Syberiada Polska begins as it ends, in the idyllic rural town of Podola in “Czerwony Jar” in Eastern Poland. Staszek Dolin, the teenage protagonist, is shown running and jumping off a rickety old pier into a lake. His Jewish childhood sweetheart hesitates for a moment before jumping in after him. They immerse themselves in the water, only to re-emerge a moment later to military planes flying dangerously low over them. It is September 1st 1939.
Back at the house, Staszek's mother Antonina and Jan Dolin are enjoying an intimate moment over a bowl of shaving cream, when they too, notice the commotion these foreign planes are causing. Directed by Janusz Zaorski, and based on the book of the same name by Zbigniew Domino (who was also sent to Siberia with his family from his native Rzeszów), the film is as long as it is melodramatic.
Several months later, in the middle of a night in February 1940, and bearing an eerie parallelism to earlier historical events such as in the fictitious village of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof, the residents of Podola are expelled from their homes and forced onto a cattle car bound for Siberia. In transit, the unfortunate passengers appeal many times to God for mercy; most cross themselves, especially when the door opens accidentally half-way through the journey to a vision of a church. Notably, the camera pauses on a Jewish man, huddling under his tallit (a religious prayer shawl), rocking back and forth praying in Hebrew.
Scenes in the camps, however, show as many moments of humanity as they do despair: unlikely friendships, alliances, and unions are formed; Irena, a voluptuous blonde Polish woman charms one of the commanding officers into bed in return for increased food rations and better care for her children and fellow inmates; a Ukrainian former soldier receives help from Staszek Dolin in writing a love letter to his Polish girlfriend; a Siberian native saves Staszek’s father Jan from freezing in the snow; Liubka, the nurse who looks after Staszek’s dying mother, giddily accepts a precious Polish handbag as a token of his appreciation, foreshadowing a budding romance between the two. Later, we find out how selfless Liubka is in sacrificing her future with Staszek in order to ensure that a mother gets back to Poland with her child.
Later on in the film, Staszek’s Jewish childhood sweetheart is arrested for helping to teach poetry and geography in Polish to the children of the camp, from the only book in her possession. Afterwards, she is asked to state her name and nationality. Defiantly, she responds in Polish that she is a “żydówka”. In Polish, this word would normally describe a person's Jewish identity, but in Russian, it is a rather derogatory term. The officer corrects her saying she was a “yevreyska” or a “Hebrew” in its literal translation. At first glance, it might seem that he is correcting her linguistically, although he could also be seen to be taking away her right to define herself; an essential part of her dignity and identity. Unsurprisingly, due to the frigid and harsh conditions in the camps, at least ten people are buried under makeshift crosses.
Once the war is over, this unfortunate group is granted “asylum” and permission to return to their home towns. However, this is merely a fluke, as many of the prisoners lack the appropriate “papers” and passports to return. In one mind-boggling instance, one woman is denied the possibility to return to Poland together with her child as the child’s father is a Russian officer, and thus “belongs” to Russia, while his mother has to go back to Poland. Liubka, the young nurse who overhears this, sacrifices a possible future with Staszek by fabricating a death certificate for this woman’s boy, who is then later smuggled onto the return train to Poland. It is suggested, however, that Staszek and this woman are to continue their journey as a makeshift family, cleaving onto what little they have left.
The film ends as it began, on an idyllic day in the countryside; but this time with Staszek at home with his new wife and younger brother nearby. Instead of the rumblings of war causing the Dolins to look outwards, it is the prodigal return of Jan Dolin, previously thought to have frozen to death on the front lines. And this is where the drama ends, back in sunny Eastern Poland, with many endings cut short or left ambiguously for the audience to imagine.
Zbigniew Domino, the author of Syberiada Polska, received a lot of media attention leading up to the film’s release. Born in 1929 and still an active member of the Polish Writers Union in Rzeszów, he also was given the “Cross of Siberian Exile” by Alexander Kwasniewski in 2005. Despite his grim early adolescence, his controversial past ranged from his work as an investigator and military prosecutor under Soviet occupation, overseeing the “Katyn-style” executions, to that of a journalist and writer. He was described as an “important part of the Communist regime, armed with a rifle and a WP typewriter”, who worked with the “communists” in the Military Prosecutor's office and had a “dark fascination” with all things Soviet. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, on more than one occasion Domino has refused to discuss his association with Stalinism in the Polish press, although it is clear that his therapy comes through rewriting the sins of the past into a more artistic tale for the big screen.
Maia Lazar is a student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.