This could be my father's story. Almost. Or my mother's, for that matter.
In May 1944, Stasiek was in a trench looking up at the monastery of Monte Cassino, the Nazi-held stronghold in Italy that commanded the road to Rome, and anchored the German 'Gustav' line. The fortress was considered almost impregnable. . .
My father, also Staszek, was there too.
Labelled 1944, this must be Italy.
That he survived the battle was remarkable. More remarkable yet was what he and his comrades had survived to reach that point.
The Russians would've come for my mother's family in the night, but they had advance word. My grandfather's mistress had "information," and she helped ensure my family's passage to Arkhangelsk, a safer alternative than others.
There was a logging industry. My mother remembers the barges, how her brother nearly lost his life. My mother has a fear of water.
There were many trains and villages. When we watch Doctor Zhivago, my mother says it was like that, the trains, the poverty, the snow.
Samarkand, Tashkent, Dzhambul, Frunze, Alma Ata.
At the Chinese border, they were turned back. The family is being divided.
My grandfather and his oldest son have joined the first division. Marysia volunteers her services to communications efforts in Pahlevi. Dyzio and Krysia are placed in orphanages. My mother is the youngest of the siblings, and my grandmother keeps her close.
The surviving Poles walked or hitched rides on boxcars, thousands of miles over the endless steppe and taiga. Many were walking skeletons by the time they reached their transit camps near the Caspian Sea. Wracked with disease and starving to death, families were separated, never finding each other again. Parents lost their children, children their parents.
Krasnovodsk. The Caspian Sea. Pahlevi. The family is finding each other. Poles have been allowed some freedoms. Someone is in love with Marysia and is helping deliver messages.
Tehran. Ahvaz. My grandmother suffers from dysentery. My mother is blind from malnutrition. Tranports are arriving. There are refugee camps in India.
I don't know precisely how my father came to be thrown in prison. Though only 14 or 15 years old at the time, he was already a subversive, distributing socialist literature. I believe he was taken while at school. He never saw his family again.
A Russian prison camp. That's my father fourth in line.
He tried to trade his bread ration for cigarettes. A fellow prisoner took him under his wing and set him straight — war is no time to be a smartass. (That man was a prince.)
I never heard the story from my father, but legend has it he escaped. Penza, Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad, Aden, Asmara.
He joined with the Polish forces that had been allowed to mobilize under British command.
Iraq, November 1942. Setting up camp.
Staszek survived Monte Cassino, survived a bullet to the elbow. My mother's father and her brother were there too, but they wouldn't know Stan till years later, in Coventry, when he'd rent a room from the family.
There is some crucial part of his story that I've missed, something I may never understand. In the long journey from the Soviet gulag, through the battlefields of Italy, to his new homeland, through the losses and the pain, something happened during his trials that freed his soul, something that I may never grasp. He has turned the other cheek and come away with his soul and his humanity intact.