UNTOLD STORIES OF POLISH HEROES FROM WORLD WAR II
UNTOLD STORIES OF POLISH HEROES FROM WORLD WAR II
Foreword : James S. Pula
Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2017,
Poland was the first country to stand against Hitler’s Nazi armies and the Red Armies of Stalin’s Soviet Union when, in Sept. 1939, at the beginning of World War 11,they both marched into Poland with the deliberate intention of dividing the country and destroying it’s people. On August 22, Hitler claimed the object of the war was to “destroy the enemy.. That’s why I have given orders to kill without mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent…”
The eminent literary historian and master story-teller, Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm’s important and beautifully crafted book records the history of this horrific time through seven powerful narratives relating the experiences of diverse people, many of whom survived the atrocities of ethnic cleansing, the valiant Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and struggles beyond. The author brings her fascinating protagonists alive with a brilliant mix of intimate physical experiences and their profound thoughts of how the trauma of war affected their own philosophy of life and the meaning of it all. With these unforgettable true life-stories of special, yet ordinary people, who symbolize the sum of all persons, Aleksandra has created an essential link in the chain of human chronicles that document the heroic epic history of Poland and the Polish people.
The author offers an invaluable bonus in the Annex where she relates how she personally perceives “creative nonfiction.”
Audrey Ronning Topping-- photojournalist, author "China Mission: A Personal History from the Last Imperial Dynasty to the People's Republic," winner of the “2013 Prose Prize for Media & Culture" from American Publishers.
The Second World War is a historical event so immense that it all too easily can become an abstraction. In Untold Stories of Polish Heroes from World War II, Aleksandra Ziółkowska-Boehm humanizes our recollection of the conflict by demonstrating its effects on the lives of surviving sons and daughters of Poland, the land most devastated by the war. Representing a vivid cross section of Polish society, and a telling variety of wartime experiences, these individual portraits of diplomats, warriors, and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times reveal much about the fate of Poland in its time of greatest trial.
Neal Pease, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
In Untold Stories of Polish heroes from World War II, Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm continues to inform, delight, and amaze readers who have (or soon will) know her as one of our most able chroniclers of Polish resistance to Nazi and Soviet invaders during World War II. These are the memories of surviving resistance fighters, mainly after the war. What unites them is their experiences as “brethren in those dark days,” a time of consummate cruelty by the Nazis, when the penalty of resistance under the Nazis was horrific: if a Polish resistance fighter killed German soldier, a hundred Poles were randomly executed. Saving Jews carried the death penalty. Polish citizens who sheltered Jews were executed, along with their families. Many of the survivors were scattered around the world after the war, from the United States to India, and elsewhere, working to retain a sense of Polish culture and history. Her "Annex I," on literary journalism, will evoke empathy and understanding from all who write. For the survivors, and generations to come, this book is invaluable testimony.
Bruce E. Johansen, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Some events in history are over remembered, others are under remembered. Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm tell us the stories of survivors and heroes who have not made it to the front pages of newspapers, but who are every little bit as significant as those who have. She does so in an intimate way, as if she were telling secrets to a friend. You will not remain indifferent to the content of this book.
Ewa Thompson, Rice University
FOREWORD by James S.Pula
The eminent historian Thomas Carlyle, in his essay “On History” published in 1830, asserted that “Social Life is the aggregate of all the individual men’s Lives who constitute society; History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” While we might more properly say it is the sum of all people’s lives, not just men’s, Carlyle’s statement is a fundamental truth of the historical profession. History is, after all, not the accumulation of names and dates and recitations of what happened, it is an attempt to study people, how they behave, and why they make the decisions they do. It is an attempt to study how people interact in groups, what motivates them, and how their behaviour is influenced by both their own personal experiences and the external forces that act upon them. It is, in the final analysis, an attempt to understand the cause and effect relationships that form the chain of the human chronicle over time.
Carlyle also stated, in a subsequent publication, that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Indeed, most often those who write biography have chosen to concentrate their efforts on “great men” or “great women” precisely in the belief that the progression of history depended, as Carlyle suggested, on the decisions of these “heroes.” Despite the fact that Herbert Spencer began challenging this idea as early as the 1860s, arguing instead that these “great men” were simply products of the social environments in which they lived, the so-called “Great Man Theory” was prominent among professional historians until after World War II when post-war scholars began to delve more deeply into social history.
Regardless of which of these theories one subscribes to, it should be clear that a full understanding of the historical process must include studies of the social and economic conditions of societies as well as biographies of the people on which a clear understanding of history is based—but not just the “great” people. Biographies of “average” individuals who exist in a society, have their own experiences and are acted upon by their surrounding environments, are essential to a clear and complete understanding of the past and its influence on the present. In this respect, Aleksandra Ziołkowska-Boehm has made a major contribution to furthering the understanding of World War II, and especially the part played by Poland and Poles, with her compilation of individual biographies of people who participated in many of its formative events.
Ziołkowska-Boehm’s protagonists include a variety of people and experiences that enhance the usefulness of the volume—Tadeusz Brzeziński, a member of the Polish diplomatic corps who was on assignment in Canada at the outbreak of the war and went on to serve as Consul General for the Polish Government-in-Exile in London; Rudolf S. Falkowski, a freshly minted pilot who escaped from the Soviet Union to fly fighters over Great Britain; Wiesław Chrzanowski who became a photographer of the Warsaw Uprising; Krystyna Brzezicka and Marek Jaroszewicz grew up in Warsaw where she served as a nurse during the Warsaw Uprising and he escaped to France before being interned in Switzerland; Maria Kowal was actually born while her parents were fleeing during the war, so her personal memories are of her post-war era move to the United States; and Danuta Batorska who grew up in the Białowieża Forest before she was forcefully deported with her family to the Soviet Urals, later escaping to the Middle East and eventually Mexico.
Tadeusz Brzeziński had already achieved status and an upper-class lifestyle when he arrived as a member of the Polish diplomatic corps to his new assignment in Canada in 1938. Born of Polish parents in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he enjoyed the advantages of study in Vienna, The Hague and Lwów where he received a doctorate in law and political science in 1919. The essay on Brzeziński includes valuable information on his attempts, while posted in Leipzig in the 1930s, to protest Nazi treatment of the Jews and to actively help them to escape by providing necessary documents. It also records his wartime services and post-war activities, providing original source materials of particular interest to researchers. The experiences of the father are well-complemented by the briefer commentary on his son, Zbigniew, who rose to prominence as the U.S. National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter. The younger Brzeziński’s recollections supplement his fathers, but also add his own observations of family life in the wartime and immediate post-war eras.
Rudolf Falkowski dreamed of flying as a young elementary school student when he also began keeping a journal of his experiences. The first passion would thrust him into the maelstrom of aerial combat, while the latter would lead to publication of his first book at age 88. Born into a family of modest means, he had difficulties in school but managed to enrol in a pilot training program which he completed in the summer of 1939 on the eve of the German invasion. Following the Sikorski-Majski Agreement in 1941 he managed to travel to Great Britain where his knowledge of flying earned him a pilot’s wings flying fighters. The author’s treatment of him includes lengthy quotations from his journal and their correspondence that provide valuable historical information of the times he lived through, as well as his own persona.
Wiesław Chrzanowski was born in Sosnowiec but grew up in Gdańsk where his father obtained a job in the shipyard until the family moved to Warsaw in 1930. His childhood appears to have been typical both in education and his enjoyment of sports. In 1939 he served in the defense of the fortress at Modlin, then joined the underground. With the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, Chrzanowski determined to record the experiences of his unit. Some of his photographs appear in an album prepared by the Warsaw Uprising Museum, while others have appeared on Polish postage stamps. His work, numbering over 200 images and accompanying documentary text, forms a unique and irreplaceable historical record of virtually every aspect of his unit’s part in the Uprising, the people who defied the Germans for 63 brutal days, and his experiences in captivity.
Krystyna and Marek Jaroszewicz were born in Warsaw, knew each other while growing up, but were separated by the war. Krystyna shared with the author memories of her childhood including a beautiful manor house in Gulbiny and visits to the eastern borderlands, as well as the painful experiences under the German occupation. During the war Krystyna served as a nurse during the Warsaw Uprising, providing her recollections of this and a postwar refugee camp in Switzerland. Marek’s father was a chemist and a prominent supporter of Józef Piłsudski, perhaps a little better situated economically and socially than most of the other protagonists who appear in the book. He was to enter Warsaw University of Technology to study architecture in the fall of 1939, but the invasion intervened. Joining the Polish armed forces, he escaped to the West but was interned in Switzerland with the fall of France. The two reconnected in Zurich and married in 1945. In addition to the wartime experiences, the dual-biography presents first-hand reflections on the experiences of refugees on arrival in the post-war United States.
Maria Kowal was from a small village in Volhynia. Her family had to escape from Ukrainian nationalists during the war and she was actually born in a church in 1943 during their flight. The family was eventually taken as laborers to Germany. Maria recalled as a young girl their post-war move to the United States and her experiences growing to maturity. Danuta Batorska was the daughter of a forestry administrator in the Białowieża Forest. With the war the family was forcibly relocated to the Urals when Danuta was only four. Later, she was evacuated to Teheran following the formation of General Władysław Anders’s army. From the Middle East, in the post-war years she went to the Santa Rosa resettlement center in Mexico. Her memories of the NKVD arrest, the forced exile, the journey to Teheran, and finally the Santa Rosa colony and her eventual settling down in the United States.
A strength of the volume is the variety of its protagonists—their ages and backgrounds are all different, they had different experiences, and they include the experiences of civilians and women, both of which deserve more treatment in the historical literature. Her handling of characters brings them to life, gives them personality, establishes a connection with the reader. Each of these is individually important in its own right. Yet, at the same time, the breadth of their collective experiences paints a broad picture of the many divergent encounters the war triggered. It is this very breadth that makes it more valuable in understanding the scope of wartime events and their effect on the people who lived through them.
James S. Pula, Purdue University