Exactly a week before Christmas in 1927 Stanislaw Szyblski was born into wealth and privilege. The second son of a highly cultured family in Lwów (Lviv’s Polish name), he would live an idyllic childhood filled with warmth and love. Unfortunately, his teenage years turned out to be the opposite of his childhood. Lwów was caught in the cross hairs of the Second World War, suffering every horror imaginable, combat, pogroms and occupation. Stanislaw grew up fast as he learned to dodge bombs and the occupation authorities while bartering for the necessities of life. He and his family were able to survive through their wits and guile, but ended up fleeing the city prior to the Red Army’s reoccupation in 1944. They had no illusions about what a second Soviet occupation would mean after barely surviving the first one. That first occupation, from 1939 -1941, is recounted in Lwów – A City Lost: Memories of a Cherished Childhood authored by Stanislaw’s daughter, Eva. In a series of vignettes the surreal nature of the Soviet occupation is conveyed through stories of what life was like when one of the most depraved and bizarre regimes in history controlled Lwów.
The Real “Stab In The Back” – Poland & Lwów Betrayed
The plight of interwar Poland leading up to and including the first months of World War II might best be explained by “the stab in the back.” In this context, the phrase has a dual meaning. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used the phrase to express their belief that Germany did not lose World War I, instead they were stabbed in the back by Jews and Socialists. This lie helped Hitler take the German nation to war. They would seek vengeance for the supposed wrong done to them. The Second World War started with an attack on Poland. The shame and humiliation felt by Germany would now be imposed on their eastern neighbor. As part of this campaign for vengeance, bombs were dropped on Lwów, causing a teenage Stanislaw Szybalski to hide with the rest of his family in a basement. The geo-political became personal. This was just the beginning of further horrors to come.
A “stab in the back” for Poland took place soon thereafter as it was invaded by the Red Army advancing from the east. This was the product of a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin, whereby the Soviets would get free reign in eastern Poland for not opposing German aggression in the rest of the nation. This stab in the back would lead to years of repercussions for families such as the Szybalski’s. Their wealth and prominence made them targets for the Soviet regime. They were in the cross hairs of class warfare, enemies of the state in waiting. They were lucky to escape deportation or worse. During this time Stanislaw witnessed how the Soviet regime bent and warped society to the point that everyday life became a series of misadventures. Strange and paradoxical circumstances became the norm as Stanislaw’s family did whatever they could to survive.
Strange Luxuries – Stealing At A Moderate Rate
There were those in the city who saw the Soviet occupation as a good thing, whether they be communist sympathizers or rapacious opportunists. Some of these would be collaborators could not hide their joy when the Red Army marched into the city. They took to the streets to greet them. This small crowd was met with a volley of gunfire, as the soldiers thought they were being attacked. This resulted in multiple dead and wounded. While tragic, what else was to be expected from soldiers that were little than an armed rabble. Stanislaw remembered how “the men were in a horrible state; unshaven, dirty, wearing filthy uniforms…their guns were hanging from simple twine.” Stalin’s foot soldiers helped themselves to the consumer goods and material wealth of Lwów. The soldiers were children in a fantasy world, barbarians who had broken through the gates of a capitalist heaven. They proceeded to sack and pillage with little regard for the inhabitants. This left the store shelves barren except for a few strange “luxuries.”
According to Stanislaw, the shops were empty “with the exception of the cheapest sort of tobacco, made from leftovers, and to go with it, you were able to buy matches and vinegar.” In occupied Lwów survival was a matter of being inventive, opportunistic and clever. Like everything else during the Soviet occupation these traits were turned on their head since they were enhanced by theft. A Soviet scientist working with Stanislaw’s father at Lwów’s famous Typhus Institute gave him a piece of valuable advice on how to navigate the Stalinist system. “If you stole too much they locked you up, or killed you. If you didn’t steal, you were going to die of starvation. Therefore, you had to steal at a moderate rate.” This took an incredible amount of self-discipline. Unwittingly the Soviets were teaching resourcefulness in the most counter intuitive ways.
Surrealism & Survival – Cheating Fate In Lwów
Daily life was dominated by the surreal. For instance, the Soviets did not give Stanislaw and his fellow students textbooks. They were to take copious notes and study these. Soon there was a shortage of notebooks. It hardly mattered since the notebooks were regularly confiscated from the students. The Soviets also attempted to impose a six day week. This only led to greater inefficiencies and more chaos. They soon gave up trying. The surreal also affected that greatest of survival instincts, hope. Hope kept people from giving up. Unfortunately this had unintended consequences. Spirits were raised when German authorities came to the city and registered ethnic Germans who would then be repatriated. Many non-ethnic Germans registered as well, hoping to escape Soviet rule, instead this delivered them up for deportation. The Soviets later got these lists from the Germans and then arrested those whose names were found on them. They were deemed “unreliables” since it was obvious that they disagreed with Soviet rule. These unfortunates were then deported to Kazakhstan.
As Stanislaw points out though, any Jews among the deported were in luck, since this helped them escape the clutches of the Nazis who were soon to come, a paradox of a paradox so to speak. Material wealth could end up as yet another double paradox. The wealthy were branded as enemies of the state by the Soviets, yet riches were also an advantage for those who managed to avoid the pillaging and deportations. Survival of the richest goes some way in explaining the Syzblski’s ability to cheat fate. For a long time, money was essentially worthless, but the bourgeoisie were not totally bankrupt. Stanislaw’s parents were able to provide for their family by trading possessions for food and living space to keep the authorities from foreclosing on their precarious existence.
The wealth of goods up for barter in Lwów could be found at a makeshift market behind the city theater. It was here that Stanislaw learned just how primitive and backward the Soviets were. He tells a story that sums up the bizarre nature of the first Soviet occupation of Lwów. “One item I recall was Polish ladies nightgowns. Soviets loved to buy them for their women who wore them as evening gowns when going to the opera or theater.” It goes without saying that a night at the opera in Lwów had a much different meaning under Soviet rule. With their “ladies” dressed in bathroom attire they went out for an evening of high culture, little did they realize that their ignorance was on display for all to see. This in essence was the Soviet occupation of Lwów, marked by the bizarre, surreal and backward. It had the quality of a bad dream, but when the city finally awoke, the nightmare regime of the Nazis was standing on its doorsteps.