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The Ice Road: An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom

by Stefan Waydenfeld

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Good fortune -- luck -- manifests itself in a variety of ways. Frequently, just how lucky we are comes only with hindsight and even then we may not realize just what contributed to a serendipitous result. Yet the extent of a person's fortune may well be a matter of perspective, much like the adage about regretting having no shoes until seeing the person with no feet.

Normally, a person wouldn't think a memoir about being forced into frozen labor camps during World War II is the type of work that examines luck. Yet Stefan Waydenfeld's The Ice Road: An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom shows the full range of good and bad fortune and how capricious it can be.

Waydenfeld was a teenager in Otwock, Poland, a city not far from Warsaw, as the European continent moved toward the outbreak of World War II. The son of a medical doctor and a medical bacteriologist, Waydenfeld enjoyed the benefits and opportunities afforded by a comparatively comfortable life, one he even terms "idyllic." That would end rather abruptly when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and become even worse when the Soviet Union invaded the country from the east 16 days later. Waydenfeld's father, who had served as a medical officer in the Polish Army, was mobilized before the German invasion. Five days after the German invasion, Waydenfeld, then 14, set off on foot with friends toward a mustering point to the east to join the Army. He and his friends wouldn't join the Army on their trip -- and he would not see his home for another eight years.

Through a fortunate turn of events, Waydenfeld's father located him when he took shelter with another family. And, by chance, his mother joined them just as they were going to attempt to return to Otwock to find her. Yet the Waydenfelds faced a dilemma: try to return to the portion of Poland occupied by Germany or stay in what was now the Soviet occupied section. They ending up staying in the Soviet-controlled area. Ultimately, although not technically prisoners, hundreds of Poles were deported in crammed cattle cars to Siberian labor camps in 1940. The Waydenfelds ended up in Kvasha, a camp in far western Siberia with a subarctic climate. "Here you shall live," they were told.

Kvasha was not a prison camp. There was housing and food available. Yet survival depended on working in the great forests of the area cutting and removing timber. The phrase frequently heard from the Soviet officials at the camp was, "He who does not work, does not eat." Although in his teens, Waydenfeld performed a wide variety of difficult tasks in the camp. The worst, which gives the book its title, was when he and his father were part of a crew charged with maintaining "the ice road." The road consisted of iced ruts on which sleds would transport felled trees in the midst of the winter. Maintenance required traveling up and down the road gathering water from the adjoining river and resurfacing the ice in the ruts. Often working at night, the task not only involved working outdoors in sub-zero temperatures but often being coated with ice as a result of the water they were required to spread on the road. The physical burdens and distress of the work almost beggars the imagination.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviets released the Poles, although they were limited to places within the Soviet Union and were responsible for their own transportation. Although this meant the Weydenfelds would leave Kvasha, it also embarked them on a journey of thousands of miles through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by rail, on foot and by truck. They scavenged local markets for food and took up housing where available, aided by the senior Weydenfeld's ablity to occasionally find employment thanks to his medical degree. The family and numerous others eventually found passage to Tehran and outside Soviet and German influence.

Waydenfeld recounts events with an excellent eye for detail, both in terms of events and the family's surroundings. Some readers might even wonder about the extent of the detail given that he did not keep a diary and only started making notes of his experiences some 15 years after. Regardless, The Ice Road tells a compelling story about the treatment of the Poles during World War II, an aspect of the conflict that is often overlooked. Additionally, the book includes a look at the Polish deportations and the formation of a Polish Army corps, which Waydenfeld joined once outside Soviet control.

Despite the hardships it recounts, The Ice Road is a story of good fortune in that the Waydenfeld family survived. Yet a couple items in his recounting show just how fortuitous they may have been. For example, in May 1940 the Waydenfelds stood in line for a German repatriation train that would have returned them to Otwock and the part of Poland occupied by the Germans. The family ahead of them in line filled the quota of returnees and they were told to go back to where they were staying and wait for the next repatriation train. There was never another and they were deported to Siberia.

Or they could look back just a bit more. In May 1939, the Waydenfelds took a cruise to the Mediterranean. They picked it over one slated to go to New York City in August 1939. That ship was in New York City when the war broke out -- and the passengers spent the war in the United States.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
  PrairieProgressive | Jan 2, 2011 |
An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom

Sticking with the apparent theme of Stalinist Russia and its aftermath, I found this memoir fascinating. It’s always more interesting to read a historical event in the voice of someone who experienced it, and the author Stefan Waydenfeld describes his experiences with detail and yet without bitterness.

Waydenfeld was the son of a doctor and a biologist, and their small town life south of Warsaw was pleasant and fulfilling. He expected to live as most teenagers, with a future at university, perhaps following in his father’s path as a physician. While they’d heard grumblings of the war, they were taken by surprise when Germany and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939. Previously, Poland had a non-aggression pact with the USSR, which was ignored as the USSR felt the need to support Germany’s war machine (as it had yet to turn on them). A bombing campaign started over Warsaw on September 17, 1939, one that introduced Warsaw as well as some of the smaller towns outside to the reality of war.

At first, Waydenfeld, at 14, served as a volunteer who worked in shifts with others to stay up at night and warn of the Luftwaffe planes that would randomly attack. They’d use whatever means they could to wake up their neighbors. Then there was the fires to deal with, started by the bombs. At one point, he describes the people fleeing the cities on open rural roads, being specially targeted by German pilots who ‘strafed’ the area with bullets for no apparent reason other than to kill randomly.

For a small time, there was a bit of calm, and then suddenly, his family received deportation orders to return to Warsaw. A kindly officer took them aside, assured them that this ‘short train ride’ would be their chance to return. They were loaded like cattle into a train with their neighbors and what goods they could carry, but he discovered on the train, at dawn, that they were heading east, not west. Never trust a kindly enemy! They were being sent to Siberia.

In Siberia, the Russian officers seemed to stress to them that their new life in Kvasha was going to be a privilege, and that they would never leave. Work in this camp was part of Stalin’s famous Five-Year plan. A major component of this plan was the installation and maintenance of the “Ice Road”, a timber transport road made out of sheets of ice. Waydenfeld and his father worked to build this road by digging holes, retrieving water, and then spreading it in sheets in -40 C temperatures.

From here, we see how his family coped, and how they were able to exist in this environment and maintain hope and unity. Additionally, while at times he admits anger and disappointment, his tone is one of bravery and acceptance…he was not going to give in. Not knowing about the atrocities that had already taken place in Germany may have helped these people keep their positive outlook.

It’s a great story, and well-told. I was particularly impressed by the effort he employed to acknowledge certain families and people that assisted in their journey to help them in various ways. He never implies that it was his bravery alone, but credits those people who were sympathetic and willing to risk their own lives to help them in various circumstances. This is an excellent text for information about the time period, and it would be amazing if high school students had the opportunity to read this first-person account. ( )
  BlackSheepDances | Dec 5, 2010 |
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