfortable.
So for me it was the opportunity to not only turn back and walk through the past but also ask myself, what and how much of the past is living on through me? And that was my own journey, the lingering psychological and emotional effects on children of people who went through those things.
Studies more often than not show that those who are in those particular circumstances, it’s like flight or fight. I think that that they survived that particular part of their life and went on and created an immensely successful life after that is amazing. I don’t know if they’re able to tap into the emotional and psychological imprint that left behind. I don’t know if that’s something they’d want to explore or could explore.
I question, how much of it did I inherit?
I didn’t set out to bare my entire soul like that. The more you start exploring something there’s more to explore.
Someone once told me that the entire nation of Poland was suffering from PTSD from WWII. I don’t know how extensively that’s been studied or looked at. When I interview folks who went through what your family went through, I always ask: How did you do it? And then say, We did it. And I say, But how? And they say, we just did it, that’s how. And of course that’s me with my modern consciousness and comfortable life trying to comprehend things that we can’t. But there’s something there that I’ve never been able to get to the core of – I wonder if you have similar experiences.
Definitely. When I started looking at the videos and audio [of my family], it was always very linear stories: And then I did this. And this happened. And that. We went here. And there.
It’s not like today where we have the luxury of internal reflection in our culture – and I think it’s good that we do. But I understand that whole mindset of, we just did it. We just did the next thing. You have to suppress some part of your feelings and really just get into mode of, we’re charging forth like soldiers to survive. It’s the human condition when we’re thrust into these situations, the body is like OK, there’s a whole plethora of emotions in here that are probably not going to move us through what we have to move through.
It’s so interesting that it’s our generation that is starting to ask the questions you ask in the book. People beforehand couldn’t. And then of course, there are so many layers to this story: after WWII comes communism and that’s another layer to this absolute insanity.
It’s very interesting to see the evolution of things and how long it does take to evolve and change and grow.
I was struck by the family gatherings that you describe in your book. There’s lot of people, and there’s food and booze and people are laughing. But then these same people went through hell. I relate to what you write in the book: Something happens to me and I think, that’s it, I’m a failure, I’m done, forget it. But your family lifted themselves up and there they are and that’s amazing to me. And I don’t always understand it.
I don’t either. I need to process everything. The more I interviewed them the more I found so much deeper respect for them and admiration in a new way. I got to know them as people rather than my family and that was a gift. Whether or not I could implement that… It’s a great theory but am I strong enough to practice it? I hope that I am. I didn’t go through what they went through.
What is the best part of your book for you – despite the challenges and what you went through emotionally?
Two things. Finding the narrative. The whole middle part confused me at first. I thought, this is now sounding like a novella and it’s not in the first person. But I listened to all these tapes and thought: Show people. Show people the story. Show people what happened. That was the most fun and unique.
And also the whole business of stepping into that thing that you resist and having this whole other experience. Lot of serendipity, a lot of “signs,” spontaneous connections, it was almost like something was moving along with me.
There’s a funny part in your book where you describe how you always ask celebrities about their best life advice. So first of all I’m going to ask you that question but then I’d also like to ask what you think your family members would say? Have you asked them that question?
I’ve never asked them that question directly and now I’m going to.
Each of them would probably say something a little different; three of them are still with us.
I would venture that they would say, “You are much stronger than you think.”
For me… One of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about life is that it’s really good to get out of your own way. And to laugh as much as you can. To find the beauty and the humor in the daily moments because they’re there.
It seems like a lot of the book is you getting out of your own way, and being open, receptive to whatever it was – serendipity, the universe. You got out of your way and there it all was.
For the end: Who are the top 3 celebrities you’ve interviewed?
Cyndi Lauper is the first. Number 1. She’s real and she’s raw and there’s no pretense and what you see is what you get. And she’s just brilliant and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and I love it. She has a lot of organizations and is putting a lot back into the world and that’s awesome.
Kathleen Turner, I interviewed her recently, actually. Another woman that is bold and brassy and out there and real and authentic. She’s brilliant on stage and in film. She’s amazing. What I learned from her is a reminder to not care about people think. And to really sink deeper into your craft.
Henry Rollins. Again, for the same reasons – I guess I’m drawn to that – the boldness, the gutsiness. I love Henry Rollins work from what he’s done with spoken word and through his organization and publishing. He’s just out there on the fringe, on the edge and he’s showing people a new way.
Each and every one of those are beating their own drum, and creating very unique and interesting work. It’s not in a little box. It’s extraordinary, thought-provoking.
What’s next for you?
My next book is Press One for More Options. The theme is home, what is it, why do we long for it, why do we need it. It floats back and forth through time and also – though not to the extent this one did – reveals a part of my family’s past. It questions how much of what happens before lives through us. I may turn that into a one-man show.
I’m working on a TV pilot back in California.
In between I’m doing print articles about interesting people doing cool things; I call them agents of change. I have an Agents of Change series on Huffington Post.
There are so many family stories that are so unique – stories of survival from that period. It was my hope to illuminate my own family’s unique survival story. I think that their particular story really touched me and stood out. I’m grateful I had a chance to explore it.
How they got through those things was an incredible experience to learn more about them as people and understand a lot more about that time in history. So many other Polish people went through similar things.
This interview has been condensed.
- When Hitler turned on his ally Stalin in 1941 and attacked Soviet Russia, the USSR was too weak to fight Germany on its own. It needed the western allies – but the allies placed a condition on their assistance. One was that Stalin release his Polish prisoners. The word “amnesty” should never have been used, since the Poles had committed no crime – except for being Polish. The released Poles wanted to form an army to fight for their country’s freedom. Stalin agreed – and wanted them to fight under Red Army command. But the Red Army had an incredibly high mortality rate: Troops had to move forward, and NKVD troops followed them to make sure they didn’t stop or retreat. And the NKVD had orders to shoot any retreating soldiers from the rear. Plus Stalin refused to supply the Polish soldiers with adequate rations or arms. Instead, the Poles negotiated an evacuation to the Middle East to fight with Britain.
- See CR‘s trilogy on Africa:
- When Rhinos Roamed the Polish Prairie: The Exotic Homeland of Poles in Africa
- In the Shade of the Baobab Tree
- Once Upon a Time in Africa…
- Wesley Adamczyk’s “When God Looked the Other Way” is a must-read; as is Gustav Herling’s “A World Apart.” ↩