A mesmerizing, heart-wrenching memoir, Sliding on the Snow Stone by Andy Szpuk (@AndySzpuk) tells the story of Stefan Szpuk — the author’s father. Told by Stefan in prose that is simple yet wonderfully descriptive, it is an amazing tale of survival, familial love, courage and perseverance. I’m not ashamed to admit I choked up several times reading Stefan’s tale.
The story begins during Stefan’s childhood in Ukraine during the Holodomor — the horrifying famine created by Stalin’s Soviet Union — with young Stefan watching Soviet soldiers collect the bodies of those from his village who had died of starvation. There are strong feelings of patriotism in the Ukrainian people, — heirs to the spirit of the Kozaks (Cossacks), Stefan would say — and Stalin sought to crush nationalist feelings through the harshest means possible: forced starvation, exile to the wastes of Siberia or summary execution.
In due time Nazi Germany invades, appealing to the Ukrainians to join them in destroying Bolshevism, and for the briefest moment the Ukrainians’ dream of freedom from their Soviet oppressor appears realized. Soon enough Stefan and his family learn the Nazis are no better, and are in some ways much worse:
As we walked back that afternoon, we came across a group of about ten small children, they must have been about seven or eight years old. As we approached, we witnessed them playing a curious game. Half of them lined up along the edge of a ditch, while the rest stood in a line a few metres away, raised sticks up to their shoulders and shouted, ‘Bang!’ The boys along the edge of the ditch then fell into it. One of the boys saw us approaching, dropped his stick, and ran up to us. …. ‘Tell me, boys,’ said Father, ‘What was that game you were playing?’ The leader of the boys looked up at Father with his eyes of deepest blue, and with the face of an angel. ‘Shooting Jews.’”
— Szpuk, Andy (2011-09-21). Sliding on the Snow Stone (pp. 92-93). That Right Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Stefan and his father end up fleeing their home and village after narrowly avoiding execution in response to an attack on the Germans by the Ukrainian Resistance. Thus begins a truly amazing journey of privation, endurance and survival as Stefan flees the German and Soviet armies, all the while searching for a way to cross battle lines and simply return to his home in Ukraine. Along the way he receives simple kindnesses from strangers and endures nearly unbearable heartaches. Through it all, despite the severity of the journey, Stefan’s spirit, faith and humanity survived.
His love of Ukraine also endured, and throughout he yearns for her freedom from the tyranny of both the Soviets and Nazis. Stefan’s return to Ukraine after his nation achieved independence following the fall of the Soviet Union is one of the most moving sections of the book, and I read it with a lump in my throat.
Recently I read an article online about the controversy surrounding a German TV show which purportedly examined the lives of ordinary people during WWII. I won’t go into the specifics of the show, or why various groups are upset, but would point out a key fact: the generation that lived during this period is passing away, and taking with them their memories. Millions — perhaps billions — of words have been written about the war that ended nearly seventy years ago: about battles, campaigns, leaders, heroes, strategies, atrocities, etc., etc.
There have also been more than a few memoirs like Sliding on the Snow Stone which tell current generations what happened to ordinary people during that extraordinary period of time. But given the world-wide scope of the war and the millions of people involved, there are many, many more stories which have not — and now will not — be told.
This makes books like Sliding on the Snow Stone all the more important because in many ways Stefan and Andy Szpuk are also telling the stories of Mikola and Olha, Volodimir, Sasha, Peter, Uncle Yaroslav and Aunt Helena, Ivan and Marina, and Oleksa. The fact that this story is exceptionally well-written is apt, as these lives deserve to be honored in such a fashion.
For more on Mr. Szpuk and his writing, visit his blog, Lines From the Word Lab.