A Tribute of a Son of Polish Soldier
By K.G.E. “Chuck” Konkel
Polonez News Canada
I was an altar boy; it was a rite of passage for all Catholic boys at the time.
That was just the way it was. There was no shortage of servers for weddings and funerals and at the three daily masses held in St Stanislaus, the Polish parish church, sandwiched between the Irish rigidity of St Anne’s and modernist cubist lines of the Italian St Anthony of Padua. At Christmas, St. Stan’s held two midnight masses, one in the church proper and one in the very basement of the building, there were 40-50 altar boys at the High Mass and the church was full to overflowing.
The ushers were veterans all, strong, spare men with piercing eyes, brushed
back straw coloured hair, booming voices and loud raucous laughs and brown pin striped suits. Men with unpronounceable surnames and remarkable personal histories, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, the Eastern Front, Fallaise, Arnhem, the crinkle blue skies over Europe and the turbulent oceans of the North Atlantic. And among them the remnants of the Home Army and the doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944, heroes – gallant, brave and foolhardy as only a Pole in battle can be.
Such men could be meek as lambs during Mass, kneeling obediently as knights errant before a gilded altar that was the work of a previous generation of equally stolid Poles, as they listened intently to a sermon from a twinkle-eyed Franciscan who’d been a paratroop chaplain at Arnhem; a bridge too far on Poland‘s bloodied road to true nationhood.
They were members of the Royal Canadian Legion, one and all, using the Legion Hall to keep alive, if for only a few precious hours a week, the comradeships they so cherished and the memories of the many friends they had lost in far off lands.
Yet if the Legion branch was the heart of the community …the church was its soul. Repleat with chanted hymn, “Boże, coś Polskę” Byzantine gold, heavy incense and babcias sitting glowering in the first few pews as, with gnarled fingers, they click-beaded their rosaries and waited for the Black Madonna to free a Poland once more enslaved, this time under the Soviet boot.
It took me some time to realize that victories that we celebrated in my school did not involve Poland, that the victorious Allies the teachers spoke of were quite rightfully Canadians, but also English and Australians and increasingly as our sense of their cultural domination increased, Americans. Poles were not mentioned anywhere in the classroom. It was only years later that I learned that the Polish soldiers, sailors and airmen who had bled for the freedom of Europe had ultimately been denied the fruits of victory.
In June 1946, a gigantic victory parade, nine miles long and twelve abreast wound through the bomb rubbled streets of London, as an armada of aircraft approached from the east at rooftop level. Two million Londoners wildly roared their approval. In addition to the Americans who held pride of place in the vanguard and the British who proudly held up the rear echelon as they paraded before their Britannic Majesty George VI, there were large contingents from the Commonwealth and formerly Occupied Europe, along with Chinese, Sikhs, Arabs, even gunners from Brazil. The Ethiopians were there and the Mexicans. The Fiji Medical Corps, the Seychelles Pioneer Corps and even the Labuan Police- to represent a tiny island off Brunei which had been ruled by the British White Raja of Sarawak before the Japanese occupation of World War Two.
But the Poles, tragically, were not. In a gesture the famed historian Sir John Keegan described as “one of the most shameful acts of the Cold War,” the Poles were denied their rightful place in the victory procession, because, to include them would have greatly angered Stalin and this was something that Britain’s nascent Labour government was not willing to do.
Yet these were not truths I was aware of as a youth.
I tried desperately to be accepted by my peers and that meant juggling Polish school with its language classes and cultural evenings and stern Felician Sisters with games of street hockey and football and just plain hanging around the corner with my friends. In so doing, I sacrificed my father’s traditions and sense of self for that which Canada offered. I never realized until it was too late what the cost would be.
I never got to know my father in the way that most children do. Like many Poles of his generation my dad was a veteran, at times a distant and severe man; distant because of what he’d been through during the war, severe because it was part of his culture, a Kaszub following a solitary dream, religious in the way that only a Pole can be, with an intensity and vigour that seems lacking in today’s placid church services.
Time has passed.
The veterans are all gone, the graves of southern Ontario holding the soul of a truly valiant Polish generation; a lilt sometimes holding in the wind like the “Hejnal” played so long ago by a lone trumpeter in Krakow, a whispered dream of wandering souls, a faint fleeting memory in a widow’s failing eye.
Perhaps they are all together about us, singing and laughing forever young in our renewed recollection of their glories. I like to think that and I also like to think that you and I carry their torch.
I buried my father in his 89th year. It was a cold December day and the Legion provided an escort, frail old men they were with the fire dimming in their eyes.
They played the Last Post and uttered the words that all veterans do at the graveside of a fallen comrade.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.
And we answered solemnly: We will remember them!
Then, in the somber tradition of all Poles and dutiful sons from time immemorial, I retrieved some soil from the graveside to keep as a remembrance.
There are new Poles among us, thousand upon thousands of them, for whom the stories of the Western Front and struggles of the Polish armies of Maczek and Sikorski, the airmen of the Battle of Britain, bombing raids in Europe and mariners who sailed the frigid North Atlantic convoys are fresh and new and invigorating and yet, at the same time, strange and foreign as if a whole generation of Polish youth had traveled to some far off planet to do battle with aliens.
Yet for these new age Poles also, the legend and sacrifice live on.
For the true Poland is more than a political party or a geographic land mass. It is a common bond of loyalty to virtue and faith and courage and, I must tell you, it is a grand place to be in the mind and spirit of mankind.
For it is not only a mystic Polish soul, but the real Polish spirit that unites Poles everywhere.
In the mid 1990s I traveled to Warsaw on Canadian government business. The Polish capital was a city my father barely knew in his lifetime. It had proved far too urbane for his taste, for he was a mariner who lived for the salty tang of the Baltic following the hand of General Haller to the sea and to the waters that meant the New Poland.
Shortly before, a truly remarkable Pole with the birth name of Karol, a vigorous man who loved skiing and God and life, and who lived in an apartment on the third floor of a Vatican’s palace overlooking St Peter’s Square had single-handedly succeeded in sweeping back Stalin’s hated Curtain, that creaking edifice of injustice and intellectual and moral inhumanity.
So it was that sullen day that I found myself wandering about the cobbled Warsaw streets. The buildings were grimy and soot covered, as if reluctant to shed their proletarian mantel. Somber people scampered about everywhere, heads hunkered down in a March chill which had captured the city in its grasp, brisk and determined yet seeming directionless, somehow caught between what was and what could be and, yet, not altogether certain of what they would do in the between time with this strange new thing called Freedom.
But I knew. In my inner self I knew. There was no other way.
I found the monument in the centre of Warsaw close to the so-called historic Royal Way on the edge of a huge, shiny paved square dedicated to Marshall of Poland – Joseph Pilsudski.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Poland.
Its history is worthy of note. In 1923 a stone tablet was placed before the Saxon Palace and adjacent Saxon Garden to commemorate all unknown Polish soldiers who had fallen in World War One and the Polish-Bolshevik War 1920 that immediately followed. In 1925, the Polish government selected a battlefield from which the ashes of an unknown soldier would be brought to Warsaw. Of the forty battles, Lwow was chosen. Three coffins were exhumed, those of an unidentified sergeant, a corporal and a private. The coffin selected was chosen by the mother of a soldier whose body had never been found.
After a solemn high mass at Warsaw‘s St. Johns cathedral, and carried to the site by eight recipients of Poland’s highest military honor the Virtuti Militari, the coffin was buried with 14 urns containing soil from as many battlegrounds.
Since then, except for the brutal Nazi occupation, an honour guard has continually stood before the Tomb.
After the Warsaw Uprising, in December 1944 the palace was completely demolished by the Wehrmacht. Amazingly, the only part of the building to survive was the fragment standing directly over the Tomb. Soil from 24 additional battlegrounds was added to the urns, as well as tablets with the names of battles in which Poles had fought in World War Two. However, communist authorities erased all traces of the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920 and included only a few of of the battles of the Polish Army of the West. In 1990, after Poland regained its political autonomy, this grevious error was corrected.
On this day, the soldiers guarding the Tomb seemed so terribly young. Wearing khaki great coats and spit-shone high top boots and four pointed czapki, Ram-rod straight with freshly scrubbed faces and too-short bristled hair a drill sergeant would be proud of. They stood upright as virtue, transparently true to their essence as honour. I paused then to consider the generations that had gone before them. How young, after all, can one be to die for the ideal of one’s country?
Flower urns surrounded the perimeter of the edifice. In my pocket was a small plastic pouch containing clumps of soil from a Canadian graveside.
I walked purposefully to one of the outer urns and completely emptied the pouch so that the soil settled in the urn.
In that moment the spirit of my father was reunited with that of his ancestors and of his heritage.
He was home again.
And so was I.
K.G.E. “Chuck” Konkel
Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands of a Polish father and Dutch mother, Kazimierz “Chuck” Konkel has a Master of Arts degree in International Relations migrating to Canada with his family when he was young. He served as an officer cadet in the Canadian Armed Forces and has been a police professional on three continents for more than 40 years. He put in place the Hate Crime programme adopted across Canada for which he received the Senate Award of Merit. He developed internal auditing standards which form the basis for policing standards for all police services in Ontario. He has lectured nationally and internationally at the university and community college level on subjects as diverse as auditing standards, globalization economics and contemporary communications strategies for business.
A recipient of the Hong Kong Police Medal, Poland’s Order of St Brigitte, Bnai Brith Humanitarian award, in addition to The Canada 125 medal for his contributions to policing and society; Konkel has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Letters and is an accomplished best-selling mainstream author and regular book reviewer for two national newspaper chains. He was a regular contributor on Canadian military history to Esprit de Corps, Canada’s premier military magazine specializing in issues involving Polish military involvement in World War Two. He was a regular on Canadian national television (CTV Lifetime and CBC with Bill Cameron) and appeared on radio/television programs internationally including the American Larry King show; Tom Snider (NBC) and Bob Grant on CBS radio, nation-wide.