Chapter V

The New Polish Army

A new Polish Army was advancing across Poland to "set banners in Berlin." Everywhere mention of this army brought the loudest applause. Greetings with which the populace met the Red Army increased markedly when Polish detachments appeared. Peasant assemblies cheering the land reform cheered still more loudly the young speakers in uniform who told them, “Your title deeds to the land are underwritten by our bayonets.”

This army with the white-red banners and the Polish eagle was to millions of Poles the clearest symbol of hope that Poland would again be free and strong. The prewar Polish Army had been scattered and destroyed; its General Staff had fled to Rumania and England. Some of its officers were dead, some still in German prison camps; others, for a time interned in the USSR, had joined the Anders army and reached the Italian front. Some of the soldiers had managed to get home to their farms; others were slaves in Germany or dispersed across the world.

The new Polish Army was composed of three elements: the First Army of one hundred thousand formed among Polish refugees in the Soviet Union by General Sigmund Berling; the Polish partisans who had operated on Polish soil during the occupation; and the new recruits mobilized since the liberation.

At the time of my first visit the new Polish Army was some two hundred thousand strong. It was operationally under the Red Army for the joint war against Germany. The Polish Army however took its oath of allegiance to Poland and to the Rada Narodowa as representing the democratic organizations of the Polish people. It carried the white-red standard of Poland; its soldiers had eagles on their caps where the Russians had red stars. Polish soldiers took part in and often formed the spearhead for spectacular advances across Poland. Polish soldiers, not Russian, formed the guards for all official Polish government buildings and the garrisons in the most important Polish towns.

Every morning in Lublin I was awakened by Polish soldiers chanting the "Rota," their pledge. It is devout in tone; when I first heard it I thought it was a hymn. This famous poem by Maria Konoplitza, written early in the century during the struggle of partitioned Poland against German oppression, pledges never to let Polish earth be held by strangers. Every stanza ends "So may God help us." The chanted poem now forms part of the morning and evening army ritual before prayers. The chaplains and daily religious services of the Polish Army are another indication of its difference from the Red Army.

At this time the troops of the First Polish Army were seasoned by more than a year of war. They had first battled at Lenina near Smolensk in October 1943; here the Kosciusko division broke the German front. In July 1944 the First Polish helped force the Bug River and swept for two hundred miles across Poland, cheered and kissed all the way. As this great drive spent itself, it broke across the Vistula at Pulawy, south of Warsaw, establishing the bridgehead for the next offensive. Then in September, with detachments of the Red Army, the First Polish Army fought its way into Praga from the south through the strongest German fortifications in Poland, to establish itself on the eastern bank of the Vistula.

Polish partisans, especially those under General Zymierski, co-operated as the Red Army and the First Polish Army approached. Striking the Germans from the rear they disorganized enemy communications and turned the retreat into a rout. They rescued peasants who were being deported to Germany as slaves. They policed liberated towns pending the organization of the Polish civil government. As soon as possible they were incorporated into the regular Polish Army, the rank of all partisan officers being preserved.

A national draft of able-bodied men between nineteen and thirty-five was simultaneously declared, regional draft boards being set up in all large centers.

Only the younger age groups were called for service in the rank and file, older men being inducted only if they were specialists. The Second Polish Army, still training in December 1944, was formed of partisans and these new recruits, stiffened by veterans from the First Army.

On a gorgeous December dawn I set out for the training camps at Chelm. By army time it was already nine o'clock, the entire eastern front being synchronized to Moscow. By Polish civilian time, which follows the Central European, it was only seven. On the sharp rolling horizon the pale morning sky was cut by an occasional church or cluster of thatched houses. The earth was green with the young winter rye planted in long strips – the old peasant three-field system little changed since the days of tsarist Russia. The peasants seemed to have done well with their winter sowing.

The stretch from Lublin to Chelm, taken by that rapid sweep of the Red Army to the Vistula, bore fewer traces of war damage than other areas in liberated Poland. Signs at the approach to every town listed in Russian and in Polish the army facilities of the place. Thus Chelm announced: "This town contains rest rooms, auto repair station, food depot, restaurant, hospital." This information was clearly for the benefit of passing troops. The training camps were not listed, their location being secret in the neighboring woods.

We found the army headquarters in a group of villas outside the town. The commander of the tank corps planned our tour. In a single day, he told us, we could not visit all the camps in the vicinity, for they were scattered over considerable distances and not easily reached in this season of mud. We decided to cover the motorized infantry, the tank training corps, and the artillery officers' school.

The clear dawn had given way to drizzle by the time our sturdy jeep had traveled over several miles of mud road to reach the motorized infantry on the edge of a wood. The camp, we found, was entirely made of zemlyankas – dugouts. A long straight lane led for nearly a mile through the woods. It was sanded underfoot, bordered by neat rustic fencing and screened from airplanes by the branching tops of pines. Set back from the path some twenty feet or more were the rows of dugouts, some two feet of side wall showing under sloping roofs covered with moss, pine needles, or sand. It was like a town of log cabins sunk four or five feet in the earth.

"We learned this trick from the Russians," explained our host, Colonel Czerwinski. "Zemlyankas are more comfortable than tents and almost as quickly set up anywhere in the woods. The German habit of billeting men in villages not only inconveniences the population but does not suit the precise needs of a military organization. Here we have all our men in one place in a camp of exactly the required size and position; this makes for good discipline. Pine woods are also much cleaner than a village.

“Here is our staff office,” the colonel continued, as he led the way down four steps into a small entry under a peaked roof. He lifted an ingeniously carved wooden latch and the axe-hewn door swung on modern metal hinges. We found ourselves in a warm, well-lit cabin about twenty by thirty feet in size and divided into two rooms. The walls and floors were of split logs with the smooth side inward; with their protection and with the heat from an iron stove in the larger front room we were not conscious of the damp day outside.

The first room was the office where at three large tables, under a skylight and with light from windows in the walls just under the roof, several officers were working on maps. Electric lamps when needed were supplied from the camp motor. At the rear of the office a wide arch led into a bedroom with four cots; these were of split logs covered with bags of straw. As a veteran Seattle camper I judged the accommodations were more comfortable than the tents and camp beds we had used many summers on Mount Rainier.

We walked the length of the main path and dropped into several dugouts on the way; a post office, a recreation club, and some of the men's quarters. They were all similar in construction, but stoves varied according to the skill of the inhabitants, many being contrived from big oil cans. The men's dugouts accommodated twenty and had fewer windows.

“Window glass is a problem,” remarked the colonel. “There is none yet made in Poland. The boys salvage it from ruined houses.”

The roofs showed signs of proud artistry. Some were unbroken mossy carpets, others were dotted with patterns of acorns and leaves, while still others, in the less wooded spaces, were smooth with yellow sand sometimes crowned with one or two baby pines. Everywhere they toned with the landscape, making the dugouts almost unnoticeable from a short distance. Shelters for arms and equipment were set between the dugouts. Rifles, tommy guns, and helmets stood on racks in the open air, immediately available but protected by steep, straw roofs. Throughout the camp, but especially in front of the dugouts, were many decorations cunningly contrived of moss, broken bits of white crockery, and red brick. A favorite was the Polish eagle in red and white mosaic with the motto "In union is strength" of white crockery set in green moss.

"We built the entire camp in five days," the colonel boasted, "but of course not all the decorations. The roofs are covered for warmth, for camouflage, and also for beauty." The bathhouse was the colonel's pride. "Like a city bath – handles sixty men at a time." This large half-underground dugout had an entry with log benches on which to put clothes, a main bathroom where water was poured from showers and basins, and the popular hot-steam room. Water had to be hauled for the bath, but after use it ran off between the split logs of the floor and by a drain to a cesspool deep in the sandy soil.

At the far end of the camp new recruits were kept in quarantine for ten days. One newly arrived group was still in civvies. I seized the chance to talk with Polish villagers selected not as delegates to some conference but merely by army draft of able-bodied young men. These were all from one village. After the first few questions, a man with a black stubble of beard seemed to become spokesman while the others nodded general approval to his words.

"Has the Red Army been through your village?"

"Of course, first the Red Army and then the Polish Army."

"How did they behave?"

"Behave? They're quiet folks. Like Poles."

"Have you had the land reform?"

"Yes. We divided five thousand acres among the peasants; it was a single estate."

"What happened to the landlord?"

"He went away with the Germans; he had a German soul. He'll get no Polish land again. If anyone wants Polish land let him live in dugouts with us and fight for it."

"Was the land justly divided?"

The man with the black bristling chin shrugged. "Who can say what is just? It is the law."

"I mean was the division justly made among the peasants, so that each got a fair share?"

"Oh, that! But of course. We did that ourselves. If the land was good or near the village then eight acres; if far away or not so good, then twelve acres. I chose eight acres that were near because I also do work in the village sometimes as carpenter. Now that I'm in the army my wife will work the land."

"What kind of government do you have in your village?" I meant the question politically, but they took it technically.

"The government is the gmina – township. For the land reform there is a special commission of delegates from each village under the county land agent."

"Who rules in the gmina?" I persisted. Seeing the confused looks, I explained, "Have you the same officials as the ones who were under the Germans?"

Everyone grinned. Then one man said, "We chased them out." Another qualified, "Well, some could stay if they were all right, but not those with German souls."

"How did you get the new ones?"

"We chose them, of course." They were obviously bored by this conversation on what seemed to them the most commonplace village affairs. They much preferred some romantic subject like America. At first they hesitated and then finally ventured: Was I the American representative? Was America sending somebody to Poland? No? How then did I get here? Had I been in Detroit? In Chicago? One of them had a brother, another a cousin, in those cities.

On the way back to the colonel's dugout we came to an altar under the trees for morning and evening prayers. The chaplain of the camp told me that he had also served in the prewar Polish Army but "hid out as a shepherd under the German occupation and thus escaped and lived."

"Did the Germans kill priests?" I asked

"Except for the few who taught according to their Nazi precepts. Others were doomed unless they managed to hide."

The "political officer" accompanying us, in general charge of community welfare, told me that the new recruits needed not only military training but education for citizenship.

"We must root out the evil habits acquired under Nazi rule." To my query as to what was the chief of these, he answered, "Drunkenness."

"Drunkenness, cheating, graft, thieving, speculation grew rife under the occupation. Suppressed people try to forget or to beat the game illegally. Besides, when rulers insist for five years that you are 'inferior,' it breaks normal self-respect. Idleness and sabotage became virtues – a way of outwitting the oppressors. They are bad hangovers now." He added that there was considerable illiteracy because schools were few and far between under the Nazis. "In five years young folks grew up who could not read. Even in this special technical corps we have 10 per cent illiterates among new recruits; in ordinary infantry the percentage is higher. One of the first things our political department does is to establish classes for those who must learn to read and write.

"The Nazi occupation," he concluded, "has left a terrible heritage of demoralization in Europe. This it is my task to fight."

I met the colonel's wife at his dugout and recognized the stocky woman whom I had seen earlier at the post office sorting out mail. "She is camp postmistress," smiled the colonel. "My seventeen-year-old son is also here as my chauffeur. If you have to go to war why not take the family?"

The touch of a good housewife was apparent in the dugout. The iron stove was plastered in like a Dutch oven; there was a comfortable divan; the table had a green plush cover, and there were pictures and a looking glass on the wall. A telephone stood as normally on a table as in a city home.

"Can you call Moscow on that?" I said jokingly.

Czerwinski grinned. "Not on that but on this." He turned on a portable radio and strains of chamber music flooded the room.

Nothing in the cabin indicated that we were half underground. Sitting on the sofa I saw through the window the tops of tall pines against the limpid sky. I felt myself in a comfortable vacation resort.

Mrs. Colonel Czerwinski whisked off the green plush cover and replaced it with a white tablecloth and a fancy centerpiece. She apologized profusely for having to offer us "pot luck." "I got dinner after I saw you," she explained. Yet in that hour and a half she had prepared a staggering repast.

Hors d'oeuvres were on the scale of a Swedish smorgasbord with the fifty-seven varieties of cold meats and pickles, including a mixture of red and white pickled cabbage that my hostess dubbed "Vitamin salad"; the army has become vitamin conscious in this war. The tasty bread was in large cubes. Drinks included bottled beer, a red, sourish wine, and a potent old-fashioned home-brewed honey mead. After this satisfying start came a second course of tenderest, delicious liver stewed in an onion gravy with boiled potatoes so mealy that they were falling apart. My hostess regretted that she hadn't had time to French fry them, for which I was grateful. The third course was the national Polish dish called bigos – cabbage, onions, and sausage steamed together – far more savory than the kind dished out in Lublin. Then came ox tongues – four large whole ones from which we carved out chunks instead of slices. With after-dinner tea came honey cake and twisted sugared pastry known as khrusts – Polish crisps.

Our talk turned to the place of women in the army. Mrs. Czerwinski related an incident about the mobilization of Polish girls from the western Ukraine who joined the army as it passed through because they wanted to go to Poland. Two girls came to her for advice; they hesitated to join the army, for they were told that this would kill their chance of a decent marriage. The colonel guffawed.

"The best place to find a man and to be sure of him is in the army. If an army girl is a nice girl she gets her pick. And it's a good place to test your man, too. An army comrade is a tried and true comrade. Only when we go into attack–" he threw a glance at his wife – "I want her as far in the rear as possible."

The colonel's lady protested. "We've lived together twenty years. If he's got to be killed, why shouldn't it be together?" It was very clear that the colonel did not agree.

Czerwinski had joined the Red Army in the Russian Revolution when Poland was still part of Russia; he had served there for twenty-four years. In all that time he never once wrote to his old mother in her Polish village "for fear they'd persecute her if they knew she had a son in the Red Army." When at last the fortunes of war brought him home his own mother did not at once recognize him. When he revealed himself, she fell in a faint; as soon as she came to, the colonel presented his wife and son. This convinced the old woman, for the boy was the image of the father when he had left.

"But they don't have families in Russia," the perplexed old village woman still protested. "Children are taken by the state."

"Not a bit of it! He's mine and now he's come back to Poland. Feel him, Mamma, isn't he a husky?"

The afternoon was far advanced before we could tear ourselves away from the Czerwinskis. We cut our visit to the tank corps to a whirlwind trip.

Deep in mud, our jeep slithered up banks and down into gullies, several times almost overturning. An hour of this brought us to another camp similarly situated in a woods. Along the edge where the trees gave way to an open field stood a long row of green tanks, solid, medium size, Russian-made. They were sunk in pits a yard deep; wood-burning stoves in still lower pits kept the motors warm; green tarpaulins protected them. A tank crew climbed in to give us a demonstration. Grunting noisily, the green beast swayed a bit, gathered itself for an effort, and then with a great heave climbed out of the pit and rumbled across the field.

"These boys have been in training here three months," said the camp commander, as the tank backed slowly into its lair.

We came at dusk to the artillery officers’ school in Chelm. The splendid five-story building with more than four hundred rooms had served as railway administration for prewar Poland and for the regional Gestapo under Nazi rule. When the Red Army took Chelm they found the basement full of filth, blood, and corpses where prisoners had been tortured and put to death. Now in the same basement was a well-ordered officers’ dining room where our "tea" turned out to include cold meats, large decorated mounds of butter, luscious pastries, and wine.

Sixteen hundred cadets were here in training as future artillery officers. The school was in constant battle with wartime shortages. The electric lights flickered for a moment as we entered and then went out. This happened two or three times a week, for the Germans had destroyed the local power plant and they were temporarily switched to the overburdened Lublin system. The young cadets insisted on showing us over the entire five floors by the light of candles, with which they made a continuous procession, raising them aloft to illuminate the banners, posters, and slogans with which the various groups adorned their walls.

The school was primitive in equipment but modern in method. Many tables and benches in the classrooms were made of hand-hewn logs or of primary school benches lifted on trestles. This rude foundation supported fine models made by the cadets, landscapes on which they worked out artillery ranges. On the hardwood floor of the bedrooms were rows of pallets laid out with beautiful precision. Bedsteads and springs were lacking, but the floor was so polished that one could have eaten from it. When I praised the immaculate order they replied: "Of course. This is the army!"

At tea the school's chaplain, another priest who hid out during the German occupation, told us that the commandant gave him every facility for his religious work and that the response of the men was good. The instructor on my right was a Russian distinguished by six medals and decorations: medals for the defense of Moscow and Stalingrad, the Order of the Red Banner for the forcing of the Don, and three orders won in the Finnish War for artillery work that helped smash the Mannerheim Line.

“The London Poles would mistrust your presence here,” I smiled. He shrugged this aside as of little account.

"After the first World War Poland had French instructors for her army. How many Poles could you find today who could teach from actual battle experience of modern artillery?"

We finished our tea by candlelight. A sudden blaze of electricity lit up the entire building just as we said farewell.

The new Polish Army was constantly emphasizing its differences from the past. What were these differences? For an authoritative answer I went to General Alexander Zawadzki, vice-commander in chief of the army, in control of army policy.

"We call our army a 'democratic army,' " he told me. "By this we mean that our soldiers are expected also to be citizens, and to defend a democratic regime. We tell them: 'You are not set above the people. You are the armed sons of the people. Your problems are those of Polish peasants, Polish workers, Polish intellectuals. You must understand their problems and defend their civil rights.'

"In every country you find people who demand that the army be 'divorced from politics.' These are usually reactionaries who don't want soldiers discussing the problems of a democracy. Every army in the world is the instrument of some kind of policy, that is, of politics. The prewar Polish Army was the instrument of the notorious 'regime of colonels' that went to smash in 1939. Soldiers had to 'obey without back-talk.' The prewar army obeyed not only when ordered to slay Ukrainian peasants in Eastern Poland but even when ordered to shoot down striking, starved Polish peasants around Cracow.

“Qe don't want robots in our army! Let the soldier know for what he fights! Let him know that the Polish Army is part of the Polish people and that only such an army is strong in defense.”

"How far do you go in encouraging politics in the army? Do you let different political parties promote their differences?"

"Nobody would be allowed to promote a fascist view in the army. Our soldiers take the oath to support a democratic Poland and the Rada Narodowa's authority. Representatives of the four democratic parties are to be found among our political officers; we give no preference among these parties. They all stand on the platform of the Committee of National Liberation. Differences of interpretation occur among our political officers, but partisan attacks on another democratic party would be out of place in the army."

A new type of officer is naturally needed for a new kind of army. In seeking these, said General Zawadzki, "we draw from soldiers and noncoms who show ability to lead. We fight the idea that officers are a separate caste. They are citizens with specialized military abilities. Formerly money and family were decisive in admission to officers' schools. In prewar Poland the concept of 'the honor of an officer' was quite feudal.

"Among our prewar officers, contempt for the democratic nations was very common. Instructors in army academies openly said: 'How weak with their squabbling parliaments are Britain and France and Czechoslovakia! Germany and Italy have strong hands!' We teach our officers the contrary. See what nations win in the end, we say! The democratic powers where common folk have something to defend!"

Zawadzki added that there were "hundreds of the old officers" in the present army. "Some of them have risen very fast. We recognize all ranks received in any Polish army, whether the prewar army, the various armies of the underground, or the army fighting abroad. This applies also to officers of the Home Army if they join us openly. We have had however considerable trouble with Home Army officers who conceal their past status and join to disrupt us."

Details of political training and of difficulties with Home Army officers were given me, at the general's request, by Colonel Victor Grosz, Chief of the Political Department – that is, in operational charge of these matters. He showed me a sheaf of a typical day's reports from "political officers" of various army units. The engineers had had a lecture on the Fifth Column, the antiaircraft forces on "Military Secrecy – What Can Be Written Home." One unit had discussed the land reform, another "Why Poland Fell in 1939 and How Poland Can Rise Again." Several units near the front had discussed leaflets that the Germans dropped.

"We don't hide the propaganda that the Germans throw down," stated the colonel. "We show how stupid it is. The simplest Polish soldier laughs when the Germans write: ‘You aren't in the Polish Army but the Bolshevik Army! Shoot your officers and come over to us and we guarantee you a free Poland.’ Lately the Germans have been a bit cleverer. They say: ‘Your true Polish Government is in London’; or 'The British and Americans have betrayed you to Stalin.’ It is getting hard to distinguish between German leaflets and those put out by the London Poles; we don't know which copies the other! This also we point out to the soldiers, that the Germans and the Home Army often use the same slogans.”

How serious was the friction with the Home Army? I asked the colonel's opinion. Prime Minister Churchill had been intimating in Parliament that unless the "Polish question" was settled the different loyalties of different armed groups of Poles might break into civil war. Grosz scouted the idea.

"There is no unified Home Army. Widespread, disciplined unity is very hard to maintain in underground groups. There were all kinds of underground groups in occupied Poland. Some were just men who took to the woods for safety and lived by loot; other groups had political convictions. Among the latter were our People's Army under General Zymierski and armed forces of the Peasant Party – the various 'Peasant Battalions' – who more or less co-operated with us. Some Home Army units co-operated with us in special actions against Germans; others would not. The most reactionary groups were those known as NSZ (Narodowe Sily Zbrogne – National Armed Forces). These are terrorists who murdered Jews and radicals or betrayed them to the Gestapo. The London Poles accepted their allegiance and counted them as part of the Home Army, but certainly not all Home Army units were of this type.

"When the Red Army and the First Polish Army came over the border, the Committee of National Liberation ordered all underground bands of whatever political complexion to dissolve their organizations and surrender their arms as soon as their territory was freed. They were then accepted and reorganized as regulars in our new Polish Army, with recognition of all past ranks. The People's Army, most of the Peasants’ Battalions, and some of the Home Army detachments followed these instructions loyally. But some Home Army units, and especially a considerable number of officers, hid from mobilization or entered the Polish Army under false names, for purposes of disruption and even murder.”

Colonel Grosz brought out a report from a training camp. A former Home Army officer joined up as a private and quickly became a noncom, concealing his name and his past. "A panic began one night in his section of the camp. New recruits were shouting: 'We won't let them take us to Siberia!' Somebody had started the crazy idea that they were to be sent to Siberia. A lot of men ran away to the woods where an underground Home Army unit was waiting for them. Within a couple of days most of our men came back, looking very sheepish. We learned then that the supposed noncom was a fairly high officer who had caused the panic. Such tricks are annoying but not dangerous. It was more serious when somebody gave poisoned alcohol to soldiers in Praga. We are checking to see whether this was a German agent or an agent of the London Poles. We don't know yet. Their actual practice is increasingly the same.”

The chief threat presented by the Home Army, according to Grosz, was not to the new Polish Army but to unarmed civilians, especially to agents of the Committee of Liberation, carrying out the land reform. Many scores of such civilians had been murdered. Home Army officers who co-operated loyally with the Polish Army were also in peculiar danger from former associates. Major Kropiwnicki, a former Home Army officer who, in the new Polish Army, became chief of recruiting for Zamosc district, was shot in the back while addressing peasants in a public square. Bands of the NSZ were also occasionally raiding small towns, killing Jews.

"This is not civil war. It is plain banditry and murder," concluded Grosz. "It threatens the peace and order of some communities but is no serious danger to either the strength of our new Polish Army or the stability of the Polish state."

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