Army from the lost world
British historian prof. Norman Davies tells Polska.pl about his new book “Trail of Hope” devoted to the extraordinary journey made by the Polish Anders Army from Russia to Great Britain as well as the guardians of Polish memories in the countries that the army marched through. The book will be released in Great Britain on 20th November 2015 - it has been sold at bookstores across Poland since early October.
Magdalena Majewska, Polska.pl: Why did you decide to devote your new book to Anders’ Army?
Prof. Norman Davies*: The subject has been brewing in my head for about 50 years and I thought it was time to do something. But I also saw it as a good moment because there are a lot of memoirs by former Anders’ soldiers being published now. Apart from that, I had a chance to work with a very good photographer so we went ahead.
How did you work on the book? It is not only a story told by a historian but a collection of testimonies provided by those who actually made the journey. Was it difficult to gather those?
The book evolved, as often happens. To begin with I wrote quite a short text of about 100 pages, 20 chapters, 5-6 pages each. And I thought it would be enough. But then we realized that we could expand the book by including the memoirs. The memoirs are very systematic. There is one for every step of the Anders Army’s way. There is about a hundred solid extracts. I knew a lot of them already. I’ve been talking and reading about Anders’ Army for fifty years. The first memoir I ever read was by general Klemens Rudnicki whom I knew. I met him in London in the 1970s. He was a very sprightly elderly gentlemen. His memoirs are extremely exciting. Rudnicki was very interested in all sorts of things, not just military matters. He was interested in the countries they passed through, in the history of Uzbekistan – it was my first introduction to the soviet history of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Rudnicki was very prominent in the organization of the part of the Anders Army in Uzbekistan. He was the last officer to leave.
A second memoir that made a big impression on me was written by a friend of ours in Oxford who is now nearly 90, Michał Giedroyć. He is the cousin of Jerzy Giedroyć editor of “Kultura” [ed. - a leading Polish-émigré literary-political magazine, published from 1947 to 2000 initially in Rome, and later in Paris]. Michał Giedroyć was deported with his mother when he was 11 so he was big enough to remember a number of things. And 60 years later he wrote this very detailed account of their life in Kazakhstan, the whole odyssey through Iran. He was a junak, or a cadet, in the cadet school in Palestine. He came to England at the age of 18 in 1947.
And the third memoir that sticks in my mind is by Aleksander Topolski. He died very recently. He lived to be nearly 100 years old. He was a bit older than Giedroyć then. He served in the communication corps of the army. He was very good at German. His job was to listen to German radio, read German publications, translate German propaganda, so he was very well informed. But he was a very lively, funny young man. I’m sorry that he died before I could meet him. We have been in touch with his widow who is an English lady. He was a great character.
Which moment or stage of the epic journey was the most interesting for you as a historian?
My aim was to paint a panorama of the whole complicated trail from Russia to Great Britain. One episode I was very keen to show was the Battle of Ancona in June and July 1944. After Monte Cassino when Anders passed his exam as a commander, the British made him the overall commander of the Adriatic sector. At the Battle of Ancona, Anders commanded not just Polish troops but British troops as well. It was quite a complicated operation and Anders did extremely well. He was a very talented soldier. I was quite interested in that. As if I was changing the emphasis saying Monte Cassino is fine, but we know all about that. How about showing some other things.
Ancona is on the Adriatic coast of Italy, further north from Monte Cassino and Rome. It was the main port the Germans were using to supply their defense lines in Central Italy. It was not an easy place to attack. It was surrounded by quite high hills. Italy was a perfect terrain for defensive operations. Anders made pincer movements so the Germans didn’t actually know which way the attack was coming from. The attack came from the opposite direction and they decided to leave. The fighting was really difficult. Ancona was the test of Anders’ tactical and staff planning, all the higher realms of military arts and he proved to be very good at it.
The journey is full of great victories by Anders Army. One of them was Monte Cassino in 1944.
The Anders Army was part of a coalition and the Polish Second Corps in Italy never fought alone against the Germans. It was always part of a much bigger military organization. In Monte Cassino there was a huge allied defensive co-operation diadem pushing against the German defense lines. There were 20 divisions of which three were Polish. The Poles were given the most difficult sector of the battle. In the book there is a picture of archbishop Szczepan Wesoły who celebrated Holy Mass during the 71st anniversary of Monte Cassino battle this year. He is a veteran of the Anders Army. He was conscripted into the Wehrmacht, because he was from Katowice. He deserted from the Wehrmacht in France and found his way to Italy. On the picture he stands with a Maori from New Zealand whose grandfather fought with the Poles in Monte Cassino. This is a very symbolic picture.
Why did Stalin allow so many Polish people to leave the Soviet Union and create the Anders Army?
It was a very unusual situation. Generally speaking the Soviet Union was a totally enclosed world, a sealed world. Very few people came in and almost nobody came out. This was a very exceptional period during the German – Soviet war on the eastern front when the Red Army was not doing very well. Stalin was in desperate straits. Under pressure from Winston Churchill he agreed for the Anders Army to go to Iran. Iran was not a free country, it was occupied by the British and in the north by the Soviets. There was an agreement in 1941 to divide Iran. The Soviets did not have enough soldiers to spare and occupy Iran so Stalin acceded to Churchill’s request to send the Polish army to help defend the oil fields in Iran and Iraq. Anders was actually sent to northern Iraq to what we now call Kurdistan. This is 1942, early 1943. But after Stalingrad and El Alamein in northern Africa, the German threat to the Middle East disappeared. So the British, who are keeping the Anders Army, have to decide what to do next. And they decide to send Poles to the Mediterranean and of course the Second Corps is formed and sent to Italy. But nobody knew when they left the Soviet Union that they were going to go to Italy. It was improvisation all the way.
During your journey in Anders’ footsteps did you find traces of the history in the places as they are today? Is the memory of the Andersowcy kept alive by the current inhabitants of the territories?
Most definitely. In all the countries we visited there was always somebody who is guarding the memories of the Poles.
There are people from Anders’ Army still living in Iran, in Teheran. We found two old ladies in their eighties who had married Iranians. They had been girls saved by General Anders. Anders made a special effort to rescue children, orphans. These two now elderly women were young girls during the war. I remember one of them telling us that she was 18 years old and had an offer of marriage from an Iranian. Sha decided to stay and as soon as the army had gone she found that this husband had two other wives. So she made a rapid change and married a very important Iranian officer. In Israel we found a number of people. In Mexico, Santa Rosa, where there was a big Polish children’s camp, there are still people living there. Women who married Mexican men are still in place and show people around.
Quite a lot of Polish soldiers married Italian women. They are still there. They look after monuments and tablets on the walls. Quite often there are little Polish chapels in the churches that are looked after. I met a splendid Italian general who was a boy in 1945 and he invited us to his house. He described how the Poles arrived. They were expecting the English to appear. And the Poles came instead which was a big surprise to them. He was very positive. His wife said the Poles brought them white bread , which they had not seen for five years. Lots of details like that – very vivid, very moving.
Everywhere there are cemeteries. Some of them extremely distressing such as the cemetery at Pahlewi, a port in Iran where Poles arrived. It is the biggest cemetery of all. Thousands of the refugees who came out of the Soviet Union were dying. They disembarked at the beach and died there. There was a huge Polish hospital in Pahlewi looking after people who were too weak to survive. Many of them died as a result of eating food. When the ships reached the shore, extremely exhausted Poles would lie down on the beach and Iranians would come to give them food, for example ice-cream to the children. After eating these ice-creams some of the children would then die. Cemeteries are very moving.
What kind of lessons can we learn from the journey they had to make?
The Anders story is one of the most extraordinary examples of the phenomenon of the movement of people. One lesson is the sheer determination to survive. It is an illustration of the reserves of stamina of human beings. It is very moving when you look at the civilian diaspora. There were twenty Polish settlements in Africa alone. And each of these little settlements was little Poland. They had to build their grass huts very often. They would have had a church and a school. The Polish government would supply them with textbooks. There were education officers. There was a strong sense of culture among people. You can send them five thousand miles away but they carry with them their culture they were brought up with. Such a little Poland was created also in New Zealand. And it is still there. My wife and I had a day with the children of Pahiatua, the Maori village where they lived. They were supposed to return after the war but they had nowhere to go. All the homes of soldiers from Anders’ Army, who were mostly people of the Kresy, were lost. After the war they were in the Soviet Union. Almost none of them were willing even to go to post-war Poland , let alone try to go to Lviv or Vilnus. Of the hundred and forty thousand people only 10 percent agreed to go to Poland. Others came from the lost world – Kresy had disappeared.
2,000 days (7 years) – 120,000 persons – 12,500 km
The Polish Armed Forces in the Soviet Union, informally named the Anders Army after its commander General Władysław Anders, was created as a result of the so-called Sikorski–Mayski Agreement, a treaty between Poland and the Soviet Union signed in July 1941 (after the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Third Reich). The Anders Army consisted mainly of Polish citizens who had been detained in NKVD prisons or who had been deported to labour camps – gulags – in the deepest regions of the USSR. General Władysław Anders became the commander of the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR. In addition to the soldiers he led, Anders gave orders for their families to also be rescued alongside a large numbers of Polish children – tens of thousands of Polish children had been deported in 1940-1941 to the most remote areas of the Soviet Union.
In 1942, the Anders Army was evacuated form the USSR to Iran. The army’s combat trail took them further through Iran, on to Palestine, Egypt and Italy. General Ander’s soldiers took part in several combat operations, including the Battle of Monte Cassino and the Battle of Ancona. From Italy, they made their way to Great Britain. Over the course of seven years, they covered 12,500 km. The army trekked almost around the world, like no other army had done before them.
Anders’ Army was essentially its own state on wheels. Wherever it was stationed, schools were set up, as were academies for cadets, theatres and orchestras. In many places across the globe, Poles left behind traces of Poland and Polish culture often called “little Polands”. Centres for Polish orphans were created in Africa, Asia and South America, for example in Uganda’s Koja and Masindi, Tanzania’s Tengeru, India’s Balachadi, New Zealand’s Pahiatua and Santa Rosa in Mexico.
What is it that fascinates you about Poles and the history of Poland that led you to devote a big part of your life to writing about Polish history?
Of course it is interesting. I learned Polish in my twenties. I lived in Poland in the 1960s, but I realized that Polish history is very little known abroad. So that has been my role over the last 50 years, to write books in English which go all the way around the world, which no Polish historian can do. I have much greater exposure than anybody else.
What do you like about Poland?
I am connected to Poland. Poland is a country I have learned. I know more and more about it. It is full of surprises. It is like any big community. I’m obviously involved in Poland. My wife is Polish, my two sons are bilingual. We have lots of friends in Poland. My special position is telling the rest of the world about Poland in ways they can understand.
Interviewed by Magdalena Majewska
*Prof. Norman Davies – born 8 June 1939 in Bolton, a British historian of Welsh origin. He studied at Magdalen College at the University of Oxford as well as the University of Sussex in addition to several other European universities, including Grenoble, Perugia and Krakow. He has authored many books dedicated to the history of Poland, amongst others: “God’s Playground”, “Heart of Europe”, “White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-20”, “Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City” (about the history of Wroclaw) as well as “Rising '44. The Battle for Warsaw”. Davies has been awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Medal for “Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis” as well as the Order of the White Eagle in 2012. He also received the Aleksander Gieysztor Award for his work in promoting Polish cultural heritage and for exploring the links between the cultural heritage of Poland and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe with the rest of the continent. He lives in Oxford and Krakow.