April 18, 2016


Footsteps of history : I walked 2200km to retrace my grandfather's WWII escape from a Russian gulag  (Michael Iwanowski, The Calvert Journal)

To complete his book Clear of People, photographer Michal Iwanowski embarked on a solitary 2200km journey in wilderness charged with history and personal memory. Iwanowski, who was born in Poland and is now based in Cardiff, Wales, retraced a passage his grandfather and great uncle made in 1945 after escaping from a gulag to return to their homes in Wrocław, Poland. 70 years later Iwanowski returned to the lands of struggle and survival to figure out for himself the unbreakable links between landscape and memory. He told The Calvert Journal about his experience. [...]
I then decided to retrace the epic journey my grandfather had had to make. He and his brother, both partisans, had been arrested in 1944 and sent to a gulag in Russia, from which they escaped. After three months on the run, they were reunited with their family in Wrocław, Poland. The records of the journey came mostly from my great uncle Wiktor. He was an eager storyteller and kept a rich archive of documents and objects from that period, including metal tobacco tins he used to make in the gulag to trade for food. Already during their escape in 1945 he was taking notes on scraps of paper, mapping out landmarks and events, trying to keep track of their journey. Those notes made it to Poland with him, and became the factual backbone of a book he wrote and self-published in 1994. In it he recalled the people, places and events of that time. I got a copy of the book from my grandmother and took it with me on my travels. There was a detailed map inside, which allowed me to plan my journey step by step. It guided me through pivotal places my great uncle had described.

Luckily for me, walking is my preferred means of transportation. I learnt during my residency in Kaunas that I can easily cover 30 km a day, and that walking is the best way for me to photograph. It is just the right pace, just the right rhythm for the eyes to scan the surroundings without getting tired. Walking felt satisfying and rewarding -- or at least that is how I remember it. I planned each day carefully by comparing my uncle's map with Google maps, remembering the route by landmarks (usually a lake, a river, railway tracks -- anything that I would be able to recognise). I would stock up on chocolate bars and water, get my hiking boots on, and just walk. I talked a lot, mostly to myself, and sometimes to my grandfather. The wilderness is perfect for that kind of experience.

Posted by at April 18, 2016 4:00 PM