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World War II
A Narrative History

"A Polish Cadet"
(1939)
K.S. Karol
Between Two Worlds (1987)

Time Magazine maps Poland's fate
Invade by the Germans on 1 September 1939, Poland found its armed forces overmatched by a well-prepared and highly mobile enemy. The subsequent attack by Russia in the east sealed Poland's doom...
....The camp's commander announced that the war would be a long one and that we would have a chance to fight when we reached eighteen or even twenty-one years of age. For now, however, he wanted some volunteers to protect public buildings, perhaps in Warsaw, thereby freeing a company of the regular army for duty on the front. Every one of us a patriot, we all took a step forward. I imagine that we resembled closely those schoolboys of the Kaiser's Germany, described so well by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front. Just as with them, patriotic ardor glazed over our eyes. For Jurek, Rysiek, and myself ... enthusiasm consisted above all of antifascist elan. I also promised myself that in the Hour of Victory, after crushing the Germans, I would redirect my gun at the oppressor regime in Poland. But guarding public buildings would have to do until then: our army at the front had to have its rear guard well secured.
The only problem was that the front seemed to be everywhere, beginning with the road we took to Warsaw. In undisputed command of the air, the Luftwaffe bombed everything that moved, at least in western Poland. In the beginning, we were terrified. During the first raid, Sergeant Major Bartczak, a stupid and cruel man, even ordered a peasant woman to strangle her baby so that it would stop exposing us to risk with its crying. Fortunately the brave woman refused. Shortly we became used to the Luftwaffe; it had claimed no victims among our little troop, which comprised a hundred "auxiliary soldiers" and ten or so regular soldiers who flanked us. The real problems were slow progress in marching and the palpable lowering of morale, prompted by the fear that perhaps we weren't on the winning side after all.
Where were our planes? Did Poland have any planes? Some of us took comfort from pretending that our air force was active on the front, unlike the Luftwaffe, which was being used against civilians, including women and children. But this explanation, based on trust in the moral superiority of our pilots, collapsed when, on September 5, we at last reached the suburbs of the capital. Muffled rumblings of artillery fire convinced us that the front couldn't be very far away; and, alas, there wasn't a Polish plane in sight. Worse still, nourished by the myth of the combined might of France and Great Britain, we half expected to see their squadrons flying above our country. Instead, they were conspicuous by their absence.
Things were bad -- much worse than our most pessimistic fears. The weary eyes of our camp commander betrayed fatigue and confusion; in Warsaw they hadn't any need of us, and it was too late to send us back to Lodz, which was by now occupied by the Germans. Our leader recovered his verve only after meeting a group of officers among whom was a major who agreed to speak to him, to help him, to help us. I remember that after their conversation they separated on a perky note: "See you again, after another miracle on the Vistula." I too was sure that the Polish Army still had the capacity to wage a victorious battle on the outskirts of the capital. Hadn't my mother told me that in the hour of danger our people were capable of surpassing themselves, or revealing unsuspected reserves of heroism?
Nevertheless, our small troop was not supposed to contribute to this exploit. Our leader, after assembling our supplies and receiving his instructions, ordered us to march -- singing -- in the direction of Lublin. In our song, even the trees were supposed to salute us, because it was "for our Poland" that we were going into combat.
In reality, neither man nor beast nor any other living thing paid us any honor and we didn't have the opportunity to fire a single shot. The enemy always came from the air, and even when they flew very low, they were still beyond the range of our old Mausers. The spectacle of the war therefore rapidly became monotonous; day after day we saw the same scenes: civilians running to save themselves from air raids, convoys dispersing, trucks or carts on fire. The smell along the road was unchanging, too. It was the smell of dead horses that no one had bothered to bury and that stank to high heaven. We moved only at night and we learned to sleep while marching....
....Two weeks after our departure from Warsaw, when we had already gone well beyond Lublin, our leader suddenly ordered us to make an about-face. We were going back toward the west, toward Chelm. What had happened? Had the miracle on the Vistula materialized? Were we finally going to protect the public buildings of Warsaw? In an army, orders are never explained .... But along the roads ... other soldiers and civilians were also on the march, and thanks to the ubiquitous rumor mill ... we learned that no miracle had taken place. We were heading west because the Russians were arriving from the east. And not to come to our aid, either .... "Stalin and his loyal comrades" were coming quite simply to gobble up their share of Poland.
Rysiek, Jurek, and I were seized with consternation. If the Bolsheviks had become friends with the Nazis, then principles no longer mattered; there was no longer any hope for our poor Poland....
We marched around in circles for one week more. Warsaw surrendered on September 27, but we continued our march until October 3, when we found ourselves encircled, along with some detachments of the regular army, by the Germans, near the village of Krzywda (Injustice). The Wehrmacht, for its own amusement or to encourage us to lay down our arms more quickly, sprayed us copiously with bursts of machine-gun fire and bombarded us with grenades. I caught something in the eye almost without noticing it, and without feeling any pain. My right eye simply closed and I could no longer open it except with the help of my fingers, by forcing the eyelid. I didn't make a fuss about it, believing that it would pass, and I took part in all of the farewell ceremonies. A high-ranking Polish officer, a colonel or perhaps even a general, had been authorized by our German captors to make a speech to us in which he said that the war was not over, that the Polish Army, under the command of General Sikorski, fought on in France, and that our powerful Western allies were more than ever at our side. Our camp commander also came to say good-bye; the Germans were separating the officers from the NCOs and the rank-and-file troops.
We were taken to Demblin Fortress, on the Vistula. I would spend ten days there before being sent to a hospital in Random .... In Demblin we were shut up in a large depot full of racks for arms -- emptied, obviously -- and were allowed out only to line up, in the rain, in front of an improvised, open-air kitchen. At night we arranged our bunks as best we could with boards torn from the partitions and placed on the racks because, without them, there wouldn't even have been enough space for everyone on the ground. Our bunks, however, had an unfortunate tendency to collapse, which often provoked a good deal of stumbling and swearing in the darkness. The Germans would arrive forthwith, hurling abuse and insults ....Blows struck with rifle butts landed here and there on the heads of these "polnische Schweinerhunde" but I was lucky enough to avoid them.
We waited for them to take a census of their prisoners, so that we could explain our peculiar situation as student auxiliaries, but they didn't seem to be in any hurry. Instead, we were subjected to another sort of census altogether. One rainy morning, one of the Wehrmacht loud-mouths came into our depot, screaming: "Alles was Jude ist, aufstehen." ("Anyone who is Jewish, stand up.") ....
Between Two Worlds is out of print and available at ABEBOOKS
 Sikorski, Gen. Wladyslaw

(1881-1943) Sikorski was head of the Polish government-in-exile and Commander in Chief of Free Polish Forces from 1939 until his death in 1943. He was refused a command in the Polish Army when the Germans invaded because Rydz-Smigley distrusted him. Sikorski was in Paris when Poland collapsed and became Premier of the provisional government and Commander of the Polish Armed Forces in France, an army which grew to a body of 100,000 by the spring of 1940. When France fell Sikorski went to England with his army and government.
In England Sikorski opened negotiations with the Allies for recognition and aid for the underground movement. He also established close rapport with Churchill which was to be of much use. In July 1941 when Russia was at its lowest point, following the opening of Barbarossa, Sikorski began negotiations which led to ... a joint Soviet-Polish declaration of alliance which included a recognition of Poland's pre-1939 borders and a repudiation of the Soviet-German partition [of Poland]. It also provided an amnesty for Polish prisoners and deportees in Russia and permission for General Anders to form a Polish Army in the USSR from the Polish population [there]. The central issue at the time and throughout the war was the fate of the 14,500 Poles who had been deported in 1939, 8000 of whom disappeared into Russian camps after April 1940. Anders was unable to trace the vast majority of these and tension between the Polish government-in-exile and Russia increased by the year. In 1943 Sikorski presented Churchill with evidence that the 3000 Polish officers buried at Katyn had been murdered by the Russians. Churchill however wanted to keep his relations with Stalin smooth at all costs and smothered the issue. Sikorski died in a plane crash at Gibraltar on 4 July 1943 and the Polish government in London became progressively impotent. Sikorski was the only Polish leader who had sufficient stature and skill to secure the confidence of his people and to achieve the close relations with Churchill and Stalin which were necessary to maintain a united and effective Polish government with substantial influence in Allied affairs.
Who was Who in World War II, Keegan, ed. (1978)