Archive for the ‘Polish History’ 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 Russian-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 told 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 stoic 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 Russians 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 memorably 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 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 the Armenian 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 his Soviet comrades’ favourite vodka-fuelled after-dinner game which involves turning off the lights in a room, diving for cover, 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, for Polish soil, and not for the now God-forsaken wasteland in which he found himself. 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.”