Foreword by Neal Ascherson
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 in1940. 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.
A R T S
written by Martin Stepek
I have always written, since I was a small boy in the1960s, but I’ve never been interested in having any of my work published, except for on the very rare occasion when I would read of a competition and wonder what they’d think of my poems. Then in 2001 and later in 2006 two key events occurred; the former date led me indirectly to write the pieces which form this poetry
cycle, and the latter led me to realise that there was a purpose, very different from egoism, to sharing my work.
My father, Jan Stepek, had three strokes in succession in 2001-2. I thought he wouldn’t survive but should have known better. He is a fighter, a battler in everything he does. Until that time I hadn’t given any thought to my father’s early life in Poland. I knew he had been taken from Poland to Siberia by Stalin’s Red Army, that his mother and two younger sisters were taken with him, and that his mother died and was buried in Teheran. My vague understanding was that she’d died of kidney failure. I had no knowledge of the underlying political and historical causes of such a traumatic experience. I knew Dad had served in the Polish Navy during the Second World War, so his deportation and subsequent escape from the gulag must have been some time between 1939 and 1945. That’s all I knew, and frankly I didn’t really care to know anything else. After all, in 2001 I was forty-two years old, our family business was in trouble, and I was a senior director. I was married with two young children, and had a plethora of personal interests of my own. In essence, I neglected my parents. It was the usual mistake we can all make – not seeing what matters until too late.
In that sense my father’s misfortune was a blessing in disguise for me. It jolted me out of my self-absorbed state of mind. I realised how much I loved my father and I felt suddenly a deep need to know what had happened to him before he came to Scotland. And I needed to know urgently because if he’d had three strokes in a row, a future one was likely and might finish him off. Therefore, when he had recovered sufficiently I went to him and asked him if I could formally interview him, and Mum, so that I could finally understand his pre-Scotland life story. He consented and we started a series of interviews which I supplemented with interviews of my two aunts, Danka, and more recently, Zosia. I pored through Polish history books of the era, and started exploring the internet for background and other information.
My lifelong personal impulse to write poems erupted as I talked to my father and aunts. Unbidden, deep personal emotional reflections on their suffering arose and formed into words, lines of words, and poem after poem. It was the closest I have ever come to feeling that I was truly just an inert conduit of messages and meanings. My role was just to move my hand over the
laptop and wait till no more words came.