The Polish Narrative of World War II

Growing up, I attended St. Adalbert of Berea, the oldest Polish church in Ohio – built brick by brick in 1874. In Berea, Polish-Americans quarried sandstone alongside German and Irish laborers. One cannot blame them for wanting a religious sanctuary from that backbreaking work. They wanted to preserve their history and culture in a nation that sought to assimilate and often exploit them for cheap labor. My great grandfather was a second-generation Polish-American whose family mined coal in Gallitzin, PA before moving to Cleveland. Sergeant Joseph A. Szczelina served his country as a diesel mechanic in the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry Division. He did his part in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, and Central Europe. After the war, he altered the spelling of his last name from Szczelina to Selena. He made that decision because his superiors could not pronounce his name at roll call. From my own heritage, I thought that I understood the relationship between Polish history and identity. My short time in Krakow proved that I still have much to learn.

Once home to Copernicus and Chopin, Krakow was the center of Polish education, culture, and faith for centuries. Be that as it may, I was unprepared for the beauty of St. Mary’s Basilica (pictured) and Wawel Cathedral. Unlike the ones I visited in France and Germany, these cathedrals were filled with people. Even on a quiet Wednesday evening, it was evident that religion remains a powerful component of Polish identity.

Throughout the twentieth century, Poland endured cultural and political oppression from neighbors that sought to erase it from the map. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. It was not prepared (and how could it have been) for a two-front war with the most powerful war machines in the world at that time. As a result, historians sometimes diminish or even disparage the role of Poland in the war. However, one should respect the courage of Polish soldiers who scrambled through railway stations to fight a losing battle and partisans who waged guerrilla warfare at great risk to themselves.

After visiting the Oskar Schindler WWII Museum, I found myself empathizing with the Polish wartime experience. When the Wehrmacht first entered Polish villages, it pursued a vicious policy of racial extermination which saw Poles as sub-human. The Schindler Museum stressed that the Nazis deliberately annihilated most of the Polish intelligentsia, including local officials, clergy, businessowners, and intellectuals. They attempted to slaughter anyone capable of criticizing the regime or leading resistance movements. In the end, World War II claimed the lives of six million Polish citizens, half of which were Jewish, via starvation, shootings, forced labor, and the death camps. Considering the dual occupation and its aftermath, perhaps no nation in the twentieth century suffered as much as Poland.

It is important to note that native Poles participated in pogroms against their Jewish neighbors, a reality which the Museum failed to address. From class lectures, we know that the anti-Semitic myths of Judeo-Bolshevism and collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus fueled these gruesome beatings. The environment was ripe for these atrocities because of a foreign occupation that encouraged them and eliminated civil society. The SS, for example, executed Soviet collaborators and conducted ruthless reprisals for alleged resistance activities. Nazis manipulated popular frustration with the Soviet regime for their own advantage. Sadly, the historical memory in Poland overlooks these complexities and outlaws discussion of any Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

Churches in Krakow are filled with shrines and reliquaries to Pope John Paul II, the pride of Poland who resisted the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and Saint Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who gave his life for a Polish soldier’s in Auschwitz. These figures symbolize Poland’s resilience and spirituality in the world today.

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