Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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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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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DRAŻA THE SERBIAN CHETNIK IN THE POLISH UNDERGROUND   3 comments

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What follows is the story of Dragan Mihajlo Sotirović, a figure known little outside Poland and Yugoslavia. A Serbian Captain who made a vital contribution to the efforts of the Polish Home Army in South-Eastern Poland during World War II. There is surprisingly little material available. It was certainly in the interests of the Communist Polish authorities and the Soviet Union to write him out of the history books of the Second World War.  And Tito, whom he met when both were guerilla fighters (and political opponents), would tar all chetniks with the collaborationist brush. There is a cinematic wholesomeness to his character, in the recollections of his friends and soldiers, so much so that I am still searching for Ukrainian, Yugoslav, or Soviet sources which might describe him as an enemy. The information here comes from Polish sources, including Jerzy Węgierski’s histories of Home Army operations in Lwów and Rzeszów, from Draża’s own memoir Europe for Sale (L’Europe aux enchères. Paris. 1952), written in French immediately after the war, as well as the recollections of my father, who fought under his command in the 14th regiment of Jazłowiecki Lancers.

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Dragan Mihajlo Sotirović (1912-1987)

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From 1941, “Draża”, as he was known, fought as a chetnik in the Yugoslav Army, in the Ravna Gora Movement, where he served as the adjutant of General Dragoluba Mihalović, the royalist general and staunch enemy of Yugoslavia’s future leader, Joseph Broz Tito. He was captured by the Germans and transferred to a prison in Rawa Ruska, on formerly Polish territory. But his captors would underestimate his love of freedom. Draża was to make of escape a professional art. He escaped once from the Germans, three times from the Soviets, and avoided arrest countless times. Everyone seemed to have had a bounty out on his head at one time or another – Germans, Soviets, and the Ukrainain Insurrectionary Army.

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THE WHITE EAGLE AND THE BLACK EAGLE: A FOOTBALL LEGEND   Leave a comment

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When the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland on September 17th 1939, Communist restructuring of society began immediately. Institutions of the Polish state were abolished, political enemies arrested, sent to the Gulag, or executed, academic institutions closed down or renamed, and the Polish currency abolished. My father, who was thirteen at the time, would recall another detail, the disbanding of the football team he supported – Czarni Lwòw. Any symbol of the old Polish order, which promoted a national identity deemed detrimental to Soviet interests was to be erased from the socio-political landscape. Czarni Lwòw was the first professional Polish football team, founded in 1903, at a time when Poland itself did not exist. In 1911, when Czarni, together with Wisła Kraków, created the Polish Football Association (the predecessor of the modern PZPN), they in fact played as part of the Austrian Football Union. The intricate interplay of nationality, politics, and sport, reflected the complicated multiethnic nature of Central Europe as a whole. Immediately after the founding of the Second Republic in 1918, Poland would fight no less than six border wars. For those who resided at the fault lines of collapsing empires and nascent nation states, the consequences were never going to be simple. Take the following case of a controversial figure, arguably one of the greatest European players of the interwar years, who came from the far side of the new Polish Republic, on the border with the new German Republic.

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Ernst ‘Ezi’ Wilimowski (1916-1997)

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POLITICAL FOOTBALL

The tempestuous relationship between politics and football has hardly a more talented and divisive personification than Ernst ‘Ezi’ Wilimowski who had the dubious distinction of playing for both the Polish and German national football teams, during a period which saw the decimation of Europe.

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Ezi 2

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Ezi, an ethnic German, was born in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia, then part of the German Empire, in 1916. After the First World War, Upper Silesia was partitioned and the three-year-old Ezi became a Polish citizen. His father had died in the war and his mother remarried an ethnic Pole. He spoke both German and Silesian Polish, and would always consider himself, if anything other than a footballer, an Upper Silesian (“Górnoślązak” or “Oberschlesier”). The left wing forward, who dominated the ekstraklasa during the 1930’s, a period of fledgling football success for the recently reconstituted Polish Republic, left a fine record. Pacey, agile, and inventive, he was renowned for his dribbling and goal scoring largesse (his team-mate and later 1954 World Cup-winning captain Fritz Walter, said of him: “He’s probably the only player in the world who’s had more goals than chances.”) He had six toes on his stronger right foot but scored more goals with his left. He netted one hundred and twelve times in eighty-six appearances for Ruch Chorzów, the Silesian powerhouse of pre-World War II Polish football, championship winners through 1933-1936, and 1938. He was the league’s top scorer twice, in 1934 and 1936, and was well set to make it a third in the 1939 season, but for the intervention of Hitler.

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Ezi Warta Ruch 1937

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FOUR PAST BRAZIL

His contribution to the Polish national team was equally impressive. His goal tally for the White Eagles was twenty-one in twenty-two outings. Although forced to sit out the 1936 Berlin Olympics football tournament due to a harsh one-year ban by the Polish Football Association for excessive drinking and carousing, he would get his chance to represent Poland at the 1938 World Cup in France. There the little-fancied Poles narrowly went down 5-6 against the great Leônidas da Silva’s Brazil, in a World Cup classic. Although the knockout system meant the Poles would only play one game, Wilimowski left an indelible mark on the international stage, becoming the first player in a World Cup game to score four goals. Even Poland’s other goal that day in Strasbourg came from a penalty (scored by another ethnic German Friedrich Scherfke) after Ezi had been taken down in the Brazilian penalty area.

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Ezi Brazil

Ezi takes on Brazil and puts him name in the record books. Watch the highlights of the 11-goal thriller:

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‘THE LAST GAME’

The next year, on August 27th 1939, at Warsaw’s Wojska Polskiego Stadium, Ezi would play in what Poles to this day call ‘the last game.’ Unbeknownst to fans who turned up to watch their team play World Cup runners-up Hungary, the ten-year non-agression pact signed just three days earlier by Germany and the Soviet Union (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) contained a secret protocol which would soon result in the complete territorial dismemberment of Poland. The Poles had never beaten Hungary and gave themselves little chance. The sports daily Przegląd Sportowy, in a pre-game headline, which could have been a premonition of Poland’s soon-to-be fate off the football field, declared: ‘No chance, but ready to fight.” The visitors quickly went 2-0 up, before Ezi sprang to life and put three past Ferenc Sziklai the Hungarian keeper. The home team claimed a memorable 4-2 victory, and unwittingly provided the epitaph for football in the Polish Second Republic.

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Ezi wearing the German strip

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EZI SWAPS EAGLES

After the German invasion of Poland, the football league was abolished. Ezi signed the German citizenship list, which allowed him, unlike his ethnic Polish team mates, to continue his playing career. Later on this decision would lead him to being branded a traitor and collaborator by Polish Communist authorities, as a result of which he would spend the remainder of his life in Germany. Was he a traitor, a pragmatist, or a Silesian who knew more than many about the vagaries of international politics? After all, he had been born a citizen of the German Empire only for the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles to conspire to change the goalposts of nations around him. He was not the only Silesian (Polish) footballer to take German citizenship. His national team mates Edward Jan Dytko (Dąb Katowice), Paweł Cyganek (Wawel Wirek), Leonard Franz Piontek (AKS Chorzów), and Wilhelm Antoni Góra (KS Cracovia) also took this path and would continue to play for German league teams post-1939. However, it was inevitable that players who made this pact would later be negatively compared to the many Polish players who fought and died off the football field. And perhaps especially to those football players who to their cost refused to allow themselves be used for Nazi propaganda (Austria’s Matthias Sindelar and, even if the details remain disputed, the Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev players associated with the controversial ‘death match’ story come to mind). But Ezi’s talent and thirst to play sealed his fate. It wasn’t so much the games he played in the German league for 1 FC Katowice, PSV Chemnitz, or TSV 1860 Munich (where he won the 1942 German Cup with a still unsurpassed tally of fourteen goals in the competition) which irked his former compatriots. His decision to play for the German national team (with the black eagle and swastika crest) would forever tarnish even his outstanding contribution to Polish football. He scored twice in his debut in a 4-1 victory over Romania, completed a hat-trick against Finland and memorably hit four past a decent Switzerland team. However, by late 1942, with fortunes changing in the war and a lack of opponents for ‘friendly’ fixtures, Nazi Germany would play no more. Ezi’s German career thus ended with an impressive goal tally of thirteen from eight games.

After the war, Ezi wished to return to Silesia but the new political landscape in Poland made his earlier decision to play for Germany seem treasonable. Some Germanified players, such as Edward Jan Dytko, did manage to return but only after careful scrutiny by the new Communist authorities and the signing of a declaration of loyalty to the Polish state. The fact that Ezi had played for the German national team, in games his detractors considered political propaganda, made his return more unlikely. He later said he feared for his safety and lived the remainder of his life in West Germany. He never played for any national team again. He continued to play as a journeyman striker with stints at SG West Chemnitz, Rapid Kassel, TSV Detmold, BC Augsburg, Racing Strasbourg, Offenburg FV, FC Singen 04, and VfR Kaiserslautern. He retired in 1959, at the age of forty-three.

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GOALPOSTS AND NATIONS

Ezi’s decision to play for Nazi Germany would over-shadow and detract from his prodigious talent and historic contribution to football. In assessing that decision, it should be remembered that Polish history presented many challenges with regard to the issue of ethnic and national allegiance. Firstly, Poland did not exist as a state from the end of the eighteenth century until 1918. The first Polish football teams were in fact founded in 1903 in Lwòw, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They would later be disbanded by Soviet authorities when the Red Army occupied Eastern Poland in 1939. Teams such as Czarni Lwów, Pogoń Lwów, and Strzelec Wilno ceased to exist or were incorporated into newly established clubs when the territories they represented became part of the Soviet Republics of Ukraine and Lithuania. Thus the idea of ‘playing for the other side’ was often dictated by politics and was not necessarily an overtly political act by the players themselves. Nowadays, of course, we see little wrong with Silesian-born footballers with mixed Polish-German roots, such as Lukas Podolski (whose mother played for the Polish national handball team) or Miroslav Klose (whose father played football for Polish team Odra) choosing to play for Germany. This is a reflection of the intertwined histories of the two countries, painful at times, but inescapable.

The problem with Wilimowski’s decision was obviously the swastika on his new shirt and the bitter relevance of that symbol to Poland. He considered, naively, his only politics was playing football at the highest level but paid for that decision with exile and a fall from grace. Even as a star player in the national team, life wasn’t all rosy for Ezi in Nazi Germany. His mother was sent to Auschwitz for having a relationship with a Russian Jew, a race crime under Nazi law. He only managed to save her with the help of his friend the fighter ace Hermann Graf. On the other hand, he was afforded the opportunity to continue playing football, to avoid combat, and to survive.

When Kazimierz Górski’s outstanding Polish squad came to West Germany for the 1974 World Cup, the Polish Football Association refused a request from Wilimowski to visit their training camp. The message was clear: his legacy was divisive. Anyhow, the 1974 vintage would create their own legend, finishing third, and beating Argentina, Italy, and Brazil along the way. Their only loss, by a single Gerd Muller strike, was to the hosts and eventual champions. Perhaps they could have used some advice from the only player to ever score for and against Germany.

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BEAR NECESSITIES   1 comment

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Wojtek liked nothing better than a beer and a smoke

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For the many Polish soldiers who fled to Britain after the war, in order to escape Stalin’s ill intentions, Wojtek the bear became a poignant symbol of their fate. An orphaned bearcub, who travelled far from his Persian home, who fought in a great battle on foreign soil, and who ended up not only an exile, but an inmate at Edinburgh Zoo – the story resonated with the Polish diaspora in post-war Britain. My father (also Wojtek and also newly landed on Scottish soil after years of fighting) once went to visit his namesake the Soldier Bear with some regimental buddies. When they shouted over the cage to him, this kind-hearted ursine wonder perked up immediately. Everyone said he best understood Polish for that was the language of his youth, and acted much like a soldier, for that was the life he had led.

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Wojtek bear 7

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POLISH RESETTLEMENT CORP

Wojtek the Soldier Bear and thousands of Polish soldiers followed the same route to Britain. On 22nd May 1946, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced the creation of the Polish Resettlement Corp, which was a holding unit for the Polish forces who had fought for the Allies and didn’t wish to return to Poland. 160,000 qualified and 115,000 joined. Many soldiers brought family members with them and over 200,000 Poles eventually moved to Britain. They signed up to the Corps on a two-year contract, were paid British Armed Forces rates, and could avail of various opportunities for training and tuition. They could also be hired out to private contractors, and thus gain work experience. My father would do a stint in a pipe factory in Derby with a whole platoon of Poles. They transported the soldiers to Britain by ship. Ship after ship made this voyage, what would become the final stage of the exodus of Poles, the last shore.

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Wojtek Edinburgh

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PRIVATE BEAR

Wojtek was a most extraordinary soldier, and an even more remarkable bear. ‘Private Bear’, of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, was a beer-swigging, cigarette-smoking Syrian Brown Bear. He had been found by a shepherd boy in Hamadan, Iran. The bear’s mother had been killed by hunters. The boy sold the cub to some Polish soldiers traveling through the desert.  In 1942, the Polish Army was assembling in the Middle East, after Stalin, his hand forced by Operation Barbarossa, had agreed to allow all Poles on Soviet territory (i.e. prisoners) to leave in order to form the Polish II Corp (see Sikorski-Mayski Agreement). The soldiers looked after the little cub, weaning him on condensed milk, and Wojtek became the Company mascot. He traveled with the army through Iraq and Palestine to Egypt.

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Wojtek Bear 2

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOVIET EXILE   Leave a comment

“To Comrade Beria. Deport them with a bang. J. Stalin.”[i]

Stalin weighs some fresh human capital…

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What follows is an overview of the use of exile by the Soviet Union in Poland during World War II. While researching my family history, I was often struck not just by the extent of suffering and death that resulted from exile, but by the political reasoning which reduced every question in Stalin and the Politbiuro’s collective mind to: Are you with us or against us? Stalin could have ordered execution (Katyń) over exile (for children, the sick, and the old, the two were often synonymous), but for the man who wrote Marxism and the National Question (1913), there was both an ideological and a strategic interest in gaining the most for the state (of which he was the personification) by the ‘correct’ disbursement of human capital.

Exile is perhaps the fundamental theme of City of Lions. Not only does exile alter the demographics of the points of origin and destination, but it alters the psychology of the deported and subverts tribal myths by placing them in an interzone in which life and cultural expression are partially suspended and forever altered. As an Irishman, and the son of a Polish exile, it seems fitting that I began to write City of Lions during a seven-year sojourn in former Soviet Central Asia, the place Stalin had once sent the exiles of his empire, from throughout the territory of the Soviet Union, from the Caucasus, the Crimea, the Far East, and Europe. It was there too that I met ethnic Poles whose parents and grandparents had been forcibly relocated during the Second World War. I remembered my father once telling me we had some cousins who were among them. The thought that one day, in the bazaar in Samarkand, or on the streets of Almaty, I might pass my own bloodline and never know about it eventually led me to begin my research into missing family members.

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1. EXILE RUNS IN THE FAMILY

My father’s family members were deported from Lwów for different reasons.  My father’s Polish cousins, the Łazowskis (Zbyszek, his wife Wanda, his sister Kazia, and his mother Zuzanna), were deported by Stalin to Kazakhstan, in 1940, to work on a collective farm. My father would later call them the ‘honourably deported’ because Zbyszek had been an advocate of land reform (thus the Soviets considered him reformable even if he thought them deplorable). Later Zbyszek would fight in the Armia Ludowa, and at the end of the war his family were allowed return not to Lwów, but to within the newly-drawn borders of the Polish People’s Republic. My father’s Jewish cousins, Zosia and Joseph, lived in Lublin. They and their parents Ignacy and Nunia, who had escaped German-occupied Poland in 1939, were deported from Lwów to Uzbekistan, the following year. After Operation Barbarossa began, Stalin was persuaded to allow former Polish citizens (i.e. prisoners) to leave the Soviet Union. Zosia and her family would travel with a wretched caravan of survivors through Soviet Turkestan, Iran, and Iraq to Palestine. Escaped and released Poles agglomerated in high numbers in the Middle East in early 1942, many of them soldiers who were beefed up and re-trained by the Allies in Syria, Iran and Palestine before being shipped from Egypt back to Europe, to later fight in the Italian campaign. Zosia and her family would never return to Poland. My father Wojtek fought in the Home Army. By June 1945, he had already helped to liberate Lwów from the Germans, fought against the Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army, and finally the Red Army. He and fellow soldiers of the 14th Regiment of Jazłowiecki Lancers left Poland willingly and surreptitiously in order to save themselves from the Gulag and worse. They believed they would be coming back, the spearhead of an American-British attack on the Soviet Union, which never came to pass. In 1947, my grandmother would be deported from Lwów, by then a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, to the Polish People’s Republic, in one of the many post-war forced resettlements. Exile and displacement would leave a clear imprint on my family. Later, in 1953, when my father’s uncle Marek (whose adventures I have covered here), freshly seconded against his will to Communist Poland’s United Nations delegation, decided he was going to defect, his thoughts chewed over the words of another exile, the Roman poet Ovid:

‘When I recall that night on which I left so many things dear to me, even now from my eyes the teardrops fall.’

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2. STALIN’S POLISH PROJECT

There was a singular ruthlessness to Stalin’s policy of controlling the displacement of his subject peoples. After eastern Poland came under Soviet control in September 1939, my father’s cousins, along with hundreds of thousands of Poles, Jews, counter-revolutionaries, nationalists,  and anyone else who had managed to escape from the Nazi occupation, and were thus, in the eyes of the NKVD, politically ‘infected’ by their proximity to the Soviet Union’s ideological enemy (and martial ally), were to be packed onto the trains. They would be sent east to remote, scarcely known places, to live or to die, or, at least to wait, with as much patience as sorrow and hunger allowed, until Stalin had devised a better solution. Of course, just who was a ‘refugee’ and who was not was a matter for the NKVD to decide. NKVD Order 00485 listed anyone of Polish origin, allegiance, or temperament as ripe plunder for the vast machine of the Soviet secret police.  Poles were arrested for anything which deviated from strict Soviet requirements, for being a nationalist, a capitalist, or even a non-conformist Communist. The Soviets dermanded a politically-inert, commercially viable population for its Polish project. During 1939 -41, the NKVD deported over one million citizens of the Polish Second Republic, specifically from those territories which after the Soviet arrival in September 1939 and subsequent plebescites, now formed part of either the Ukrainian or Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republics.

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“Our Army is the Liberation Army of the Working Class” J.Stalin
A simple peasant unable to contain his gratitude towards a Red Army soldier after his country’s ‘liberation’. An idealized Soviet view of the invasion of Eastern Poland.

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3. YOU DON’T KNOW WHEN YOU’LL BE COMING HOME!

The NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, was the latest version of the Soviet Secret Police. The original Bolshevik internal security service, the CheKa, was established by an ethnic Pole, Felix Dzerzhinsky. ‘Iron Felix’ was a committed Communist who, in creating the Bolshevik Secret Police, the CheKa, literally ‘Extraordinary Commission,’ (initially established to guard the Bolshevik seat of power in Petrograd, Dzerzhinsky soon convinced Lenin to expand its remit and its title to:  ‘The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage’) set the benchmark by which all future incarnations of Soviet State terror would be judged. Dzerzhinsky died of heart failure in 1926, which was fortuitous for his legacy. In the cutthroat world of Soviet terrocracy, natural deaths were by no means the norm and with the exception of Dzerzhinsky and his successor (and fellow Pole), Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, the post of secret police chief carried a fatal sentence until several years after Stalin’s death.[ii]

In subsequent years, the secret police functionaries outdid each other to fulfil and overfill the state quotas for executed and imprisoned ‘dissidents, spies, diversionists, and saboteurs.’ Just as its economic plans were drafted and implemented in an act of mind over matter, regardless of the resources available, Soviet purges of the late 1930’s saw ‘dissident quotas’ established. Whether these dissidents existed or not, local NKVD bosses had to make arrests based on Politburo-approved quotas. In Georgia, in 1937, for example, according to official records, they amounted to 2,000 ‘first category’ dissidents and 3,000 ‘second category’ dissidents. NKVD bosses thus could measure their careers in litres of blood.

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Terrocracy: Secret Police Chiefs 1917-1953

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Over-zealous liquidators of dissent inevitably ended up victims themselves. Genrikh Yagoda, a Russian Jew who waded his way through a river of blood to the helm of the NKVD, would ultimately be denounced and executed. His successor, Nikolai Yezhov, the ‘poison dwarf’, in two short years would bequeath his name to the Russian lexicon as a byword for social terror – ежовщина. He was executed in February 1940, allegedly vowing to die ‘with Stalin’s name upon his lips.’ After Yezhov came Lavrenty Beria, an Abkhazian Mingrelian, who was tried and shot after Stalin’s death, not because he tortured and abused his victims or because he delighted in overseeing the ritual bloodletting of society but because he had become a nuisance in the struggle for succession. And sometimes the spectacular fall from grace was counterbalanced by an equally spectacular rise from the depths. Naftaly Frenkel, a Jewish merchant from Haifa, managed to go from prisoner at the infamous far northern prison island of Solovetsky to camp commander within a few years (picking up three Orders of Lenin for his troubles). It is tempting to see a wicked delight in Stalin’s role as the director of an epic theatrical production, creating heroes and villains predicated on a cocktail of self-presevation, whim, and dialectical materialism. The first shall come last and the last shall come first, except for Stalin himself of course.

Polish refugees arriving in Persia: An Allied newsreel which reflects the reality of the Allied-Soviet anti-fascist pact forged following Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941:

“From one little town in Poland, a thousand men women and children fled from the Nazis into Russia. When the Nazis followed they pushed on. Through mountain and desert, three thousand miles into Persia, to a haven in Iran on the Caspian Sea. Here they found a promised land, a refugee city of their fellow-countrymen deep in the foothills of the TransCaucasian Mountains.” In explaining the Soviet volte face, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the complicity of Stalin in the persecution of the refugees are omitted entirely.  An  enemy’s enemy is a friend, no matter that this friend may be a once and future enemy.

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US poster presses the point that Stalin also loves freedom.

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The Soviet State Security Police along with other organs associated with the Ministry of the Interior and Soviet military intelligence were and still are known by their acronyms. CheKa, NKVD, GPU, OGPU, NKGB, MGB, KI, MVD, KGB, GRU – these letters conjured fear among the masses. When they came on their rounds, you could forget any notion of civil rights. You were quite simply fodder for a vast network of paranoia which demanded ever more victims. A humorous explanation of the acronym NKVD from the time ran: Ne znaesh Kogda Vernyoshsa Domoi! You don’t know when you’ll be coming home! After Beria, the heads of the secret police tended to keep their heads. The future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was a KGB chief. Vladimir Putin once worked for their First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence) in East Germany. Despite the revelations of the MVD’s and KGB’s role in the murder and persecution through execution, torture and forced labour of millions of Soviet citizens, they have to this day remained a powerful servant of government in Russia and other former Soviet states. It is deemed a necessary evil by some, who see a connection between any rise in Russia’s political and economic fortunes and the perceived need to control ‘dissent and disorder.’ Dzerzhinsky, the father of Soviet secrets, briefly lost his lustre in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. His statues were once torn down along with countless iron Lenins. While Lenin hasn’t returned, Dzerzhinsky has. In 2005, a new bust of Iron Felix was unveiled at the headquarters of Moscow’s Police.

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4. SOME OTHER HELL ON EARTH…

In a climate of deep distrust between Stalin and Hitler, despite the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and against a background of great social experimentation and industrial revolution which, in the eyes of its exponents at least, excused the mass transportations of whole social and ethnic groups, Stalin had drawn up plans for how to deal with the ‘refugee problem.’ All refugees from the Nazi-occupied zone who managed to reach the Soviet zone were interviewed to see if there were any spies amongst them, and then, the spies having presumably been executed, the rest, just for good measure, were transported thousands of kilometres to the East: as Wojtek’s cousin Fredek would later describe their fate, ‘some to Siberia, some to Kazakhstan or some other hell on earth.’[iii] Stalin was no stranger to implementing ethnic ‘relocation’ policies, and he used the vast emptiness of the Far North, Siberia and the deserts of the southern Soviet states as the wasteland on which to dump his human cargo. Not only were Polish refugees to undergo this deracination, but also  ethnic groups within the Soviet Union whom Stalin felt suffered or might suffer from divided loyalties in a major war with Germany. These included the Volga Germans, the descendants of German pioneers, craftsmen and tradesmen, whom Catherine the Great had encouraged to settle in Russia and spread their skills in the eighteenth century. In fact, the tribes chosen for deportation represented much of the borderlands of the Soviet Union, places which caused Stalin, a Georgian, a great deal of worry. Ukraine, which translates literally as ‘On the Edge’ or ‘Borderland’, caused Stalin many sleepless nights because of its position at the gateway between Russia and the West, and was subjected to special treatment. In the 1930’s hundreds of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, and Poles were deported to the East in the struggle against the ‘kulaks’, successful private farmers, who were deemed a threat to the introduction of the collectivization programme, which itself is credited with the death through famine of between 2.5 and 7.5 million people.

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THIS WAY FOR REFUGEES →

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The deportations continued far beyond Ukraine. The official reason for mass forced resettlements was invariably some form of treasonous anti-Soviet behaviour. Hundreds of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, whose recent independence was nullified by Soviet invasion at the start of the War, would disappear east in the 1940’s.  On February 23rd 1944, the entire population of the Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia were either exiled or killed, as punishment for the Chechen leader Khasan Israilov’s insurrection. The Crimean Tatars, in retaliation for 20,000 of their number fighting against what they saw as Bolshevik oppression, albeit in collusion with the German Wehrmacht, would also receive a collective punishment on May 18th 1944, when Stalin ordered the complete relocation of the population. In fact, the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets called the Second World War, saw a virtual spring cleaning of much of the Caucasus and the Crimea. Not only Chechens, Ingush and Tatars, but Kalmyks, Balkars, Karachays, Kabardin, and Meskhetian Turks were visited by agents of the NKVD, and told to fill a suitcase with their personal effects and board a train bound for those seemingly endless corrals of dissenters and reprobates that lay to the north or to the east and south of the Urals. And the population transfers were by no means all in the same direction. Concerned that political events on Russia’s far eastern borders in the late 1930’s might spill over into the Soviet domain, saw Stalin order the transportation of 172,000 ethnic Koreans, as well as Chinese and ‘Harbin Russians’ (the fact that these ethnic Russians had worked on the Harbin railway in Manchuria made them ‘Japanese spies’), who would now join a growing cosmopolitan throng of human detritus in Kazakhstan. There followed Azerbajianis, Persians, Kurds, Assyrians, Moldovans, Laz, Ingrian Finns, Pontic Greeks, and Hamshenis. At times, they were transported to camps which, not having actually been built yet, they themselves had to construct.  There were other instances, as in Central Asia, of groups transported by train, being kicked out in the middle of the desert. There they were thrown among the local Central Asian populations, who had their own bitter experiences of compulsory resettlement, forced abandonment of traditional lifestyles, as well as of famine and starvation, caused directly by the wholesale implementation of centrally-managed and culturally, socially, agriculturally, and economically inappropriate collectivisation programmes. Soviet Central Asia, once a sort of enlarged buffer zone which in the 19thCentury provided Russia with a bulwark against the threat of invasion from British India to the south, became a dumping ground for distrusted ethnic minorities, thrown unceremoniously among Turkic and Tajik populations whose own centuries-old traditions were being forcibly ‘revolutionized’ for the economic and security interests of their big brother to the north. This was how that great big brother had long dealt with its problematic neighbours, whether in the sable-collared tunic of the Emperor, or the plain Marshall’s uniform of the cobbler’s son from Gori, Georgia –  Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, lately remoulded as Comrade Stalin.

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[i] Stalin’s reply to the head of his secret police concerning the question of what to do with the one and a half million Volksdeutsche (Soviet citizens of German origin) following the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

[ii] Although Menzhinsky died most probably of natural causes, that did not prevent future chief Genrykh Yagoda confessing to having poisoned him at his own show trial in 1938.

[iii] Virski, Fred, My Life in the Red Army. Macmillan, New York. 1949. P.3

©2012

Posted June 28, 2012 by jkorowicz in Exile, History, NKVD, Poland, Second World War, Soviet Union, USSR

JUNE-JULY 1941   Leave a comment

There has been some interesting new research into the events of June-July 1941 in Lwów as the Germans occupied the city from the retreating Soviets. The NKVD Prison Murders, the Massacre of the Lwów Professors, and two Lwów Pogroms, occurred in the days before, during, and after the German occupation. Probably the most contenscious issue is over what role Ukrainian nationalists may have had in the violence which claimed thousands of lives.

Here’s Philip Friedman’s account of the extermination of Lwów’s Jews in English. What’s interesting is that it’s partially based on an eye-witness report written in 1945.

This article has excerpts from the recently-published Polish translation of Dieter Schenka’s “Der Lemberger Professorenmord und der Holocaust in Ostgalizien” (“The Murder of Lwów professors and the Holocaust in East Galicia”).

Here’s a Russian translation from another German text about the controversial events surrounding the capture of Lwów, Hannes Heer’s “Einübung in den Holocaust: Lemberg Juni/Juli 1941”:

POSTCARD FROM A WAR 1915   Leave a comment


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Postcard from ‘the war to end all wars’.

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A large plastic photo frame filled with a mosaic of weather-beaten images on the shelf in my father’s bedroom contained the memories of his life. That was where my search began, the journey which would lead us to Poland and beyond. They are like relics to me. There is an unnerving mystery behind them, as though history stole these people from us and left the images in their place. There are black and white photos of Wojtek’s mother and father. And, of course, my mother, his wife. Wojtek is the last living link between these long-dead people and me.

There is one image of my grandfather, Henryk, which stood out in my mind from the time I was a child. It shows him as a young man in his officer’s uniform and was taken during the First World War. The image is mounted on a postcard. In those distant days, people would often visit the photographic studio, wherever it was that circumstances had compelled them to endure separation from their loved ones, and have a living image of themselves taken and mounted on post office cardboard. Kind words were inscribed along with the addressee’s information and within a few days, by the grace and wonder of the technology of those times, the self-same addressee would delight in the warm radiance of their distant loved ones gazing out at them.

He cuts a smart figure in his officer’s uniform. It is well-tailored, with six shining buttons, two stars on the collar, and a pill-box hat with his regimental badge. Dignified. Debonair even. Later, he would come to resemble Hercule Poirot, with a sort of studious decorum and elegant awkwardness. But here he is young. He was just twenty seven years old when the photograph was taken. The verdant background – a hospital garden – serves to soften the reality that mass carnage is taking place in the world around him. A single medal decorates his chest, attained either through some sterling act of bravery, or, by simple virtue of the fact that he was still standing when the battle declined. This was the First World War after all; when the battlelines marched out on a conveyor belt of attrition. Henryk was born a Pole (a Jewish Pole) at a time when Poland had all but ceased to exist, so he fought under the colours of an Empire, the Empire of Austro-Hungary, a strange unwieldy sounding entity to twenty-first century ears. One of those old worlds, which sit in history books and are, in name at least, no more. Entente Cordiale, Tripartite Agreement, Little Entente –  political expediencies of a now ancient Europe, which heralded peace and protection through amalgamation and somehow are no more. No more because the peace and protection they afforded some were at the expense of others.

Henryk rests his right hand on a cane to support his injured leg while his left hand is tucked dandily into his hip jutting his elbow out in a pose that seems to defy the sombreness of the moment. He is young and handsome and looks unwilling to yield to the fatalism of the clouds that have gathered in spades over Europe. Clouds that will soon blemish Vienna and Westphalia, and Waterloo. Clouds that will create benchmarks of suffering and disappointments for future generations under simple Frankish and Slavic names – Verdun, Somme, Ypres, and Brusilov. Clouds that will eventually reach their breaking point in an apocalyptic precipitation that will curse city and village, forest and vale, from north to south, and east to west, to the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidanek, Treblinka, Czenstochau, Bełżec, and Sobibor.  Henryk’s records in the archives of the Austro-Hungarian Army offer a cursory outline of his personality, distilled into categories which highlight his usefulness in purely military matters. They record him as an ensign in the Imperial and Royal Siege Artillery Regiment Baron de Beschi No. 2. He is described as ‘very useful in company duties, dedicated to duty.’ There is a description of his deployment on duty (‘obedient to superiors and polite, demanding discipline from subordinates’) as well as his deployment off duty (‘very tactful, courteous’). His private circumstances are recorded as: ‘Single. Personal finances orderly.’

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‘A kiss and good wishes to all! -Henryk’

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According to the postmark on the back of the postcard, it is the ninth day of August 1915 and Henryk is recuperating in a hospital for officers in Bistra, Silesia. He writes in the elegant hand of that time when so much was written by hand. The original addressee of this military portrait is given his titles in German, Herren Wohlgeboren Joachim Kornreich. The double honorific hints at the politeness of the age and the standing of the addressee: Mister Well-Born Joachim Kornreich.[1] The main message appears in Polish: A kiss and good wishes to all. Henryk. It seems surprisingly cheery for a postcard not simply from a war, but from a war which was christened ‘Great’ and bore H.G. Wells’ unfortunately inadequate sobriquet ‘the war to end all wars.’  This Joachim was then living at the centre of the Empire, in Vienna. He is Henryk’s father, and so my great-grandfather. Their surnames differ, father’s and son’s, out of no family dispute. Our family were in fact the Kornreich-Korowicz’s, a double-barrelled conjunct of good Austrian and Polish surnames. A sign perhaps of my progenitors’ life under Austrian rule and in particular in eastern-most Galicia, an Austrian-administered territory whose capital Lwów held a majority Polish population. The names were used interchangeably, with a preference for using each in its respective milieu, the Polish name in Polish circumstances, the Austrian when dealing with more international issues. This was certainly true before 1918 when Henryk, who was to become a successful economist, began to publish books and papers on monetary issues affecting the global economy and the Austrian Empire under the name Kornreich. After Polish independence, when the best of his career was achieved, the name Korowicz dominated but he was known professionally in Kraków and Lwów both before and after Polish independence as Dr. Korowicz.[2] This was not remarkably strange in those times, in those circumstances, in a multi-ethnic Empire, before the clash of nationalisms and ideologues. The use of multiple names also hints at another more sinister aspect of Europe one hundred years ago. It was not uncommon among minority groups and especially the Jews to adopt a name of the land where they lived. This was both a salute towards integration, and a form of protection against the pogroms which had become a disturbingly repetitive feature of the Jews’ European migrations. The Polish King Casimir III had famously bucked a trend once and invited Jewish immigration in the 14th century but these were different times. This was the age of the scapegoat, the birth of populism and people power, when political shifts demanded the unmasking of a hidden enemy. Anti-Semitism would soon find a warm niche in the new Polish Republic, which had been starved of nationhood for so long: while to the east and the west of Poland, the Jews would fare far worse.

The changing game of Europe’s Empires and dominions was about to lead to a bloody re-christening of the past in the years that were to follow Henryk’s Great War. In a brutal atmosphere of blind nationalism and radical social experimentation, names became badges of honour and marks of shame. Names would lose the nuances that described the communities they had lived in, the neighbourhood recognition of interconnections, local histories, friendships, and loves lost and gained. A time would come when your name would denote only your national allegiance, your ethnicity, and your social class- three elements which marked your cards before your interview with destiny, when the knock on your door might be the last time you opened the door. Many names disappeared forever. On a wisp of wind, like grains of dust. Some names remain only on gravestones, on brass plaques, on stone monuments, in history books, or on the lips of the old.

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[1] Wohlgeboren (‘Well-Born’) was a honorific title, used by lower noble ranks and civic notables.

[2] Henryk’s publications, written for the specialist and the student, in both Polish and German, include the following titles: “Gold Currency in Light of War” (1918); “Proprietor and Peasant in Poland and particularly in Galicia”; “Studies on the Depreciation of Currency and Other Economical Questions”;  “An Outline of Commercial Politics” (1930); “Politics of Trade” (1931).