June 04, 2014 - On one side was Adolf Hitler, the brutal dictator of Nazi Germany.
Former Oxford resident Wanda Taranek (left) tells OHS students about being sent to the Gulag after the Soviets invaded her native Poland in 1939. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
On the other side was Joseph Stalin, the equally brutal dictator of the Soviet Union.
Caught in the middle was Wanda Krupa Taranek, a 12-year-old Polish girl who watched her beloved Eastern European nation get gobbled up by these ruthless tyrants who embodied the two most evil ideologies of the 20th century.
But she did the one thing that neither Hitler nor Stalin wanted the Polish people to do – she survived.
Seventy-five years later, Taranek, who lived on Tanview Dr. in Oxford Township for more than 30 years, told her story to approximately 250 students at Oxford High School.
"You have no idea how fortunate you are to be born (in) this country," said Taranek, who's granddaughter Alicia Kuligowski is a junior at OHS. "You have no idea what you have here. There is no other country like here."
Taranek's world changed forever in September 1939. On Sept. 1, the Nazis invaded Poland from the west. Then, on Sept. 17, the Soviets invaded from the east.
Germany and the Soviet Union split Poland in two, claiming the respective portions for their totalitarian empires. Poland was no more.
Taranek was in the eastern portion of Poland annexed by the Soviets. She and her family were among the hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens who were arrested and deported to remote regions of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets came to Taranek's home at 2 or 3 a.m. on Feb. 10, 1940 and gave her family 30 minutes to dress and pack what belongings they could.
"I remember (it) vividly," she said.
Taranek, a faithful Catholic, packed her most prized possession – a prayer book containing religious songs given to her by her paternal grandparents.
"I cherished it and carried (it) very carefully," she said. "Wherever I went, I carried it with me. It's precious now."
Taranek and her family were loaded onto trains headed for Gulag camps in Siberia.
The Gulag was a massive penal system consisting of forced labor camps in which millions of people – many of whom were guilty of no crimes at all – suffered and died.
Viewed as expendable because they could be so easily replaced, many Gulag prisoners died as a result of malnutrition, disease, unsanitary living conditions, violence, the extreme weather and hard labor.
Taranek recalled how she and her fellow Poles were packed into cattle wagons (or stock cars) for the long trip.
Each car had 25 to 35 people crammed into it. There were no windows and no bathroom facilities. The occupants had to relieve themselves via a hole in the floor and use blankets or sheets for privacy.
"It was hard, very hard," Taranek said.
The Poles traveled this way for close to three weeks before they reached Siberia. During the harsh journey, a number of old people, children and babies perished.
When Taranek and her family finally arrived at the labor camp, they were housed in squalid barracks. The beds were infested with bugs and other creatures.
"It was almost impossible to sleep," said Taranek, who will turn 87 in October.
Life in the camp was extremely difficult and oppressive.
Taranek recalled the death of a friend and classmate at the camp. "When you die, your body swells," she said. "You (would) think that person was never hungry."
They carried the girl up a hill to a grave.
As is their custom, the Poles sang religious songs on their way to the grave.
Given the communists were atheists, the camp commandant told the men to put their hats back on and stop singing.
"Of course, you have to obey, otherwise, watch out," Taranek said.
Despite this, the Poles continued to pray.
"He couldn't take that away from us," she said.
When they arrived, the grave was full of water. The image of the casket being lowered into it gave Taranek nightmares for a long time.
During the fall and winter, Taranek attended a Russian school where the teachers tried their best to indoctrinate the children in the communist ideology.
In one instance, they used candy in an attempt to bribe the children. The Soviets offered big sacks of sweets to any child who denied the existence of God. They told the children that Stalin, not God, cared about them and would provide for them.
Taranek said four of the kids denied their God and were sweetly rewarded.
She and the others refused to turn their backs on their faith, so they went back to the barracks empty-handed and crying.
Their parents were proud of them for staying true to themselves and God.
Escaping from the camp was not an option, according to Taranek, because they were in Siberia surrounded by "woods and woods and woods."
"How far could you go?" she said.
After Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the fortunes of many Polish people changed for the better because the Soviets needed manpower to help fight the Nazis.
In July 1941, the Polish government in exile and Soviet Union signed a treaty which paved the way for the granting of amnesty to many of the Polish citizens being held captive in the communist country.
This led to the creation of a 40,000-strong Polish army. It was first known as Anders Army and later became the Polish II Corps.
Taranek's father later joined this army.
Taranek said the people in her camp would not have known about the amnesty had it not been for a Polish professor who read about it in a newspaper. The news was brought to the attention of the commandant and that speeded their departure from Siberia.
Taranek and her family ended up living and working on a collective farm in the then-Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan.
There, Taranek began learning the Uzbek language in order to survive.
Unfortunately, her teacher took too much of a liking to Taranek and wanted to make her his second bride, something his current wife was not pleased about.
She was only 13 years old at the time.
"In those countries, like Arabs, men can have as many wives as (they) can afford to support," Taranek said.
He offered her parents a sack of flour, a bag of something similar to rice, a lamb and 100 rubles. "The teacher was willing to pay a lot," she said.
Her father turned down the offer by telling the teacher that in Europe, girls don't marry until they're 20 years old – a lie to save his daughter.
After the teacher's proposal was rejected, Taranek said she was "scared" and never went anywhere unaccompanied again while living in Uzbekistan.
From the Soviet Union, Taranek and her family went to Iran and later ended up living in a camp for displaced Polish citizens in the African nation of Uganda. The camp was by Lake Victoria. She said many Poles died from malaria while in Africa and she spent more time in the hospital than in school.
Despite that, Taranek received her high school diploma there. She showed the OHS students a copy of it. "I cherish it," she said.
After Africa, Taranek and her family went to England and eventually, came to the U.S. in 1950. She lived in Detroit and later moved to Oxford. She now resides in Lake Orion.
After sharing her life story with the OHS students, Taranek urged them to work hard in school. "Take advantage of your young years," she said. "This is the time for you to study . . . If you don't study real hard, the doors for a better job will be closed (to) you. Study, study and once more, study. Do your homework conscientiously."
Taranek encouraged the students to set reasonable goals and strive to achieve them.
"If you don't have a goal, you have nothing to reach for," she said. "Be doctors, nurses, teachers, whatever your desire."
Taranek wished to note how privileged and happy she felt to be given the unique opportunity to tell her story and the story of the Polish people to a group of American high school students.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.