For There is Hope Paperback – 14 Nov 2012
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He manages to reach through distress and despair to embrace the grandmother he never knew, Janina, who died as she journeyed from Siberia with her son Jan - Martin's father - and daughters Danka and Zosia in search of freedom after being liberated from one of Stalin's Siberian work camps during the Second World War.
The plight of Stalin's deportees is not among the best-known stories of WW2, but thousands of Polish people were victim to his policy of sending so-called political undesirables, trouble-makers and their families to workcamps as slave labour. Martin's grandfather, Stanislaw, was one such because of his opposition to the authorities' anti-semitic and far-right policies.
Many perished in the sub-Arctic conditions, dying of starvation or exhaustion. Janina died of starvation in Teheran, aged 40.
These poems are a vivid retelling of the distress of the Polish deportees and of the impact their treatment has had on subsequent generations.
Reading this collection - presented in English and Polish, side by side - is a truly enriching experience.
The book also features a series of pencil drawings made by an unknown deportee which depict life and the conditions endured by these prisoners of Stalin.
It is not for you if you do not like poetry and it is not for you if you are expecting a conventional biography of the life of Jan Stepek; that is a story for another day.
This is for you if you appreciate the power of poetry to strip emotions down to their raw elements; it is for you if you demand that the history of suffering be told in a way that creates the emotional connection necessary to build the powerful desire to learn the lessons of the past; it is for you if you wish to be moved and shaken into a new understanding of how the pain of the past lives on in the present through the generations.
It is for you if you wish to see the reflection of that suffering through the extraordinary drawings of life in the Siberian camps. I share the same blood line as the author and I am proud to do so.
For those of a certain generation the Stepek's name was famous in West-Central Scotland, it would have been nice to have read his biography rather than a potted family history in the form of a long foreword.
I have to admit that I was disappointed with this book, it lacked real substance and did not tell much of a story, perhaps his biography will come one day but this offering is no more than a bi-lingual poem
The Kindle edition has the English narrative mixed in with the Polish, it would have been far better to have one half in English and one half in Polish rather than a few paragraphs in each language.
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So I was happy to see that Martin finally gathered his poems together in a single bilingual volume, For There is Hope.
Here's a part of the book's Forward written by the great historian and journalist Neal Ascherson. He says it better than I can:
Martin Stepek has written this astonishing poem which is at once a monument, a meditation, a prayer and an epic. It is a memorial or monument, in the first place, to the fate of his Polish family in the 1940s, a fate they shared with hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians deported to the Gulag or the Asian wastes by the Soviet invaders in 1940. It is a meditation on life and death; his grandfather died as a Resistance fighter against the Nazis, while his grandmother survived her escape from the Soviet Union by only a few months. Their children survived the war and settled in Scotland; they used to the full the chance of a long life in a peaceful country, but now they in turn are approaching their end. Martin's father Jan, a leading figure in Scotland's Polish community, died almost as this book was going to press. The memory of what they experienced and survived must not disappear with that generation.
The poem is a prayer, not only for Poland . . . but for all peoples and places in all times which have known displacement and suffering: the Clearances or the agony of Darfur. And it is an epic, the tale of one of history's great wanderings.