IVANYETS, Belarus - Tortured by Stalin's henchmen and attacked by Hitler's forces, Aleksander Szekal almost became one of World War II's millions of victims.
But he survived the Soviet Gulag and a famous battle against the Nazis, and was honored on his 103d birthday this month as the oldest living veteran of a celebrated Polish unit that helped defeat Hitler's army in Italy.
Military attaches brought greetings from the governments of Britain, Italy and Poland, which promoted him from soldier to officer. The ceremony was held at a Polish community center in western Belarus, from which he was uprooted early in the war, not to return for 60 years. In between, Szekal endured the hardships of Soviet Communism and the fight against fascism.
"Both of these 20th-century ideologies became hell for me," said Szekal, who walks with a cane but feels healthy and remains sprightly.
He lived a quiet life as a lumberjack until 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided eastern Europe with a nonaggression pact and the Soviet Union annexed his homeland, which had been part of Poland.
Szekal, who had served in the Polish army, was torn from his new wife, imprisoned by Stalin's secret police in Belarus and tortured until he confessed to "anti-Soviet activity." He said his captors stuck needles under his toenails and left him naked in the freezing cold, inadvertently saving his life by tossing him into a barn after they thought he was dead.
Szekal was then sentenced to eight years in the Soviet Gulag in 1940 and shipped by freight car to Russia's Pacific Coast with other Polish soldiers. In prison, he and the other inmates dug trenches and struggled to survive in one of the world's harshest environments.
"People were dying like flies before my eyes - from hunger, cold and fatigue," Szekal said as he sat in the living room of his brick home. He said he made his last confession to a priest who was digging beside him in "the trench that was meant as our common grave."
But Szekal was saved when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He was recruited to fight with an army formed with Stalin's permission and commanded by Polish Gen. Wladyslaw Anders that consisted mostly of Poles released from Soviet prisons and internment camps. Anders led his troops through the Middle East, across Northern Africa and into Italy, where they gained renown for their role in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. They fought as the Second Polish Corps of the British Eighth Army.
Szekal said the British burned the troops' louse-infested clothing, and gave them new uniforms and decent rations. "We felt like human beings again," he said.
But the Italian campaign thrust them into the horrors of war. Szekal said he scaled cliffs mountaineer-style, fearing the grenades at his belt would explode. He recalled accepting a cup of cocoa from a young field-kitchen worker just before a shell hit, then turning back and seeing nothing left but her severed leg.
After the war, many soldiers returning to the Eastern bloc were imprisoned. But Szekal gained British citizenship, settled in Luton, north of London, and took a job as a factory worker. The Iron Curtain descended over Europe and Szekal did not see his wife, Evelina, until 1976, when he traveled to the Soviet Union and met her in secret.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Szekal moved in 1999 to the town of Ivanyets, where he lived with Evelina until her death in 2002.
Anders never returned to Poland, which stripped him of his citizenship after he refused to recognize the communist government, and died in England in 1970. In contrast, there has been little official reckoning with communist wrongdoing in Russia and even less in Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko still speaks warmly of the Soviet era and calls the security agency the KGB.