Thursday, 16 July 2015

“23 Days: A Memoir of 1939” by Antoni ‘Joe’ Podolski

The Polish destruction is our first task. The aim must be not to reach some marked line, but the destruction of the living forces. Even if the war was supposed to explode in the West, destroying Poland must be our first task. The decision must be immediate because of the season. I will give a cause of the war for propaganda purposes. Never mind whether it will be credible or not. Nobody asks the winner whether he has told the truth or not. In cases associated with beginning and running the war a law does not decide, but a victory does. Be mercilessly, be brutal.” – Saying these words Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) practically began the greatest nightmare in the history of humankind, and it was precisely on the day before signing the Ribbentop-Molotow Pact, what was on 23 August 1939. And then September 1 of that year came and the German army marched into Poland without an official declaration of the war. Poles left alone in the fight were not able effectively to oppose the aggression of Germany and the Soviet invasion made on 17 September. So, the fourth partition of Poland made by Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) became the consequence of that situation.

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Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, many Poles were forced to leave their homes. Some of them were escaping into unknown places to hide against the occupier, and the others were doing their best to confront him and when it was possible they started to fight to regain their freedom. At that time everyone, who was not afraid of taking up arms, became a soldier; sometimes they were even underage boys. Because of the war many people very often were thrown into different parts of the world. Many Poles somehow managed to emigrate and they never return to their homeland. But before that happened they had had to survive their own ordeal. One of those people was Antoni Joseph Podolski (1923-1999), who was born in Baranovichi (in Polish: Baranowicze) – the town which today is located on the territory of Belarus, but until 1945 it belonged to Poland. He was the only child and grew up among animals and nature. He loved horseback riding, participated in hunting and he skied very well. He had a perfect knowledge about all kinds of weapons he used from the early years, hunting for wild animals. He also fired a rifle very well. He was also fascinated with flying and as a teenager he learnt to steer gliders. What is more, Joseph had a colleague who was a German boy and lived in Berlin. He was corresponding with him for some time and he met him in 1936 at the Olympic Game. Later that boy bombed Poland.

When on 1 September 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland, Antoni was living in the eastern part of the country, and his impact on the fight against the occupier was very small, despite the fact that he fought with the people who were German spies and informers. Next on 17 September 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland, which in the process joined the Nazi occupation of Poland. The Soviets took the view that invading Poland they protected Russian citizens residing in our country. That attack from the East was really cruel and painful, considering that quite unexpected.

For Antoni the war began actually when his fighting against the Red Army. Every day he witnessed the brutal actions of the Soviets. To repel the invaders, Antoni ad hoc fought in the ranks of young partisans. After several extremely bloody battles, Antoni finally was captured and imprisoned. During the transport to the place where he had to be interrogated, he managed to escape from the moving train, in that way having avoided death before he was arrested again. That fact had resulted in cruel imprisonment and torture interrogation until Antoni Podolski was sentenced to death.

Joe spent twenty three days in a condemned cell in Orsha (now Belarus) watching the executions of his inmates who were killed one after another. Then completely unexpectedly for him his capital punishment was exchanged for twenty five years of the Gulag in the Arctic. The long and extremely exhausting both physically and mentally trip was aborted due to a multi-day interrogation in the notorious Lubyanka prison located in Moscow. His escape from the Gulag, and then journey to freedom through the frozen lake on the border with Finland, as well as the tragic death of co-fugitives, in a special way contributed to Antoni Podolski. Fortunately, on his way he met the Finnish soldiers what meant that the rescue would come to him from the Polish authorities staying in neutral Sweden and transferring to England people arriving there in May 1940.

Old topographic map of Baranowicze. Military map of Poland made by 
Polish Army before 1939

The book 23 Days: A Memoir of 1939 is the memories of Antoni Joseph Podolski written by him about forty-four years after the outbreak of the Second World War. In his dairy the author related in detail about his dramatic struggle against the eastern aggressor, later arrest, imprisonment and brutal interrogation, and eventually death sentence and spending twenty-three days in the condemned cell. The book consists of two parts. In the first part, besides the drama of the Antoni’s fight against the occupier and waiting for his death, a reader may additionally also get to know his happy childhood in Poland, which makes you start to wonder how much our lives can change in an instant. In one moment we are happy and it seems to us that after all nothing can threaten us and suddenly it turns out that we brutally lose our safety. And since this moment we must fight for it without any guarantee that we will recover it someday. On the other hand, in the second part Antoni Podolski described his freedom he eventually recovered, but while being in England. But this did not mean that the war ended for him at that point. He was still fighting. At first there was the struggle in the ranks of the British government agency called Special Operations Executive, and then in the Polish Forces in the Middle East, and next he became a fighter pilot with the Polish Air Force. He was then only 22!

The Antoni Podolski’s memories were released on the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. The book is accompanied by very moving foreword by his son Nigel. The book was published after the death of the author, and it happened thanks to the efforts of his family. The description of the torture, which was prepared for him by the Soviet, is so brutal that it is possible that a reader who has a sensitive psyche will have to stop reading for a moment. This is one of these publications, which in a very graphic way, shows the cruelty of past times. While reading the Antoni Podolski’s memories a reader wonders how it is possible that one man was able to survive the ordeal like that. Many have already written about the cruelty of World War II and probably many will write about it in the future, but we must remember that the only eyewitness accounts are reliable, and therefore we should base our understanding of those tragic years on their relations.

The Building of Insurance Company called "Rossiya" located on the Lubyanka Square.
This picture dates back to 1917. In this building many Polish people were imprisoned 
and murdered by NKVD soldiers during the WWII.

In my opinion Antoni Podolski certainly was a great patriot. He loved his country more than his own life. I suppose that if it had been otherwise, he would not have had so much will and power to fight which allowed him to survive and give his experience to the next generations. Unfortunately, he never returned to Poland. He died in Norfolk at the age of 76. It seems to me that it is very difficult to find the right words to clearly describe this type of publications. You really cannot judge or review them because this kind of books contains the vastness of human drama and horror that any assessment is out of place here.

Finally, I would like to thank Antoni Podolski’s grandson – Jeremy, who drew my attention to the memories of his granddad a few months ago. If I had not received a message from Jeremy, I would not know about this valuable book until now. I hope that the Antoni Podolski’a war memories will be translated into Polish and all of us will be able to read them without a language barrier. In contrast, at the moment I recommend this publication to anyone who knows English and would like to know the extraordinary heroism and strength of the young man who retained his dignity and did not surrender to the occupier.  

If you want to find out more about this book and Joe Podolski, please click here.
If you want to buy this book, please click here.
If you want to read this review in Polish, please click here

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