Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Clash of Civilizations: A Child’s Perspective

Funeral of one of the deportees in the Soviet Union, 1944 (Source: Wikimedia Commons/ www.memory.gov.ua/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

This is an important memoir, maybe even a welcome harbinger in the much neglected area of Soviet/Russian studies.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

I have read many memoirs from the Second World War and its aftermath, including a large number Polish recollections from the Gulag. Most are primary sources accessible only to a few scholars who have time and funds to research in such far flung documentary depositories as the Hoover Institution at Stanford, CA, and the Eastern Archive (Archiwum Wschodnie) in Warsaw, Poland. Many primary sources, both published and unpublished, are marked by understandable bitterness and anger. Their authors customarily indulge in wanton generalizations and ethnic stereotyping. Their suffering often blinds them to the travails of others suffering. The memoir writers often assume bad will on the part of virtually anyone who crossed their path. As a result, it is hard to detect even a trace of scholarly objectivity in many war-time recollections, perhaps even if we should not expect too much objectivity from victims.

I am happy to report that Wesley Adamczyk’s memoir When God Looked the Other Way is a surprising exception. Parts of this original work rank up there with such formidable Gulag memoirs as Jozef Czapski’s Inhuman Land and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski’s A World Apart. Now, to qualify my praise, whereas Czapski and Herling were adults while in the Gulag, Adamczyk experienced the horror of Stalin’s Russia as a child. That greatly influenced both the story and its telling. A child’s memories are highly selective; not only his point of view limited but he cannot properly process the developments around him. In addition, trauma can and often does negatively influences what one remembers and how. Adamczyk himself admits that he suppressed his memories for many years. At the end of his life, however, he embarked on a journey to resurrect his past. Some basic facts he established by consulting with family members. Elsewhere he relied on a Proustian-like stream of consciousness to reconstruct the vignettes of who he was and what he did. Under the circumstances, Adamczyk was eminently successful in producing a powerful memoir.

The catalyst for writing the memoir was the truth about his personal misfortune. Adamczyk finally put his sorrows to rest once the story about Stalin’s crimes was publicly told by the Soviet dictator’s successors. The Soviet secret police terror killed Adamczyk’s father and, less directly, mother. Now, Adamczyk was free to collect and reassembled the broken pieces of his life.

On one level, When God Looked the Other Way is a personal memoir. On another level, the author’s universal message is that of a journey in search of one’s identity. Adamczyk argues that one’s identity is firmly anchored in one’s conscious and subconscious memories. One is shaped for life by one’s early childhood experiences. Although Adamczyk never quite elucidates his thesis, it nonetheless reverberates through his memoir. The author recounts what his paradise was and how it was lost, albeit only partly. Shreds, bits, and pieces of his paradise have clung to him in the form of cultural norms and religious beliefs, a legacy he has adhered to throughout his life albeit with varied intensity. Ultimately, his is a story of survival by sticking to one’s ways, despite the occasional slip forced by brutal reality of life both in and out of the Gulag. And in telling this story Adamczyk succeeds admirably both as an author and as a person in search of his own humanity.

This is an important memoir, maybe even a welcome harbinger in the much neglected area of Soviet/Russian studies. It should be of interest to sociologists, theologians, Sovietologists, historians of Russia and Poland, as well as cultural anthropologists, education specialists, and followers of gender studies. Lest this sounds far fetched, I’d like to stress that the memoir contains a veritable bonanza of raw data for a multidisciplinary scholar.

After all, we have precious few accounts describing in such intimate detail the gender roles in a Western (Polish) family and its Soviet and American counterparts, as reflected among various ethnic groups (e.g. Kazakhs and Polish-Americans) and disparate social classes and sub-cultures (e.g. the NKVD nomenclature). The way that the author’s mother (“a simple housewife” according to feminist taxonomy) learned how to manipulate the Soviet system should give a pause to the proponents of the patriarchical understanding of the Polish family. Also, Adamczyk’s detailed (and gross) depictions of defecation techniques, hygenical customs, and table manners among the Soviets are a gold mine for a discerning social studies scholar as well as a medical professional. And so are his depictions of the indigenous minority people under the Soviet rule. The author’s ruminations on the Soviet art are also incisive and should inspire scholars to reassess at least a few of their long-held assumptions. Comparative civilization studies should also benefit from Adamczyk’s insights on manners and past-time (e.g. the role of hunting and lumbering in both Polish and Soviet societies; or standing in line). And we should not overlook Adamczyk’s many insights into the civilization he encountered, including for instance his suggestion that cursing in the USSR functioned as “freedom of expression.” In other words, Soviet citizens reacted to Stalin’s terrorist rule by surrendering all freedom aside the sphere of profanity which flowered. On the other hand, one could argue that crudity was a sign of revolutionary liberation from civilized norms and, hence, supported by the revolutionary Communist state. Also, it is noteworthy that the corrupting influence of war, displacement, and dispossession asserted itself both in the Gulag and outside, most notably in England where Wesley turned to burglary dubiously justifying it with Poland’s treason by the British.

Adamczyk’s at his best, however, when he recalls his time in “worker’s paradise.” The depiction of the Soviet petty tyrants is just beautiful. Educators should be captivated by information about the Soviet educational system, home schooling efforts, and the games that the children played in labor camps. Moral issues such as the utility of lying or at least not volunteering the truth are very important as well. A theologian will be instantaneously drawn to the following message: “Mother continually reminded us to have faith and to pray that soon we would return home. She taught us that without hope there is no survival. That, in the end, was the lesson I remember most.” And, despite culture shock, throughout, the author makes his message attractive for he endows it with tolerance: “Mother [reminded us] that we were not in Warsaw or Paris and that we should adjust our expectations accordingly…. ‘Do not pay any attention to these people, but remember that one cannot always blame them for the way they live,’ she said. ‘The Communist system has imposed much of their way of life on them. What I want you to always remember is how you were brought up and who you are.’”

Just to interrupt, however, my rave, I would like to note that I strongly dislike the title. When God Looked the Other Way is incorrect both theologically and factually. First, theologically, unlike in Buddhism, in Judeo-Christian tradition God never looks the other way but works “in mysterious ways.” Second, factually, God was looking after Wesley Adamczyk consistently. The Lord did not take his mother until after she had succeeded in saving her family from the Gulag. Wesley Adamczyk survived and carries his family’s legacy until this very day. It looks like God has “shed his grace” on him. And that also includes the fact that the good Lord allowed Mr. Adamczyk to write this highly readable memoir.

We thank prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz for sharing this article.