In 1940, author Wesley Adamczyk was deported at age 7 from his native Poland to Siberia with his family. He was among more than a million poles who were exiled, imprisoned, or enslaved at hard labor. His father was murdered by the soviets in the Katyn Massacre; his mother died of disease and starvation while leading her children to freedom. With the publication of his book When God Looked the Other Way: An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption (University of Chicago Press, 2004), Adamczyk became the voice for the thousands who suffered a fate little known on the west side of the Iron Curtain. The testimony of survivors and the opening of the archives of the former Soviet Union following the collapse of communism in 1989 has led to a retelling of the history of World War II. American Libraries talked with Adamczyk recently at his home in Deerfield, Illinois, about his efforts to create an eyewitness record of the tragedy suffered by the Polish people.
American Libraries: Why did you write When God Looked the Other Way?
Wesley Adamczyk: It was my desire to commemorate all those events for posterity, not only because we were Polish and suffered a horrific tragedy, but for humanity. When I came to the United States as an orphan in 1949, all alone, I realized that Americans knew very little about the Polish tragedy. The Katyn Massacre was covered up because the West was catering to the Soviets and Stalin for helping the Allies fight the Germans. But even as a young boy of 16, I knew that having a desire is one thing, writing a book is another issue. I realized I had to get educated, get assimilated to the American scene, learn about the American mentality.
How did the book get published?
I wanted a university of high standing or a commercial publisher to publish the book or I would have wasted my time. So I dedicated myself to writing a book in such a way that it would be acceptable not only to the publisher but to a general audience. I took a gamble and decided to write the book through the eyes of a young boy and with his voice, going back to the time of deportation. Soon I found out that it’s easier said than done; it took me 10 years to do it.
How were you able to reconstruct such a painful ordeal?
What I had to do was go back to my subconscious. Much of what happens in one’s childhood is suppressed. Very painful is an understatement; when one relives it, it’s like going through it all over again. I lost 10 years of my childhood, wandering all over the universe, including jungles and deserts and Siberia in winter. There was a lot of crying, yes.
Has the opening of soviet archives following the collapse of communism in 1989 validated your work?
I’m a living example of the tragedy of the Polish people under the Soviets. Do I need to go to the best library in the world to read about it? I lived it. Of course I needed documents, and I began taking notes in 1990 when the Soviets still had the lock and key, but certain things have come out, such as the execution of Polish officers at Katyn—more and more as time goes on.
You’ve recently organized an exhibition about the deportation, and you’ve amassed a collection of autograph books. Tell us about them.
It started with one that belonged to my sister and survived the deportation and went from Poland to Siberia and 12 countries and four continents. Autograph books were very popular years ago, where children and women would inscribe something or draw something for their friends and sign it and date it. I’ve collected 30 autograph books inscribed in 16 different countries, as far away from each other as the Soviet Union, India, and Australia. What those children wrote during their deportation ordeal is a mirror image of Polish culture, heritage, and how we were brought up before the war. You can view scans from the books on the web at kresy-siberia.org.
The autograph books are a rare primary source. Will they be deposited in a library or archive?
I am amazed that so many survived. They are family treasures and people want to leave them for their children and grandchildren. They don’t want to give them up. The idea of sending their autograph book to a guy they have never met was scary enough for them.
How do you want to be remembered?
As a person who tried to contribute something to humanity.