Siberian Souvenir   Leave a comment

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Does a banknote have a value beyond its parts: a symmetrical piece of paper, over-written with symbols, poly-lingual, portraited with angels or stiff civil notables, inlaid with silver slivers, water-marked, embossed in braille, and branded with code? Well, only if we (and those with whom we wish to trade) believe it does. Money means something, good or bad, life or death, until it doesn’t and, on that day, the wise will take note that time spent amassing tokens does not a happy life ensure; while the unlucky will have far more pressing concerns to ponder. But while money does retain it’s value, as the song goes… it’s no surprise they’re giving none away.

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The banknote above used to sit in a faux-gilt frame as an interesting travel souvenir and an illustrative lesson in how we ascribe value to things in life. It was purchased in Siberia for the price of a pancake and caviar breakfast and appealed to me for the history it told. It is a ten year 4½% bond issued by Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. The notes were commissioned in autumn 1917 from the American Banknote Corporation in five series of which this is the fifth and last. Ten million of such bonds were transported to Vladivostok on the steamships Santa Cruz and Sheridan in 1918. Between the commissioning of the bonds and their delivery, the Bolshevik revolution had occurred and civil war raged throughout the country. In the absence of regular supply routes and the banknote drought which ensued, the first three series of notes were approved by the anti-Bolshevik Omsk Government for use as regular currency at face value. Local regional banks applied their own stamps to indicate this and examples can be found with stamps from Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Chita, Blagoveshchensk, and Krasnodar. A different fate awaited the fourth and fifth series of bonds. As the Bolshevik Red Army began to make headway against Kolchak’s White Army in the east, they decommissioned the re-stamped Provisional Government Bonds (which were colloquially called sibirki or kolchakovki) and issued the clean fourth and fifth series with their own bright, elaborate ‘Siberian Revolutionary Committee’ stamps complete with warnings that counterfeiters would be prosecuted by full force of the law. Money is a promise and a threat.

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So the anti-capitalist forces of the communist revolution appropriated the trudovik Kerensky’s Provisional Government’s American-made bonds as their own currency, promising to fulfill the same promise in their own manner. Socialist, Democrat or Communist, Revolutionary of the February or October persuasion, all government legitimates itself through printing press and stamp, gun and cudgel, favour and disgrace, court and assays, carrot and stick. Needless to say, in the case of this note at least, none of the above parties did fulfill their promises. To me the inherent story is worth two hundred roubles with interest.

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The Future of International Law (1945)   Leave a comment

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“During the inter-bellum and throughout the war which began in 1939, innumerable articles were published in the daily press and periodicals denouncing international law, whose beautiful rules were consigned to remain only on paper as two wars, with increasing atrocity and devastation, raged throughout all corners of the world. However, if any accusations levelled at international law came from jurists, they were not only ill-founded and glib, but increasingly rare. As for opinions from non-legal quarters which decry the ineffectiveness of international law, they can be considered entirely justified, but it is not the juridical character of the law which is at fault, rather the present state of that law which has failed on account of ambitions, egos, and a lack of mutual understanding among states, which must ultimately carry the blame.

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On the face of it, this shelf-parched, soft-bound tome, written in France during the Second World War, did rather well to survive thus far. I recently saved it from the oblivion of a book depository in Aquitaine. The year and location of its publication, the identity of its author, the subject and content, the small number of the imprint and even the quality of the paper it is printed on are all testament to the unlikelihood of its existence let alone the likelihood it may have anything of note to say to the modern reader. La Souveraineté Des États et L’Avenir Du Droit International (“The Sovereignty of States and the Future of International Law”) was written by my great-uncle Marek Stanisław Korowicz, whose story I have documented here previously. Marek, a professor of International Law, represented Poland at the League of Nations in the interwar period, specialising in the complicated sovereignty of the disputed territory of Silesia, with its Polish, German and Czechoslovak claims.

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Marek after his defection from the Polish People’s Republic United Nations delegation in New York (September 1953)

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When World War II broke out, Marek made his way east (visiting my father and grandparents briefly in Lwów), before escaping through Romania and making his way to France. There he joined the Polish 5th Rifle Regiment and fought with the French Army until its surrender. Already a fluent french speaker, he joined the intellectual underground, producing books and pamphlets denigrating the rise of fascism and communism. As he would later describe in his book W Polsce pod Sowieckim Jarzmem (“In Poland Under the Red Yolk”), he made the fateful decision to return to Poland in 1946 to recommence his work as a professor. He is best remembered for his dramatic escape from the Polish People’s Republic in 1953 by renouncing his diplomatic credentials to the United Nations in New York.

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Cutting through the unopened pages with a paper-knife holds a specific fascination, not only for the light it shines on the personal circumstances of Marek in occupied France, but also for the aptness of its theme. That a man whose expertise is International Law should be going back to the drawing board in the midst of a brutal war in which every edifice and instrument of law seemed to have failed, and failed spectacularly, perhaps shows the tenacity of his choice of profession; but knowing as I do that he had lost his parents, siblings, and cousins in that war, had been living in exile and in fear of arrest, and within two years is going to return to his Polish homeland to discover that any hope of a just society there based on the rule of law will be crushed by a Soviet policy of political interference, administrative manipulation and the threat of military force makes the pages turn with a fatalism that stems from this reader’s qualified omniscience.

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The final page notes that this book was written in Chambéry and Grenoble between March 1943 and March 1944. Marek was then working with the resistance movement. Following Italian occupation, the Germans invaded Grenoble in September 1943. The self-styled capital of the Maquis witnessed a year of sabotage, ambush, and brutal retaliation before the Germans finally withdrew on 22nd August 1944.

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Marek survived the war in the French underground. As he was all too aware by the time he published this book in 1945, with the war finally at an end, the toll his own family had paid for being Jewish, or Polish, or educated would become tragically clear. His father had been successful Jewish lumber merchant Joachim Kornreich. Although Marek adopted the Polish surname Korowicz from the start of the Second Republic in 1918 and became a Catholic through marriage, his choice of profession and not his ethnic origins could very well have resulted in his extra-judicial murder if he had not managed to escape from occupied Poland in 1939. That was in fact the fate of his brother and fellow professor, my grandfather Henryk Korowicz who was murdered in Lwów in July 1941 along with 24 of his colleagues.

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Marek dedicates the book to his parents whom he was not to see again. Eighty-year old Joachim was beaten to death by German soldiers in Lublin in 1939. Joachim’s wife Gisela disappeared into that charnel house of human slaughter where international law had been most ineffective.

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“To the memory of my Mother and my Father, murdered in Poland by the German occupier.”

 

COTTON-EYED JOE AND THE VEGETABLE LAMB OF TARTARY   Leave a comment

 

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There is only one story (with two diametrically-opposed perspectives) to come out of and about Uzbekistan in September and early October – cotton. While the local press can literally re-publish last year’s or even last century’s paeans to the ennobling efforts of the Uzbek pakhtakor (cotton farmer) and the community spirit which sees the young and the old drop rattles and walking sticks and march patriotically-inebriated to the tune of the harvest-master’s bugle, Western human rights organisations retell an old gulag narrative with crypto-feudal barbarity represented by incumbent despot, the weak-chinned hard man Islam Karimov.

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Stalin Tractor

Cotton-Eyed Joe always at the forefront of Soviet cultivation efforts in Central Asia.

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The 2015 harvest gave us the by now sadly predictable reports of patriotic corvée with tragic absurdities. Farmers in the village of Shaharteppa were forced to glue the cotton back onto empty stalks for the visit of Uzbek Prime Minister  Shavkat Mirziyaev, who, like his president, expects to see (and be seen with) a blinding sea of white gold on his triumphant journey through the vibrantly blossoming land of his subjects. That the vizier’s cavalcade was two weeks late and the cotton already harvested would thus be no impediment. Nature, after all, is there to be bent to man’s will, and men and women to the great leader’s. But what is constructed fast and without foresight inevitably engenders consequences unpredictable and difficult to remedy. The building of the Great Fergana Canal in 1939 took forty-five days and over 160,000 volunteers with little mechanization to construct.  The photos and film of this exalted people’s project once provided a poignant propaganda; now they stand as a sad testament to the tragedy of despotic arrogance. Later, Stalin’s so called Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature which dared to further tame the steppe with canals and shelterbelts, to make fecund what once was barren, to inseminate the desert with Communist zeal, indeed contributed to Uzbekistan, on the very eve of Communism’s collapse, becoming the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Unfortunately, the syphoning of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers through a sieve-like canal network would make even the notion of sacrificing the Aral Sea for the well-being of man redundant. Last year, in the Olotsky and Karakulsky regions of Bukhara, women accused of prostitution were forcibly rounded up and sent to work the cotton fields to expiate their moral deficiencies. In the Alat district of Bukhara, women who weren’t accused of prostitution were told they would be if they didn’t get with the programme. In Gallaorol, the local headman ordered the arrest and two-day detention of Yusuf Esirgetov, chief doctor of the district hospital, for not fulfilling the cotton harvest quota assigned to the hospital. Dr. Esirgapov died of a heart attack several days after his release. That was his own fault of course. If the good doctor had applied more vigour in ordering his staff and patients (the fulfilment of national duty is an elixir stronger than antibiotics) to the fields, he would not have wound up in such an embarrassing pickle. That very logic is why ‘pass-the-persecution’ is a very Uzbek game. That is why school administrators threaten their staff with redundancy, why film studios threaten their actors with black-listing, professors threaten their students with bad grades, and ministers glower at their deputies with scowls pregnant with unspoken threats.

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As former Comrade No.1 Mr Karimov sealed his grip on the reins of power when the newly-independent and nominally democratic Republic of Uzbekistan morphed out of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, tales of forced labour and child exploitation in the Fergana Valley’s cotton fields came to provide a seasonal rebuke to Uzbek authorities in the western press and the halls of the International Labour Organization, whose conventions Uzbekistan has ratified with all the sincerity of a fox at a poultry convention. But propaganda is as much self-inebriating as truth-manipulating. There may even be a sterling kernel of truth to the one economic argument for official persecution which radiates beyond the cotton fantasia of Uzbek patriotism. When state representatives raise an o-so-faux, scrupulously-inclined eyebrow at hypocritical capitalist double standards, chime they may, with a nonchalance the world’s other great garmentocracies would blush to enunciate, that if you don’t like your very reasonably priced shirts and bloomers stitched by impoverished, calloused childish hands from clothe woven and dyed by famished, forgotten fingers, and spun from cotton picked and washed by those who do not have a choice, don’t buy them. Well bless my cotton socks!

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Perhaps there is no surprise that a country which was once pulled like a rabbit from a hat by a Politbiuro-initiated plan for the national demarcation of Central Asia’s borders and exogenously ‘indigenized’ should suffer from cognitive dissonance down the line.  State-building has always demanded an adept degree of myth management and archetype juggling. The socio-economic raison d’être not to mention the socio-mythic contents of the project called Uzbekistan, from its fey fairy-tale inception in 1929, has a long-standing, almost mystical relationship with the miracle plant whose usefulness inspired wonder and gave free rein to fantastic imaginings going right back to the Middle Ages.

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The vegetable lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

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Gossypium, as the cotton plant is known to botanists, has played a significant role in world trade since the industrial revolution and may even provide evidence of pre-Columbine trans-continental migrations which preceded trade routes. Its usefulness is attested by its manifold applications: it can and has been found in some shape or form in the textile, food, automobile and paper industries as well as proving a vital component in many military and medical applications.  Related to hibiscus, okra and mallow, it was used by the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and North and South Americans. It has been lauded as the pillar of economies by farm managers and politicians and lamented as a tool of enslavement by the millions of workers which this labour and land-intensive crop traditionally demanded.

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Cotton’s influence on human history is evident in the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic evocations that this plant has inspired. James Hammond, a South Carolina Democratic senator, in his infamous defence of slavery as ‘the very mud-sill of society and of political government,’ gave pre-eminence to cotton as the life-blood of the American South, ‘the well-spring of wealth, stability and security, in short – King Cotton’. In medieval Europe, when cotton, even more than silk, was a coveted luxury, travellers such as Sir John Mandeville brought back tales from the east of the mysterious Lycopodium barometz, half-animal and half-cotton. Said to be a ‘plant whose shape is that of a lamb bearing a golden fleece’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote of it as the ‘vegetable Lamb of Tartary’. So vital  was its role in local economies that Marco Polo, in describing the provinces and kingdoms of Central Asia, frequently uses cotton as an indicator of assessing the ‘means of life’.

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The Uzbek SSR’s flag, anthem, slogans, propaganda, politics and pageantry revolved like a centrifugal cotton ball at the reactor core of Soviet semiotics. It’s impossible to read any literature about the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, that jewel of the Jaxtartes, without having to consume an earnest encomium to this noble plant and the Marxian midwives of her fecundity in the once-parched lands east of the now-parched Aral Sea. In 1991, incumbent Uzbek leader Islam Karimov merely replaced one inscrutable state despotic symbol with another. Lenin might have had to cede his plinth to rape-and-pillage merchant Tamerlane but the cotton show continued to flourish, both as Uzbekistan’s chief economic export and, conveniently for the independent nation’s new president, a ready-made system of political docility and economic enslavement. Small farmers receive credits for cotton cultivation which they must pay back with their harvest. The state has the power to set the cotton price it buys at, which, naturally, results in the indebtedness of the farmer. Lenin may even now be boiling in his embalming fluids at this profoundly un-Soviet exploitation of the peasants.

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In Uzbekistan, the cotton harvest is still touted as an annual ur-festival of community and camaraderie, as pure and fresh as a Komsomol picnic. Its flamboyant supernatural position within the state propaganda has ensured that it became the principle cypher for all that is excessive and unnatural about Uzbekistan outside the state.  (Imagine the US State of Wisconsin forced its citizens to fulfil their cheese destiny.) Of all the many injustices of ‘democratic’ Uzbekistan, from torture, terror, and arbitrary state theft, deciphering and demystifying the sorcery of cotton propaganda fills more column inches than any other.

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When September rolls around again the same old stories of forced labour and child abuse will doubtlessly appear in the international and opposition press. And so too shall Uzbekistan’s government-controlled media emit jolly refrains about that all is joyous and ennobling in the cotton fields. How quaint, how community-spirited, how Soviet! In effect, the official position has not changed since 1929, though the barometer of state violence may read stormy or fair. I will leave the final word to a 1976 issue of the old Soviet newspaper covering all things industrial and true, Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya (whose banner reproduces an appeal from the Central Committee of the Communist Party to workers to ‘tirelessly struggle to increase productivity of labour, efficiency in production, and quality of labour in the name of the further growth of the socialist economy – being the building blocks of the Motherland’s greatness and the steady rise in the people’s prosperity.’) Amid predictable reports about miraculous growth in the Soviet economy and spiralling downturns in the doomed enterprises of the western capitalist states, the sports section presents an up-date on the USSR cycling championship, which was at that moment hurtling its way through Central Asia.

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“All along the race route the cyclists encounter slogans in Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Russian: “Everyone to the cotton harvest!” The harvest season for ‘white gold’ is in full swing. During their rest day the race participants have decided to add their own efforts to the harvest work.

With large sacks in their hands, the riders, judges, and accredited journalists spread out through the field of Andizhan’s “Kommuna” collective farm. Many are carrying hard cotton boxes in their arms for the first time. Naturally, victory in this additional ‘cotton stage’ of the tour by a significant margin was clinched by a member of the Uzbek team, master of sport A. Yudin.

Rest day over, and once again the busy task of the long-distance race gets under way. The trainers and team managers make their notes and work out their strategies for the second half of the race…”

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What is a myth but a tale, a concoction, a lie told so often it becomes a liturgy. The wheels turn, recycling threadbare notions of false grandeur, pedalling an imaginary bicycle off a very real cliff. Plus ça change…

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SATAN V HITLER   Leave a comment

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Bullet-ridden slogan, FYR Macedonia, on the road to Belgrade 2000

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In war we grow up quickly. In war, time appears to last longer. Moments can last a lifetime. So too can careers be made in a single moment; for war is an opportunity for the quick-witted. Advancements and promotions happen more quickly and unexpectedly in the blaze of battle than in the slow meandering predictability of peacetime. War in a paradoxical way makes things less complicated. There we are offered life in black and white. We prioritize through the necessity of self-preservation and scorn indecision and long term planning. The chaos of change finds unexpected rulers. And in the twilight of war, a prospective ruler has, in order to move from the military to the political, only to paint himself a ‘freedom-fighter’ and let the blackened image of his defeated enemy serve to contrast the radiance of his own brightness. Hitler was that moral foil. He has remained the dark touchstone of European politics for over seventy years now and shall remain that way for much time to come. He is the sunless end of the dark spectrum but it is difficult to find an answer why. Did he kill more than any other leader? Did he cause more suffering? Was he crueller? Madder? Less human than any other? The prosaic answer is probably not. Comrade Stalin and Chairman Mao can be accused of wiping out more of their own populations than Hitler killed enemies (as unpalatable as such blood algebra is to their respective victims). Cruelty has no bar, and even Hitler’s xenophobia and race-baiting have seen analogies in countless smaller and less ‘meaningful’ clashes from Rwanda to Yugoslavia, Darfur to Dili. What makes Hitler special is not his spectacular brutality but the unanimous recognition of him, by the Giants of Yalta, as the most brutal, the greatest evil. In moral terms the Pandora’s Box that was opened during World War II needed to be closed again and the denigration of Hitler absolved many sins which weren’t only his. Hitler became, somewhat bizarrely, a continent’s scapegoat. Anti-Semitism, ultra nationalism, authoritarianism, and mystical and science-fiction politics were prevalent throughout Europe in the twenties and thirties. That fact is often conveniently forgotten by European nations who are brought up convinced that they were victims, those who ultimately defeated Hitler. Hitler equals evil. They are therefore the divinely-ordained custodians of moral rectitude.

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Fuera de Uruguay

The moustache and raised arm are instant symbols of tyranny. Protesting George W Bush’s visit to Uruguay, Montevideo 2007.

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This nervous gloss on history may have been a psychological necessity, a way of burying the dark deeds of humanity in the ceremonial cremation of a symbolical incarnation of those deeds. Perhaps it reflected an aspiration to be simply better people, by putting what was ‘too much’ behind them. However, those who leap-fogged to power in the wake of World War II, would rule with remarkable longevity, in East and West, under Soviet tutelage, under American protection, or as independent islands of authoritarianism. And their rule was built upon a cracked plinth of treachery and wishful thinking.

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Great Satan, former US Embassy/’US Den of Espionage’, Tehran.

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Western politics decry the deliberate indoctrination of free peoples by state-sponsored ideas. Propaganda is a dirty tool left to Goebbels and the Communists. And yet the illusion of an absence of propaganda in a liberal society can be as dangerous as the obvious existence of propaganda in a restrictive society. The West may disingenuously belittle the propaganda of the Iranian revolution or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as though it were devoid of its own propagandas. As though the internet precludes dictatorships, and the sins of our rulers have evolved into minor ones. When a Revolutionary Guard, asked his opinion of America’s intentions in the Middle East, decries Great Satan’s meddling, we see this biblical invocation as a schoolboy production of an infantile propaganda. As though we are punishing the country’s rulers for their lack of tact, rather than the repression beneath which their tactlessness fails to hide. And yet the only difference between us is that we, in the West, have moved from the Religion of the Ideal to the Religion of the Real in order to dress our grand designs and ignoble intentions. When we are confronted by an enemy, we don’t call him Satan, we call him Hitler.

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MY LIFE IN THE RED ARMY   2 comments

 Alfred Kornreich

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Fredek (full name Alfred Kornreich, but sometimes Fredzió: Polish is a language with many pet derivatives) was the son of my grandfather Henryk’s brother Matteusz. The photo above shows him after the events here described as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Armoured Regiment “Skorpion” of the Polish Second Corp, which had been formed from Polish prisoners-of-war and deportees held in Soviet territory in 1941-42. How joining up with a regiment which, after a perilous exodus from Soviet territory and a stint guarding Iraqi oil fields, would go on to fight with ultimate success but deadly attrition at Monte Cassino, the Battles of Ancona, Cesano, and Bologna, could be viewed at one time as salvation for the young officer is the subject of the following history.  

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The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement which facilitated the recruitment of Polish units on Soviet territory would save Fredek from execution for deserting the Red Army.

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A native of Cracow, Fredek was twenty years old when the Second World War began. He managed to leave German-occupied Poland, where he was studying law at the Jagiellonian University, and reach Soviet-occupied Lwów where his knowledge of auto mechanics (he could drive a car) landed him a job at a factory. There, he thought he had been spared the enforced Soviet deportation which awaited all those who had come from the western German-controlled zone, as, he would later recall, in Communist eyes ‘they were considered “unreliable” or simply suspect‘. Unfortunately for Fredek, he, like many other Polish citizens of varied ethnicities, was drafted into the Soviet Red Army. He had quite an experience and after the war when he had moved to America he wrote a book about his adventures, My Life in the Red Army. My father Wojtek didn’t read Fredek’s book until much later, but would recall when he was in London, just after the war, reading a review of it in the Polish Catholic Press. There a somewhat sanctimonious reviewer wrote disapprovingly, rebuking Fredek for being more interested in wooing women than informing the world about the moral degeneracy of the Soviets. Although Wojtek would have little doubt that people like Fredek did more to rid the world of dictatorships than that reviewer.

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Fredek Kornreich

Fifteen year old Fredek in 1935.

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As a Pole, caught in Soviet-controlled territory in 1940, it was difficult for Fredek to decide what was best: to be sent to a labour camp or to fight for the ‘glorious’ Red Army. A prison camp or a military camp. The Soviet officers were to tell their new ‘recruits’, in Lwów, that, coming from capitalist Poland, they would be amazed and honoured to join the ‘only democratic army in the world!’ Fredek took it with a pinch of salt although it wasn’t easy. He was shot at, wounded, half-starved, almost had his legs unnecessarily amputated, and ultimately ended up deserting the Red Army and joining the reconstituted Polish Army (General Anders’ Army was formed following the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement from Polish prisoners-of-war on Soviet territory who had not yet succumbed to the executioner’s bullet or the Gulag’s workload and privations). He had the secret police on his trail and memorably describes standing at a Soviet train station, on crutches, up to his knees in snow and mud, and seeing his own face on NKVD Wanted posters.  Fredek’s salvation from being shot as a deserter was the formation of Anders’ Army and, a fugitive from Soviet justice, he enthusiastically enlisted at a reception centre in Jangi Yul, Uzbekistan. He would end up fighting with the Polish II Corp’s 4th Armoured Regiment at the Battle of Monte Casino where he was to distinguish himself, leading a tank unit up Mass Albaneta.

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Monument to the Polish 4th Armoured Regiment “Skorpion” (Fredek was a Second Lieutenant), erected from the shell of a mine-destroyed Sherman tank, in which the regiment’s first casualties fell during the Battle of Monte Cassino.

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Years later, when I tracked down the original 1949 edition of Fredek’s book, my father read it for the first time with relish, comparing it to an up-dated version of The Good Soldier Šwejk, the Czech writer Jaroslaw Hašek’s satire on the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War. But it couldn’t have been that funny to live through. Perhaps, humour or mental instability were indeed effective tools in helping to increase the odds of coming out of those things alive. Fredek was a forced conscript in the Soviet Army, fighting for a cause he despised against an enemy he despised even more. The moral dilemma he faced, as a Pole, in fighting for the Soviets was one of a myriad of moral wars which the millions of representatives of ‘smaller nations’ and ethnic minorities  experienced during the war. To understand the vulnerability of nationhood at the time makes it clear in the maze of conflicts which formed the war, why there were Slovak, Romanian, Ukrainian, or Baltic contingents within the German advance on Russia. Why Finland joined the attack on Russia. This was a time when the cost of not being on one side, together with at least one strong nation, be it ‘great’ or not, signalled the death-knell of recently-won nationhood. On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Fredek realized that, as a Pole in Soviet hands, he had little choice in the matter.

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“Today Russia was an ally of Germany. If she entered the war on the side of Germany, against the Allies, I would be forced to fight everything that had been dear to me for years, on the side of the two greatest foes of my country. If Russia were to go to war against Germany (or vice versa), which was generally considered possible, I would gladly fight against the Germans, but for whose sake? In whose interest? Russia’s?”

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Fortune decided for Fredek that he would fight against the Germans, and not with them. He could ruefully thank heaven for small mercies. When the Germans attacked Russia, Fredek was conscripted and packed off to Odessa on the Black Sea to undergo military training and marvel at the sadly-absent wonders of the world ‘under the sun of Stalin’s Constitution’. His detachment, composed mostly of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, under Russian officers, trained with other representatives of the many Soviet nationalities, ‘natzmeny’, or national minorities, which included Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens, and an Armenian called Aram. Fredek recounts his first experiences of combat along the river Dniester, on the Bessarabian Front. He did his best to stay alive and managed somehow to distinguish himself for bravery, outwitting both German soldiers and his over-zealous Communist superiors. One night’s reconnaissance patrol across the river beyond German lines would almost cost him his life. He describes leading nine other soldiers to map enemy troop positions and considered his survival a major accomplishment. He recounts with alarm Aram proudly presenting him with the severed head of a German sentry and standing with two wounded men for seven hours in the ice-cold Dniester waiting for a break in fire to retreat to safety. Amidst the fighting, an existence exacerbated by the Soviets’ criminal disregard for the welfare of their own soldiers, Fredek recounts his experiences of mean-spirited petty despotism amongst his officers, but also the kindness of strangers and the camaraderie of the dispossessed. He deals with over-officious NKVD officers whose principle duty is to convict their own soldiers of ‘crimes against communism’ but also fights alongside men who selflessly pay for their comrades’ survival with their own lives.

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My Life in the Red Army Cover

Fredek changed his name and does not mention the Red Army unit in which he served and deserted from in order to protect his fellow conscripts from possible reprisals.

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Fredek deftly evokes the drudgery, boredom, and irrationality of war, together with picaresque interludes of ironic counterpoint. An account of his unit’s bawdy week of respite from the war at a man-starved Bessarabian collective farm provides much mirth as does his description of Cuckoo! -his comrades’ favourite vodka-fuelled after-dinner game which involves turning off the lights in a room, diving for cover behind desks, chairs and couches, and shooting blindly at whomever shouts Cuckoo! Despite the vagaries of his lot (and there is much suffering and foreboding there) if there is a party to be had or an officer’s sister to charm, his spirits never flag.

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Amidst Soviet propaganda that boasted inconceivable victories over the Germans, though the Soviets were the ones going backwards, Fredek found out in July 1941 from a fellow Pole that Lwów had been captured. He wished he were fighting for something as dear to him as Lwów. He recalled only a year earlier leaving Lwów on a Soviet train to begin his life as a Red Army soldier. It seemed like an age had passed since then. Now he was stuck in his own little corner of the world’s greatest war:

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Then everything disappeared, and we plowed into the darkness. All forty of us milled around the two doors of the car. No one spoke. For all of us Lwów was the symbol of our young lives, our homes and families. Even I, a Cracovian who had lived in Lwów for only a year, loved that city dearly. Three hundred and fifty thousand before the war, it was today a city of one million inhabitants, pulsating with life, wit, and music.

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Fredek survived both the Red Army and the Polish II Corp, later emigrating to the United States and living a full and varied life. When he found out my father had survived the war and was living in Ireland he kept in touch for the rest of their lives. Niech spoczywa w pokoju!

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Alfred & Karol

Fredek and Karol: many years later, Fredek presents a copy of “My Life in the Red Army” to an old fellow student from Cracow’s Jagiellonian University.

TATERNICTWO: POLISH MOUNTAINEERING BETWEEN THE WARS   Leave a comment

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Last year, Józef Nyka, mountaineer, longtime editor of Taternik, and author of numerous guidebooks for Tatra Mountain enthusiasts, wrote an article about a forgotten figure in Polish mountaineering, my great-uncle Marek Korowicz. It turns out that Marek, whose experiences as a professor of international law and Cold War political refugee I have related here before, was also a keen mountaineer. I wrote to Pan Nyka, over at Głos Seniora and he kindly gave me permission to translate his article about Marek and publish it here, along with photos (hats off to trekking in suits and ties!) from the collection of another well-known custodian of Polish mountain culture, the late Czeslaw Bajer

Thank you, Pan Nyka!

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“This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Dr. Marek Korowicz, prominent political scientist and commentator, but also exemplary organizer and early advocate of mountaineering in Cracow and Silesia. He had no farewell in Taternik [publication of the Polish Mountaineering Union] and his name does not appear in WET [Zofia Radwańska-Paryska’s and Witold Henryk Paryski’s Great Tatra Encyclopedia] or WEGA [The Great Encyclopedia of Mountains and Mountaineering]; so let us save his memory from oblivion in our humble columns.

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Marek Korowicz (right) with Janusz Chmielowski, August 1949. Photo Czeslaw Bajer

Marek Korowicz (right) with Janusz Chmielowski, August 1949. Photo Czeslaw Bajer

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He was born on 11th March 1903 and completed his education in law (Doctor of Law). His father was Joachim Kornreich-Korowicz and his elder brother was the well-known professor of economics Henryk, who wrote under both names Kornreich and Korowicz and who was murdered by the Germans in Lwow in 1941. While studying law at the Jagiellonian University, Marek got together with a group of Tatra mountaineers.

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In 1922, Korowicz, John Durr, and John A. Szczepanski decided to create in Cracow a mountaineering organization for students. A draft was prepared by Durr and the future lawyer Korowicz and after some discussion it was submitted to the President of the Academic Sporting Union, prof. Walery Goetel. In October 1923, the Academic Sporting Union established a mountaineering section (ST AZS), in which Korowicz assumed the functions of registrar.

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In October 1924, he was admitted to the Mountaineering Section of the Polish Tatra Society [ST PTT]. He climbed with his Cracow colleagues. Paryski mentions his name eleven times. On the 9th of April, 1924, together with Adam and Marian Sokolowski, he crossed the ridge from Swinicka Pass across both peaks of Swinica and further on to Zawrat. During the climb, Niebieska Turnia had its first winter ascent (the lower Swinica peak had earlier been climbed in winter by, among others, Borys Wigilew). In July 1924, together with Jan K. Dorawski and Stanisław Sluzewski, Korowicz participated in the first crossing of the northern wall of Hruba Turnia and on the 20th of July, 1924, he accompanied Dorawski and Mieczysław Szczuka to the lower part of the eastern wall of Mięguszowiecki Grand Peak (WHP 892) before their famous sixth Variant D. On August 6, 1926, he took part in an attempt by the central route on the northeastern wall of Rumanowy Peak, his fellow-climbers including, among others, Dorawski, Szczuka, and Marian Sokolowski. He also climbed in the Alps.

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Marek began his work in Katowice in the 1930s and immediately became active in promoting local mountaineering, laying the foundations for Silesian alpinism. Already in 1933, we see him on the board of the Upper Silesian branch of the Polish Tatra Society in Katowice and on his initiative, in 1933, the Upper Silesian Mountaineering Section was formed within the Polish Tatra Society with Marek at its helm. Its members aimed to create Katowice’s first Mountaineering Club Federation, which came into being only after the war. Lectures were organized with Korowicz entertaining audiences with accounts of winter ascents in the Tatras and wanderings in the Swiss Alps.

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The Alpine Section was the first mountaineering organization in Silesia and this year the Katowice Mountaineering Club should be celebrating its eightieth anniversary. During the war, Korowicz was active in the resistance, and under the pseudonym ‘K.M. St.’, penned many pamphlets and articles, including his famous essay Poland among the Nations of the World (1942). After the war, he was an active participant in Mountaineering Club conventions. In spring of 1948, he organized a festive evening in honour of the doyen of Polish mountaineering, 70-year-old Janusz Chmielowski. He gave a course of lectures in mountaineering (April 20 – June 2) which introduced 30-40 students to varied topics including topography, philosophy, history and organization, equipment, technical climbing and mountain rescue. In February 1949, at Marek’s initiative, a founders’ meeting took place in Katowice, where attendees called for the establishment of the Upper Silesian Branch of the Polish Tatra Society Mountaineering Section, and on 12th October, 1949, it came into being. Writing in 1952, Franciszek Klosinski mentions Marek as “the founder and first chairman of the Silesian Mountaineering Society’. He continues: “During a period of intense activity of the Society, with theoretical courses in mountaineering, Marek was called to a professorship at Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, and with great regret, resigned his role as chairman on May 17, 1951.” In those years, Korowicz climbed with, among others, Chmielowski i Czeslaw Bajer (in August 1948 with variants on Pościel Jasińskiego). On September 6, 1948 a new route on Przelecz Nowicki was recorded, with Korowicz, Paryski, Dorawski, Danuta and Maciej Mischke, and Tadek Giewontem as guide. Marek’s notes in Taternik are signed ‘MSK’. Czeslaw Bajer recalled Marek as a pleasant companion, physically fit, and a true mountain lover.

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Marek Korowicz (left) with ks. prof. Tadeusz Kruszynski i Janusz Chmielowski in Dolina Stawów Gasienicowych, 1949. Photo Czeslaw Bajer.

Marek Korowicz (left) with ks. prof. Tadeusz Kruszynski i Janusz Chmielowski in Dolina Stawów Gasienicowych, 1949. Photo Czeslaw Bajer.

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As an academic, before the war, Korowicz worked on the issue of nationalities in Poland, and in 1938, published Upper Silesia and the Protection of Minorities, 1922-1937. After the war, Korowicz was appointed professor of Socio-Economic Sciences in Katowice. He later became a professor of International Law at Lublin University and subsequently, a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University. He published several major works, including Czechoslovakia Yesterday and Today (1948) and The Sovereignty of Members of the United Nations Organization (1949). The National Library catalogue includes 40 of his publications, mostly devoted to Silesian affairs, as well as works dealing with Slovakia and Czechoslovakia.

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In 1953, he left for New York as part of a Polish People’s Republic diplomatic delegation, whereupon he appealed for political asylum. In the US he was very politically active against Communism, a regular speaker on Radio Free Europe, and had constant FBI protection, for fear of assassination attempts by the security services of the PPR and USSR. In 1955, his book Poland Under the Soviet Yoke was reprinted in various translations, and in 1959 his still current Introduction to International Law was published. He died in exile in 1964, aged sixty-one. News of his death did not reach Poland and Boleslaw Chwascinski in the second edition of his book (1988) assumes him to be still living. Thus a figure of genuine merit in mountain matters fell into oblivion.”

SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES   Leave a comment

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I have covered the circumstances of my granduncle Marek Korowicz’s escape from the Polish Delegation to the United Nations in 1953 in this previous post. Below Marek tells the story in his own words. He was called to give testimony before a specially-convened sub-committee of the Committee on Un-American Activities,  a week after his arrival in New York to take up the position of President of the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the United Nations General Assembly. Of course, he never occupied that post, denouncing his credentials and condemning the Polish and Soviet governments.

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 the last chief of the Polish Underground at the Radio Free Europe press conference regarding Marek's seeking political asylum in the US. (Photo by Peter Stackpole//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

19th September 1953 Dr. Marek Stanislaw Korowicz (R) talking to Stefan Korboński (the last chief of the Polish Underground) before the press conference announcing his appeal for political asylum in the US. (Photo by Peter Stackpole//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

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The content and format of Marek’s testimony are very much a reflection of the heightened tensions, mutual mistrust, and fatalism which characterized the Cold War. This is only six months after Joesph Stalin’s death. The Soviet Union, enigmatic, despotic and a recent ally, is  the subject of foreboding speculation on the part of the US government. Marek is quizzed on topical matters behind the Iron Curtain. What has happened to Beria, who seemed poised to replace Stalin but now has disappeared? What is the state of the USSR’s atomic programme? Do they have a hydrogen bomb? The questions and answers in a general sense would not be out of place in a Hollywood screenplay, a familiarity which in retrospect downplays the high stakes of the era. Marek had certainly placed himself in considerable danger. His protection was precisely the public fora in which he told his story, not just here at US Federal buildings, but in the press conferences and radio broadcasts he gave throughout this period. The fact that he was a professor of international law and had worked extensively as a diplomat before the second world war, lent his testimony greater impact. The details he employs to compare the standard of living and civil freedoms between East and West – the number of cars, television sets, the presence of Soviet military garrisons throughout the satellite states, the role of the Catholic Church, and the propaganda battle between state broadcasters and the Voice of America- are born out of the experiences of an inveterate opponent of foreign control (he was among other things a veteran of the 1920 Polish-Soviet War) and are conveyed with professorial exactness.

The benefit of hindsight may soften somewhat the atmosphere of impending doom which no doubt percolated the era, when it was considered not only conceivable but even logical to destroy the world in order to save it from itself. And yet there is still something haunting in the attribution of the Katyń massacres to Nazi Germany by the House Un-American Activities Committee Chairman Harold Velde in the following exchange:

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Dr. KOROWICZ. It must be well understood that the Polish people keep in their minds today a vivid memory of all the Hitlerite atrocities committed by these Germans. Six million Poles were savagely butchered. But in spite of this the Polish people would like to live in peace and in definite peace with their neighbouring German populations.

Mr. VELDE. You are referring to the butchering of the Poles by the Hitlerites. I wonder if you are referring there to the Katyń Forest massacre?

Dr. KOROWICZ. With respect to Katyń, Mr. Chairman, the opinion in Poland is almost unanimous that the assassination and murder of so many Polish officers was a guilty deed performed by the Russians and not by the Germans.

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Of course, the families of the 22,000 Polish prisoners, executed in 1940 on the orders of Stalin and the Politburo, would have to wait until 1990 when Gorbachev admitted the coverup. There was a grotesque Orwellian pantomime in the methods used by the Soviet Union to turn their own self-documented crime into that of the Germans, from the ludicrous “Special Commission for Determination and Investigation of the Shooting of Polish Prisoners of War by German-Fascist Invaders in Katyn Forest” via the Nuremberg Trials right down to today when many of the copious volumes of files about Katyń in the Russian archives still remain sealed. It would indeed be strange that Chairman Velde would categorize in error  Katyń as a Nazi crime when only the previous year the Congressional Investigation known as the Madden Committee concluded that Soviets were indeed the culprits. It is for rhetorical effect, and moreover, to have the Polish defector make the accusation himself.

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Anyway, over to Marek and the Committee members, and some old-fashioned Cold War drama:

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Marek Committee UAA

Marek as star witness before Special House Committee on Communist Aggression

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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 1953

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UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES,

SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE COMMITTEE

ON UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES,

Washington, D.C.

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PUBLIC HEARING

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The subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities met, pursuant to call, at 10.40 a.m. in the caucus room, 362 Old House Office Building, Hon. Harold H. Velde (chairman) presiding.

Committee members present: Representatives Harold H. Velde (chairman), Gordon H. Scherer, and James B. Frazier, Jr.

Staff members present: Robert L. Kunzig, counsel; Frank S. Tavenner, Jr., counsel; Louis J. Russell {trivia: who may later have been the sixth Watergate burglar}, chief investigator; Raphael I. Nixon, director of research; George E. Cooper, investigator.

Mr. VELDE. Will the witness please rise. Dr. Korowicz, in the testimony you are about to give before this subcommittee of the House of Representatives, do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God?

Dr. KOROWICZ. Yes. I do.

Mr. VELDE. Proceed, Mr. Counsel.

Mr. KUNZIG. Dr. Korowicz, would you describe to the committee what event transpired on September 1 of this year, just a few weeks ago?

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