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22 September 2018

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In My Grandfather's Footsteps

Author: Michal Iwanowski
Illustrations/Images by Michal Iwanowski

July/Aug 2016
Page 34   ( 8 pages)

Summary: Seventy years after his grandfather’s escape from a military labor camp, photographer Michal Iwanowski retraces his steps, discovering both Russia and himself along the way.


Through landscape, as if through a porthole, we are constantly attempting to connect to a time or people long gone. I found myself doing just that when I set off on a journey through Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland, retracing a journey my grandfather made in 1945.

We crossed the same land nearly 70 years apart, but for utterly different reasons. Just how different were our experiences of that landscape?

My grandfather was a fugitive on the run. He, his brother, and two other friends had escaped after a year of captivity in Kaluga, a town southwest of Moscow; theirs was a fate shared by many partisans from the Vilnius area after their arrest in 1944.

Grandfather had been fighting against the Nazi German occupation. In July 1944, when the Soviets arrived, the partisan group was disarmed in a relatively peaceful manner – they were given an ultimatum to surrender and join the Red Army in a common fight against the Germans.

Under that false pretense, they were all transported east, believing they would be trained as Soviet soldiers. Those who attempted to escape during the transport were shot. Once they got to Kaluga, they were given uniforms, but they never again held their weapons. Instead, they became laborers with no pay and no permission to leave. Though my grandfather was never formally charged, he became a de facto prisoner in the barracks of a military camp.

My great uncle was sent to a shtrafnoy battalion – one of dozens of punitive combat units formed of convicts – east of Moscow, where he worked in the forest, cutting down trees and loading the logs onto trains. He was later moved back to Kaluga to pave roads, where he reunited with his brother.

At that point, my grandfather had already planned his escape and accumulated essential provisions – sugar, salt, and plenty of Belomorkanal tobacco – the best painkiller and hunger deterrent available. To stockpile necessities for the long journey, he made ornamented tins out of metal scraps, trading them for food rations.

Because the brothers had been reliable workers, the guards allowed them to walk unattended from the work site back to their barracks at the end of their shift. It may have been a short distance, yet it was long enough for a few men to disappear and remain unnoticed until the evening head count.

One August evening in 1945 they seized the opportunity. They made it to the river, found a small boat, and set off on a journey that for the next three months was to severely test their strength and determination.

Then there was me: a tourist, standing on the banks of the Oka River one August evening in 2013, close to where the Kaluga camp once stood. The landscape was serene and beautiful, and I found myself wandering, with no clear idea what I was expecting to find. I had no interest in judging history, nor was I interested in glorifying my relatives.

But as I stared across the wide river, with hundreds of miles ahead of me, I thought about the fate of all the people who had found themselves thrown in the middle of the conflict. World War II had been equally tough on countless millions, regardless of nationality or ancestry. There is no room in the history books to fit them all.

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