“OK,” I told Lady, “so today’s problem is what to do about Poland….”
She snorts, since yesterday was her birthday, but today? She is sweeping out the store, which is normally attended to by one woman (this week on vacation) and another woman (today on sick leave). So Lady is moving furniture and pouncing with a broom on any hapless speck of dust she might encounter.
“Speck,” she roars. “I’ve found dust bunnies the size of elephants! Dinosaurs! Planetary systems!”
Indeed she has, and I tell her: make sure you photograph everything, in order to establish a historical record. She laughs, and shows me her phone: it’s all right there!
“Anyway,” she tells me, “ I hardly see what you need to worry about Poland for. Presumably, it’s going around and about, just like the rest of us. Why worry about it?”
“Well, no one ever told me anything about Poland,” I told her. “Which is odd, because it’s by no means a small country, and it’s right smack in the middle of Europe. I wonder if it wasn’t because of the Cold War? We got British, French, and German history, along with a bit of Italian and Spanish—but the rest of Europe? Russian, or the Far East? Well, we had just enough Russian history to explain her involvement in World War II, and then the subsequent partitioning of Europe. But that was it….”
“Well, why worry about Poland,” says Lady. “If it’s gotten along without you, all these years…”
“I can quite get my head around it,” I told her. “It’s one of those countries that goes back and forth: at one point it’s carved up between Russia and Austria or Germany, and at another point it’s its own nation again. And then, what’s the big connection between Poland and France? At some point, all of the Polish intelligentsia seemed to go into exile in France. Think Chopin….”
“I often do,” said Lady, “when not doing such lofty things as sweeping behind the sofas…and am I the only one who can move a sofa?”
She’s right: the dust bunny looks infinitely more comfortable than a Posturepedic mattress….
“Then there’s the whole paradox of the war,” I told her. “The poor Poles seem to have been sure that the moment Hitler walked in the door, the French and British would come running to their aid. So they fought defensively, trying to stall and buy time, and what did the French and the Germans do? They said ‘tsk-tsk’, and then realized that they were way behind, in military preparedness. So the Poles were left to fend for themselves, if I read the book correctly….”
“And that book would be?”
“No Greater Ally,” I told her, “and I just ran over to Amazon to refresh my memory. Anyway, here’s the blurb:”
There is a chapter of World War 2 history that remains largely untold: the story of the fourth largest Allied military of the war, and the only nation to have fought in the battles of Leningrad, Arnhem, Tobruk and Normandy. This is the story of the Polish forces during the Second World War, the story of millions of young men and women who gave everything for freedom and in the final victory lost all. In a cruel twist of history, the monumental struggles of an entire nation have been largely forgotten, and even intentionally obscured.
“Wow,” she said, “who knew?”
“I think I sort of did,” I told her, since we often watch the History Channel, and when we do, I usually have a glass of wine in my hand. So things get to be a bit confused, especially towards the end of the evening. “Anyway, as I remember reading the book—I only got halfway through it—the Poles went around and helped various allied forces. So they lost their own country, then helped defeat Germany, and then what happened? The Communists walked in, and the Allies, who had been perfectly happy to accept their help, cheerfully tossed Poland to the wolves….”
“Nice,” said Lady, “they wouldn’t be some of my employees, by any chance?”
“I think all that dust has gone to your brain,” I told her, “or maybe to your spirit. Anyway, according to No Greater Ally, which comes from a reputable press, the Poles were heroes, and treated shamefully….”
“Well, good to know,” said Lady. “Shame about what happened to them….”
“Right,” I told her, “but then we come to the sticky question: what about Polish anti-Semitism? Because I had a Jewish friend in High School who swore that the Poles were vicious anti-Semites. But is that true? Anyway, what I didn’t know was that the Jewish population of Warsaw was the second largest in the world, following New York. There were over three million Jews in Poland before the war, and it was the largest population of Jews in Europe. And then, according to Anne Karpf, after the war there were only 5,000. Which means that the eradication of the Jewish population in Poland was virtually complete. So what was the role of the Poles, if any, in all of this?”
“Probably mixed,” said Lady, “it always is. History spawns its share of heroes and villains, alike.”
“As well as that worst type of all, the huge majority of people who stand gaping on, with their mouths open and their vacant eyes comprehending nothing,” I told her. “Consider Irene Sendler, who along with her friends saved nearly 2500 children from the ghetto in Warsaw. Tremendous woman: she used to sneak babies out in packages, and put them on buses, wrapped as packages under the seats, before the bus began its route. Then, someone outside the ghetto would collect the child. Amazing, when you think of it….”
“Wow,” said Lady, “Like Nicholas Winton, though he only clocked in at saving 700 children, or so. But still, that’s huge….”
“Well, that’s one side of the picture,” I told her. “Though it’s certainly true that Poland had welcomed the Jews in earlier centuries, which is why they had so many of them. But it all got a little gunky in the 30’s, with the Depression. And though there were lots of Jews, they weren’t terribly well assimilated. So they stuck out, which made making the ghetto easier….”
“OK—I get that….”
“Anyway, the Depression hit, and Hitler was stirring things up, generally, and many of the Jews had done well. So for those people who weren’t doing well….”
“Ah,” said Lady, “the old story…..”
“Anyway, the whole question cropped up in the 80’s, when a Polish intellectual, Jan Blonski, wrote an article called ‘A Poor Pole Looks at the Ghetto’….”
“So were they, or weren’t they, or were they somewhere in between?”
“Who knows,” I told her. “Though Anne Karpf seems to think so….”
“And she would be?”
“The daughter of Natalia Karp!”
Lady looks at me with exasperation. And also with the broom, which looks increasing less like a utensil, and more like a weapon. At least potentially….
“Just listen,” I tell her, and we do….