Is Wałęsa Poland’s Hero?

March 9, 2016

On the backdrop of what has been happening recently in relation to Lech Wałęsa, I was reminded of a post I wrote almost eight years ago. I’m re-posting it for your enjoyment…

Get WałęsaThe political climate in Poland is abubbling, afrothing and afoaming due to the imminent publication of SB a Lech Wałęsa (the Secret Police and Lech Wałęsa) by Sławomir Cenckiewicz and Piotr Gontarczyk. The authors of the book, two historians who work for the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), claim that the former President of Poland and legendary leader of Solidarity Lech Wałęsa was in fact a communist agent (Polish TW = tajny współpracownik = secret agent) with the pseudonym “Bolek”. A double agent, no less. This has sent shock waves across the Polish political landscape causing an incredible polarisation of an already divided political scene.

Bolek or Not
WałęsaThere are in effect two camps. Those who believe Wałęsa is the now mythical “Bolek” and those who believe there is no way on God’s Earth that the leader of Solidarity, the man who defeated communism and a devout Catholic could have played for both sides. The “Bolek” camp is headed by the terrible twins, wannabe Machiavellis, Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński who very early on in their political careers made it clear that they thought Wałęsa was “Bolek”. Interestingly, they only made their opinions known when Wałęsa threw his former aide Lech Kaczyński out of his office and decided he was unfit to work in politics and when Wałęsa decided to put an end to the ill-fated government of Kaczyński buddy Jan Olszewski (as well as Antoni Macierewicz).

Campaign of Dishonour
WałęsaThe truly annoying thing about this campaign to discredit the Nobel Peace Prize winner is that Kaczyński and Kaczyński have quite literally pulled out all the stops to besmirch Wałęsa. The IPN is loaded with Law and Justice (PiS) cronies who have not yet been cleared out by the government of Civic Platform (PO). Several days ago, Polish National Television (TVP) broadcast a so-called documentary which provided ‘hard evidence’ that Wałęsa was “Bolek”. Actually, this ‘papumentary’ was more an advert for the book. TVP is of course headed and managed by a whole slew of PiS sympathisers casting a dark shadow over the journalistic credibility of the programme. What is more, the now infamous book is an alleged history based on IPN documents. It is odd that a history book posits a thesis at the beginning rather than look at the facts and then draw a conclusion.

What if…?
Man of the YearThe question on most people’s lips is what will happen (or become of Wałęsa) if it turns out that he did collaborate with the SB. Those people who survived communism know full well that a large majority of people did collaborate. So what? They did so to survive. I suggest the younger generation go out and watch the poignant Das Leben der Anderen which shows how communism was never truly black and white. We are rarely confronted with true, pure evil in life and people usually come in shades of grey. If Wałęsa did collaborate (which I severely doubt) then I’m sure he did it to protect the fragile, embryonic democracy that he was trying to nurture. If he did collaborate why doesn’t he admit it? Life is never black and white and to point the finger and to name names would do no good now. The facts are that Wałęsa did more for freedom than most men do in their whole lives and that can never be taken away from him.

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Wojtek the Soldier Bear

December 14, 2013
Hero Bear

The Soldier Bear

Reblogged from Newzar (by Kamila Kulma)

The Wojtek Memorial Trust will erect a statue of the famous Nazi-battling brown bear that became the pride of General Władysław Anders’ Army. The bronze statue will stand in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh in 2014. “It will be a symbol of friendship between Poland and the United Kingdom,” said Robin Barnett, British Ambassador to Poland. Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear, was found in Iran by a local boy in April 1942. He sold the bear cub to soldiers of the Polish Army stationed nearby for a couple of cans of meat. As a cub, Wojtek had problems swallowing so the little bear was fed condensed milk from a vodka bottle. Later, the soldiers fed him fruit, marmalade, honey and beer, which became his favourite drink. Wojtek became the mascot of all the Polish units stationed nearby and was taught to salute. He enjoyed smoking and eating cigarettes. When the Polish Army was later deployed in Europe the only way to keep Wojtek, also known as the ‘Soldier Bear’, was given a rank and number. Consequently, Wojtek was officially drafted into the General Anders Army and listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. Together with the soldiers, firstly as a rank-and-file soldier and then with the rank of corporal, he moved from Iran to Iraq and then through Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Italy. An image of Wojtek carrying an artillery shell became the official symbol of 22nd Company. As the end of the WWII approached, the future of the Polish Army was uncertain. Many soldiers who served in the same unit as Wojtek were from eastern Poland. This territory was invaded by Stalin in 1939 and the Yalta Conference legitimised the Soviet territorial smash-and-grab leaving many Polish soldiers with no homes to go back to. Most of them remained in exile, including Wojtek.

Polish War Hero

Brothers-in-arms

In 1946 the Polish bear sailed together with his brothers-in-arms of the General Anders Army to Clydes and were then transported to Berwickshire. A year later Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo where he spent the remaining years of his life. He was often visited by journalists and his Polish friends from the army who tossed him sweets and cigarettes. Wojtek continued to react to words spoken in Polish. Sadly, Wojtek died in December 1963 in Edinburgh Zoo. “Wojtek deserves to be called a War Hero who moved soldiers’ hearts,” said British Ambassador to Poland, Robin Barnett. “He was a soldier who helped strengthen the friendship between Brits and Poles. As the beloved mascot of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps not only did he boost morale but he also supported his fellow soldiers on the fields of combat. He took active participation in the Battle of Monte Cassino during which Polish soldiers played a major role,” said Robin Barnett. In his opinion, the story of Wojtek is inspiring and has great historic significance. Dorota Gałaszewska-Chilczuk of the Office of War Veterans and Victims of Oppression emphasised that Wojtek made important contributions to winning WWII. She added that he served and was paid like every other soldier. In his case the salary were increased portions of food and beer as a bonus. He was very close with his fellow soldiers and lived with the other men in the same tent. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek transported ammunition and never dropped a single crate. He also carried heavy mortar rounds. “The Soldier Bear took part in the liberation of Ancona and Bologna,” said Galaszewska-Chilczuk. She also added that Wojtek became very popular among civilians and the press when he arrived in Scotland.

Brothers-in-arms

Hero among Heroes

The Polish-Scottish Association made Wojtek an honorary member. “In order to pay homage to the Soldier Bear,” said Krystyna Szumelakowa, of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, “the story of war and friendship will be immortalised with a bronze statue”. The Wojtek Memorial Trust hopes that the life-sized statue will be unveiled in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino. “The statue will be cast in Poland and given to Scottish authorities as a present from Poland,” explained Szumelakowa. Thanks to the efforts of the Trust a special tartan has been created in honour of Wojtek. Deirdre Kinloch Anderson, senior director at Leith-based kilt and Highland dress experts Kinloch Anderson, the designers of the Wojtek tartan, said she was “extremely proud” of helping to design the tartan dedicated to Wojtek. The story of Wojtek was popularised by former soldiers of the Polish II Corps, Wieslaw Lasocki, author of the book, “Wojtek from Monte Cassino – the Story of an Amazing Bear”, published in 1968. Writer Aileen Orr, whose book “Wojtek The Bear – Polish War Hero” was published in 2010, heard the story of Wojtek from her grandfather, a King’s Own Scottish Borderers colour sergeant who met the bear in Egypt and Palestine before he met him again later in Scotland. There is now a plaque dedicated to the legendary bear in Edinburgh Zoo. There are also plaques commemorate Wojtek’s war efforts in the War Museum in London, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and in the Sikorski Insitute in London. In March 2009, the Scottish Parliament organised a reception to honour Wojtek. Every Remembrance Day, Scottish people gather at the Polish Memorial Garden in Edinburgh, many of them with teddy bears, which later are donated to charities for sick children.


The Curious Case of Cacica

August 26, 2013
Land that Time Forgot

Land that Time Forgot

Cacica is one of those magical places that we find in Europe. It lies in an area forgotten by many and is not the easiest place in the world to get to. Cacica lies in Suceava county where the inhabitants speak a cocktail of languages: Romanian, Ukrainian, German, Polish, Slovak and there are also a handful of… Lipovans. Religion-wise, again, it’s a cocktail. Orthodox, Catholics and… Old Believers. Who are the Lipovans? Who are the Old Believers? And there lies the beauty and mystery of this part of the world. It’s one of Europe’s borderlands that have seen a variety of powers come and go. Yet, it remains as magical as before.

Moldoviţa Monastery

Magical Monastery

To the north of Suceava county lies Ukraine, to the west lie the Carpathians and fabled county of Maramureş. Most of the county lies in southern Bukovina, in Moldavia (not to be confused with Moldova). Suceava county lies in Romania. Cacica, and the county in which is lies, is remarkable. 74% of the inhabitants of Cacica are Romanian but over 20% are Polish (with another 4% Ukrainian). The beginnings of Cacica (also known by many of its residents as Kaczyka) date back to the 1780s when the village became famous for salt-mining with many (German) miners coming from the (Polish) town of Bochnia. And thus began Kaczyka’s ties with Poland.

Bochnian Legacy

Bochnian Salt Mine Legacy

With its army of Bochnians, Cacica inherited the Polish tradition of salt mining. Tourists familiar with the mines of southern Poland will notice similarities between Cacica salt mine and the famed mines of Bochnia and Wieliczka. The salt frescoes and sculptures bear a striking resemblance to the ones in Wieliczka. The Polish salt connection does not end there. Not far from Cacica lie the villages of Soloneţu Nou (Nowy Soloniec), Solca (Solka) [Polish sól = salt], Pleşa (Plesza) and Poiana Micului (Pojana Mikuli) with either a large Polish minority or Polish majority.

Old Believer Persecution

Old Believer Persecution

Yet another curiosity is the handful of Lipovans to be found in Bukovina. The Lipovans is the name given to the ethnic Russian Old Believers in Romania, a schismatic sect of the Russian Orthodox church which split from orthodoxy in 1666 (as they wanted to be more orthodox and did not agree with the reforms of Patriarch Nikon). They were persecuted in Russia and many fled. The men do not shave, they cross themselves with two fingers (not three) and do not use polyphonic singing in church but rather chant. Indeed, with its small troop of Lipovans, native Ukrainians and Bochnian Poles, Cacica, Suceava and Bukovina is an odd little corner of the world.


Lost Polish Tribe on Haiti…

June 2, 2013
Polish Legions in Haiti

Polish Legions in Haiti

It’s not something I normally do but the following post has proved to be so popular that I have decided to re-post it. Enjoy.

Perhaps the most intriguing group of people among Poland’s huge diaspora (the so-called Polonia) are the ‘Poles of Haiti’. I heard about this lost little enclave of ‘Polishness’ on radio and began to follow, Theseus-like, the strands of stories that might lead me to some sort of end-point in my search for the truth in the labyrinthine information maze that is the internet. Much to my surprise, I was able to bring together these strands and get some kind of picture of how on earth Poland has managed to touch the culture of Haiti.

Following HIS orders

Bonaparte – Giving The Orders

In 1804, Haiti declared independence from Napoleonic France. Napoleon was having none of it and swiftly sent a force of over 5,200 Polish Legions to stamp his authority on the natives and their lust for independence. The Third Half-Brigade of the Polish Legions were not extremely happy with this state of affairs as the Legions were primarily focused on fighting for Polish freedom in Europe. The idea of (1) fighting against freedom and (2) fighting over eight thousand kilometres away from one’s homeland on the other side of the world seemed both ridiculous and annoying to these soldiers. But soldiers they were, and more importantly, soldiers of Napoleon and they had to follow orders.

Dessalines - Father of Haitian Freedom

Dessalines – Father of Haitian Freedom

The Polish Legions became embroiled in the Haitian Revolution, and most died, although it was not the fighting that killed them but yellow fever. Unaccustomed to the climate and the dangers of life in the Caribbean 4,000 soldiers died of the disease. Those that remained became the stuff of legend, Haitian legend. Miffed off with fighting those who were fighting for freedom (like themselves), the remaining Polish soldiers decided to throw off the yoke of their French masters and joined Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the Haitian struggle for independence living to see a free Haiti. The indigenous peoples were so enamoured by their Polish brothers-in-arms that they included them in the Haitian Constitution of 1805 in which it was stated in Articles 12 and 13 that no white man may hold land on Haiti apart from the Germans (who had a small community there) and the Polanders (Poles).

Erzulie Dantor - Not Matka Boska

Erzulie Dantor – Not Matka Boska

These naturalised Polish Haitians had a great impact on the fledgling Empire of Haiti, later the Republic of Haiti. The Haitians were impressed by the Poles’ great love of their Matka Boska Częstochowska (Our Lady of Częstochowa). They noticed how greatly the legionnaires venerated their icon. Through a process of assimilation and transformation, the Polish Catholic Matka Boska Częstochowska became the Haitian Vodou Erzulie Dantor, a warrior spirit, the protector of women and children, associated also with lesbians, homosexual men and abused women. Interestingly, like Matka Boska Częstochowska, Erzulie Dantor also has scars on the right-side of her face which she got from a fight with her sister when she stole her husband from her. A rather different persona from Matka Boska Częstochowska.

A 'Polish' Haitian (c) Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

A ‘Polish’ Haitian (c) Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

The ties between the two countries do not stop there. In Cazale, 70 kilometres north of Port-au-Prince there lives a community often referred to as blanc, polone. They are, to all intents and purposes, Haitians but due to the fact that the bulk of the Polish legionnaires settled there, the community has forever been referred to as ‘Polish’. If you are from Cazale, you are Polish, it’s as simple as that. Interestingly, there is a high proportion of blue-eyed Haitians here. Another link is Jerzy Grotowski who came to Haiti in search of inspiration in the 1970s. It’s fair to say that his experimental theatre owes a great deal to the spirituality of Haitian Vodou.

Haiti - Not Just Earthquakes

Haiti – Not Just Earthquakes

It is wonderful how two seemingly disparate and distant cultures have common threads weaving them together. On the one hand, we have Napoleon, the Haitian battle for freedom, the Polish legionnaires who joined with the Haitians in their Revolution and all the ramifications of their presence on the island. This includes a strong genetic marker in Cazale and the surrounding area and the warrior spirit of Erzulie Dantor. On the other hand we have Grotowski and his deep love of Haiti and its spirituality. Poland and Haiti – who would have thought…?


World’s Greatest Meme

March 11, 2013
Cultural Gene

Cultural Gene

Back in 1976 Richard Dawkins coined the wonderful term – meme. It can be defined as an element of culture that replicates itself. Some describe it as a virus, a contagion which spreads and infects other people. I prefer the idea of a meme being a cultural gene, something that hops from one mind to the next. Whether for better or worse. A good example might be a piece of music that everyone recognises – Beethoven’s Fifth or Happy Birthday to you. Memes also abound on the internet but it is difficult to say if these are genuine memes or fads that explode and later fade into obscurity. A meme, methinks, has to be long-lasting, sturdy and familiar to many.

Infectious Ideas

Infectious Ideas

When deciding what a meme is (and what might possibly be the world’s greatest meme) we have to take a look at memetics, the study of memes, which lays down the law when it comes to these tiny cultural creatures. Of particular interest to us are two terms used in memetics: memeplex (meme-complex) and memoid. The first is a complex of memes, a grouping together of memes. The second refers to a person who has become engulfed by a meme to such an extent that the meme is their reason for existence. And that is what leads me to believe that there is only one true candidate for the world’s greatest meme/memeplex.

Memeplex Supreme

Memeplex Supreme

What could possibly be the world’s greatest collection of ideas? Ideas (or groupings of ideas) that readily replicate and hop from one mind to the next? Ideas that have such power that they often completely and utterly engulf the mind of their indiciduals? A group of ideas which has the largest number of hits or followers? The answer, in the aftermath of the arch-memoid’s resignation and on the eve of the gatherings of many über-memoids to elect a new arch-memoid in the Petrine succession, has got to be the Catholic Church (or, in fact, Christianity). Join the dots, fill in the blanks. For better or for worse, the world’s greatest religion has to also be the world’s greatest memeplex.


Is Poland Corrupt?

March 15, 2012
Homo Sovieticus

Homo Sovieticus

This question keeps popping up. Commentators, business people and politicians outside Poland are keen to know whether Poland has been able to shed the post-communist tag which is so often associated with corruption. Is being a post-communist country tantamount to being corrupt? Poles themselves, Polish politicians, entrepreneurs and sociologists are eager to be rid of this deep-rooted problem. Opposition parties (regardless of who is in government at the time) criticise the ruling class for being ‘corrupt’ while often ignoring obvious examples of corruption, nepotism and a variety of abuses in their own ranks. So is Poland corrupt? Is it more or less corrupt than other countries in the world? In Europe? In Central Europe? Is it more or less corrupt than it once was? Is the attitude and behaviour of Soviet Man, Homo Sovieticusa relic of the past or still prevalent throughout Polish society?

Indifference is King

Indifference Reigns

The term Homo Sovieticus was coined by Aleksandr Zinovyev but used to much effect by the Solidarity philosopher priest Józef Tischner. Five characteristics of Homo Sovieticus can be highlighted: (1) Avoidance of individual responsibility; (2) Passive acceptance of authority; (3) Indifference to common property and petty theft; (4) Indifference to the results of labour; and (5) Isolation from global culture. Sounds familiar, eh? The avoidance of individual responsibility can most certainly be seen in Poland’s urzędy (offices). Statements like, “It’s not my problem” or “It’s beyond my remit” may be less frequent than, let’s say, ten years ago but the attitude can still be found. Poland’s low turnout in all elections can be put down to point (2), whereas the state of public toilets is well-explained by point (3). The wonderful Polish saying Czy się stoi czy się leży dwa tysiące się należy best illustrates point (4).

Corruption is King

Corruption is King

This attitude of being overly demanding and needy – point (4) – linked also to the ‘victim complex’ and constant desire for ‘compensation’ is frequently reflected in Polish right-wing politics. What is more, point (5) can be seen in these same right-wing parties and some Catholic circles. This was especially true prior to EU accession, however, of all the five points, the fifth seems to be waning fastest, especially in Poland’s major cities. We will have to see if this attitude erodes in the provinces. Perhaps the key to the dissipation of corruption, or at least its weakening, lies in the idea of Homo Sovieticus. If Poland is to effectively do battle with corruption, nepotism and the suchlike then the highlighting of these five points should perhaps be the backbone of future central and local government policy. Poland managed to improve its CPI (Corruption Perception Index) from 49th in 2009 to 41st in 2010. Let’s hope this positive trend continues…


Narutowicz Assasinated

October 22, 2010

President Narutowicz with Józef Piłsudski

President Narutowicz with Józef Piłsudski

Gabriel Narutowicz, Poland’s first President, has been assassinated. The President was visiting the Zachęta art gallery in Warsaw. A few minutes after midday, President Narutowicz (who had only just been sworn in five days previously), arrived at Zachęta and was admiring a painting by Bronisław Kopczyński when the British ambassador William Grenfell Max-Müller together with his wife greeted him warmly. Müller’s wife addressed Narutowicz saying “Permettez-moi Monsieur le Président de Vous fèliciter” (Allow me to congratulate you, Mr President) to which he prophetically replied, “Oh, plutôt faire les condoléances” (Oh, rather offer your condolences). Narutowicz moved on to admire another painting – Teodor Ziomka’s Szron – after which three shots rang out.

Niewiadomski - Face of a Murderer

Niewiadomski - Murderer

The perpetrator of this crime comes as a surprise to everyone. Eligiusz Niewiadomski, the assassin, is a painter, art critic, man of letters, and one of the many heroes who fought for Polish independence after 123 years of foreign domination. In 1918 he was nominated as head of the Art and Sculpture department in the Ministry of  Culture and Art by the regency Council government. He took an active part in the demobilisation of the German forces in Warsaw in early November 1918. Later, he worked for counter-intelligence demanding that the government step up its fight against communism. He was largely ignored in these demands. He is a right-wing nationalist and is a known critic of Józef Piłsudski and the late President. An impassioned anti-German and anti-Russian, he is vehemently in favour of a strong, nationalist Polish state.

Chjena - Attacking Like a Hyena

Chjena - Attacking Like a Hyena

Divisive politics, the struggle between the left- and right-wings, has brought about this terrible moment for Poland. We are all responsible for this mindless act of violence. Things will never be the same again. Who can forget the words of the Christian Union of National Unity – ‘Chjena’ (ChZJN): “This President has been forced upon us and we need to fight him in order to maintain the nationalist nature of Poland”. The National Democracy (ND) declared that “it would not accept any government formed by this President”. Stanisław Stroński wrote in Rzeczpospolita that “this obstacle needs to be removed”. The Office of the President has been splattered with mud. President Narutowicz has been called a Jew, an atheist and a cosmopolitan. Now, however, the Office of the President is not only caked with mud but also soiled with blood.

R.I.P. Gabriel Narutowicz, the first President of the Republic of Poland.
17 March 1865 – 16 December 1922.