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A FORGOTTEN ODYSSEY’

North American Tour, Spring 2002

 

We had a dream – but even in the most optimistic moments we did not foresee this. Not flying across the ocean to ‘spread the word’.

When for over two years we were sneaking into a cold editing studio to put together a film which not only no one wanted to commission, but which also no one wanted to sponsor (the only contribution of6.200 UK pounds, made when the film was almost ready, came from the Polish Arts Foundation and the Third Carpathian Division in London –and it barely covered our basic costs), all we were hoping for was that one day our film would reach the television screens- at least in Britain where we live.

For what is a basically ‘home baked creation’ this was a presumptuous ambition, bordering almost on arrogance. But we both believed that making this story known to the Western world was a matter of historical and moral justice. We believed that eventually we would find someone who would see beyond the technical imperfections of the film, and take it on purely on the strength of the powerful and moving testimonies of the survivors of the ordeal in Stalin’s hands.

When last year the film was screened on British cable television, the History Channel, and on Channel One of Polish Television – both premieres taking place on 17th September, the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland – we could hardly believe it was happening. It took two long years of bombarding television stations with letters, and appealing against their dismissals of the film on the grounds that ‘this period in history has been already extensively covered’ and that ‘the public is tired of the Second World war stories’ – but eventually things started happening.

Although the media coverage of the premiere in Britain did not happen in the way we hoped for, with all the attention turned to the September 11 tragedy, the ball started rolling. A distribution company, TWI, took the film on and has been trying to get the broadcasters around the world interested in it. We had two public showings, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the Imperial War Museum in London (the latter sponsored by the Polish Ambassador, Dr Stanislaw Komorowski), and several articles in the British press as well as mentions on the BBC radio – all these, gradually but effectively, started breaking the wall of silence around this subject.

The unbelievable fact that we were now flying to America and Canada to promote our film was the result of something we never bargained for – the deep need of the ‘second generation’ of the Poles, sons and daughters of the Siberian survivors, to learn their roots, and to do justice to their parents and grandparents memories.

In a roundabout way, it originated with the Russians. Zhenya Donde made a twenty five minute program based on the film which was broadcast, in Russian, four times on the BBC World Service. Her husband, Sasha Donde, wrote a powerful article on the subject, which appeared in Novoye Vremya, a newspaper in Russia.

The article was spotted by Wladyslaw Czapski, who translated it into Polish and put on his website. This, in turn, was stumbled upon by Stefan Wisniowski, son of a Siberian survivor, placed in Sydney Australia, who tracked us down and asked for a videocassette.

That turned out to be a real breakthrough, and fruits of his enthusiasm and passion could be soon seen. He began with a public showing in September 2001 in Sydney’s State Library of New South Wales, sponsored by Polish consuls W.Osuchowski and D.Chmiel, as well as by Jadwiga Solka-Krajewska of the local Association of Siberians and George Krajewski of the Polish Community Council of NSW. Building on that successful screening, he started campaigning amongst Polish emigre organisations to take on the project of spreading this story to the Western world. His first response came from Jan Roy-Wojciechowski, who started showing the film in New Zealand. Through his Kresy-Siberia internet network Stefan found enough volunteers to set up the North American tour – and here we were, inexperienced in public speaking, fantastically nervous, but enormously excited, flying on our ‘mission’.

Our first stop was Montreal, where Irene Tomaszewski, responsible for setting up the Canadian leg of the tour, organized two showings at the Cinematheque de Montreal. Two consecutive showings, each filled to the capacity of 90 seats, took place on March 4; they were our baptism, as it were, and we were relieved that they went without major ‘hiccups’.

These two very first events were somewhat indicative of what was to come. Not so much in terms of the audience, who here, in Montreal, tended to be mostly Polish, and personally connected with the Siberian odyssey, as in terms of the discussion which followed the screening.

For us, the most moving moment of every event was the dead silence which fell when the lights came on –silence laden with emotion from the Poles, and stunned silence of incredulity from those among the audience who were foreign. The same reaction but for different reasons, which in effect usually decided the line of the discussion which followed the film.

Equally moving was the request, repeated at every showing, for the survivors of this story to get up. Depending on the size of the audience between ten to twenty elderly people would stand up to receive homage from the rest of us – sometimes the first homage they have ever been paid.

What did these people who went through hell have to say? They talked about their relief that a trace of their tragedy will be left after they are gone. About their bitterness that for over sixty years their plight has been ignored, and that, in the words of the Russian journalist, they have been so successfully ‘deported from history’ .For that they blamed not only Western historians, but also Polish authorities –both in Poland and outside.

Time and time again they confirmed how for them the question of justice lies not in compensation, nor even apology, but in making the world, at long last, know their story: justice would consist of finding a legitimate place on the pages of Western history books.

This is something that, it seems, their sons and daughters will now ensure. Hearing the ‘second’, and even ‘third’ generation stand up, and, in a state of shock confess that until now they did not understand their parents and grandparents, that they did not understand how much they owed them; this silence about their past, intended to shelter them from the nightmarish memories, must have been, after all, awfully difficult to bear in solitude. They admitted how difficult it was not to understand this silence of their parents, and how equally painful it was to live without understanding their own roots. The question of the parents’ unacknowledged suffering visited on the second generation – a fascinating subject for the psychologists to study…

The Westerners’ reaction to the film could be better observed in Chicago. The first of the three showings organized by the Siberian survivor, Wesley Adamczyk and by Dr Kaminski of the Association of the Katyn Families, took place on 6th March at the Polish Consulate, and the ‘hand picked’ audience of a hundred and twenty consisted mainly of the Americans.

Their shock at the end of the film, expressed by a few seconds’ silence, boiled down to the question: ‘How is it possible that today, sixty two years after the events, we don’t know of this story?

This is probably the most interesting of all the questions to debate. Neither Aneta nor I are professional historians, but anybody who has done enough research understands that the longstanding wall of silence springs from the embarrassment for the British and American role in deciding Poland’s post-war fate – first in Teheran in 1943, and then at Yalta. The accepted Western version of events which has been successfully passed to history books is that if anything, Yalta was apolitical blunder, resulting from the political naivety: the line put forward was that, after all, there were no reasons not to trust Stalin’s intentions visa vis Poland.

The forgotten odyssey of the Poles in Soviet Russia and later on all over the world debunks such an explanation: it shows what Roosevelt and Churchill knew, very well, at the time of making agreements with Stalin, but pretended that they did not. And, as political pragmatism carried to the extreme, and bordering on cynicism, is more difficult to defend than mere political naivety, this story became most inconvenient – both politically and morally – for Poland’s former allies.

But it would be difficult to find anyone who could seriously claim that this is good enough reason to erase a huge chunk of one country’s history from the history books of the world. Ashamed and indignant, our American and Canadian audiences were coming up to us and asking how they could help – and our answer was: by using your ‘connections’ – with the media, politicians, historians, teachers, professors. In view of a number of developments which resulted from this tour, and which we will list at the end of this report, we have now inner certainty that sooner or later this story will become publicly known in the West.

Only once was the credibility of the whole story undermined (by a Russian-born Canadian academic)who said the film was misleading, that it wasn’t clear who was responsible for these atrocities, and that if we were so concerned with the truth why didn’t we talk about the Japanese deported by the Americans during WW2. Fortunately we were well defended by the rest of the audience (Canadian academics).

The screening at the Consulate was accompanied by an exhibition of sketches to the forthcoming autobiographical book by Wesley Adamczyk ‘When God Looked the Other Way’, and an exhibition of photographs of a Polish village in Siberia, taken by three young Poles from Poland.

Next screening, on 8th March, took place at the magnificent Polish Museum in Chicago, and was attended by a mainly Polish audience of one hundred and seventy.

The following afternoon screening, on Sunday, 10th March, was organized at the Polish Centre in Wisconsin. The organizer, Dr Angela Pienkos, prepared 35 chairs, and was nicely surprised by the response to her publicity: around a hundred and thirty five people, mainly Americans from the area, crowded into the room. It was probably the most ‘authentic’ audience: not necessarily Polish (sometimes as far as fourth generation), simply interested in the unknown historical episode, they were displaying their emotions - sighs and tears - in the afternoon light with no embarrassment.

It was then back to Canada – Toronto, the city of a huge Polish emigration, both from the war and from recent times.

The first showing, on11th March, was organized by Dr Tamara Trojanowska, head of Polish Studies at the University of Toronto. The audience, consisting of some ninety Canadian academics, was sharp, inquisitive, and initially maybe a bit disbelieving. But we think, that with the help of a few survivors present, we have ‘passed the test’.

The second showing, at the Mississaugua Central Library in Toronto, organized on 13th March by Malgorzata Bonikowska of Feniks Polish Film Promotion, exceeded everyone’s expectations: twenty seats were added to make up for the audience of 260, and over 100 disappointed people had to be turned away, after being promised another show next week. This little crowd refused to go, and after we have made our introduction to the film, we had to return to talk with them in the foyer.

The audience of this event was mainly Polish, but of various ages and various historical backgrounds.

It is worth mentioning that this, like some other screenings, was co-sponsored by the ‘new wave’ Polish consuls, which is a most welcome break with the timidity of the Polish Governments with regard to this topic: W. Spirydowicz in Montreal, T.Stachurski and M.Brymora in Chicago, and J.Junosza -Kisielewski in Toronto.

From Toronto we were driven to Buffalo, to an event, on 14thMarch,organized by Judge Mike Pietruszka and chairman of the Polish American Congress for the area, Jozef Macielag. Almost three hundred guests attended the screening, both Polish and American, and the discussion which followed covered almost all the above mentioned questions.

Our last show was in New York on 16th March in the Polish Association of the Veterans of the Army. It was organized by Maryla and Kazimierz Raciej of the Pilsudski Institute, but as it was done on a rather short notice, the audience, although enthusiastic, was small – about forty people, mainly Poles (the discussion which followed stretched for three hours).

We returned home exhausted but elated. We have ‘shown’ our film to around 1380 people, many of whom were non Polish. Their promise to spread this story in the world turned out not to be mere words: in the three weeks of our stay in Northern America, History Television in Canada, PBS in Chicago, PBS in Wisconsin, and PBS in Buffalo declared their readiness to broadcast A Forgotten Odyssey’. The news of the showings spread quickly, and Stefan Wisniowski’s network was inundated with requests for similar events in other areas. Attempts are also being made to have a screening at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and the Museum of Cold War, also in Washington. Two American women producers became interested in the story itself – one is thinking of including it in her future film about history of the protest movements in the US. There are plans to include A Forgotten Odyssey’ at the Wisconsin Film Fest, apparently an event on a vast scale. Following the Montreal shows an interview (in English) was broadcast by McGill University Radio, and a British freelance journalist from New York is preparing a large article on our issue.

Of course, there was major coverage of the tour in the Polish media: a radio interview in Montreal, two television interviews in Toronto, many articles, which in their praise of our enterprise are, along with the emotions of the survivors, our greatest reward.

During these three weeks we also did some work ‘on the side’, unable to resist the temptation to film Poles who carry within them so many other stories – other heroic deeds, other nightmares, other historical experiences. It seems sinful to allow their memories go unregistered, not passed to posterity – after all, they are our national heritage, and it is up to us to make sure that it is not consigned to oblivion.

Aneta and I, probably slightly drunk by this undreamt of success of our endeavour, decided to do our little best, and save whatever we can. Equipped with a newly acquired camera, we filmed several fascinating and moving interviews, covering quite diverse topics. It will take some time to make them into proper films, but we do promise – you will hear from us again!

To end this report we would both like to thank everyone who had anything to do with this tour: those who put so much effort to join us in propagating the Cause, those who agreed to sponsor us, those who housed us and fed us, those who gave their time to show us the ‘sights’, and those who held our hands when it was necessary. Thank you all!

We also want to express our gratitude to Maria Kempinska-Davy in London who, throughout the last three years gave our project her enthusiastic, often financial support.

And finally, thank you Steve Roy, the invisible webmaster of www.AForgottenOdyssey.com, who through his constant unappreciated work, gives all those who have this Cause close to their hearts a chance to meet at this site.

Jagna Wright and Aneta Naszynska

London, April 2002