Poland Remembered II

By Stu Whitley

This is the second in a four-part series.

There is no country more
tragically concerned with war, oppression and the visitation of death
than Poland. This is saying something for a continent riven by ethnic
and political conflict for millennia. It is my impression that war—and
in particular, the Second World War—casts a long shadow there, for the
occupation by the Soviet Union that followed for nearly half a century
afterward had its bitter roots in that conflict. The scars are yet
there, literally. In the large block in Lublin where my father lived as
a boy, a line of machine gun bullets fired 67 years ago is neatly
stitched across the stone façade.

My brother and I went to
Poland with my father to visit the country he knew as a young man. In
1939, he was an 18-year-old corporal in the 24th Lancers, his father’s
regiment. The unit was stationed in Krasnik, a small town just outside
Lublin, whose sole purpose at the time was to support the regiment.

days, all that remains of the Lancers are ancient stables now converted
to storage for bricks, and a small museum dedicated to the memory of
the 24th. Old photographs and fading documents show resplendent,
prideful warriors, including my kin. My grandfather is shown, frozen
for all time mid-flight, on a white stallion crossing a stone fence.

of my father’s clear recollections at the outbreak of war was of my
grandfather rummaging about, calling to his step-mother, looking for
his dress uniform and accoutrements. These to be ready for the victory
march in Berlin, so confident was he that the Nazis would be repulsed. 
This wasn’t unusual: in his memoirs, Professor Swianiewicz, a survivor
of one of the early Soviet concentration camps, wrote that “…the mood
of the Poles tended to be optimistic…they never imagined that Germany
could win the war.” These were the men who faced the Blitzkrieg with
lances and on horseback. That spirit of indomitability and infinite
confidence probably best defines Poland, and is perhaps why it has
endured as a nation despite the lack of natural borders, sandwiched as
it is between larger, sometimes rapacious neighbors. It is perhaps the
reason why the dead are owed such deference in a land where suffering
and sacrifice maintained the national sense of self through generations
of oppression.

A case in point: enraged by the obduracy of the
Home Army (Polish underground) during the Battle of Warsaw (August 1 –
September 3, 1944), in which my father was engaged, Hitler threw the
full weight of his eastern divisions against the city. When it became
clear that the destruction of what remained of the resistance was
inevitable, the government in exile (in London) ordered surrender after
a standoff of two months. Immediately, Hitler demanded the razing of
the city. Contemporary photographs show nothing but rubble in every
direction. One is reminded of Xerxes flogging the Hellespont for stormy
weather: such madness is evident in the city’s complete destruction,
including the Royal Castle and the Old Town.

Yet Poles rebuilt
the city brick by brick, with paintings, old photographs and blueprints
in hand. In some cases, shards of moldings and pieces of stone carvings
supplied the models for replicating what was lost, to the point where
the post-medieval structures, including the Royal Palace that borders a
cobblestone square, restore the Old Town to its former glory. Sitting
in a café today, one might assume the patina of centuries finishes
these buildings, so true are the restorations. At the beginning of Remembrance of Things Past,
Proust wrote that memory is a rope let down from heaven to draw us up
from the dark well of ‘not-being’. Memory raised up afresh the glory of

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