Monday, September 14, 2015

Gulag Survivor: Elizabeth Pawlicki Frankowski

Celebration of the Toledo public library's digitization of Elizabeth Pawlicki Frankowski's
diary about her experience as a Polish prisoner in the Russian gulags of World War II. Elizabeth is a long-time resident of Toledo, a heroine in our midst. Marcy Kaptur presented a US Congressional resolution in Elizabeth's honor, and Toledo City Councilmember Tom Waniewski presented a Council resolution.  Elizabeth's family joined the celebration of this extraodinary story of survival and courage, now available online to a wide audience. See also "Diary of life in Soviet work camp online," Toledo Blade, September 1, 2015. 
It was a rainy morning, September 17, 1939, in the village of  Veteranowka, Poland, not far from the Russian border. Hitler's army was on the march, occupying Poland on September 1. Another World War burst upon the planet.

Elizabeth Pawlicki, almost 13 years old, looked out the window of her home, and stood frozen in terror. Her mother, pregnant with her 8th child, was sitting at the window, crying. Her father, a Polish cavalry officer during World War I, was out guarding the border against a feared Russian advance. He had left the family solemnly the night before. Elizabeth had a premonition that something terrible "weighed on his soul" and was about to happen.   She was right.

As she looked out the window, she saw a fearful sight, which she records in a diary she wrote several years later:  "The fields were full of soldiers, cavalry, columns of army trucks and tanks.  The ground trembled under the steady march of their power."

"Maybe it's the Polish army going to fight the Germans," Elizabeth said, trying to calm her mother's worst fears for the safety of her husband and family. But it was not the Polish army, not the Nazi army.  It was the Red Army of Joseph Stalin's Russia that overran the fields of eastern Poland, just a few weeks after Hitler had invaded western Poland.  "The fields overflowed with the Red Army and the sky was filled with the terrifying sounds of war planes constantly passing over us."

Elizabeth's life changed forever.  In one tragic and everlasting moment, Elizabeth lost everything she held dear.  Her father was killed that very night by Russian soldiers.  Her home and land were confiscated. She and her family were rounded up and herded in filthy crowded trains to northern Siberia, prisoners of the infamous hard labor camps in Siberia known as the Gulags. Her worst fears had come true.  Elizabeth lost her childhood.

Thus did Elizabeth's life became enveloped in the carnage of the "Bloodlands," innocent civilian victims caught between the brutal ambitions and extermination policies of Hitler and Stalin.

This terrifying history is told in Yale historian Timothy Snyder's well-researched and prize-winning book, Bloodlands (Basic Books, 2010). It's a story I began to learn about while serving with the Peace Corps in Ukraine.  It's a story Elizabeth lived, as did many of the Ukrainians I met. It's a story that reverberates to this day, and that most Americans know little about.

Between 1939 and 1945, Snyder writes, Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany committed mass killings of an estimated 14 million unarmed non-combatants, the majority outside the death camps of the Holocaust.  Snyder's thesis is that the "bloodlands," a region which comprised what is modern-day Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic states, is the area where "the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler interacted to increase suffering and bloodshed many times worse than any seen in western history."

Snyder pointedly notes he is "not counting soldiers who died on the fields of battle," but deaths caused "by deliberate government policies of mass murder." The mass murders included executions, such as the Katyn Forest Massacre of Polish army officers and POWS; orchestrated famine, such as the three million Soviet prisoners of war who were deliberately starved to death, this following the Holdomor in Ukraine, punishment for resisting collectivization; and outright killings and death camps on both sides of the Nazi/Soviet line in the Borderlands.
Wrzesien2, wikimedia. I didn't
realize Hitler sought the total 
destruction of Poland, all of it,sharing
a goal with Stalin and the Soviets.

It is a disturbing history of the deliberate mass murder of civilians and the deadly human cost of totalitarian extremism in the 20th century.  It is, sadly, a story repeating itself in the 21st century, with the same horrifying results.

Elizabeth Pawlicki Frankowski's story, which she recorded in a diary given to her as a birthday gift when she was in Isfahan, Iran, after being freed from the Gulags, is a part of this history. It is a survival story of incredible courage against the odds and faith in the midst of evil.

The diary tells how Elizabeth survived the Gulags, although she lost three siblings from diseases, illness, starvation and hard labor, and her mother never regained her health.  After a Soviet/Poland-in-exile government "Amnesty" pact, Polish prisoners were freed from Soviet gulags, but they could not return to Poland. Thousands, Elizabeth among them, made it by foot and any transportation available to Turkestan and Uzbekistan, then part of southern Russia, where they found work, mostly on collective farms, in order to survive.   Only the kindness of strangers kept them alive, although Elizabeth lost another sister to typhoid fever, an illness she herself barely survived.

From this place, in the depths of despair, Elizabeth found her way to Isfahan, Persia (now Iran), through the humanitarian work of the Polish army-in-exile, the Red Cross, and other international aid organizations. She had been separated from her mother, which caused tremendous anxiety on top of what we would today call post-traumatic stress. Still, Elizabeth, just a teenager, put one foot in front of the other, went day by day by day, prayed and carried on.

In Isfahan and Lebanon between 1942 and 1949, then a most beautiful oasis in a troubled world, Elizabeth finished her education, which had been so brutally interrupted in Veteranowka.  She also got a nursing degree with high honors from the American University of Beirut, after a rigorous course of study, and having to learn English.    But Elizabeth had found her "calling," and she began a new chapter in her life with high hopes.  She was happy when she got her first job in Petersboro, Ontario, Canada, in 1950.

How ironic that the Middle East today, where Elizabeth found solace after her Gulag experience and discovered her lifelong calling to become a nurse, is so mired in the same kind of extremism and violence that befell Poland and eastern Europe during World War II.

When US Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D, Toledo, Ohio) met Elizabeth and learned about her experiences and her diary, she knew something had to be done to make them known. Here was a long-time resident of Toledo who had an incredible story to tell.  Elizabeth had moved to Toledo with her new husband, Edmund Frankowski, in 1952.  He was a decorated Polish army officer and a POW in Russia so they shared these tragedies.  Mr. Frankowski also miraculously escaped the Katyn Massacre of Polish army officers and prisoners. In Toledo, Elizabeth raised a family, become part of the Toledo community, and worked fulltime at Flower Hospital as a skillful and highly regarded nurse.

Rep. Kaptur recognized  Elizabeth's bravery and the constant faith that kept her going even in the worst of times, including the death of her beloved son Richard from Leukemia in 1964.  Rep. Kaptur contacted the library, helped get the diary and the book on which it is based (Przezylismy, or "Tears of Faith") translated from Polish to English, and encouraged their preservation and public dissemination.

"Elizabeth's story is about the meaning of liberty and the cost of liberty," Rep. Kaptur told an overflow audience at the West Toledo Branch Library on September 3, there to celebrate the digitization of the diary.  "These stories need to be told, and shared."

The Toledo Public Library's "Local Human Memory" project is doing just that.
In cooperation with the Toledo/Poznan Alliance, local Polish organizations, and the Lourdes University Sisters of St. Francis, the Library has made Elizabeth's diary, over 70 years old, available online to historians, geneologists, researchers, and the general public, in both Polish and English.

Library director Clyde Scoles and Library Local History manager Jill Clever noted that the project "preserves history for today and future generations."  They encouraged the telling, preservation and digitization of more Toledo stories.  

Sister Ann Frances, active in the Toledo/Poznan Sister City Alliance, noted that such projects are "like a pebble thrown into water, its ripple effect spreading ever outward and reaching many lives."

Elizabeth's life encompasses one of the most violent and challenging times in world history.  It's not surprising that she hears the news of the world today and shakes her head: "We have learned nothing from the horrors of the past," she said to me during one of our meetings. I am working with Rep. Kaptur to learn more about Elizabeth's story up to the present.  "Human beings are repeating all the mistakes, all the evils, that my generation lived through.  It's so hard to understand."

Yes, it is hard to understand. "It's beyond understanding," I reply.  Elizabeth nods her head sadly.  "If only people would learn that violence and hate accomplish
nothing but more violence and untold grief."

Postscript: The Katyn Massacre of Polish army officers and Polish Nationals

The Wikipedia article on The Katyn Massacre, April - May 1940, of Polish army officers and Polish nationals by the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police and precursor to the KGB, notes: The massacre was prompted by NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria's proposal to execute all captive members of the Polish Officer Corps, dated 5 March 1940, approved by the Soviet Politburo, including its leader, Joseph Stalin. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000.[1] The victims were executed in the Katyn Forest in Russia, the Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere. Of the total killed, about 8,000 were officers taken prisoner during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, another 6,000 were police officers, and the rest were arrested Polish intelligentsia that the Soviets deemed to be "intelligence agentsgendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials and priests". [1]

I learned about this massacre when I lived in Starobelsk, Ukraine, because many of those killed had been in POW camps in Khargiv and in Starobelsk and were buried on the grounds of the Starobelsk Cathedral and Monestary.  Polish citizens came to honor them, on pilgrimmages, when I lived there and to this day. My friend Olga was the first person to tell me this sad story, a chapter of WWII I never knew.   She often hosted and led these tour groups of Polish citizens to Starobelsk.

Then I started talking to Elizabeth, helping Rep. Marcy Kaptur with an oral history project, and learned that her husband Edmund Frankowski had narrowly escaped the fate of the Katyn Massacre because the car of the train taking Polish officers to the murder site at Khargiv had (miraculously) become separated and left alone on a track. When Mr. Frankowski and others in his car, who had been held prisoners in gulags and were tortured, starved and beaten, discovered this, they escaped into the forest, and somehow made it out alive.   It's another incredible story.  It was made into a film by a Polish filmmaker in 2007, which I hope to get soon.

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