Archive for the ‘Anders’ Army’ Category

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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PIC_24-582-3

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.

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