Film documents brutal story of Stalin's atrocities in Poland

Tom Hundley
Filmmaker Chris Swider, whose own father escaped death during the Polish massacre by the Soviets, has a new documentary film, "Children in Exile." Swider is pictured in his editing room in Chicago, Illinois, Thursday, May 22, 2008. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

For 50 years, the word was never spoken, only whispered: Katyn, the forest where in spring 1940, six months after Germany and the Soviet Union secretly agreed to carve up Poland, more than 21,000 Polish military officers, intellectuals, priests, doctors, Boy Scouts and others were murdered by Joseph Stalin's secret police.

This was quickly followed by mass deportations. Between 1.2 million and 1.6 million Poles, many of them women and children - "enemies of the state" - were transported to Siberia in cattle cars. Stalin's plan was to help himself to a large hunk of eastern Poland by exterminating its leadership class and depopulating the territory. Within 18 months 760,000 were dead. About one third of the victims were children.

German troops discovered the mass graves of Katyn in 1943, two years after their invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin immediately blamed the Germans for the atrocities. Roosevelt and Churchill knew better, but unwilling to risk their new alliance with Moscow, they went along with the cover-up.

After the war, textbooks in Poland, vetted by Moscow, sustained the lie. It was not until the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in a terminal state of decrepitude, that the truth began to leach out. Travelers to Poland in those days might have noticed a discreet memorial in a corner of a parish church - a cross, a candle, a simple epitaph: Katyn.

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the truth flooded out, but even today, 68 years after the terrible events, the truth does not sit easily. This was evident last month when several survivors of the deportations gathered at the Gallery Theater in Chicago for the screening of a new documentary by Chris Swider, a filmmaker on the faculty of Columbia College.

Swider's "Children in Exile" is a reflection of the deeply felt emotion unleashed when Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, acknowledged in 1990 his country's role in the Katyn massacres. Scores of public memorials to the victims have sprouted across Poland, including an impressive monument to the victims of the deportations erected in the center of Warsaw.

In 2004, the Russian government agreed to make all documents relating to Katyn available to Polish researchers as soon as they were declassified. The process has been slow, but a number of scholarly works already have been published.

Last year, Andrzej Wajda, Poland's most celebrated film director, released what is arguably his masterpiece, titled "Katyn." For Poles, viewing it has almost become an obligatory act of patriotism and solidarity.

To this growing body of work, Swider has added an important new chapter. "Children in Exile," which made its local debut at the Chicago International Documentary Festival, tells the story of the civilian deportations through the testimony of the survivors. It is a story that has lived within Swider for much of his life, but one that he never expected to tell "because I never thought that communism would end in my lifetime."

Swider's father, a captain in the Polish Army, narrowly escaped death at Katyn. He had been dispatched to a Soviet slave labor camp in Russia's far north a few days before the killings started. Eventually, he was "amnestied" by Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union; he ended up in the Polish battalions that fought alongside U.S. and British troops in Italy.

Swider's family immigrated to Chicago in 1951 when he was 6 months old. He said he grew up "surrounded" by the wartime stories of his parents and their emigre friends, but it was not until communism collapsed and he was able to access his father's KGB files that he began to see the documentary potential.

"Children in Exile" has been 16 years in the making. The story of Poland's wartime miseries and its aftermath is so complex, that Swider's first problem was how to winnow down an overabundance of material.

He said he decided to focus on the plight of exiled children for two reasons: Their story has not received much attention, and they are still around to tell it.

His technique is simple. "You turn a camera on and listen," he said.

One of Swider's early decisions was to include an extended interview with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader.

During Q&A sessions that followed the screenings in Chicago, members of the audience, mainly Polish-Americans, sharply criticized Jaruzelski's presence in the documentary. One man asked Swider why he put "this Polish traitor" in the film.

"Because at the time he experienced what he experienced, he was a child, not a traitor," Swider replied.

Afterward, Swider explained his thinking on Jaruzelski: "I wanted a pro-Russian communist. Whether you like him or not, his presence confirms and verifies the truth of what the others say."

One of the "others" in Swider's documentary is Wesley Adamczyk, whose father was murdered at Katyn. Two months later, Adamczyk, who was 7 at the time, was sent to Siberia with his mother, brother and sister.

For two years, Adamczyk endured malnutrition and disease before escaping with his mother and sister to Kazakhstan, and then on to Iran where his mother succumbed to dysentery, malaria and general exhaustion.

Adamczyk, then age 9, would spend the next seven years in various orphanages and refugee camps, a journey that took him from Tehran to Baghdad and eventually Beirut. For one year, he lived by himself, a virtual hermit, in an empty schoolhouse in Lebanon before relatives in Chicago managed to locate him and bring him to America in 1949.

Adamczyk buried his traumas. He graduated from DePaul University, built a career as a senior chemist for Lever Brothers in Hammond, Ind., and became an accomplished tournament bridge player. He rarely spoke of his previous life.

That changed in the early 1990s when Adamczyk began to search for the truth about his father's death. This led to a memoir, published in 2004, about his own childhood exile.

Now 75, Adamczyk is a gregarious man. He was warmly received by the audience at the Gallery Theater.

"Saying this is difficult, because I love this country," he told them after the lights went up. "But what happened has an American connection in that the West helped Stalin cover up these crimes."

It is too late to bring the perpetrators to justice - virtually all of them are dead. But there is still time to establish a full record of these crimes, and good reason to do so: "We shouldn't cover up crimes like this because if we do, they will repeat themselves," Adamczyk said.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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