I enjoy history and geography, particularly of Eastern Europe. My graduate studies focused on Soviet/Russian history and politics, but I’ve always been drawn to the Polish experience of World War II. Perhaps it’s because I’m part Polish myself, or because of the uniquely crushing experience Poland received from both East and West.
My interest has grown in recent months thanks to several books that have brought the war – beginning on September 1, 1939, 74 years ago today – into a whole new light. This history of Poland and World War II is marked most deeply by utter destruction and mass death. Yet amidst such horror, there were displays of unfathomable bravery, patriotism, and selflessness. Here I’ll focus on two extraordinary Poles: Witold Pilecki and Kystyna Skarbek.
Pilecki was a Polish army officer who was integral in supporting the underground Home Army as an intelligence officer and resistance fighter under joint German-Soviet occupation. As the Nazis rounded up political prisoners and suspected enemies following their September 1 invasion, Pilecki volunteered for an astoundingly dangerous mission: to be purposefully captured by the Germans for incarceration in Auschwitz and report on German activities there. Additionally, he was to organize secret resistance cells among the camp’s inmates.
Prior to 1942, the Auschwitz camp mostly held Polish prisoners and Soviet POWs and was used as a labor camp; as Pilecki reported, summary executions were certainly commonplace. The mass exterminations of Jews, Roma, and others for which Auschwitz is today synonymous occurred primarily at an expansion camp nearby, known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz II.
For nearly three years Pilecki witnessed near constant violence and death of all manners – beatings, exhaustion, exposure, and a number of forms of execution – yet he persevered in his mission to not only survive, but to organize his fellow Poles into independent, autonomous cells to rise up and fight should the opportunity arise. By assisting his compatriots in hoarding food, obtaining indoor work details, and dodging relocation orders to other camps (for execution), Pilecki saved countless lives, including his own. In the spring of 1943, with his false identity nearly compromised, Pilecki escaped with two other inmates, taking a bullet in the shoulder in the process.
While most would consider this endeavor enough danger for a lifetime, Pilecki remained in occupied Poland and played a notable role in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Pilecki not only survived the uprising, but the remainder of the war, and in 1945 wrote a long-form military report (recently published as a book) of his years in Auschwitz. Following the Allied victory in Europe, Pilecki reported to Soviet-occupied Poland to gather intelligence on Polish communism. A few short years later, he was captured, given a show trial, and executed by his fellow Poles as a foreign spy.
Krystyna Skarbek, better known by her adopted English name, Christine Granville, was another Pole of amazing bravery, wit, and fortitude. While fortunate to be traveling abroad when the Germans invaded in September 1939, Christine quickly set course for London to volunteer her services as a British spy.
Granville was assigned to the British Army’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was almost immediately sent abroad to Hungary and assigned missions to collect information, stockpile weapons, and devise smuggling routes to move people and intelligence out of the Nazi-occupied territory, sometimes over dangerous, mountainous terrain.
After her arrest and interrogation in Budapest, Granville and Andrej Kowerski – her colleague and occasional lover – relocated to Cairo, Egypt in early 1941. Yet this was no ordinary excursion. Using false passports, lies, and more than a little luck, Christine and Andrej drove 4,000-plus miles – through the Balkans, Turkey, and the Levant – in a stolen German Opel. Although they arrived safely in Cairo, Christine’s time there was filled with frustration. Not only was she far from the action, but her past service in Hungary put her under a cloud of suspicion by both British and Polish counterintelligence authorities. No one seemed to know where her true allegiances laid.
After several years enduring the occasional training course (parachuting in Palestine) or infrequent backwater missions (conducting surveillance in Syria), Christine was selected in the summer of 1944 for parachute insertion into occupied France to assist in organizing French resistance fighters (known as maquis) in southeastern France. Alongside a new colleague and lover, Francis Cammaerts, she was assigned the mission of couriering weapons and military intelligence during the fateful days later to be known as the Battle of Vercors. Following the Allied landings in southern France (Operation Dragoon), Christine spent a brief time making contact with and aiding Italian partisans attacking German rear positions as Allied forces swept north from Rome.
After returning to London from the Franco-Italian border, she awaited orders to be parachuted into Poland, but those orders never came. The war’s end and the Soviet consolidation of authority over the new “Eastern Bloc” countries brought an abrupt end to Christine’s wartime service. Her transition to ordinary civilian life – life without adventure or danger – was particularly difficult. Living alone in London, she was a foreigner and a woman, and despised office work; job offers were not plentiful.
After some years away living in Kenya, Christine found employment as a steward aboard a British-based cruise line and made the acquaintance with a co-worker named Dennis Muldowney. Although they fast became friends while at sea, Christine quickly grew bored with Dennis, who was growing increasingly obsessed with her. Christine took steps to avoid him – living with friends and avoiding service on the same ship – yet it was not enough. On a rainy summer night in 1952, Muldowney stalked Christine to her hotel room and plunged a knife in her heart.
The simple fact both Pilecki and Granville survived the war’s chaos and doom is no small feat. But the preceding stories are only of individuals and do not capture the conflict’s grand scale of slaughter and destruction. To understand the trauma of Poland’s national experience, the macro-level view, turn to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
Between 1933 and 1945, civilians living in the land between Berlin and Moscow suffered a supremely horrifying experience. No fewer than 14 million souls perished at the hands of national policies exactly by either Hitler or Stalin “as the result of deliberate policies of mass murder, such as executions, deliberate famine and in death camps.”
Sadly, this ghastly number of deaths does not include those who died fighting during World War II, only the civilians subjected to the horrors of industrialized communism and National Socialism. Poles and Ukrainians fared the worst, as they were targeted by both Germany and the Soviet Union because of their nationality. The Polish cultural elite – its intelligentsia, made of activists, intellectuals, writers, and political leaders, not to mention its historic Jewish populace, were systematically erased from existence. Warsaw’s population in particular felt the Nazi’s wrath following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising: approximately 700,000 civilians were murdered in retribution.
Taken together, the experiences of Captain Pilecki and Christine Granville, as well as the greater suffering of the Polish civilian population, paint a bleak portrait of a people and nation utterly destroyed. Yet Poland persevered. Although beaten by the war and then broken by the imposition of communism, it rose from Eastern Europe’s ashes when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Currently, Poland stands proudly as an EU member state, having undergone one of the most successful transitions to democracy of the former Soviet satellite states.
So today, on this most solemn of anniversaries, take the time to remember two Polish heroes and raise your glass to toast their bravery.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve written quite a few here. It stands to reason then that a few photos will assist the reader in grasping Poland’s tragic experience by looking back in time, to see a nation in the early days of the war, before the widespread and unimaginable terror and incomprehensible human toll.
Here are two galleries depicting the 1939 invasion as well as of Polish life in the early years under German occupation.
“World War II: The Invasion of Poland and the Winter War,” courtesy of The Atlantic (Part 2 of their 20-part retrospective on World War II)
“On the Brink of Oblivion: Inside Nazi Occupied Poland, 1939-1940,” courtesy of Time & Life Pictures
And for the interested reader, here are the books from which I drew inspiration for this post:
The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, by Captain Witold Pilecki
The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, by Clare Mulley
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Professor Timothy Snyder