Yet an­other Pol­ish tragedy

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - THE WEST - LES SYTKOWSKI

THE crash of a Pol­ish air­craft near Smolensk, Rus­sia is the great­est tragedy Poland has ex­pe­ri­enced in the post­war era. It is ironic that the Pol­ish del­e­ga­tion fly­ing to Katyn to com­mem­o­rate the murder of thou­sands of Pol­ish of­fi­cers by the Soviet se­cret po­lice 70 years ago should them­selves end up as vic­tims to this cursed place.

In fact it is the irony of ironies that al­most 100 peo­ple — the elite of the Pol­ish govern­ment, armed forces, church, and state — lost their lives in the very same Katyn for­est that an ear­lier elite of the Pol­ish state were mur­dered by Stalin’s hench­men so as to min­i­mize the pos­si­bil­ity of any op­po­si­tion on his de­sign for post­war Poland and East­ern Europe.

Such an epochal event can pro­voke one to pro­foundly re­flect on its sig­nif­i­cance, but, in spite of all at­tempts to search for a deeper mean­ing, it ap­pears this cat­a­strophic event was just an un­for­tu­nate ac­ci­dent that left yet an­other deep wound on the Pol­ish psy­che.

One is left then to think about the in­di­vid­u­als who lost their lives for Poland, not only on that ill­fated flight, but the many oth­ers who fought for and died to de­fend free­dom and democ­racy.

I think about Pres­i­dent Lech Kaczyn­ski who as a Sol­i­dar­ity leader in the 1980s fought to free his coun­try from com­mu­nist op­pres­sion and to fi­nally be­come the pres­i­dent of a free and demo­cratic Poland.

I think about Anna Wa­len­tynow­icz whose courage and tenac­ity spurred the even­tual cre­ation of the Sol­i­dar­ity free­dom move­ment.

I think about the chiefs of the Pol­ish armed forces and their aides who helped to de­fend Pol­ish sovereignty within NATO.

I think of Sla­womir Skrzypek, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Bank of Poland, who fought to en­sure that the econ­omy of Poland would be­come the equal coun­ter­part to its EU part­ners.

I think of the Pol­ish par­lia­men­tar­i­ans who tire­lessly worked for a stronger Poland within the Euro­pean Com­mu­nity.

As vice-pres­i­dent of The Pol­ish Com­bat­ants As­so­ci­a­tion, Win­nipeg Branch, I think about the founders of this or­ga­ni­za­tion.

These men and women, in many cases, with their en­tire fam­i­lies were ex­iled by Stalin to Siberia into the Soviet gu­lag sys­tem at the on­set of the Sec­ond World War. In a sense, these peo­ple were for­tu­nate in that they sur­vived the gu­lags, un­like their brethren who were mer­ci­lessly mur­dered in Katyn. In their case, how­ever, the term for­tu­nate is rel­a­tive be­cause in many in­stances, even though they sur­vived, many of their im­me­di­ate fam­ily did not.

I par­tic­u­larly think of Ste­fan Ol­brecht (also a vice pres­i­dent of the Pol­ish Com­bat­ant As­so­ci­a­tion) who in­deed sur­vived but lost his en­tire fam­ily in the gu­lags.

These men and women, on their re­lease in 1941, thanks to an agree­ment be­tween the Sovi­ets and Al­lies, found their way to the Mid­dle East where they formed the Pol­ish corps and joined the English Eighth Army to fight against the Nazis.

This Pol­ish corps fought in the North African cam­paigns against Rom­mel’s armies and then up the boot of Italy, con­clud­ing in the defin­ing bat­tle of Monte Casino. The cap­ture of Monte Casino by the Poles (with a huge loss of life) opened the road to Rome and even­tual sur­ren­der of the city to the Al­lies.

When I think of these events, I think about my late fa­ther-in-law, Boleslaw Kurylo, who passed away just a few weeks ago. He sur­vived the gu­lags, the bat­tles in North Africa and Italy, and the storm­ing of Monte Casino.

Un­der mur­der­ous Ger­man fire from the heights of Monte Casino, my fa­ther-in-law, with thou­sands of other Poles, man­aged to cap­ture the abbey at the top and pave the way for Al­lied vic­tory in Italy. He so of­ten proudly stated that he fought for his and our free­dom.

Fi­nally, I think about my fa­ther, Stanis­law Sytkowski, who fought against Nazi op­pres­sion in his home­land with the Pol­ish Un­der­ground Home Army.

His pas­sion for a free Poland cul­mi­nated in his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the epic bat­tle of the War­saw Up­ris­ing. This was not only ti­tanic strug­gle to oust the Nazis from oc­cu­pied War­saw but also to es­tab­lish a free and demo­cratic govern­ment in ad­vance of the ap­proach­ing Soviet armies in the sum­mer and fall of 1944.

The bat­tle against the Nazis con­tin­ued for two months as the Sovi­ets looked on from across the Vis­tula River and pro­vided no as­sis­tance to the fight­ers in War­saw. With no as­sis­tance from the east and very lit­tle help from the west, The Home Army had no choice but to ca­pit­u­late.

War­saw was com­pletely dev­as­tated and sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand lay dead on its street. My fa­ther and many of the sur­viv­ing fight­ers were shipped to con­cen­tra­tion camps or sent to slave labour camps in Ger­many.

Such peo­ple em­body the hu­man face of the Pol­ish tragedy. My fa­ther’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, in his book The Fa­nat­ics of Free­dom, elo­quently wrote that the War­saw Up­ris­ing con­sumed the very best of Poland’s youth. They fought and died for a free and demo­cratic coun­try. As a proud Cana­dian, I could only hope that I could be at least half the man these peo­ple were and if called upon, step into such gi­gan­tic shoes and de­fend the free­dom and democ­racy of Canada.


A man walks past the graves of those killed dur­ing the War­saw Up­ris­ing against the Nazis in Au­gust 1944.

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