A Sybirak in America

Because many witnesses to dramatic events of the past often fail to leave any written record behind, a scholar of Polish history is often hampered in his quest to uncover the truth. And so is a lay person simply eager to learn about Poland from a personalized account. Eugene Bak set out to remedy the problem. His Life’s Journey: Autobiography (Boulder, CO. and New York: East European Monographs and Columbia University Press, 2002) is a combination memoir, travelogue, history textbook, and a business school lesson.

Born in Polska Wola, near Podhajce, the Province of Tarnopol, in Poland’s Eastern Borderlands, Bak’s life was regulated by the daily chores of village life and, on a larger plane, by Catholic and partriotic holidays. (…) The nightmare began with the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939.

Bak and his family found themselves under the Soviet occupation. Having survived the initial wave of anti-Polish violence by Ukrainian nationalists and Communist revolutionaries, the Baks were soon deported to the Gulag as “enemies of the people.” While the adults slaved for Stalin, the children were subject to Communist indoctrination. To counter such practices, the adults taught the kids secretly about their religion and history. “Poland became a land of fairy tales, a land of milk and honey. National figures became our heroes and idols.” One of the clandestine teachers “hated communism with such a passion that when his daughter Anulka attached a red ribbon to her hair, he bacame extremely angry and impulsively ripped the ribbon along with some hair from the surprised girl.” As always, aside from religion, humor proved the most powerful form of resistance. For example, the Polish slaves derisively referred to the Soviet leader as “Sralin” (shit-head).

Suffering hunger, forced labor, violence, death, and diseases, the family stuck together and most of them survived against all odds. The key to survival was not open rebellion but accommodation: “Our survival… was the result of my father’s ingenuity and his ability to outmaneuver the Soviet system.” There were many brushes with death, including the time when his seriously ill mother was miraculously saved by a Polish-Jewish pharmacist, a fellow inmate in the Gulag.

Nonetheless, death stared them constantly in the eye. The living and working conditions were so abysmal that their friend, Mr. Kisielewicz “watched his children die one at a time. His prayers for a quick death for his children were very understandable.” A few relatives and many friends of the Bak family perished in Stalin’s Russia, including Eugene’s six-year-old cousin Krysia and his maternal grandfather, a hardy West Virginian miner. The survivors were saved in the nick of time by General Władyslaw Sikorski and General Władyslaw Anders, “the liberator, our Moses, who led us from the Nieludzka Ziemia [Inhumane Land].” (…)

While the adult males of the Bak family joined the Free Polish Army to fight and bleed at Monte Cassino and other battles, the womenfolk and the children found themselves in refugee camps in Persia, Pakistan, and India. Eugene Bak was so emaciated that his own mother failed to recognize him. Slowly, the Polish refugees recuperated physically from the nightmare of the Gulag.

The psychological scars took much longer to heal. (…)

The refugees settled into a camp routine: daily mass (complete with a pet goat, Baśka, who accompanied the children to church), school, boy scout activities, and other chores. Of course, Polish national and Catholic religious holidays were observed just like at home. Otherwise, a rather monotonous existence was punctuated by mischievous jackals who stole soap and by visits from Allied soldiers, including Polish-American GIs. The refugees avidly imbibed news from the war. Upon learning that General Sikorski had died in an air crash, “the camp was in shock; people were crying and hugging each other for moral support.” The refugees celebrated the great Polish victory at Monte Cassino in May 1944, while individual families bewailed their dead and worried about their wounded relatives. Eugene Bak’s father and uncle belonged fortunately to the latter category.

Catholics and even the ‘Yankees.’ Strangely enough, I was exempted because I was Polish.” (…)

Bak traveled widely around the world, visiting Poland already in 1960, a bitter sweet experience soured by the fact that some his cousins were victims of Communist indoctrination.  He cheered up when he met other Poles who inquired about “the possibiIn 1947, the Bak family joined the father in England. Two years later he was officially demobilized. The fiery heroism of the Gulag and the battlefront yielded way to the quiet heroism of rebuilding one’s life in exile. The Baks emigrated to the United States. From the start, they experienced the generous support of the Polonia (Polish American community). Eugene earned a college degree in chemical engineering and a graduate degree in business because his old Polish professor back in England dissuaded him from pursuing “a career in history and political science.” The author of Life’s Journey became a prominent inventor, engineer, and business manager. Having survived Communist totalitarism, Eugene Bak has remained sensitive to any manifestation of oppression and hatred. Thus, he was shocked by the anti-Black and the anti-Mexican animus in Texas in the late 1950s. Also, “there was noticeable discrimination against lities of the West’s liberating Poland from the communists. They were particularly interested if John Kennedy, a Catholic, had a chance to become president of the United States.”  Eugene Bak returned to the Old Country several more times, including in 1970, when his relatives celebrated a family reunion (…), and during martial law, when Ed Piszczek brought charity relief to the desperate population. Having retired a few years back, he devoted himself to charity and social work. And throughout his eventful life, Eugene Bak firmly believes, he has enjoyed the protection of Our Lady of Kozielsk, the patroness of the Free Polish Army and all the Sybiracy (Siberian deportees). However, one suspects that his wife, Mrs. Basia Bak, has had also much to do with Gene’s success.

Eugene Bak [Eugeniusz Bąk], Life’s Journey: Autobiography (Boulder, CO. and New York: East European Monographs and Columbia University Press, 2002).
To order the book please write to Polish American Cultural Center JPII, 6501 Lansing Ave., Cleveland, OH 44105.

* This article was originally published in the “Nihil Novi” quarterly, Fall 2002, and is presented here with short, insignificant omissions.

Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Forum, 2/2003