I have read many memoirs of the Second World War and its aftermath, including a large number of Polish recollections of the Gulag. Most are primary sources accessible only to scholars who have time and funds to research in such far-flung documentary depositories as the Hoover Institution at Stanford, CA or the Eastern Archive (Archiwum Wschodnie) in Warsaw, Poland. Many primary sources, both published and unpublished, are marked by understandable bitterness and anger. Their authors routinely indulge in generalizations and ethnic stereotyping. Their suffering often blinds them to the suffering of others. The memoir writers often assume bad will on the part of virtually anyone who crossed their path. Scholarly objectivity is missing in many wartime recollections, although it goes without saying that we should not expect objectivity from victims.
I am happy to report that Wesley Adamczyk’s memoir does not follow these tendencies. Portions of this highly original work rank with such formidable Gulag memoirs as Józef Czapski’s Inhuman Land and Gustaw Herling-Grudziƒski’s A World Apart. Now, to qualify my praise, whereas Czapski and Herling were adults in the Gulag, Adamczyk experienced the horror of Stalin’s Russia as a child. This circumstance influenced both the story and the way it is told. A child’s memories are highly selective; not only is his point of view limited, but he also cannot properly process the developments around him. In addition, trauma can and often does negatively influence 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 stream of consciousness to reconstruct the vignettes of who he was and what he did. Adamczyk has been eminently successful in producing a powerful memoir.
The catalyst for writing the memoir was the urge to tell the truth about his personal misfortune. Adamczyk tried to put his sorrows to rest when Stalin’s crimes were publicized by the Soviet dictator’s successors. But he could not be satisfied with the perfunctory condemnation of Stalin often visible in public sources. The Soviet secret police terror killed Adamczyk’s father and, less directly, mother. Adamczyk wanted to collect and reassemble the broken pieces of his life.
On one level, When God Looked the Other Way is a personal memoir. On another level, it is 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 throughout his memoir. The author recounts what his paradise was and how it was lost. Shreds, bits, and pieces of his paradise have clung to him in the form of cultural norms and religious beliefs, a legacy to which he has adhered 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. 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 of change in the area of Soviet/Russian studies. It should be of interest to sociologists, theologians, Sovietologists, historians of Russia and Poland, as well as to cultural anthropologists, education specialists, and gender students. Lest this sounds farfetched, I would like to stress that the memoir contains a bonanza of raw data for a multidisciplinary scholar.
An example: Adamczyk deals in depth with gender roles in a European Polish family and in its Soviet and American counterparts, as reflected among the various ethnic groups (e.g., Kazakhs and Polish Americans). He explores such distinct social classes and subcultures as the NKVD nomenclature. The way that the author’s mother learned to manipulate the Soviet system should give pause to the proponents of the patriarchal understanding of the Polish family. Also, Adamczyk’s detailed (and gross) depictions of defecation techniques, customs of hygiene (or rather its lack), and table manners among the Soviets are a gold mine for both social students and medical professionals, as are his depictions of the indigenous minority peoples under Soviet rule. The author’s ruminations on Soviet art are incisive and should inspire scholars to reassess at least a few of many long-held common assumptions. Comparative civilization studies should also benefit from Adamczyk’s insights on the manners and pastimes in the USSR (e.g., the role of hunting and lumbering in Polish and Soviet societies; or standing in line). One should not overlook Adamczyk’s 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 except the sphere of profanity. 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. It is also important to note the corrupting influence of war, displacement, and dispossession, as it asserted itself both in the Gulag and outside, most notably in England where Adamczyk turned to burglary, dubiously justifying it with the British betrayal of Poles during and after the war.
Adamczyk is at his best, however, when he recalls his time in the “worker’s paradise.” The depiction of the Soviet petty tyrants is just beautiful. Educators will find useful information about the Soviet educational system, homeschooling efforts, and the games children played in labor camps. Moral issues such as the utility of lying or at least not volunteering the truth are also well presented. A theologian will be 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 the culture shock which Poles experienced in Soviet Russia, Adamczyk makes his message attractive and 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.'”
To modify my rave, I would like to add that I strongly dislike the title. When God Looked the Other Way is incorrect both theologically and factually. First, theologically, in the Christian tradition God never looks the other way but works “in mysterious ways.” Second, factually, God was consistently looking after Wesley Adamczyk. The Lord did not take his mother until after she had succeeded in saving her family from the Gulag. Wesley Adamczyk has survived and carried his family’s legacy until this very day. It appears that God has “shed His grace” on him. That includes the fact that the good Lord allowed Mr. Adamczyk to write this highly readable memoir.