Thursday, May 3, 2007

Lucia Experiences of motherhood and conservatism [UPDATE 2]

Along the way on my journey to conservatism, there have been a number of historical events and stories of people within those events that have really stuck and helped penetrate the fog of liberalism that I had been sucked in by over the years from my childhood to adulthood.

One such event, the stories of which I had been told from when I was a young child, were my Dad's experiences in the Soviet Union during WW2. However, it wasn't until I had grown older and read more and understood more that my Grandmother dying during the journey out of the Soviet Union gained a real significance to my own motherhood, and thereby took on a whole new meaning.

My Dad's entire family was rounded up at the beginning of WW2 from their home in Poland by the invading Soviet army, and herded into cattle cars for the trip into Siberia from Poland in the middle of winter. Apparently many children died during this trip, as the cattle cars (designed to move cattle) were not heated. Food was limited. The toilet facilities were just a hole in the side of the car. My Dad told me the kids were afraid of falling out. It was a valid fear, as I later read that children did indeed fall out.

Their family survived nearly two years in the work camps (now known as "gulags"). When the amnesty for Polish political prisoners came through after the Soviet Union was betrayed by their ally, Nazi Germany and needed new allies, my Dad's family embarked on the long journey out. It initially involved a long walk (100 miles or so) out to the train station. For some reason, my Grandfather and oldest Uncle went on a separate journey to join up with the Polish army that was gathering under General Anders, leaving my Grandmother to take the rest of the children separately. But rather than taking my Grandmother and family to the Polish army, they were left in the middle of Kazakhstan by the Soviet authorities with only 2 weeks of food and no hope of future survival.

I talked to my Uncle Ted about this two years ago. He filled me in on more of the details. He would have been the oldest of the children that remained with my Grandmother at age 18. My Dad was 14 at the time. When the food ran out, the family tried to beg for food from the Kazaks that lived there. There was very little to scavenge as the area was a desert. Eventually, they all got sick one by one. When the first child died (one of the younger ones), their mother stopped going out to beg for food. My Uncle told me what it had felt like, waiting to die. He had no energy to do anything, so like everyone else just waited for death on the ground.

By the time the burial detail had come with blankets to get them, only 3 of the older children were left alive. The 3 youngest and their mother had died. The older children were so close to death that my Uncle thinks that if the burial detail had waited any longer, they would have been dead. But, as the burial people couldn't bring themselves to leave the children, they instead fed them and helped them out of the country.

My point is this. The older children survived (just barely). The younger children died. The mother died. When I'd first heard this story, the significance of my Grandmother's death didn't register. But then I read more, similar stories. What stood out was that very few mothers made it out of the Soviet Union alive. Now that I am a mother myself, I can understand why.

No mother can stand by and let her children starve. Those mothers would have eaten hardly anything of any food they got, in order to give more to their children. Especially if they were all starving. The older children would have been able to go out and scavenge and maybe keep a little for themselves, so would have had a better chance of survival. The younger children would have been entirely dependent on what their mothers and older siblings gave them. And the mothers would not have been able to bring themselves to eat much when their children were starving.

I have experienced something like this. If we are close to running out of a particular food item that my children like, I will give it to them and eat something else myself. Of course I have the option to eat something else since there is no chance of us starving here in NZ. But I understand the inability to eat something that your child wants. How much stronger would that urge be in a starvation situation had my child not just wanted, but needed whatever food I had?

The intellectual understanding of such a situation and the visceral are two different things. Sure, a person could intellectualise that giving your children most, if not all of your food is counter-productive, because then you do not have the strength to survive and quite probably help with those children's survival in the future. It would have made sense for my Grandmother to keep herself alive at the expense of some of the smaller children - but, understanding why she did not and could not is the test as to whether or not you understand the mind of a mother.

As to how this relates to my journey to conservatism; I don't know if I can articulate it. All I can say is that it does. That blood tie to my own children is so important, important in such a way that all parents experience, that when non-parents imply in smacking debates, for instance, that they care for my own children more than I do and that they are trying to protect children from "violence" (where smacking equals violence), I know they have absolutely no comprehension of how deep a parent's care for the safety and well-being of their own child goes. It goes beyond logic and beyond life itself. And that was demonstrated to me by the story of my Grandmother's death and backed up by my own life experiences.

So that must be part of why I am a conservative now. Idealism can only take a person so far before their own experiences of life (if they are honest with themselves and examine things carefully) show them whether or not there is truth in their beliefs.

Related Links: The General Langfitt story : Polish Refugees Recount Their Experiences of Exile, Dispersal and Resettlement (update 2 21/03/15 with web archive link as original no longer accessible)
Lives Remembered: Polish Poetry in Siberian Exile

UPDATE 1: I've added a picture of my paternal Grandmother

3 comment(s):

Berend de Boer said...

No doubt you will recognise the quote of Blaise Pascal that "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."

That is deeply conservative. Humans are not a calculating machine and any philosophy that proclaims man should live by reason alone hasn't met real life.

I.M Fletcher said...

Wow, such a powerful story; thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...


thanks for sharing that. I have no doubt that JPII's writings on the genius of woman have also prompted much thought on your part:-)

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