Full Circle: A Homecoming to Free Poland One Family's Ordeal with Nazis, Soviets and Freedom
Title: "Full Circle: A Homecoming to Free Poland"
Author: Radek Sikorski
Data: 259 pages, Simon & Schuster; $24
Poland 's modern history is uniquely tragic: It has suffered both the ghastly ambitions of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. The loss of lives, due to concentration camps at places like Auschwitz and the brutality of communism, is staggering. Six million Poles were annihilated by the Nazis. Half were Jews. The loss of liberty continues to haunt the fledgling democracy.
Radek Sikorski's " Full Circle: A Homecoming to Free Poland" chronicles Polish history. As the author writes, "only in 20th century Poland could an individual be born in Germany, get married in Poland, bring children up under Germany again, age under Russian domination, and die in free Poland - never having left the same town.
There are plenty of victims throughout his book; their stories are dreadfully cautionary tales about the recent past. Sikorski writes about his family, whose once vibrant, productive lives became embittered by the endurance of chronic danger and drudgery; his Uncle Edek, not yet 14, captured in a field like an animal, whose incarceration led him to eventually become as brutal as his oppressors; men thrown into freezing waters so that Nazi doctors could monitor bodily functions before death.
Sikorski's personal memoir is not an explicit defense of liberty, which Poland has never experienced. The author neither names the evil that plagues his country nor fully prescribes its antidote, freedom. Instead, Sikorski chronicles Soviet and Nazi atrocities with poignant tales of family strife and struggle against statism and he offers the faintest trace of confidence in Poland's future through his own homecoming. The former journalist and statesman tells the story of his simple quest for private property, rebuilding an old manor house called Chobielin.
At 34, he is part of Poland's recent crusade for capitalism; in the early 1980s, he was a teen-age freedom fighter for Solidarity, the labor movement lead by Lech Walesa. Forced to flee the communists, he was granted political asylum by Britain, where he attended Pembroke College at Oxford and worked as a freelance journalist. Sikorski later became deputy defense minister under the first freely elected post-communist government in Polish history.
His recollections of youth bring history to life. He remembers being forced to recite communist poetry: "The individual is nothing, the individual is nil. The Party is everything." He was forced to pick potatoes in programs called "voluntary works" and "citizen training." He wrote essays glorifying Vladimir Lenin. Sikorski was 12 years old. However, indoctrination was no match for his independence. He writes: "Nobody ever gave me political lectures; nobody ever encouraged me to take to the underground, to print illegal newspapers, or to agitate the government. But in various ways, different members of my family and different aspects of our lives made it clear to me, even at a very early age, that life did not end with the state."
Though he fared better under communist rule than his elders did at the hands of the National Socialists, life was an ordeal, he writes. Family vacations, supervised by the state, became tense smuggling expeditions. Sikorski sought refuge in romantic literature.
Sikorski's accounts of the trials of his Uncle Edek are especially revealing; as a teen-ager, Uncle Edek refused to remove his cap in the presence of Nazis; he was seized and, slowly, deteriorated into something less than a man. By the time the Solidarity strike threatened to bring the communists to their knees and promised freedom for the first time in his life, Uncle Edek was a feeble, empty shell of his youthful former self.
At times, " Full Circle" is restrained. By concentrating on his family, Sikorski's journey of self-discovery fails to take root. Chapters alternate between family history and his own development. Somehow, the motives for his own pain and resolve are lost. It's as though he never fully lives and breathes with the passion for freedom that his heroic actions suggest.
There is a glimpse of what lies beneath the calm in a short story Sikorski wrote while hanging around the Solidarity headquarters. It is the story of a professional queue man, one who is paid to wait in line for others. One day, "the Q-Man fails to notice that the shop whose door he clings at dawn is closed down. The mistake is only discovered hours later and the crowd behind him grows furious at having wasted the time. Someone stabs an umbrella into his side and an ambulance collects him, unconscious, from the street. Upon arrival at the hospital, he joins a long queue waiting for admission. He dies lying on a gurney wondering whether there really is a hospital at the end of the queue or whether the queue shrinks only thanks to removal of the corpses."
About the meaning of the short story, Sikorski adds: "it was really only an exaggeration of our daily lives."
Originally published September 28, 1997 in Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)