Polish Connection

The death of a ninety-year-old Polish politician in October renewed my longstanding interest in his country. I had not previously heard of Edward Szczepanik, but his obituary described his niche in history as the last prime minister of the Polish government in exile in London, which for forty-five years after the war preserved a ghostly continuity with the government of the prewar Polish republic.

In 1990, after the end of communism, the government in exile transferred its flag and insignia to the democratically elected President Lech Walesa in Warsaw. It is sometimes forgotten that in September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany as a response to the Nazi invasion of Poland, though the Poles soon went down to defeat, attacked by both Germany and Russia. As a schoolboy in wartime England, I was keenly interested in the sufferings and struggles of the Polish people, which were described in the Catholic paper we took at home, as well as in the national press.

In 1944, when I was a teenager with a precocious interest in foreign affairs, the war was entering its final intensely bloody phase, and London, where I lived, was under attack from flying bombs. The exiled Polish government was established there, and Polish airmen and soldiers were in evidence in the streets. That July, the people of Warsaw rose against the retreating Germans; I was excited, then appalled at the course of events. The Red Army was not far away but gave no help to the insurgents. After two months of desperate fighting, the Poles were defeated.

In 1945, the Western powers at the Yalta conference acquiesced in the fait accompli of Russian domination of Poland, a country Britain had gone to war to defend; Churchill did so reluctantly and Roosevelt complaisantly. Henceforth, Poland was part of the Soviet bloc, and the London Polish Government was no longer recognized (except by the Vatican). I joined a body called the League for European Freedom, which vainly campaigned against the betrayal of Poland and the other nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

My interest in Poland declined, but revived many years later when, as a professor of English Literature, I made a number of visits to Polish universities in the 1970s and ’80s. I was impressed by the vitality of intellectual life, and the skill with which the restraints imposed by Communist ideology were finessed and evaded. I recall a significant encounter at the University of Lodz. I lectured on the English poets of the First World War, and referred to the protests against the war made by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. After the lecture a young student asked me in careful English if those poets were patriots; I answered, inadequately, that they loved their country but did not believe the war was justified. I could see that he was not satisfied. His question challenged pacific Western assumptions; it came out of a Polish history marked by successive patriotic attempts to defend national independence, of which the Warsaw rising was the latest instance.

The next phase of my concern with Poland was personal; in 1993 my son Ben married a Polish woman, Ewelina. Their wedding took place in a Polish church in south London, part of the extensive cultural and religious infrastructure that grew up in Britain, initially for the benefit of the Poles who had served in the armed forces and did not wish to return to a Communist Poland, and later of their many descendants. Ben and his family spend part of each summer with Ewelina’s mother in Poland; at evening classes in London he learned enough Polish, despite its difficult pronunciation and fearsome grammar, to pass a public examination and to be able to argue amiably with his mother-in-law. Once Ben and Ewelina were at a Mass said by John Paul II in Poland, and last summer they sent me a post card from John Paul’s birthplace; their Polish-tinged devotion to the late Holy Father is somewhat stronger than my own.

Since Poland entered the European Union, more Poles are coming to work in England. One of them is a cousin of Ewelina’s, who acts as au pair to my three small grandchildren. She talks to them in Polish, which they understand but are reluctant to speak, and on Saturday mornings they attend a local Polish school, which passes on national culture and traditions. I enjoy this state of affairs. To have three half-Polish grandchildren, and to have had an Italian grandfather, who died before I was born, is one way of being a typical English Catholic-or a good European, for that matter.

Published in the 2006-02-10 issue: 

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.

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