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It is a rare and wondrous occasion when one meets a person who has suffered profoundly as a child and emerges a whole, wholesome adult. There is a bonus when the adult is able to draw on deeply rooted memories and still retain a sense of humor.
I met such a man in Stanley Opalka, author and part-time resident of Brunswick County. More widely known for his golf prowess, Stanley is a bonafide historian with more than 30 years of teaching experience on the high school and college level.
He is also a man with a mission. His mission is to tell the true story of World War II. It is a tale that incorporates a second holocaust and genocide, that of the Eastern European people slaughtered by the Russians.
Never diminishing or denying the terrible killing of 6 million Jewish people and other unacceptable ones by Nazi Germany, he also wishes to highlight the horror of 100 million Poles, Finns, Latvians and more, who were transported to labor camps in Siberia.
Killing happened slowly and painfully as malnutrition, disease, severe cold and filthy living conditions claimed the weak, both old and young. For Stanley, these will never be the forgotten ones.
Upon entering his home in Ocean Isle Beach, I was told, “Move right along until you reach the end.” I smiled as I thought, “This is a metaphor for his life. This man will move right along, telling his truth, awakening sleepy consciences and stifled minds, until he and his listeners will get to the end.”
I soon learned I was on the right track. Stanley began and ended our conversation with the same statement: “Now you hear the real history.”
His words encapsulated the focus of his life: to reveal truth. He wants us to know his story even if we cannot experience it as he did.
Rousted from their homes without warning early in the morning of Feb. 10, 1940, the Opalka family of eight—father, mother and six children aged 18 to 6 months—packed the few belongings they could carry and were taken by horse-drawn wagon to the railroad station.
An 80-car freight train was waiting. Seven-year-old Stanley had his treasured possessions with him—a schoolbag containing school items and a little red truck. He would soon learn his truck would serve as a reminder of free movement when freedom was frozen in the snow and ice, the sub-zero temperatures of a northern wasteland. They were moving along until they reached the end.
I asked Stanley how he felt as a 7 year old traveling in this manner, cramped and crowded into a freight car where the dead were summarily removed at various station stops. His response gave me pause.
“How did I feel? What did I think? At the age of seven, I didn’t know any different. This was normal for me.”
There lies the heart of the man. To complain was futile. Anger served no purpose. Life was all-important. Live and all is normal.
So, he lived with the terrible pain of having a pot of boiling water spill onto his foot. He lived with the possibility of gangrene and subsequent amputation and hope that this would not occur. He lived through an attack of typhoid fever coupled with ever-present hunger that ultimately manifested in malnutrition. He made the most of what little there was.
In a place and time where there were no toys for playing, young Stanley enjoyed all creation. He was awakened to the goodness and beauty of creation. He knew the power of awareness. He pondered the reality of captivity and wondered why a 7-year-old could be subjected to such bondage.
Remembering that time, he spoke to me, without sadness but with a certain sense of humanity’s lack of humaneness and quietly said, “Innocence was lost at the beginning of the war. I had to learn how to survive without a home, clothes or food. I was struck with night blindness as a result of malnutrition. I lost my way one time and luckily was found in a snowdrift, frozen stiff.”
When the camp was informed of its liberation, the Opalka family made the difficult decision to leave Siberia with no destination in mind, except to go south, and no means of transportation.
By wit and will, they managed to travel 3,000 miles to Uzbekistan where exhaustion and the death of the youngest child caused them to stop traveling—at least temporarily.
It was there at a rail station that Stanley’s experience of death took a different turn. This is the story he related: “Right next to me sat a pathetic looking person. He was dirty, had sores on his face, and sunken cheeks. His clothes were nothing but rags bound together by a belt made of cloth. Even the patches had holes in them. Most of the time his eyes were closed, yet every so often, just for a little bit, he opened them just to see where he was, or maybe who he was. Then he closed his eyes again.
“He moved very little. When he moved, things on him moved. They were lice. Generally, lice stay on the human body where it is warm and in the seams of clothing. Here, the lice were in the open, moving this way and that, as if they were on sort of a mission. In certain places, the lice formed groups—10 and 20 in a bundle. Once, he shook his head and the whole bundle fell to the ground. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. He only got up once to shake himself loose of the menace. Then he sat back down as if to say, ‘What’s the use? They are winning.’
“I had a lunch of tea and bread. My crunching on the dry bread awakened the lice man. I knew he was hungry. I broke my slice of bread in half and offered it to him. He slowly moved his head from side to side saying, ‘No.’ He closed his eyes...leaned against the arm of the bench and moved no more.”
Stanley came face-to-face with death. Innocence lost; wisdom gained. His memories ran deep. He will not rest until the forgotten ones are remembered, until injustice is removed, until truth sets us all free. He asks us all, as he asked me, to “move right along until we reach the end.”
In his life story, he is moving right along with us.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. Reach her at email@example.com.