Book Review: Christine Alexanian’s ‘War and Pierogi’ Chronicles a Tumultuous Journey

Christine and her mother at a book presentation at Chevy Chase library in Glendale
Christine and her mother at a book presentation at Chevy Chase library in Glendale

Christine and her mother at a book presentation at Chevy Chase library in Glendale

BY CATHERINE YESAYAN

Many years ago when I was attending grade school in Tehran, I had a friend whose mother was Polish. In the course of our friendship I heard stories about how, during World War II, many Polish refugees came to Iran. As a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to the history behind it.

Years later, while taking a writing course in the United States, I met Christine whose mother was also a Polish refugee who had ended up in Iran. During those writing sessions, Christine was working on a memoir about her mother’s exile to Siberia in Soviet Gulags during Stalin’s terror. At the time, as an adult, I was very interested to know about the history of how the Polish refugees had found their way to Iran.

I didn’t continue those writing classes, thus my ties with Christine were cut short. However after publishing her book, “War and Pierogi,” Christine asked me to write a review. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to read the book with a purpose.

The author greets Alexanian’s mother Czecia, the subject of the book

The author greets Alexanian’s mother Czecia, the subject of the book

Christine brings to the page, an invaluable tale of her mother’s experience, a riveting first-hand story which might be one of the darkest chapters of world’s history—unknown to many. In her simple words and a chronological order, Christine tells us about the day-to-day happenings of the hellish labor camps in Siberia, known as Gulags. The characters come to life, almost jumping off the page, creating a dramatic virtual experience for the reader.

Christine’s engaging narrative voice, her command of the English language, the character dialogues, and the ease of expression make the harsh stories surprisingly palatable.

She gives detailed accounts of events, from the moment her mother and others were captured and transported aboard cattle cars to Siberia. She then describes the daily struggle and the physical details of the labor camps: the weather, the food, the clothing, the guards, the sanitary arrangements, as well as the daily work. The free spirit and strong will of her mother is brought to life throughout the narrative, making the book a page turner.

The story begins in September of 1939 in Sokołów Podlaski, in the east of Poland. The 16-year-old Czesia—Christine’s mother—prepares Pierogi (Pirashki, in Russian) with her mother. As they work, they talk about the 200 kilometer road trip Czesia has to walk to reach her aunt’s house in Kolno, in order to help her move back to their town.

Czecia and her family

Czecia and her family

As she arrives to her aunt’s home, the situation of the country had changed overnight. The Soviet Army had occupied the eastern towns of Poland and prevented Czesia, her aunt, and her two cousins to move back to their family home. Instead, they are forced to join the throngs of people sent to Siberia.

During World War II, the Soviets deported more than one million Poles to Siberia. The Polish deportees suffered starvation and sickness, and many perished. Ironically, the Polish people in Poland were unaware of this part of their history because the communist regime had covered their crimes for decades, until Poland became a democratic country in 1989.

Czesia and other prisoners arrived to Siberia in February of 1940 and were officially freed in July 1941. However, they didn’t leave the Soviet Union until April of 1942. Since they were no longer prisoners, the Soviet government didn’t employ or feed them, and they suffered even more than before. As a result, many died of starvation and typhoid.

The reason behind the Polish prisoners being freed was the attack of Hitler on the Soviet Union. At the time, Stalin switched sides and joined the Allied Forces. After negotiations with the British, Stalin agreed to free the Polish military and their immediate families. Only 144,000 refugees were freed and sent to Iran. Later, they were dispersed to different parts of the world.

Christine describes how, after they were freed, the refugees were transported from Siberia first to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, then to Krasnovodsk (present day Türkmenbaşy) in Turkmenistan, then, by boat through the Caspian Sea, to Iran.

The reader learns about the horrible experience of the refugees, who reached the shores of the port city of Pahlavi (present day Anzali) in Iran and stayed in quarantine under the tented camps. Many perished. Christine explains that the Soviet ships were packed with starving Polish refugees, many suffering from typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.

Polish refugees found a safe haven in Iran. The survivors were transported to Tehran, Isfahan, and Mashhad where they were warmly welcomed by both the Iranian government and the people. The refugees who had spent the past few years in inhumane and disease-ridden conditions now had clean beds and plenty of food. Thousands of Poles settled into a new life in Iran, and always showed their gratitude to the Iranian people. Eventually, Christine’s mother, Czesia, met an Armenian man and married. She had a happy life with two girls.

From the time Christine was in her late teens, she knew that she would one day write her mother’s story. When I asked Christine how she could know so many details of their imprisonment, she explained that she had heard a number of stories her entire life. These stories were told either by her mother, or by other Polish friends.

Individually speaking, the most amusing instance in the book was when the kids, through the holes in the cattle cars on the way to Siberia, saw camels. What? Camels in Siberia? Another instance that stuck with me was when Czesia steals a chicken from a nearby farm to make food for her cousins who were near death dying due to starvation.

The 270 pages of the grim account read pretty fast. The book, “War and Pierogi,” keeps Czesia’s experiences and memories alive. It is a great tribute to all Polish prisoners and especially to Christine’s mother. Czesia, who fortunately at her old age of 96, lives in Glendale, California and enjoys her life surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I recommend this book to all, and personally feel so grateful for the privilege to review it.

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