Wanda's Reviews > The Ice Road: An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom

The Ice Road by Stefan Waydenfeld
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Jul 09, 2010

it was amazing
Read from July 26 to August 01, 2010

The Ice Road is a tour de force that takes the reader into a history that is not well known in the U.S. It is the first person account of Stefan Waydenfeld, a Pole, whose family (the Wajdenfelds) is deported to the Soviet Union, simply because they were Poles, educated and hence in need of Soviet re-education. It takes place from the first days of the Nazi invasion of Poland, through the family's deportation to the steppes of Soviet central Asia, through their final journey to join with thousand of others in Iran (Persia) and General Wadyslaw Anders' army. Stefan later fought with the Polish army at Monte Cassino. Stefan’s family was part of the Polish intelligentsia; his mother was a bacteriologist and his father was a physician and because they found themselves on the east side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line they managed to escape the Scylla of the Nazis but not the Charybdis of Uncle Joe and his NKVD. In one sense he and his family were very fortunate to be “only” deported as Dr. Wajdenfeld, a Polish army reserve officer, could well have found himself a victim of the Katyn atrocities. Of course, this is not to diminish the suffering that the Wajdenfeld family experienced and the fact that at any time they could have died as did thousands of other Poles, including my own grandparents.
I found myself thinking throughout this tale about what manner of resilience characterized this family, that they survived and that Stefan went on to realize his dream of becoming a physician after the war. Perhaps it was a collective intelligence that lifted them repeatedly out of the well of despair into which our Soviet allies were forever dunking them (an apt metaphor considering a vignette during which Stefan decides to take a dive into a subarctic river, and is nearly paralyzed by its iciness). Perhaps it was the bond of family, lack of rancor, and the power of tenacity and perseverance to overcome whatever challenges a person faces. Perhaps it was the fact that no matter how horrible, enraging and frustrating their situation, Stefan was able to find within it some morsel of wonder and life lessons from which he could learn.
The writing style is fluent, spare and articulate. Waydenfeld’s story unfolds with a pure voice; no judgment or bitterness clouds his telling of the journey into hell and back. It's amazing how little self-pity there is in these pages. The few flashes of strong affect that we see is when the family is denied their Polish nationality because they do not have a “traditional” Polish surname. The Wajdenfeld family were assimilated Jews and considered themselves Poles, yet the documents reproduced in the book which were issued by the Soviets repeatedly have the family’s nationality recorded as Jewish. The fact that Jewish is not a nationality speaks to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism and the less than subtle attempts at destruction of Jews by declaring them repeatedly as “the other” when outright slaughtering them was not an option.
Waydenfeld never is anything but perfectly honest. In the early part of his narrative, he talks frankly about the intense suffering of ethnic Poles under the Nazis, a fact that has been under-recognized in many narratives of World War II. As the child of families that suffered both at the hand of the Nazis and the Soviets, I appreciated his calling attention to their suffering and the best that it brought out in the tenacious Poles. I also appreciated the acknowledgement of the betrayal of Poland and Eastern Europe by their “allies” at Iran and Yalta. To paraphrase one of the participants, these events should forever live in infamy. Too often they are portrayed not as a betrayal, but as realpolitik and the unavoidable cost of war.
Waydenfeld sprinkles his narrative with slices of humor, which relieves any pall of grayness that might overwhelm his story. This description of the linguistically gifted Andropova’s “virtuoso performance” when cursing out the NKVD colonel was a delight that made me laugh aloud:
“First, she told the colonel what she thought about him in general and about the intimate parts of his anatomy in particular. My knowledge of Russian proved inadequate to comprehend it all. Then she invoked his parents, his grandparents and the generations preceding them, their anatomy and their physiology, with special attention to their body prominences and orifices, not to mention their involvement with other zoological species.”
How wonderful is that?!
Waydenfeld finds humanity among the “enemy” and treachery among “friends” but rather than enmity toward the latter, his attitude is always one of sorrow that these comrades saw fit to betray their fellow humans. Indeed the entire book is infused with a kind of ineffable sadness about war in general and its inhumane sequelae in particular.
People may read this and see one glaring weakness, but that weakness is also its greatest strength. It is that Waydenfeld avoids harsh judgments. Time and again I would read passages that made me want to throttle the obtuse or cruel perpetrator of some behavior. I wanted Stefan to tear into them for their inhumanity. But he doesn’t, and this, of course leaves readers free to form their own judgments without being told what to think. Waydenfeld has enough respect for his readers to expect that they will draw their own conclusions. This respect makes for a stronger book than if he had beat his readers over the head with snide asides about the workers’ paradise or such that I have read in the memoirs of others.
During Stefan’s description of medicine I was reminded a bit of Abraham Verghese’s (see Cutting for Stone) love of his chosen profession. Both of them have a deep feeling for the power of healing and are unashamed to tell us what a gift it is that they have been privileged to be given. The fact that Stefan overcame many obstacles (language, logistics, temporal, bureaucratic) to follow in his father’s footsteps and finish medical school is inspiring.
An old truism has to do with the idea that what does not kill you makes you stronger. This maxim is exemplified in this story of coming of age and survival despite all odds. Stefan and his family often went for days without proper nourishment, clothing, and shelter. They became nomads and rootless but still formed enduring friendships. They relied on one another, and made plans for the future. This book is a beautifully written and unforgettable testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
I recommend this without reservation.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Merry (new)

Merry Bravo Wanda, sounds like an good education. I will check it out.


Judi I am listening to the audiobook version and I am about 2/3 through. It is a fascinating account of a part of history I am not familiar with. Well written and narrated, hard to stop listening.


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