By Stanislaw Kawczak
Reviewed by Maria Szonert Binienda
During World War One the Polish Highlanders living under Austro-Hungarian domination were conscripted in mass to the Austrian army and forced to the bloodiest battle fields of WWI in the most trying circumstances. A young Stanislaw Kawczak from Nowy Sącz began his 5-year-long regular encounter with death in 1914 as a soldier of the 20th Infantry Regiment of Kraków.
In his detailed memoir from endless wars in the years 1914-1920, Kawczak depicts with biting precision the cruelty, inconceivable horror, pointless suffering, and violent death of human masses. Throughout all this experience, he keeps asking himself the fundamental question “why?” As a Pole ordered to fight, suffer and die the most horrific death for the glory of the hostile imperial power, he teases the irony of his plight, the fate of the Polish men forced to sacrifice their lives as anonymous irrelevant casualties on the bloodiest battle fields of the mad war for the glory of the Austrian Emperor.
Kawczak’s rendering of the human suffering in this war of “others,” as he calls it, is above and beyond all masterful. He reports his experience in such a direct way that the reader hears the whistle of bullets, smells the gunpowder, and feels the icy moisture of the soil in the trenches. Kawczak coldly dissects the insanity of this war and with abstract disengagement ponders the irrationality of the human slaughter without any end, any purpose, any sense.
The degree of suffering and death that befell the Polish people living under the occupation of the three empires battling each other in World War I is not understood and virtually unknown in the West, as Poland, divided and erased from the map by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, formally was not a party to this atrocious war. Between 1795 and 1918, the Poles did not exist as a sovereign people in the perception of the West. During that time, the Poles were treated by the West merely as subjects of the respective imperial powers. They were counted, registered, and perceived everywhere, including the United States, as Austrians, Germans or Russians. In practice, however, they were stateless people, people without their own government, people without their own representation, without any protection against cruelty and injustice, and without much value to the West except as the cannon fodder for the bloodiest tasks.
The Polish units were routinely sent by their Austrian commanders to the most dangerous battle fields as their lives were the cheapest. Kawczak writes: “I feel hot with fever and shiver from cold at the same time. I slept fitfully, next to equally wretched comrades. We are all aware that we are fighting and dying for the sake of an elusive Habsburg ideal, that they are herding us into battle like cannon fodder and we lack the power to protest.”
What meaning, one might ask, does such a tormented reading have for us today? What for such a torturous treat? Why should we delve today into this inhumanity of the past? One answer stands out today in particular. In the times of continual assault on the concept of a nation-state, it is instructive to put oneself in the position of a stateless person, an experience so painfully felt and so well presented by Kawczak. Let us better understand what the nationless paradise really meant for the Polish people living divided under brutal distant imperial powers. This important lesson of history should help us understand that living in a stateless world under global rule does not mean living in liberty and freedom. On the contrary, it means living under powers even more distant and ruthless than the WWI battling empires and even more oblivious to the plight of their nobody subjects than the plight of the Polish people under the three battling empires from WWI.
Kawczak’s rendering of the war experience is instructive in many important ways. He clearly distinguishes between the experience of fighting the just war versus the unjust war. He effectively contrasts the military service for the imperial power in the war of “others” with the military service in the revived Polish armed forces, where he is able to fight his own war for the resurrection of Poland and return of dignity to his people. In a very restrained but powerful way, he tells the difference between meaningless and meaningful human struggle.
At the conclusion of his memoir, Kawczak quotes a speech by Colonel Dobrodzicki given to the Polish soldiers at the end of the war: “I remember well those times in 1915, when Polish nationality was taboo when we were discriminated against in every respect when we could not be admitted to staff positions, or to hospitals when we were being chased from one front to another when we were not allowed to speak Polish… The champions of the Versailles Treaty should recognize that in the course of the World War, over 3 million Poles shed their blood on the battlefields, fighting with the conviction that a free Poland must emerge from the carnage, that the restoration of Poland is not an act of charity, but a basic demand of history and justice.”
As a result of the blood and sweat of the Polish soldiers who came together from all battle fields of WWI to finally fight the just war, in 1918 Poland regained her independence and returned to the map of Europe. Stanislaw Kawczak played a key role in this historic struggle for the liberty and dignity of the Polish people. Colonel Dobrodzicki summarized this achievement as follows: “Do you realize that you, the first soldiers of the Polish State were following him, the first Marshal of Poland [Józef Piłsudski]? And that history granted us the supreme honor of marching into a free Poland? Cheer up! Long live the illustrious Republic [of Poland]!” After the war, Stanislaw Kawczak received his law degree and was actively involved in building the Second Polish Republic.
In 1939, the blossoming Poland was slaughtered once again by her two totalitarian neighbors – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Kawczak once again dutifully reported to the Polish Army to defend his homeland. Soon thereafter, he was taken prisoner of war by the Red Army. In the spring of 1940, Kawczak was brutally murdered together 22 thousand Polish officer POWs by the NKVD criminals pursuant to the Katyn Execution Order signed by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Politburo on March 5, 1940. Poland once again lost her sovereignly for half a century while millions of Polish people once again became stateless beggars for decades to come.
“Dying Echoes” represents the first English language translation of a Polish memoir first published in 1936 in Poland. This book provides the reader with unique insights into the turbulent rebirth of Poland. The story of Stanislaw Kawczak also provides an important link between the 1918-1920 struggle for the resurrection of Poland and the WWII genocide of the Polish citizens by the Soviet Union in the 1940 Katyn Operation. The book “Dying Echoes” published by the grandson of Stanislaw Kawczak is available on amazon.com.