After finding him on the wrong side of a PZPR member’s rifle, Antoni’s father’s decision to risk his family’s lives and escape Warsaw became clear. He would spend the next year helping his son flee the oppressive communist regime that brought chaos to his family’s life over the preceding years.
My family was lucky, scraping together the financial means to board a ship to start a life in America nearly forty years before Antoni’s, raising two children here — children that would never speak their language, practice their faith, or know the horrors that would come to face their homeland.
I first met Antoni, or “Chief” as he took up in recent years in a small idyllic senior home he and second wife, a second generation Russian Jew, had taken residence in as their growing children worried about their fathers increasing forgetfulness.
As I helped Chief navigate the years old flatbed scanner he had recently thrifted to digitize his photos, I began to understand the reality of the world my grandparents were lucky enough to escape.
Antoni escaped from a government that murdered, raped, and brainwashed its citizens. In the years following his escape his parents would starve from under-packed rations and his sister would be one of the nearly one hundred thousand to lose their life in the Katyn massacre.
I had the luxury of knowing my culture to be pierogi and hulupki, large family dinners, truly American lives. By chance, I had grown up with the privilege to understand Marxism as the source of the memes my friends obsessively tagged me in on Facebook, and the body of literature some of my more bookish friends would incessantly critique class readings with.
Antoni did not not have this luxury: I could see the impact of this horror on his face as he told stories of the past. As he began to learn to use Facebook, he would spend nights forgoing sleep to individually report each of the memes my friends so blindly adored.
The stories of survivors like Antoni give us a picture of communism that is far more horrid than punchy image macros ever could. While we will never fully understand all the true horrors that occurred under communist regimes, we must fight the normalization of the mindsets that lead to them. As such, we must preserve the stories of the survivors and those who would never escape. By trivializing the story of Antoni and those like him, we allow our world to slip closer to our bloody past.
Nearly one hundred thousand people died at the hands of the ideology our families escaped. They do not live to tell their stories. We owe it to them to recognize that this ideology is not a fad and their loss is not a meme.
I have spent the last few years at small private College in the northeast, where you are as likely to see a Hammer and Sickle button on a bag as you are a Harvard sweatshirt by simply walking around campus and the surrounding town. The prep-school I attended ran trips to Cuba, where students returned with bags full of Ché Guevara apparel and looted artifacts from the embargo. For many students, casually endorsing communism is the edgy way to acknowledge the systemic biases of capitalism. Hundreds of Thousands more like communist ‘meme pages’, posting all order of jokes playing off of these horrible regimes.
These depictions that paint the ideology as revolutionary or utopian overlook the authoritarian violence that it requires. Communism cannot be separated from oppression — as it it depends upon it. In any communist society, personal autonomy does not exist, the collective is all that matters. Each human, Antoni’s entire family, is just a simple cog in a machine set to product utopia; their lives essentially valueless.
Our generation, now a century removed from the horrors of communist states, has lost the horrific means of communism for its supposed ends, a classless utopian state. The reality of communism could be nothing further from this falsehood.
After spending their formative years in environments saturated with communist memes and jokes about Soviet Russia, my generation will graduate into the world with the false truth that communism represents an alternative path to utopia, a world worth considering, rather than an inherently violent philosophy that destroyed hundreds millions of lives.
What is not shown in these jokes are the images of Stalin’s secret police torturing “traitors” in black sites by beating their bodies until not a single bone was left in tack. Or the images of families like Antoni’s starving as Lenin seized food from the poor, causing a famine that at points caused mothers to eat their own children, and other families to dig up corpses for food.
The truth was clear in every country that communism was tried: massacres, starvation, and terror followed.
Antoni left behind his parents, his friends, and his family, on the chance of finding freedom. You know his story because he was lucky enough to survive. This is not true of the hundred million more that would never make it out.
Please let us not erase the history of the victims who do not have a voice because they did not survive the writing of their stories with thoughtless memes and mindless critiques.
Most importantly, for Antoni and all of those like him, let us not be tempted to repeat it. No meme is worth that.
Names, exact dates, and details have been changed on the request of my dear friend’s anonymity.