When God Looked the Other Way


"In this finely wrought memoir of loss and survival, Adamczyk tells his family story against the backdrop of a little known chapter of WWII—the forced exile of thousands of Poles by the Soviet government in the opening weeks of the war."—Publishers Weekly

"Adamczyk recounts the story of his own wartime childhood with exemplary precision and immense emotional sensitivity, presenting the ordeal of one family with the clarity and insight of a skilled novelist.…I have read many descriptions of the Siberian odyssey and of other forgotten wartime episodes. But none of them is more informative, more moving, or more beautifully written than When God Looked the Other Way."—from the Foreword by Norman Davies

"Adamczyk's story is one of the most remarkable World War II sagas I have ever read. It is history with a human face."—Arnold Beichman, Washington Times

An excerpt from
When God Looked the Other Way
An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption
Wesley Adamczyk

From Chapter 3
A Knock on the Door

…The atmosphere in and around our home began to change, becoming more gloomy and secretive. Army officers came to our apartment to speak with Father privately, and young people came to our door to collect empty cans and other metallic objects we no longer needed. My parents and nanny took to speaking in whispers when I was around and refused to explain why. Even Zosia began acting toward me the way Mother did, telling me not to be concerned and abruptly changing the subject.

Now and then I overheard my parents talking about imminent war with Germany. The uncertainty of what life would be like frightened me. Would the war last only one day, like the battles of old my father told me about? I wanted to know, but nobody would give me an answer.

On the first day of September 1939, the Germans attacked Poland across its western border. I did not understand what being at war meant, so I asked Mother. She only held me close and said she would explain some other time. Later that day, I overheard Father say to her, "Do not tell the children yet. Do not tell them what might happen."

Wesley Adamczyk
Family members and neighbors sitting on the porch of our home in Sarny, Poland, 1935. In the top row, second from left, I am on my nanny's lap, and my mother is on my left. My brother, Jurek, is in the row below, at far right, and my sister, Zosia, is in the bottom row, fourth from left.
That evening I overheard Father expressing his fear that the German attack might spread into a wider war. He explained that the Soviets could easily take advantage of this situation to also attack Poland in an attempt to get back the land Poland had recovered after the victory over the Bolsheviks in 1920. If that happened, Poles could be in grave danger from local Belorussians and Ukrainians, whose relationship with the Poles was uneasy at best. For the first time in my life, I had the scary feeling that all the good things I took for granted—my family, my home—could be lost.

Several days after the German invasion, this feeling intensified as our nanny left our home in Luck, advised by Father to stay with her relatives in Warsaw. Then Mother told us that our father, a captain in the Polish Army, would be leaving us to join the troops. That evening, a short time after my parents told me to go to bed, papa came to my room.

"Dear Wiesiu, I must say good-bye to you." He picked me up and kissed me. "Take care of your mother," he said. Overcome with fear, I felt that our life would never be the same again. Somehow I knew that I would never forget the moment when my papa kissed me, and I hoped it would not be for the last time. Even today, when I recall that moment, I am filled with a boyish wish that I could have stopped the clock and given Father another chance at life.

After he left, our life began to unravel. The Germans attacked with warplanes. Sirens blared, bombs fell, and we ran and hid in previously dug trenches by the river Styr. During the bombing I could taste the dirt that fell on us while Mother held my head close to her body to protect me. For the first time, I feared for my life and the lives of my family. Although the German Army did not advance as far as Luck, the bombing raids continued, and Mother decided we should return to our country home in Sarny, which was smaller and less likely to be a target.

On September 17, however, a second horror began. The Soviets, despite having signed a treaty of nonaggression with Poland and without declaring war, entered from the east on the pretext of helping the Poles fight the Germans. With the Germans winning and occupying the country in the west, chaos had ensued, and the Soviet double-cross worked. Small Polish Army units, composed mainly of reservists, that were scattered along the eastern border were surrounded by massive Red Army forces and were forced to lay down their arms or die. In the confusion some furious fighting broke out, but it was too little too late. Within a very short time, the Soviets took about two hundred thousand Polish soldiers prisoner.

Officers, including my father, were separated from the others. For months we knew nothing of what happened to him. Some time later we started receiving letters from him and learned of his capture. He had been taken to the Starobelsk prison in the Soviet Union along with other officers.

Just as the Gestapo followed in the wake of the advancing German Army, the Soviet secret police followed the Soviet troops and began to plunder villages and arrest, torture, and murder civilians. Soon after entering Poland the Soviet story changed from "We are protecting you from the Germans" to "We have come to liberate the workers from the Polish bourgeois oppressors." The Soviets also announced that the liberated lands would be annexed to the Soviet Union to satisfy "the will of the people." Suddenly the battle's theme changed from defending Polish territories from the Germans to class warfare. The intent now became clear: it was to take over Poland permanently and to spread the Communist revolution westward, something the Bolsheviks had failed to do twenty years earlier.

The Soviet secret police, or NKVD, was equivalent to the Gestapo. In the beginning the NKVD sought out professionals and army officers and then their families. Because our father was a banker and an army officer, we were prime targets for arrest. I sensed how my mother's fear for our safety intensified, which made me more afraid. I had the horrible feeling of being hunted. I could not, however, understand why I was anybody's quarry, nor could I understand why people would want to kill other people.

In February 1940, shortly after my seventh birthday, word began to spread that the Soviets were forcibly deporting Poles to the Soviet Union, particularly those whom they viewed as a threat to the Communist takeover. The time soon came when persons with any kind of material possessions, including peasants who owned small plots of land, were targeted as well. All were considered members of the bourgeoisie and thus "enemies of the people" who were prime subjects for deportation.

Our family's bank account was seized for the benefit of the Soviet treasury. Firearms, if found, were confiscated, too. Late one night, Jurek gathered all of Father's guns, oiled them, wrapped them in rubber sheets, and placed them and some jewelry in a steel box, which he buried among the fruit trees in our orchard. At that point I realized that we would soon be leaving our home behind and had to prepare for that day. Mother busied herself designing ways to hide our jewelry from the invaders. Since our return to Sarny, she had been making dried bread. "It is for emergencies," she would say. But I watched her insert into the dough many pieces of jewelry including her grandmother's gold earrings, a gold crucifix, and gold bracelets. After the bread had baked, I helped her and Zosia cut it into large pieces. Later the bread was dried in the oven and packed into large potato sacks. How Mother identified the pieces with jewelry hidden inside, I have never learned. Mother and Zosia sewed other small pieces of jewelry and gold coins inside hems of dresses.

We had heard that watches and clocks were of great value in the Soviet Union and had observed for ourselves that the Soviet soldiers walking the streets would ostentatiously wear many watches on each arm, some proudly displaying many alarm clocks attached to their belts. We gathered together all the family's watches, even those that didn't run, and I watched as Mother and my sister spent long hours sewing them into the hems of winter coats.


On the night of May 14, 1940, we went to sleep anticipating the next day's celebration of Zosia's name day. In the middle of the night, however, we were awakened by heavy pounding on the front and back doors. Jurek, Zosia, and I jumped out of our beds to see what the commotion was about. It was 2:00 a.m. We came out of our rooms to see Mother standing in the middle of our guestroom, trembling. Her face was ashen, her black hair tumbling in disarray over her white nightgown. Her feet were bare and her hands were clasped together as though in prayer. She stood frozen, looking toward us as we ran up to her. I had never seen Mother like this before. Her usual smile was gone, her eyes were distant and filled with fear, and her lips were open as if she were trying to tell us something.

"Who is it, Mother?" Jurek whispered.

"Dear Lord! The Russians have come to get us!"

In haste, she motioned us closer and embraced us.

"Listen carefully, children, to what I am going to tell you. No matter what happens, God will be with you. Whatever they do, do not talk back. Keep your composure because they can kill us all. Remember, no matter what they ask, you know nothing."

The pounding on the door became louder, and we heard male voices shouting something in a language I did not understand. As we started toward the door its latch shattered and it swung open; soldiers rushed in with rifles and fixed bayonets extended before them. The next thing I knew, Jurek was lying on the floor bleeding from his face, Mother bending over to help him. The first soldier who came in pushed her away toward the wall with his rifle, screaming at her not to touch Jurek. Zosia was crying. I was petrified, thinking that they would kill us. Nobody had ever treated my mother or my brother so terribly. When gentlemen guests had come to our house, they had always kissed her hand and bowed with respect. Now this brute had shoved her against the wall with a rifle. The soldiers charged into our home with all the manners of the wild boars that Father used to shoot in the forest. If only Jurek had not buried all the guns in the orchard, I thought, maybe I would shoot them all the same way.

A half-dozen soldiers rushed through the rooms, knocking down lamps, crystal vases and decanters, paintings, and furniture while two soldiers with fixed bayonets stood guard over us. They all looked alike—short and stocky with round faces, drab-looking green uniforms, and hats adorned with red stars. I looked into their blank eyes and expressionless faces. I had never seen such people before. It took the invaders fifteen minutes to ransack our house. Then they left through the front door, leaving us huddled together in the middle of the room. A minute later, two of them returned with an officer, a captain of the Soviet secret police. He was dressed in a bluish-gray uniform with red stripes running down his trouser legs and a round hat with a blue band around it and a red star in the middle. He looked directly at Mother and said something in Russian.

When Mother replied that she did not understand, he switched to broken Polish.

"Is your name Anna Adamczykova?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered.

"Your husband is Jan Adamczyk, captain in the Polish Army?"


"You have three children: Jerzy, age seventeen; Zofia, age thirteen; Wieslaw, age seven?"


"You are all under arrest."

"But this must be some mistake," Mother protested. "We have done nothing wrong."

"You are Polish elite," he said scornfully. "You are Polish lords and masters. You are enemies of the people."

"We have no enemies," Mother replied.

She was right. How could she, my brother, sister, and I be enemies of the people? I was getting angry. Everybody knew we had nothing but friends and I wanted to tell the man that, but I remembered what Mother had said about keeping quiet.

The NKVD captain ignored her, and we stood quietly as he issued orders. He allowed us one hour to pack our things. We could take anything with us except guns, jewelry, money, and books.

Mother asked where he was taking us.

"To our great country," he answered.

We had all heard the stories of how the Soviets were deporting innocent Polish people, killing many in the process, stealing money and jewelry, and confiscating their possessions. We had a surprise for this Russian, however, because there were no guns or jewels for them to find. But still we had only one hour to pack, to choose what we valued most and leave everything else behind. Mother told us to collect our things and not to waste any time in the process. We rushed to our bedrooms and began to gather underwear, summer and winter clothes, boots, heavy scarves and hats, mittens, and shoes, which Mother packed into suitcases and bundles made from bed sheets.

On the third or fourth trip to my bedroom, I began to gather my toys and fairy tale books, which I loved so much. Before I could take them to where Mother was packing, the NKVD captain with the red star on his hat blocked my way and barked, "Where are you going with all of this, little Polish prince?"

"These are my toys and books," I answered. "I am taking them with me."

"No!" He turned to Mother and ordered her to tell me not to pack such things. There was no need for them where we were going. "Russia is a great country," he explained. "In Russia, we have everything. He will read Russian books."

He paused for a second, his eyes bulging with anger. Then he roared, "Everything! Everything! Even matches, we have in our great country."

I replied that I wasn't interested in matches; I only wanted my toys and books.

"No!" the man bellowed.

Jurek ran up to me, clearly shaken, and grabbed me by the arm to drag me back to my bedroom. He pushed me toward my bed.

"Sit here, brother, and listen. Don't you remember what Mother said? You must be quiet or you will get us all in big trouble."

I sat down, frustrated and angry. All I wanted to take with me was my toys and books, but the man with the red star kept bellowing, No! No! No! Why was he so angry? Why would an adult talk about having matches in his "great country"? We had plenty of matches in our home. So what? I did not understand what was happening. The longer I sat, the more distraught I became. If I could not have my toys and books, then maybe all of us should escape. Maybe we could all sneak one by one through a back window of the house into the orchard and then into the forest. After a while, seeing that no one watching me, I went on a scouting mission from window to window in the back of the house. To my amazement, outside each of them I saw one or two soldiers with rifles with fixed bayonets looking straight at me. Each one wore a hat with a red star in the front, the same red star worn by the soldiers who had burst into the house. I looked at them, but they just stared back at me without moving. They stood there like the tree trunks in our orchard. Their round faces were all the same, no smile and no expression at all.

As I moved from window to window, even the blank faces of the soldiers seemed to disappear. I could no longer distinguish people but saw only red stars and bayonets reflecting the dim moonlight. There was no escaping. If only Father were here, I kept thinking, he would shoot them all just as he did when they attacked Poland earlier. If only Jurek hadn't buried the guns.

Someone put an arm around me. Startled, I turned. "Come, Wiesiu," Zosia whispered in my ear, "you cannot look out the windows any more. We have to leave in a few minutes."

"But I do not want to go. How is our father ever going to find us? Who is going to take care of our house and feed my deer, the chickens, the ducks, and the geese?"

"We will talk about it later," she said.

But we never did.

While we were packing, the soldiers made a list of our household possessions that included furniture, tools, and belongings we were not taking. Shortly before it was time to leave, the NKVD captain shoved it at Mother and demanded that she sign it. When Mother asked why, the officer replied that it was necessary to show that he and his soldiers did not steal anything. Mother looked perplexed. "I do not understand," she said. "You seized our money from the bank. Now you are taking our house and our furnishings, and you want me to sign papers that nothing was stolen? I do not understand what is happening. It is you who should be signing the inventory list for me."

Whether Mother said this in earnest or whether she could no longer contain her indignation at what was happening to us, I will never know. It was in any case a very dangerous thing to say. Blood rushed to the captain's face, his eyes bulged, and foam appeared at the corners of his mouth. He looked like a possessed man just escaped from an asylum.

"Citizen Adamczykova!" he screamed. "I could send you to Siberia to do hard labor for disobeying a representative of the people of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics!"

Mother paled and started sobbing. Two Soviet soldiers stood next to her armed with their rifles, motionless, their faces without feeling.

"You would never see your children again!" the tyrant carried on, pointing at my brother and sister and me.

In all my seven years of life, I had never heard anybody scream like this or act so boorishly, particularly in front of a woman and children. So this is a Soviet, I thought to myself; this is what they're like. Scared for Mother's life, the three of us surrounded her, pleading with her to sign. She looked at each of us with deep sadness and barely whispered, "Were it not for you children, I would never sign this paper." She took the pen and, with trembling hands, signed her name.

Still in a rage, the captain went into Father's study and brought out the framed picture of him in full military uniform, his saber at his side. He raised it above his head, smashed it on the floor in front of us, and stomped on it, raving in Russian as he did. Then he turned back to us and hissed, "This is what the Soviet liberators will do with all you Polish lords and masters." With that he began screaming incomprehensible commands to his soldiers. As if prodded by a hot iron, they rushed to carry the books from Father's study, my bedroom, and the rest of the house, searching all its corners. They grabbed all our family pictures and paintings of Polish generals and famous battles and carried them into the back yard. A short time later, I saw the glare of flames lighting the back windows of our house.

Wesley Adamczyk
Map of Poland, August 1939. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Line shows the partition of Poland secretly agreed to by the Germans and the Soviets.
Despite Zosia's earlier gentle warning, I went closer to the windows to see what was happening. Our books and pictures had been piled high and were being engulfed by fire. All the books full of enchanting stories that my family used to read to me, all the history books that taught me the greatness of Poland—they were shriveling into ash. Why were the Soviets doing this to us? Why did they hate us so much? Anger and frustration overtook me. Recalling a phrase used by my parents, I whispered to Jurek, "These Soviet soldiers behave like uncouth boors." He grabbed me firmly by my hand and took me back to my room. There he said, "Wiesiu, I am telling you for the last time to be quiet. If you love your mother, you will not say another word this night."

"Your hour is up," announced the captain. "Take your belongings and put them on the truck outside."

Our suitcases, bundles, and three sacks of dried bread were lying in the middle of our front room. We put on extra sweaters, coats, and winter shoes so we would not have to carry them. Then we took as much as we could and walked out of our house for the last time. Jurek, visibly shaken, tried to maintain his composure, but Mother, Zosia, and I wept as we entered the yard, our tears running faster when we saw Soviet soldiers everywhere. They loaded us into an army truck with four soldiers to guard us.

Why so many? I wondered. But I could not ask Mother, because I had been told not to talk.

As the truck pulled away, I looked at our home for the last time. Though its outline faded into the darkness of the night, I could still plainly see the red stars and the bayonets reflecting the moonlight.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 23-31 of When God Looked the Other Way: An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption by Wesley Adamczyk, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Wesley Adamczyk
When God Looked the Other Way: An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption
Foreword by Norman Davies
©2004, 282 pages, 21 halftones, 3 maps
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 0-226-00443-0
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 0-226-00444-9

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for When God Looked the Other Way.

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