By Normal Davies
Osprey Publishing (Oxford UK, 2015)
When I was very young, a classics course I took included Xenophon’s account of the March of the Ten Thousand, the story of a Greek army escaping from Persia. I no longer remember the details of the Greek-Persian conflict but I do remember that all of us, including our teacher, cheered for the freedom-loving Greeks, against Persia and its tyrant.
I alone in my class knew that Xenophon’s tale was but a short story compared to the saga of the Polish army that escaped from another tyranny, led to freedom by General Władysław Anders. The General’s name and image were known to me from my earliest childhood as a kind of collective godfather to all the children he had rescued. This was a military leader who knew precisely what motivated his men – my father was one of those men — and leaving the children behind would undermine their spirit. Possibly the only man who was never intimidated by Joseph Stalin, Anders insisted that they be evacuated with the army, and didn’t give up until the tyrant agreed.
But who would be our Xenophon? Who could do justice to this epic tale with its cast of over a hundred thousand men, women and children and their encounters with so many cultures spread over all the earth’s continents; the hardships and the battles; the beauty of the lands and the friendship offered along the way; the excitement of seeing new worlds… and finally coming to terms with loss?
The task fell to Norman Davies, who felt a comprehensive study of Anders was long overdue. Failing to interest a publisher in an academic work, he chose a popular style that in many ways does more justice to the texture, the colour and the drama of this incredible journey. He visited many of the sites along the Trail accompanied by the photographer, Janusz Rosikon.
Masterfully combining personal stories with the historical record, Davies weaves a tapestry that gives equal prominence to politicians and statesmen – the knaves and the rogues, the valiant and the stoic, the pompous and the duplicitous, the liars and the dupes – and to ordinary people – mothers and children, youth and the elderly, soldiers and teachers, the strong and the dying.
The Trail begins in Poland with the forced removal of Polish citizens from their homes to be sent into exile in the vast Soviet empire. Davies follows the trains to the camps and prisons throughout Russia and its subject republics. North to the region around Archangel, east to Central Asia, the steppes and deserts of Kazakhstan, farther east still to the camps of Magadan and north east to the gold mines of Kolyma where the survival rate was 10 percent. There is scarcely an area of the Soviet empire that doesn’t have mass graves, the remains of watchtowers, and barbed wire. As the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński noted, this country that failed to provide basic comforts for its citizens managed to surpass all others in the production of barbed wire.
Unprepared for the 1941 attack by his then ally, Hitler, Stalin needed the Western allies who in turn needed him. Included in their agreement was a demand for the release of his Polish prisoners. An “amnesty” was declared. Thousands of Poles could leave their camps, but they had to fend for themselves. They set off, marking out new trails, by boat, makeshift raft, trains, carts and their ill-shod feet all in search of that “Trail of Hope” and the Polish army that promised life and liberty.
One pictures this great migration across that immense country with its ever-changing topography, ancient cities – Samarkand, Ashhabad – as well as collective farms, environmental degradation, and primitive settlements of mud huts and the tents of nomads.
In time, the disparate routes came together in Uzbekistan, to the Caspian Sea and a flotilla of filthy crowded barges that would take them Persia (Iran). Hundreds of thousands did not make it, some never released from their prisons, some buried in unmarked graves, others working “for bread” until, by some whim, the Soviet authorities allowed them to return to Poland. For many that did not happen until after the death of Stalin.
Trail of Hope is not history “from above.” This is the story of a people, and few historians have such respect for the men, women, and children who endured, resisted, overcame or succumbed to the deadly force unleashed by war. They are not an undifferentiated mass, they are not labeled or placed in some arbitrary categories. They are people with all the diversity and dignity the word demands.
Still, the context is nothing less than World War II. But you don’t get the standard war of tanks and bombs as seen on the History Channel. Instead you get much more of the geopolitical currents of the time, and an unembellished picture of familiar figures: the dictator responsible to no one; the prime minister struggling for victory even as his country’s empire is coming to an end; and the ailing leader of a young and strong country indulging a delusional fondness for the dictator.
Iran, the first stop in freedom, was a den of intrigue, the “Powers” competing for influence in a region awash in oil. The Shah was deposed, his son installed in his place. Iranians were not consulted.
The Middle East, then as now, had its politics and these were added to the complex Polish relations with Britain and with Russia. Stalin, intending to keep the Polish territory he annexed in 1939, recognized only “ethnic Poles” – but not Jews and Ukrainians – as Polish citizens. Still, some 6-7 thousand Jews did join, despite NKVD obstructions. Anders was adamant that Jewish volunteers be accepted, though some of his men were not welcoming. The General demanded unity; he prevailed.
Ukrainians who were Polish citizens often enlisted by concealing their identity (conveniently losing their documents). Once out of Russia, they resumed their identity and Uniate clergy joined the ranks of Roman Catholic, Jewish and Protestants chaplains.
For their part, the British were wary of an influx of Jewish soldiers into their troubled Mandate Palestine. And indeed, about half deserted once they got there. Despite British pressure, Anders refused to pursue them as deserters. The most famous defector, Menachem Begin, was spared that label when Anders accepted his resignation, and the future Israeli Prime Minister returned his uniform. The Jewish civilians (the Children of Tehran) evacuated from Russia with Anders were also settled in Palestine.
On a lighter note, Anders’s men enjoyed entertainment by some of Poland’s best pre-war cabaret stars, many of them Jewish. After the war, they settled in Israel where a large Polish-speaking audience welcomed them.
The Trail continued, but now with a new energy and sense of purpose. The civilians found refuge in the splendid city of Isfahan, in Beirut and Palestine, in India courtesy of two Maharajas, in what was then British East Africa, in New Zealand and in faraway Mexico. All of them waiting for the war to end so they could go home and rebuild their devastated country.
In the Middle East, while Anders strengthened his army, education was provided for the young recruits and cadets who had missed several years of schooling. Among their stellar teachers were Jerzy Giedroyc, Wiktor Weintraub and Melchior Wańkowicz. Egalitarianism ruled, distinctions between the well-born and the poorest ignored.
The Anders Army distinguished itself in the Middle East, in North Africa and finally in Italy. There, Anders told his soldiers, “You will walk the trail well-known in Polish history, from Italy to Poland” — z ziemi włoskiej do Polski — as sung in the Polish national anthem.
Alas, it was not so. Chapter 18 is poignantly titled, ”From Italy to Nowhere.” The interests of the “Great Powers” prevailed. The Trail once again broke up into a great many disparate routes. The Communist regime revoked Anders’s citizenship, fearing his return would inspire resistance.
In the final chapters, Davies visits survivors or their descendants wherever fate took them. He surveys the literature on the subject, some of it by outstanding writers. He also lists archives that have been barely touched, all awaiting a curious, passionate, and ambitious young scholar.
Trail of Hope is a wonderful book, richly illustrated – rescuing many photos from private collections — a significant resource in itself. While telling the story of an odyssey without equal in modern times, it is also a social history, a story of human relations.
Davies calls Anders “a great man,” and so he is. A loyal ally, an inspiration to his soldiers, and a father figure to thousands of children, they don’t make them like that every day.
This is a war story like none other; a war story equally about civilians and soldiers. It is about soldiers who shared a part of the meagre pay to contribute to the support of the orphaned children scattered across India and Africa.
For those of us who were children at the time, we remained forever in awe of the courage, strength and resilience of our soldiers, parents and guardians. If your family was part of the Trail of Hope, get a copy for every one of your grandchildren.
As for the rest of our readers, I can only add that this journey makes the adventures of Paul Theroux read like a package tour to a Club Med.
All images courtesy of Rosikon Press, Warsaw