Archive for the ‘Nazi Germany’ Category

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, 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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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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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”: