Posts Tagged ‘Monte Cassino’

Urszula Muskus: The Long Bridge

July 20, 2020

51zCItVj88L._AC_UY218_     The generation of Polish exiles from after the Second World War has virtually died off now, the people and their sad stories largely forgotten. I’m only aware of it because of my origins, and there is no way to sensitively phrase the idea that my father had an ‘easier’ time than many of his fellow-countryfolk – only two years in a Stalinist concentration camp, hundreds of miles of trekking, avoiding starvation and disease eventually to reach Britain via Persia and South Africa. Then never going home or seeing his parents again… Some of his comrades did return after the war, lured by homesickness and propaganda. They disappeared.

Too few of the Poles who suffered when their country was wiped from the map in September 1939 after a secret agreement by two international thugs (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) have consigned their stories to print so that the memories of those days and their aftermath may be preserved. I have slowly amassed a small collection of these over the years, and Urszula Muskus’ story is one of the more remarkable of these.

For starters, it’s a woman’s story and there are fewer of these, and in many ways women, with their children, had a harder time than their menfolk who were mostly soldiers and in some vague and notional way treated as POWs by Stalin’s henchmen, or else were intellectuals and so quickly murdered. Most of the ordinary footsoldiers eventually found their way to Britain, then to battle at Monte Cassino, Normandy or Arnhem. Mothers, wives and children seem to have been dispersed much more widely across the vastnesses of the Soviet Union; their journeys to some kind of freedom were so much longer and more difficult; I am still discovering new routes that they took… And being civilians, as well as technically Soviet citizens, made their lives harder.

Urszula Muskus was carted off into imprisonment with her family; although she did not find out until much later, her husband was shot soon after because he had been involved in Poland’s war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Briefly she was involved with the formation of General Anders’ army in 1942 before being spirited away by the secret police and sentenced to ten years hard labour for ‘espionage’. Having served out her sentence she was then sent into internal exile until an eventual amnesty allowed her to leave…sixteen years of her life taken away, her children growing up away from her.

What impresses most is the measured, factual tone of her narrative, and her innate good will: nothing seems to throw her, although of course the account is written with many years of hindsight and reflection. She retains her sensitivity to the beauties of nature – and there are many in the depths of Kazakhstan, where she spent most of her time – despite the privations, clearly seeking and managing to derive spiritual comfort and support from them. Through a litany of personal tragedies – separation from her husband and children being only the beginning – her strength of character comes across very powerfully, as does the utter inhumanity and perversion of Stalin’s gulag system. And there are many kind and like-minded people of all nationalities she encounters, sharing her life with briefly until they are separated again at the whim of the authorities. In her summative comments and reflections on her experiences in the closing chapters there is no bitterness at what she has had to endure; life goes on in a new place, and she is at last reunited with her children who have long been in England.

One of the reasons so many of these stories have vanished into history is the understandable unwillingness of so many to recall and recount what they went through: my father let small details and general facts be known, but little more. What he and his Polish comrades used to talk about among themselves in Polish I never knew, and he wouldn’t say. But I think it’s really important that these stories not be forgotten, and books like this preserve them.

Norman Davies: Trail of Hope

May 17, 2017

Norman Davies is probably the leading expert on Polish history in Britain; he has written the best and most detailed academic history of Poland, as well as several books on specific episodes in the nation’s history such as the Warsaw uprising or the war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Here he attempts to trace the Polish diaspora which resulted from the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 that led to tens of thousands of Poles from the eastern half of the country being deported to and imprisoned in the Soviet Union, thousands of them being deliberately murdered and thousands more dying of starvation and ill-treatment.

It’s clearly a labour of love, and not one in the style of earlier academic works. It reflects Davies’ travels through many lands, and his friendships and contacts with many Poles in many countries; it’s copiously illustrated with photos, maps, drawings and detailed extracts from memoirs, and manages to give a voice to the generations which have now largely died.

When the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941, Stalin agreed (after a fashion) to allow the Polish prisoners of war to leave the country and join the Allied war effort in the West. Of course, the many thousands of officers whose deaths Stalin had sanctioned and the NKVD carried out at Katyn were not available to join them. A Polish Army was established on Soviet soil and gradually made its painful way, with many thousands of civilians in its wake, first to Persia (as it then was) and subsequently by many diverse routes, and over a lengthy period of time, came to take part in various campaigns in the war, notably at Monte Cassino in Italy, and Arnhem in Holland. For some reason which I have yet to fathom, Davies concentrates almost entirely on the Monte Cassino trail, and the Arnhem battle merits less than a page. This I found particularly disappointing, as it’s my father’s story…

Davies spares no-one in his criticism and condemnation of the Allies’ betrayal of the Poles all down the line, and he’s right, I think: men who had lost everything gave all they had left in the hope of freeing their country and eventually returning home. This was not possible, as their part of Poland was ceded to the Soviet Union, which automatically regarded them as Soviet citizens, not Poles. Few did return, and of those who did, a good number disappeared. The rest remained, exiles, refugees, and not very welcome in post-war Britain. It’s a shameful story which is not widely known.

Trail of Hope is a weighty tome and a very welcome addition to the existing works on the subject. At the same time, it has its flaws, which I will charitably put down to poor proof-reading and checking at the production stage – careless typesetting, spellings and transliterations of names and place-names in many countries lack any consistency, with variations even on the same page (!). And I shall be attempting to discover why the Arnhem story is sidelined. But if you want to know about a little-known aspect of the Second World War, this is a book to read.

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