TTU Honors Forum on Oct. 4 focuses on Polish poetry from Soviet gulag prisons

In the years 1940-41, close to two million Poles were forcibly deported from eastern Poland to Siberian gulags, Soviet prison camps in which most refugees died of disease, starvation, or exhaustion in subzero temperatures within the first year.

It remains a lesser-known genocide of which the few survivors told little—except in the poetry they wrote in the camps and hid away for years.

Dr. Halina Ablamowicz, TTU Professor of English and Speech Communications, will read from her translations of this poetry on Thursday, October 4, at 6:30 pm in Jere Whitson Hall's Alumni Affairs lobby. She has a special interest in this project: her mother was among those who survived.

Ablamowicz sees the translations as a way of "bring out a very important voice" from the past, revealing a side of history that was suppressed during years of Soviet domination.
"We knew from our own experience that you weren't supposed to talk about it," said Ablamowicz. When Ablamowicz first read the poems of the Polish gulag inmates, she felt moved as both a scholar and a daughter.

The poetry, composed surreptitiously by the prisoners on scraps of paper, began to surface in Poland in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to Ablamowicz, the manuscripts managed to survive underground, being passed from hand to hand over the years. As the stories of survivors emerged in the early 90s, so did the poetry.

"The poems speak directly about the moment of arrest, deportation, and the daily life of the camps," said Ablamowicz. "There were no judicial procedures. The Soviet authorities came at night, arrested families, confiscated their homes, told them to gather their belongings immediately, transported them to the train stations, then packed them into cattle trains" for the three-week trip to the gulags of Siberia.

Most of the victims were educated people, landowners in the occupied eastern Polish territory, who were perceived as a potential threat to the USSR. Ablamowicz's mother and her family were sent to be "re-educated" as workers in the gulags. While she was growing up, Ablamowicz heard her mother refer to this experience only in very guarded terms.

"It was taboo to speak of it," recalled Ablamowicz. The gulags were officially the management agency for the education of workers, "though they were actually a kind of concentration camp" because of the imprisonment of the laborers. Afraid of the repercussions for her family under the Stalinist regime, her mother would speak of her time in Siberia "almost in a different language."

With poet Kevin Christianson, TTU Professor of Creative Writing, she first published translations of the gulag poetry and an article based on her mother's experience, in a 2005 edition of the Sarmatian Review. Now lecturing in Lublin, Poland as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, Christianson polished the poems stylistically after Ablamowicz translated them from her native tongue. Ablamowicz is now completing a book of 24 of these poems and an expanded essay. In the spring, she will travel home to Poland to conclude her research.

Her most fulfilling experiences are the result of public presentations of this work. At an academic conference Louisville last year, audience members' responses were "very different than any others [I have had] at conferences in speech communications. People came up to me and wanted to let me know they didn't know about the deportations."

Even more moving was the response during a 2006 reading she gave in Poland, assisted by her daughter Anna, a Tech student. "People were crying—in part because there was a young person there" who was now participating in the recovery of her heritage. "It made me want to go ahead with this."

The presentation, sponsored by the TTU Honors Program, is the Fall 2007 Honors Forum. The event is free and open to the general public.
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