Archive for the ‘Second World War’ Category

MY LIFE IN THE RED ARMY   2 comments

 Alfred Kornreich

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

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

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

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Fredek Kornreich

Fifteen year old Fredek in 1935.

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

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

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

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

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

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My Life in the Red Army Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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Alfred & Karol

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

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 Wilimowski 1

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”:

EASTER 1935 LWÓW   1 comment


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A family gathering at my Great-Grandfather Antoni’s house, Lwów. Easter 1935. My father Wojtek, then eight years old, tussles with a friend in the right foreground.

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A few months before my father died in May 2011, we discovered our long-lost relations still living in Poland. For seventy years, Wojtek had had no idea where they had gone, and they had thought him long dead. So my cousin Agnieszka came to visit us bearing a great pile of old photos which her mother had copied for us from their family album and labelled. We gathered around as she laid them out one by one and told us who they were. There was Wojtek’s mother as a child with his Aunt Jadwiga and Uncle Zdisław. There were his grandmother and his grandfather in his starched collar and with a fine waxen-tipped moustache. There were Wojtek’s great-grandparents, my own great-great-grandparents. There was also the Łazowski family, his cousins, whom Wojtek had once told me about: Zbyszek and his mother, his wife and sisters – those who were exiled to Kazakhstan by the NKVD. I finally could see what they looked like, and so put faces to the characters who populated my father’s stories…

“Did they survive?” Wojtek asked. “Kazakhstan, I mean.”

“Zbyszek and the family, you mean? Oh yes! They all made it back to Poland after the War. Zbyszek died only in 1997.” Agnieszka said with a smile, as she realized once again that Wojtek had no idea what had happened to his family for the last seventy years.

“And Zbyszek’s father, Władysław, who ran the pharmacy on Listopad Street?” Wojtek asked.

“You didn’t know?” Agnieszka asked. “He was taken by the NKVD before the rest of his family was exiled. Mother only found out much later through the Red Cross what happened to him. He was taken to the prison camp at Starobielsk. He had been a lieutenant-colonel in the Polish Army in the inter-war period. Although he was already sixty-four years of age and retired, they took him along with the other officers. He became one of the victims of the infamous Katyń massacres.”

The parade of photographs continued, from the ancient past right up to images of Agnieszka’s own children. As she laid them down before us, I watched them float by like the years. I pictured myself for a moment within the frames of this lost world, a hereditary time-traveller putting on the moustaches and pocket watches of the times, standing next to my great-grandparents. The wonder is all the greater for the fact that I am separated from them not only by time, but by geography, by politics, by war, and by exile.

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My great-grandparents Antoni and Olga Pawłowski, my grandmother Olga (far left), her sister Jadwiga, and brother Zdisław. Photo circa 1900

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My great -great-grandparents Antoni Pawłowski Sr. and Zuzanna Carolina Pawłowska. Photo circa 1890

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“I think there are some here with your father.” Agnieszka said to me, searching quickly through the remaining photos. “Ah-ha! There they are!”

There were two photos of a family gathering in Wojtek’s grandparents’ house, during Easter, 1935. They were all there. Wojtek’s grandparents, his parents, his aunt Jadwiga, his grandaunt Mudzia, Zbyszek and his wife Wanda, Zbyszek’s parents and his sister Kazia. And there lying down in the foreground, resting his head in one hand, with a great beaming smile, lay a young Wojtek. I had to laugh.

“Are you wearing a sailor suit, Wojtek?” I asked.

“ That was three-quarters of a century ago. People used to dress up their kids like that back then.” Wojtek replied laughing.

“By the way, Wojtek, my mother asked me to ask you something.” Agnieszka said. “She knows your grandparents both died in 1941. She knows how your father was killed by the German Einsatzgruppen, and that your mother was deported to Kraków after the War. But she doesn’t know what became of your grandaunt Mudzia.”

“Oh, that was another sad tale.” Wojtek said. “She suffered a nervous breakdown. That was soon after the Germans invaded. My father had already been killed, my grandparents were dead. She went to the psychiatric hospital and died soon after. I think she was buried in the grounds of the hospital. Those were terrible times.”

I have a strange sensation looking at the photo below, at little Wojtek and the grown-ups around him. They have no idea what is about to befall them in the years ahead. Perhaps the photo is a microcosm of Polish history during the period. Wojtek’s father would be shot by the Germans, his cousin Władysław would die by Soviet hands, and Władysław’s son Zbyszek and the rest of his family would be exiled to Kazakhstan. Wojtek’s grandparents both in their eighties died in 1942, of ‘natural causes’, no doubt exacerbated by the times they lived in. His grandaunt ended her days later that same year in a psychiatric ward unable to comprehend what had become of the world around her. Wojtek, his mother and Aunt Jadwiga would be the last of their family to remain in Lwów. Then Wojtek would leave, an exile. Finally, his mother and aunt would be deported to Kraków in the Polish People’s Republic. And that, my friends, is history.

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A microcosm of Polish history: Władysław Łazowski (1) died in a Soviet prison camp. Zbyszek (2), his wife Wanda (3.), his sister Kazia (5), and his mother Zuzanna (9) deported by Stalin to Kazakhstan. Mudzia (4) suffered a nervous breakdown after the German invasion and died in a psychiatric hospital. Olga Pawłowska (6) and her husband Antoni (10) died ‘a natural death in unnatural times.’ My grandfather Henryk (8) murdered by a German Einzatsgruppe. My grandmother Olga Korowiczowa (11) and her sister Jadwiga (7) deported to the Polish People’s Republic in 1947. My father Wojtek (12) forced into exile.

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Posted June 22, 2012 by jkorowicz in History, Lwów, Poland, Second World War, Soviet Union

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