My War

WWII reenactment. Poland, 2009.

WWII reenactment. Poland, 2009.

When the opportunity of getting involved in the Never Again for Anyone project first came up, I had to consider seriously whether it made sense for me to take part or not. After all, the project is focused on the inherited traumatic effects experienced by third generation survivors, the grandchildren of the Holocaust, of which I am not one. How, I asked myself, can I make an authentic contribution to this project when I don’t belong to its central demographic group?

However, after looking further into the aims of the project, speaking to some of those involved and placing it in the context of my own family history, I realised that the importance of Never Again lies in underscoring how the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust affect us all in their on-going impact, and more widely speaking, how war and genocide leave deep scars on all who are affected by them.

As emphasised by recent experimental studies, which appear to show that trauma can alter aspects of our very genetic structure and thereby be transmitted through the generations, such massively traumatic experiences affecting so many people do not disappear from the collective consciousness in a hurry. It strikes me as being of the utmost importance therefore that we continue to remember and analyse such events, attempting to learn from the actions and experiences of previous generations and study how they have formed us, so that our generation, and those that follow, can guard against any repetition of one of the darkest and most destructive periods in history.

My own forefathers and mothers, though not directly involved in the Holocaust, were certainly greatly influenced by the events of the Second World War. On the one side are a line of Scottish Protestants, who amongst my grandparents’ generation were too young to be thrown into battle, but who lost several family members and still clearly remember(ed) the sound of bombs falling on their residential district in the East End of Glasgow. For some of them, the war remained a lifelong obsession, the idea of Germany as the enemy a difficult one to shift. My decision to move to Berlin met with more than a few disapproving grumbles.

On the other side is a grandmother from Scotland’s east coast, who, during the war worked as an auxiliary nurse in Broughty Ferry. And there was a grandfather of Polish Catholic stock, for whom the war was a life-changer in many ways.

Poland’s history in the last few hundred years has been a difficult one, often the sandwich filling squeezed between two gigantic and powerful slices of bread in Germany and Russia, its culture, language and people coming under sustained attack from one occupier and then the other. Even by Polish standards though, the Second World War wrought a heavy toll. Poland’s Jews, numbering more than 3 million before the war started, were almost completely exterminated. Debate still continues today about whether non-Jewish Poles could have done more to save their compatriots.

Certainly, the days when Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe and could be described as a “heaven for the Jews” were long lost in the tides of tumultuous history. The pre-war rise of the “national democratic” Endecja party, pushing policies inspired by their Nazi neighbours, had led to a dramatic worsening of conditions for Poland’s Jewish population, at that time still comfortably the largest in the world.

After the German and Russian invasions though, the rest of the Polish population were also engulfed in a grim battle for their own survival. They and their fellow Slavs occupied only one rung higher up than Jews, Roma and black people in the Nazis’ abhorrent eugenic ranking system, so that around 3 million non-Jewish Poles were killed during the war. Many of them were worked to death as slave labourers, which the Nazi regime foresaw as the eventual function of all ethnic Poles.

Jan & Violet Kraska. Poland, 1946.
Jan and Violet Kraska. Scotland, 1946.

Poland once again found itself trapped between two hungrily expansionist powers, the fate of those engulfed by Stalin’s Soviet Union coming from the East barely any better than those in Nazi-controlled territories. Targeted in particular were university students, professors and other intelligentsia, in an attempt to destroy the brains of any potential resistance. All in all, taking into account “victims killed, deported, in exile in the West or still captive in Russia, and others whose fate is unknown”, the population of Poland was reduced from 35 million to 23 million during the war years.

My grandfather’s story during those years is just one of millions, and in comparison with the fate of many others he could be said to be one of the lucky ones. Nevertheless, he carried the mental and physical scars of his wartime experience with him for the rest of his life. For me, the Never Again project provides an ideal opportunity to reflect on my grandfather’s Second World War experiences and what influence they have had on my own worldview.

Jan Kraska was born in 1916, at a time when Poland was still partitioned, the Nowhere of Jarry’s Ubu Roi. He spent his earliest years in the Prussian Ruhr Valley with his Gastarbeiter (‘Guest Worker’) parents, his family then returning to Poland – reconstituted as an independent state after the end of World War I – as the rise of the Nazi party in Germany created an ever less welcoming climate for foreigners.

Jan’s wartime travails began with his capture as a prisoner of war during the German invasion of Poland. After his refusal to join the German military, he was put to work on a farm as a forced labourer. As my grandmother recounts, he never had a bad word to say about the German farming families he worked for, and praised them for their kindness during his time there. Nevertheless, unwilling to accept his fate, he escaped and returned home to Ostrow, only to be rounded up again a short time later.

Poland 1960 1
Poland, 1960.

This time, as punishment for his insubordinance, he was sent to work in iron and coal mines, experiencing grim conditions that left a lasting mark on his health. The prolonged exposure to coal dust caused permanent lung damage and reduced circulation, resulting years later in the loss of both of his legs. My own memories of him don’t extend much beyond an old man in a hospital bed, levering himself up on his elbows to give me chocolate.

Eventually, as the Allies advanced into Germany, Jan and others managed to find a hiding place in a vegetable storage cellar until the Americans arrived. A boat to Scotland followed, where he then took the chance to adequately compensate for his limited English by paying granny’s entry into the Christmas Eve dance, an act of chivalry to which I owe my existence.

My grandfather rarely spoke about his wartime experiences, my father describing it as a “taboo subject” while growing up. On odd occasions though, he would let something out, talking for example about the contradictory feelings he faced when finally forced to fire his gun – up until that point he had been a driver behind the front lines – at pursuing German soldiers during the Polish retreat. My grandmother also recounts how deeply a first visit back to Soviet-controlled Poland – in 1960, together with wife and kids – affected him, with the result that he made the decision never to go back again.

From my own perspective, I view as parts of my inheritance an embedded understanding of the fragility of my existence, and of the casual brutality that humanity is capable of. I am grateful to have known several people whilst growing up who had experienced war first-hand and were able to eruditely and passionately expound upon the soul-destroying futility of the whole experience, their horror at the realisation they were engaged in the mass-scale destruction of fellow human beings.

From a European perspective, we can be glad that our own continent has mostly been spared such destruction since then,. Still, we should not shield our eyes from the price of our comfort, namely the on-going carnage in far-off lands, and the massive environmental damage that the policies of our governments are responsible for.

This for me, this is the pertinent point of the Never Again for Anyone project. Around the world today, countless lives are being destroyed and uprooted, entire populations placed under lock and key, war and genocide carried out with steadily increasing technological might. The onus lies on all those who – already living there in their own hearts – know that a better world is possible, to do what they can to bring it about.


Photographs courtesy of Jacklab and the author. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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