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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INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE DISAPPEARED   Leave a comment

‘Tens of thousands of people around the world are missing today because of armed conflicts or human rights abuses such as abductions and illegal arrests and detentions.

As it prepares to mark the International Day of the Disappeared on Thursday, the International Commission on Missing Persons urged governments to provide families with answers about the fates and whereabouts of their missing loved ones. Human rights groups called such disappearances a crime against humanity that must be stopped.

WHO IS A MISSING PERSON?

Individuals reported missing because of in-country or international armed conflicts, or disturbances that require action by a neutral and independent body. Also, people who have been taken into custody by officials who refuse to publicly acknowledge that or conceal the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared persons…

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE DISAPPEARED, Washington Post, 2012/08/29

Posted August 30, 2012 by jkorowicz in International Day of the Disappeared

COINCIDENCE   Leave a comment

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On Wednesday, I watched on the news channels the reburial of human remains from the Srebrenica Massacre, when 8,000 men and boys were killed after the town was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.  Not all the bodies could be located, but those that were have come to represent all who died. It was a poignant moment for the families and survivors who have lived under the shadow of a murder, which has lefts its scars and then revisited them countless times in the form of political, national, and religious posturing. These bones were once real people. But even as bones they were more than once before dug up and reburied in efforts to erase the crime from the annals of history. Their own murder has outlived them. For the mourners, the tragedy is that the violent act carried out against their families and friends overshadows what the dead once achieved for themselves in life.

“It is the pain, an endless pain, and when 11 July arrives, every year, this pain becomes unbearable,” Sevdija Halilovic, whose father’s remains will be laid to rest, told the AFP news agency. “My two brothers were also killed in the massacre but have not been found yet,” she added.

By coincidence,  July 11th is also the anniversary of my grandfather’s arrest. He was murdered soon afterwards. Seventy-one years after his life was snuffed out, his remains have not been found. In fact, they will never knowingly be found. In my grandfather’s city, old massacres were often later cleaned up. The bodies were brought to the edge of town. There a furnace awaited them. What remained from the furnace was ground to dust in a gravel grinder, and sprayed out over the forest. Time and subterfuge once stole their final moments but they are nonetheless remembered as living people today.


Posted July 13, 2012 by jkorowicz in Balkans, Srebrenica

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).

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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