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Patch Classic: He Survived a Siberian Gulag As a Boy—Now He Calls Western Springs Home

Just 12 years old when Soviet soldiers swarmed his east Poland town and deported his family to a forced-labor camp, Adam Szymel tells an amazing story of survival.

In this holiday season, it can be both heartwarming to read stories of perseverance and sobering to read stories of hardship. The incredible story of Adam Szymel, which we in December of 2010, fits both of those descriptions.

Sometimes people ask Adam Szymel about his education. He tells them that he has a doctorate in "life experience."

The 82-year-old Western Springs resident has indeed worn many hats in his time: naval quartermaster, Chicago immigrant factory worker, Berywn hardware store owner. But if his life experience were a degree, Szymel did much of his study as a child in the desolate hell of a Soviet logging camp, battling unimaginable odds to preserve what was left of his family.

He was 12. He had just seen his father led away in cuffs by Russian soldiers, and would never see him again. Along with his mother, grandmother, two sisters and a brother, he suddenly found himself aboard a freight train headed to the icy wastelands of Siberia, where they would all face brutal working conditions, disease, freezing and starvation—each more likely than the other to take their lives.

This was the beginning of an incredible odyssey for Adam Szymel—one that would, astonishingly, carry him, his mother and his siblings through the war alive, and eventually bring him and his descendants to the leafy avenues of Western Springs, where he would pen his personal account of what he calls a "blessed" life.

A stolen childhood

"The most important date of my life is Jan. 21, 1928. I don't know if this winter day was sunny or cloudy, warm or cold, snowy or rainy, but the day was very important. That day my eyes first saw the light of day."

Today, Szymel does not wear the scars of his past on his face. He is smiling, gregarious, talkative and a regular presence at exercise classes at the Western Springs Senior Center, where he is always among friends. But there is a dark solemnity in his voice when he speaks of the calamity that befell both his family and his homeland in September of 1939—when Poland was simultaneously invaded by the German Nazi blitzkrieg from the west and the Soviet war machine from the east.

Until then, young Adam had enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the east Polish town of Nowogrodek. His father was a World War I veteran and veterinarian-turned-butcher. Adam was a passionate artist and soccer player, as well as a strong student and an altar boy. Then the Russian tanks swept it all away.

Soviet soldiers marched into Nowogrodek and established a reign of terror, Szymel says. His father was arrested—he had fought the Russians in 1920 under the Polish hero Marshal Pilsudski—and imprisoned, eventually disappearing completely to an unknown fate.

It got worse. By February of 1940, the Soviets decided they needed the Szymels' home—without the remaining Szymels. Adam, his sisters Zosia and Lala, and his little brother Zbyszek, along with their mother and grandmother, were placed on a freight train line headed east, confused and frightened, with no knowledge of what lay ahead.

When Adam writes of this time, he says he wants to remind people that the costs of war go beyond the battlefield.

"I want to open people's eyes, especially young people, to how terrible war can be, and to, especially during the war, who suffers the most," he says. "It's not the soldiers. It's the women, usually, and children, of the countries the war is being fought on."

His father was already a casualty. The trial of the women and children had just begun.

The camp of slow death

"In the forest now and then, especially at night, you could hear what sounded like an explosion. Those were frozen trees splitting open… Hunger overpowered a person's every sense. It is not just a pain in your belly; you think about food, you dream about eating… Those who lost the will to live did not last long."

The word "hell" comes up a lot in regard to the Rzawka logging camp. Traditionally, hell is a place of fire. But as Robert Frost once wrote of the end of the world, "for destruction ice/is also great/and would suffice." Ice—along with hunger and sickness—would take many lives in that camp.

It did not destroy Adam Szymel's, nor those of his surviving family, a miracle Szymel credits to many things, including in large part his strong Catholic faith.

"My faith is has always been important to me, but going through the hell of life in a country that was godless at that time even strengthens [it,]" he says. "We don't have much control of what happens to us. But God does, and that's why I do believe in God, and I felt his presence many, many times when the time was desperate, just to survive."

The camp's horrors could easily have broken a lesser heart. Szymel tells of temperatures that could drop from 20 to 60 degrees below zero, especially at night; in even slightly warmer times, plagues of mosquitoes and beetles would swarm the eyes and mouths of the prisoners. Camp inmates lived on a starvation ration of 300 grams of black bread daily, plus whatever they could forage, and whatever packages the Soviets would let them receive from Poland. More crosses appeared in a makeshift cemetery daily.

Adam's mother was forced to do fiercely hard work carrying water, while he and the camp's other children were schooled in Communist propaganda. (As he writes in his memoir, he didn't buy a word of it—instead singing patriotic Polish songs and attending secret religion classes taught by a nun in the camp, even convincing a friendly Russian mail girl named Lisa to attend.) But when the harsh labor finally left their mother too sick and exhausted to work, the family had even their meager rations stripped as punishment.

Szymel's daughter, Christine Dudzik, a Western Springs resident, knows this story well, and helped him edit his memoir.

"It's one of those things where sometimes you look at life and say, 'Things are hard,'" she says. "But this makes you take it in perspective and say, 'Well, that was hard.' You wish nobody would ever have to go through something like that."

To save his family, in January 1941, Szymel and his little brother (with the permission of the camp commandant) dragged a homemade sledge 17 miles through the harsh, snowy winter to barter their possessions for potatoes and other food. It was a defining moment for the boys—"a deed worthy of grown-ups," Szymel writes.

Steps towards liberty

"I will never forget the first time my outfit was marched to the regimental kitchen for my first meal there. I was given a mess tin full of rice with raisins. I was so hungry I thought I would eat it all, but after a few spoonfuls, I could not eat any more. My stomach had shrunk; there was no room. I just sat there and cried."

The first step on the long road to renewed freedom for the Szymels came from a most unlikely source: Adolf Hitler.

Hitler, of course, didn't care a whit about the Szymels. But when the Nazis invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, Soviet priorities changed. Families were freed from the camp, but with limited options. A long, dangerous quest to escape Soviet Russia into Uzbekistan awaited them, fraught with further danger and death from hunger and typhus.

Szymel says it was the desire for freedom that brought them through the difficult journey once again.

"Human beings cannot live without freedom," he says. "It is like fresh air or a drink of water—freedom is something that people for thousands of years fought and died for. And that is why sometimes, when I talk to young people, I stress: Don't take freedom for granted."

Upon finally reaching Kermine in Uzbekistan in mid-1942, Szymel joined the orchestra of the expatriate Polish army's 22nd regiment. While life remained brutal—typhoid nearly killed his older sister, and dysentery his brother—the family persevered, eventually reaching British soil and true freedom in Persia (Iran).

Six Szymel family members had been shipped to Siberia—six came out alive.

"I consider it a miracle," Adam says.

He returned to school in Palestine, and later began training to join the Polish Merchant Navy, only to sadly watch as his homeland fell behind the Iron Curtain. After a few years sailing in the Middle East on a British vessel, in 1954 he took the next best option—the United States. All the family survivors except his grandmother eventually settled in Chicago.

It turned out to be a phenomenal decision, as the hard-working Szymel quickly rose from a factory worker position to being a manufacturing plant superintendent, and eventually the owner of a Berwyn hardware store. He fell in love with a Polish girl named Wanda; they married and had two children, Christine and Stefan. In 1985, the entire family moved to Western Springs.

"If I could only have words to express how wonderful this country has been to me and my family, and especially the people who made me feel at home," Szymel says. "American people who made me feel part of a community… have been so important to me, and I will keep saying that as long as I live."

Western Springs home and family

"My dearest Wanda made orphans of all of us in August of 2002. God took her from us after seven months of terrible illness. God has blessed us for forty-four years; we were so happy together. Children and grandchildren are good and helpful, but I miss my Wanda."

For Adam, the proudest part of his memoir, which he will pass out on request and consists of about 50 printed pages in a manila folder, is not his words. It's the appendix—a collection of photographs from his life and his that of his family, some salvaged by old family friends from Poland. They are an astonishing documentation.

Photographs are all he has now of his beloved Wanda, who passed in 2002 after 44 years of marriage—photographs and family. Both his children still live in Western Springs, and he has three grandchildren, Greg, Alex and Alyshia, all raised in the village as well. He speaks of their accomplishments with great pride—Alyshia is a preschool teacher; Greg is applying to medical school; and Alex will graduate LTHS this year.

Szymel is friendly with his neighbors, many of whom have read his story, and with his fellow exercisers at the Senior Center. His workout instructor, Karen Magin, says he is a perpetual volunteer for any task.

"He's a person who sees what needs to be done and does it," she says, perhaps the same virtues that helped Szymel survive Siberia. "He's one of the people you can count on."

And he does it all with a smile.

"If he has a joke, he'll tell it," Magin adds. "He'll be serious about his exercise, but he'll make a comment about silly stuff. He feels comfortable and puts everyone else at ease. When he's gone, we really miss him."

"I'm so glad that the experience of my childhood didn't affect my outlook on life," Szymel says. "I know of some people who went through the same hell and became very bitter towards life, towards humanity. In my case, it didn't happen at all. If anything, it enriched it, and opened up my eyes to how beautiful the world is, how wonderful most people are."

These days, when not with friends or family, Szymel spends much of his time reading history in his Old Town North home, where he lives with his son, Stephan, and his cat, Kichea. He is an active member of and an amateur cook and gardener, and enjoys the Discovery and History channels.

"I love living in Western Springs," he says of his home for the past 25 years. "I enjoy the people; I enjoy having conversations; I enjoy trading ideas."

Adam Szymel has no plans to publish his memoir—it's mostly important to him that his friends and family know his story. But he'll happily share a copy with anyone who asks. After all, he's not shy about his life. On the contrary: he's at peace with the way things turned out in the end.

"By God, I lived my life to the fullest," he says. "The experience I had in my life would last for quite a few lifetimes."

Since this story first ran, Adam Szymel has turned 83, and will turn 84 later in January. He is currently visiting Poland for his first Christmas season in his homeland since 1939. He also remains a regular at the Western Springs Senior Center for exercise classes, and his son Stephan is working on compiling Adam’s memoirs and photos in digital form.

Kevin Harris January 02, 2012 at 02:17 PM
What an inspiring story. His story should be required reading for all LTHS students. He is correct that we rarely consider the true impact of war. His was truly a unique generation. I hope he continues to live a long, happy and prosperous life.
Darren McRoy January 03, 2012 at 02:01 AM
Thanks, Kevin. I personally had never known much about the plight of Polish refugees during the war. I'm currently reading a book called "Exorcising Hitler" that actually goes into great detail about them. I highly recommend the book.
Christopher Swider January 04, 2012 at 08:21 PM
For those interested in learning more about this subject, read Wesley Adamczyk's "When God Looked the Other Way," available on Amazon. Or take a look at my documentary film, "Children in Exile." It can be purchased by contacting me at Columbia College (cswider@colum.edu). Chris Swider

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