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Monte Cassino and the Freedom of the Soul

Somewhere in his journey from the Soviet gulags, through the battlefields of Italy, to his new homeland in the U.S., my friend Stasiek found a freedom of the soul at which I can only marvel.

Soldiers ascending Monte Cassino


"Stasiek" sits across the table from me at the Polish Hall, telling his story in a quiet, almost embarrassed voice.

"It was nothing special, what I did," he says again. "There were others..."

Stasiek walks with a slight stoop, peering at the world from behind bifocals, wears a hearing aid. I try to see him as he was 60 years ago, a seventeen-year old soldier facing his first battle, and not as a genial grandfather who goes to Mass every Sunday, who likes to pour himself a small glass of beer now and then or take his wife dancing.

Many who had survived the torture chambers of the Gestapo found themselves in the hands of a new set of torturers.
In May 1944, Stasiek was in a trench looking up at the monastery of Monte Cassino, the Nazi-held stronghold in Italy that commanded the road to Rome, and anchored the German 'Gustav' line. The fortress was considered almost impregnable, having broken successive assaults by British, New Zealand, Indian, and French troops, as well as by a division of Texas National Guardsmen. An amphibious landing behind the German line, at Anzio, had fallen short as well, with the entire invasion force pinned down just a few miles inland. Now, a raw unit of Poles was to be sent up that hill into the teeth of elite Nazi paratroopers and Panzergrenadiers—Hitler's "supermen."

That he survived the battle was remarkable. More remarkable yet was what he and his comrades had survived to reach that point.

In September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland and started World War II, Stasiek was living with his family in eastern Poland. Not long after the Nazi attack, Hitler's ally, Stalin, attacked from the east. Stasiek and his family found themselves in the grip of the Soviet secret police—the NKVD. The Soviets rounded up doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, and any government officials or army reservists they could find. Tens of thousands were shot in places like Katyn forest. The rest were sent to prison and labor camps, where most died. Stalin was systematically eliminating the Polish element from his new territories.

In the middle of an icy February night in 1940, the NKVD kicked down the door of the farmhouse where Stasiek, his parents, and his five brothers lived. The family was given minutes to dress and assemble. They and hundreds of their neighbors were rounded up, shoved into unheated cattle cars and shipped off to the Gulag Archipelago. More than a million Poles and tens of thousands of their Jewish, Belarussian, and Ukrainian neighbors became subhuman "zeks."

Execution, torture, starvation, exhaustion, and disease killed one after and another. Men and women were sent to do heavy labor in subzero cold without winter clothes. In the summer, the helpless prisoners were tortured by heat and mosquitoes. Stasiek watched as one of his brothers died of cholera, though miraculously the rest of the family survived severe malnourishment and overwork.

Though he does not forget, like so many of the old Polish veterans, he holds no grudge. He is not an advocate or a professional victim.
In June 1941, Hitler turned on his former ally and attacked the Soviet Union. With Hitler's armies pounding at his door and incompetent generals losing battle after battle, Stalin had no time for his Polish captives. Released from their Siberian hell, the surviving Poles walked or hitched rides on boxcars, thousands of miles over the endless steppe and taiga. Many were walking skeletons by the time they reached their transit camps near the Caspian Sea. Wracked with disease and starving to death, families were separated, never finding each other again. Parents lost their children, children their parents. The dead made a line of unmarked graves, pointing the way out of the "Worker's Paradise."

Again, Stasiek and his family beat the odds and together made it to Iran and then to Iraq. Finally, hundreds of thousands of Poles found themselves in British Palestine—today's Israel. There, Stasiek, two of his brothers, and his father, joined the newly formed Polish Second Corps. Even though Stasiek was still just 16, he was allowed in and trained as a scout car driver.

In the spring of 1944, Stasiek and the Second Corps were sent to Italy, into the seemingly endless battle to take Monte Cassino. The Allies were planning an all-out attack to break the Nazi defenses and capture Rome.

On the morning of May 12, 1944 Stasiek saw his first battle. The Poles stormed up the craggy slopes behind heavy artillery fire. The Germans poured murderous fire down on the attackers.

Positions fell, were lost, retaken again. "Subhuman" zeks of Stalin's gulags struggled hand to hand with Nazi "supermen." Men fought with knives, shovels, rocks. Neither side asked for or gave quarter. By nightfall of May 14, thousands lay dead or wounded, the two sides sometimes yards from each other.

Two days later, the Poles renewed the attack. To make up the losses, cooks, clerks, and drivers were given rifles and sent into the fray.

Stasiek never tells me what Cassino was like; he only speaks of standing guard through the night as the Allies' massive artillery assault turned night into day.

Throughout May 17, the Poles drove the Germans back, overrunning defense lines and then repelling ferocious counterattacks. Many diehard Nazis defended their concealed bunkers to the last man. By then, however, the German position was desperate, as all along the front U.S., French, British, Indian, and Polish forces pressed against the Gustav line defenses.

On the morning of May 18 the battle was over, and Stasiek and his remaining comrades raised their flag over Monte Cassino. They went on to fight across Italy, at Ancona, and at Bologna, where Stasiek was decorated for valor for rescuing wounded comrades under heavy enemy fire.

When the war ended, Stalin was still America's friend and the friend of "democratic liberation." Thousands of Americans sang the praises of the man who had begun the war as an ally of Hitler and the Nazi plan to conquer Europe. Genial "Uncle Joe," who had murdered millions of men, women, and children, was a "great man" and dissenting voices were not welcome.

Stasiek and his comrades found their country enslaved by a new dictator, who carried out ruthless purges of Poland's anti-Nazi resistance movement. Many who had survived the torture chambers of the Gestapo found themselves in the hands of a new set of torturers. But to much of the world, the new communist masters were "progressives" and "democrats" who welcomed home their exiles.

There is some crucial part of his story that I’ve missed, a part I may never understand.
Stasiek's father agreed to go home to Poland while the rest of the family stayed in the West. If conditions back home were livable, he would send word. Shortly after the father arrived in Poland, the family received a letter from him with a prearranged code telling them not to return. Stasiek never saw his father again. His father, who had survived many battles with the Nazis, and kept his family alive during their imprisonment in the gulag, spent his remaining days harassed by the secret police, denied decent housing, and given only the most back-breaking physical labor.

When I hear this story, I am angry at the injustice he has suffered.

"Stasiek" is not.

Though he does not forget, like so many of the old Polish veterans, he holds no grudge. He is not an advocate or a professional victim. He has never asked for compensation, deserve it though he may. From my vantage point 60 years later and half a world away, I have the luxury of being far more angry about it all than he.

Against whom would he hold a grudge? Stalin and Hitler are dead and have gone before their maker to answer for their deeds. A few of the thugs that helped them are still around. But Stasiek would prefer to talk about his grandchildren and show me pictures of his great grandchildren.

And what about those in the West, especially in the media and academia, who supported Stalin and his successors and continue to soft-pedal the crimes of communism? Stasiek shrugs. Sure, it would be nice to be appreciated more. But what would be the point? Who would it bring back from the dead?

And as he shows me the next picture, I realize there is some crucial part of his story that I've missed, something I may never understand. In the long journey from the Soviet gulag, through the battlefields of Italy, to his new homeland, through the losses and the pain, something happened during his trials that freed his soul, something that I may never grasp. He has turned the other cheek and come away with his soul and his humanity intact.

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July 5, 2004

JOHN RADZILOWSKI, Ph.D., is a historian and senior fellow at the Piast Institute (www.piastinstitute.org). He can be contacted at jradzilow@aol.com.

All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
03.10.05   elabrodziak says:
Great article, John!!!! Fantastic writing and very factual and true.... And yes, visiting Monte Cassino was one of the highlights of Italy... Freedom of the soul , in a strange way, is not comprehended by people always free... It has no meaning to them... But for me, who arrived in USA after beeing slave for 33 years, with 2 small suitcases and 45 dollars in my wallet.... I am very greatful for having a chance to be a free person; And i want to scream bloody murder after reading article in Star-Tribune, one of many, praising Fidel Castro system for giving his slaves FREE medical care, FRRE education etc... Never mind, that is free because those people wages are about 100.00 per month... Like who needs FREEDOM, when we have such a good master taking care of us... Let us go and kiss his hand... So, once more, great story, John! The only one thing I would change is calling the gentelman Stasiek. I would use proper name Stanislaw: first because he is a older person, not a kid or teen and second the form Stasiek is used only by his family or close friends... It is like reporter talking to a 78 years old Second War american hero and calling him Johnie .... Using the form Stasiek somehow diminishes and disrespects that person.... Ela Brodziak

07.12.04   fmradz says:
I found the story of Stasiek as described by Dr. Radzilowski very interesting from a couple of perspectives. First, Stasiek’s ability to not be angry or hold a grudge after what most of us would consider an unbearable injustice is remarkable and confirms this man’s ability to disengage from unproductive and destructive self pity and/or anger and to concentrate his focus on the joys life has provided to him. Secondly, the story causes me to wonder how rare is this ability to focus on the positive side of life after enduring such horrors. I found the story caused me to step back and rethink my life values again. I also wonder if there are many other Stasieks among the Poles who suffered so much during that time or is he one of a kind. I would certainly like to hear others.

07.08.04   radzmike says:
Great story, I have met others who expierenced this battle and they all seemed very well adjusted. I had a very good friend in Germany named Roman Wegrzynek who had served in the battles in that area. Last time I had seen him was probably 15 years ago, and we met in Ancona. He still visited with a family he helped to feed during those times, and to quote him"I mainly come to visit my many friends in the Polish army Cemetary up the road." He was origanlly from the border area between Germany & Poland and was forced into the Germany army,escaped, was captured and beaten, put in the army again and escaped. Made his way into the Polish army and settled in West Germany after the war. Went thru alot, but loved everyone.

07.07.04   tnapierk says:
Thanks to Stasiek and all the Polish forces for their valorous and under-appreciated role in the epic struggle of World War II. Thanks as well to John Radzilowski for re-telling Stasiek's story so movingly.

07.07.04   tadeusz says:
Thank you so much for publishing this. Stasiek is a fine representative of Polish soldiers, the fourth-largest Allied fighting force in WW2, the ONLY force to fight the Germans from the first to the last day of European operations. Stasiek's psychic health is remarkable, given that the greatest wounds inflicted on Polish soldiers were emotional ones, caused by their betrayal by the Allies.

07.07.04   judytam10 says:
We know so many men like Stasiek whose stories have never been told. It is important that we record their experiences for history. We don't have much time left to us!

07.07.04   rogacki says:
Thank you, Godspy, for posting this article that reveals so many truths about the nature of man. May God continue to bless Stasiek and those like him who quietly gave of themselves in the midst of unmitigated evil. And thank you to Dr. Radzilowski for capturing this beautiful story, which all should read in an age where life's sanctity is so often denigrated.

07.07.04   a.architect says:
Dr Radzilowski's account of Staciek is a reminder of the principled conduct of our immigrant parents and grandparents - for the benefit of us, their American grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were good, courageous, and relentless people. My grandparents came from Poland, too, like Staciek did. I recall them with the eyes of an eight year old and with love and admiration. I tell their great-grandchildren about them! Their souls and humanity were well intact, as Dr Radzilowski put it. I will tell their great grandchildren that too!"The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death." - Thomas Paine

07.07.04   danuta says:
This is an excellent article revealing the Polish spirit, soul, and sacrifice of men like Stasiek and my father in this decisive battle. If any Pole or Polish American that knows the history of this battle, should find themselves in Italy, the Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino is a very moving place to visit. The monument to the fallen Polish soldiers bears the poignant words "For Your Freedom and Ours", and what is striking about that simple statement is that the words "for your freedom" come before "ours". Maybe Stasiek has a freed soul, in spite of history being unkind and unappreciative to Poland and soldiers like himself, because the sacrifice came from doing for others, and that is always right.

07.06.04   owczarek says:
Thank you for publishing this article. I enjoyed reading this inspiring and very well written tale of strength, forgiveness, and human dignity.

07.06.04   Godspy says:
Somewhere in his long journey from the Soviet gulags, through the battlefields of Italy, to his new homeland, Stasiek found a freedom of the soul at which I can only marvel.

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