Death in the Forest: who murdered the prisoners?

Two new books about wartime Poland

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Halik Kochanski)

When the Second World War ended in 1945, Poland became the "country on rollerskates," shoved 125 miles to the west by Joseph Stalin, the better to secure his own borders. Hundred of thousands of Germans were expelled from the new land in the west, and hundreds of thousands of Poles were expelled from the eastern lands annexed by the Soviet Union. Of course Stalin also installed his own creatures to govern the reorganized Poland. Among them was Wladyslaw Gomulka, who praised the new arrangement by explaining: "Western expansion and agricultural reform will bind the nation to the state."

To an American, that formulation is nearly incomprehensible, since in our view the "nation" (that is, the people) and the "state" (the geographical country) are more or less synonymous. Gomulka, however, was pointing to a real weakness of much of Europe from 1918 to 1939, its boundaries drawn by war, chance, and the careless pens of the victors. Interwar Poland was a state that included at least five nations: Germans in the west, Ukrainians and Belarusians in the east, Jews in the towns and cities, and ethnic Poles everywhere, each with their own religion, language, and traditions.

Given the unremitting hatred of Adolf Hitler for the Jews, and of Joseph Stalin for the Poles, six million Polish citizens had been killed by 1945, about equally divided between Christians and Jews. Nine million more were scattered around the world as refugees, soldiers, and slave laborers. Halik Kochanski's parents were among the dispossessed. Like many Poles, they made their way to England, where in time their daughter attended Oxford, earned a doctorate at King's College London, and became a professor and writer of British military history. As if paying her dues to the state in which she found herself, she first wrote deliciously titled "Sir Garnet Wolseley: Victorian Hero." Only then did she turn to the nation from which she is in a sense an exile.

Poland's history during the Second World War (and after!) was an unremitting tragedy. And not just the tragedy of the Holocaust, which took place largely in Poland, and which claimed the lives of 90 percent of Polish Jews over the course of five years. For concentrated awfulness, even that atrocity was topped by the "liberation" of Warsaw in September and October of 1944. Three armies were engaged in that great battle: the German Heer and Waffen SS, the Soviet Red Army, and the people of Warsaw. And much of the time it was Poles on one side, Russians and Germans on the other, as if the first priority of Hitler and Stalin alike was not so much to defeat each another, but to exterminate the Poles.

Ms. Kochanski tells this story in wonderful detail, from the birth of modern Poland in 1919 (it had earlier been, until dismembered by its neighbors, the largest country in Europe) to the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989. But her great interest is the war years, 1939 to 1945, and the multiple and repeated atrocities inflicted upon the Polish people, Jews and Christians alike.

It is a complicated story. Poland's army was defeated in September 1939 by a double invasion, Germany from the west, Soviet Russia from the east. Nearly 200,000 of its soldiers escaped through neutral countries or were later released from Soviet prisons, to fight under British command in France, North Africa, and Italy. About the same number joined the Red Army, thus helping Stalin to enslave their country. The book's dust jacket hints at this complex history: those are Polish soldiers, in the Russian town of Buzuluk, parading in honor of a visitor from the Polish exile government in London. The following year they will exchange their Russian uniforms and rifles for British equivalents, and they will go on to defeat storm the heights of Monte Cassino in Italy, making possible the Allied advance to Rome.

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland (Matthew Brzezinski)

I was struck by Ms. Kochanski's comment on how well Stalin was able to warp western attitudes toward Poland, thus easing his postwar domination of it: "The impression many of the British had was that Poland was a class-ridden society of large landowners who oppressed the masses and whose pre-war government had been a dictatorship." She is too restrained: that impression wasn't limited to the British, nor to the immediate postwar years. The American media have propagated this myth almost down to the present day.

Even Matthew Brzezinski buys into it, in "Isaac's Army," his otherwise admirable study of the Jewish resistance movement in Warsaw. Mr. Brzezinski is Canadian (another member of the Polish diaspora) who worked for this newspaper* in Moscow and the Associated Press in Warsaw, and his wife is Jewish, all of which gives him remarkable insight to the Warsaw Ghetto and its tormented inhabitants under German occupation.

Warsaw in 1939 was a city of 1,350,000, twice the size of Boston and nearly as large as Los Angeles. It was here that four of the country's nations worked out their historical grievances: Ukrainians and ethnic Germans collaborated with the occupiers to destroy Jews and ethnic Poles; Poles mistrusted Jews and for the most part refused to let them join the resistance movement; and Jews surviving as best they could, including astonishing acts of armed rebellion. The Russians meanwhile were as anxious as the Germans to see Warsaw reduced to rubble and ethnically cleansed.

By the time the war ended, this great metropolis would be a wasteland on the scale of Hiroshima. More than half its citizens were dead--700,000 by Mr. Brzezinski's estimate--more deaths than the United States suffered in the entire war, or indeed in all its wars of the past hundred years.

In contrast to Ms. Kochanski's meticulous scholarship, Mr. Brzezinski tells his story like a novelist, and he does an admirable job of recreating the youngsters of the 1940s as they survived, fought, and loved from day to day, in the ghetto, in the sewers, in the forest, and "on the Aryan side," where a few thousand Jews managed to pass as Christians or in concealment in convents and Catholic homes.

I am regularly surprised at how much more there is to learn about Poland's experience in the Second World War. These very different authors, reared in Britain and Canada, both exemplify the Polish diaspora and write admirably about Poland's wartime agony.

*The Wall Street Journal, in which this dual book review first appeared.

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Poland's Daughter

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