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...

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About the Author

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