The recent, unprovoked assault on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin has prompted me to present this fragment of my dad’s (Stefan’s), life. In September 1939, as a Polish army officer, he had left his family in Lodz and crossed Poland with his company. He was following orders given to him by a central command—orders, which he assumed were to culminate in a battle of resistance to Hitler’s blitzkrieg attack on the country.
The Soviet Invasion of Zbaraz (Zbarazh, in present Ukraine)
The military caravan resumed its southern route. Other than an occasional military vehicle passing by with loud muffler discharges, the road was deserted. Beyond the side ditches, rows of budding potato and cabbage crops converged in the distance with geometrical precision, like rays beaming from the sun. Stefan took in the surrounding harmony. He welcomed order. Normalcy.
Tall grasses beside the road undulated with swishes, alive and in motion with the passing of each speeding truck. Farther along, the pastoral beauty of Wolyn emerged with its softly rolling meadows framed by a cloud-speckled sapphire sky. In the vastness of the fields, groups of solitary elms interrupted the monotony that stretched to the distant smoky-gray horizon. Closer to the road, cowherds called out commands to their herds of fecund, languid cows.
With the grace of young maidens wrapped in flowing scarves, endless rows of slender breeze-caressed birches bordered the roads. They reminded Stefan of a park avenue in Lodz, where he and Marta strolled arm in arm on Sundays after Mass during their five-year courtship, and of her captivating perfume and the fashionable string of pearls bouncing divinely on her breasts with every step. After their walks they’d go to Marta’s parents’ house for tea.
On the weekends he served his duty as reserve officer, and then he’d go to her house in his dashing uniform. Marta’s five sisters would fuss over him to the point it would make her flush with jealousy, throwing them uneasy glances. “That dimple in his chin . . . his dark hair and blue-gray eyes the color of—” they’d whisper. Or, “He’s so tall and slim.” He pretended he didn’t hear them but loved those moments and played up to his undisputed popularity with the girls.
As the company convoy approached the town of Zbaraz, countless one-street villages flashed by. Bundled Polish/Ukrainian peasant women with headscarves and thick woolen skirts stopped their hurried walk to watch the military vehicles. Frenzied dogs barked behind fences crowded with peeking yellow daisies and multicolored cosmos.
A funeral party advanced with grave steps. First a horse-drawn open wagon carrying a casket draped with richly embroidered Ukrainian scarves led the procession. On its heels a man holding an enormous black flag marched and sang a Gregorian chant. Behind him a crowd of mourners dressed in black hummed to the tune, holding profuse bouquets of long-stemmed, white and yellow daisies against their chests.
The sprawling, centuries-old town of Zbaraz came within sight on Thursday, September 14. A road sign reading “Russian border 24 km” pointed an arrow eastward. Soon after, the Zbaraz Castle appeared on a hill.
After a brief officers’ conference in a field outside the town proper, Stefan received orders for his men to open camp and install communications. Along with five hundred soldiers from other companies, his troops took turns digging trenches on the hills three kilometers south of town. A few men surveyed the surroundings from improvised observation towers. An excellent strategic location, Stefan thought, surmising the Germans must be on their way.
Like on other nights in this secluded southeastern tip of Poland, the weather was warm enough for the soldiers to sleep on the ground covered by their coats.
Early the next morning, Stefan, other officers, and a few privates went to Mass celebrated by a Bernardine monk at St. Anthony’s Church in town. Later, they visited the Zbaraz Castle. They strolled in awe through the crumbling three-hundred-year-old fortress, which over the centuries had been both a palace and a fortified bastion against Cossacks, Turks, and Tartars.
Around the castle a profusion of knee-high colorful wildflowers engulfed the ground Stefan walked on. How much blood had this soil swallowed through the centuries to be so fertile? How much were these hills worth? How much was each flower worth?
Observed from the castle, the town’s roofs and windows shone like gems, with the Bernardine Monastery and the twin steeples of St. Anthony’s Church towering above a sea of trees. The smooth green beauty of distant hills dotted with clumps of elms and straw-roof huts breathed peace.
The next day, Saturday, September 16, ten days into Stefan’s journey, the soldiers, having finished their preparations for battle, relaxed within the seduction of their surroundings’ dreamy spell.
At midnight, when the stars were their brightest and the air its coolest, a bugle alarm announced through camp an impending attack. Every soldier took his post. At an emergency briefing, the commanding captain informed Stefan and other officers, “A new war has begun. Stalin’s army is attacking Poland from the east. We’ll fight with all we have,” the captain affirmed. “We might detain them even though we’ll be battling a Goliath.”
Stefan listened calmly to the news. An ancestral patriotic instinct empowered him with uncommon strength. He rose above himself, approached the trenches, and paced among his soldiers.
“Men of arms,” he said, “we’ve waited for this moment for many days. Now we have the chance to defend our land.” A murmur spread through the troops.
He lifted his voice: “With Poland in our hearts we’ll fight until death. The shocking reality is that viciously the East and the West are both attacking our country! On our way, we’ve already witnessed our people massacred mercilessly by Hitler’s forces on our soil.” Stefan placed his right hand on his pistol and continued, “Tonight or early tomorrow we’ll confront not the Germans but the Soviet Red Army. They’re crossing our frontier now, invading our land.” He tried but couldn’t keep his voice from trembling. “Now it’s our turn to carry our forefathers’ torch. This time against Stalin, an assassin who during this decade has murdered hundreds of thousands of his own Russian generals and innocent civilians. He won’t spare us, or our loved ones back home.”
“Are you ready, boys?” Stefan made eye contact with as many soldiers as he could. Clenched teeth was their reply.
Six hundred armed men kept watch throughout the night, their twelve mortars ready, their muscles flexed to steel. They waited anxiously, prepared to stop the invaders, but the Soviets never came.
Stefan’s thoughts were scattered. Since the beginning of time, Poland had faced the same two powerful enemies—the governments of Germany and Russia, its closest neighbors, who craved to enslave his people. He wouldn’t let them. He vowed to fight to win or die.
In the dawn of Sunday, September 17, instead of the anticipated Soviet infantry, endless columns of Soviet armored tanks mounted the horizon, their black silhouettes sharp against the bald outburst of the emerging daystar.
With good visibility, Stefan ordered his soldiers to shoot until they ran out of bullets. A diabolical medley of mortar and other blasts ensued. The Soviets responded with sporadic shelling as if saving their ammunition for larger confrontations.
After hours of exchanged fire the Poles were draining their projectile reserves, having incapacitated only a few enemy tanks. Stefan phoned the colonel at Zbaraz army headquarters and requested backup.
“My dear Lieutenant,” the colonel said with icy calm, “I can’t send reinforcements of any sort. Our defensive front lines are all out of ammunition. Leave your trenches and weapons and proceed on foot down to Zbaraz—”
An explosion silenced the colonel’s voice.
Out of rounds, with the Soviet tanks still distant and advancing steadily from right to left, Stefan and the other officers ordered their men to quickly tear off and bury their epaulets, ribbons, medals, documents, and dog tags. Stefan did the same with his.
Unarmed and anonymous, the Polish soldiers emerged from their trenches and walked the slow march of defeat with the enemy’s eyes on them. Within minutes Soviet riflemen sprang from the bushes, surrounded the Poles at gunpoint, and herded them into a pasture. They ordered their captives to line up in rows of fifty—twelve rows in all. They yelled, “Stalin is your God now!” and clawed off crosses and religious medallions from the soldiers’ necks, spit on them, and crushed them in the dirt with the toes of their boots. Poles who dared fight back were shot.
“All officers, step out of your row and stand to the right of your formation,” one Soviet shouted in broken Polish.
Stefan didn’t move. But several men followed orders and walked outside the lines. Why had they stepped out? Without epaulets and any evidence of their rank, why would they be so naïve?
“The rest of you I will count ten at a time,” the Russian continued. “The first of each ten, take three steps to the front.”
Stefan was number three of the first group of ten in his row. The Soviets ordered all the soldiers who had stepped to the side or to the front to march to the middle of the pasture and form a new line. Seventy souls. Suspecting their fate, Stefan trembled, sweat careened from his forehead, and his vision clouded.
An equal number of Soviets lined up behind the singled-out soldiers. An order echoed in the quiet of the green meadow. Seventy rifles were shouldered, pointed at the Poles’ heads, and fired once point-blank.
Seventy bodies fell to the field of wildflowers in front of the Polish POWs. Stefan covered his eyes, his body convulsing. Moans and weeping swept through the formations followed by silence.
“This is to teach you that you shouldn’t fight us. Ever!” hollered a Soviet officer with a hoarse voice. He swore, his jugulars bulging. “You should have surrendered as soon as you saw us. We were coming as your friends.”
Leaving the dead where they fell, some bodies still jerking in a pool of blood, the Soviets ordered the stoned POWs to march to Zbaraz’s railroad station in formations of one hundred, four in a row.
The contorted faces and bowed heads of Stefan’s men made him want to kill. To scream. Demand justice for senseless slaughter. Now! His men had the sacred duty, the right, to defend their country and its frontiers—and not be killed defenseless. In cold blood.
Stefan longed to speak to his men, to his boys, most no older than twenty, and tell them it wasn’t the end as long as they were alive. But he had to remain silent, or he would reveal his rank and deprive them of leadership.
Their egos crushed, their faith blasphemed, and their hopes of winning destroyed, the prisoners marched herded by a swarm of armed Soviets. They cried and swore. A few prayed aloud. Maybe if Stefan hadn’t ordered his company to shoot at the tanks? Maybe if, against his superior officer’s orders, he had commanded them to surrender from the beginning? Maybe then they would all be alive? Maybe then his conscience wouldn’t be in agony as he marched shoulder to shoulder with those who had placed their absolute trust in him.
They marched an hour to the Zbaraz rail station and waited to board a cargo train.
I will write about Stefan’s (following) deportation to a camp in the Gulag and his two-year martyrdom in my next story.
Neither my dad nor I have blamed the Russian people for these or other atrocities—soldiers have to follow orders, or they commit treason. Russian citizens have been victims of the Czars and totalitarian regimes for centuries!
Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II : Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows.
A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.
We normally publish OLLI Connects on Monday, but this story was timely enough and relevant enough to merit a “special edition” publication today. –Editor