Moving in the Foreign Service.
We are hitting the last leg of our unaccompanied tour in Warsaw. Only 6 weeks left before we depart to go home. Bitter-sweet thoughts come to mind.
Poland is a beautiful country, rich in magnificent though tragic history. Whenever I have traveled the country, whether by train or by car, I can’t help but notice how flat much of it is, and how easy it was to be invaded by marauding hordes, either riding horses or tanks.
I never appreciate Poland as much as I do when I have visitors who, though well-educated and well-read, marvel at the fact that Poland remains an enigma. Despite some of its well-known sons and daughters, it is only when one comes to this country that one discovers the richness of the Polish tapestry, which is not as widely known.
A decisively emotional moment always comes when my visitors visit Wawel Castle in Krakow and discover the tomb of General Thaddeus Kosciusko.
Either American Revolutionary History is not taught that well in schools or memories are very dusty, because most of my many visitors are astounded that this General was a hero of the American Revolution, a friend of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the Father of West Point, and a firm believer in the equality of all. George Washington presented him with lands in the USA, and, Kosciusko requested that, upon his death, the money from his estate be used to purchase the freedom of as many black slaves as it could.
Another Polish hero of the time, General Casimir Pulaski, died in Savannah, Georgia, after becoming the “Father of the American Cavalry”. Alas, not many remember him either.
I sometimes wonder if some of our ignorance derives from the fact that Polish names are virtually impossible to master unless one has some training in the language… After all, it is easier to remember Joseph Conrad as an English author rather than Teodor Josef Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski, as a Polish author who wrote in English! (It was thanks to reading his Victory that I discovered the word “garrulous”â€¦ at the tender age of 16 I knew a lot of many garrulous types, and was pleasantly surprised I could now apply the right moniker to them!!!).
One of the most painful memories of Polish history is World War II. I cannot count the times I have had Poles say to me that they are baffled that the world does not really know that there were two uprisings: the Jewish Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw ’44 Uprising. The world at large seems to have lumped the two together, which is a travesty, because both of these uprisings were devastatingly tragic in their own right. A New York Times’ review of Norman Davies’ devastating book, “Rising 44″, explains
In April 1943 the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto revolted. Despite their valiant and desperate fight, the rebellion was brutally suppressed. The ghetto was smashed; 36,000 people were either killed or sent to death camps.
As Davies explains, the Warsaw uprising of 1944 — which should not be confused with the ghetto uprising — ended just as tragically. After Hitler commanded the SS chief Heinrich Himmler to take charge of operations in the city, orders were issued to put down the rebellion and reduce the Polish capital to ruins: ”We shall finish them off,” Himmler declared. ”Warsaw will be liquidated.” Every inhabitant was to be killed, every house burned. By October the rebellion had been crushed. Fifteen thousand of the partisans had been killed, and between 200,000 and 250,000 civilians lay dead.
The neighborhood I live in, Mokotow, had its citizen soldiers evacuated through the sewers. You can read a poignant description of the evacuation here. There is an incredible movie, Kanal, by Andrzej Wajda, that tells the story of the Polish Resistance fighters who end up having to retreat into the sewers. By today’s standards, some would say the film is too melodramatic. Yet, considering it was made 13 years after the horrid events, I cannot agree. The Old Town section of Warsaw burnt like a furnace for more than two months. Warsaw was more than 85% liquidated.
The forces of history are always playing tricks. Why should UNESCO have had to revise its name of the nefarious Auschwitz death camp? And why should Poland have had to ask that the name be changed to “ensure that people understand it had no role in establishing or running the camp where the Nazis killed more than 1 million people, most of them Jews”?
To be continued…