Residents of Canada and the United States may not realize just how fortunate they are from a geographic standpoint. With just the one border and isolated by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a bulwark exists against being the center of armed conflict.
Other nations are not so lucky, Those in Central Europe, for example, have had armies organized by tribes, monarchies and regimes march across them many times. This also allows them to be put in a vise, much like Poland was when Germany and the Soviet Union divided it with invasions in September 1939.
Yet amidst the hardship and destruction, there are stories of luck. Although it may not seem like it on the surface, Stefan Waydenfeld's memoir about being forced into frozen labor camps during World War II tells a story that, in the end, is one of good fortune. In fact, The Ice Road: An Epic Journey from the Stalinist Labor Camps to Freedom shows just how capricious events can be.
Waydenfeld was a teenager in Otwock, Poland, a city not far from Warsaw, as the European continent moved toward the outbreak of World War II. The son of a medical doctor and a medical bacteriologist, Waydenfeld enjoyed the benefits and opportunities afforded by what he terms an "idyllic" life. That would end rather abruptly when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and become even worse when the Soviet Union invaded the country from the east 16 days later. Waydenfeld's father, who had served as a medical officer in the Polish Army, was mobilized before the German invasion. Five days after the German invasion, Waydenfeld, then 14, set off on foot with friends toward a mustering point to the east to join the Army. He and his friends wouldn't join the Army on their trip — and he would not see his home for another eight years.
Through a fortunate turn of events, Waydenfeld's father located him when he took shelter with another family. And, by chance, his mother joined them just as they were going to attempt to return to Otwock to find her. Yet the Waydenfelds faced a dilemma: try to return to the portion of Poland occupied by Germany or stay in what was now the Soviet occupied section. They ending up staying in the Soviet-controlled area. Ultimately, although not technically prisoners, hundreds of Poles were deported in crammed cattle cars to Siberian labor camps in 1940. The Waydenfelds ended up in Kvasha, a camp in far western Siberia with a subarctic climate. "Here you shall live," they were told.