So many heroes, so little attention. In researching my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype," I read many hair-raising, heartbreaking, inspirational stories of Poles who behaved heroically in the face of impossible odds. The vast majority of these heroes are unknown to the wider world. I met people who pooh-poohed sharing their own heroism. They felt that there were so many Poles who did the utmost, but who would never be recognized.
Blog reader Lukasz Klimek offers, below, the tale of one such remarkable Pole – a man Lukasz calls "A Perfect Pole." You probably won't read about Henryk Jedwab anywhere else, so please read about him here. And thank you.
A PERFECT POLE – IN MEMORY OF LT. HENRYK JEDWAB (1918-2005)
The man who came to be known by the more typically Polish first name of Henryk was born with the more traditionally Jewish name of Haim Joel Jedwab on April 15th, 1918, in Kalisz, Poland. Henryk's father, Lejb Leon Jedwab, and his mother, and Ella, née Lipska, were wealthy and culturally assimilated. At a time when most Polish Jews named Yiddish as their first language, Henryk never learned to speak Yiddish. He once wrote, "I managed my life without that language."
The very same year of Jedwab's birth, 1918, was also a momentous year for Poland. Poland was reborn as a political entity after World War I. Before that, Poland had existed as a colony of Russia, Prussia, and Austria for 146 years. During that time, Russia and Prussia expressly stated that they hoped to obliterate the very concept of Poland. Their goal was cultural genocide. Polish language was often forbidden in schools. For a time there was a ban on Poles erecting permanent dwellings, even on their own land. One Pole, Michał Drzymała, became internationally famous after he turned a wagon into his home. He would move the wagon every twenty-four hours to avoid the law. In the late nineteenth century, illiteracy may have been as high as between sixty and seventy percent in Russian Poland. Austrian Poland was notorious as a site of widespread poverty, famine, and alcoholism. Rebuilding Poland as a viable nation would take hard work. Little did the jubilant Poles celebrating the rebirth of their nation in 1918 know that an even more horrific catastrophe, Nazi invasion and occupation, would begin in just twenty-one years, in 1939.
After Poland was reborn, nationalism ran high. Some Poles regarded anything not 100% Polish as an enemy. Polish anti-Semitism reached its height during the interwar period, that is, between 1918 and 1939. Polish chauvinists demanded a quota system in higher education. Their justification was that Polish Catholics were underrepresented in the professions, while Jews were overrepresented, and Polish Catholics were overrepresented as impoverished peasants. As the 2018 book Against Antisemitism records, "77 percent of Jews were urban dwellers … Jews accounted for 56 percent of doctors, 45 percent of teachers, 33 percent of lawyers, and 22 percent of journalists."
It wasn't just an understandable desire to elevate Polish Catholics that inspired the push for quotas. Antisemitism was newly energized by an international wave of social Darwinism in the sciences. Another factor fueled antisemitism: the previously mentioned nationalism and chauvinism typical of a formerly oppressed people suddenly gaining self-rule. Racists demanded that Jewish medical students not be allowed to dissect the corpses of Christians. Tragically and wrongly, Polish chauvinists did beat up Jews on university campuses.
Jedwab attended a middle school named after the nineteenth-century Polish poet Adam Asnyk, and went on to the military academy in Brześć (a city that is now named Brest, and is in Belarus). He embarked on the study of medicine at the University of Warsaw. Because of anti-Semitic violence, he and his younger brother left Poland and continued to pursue their education at Nancy-Université in France. When Hitler threatened Poland, Jedwab returned to his country, regardless of the wrongs he suffered, to defend it against the Germans.
Jedwab served in 84th Polesie Rifle Regiment. On September 1st, 1939, when Nazi Germany began its blitzkrieg against Poland, thus beginning World War II, Jedwab was commanding soldiers. They were dug in on defensive positions. Suddenly Jedwab saw enemy soldiers emerging from the mist. Germans were running straight for his concealed position. At first Jedwab was caught off guard and was unable to speak. When the enemy was really close, he overcame his initial shock, and ordered the machine-gun crew to fire. Later that day his CO praised him for his sangfroid in combat.
Reborn Poland was no match for wealthy, highly industrialized, Nazi Germany. In fact, no single nation was. Great Britain and the United States, much larger and wealthier than Poland, fought the Nazis for years. Too, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Poland was invaded by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in September, 1939. Both were massive, genocidal powers determined to obliterate Poland once and for all. Poland never formally surrendered, but by October 6, 1939, Germany and Russia had full control of Polish territory.
During eleven days of fighting against overwhelming odds, Jedwab's 84th regiment suffered heavy casualties and was almost completely destroyed. On September 27th, Jedwab crossed the Prut river on the Polish-Romanian border as Soviet soldiers fired at him.
Carrying no food, papers, or money, Jedwab travelled through Romania, Yugoslavia, and Italy to France. He received help from locals, including Italians, even though Italy was allied with Germany. Once in France, Jedwab rejoined the Polish Army and became an instructor in the Cadet School in Camp de Coëtquidan. "My French career began. It was an eye-opener. One has to be an idiot to count on the French. The Germans got bored with the Phony War and they decided to end this fun," he later wrote.
During the Fall of France, Jedwab was a commander of an anti-tank battalion. His unit covered the retreat of the French Army. For his bravery, Jedwab was awarded, three times, with the Croix de Guerre.
One day in Paris, Jedwab took a nap. When he woke up, Paris was already overrun by the Germans. They took him prisoner, but he escaped from the POW camp after eight days. Jedwab crossed the French-Spanish border by train. To be specific, he rode the rods underneath the passenger car. From Spain he traveled to Gibraltar and then to Great Britain.
Jedwab wanted to return to Poland. He was worried about his parents. He volunteered to join the Cichociemni That is, "The Silent and Unseen." The Cichociemni were an elite Polish anti-Nazi unit with a high casualty rate. During training, Jedwab broke his arm. Frustrated with what felt to him as inactivity, he caused disciplinary problems. A sympathetic Polish colonel send him to the Special Operations Executive, a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit.
Because he was a fluent French speaker, Jedwab was parachuted into France twice to organize the French resistance. The details of his assignments were classified and Jedwab never spoke about them.
In July, 1942, the British Army formed a commando unit of non-British personnel from Nazi-occupied Europe. It was called the Number 10 Inter-Allied Commando unit. The portion made up of Poles was dubbed Number 6. Jedwab joined that. Upon arriving at the camp in Scotland, Jedwab started to order soldiers around. Suddenly he heard someone saying "That loudmouth must be my brother!". On that day, after three years of separation, he was reunited with his younger brother, Abram Jan "Janek" Jedwab.
In 1942 his company was send to North Africa. One year later they landed in Italy. On the night of December 21-22, 1943, in a town named Pescopennataro, Jedwab's unit was attacked by some 250 German Gebirgsjägers, that is, elite mountain troops. The commandos managed to fend off the attack. For this act, Jedwab's entire company was collectively awarded the Order of Virtuti Militari.
On January 17th, 1944, the company crossed Garigliano river and started taking nearby hills one by one. They repelled several German counterattacks. Jedwab once again showed courage and was wounded by a grenade explosion. He was later decorated with Polish Cross of Valor.
In 1944, Jedwab's fate crossed paths with the legendary Polish II Corps. As previously mentioned, Russia's intentions toward Poland had long been genocidal. When Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland in September, 1939, Russia began an anti-Polish ethnic cleansing campaign in the territory under its control. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported. Typically they might be roused from bed in the middle of the night and put on an unheated cattle cars with hundreds of others. They had no idea where they were going, why, or when, if ever, they'd be released. Many died. About crimes Soviet Russians committed against Poles, Jan Tomasz Gross has written, "Very conservative estimates show that [between 1939 and 1941] the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size of that under German jurisdiction."
From a paper documenting this crime:
The Milewskis counted 27 persons in their car (p. 16). Marysia Wilgut Pienta claims that "we were packed in boxcars in groups of fifty" (p. 21), and so did Adela Konradczyńska-Piorkowska. Jerzy Wroblewski remembers 58 passengers in his cattle car, and there were 40 cattle cars for prisoners and three cars for their escort (pp. 27-28). Anita Kozicka Paschwa insists that "in each boxcar there were from 50 to 70 people" (p. 24). Anna Mineyko recalls that their trip lasted 28 days (p. 26). Urszula Sowińskaís journey took 42 days (p. 68). Stefania Buczak-Zarzycka remembers that during 21 days in transit they received 8 pieces of bread and soup every other day (s. 18). According to Tadeusz Pieczko, "by the time we reached the labor camps of Siberia about ten percent of the people had already died," the old and the very young in particular (p. 19).6 The dead were first stored in a separate flatbed car and then dumped at the next station (pp. 19, 23).
Later, though, after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, a desperate Stalin, recognizing that he needed all the cannon fodder he could get, and willing to let German Nazis kill off Poles, released Poles from Siberia. Władysław Anders was a Pole of Baltic-German ancestry. He was a Polish soldier. After September, 1939, Soviets arrested him, tortured him, and urged him to join the Red Army. He refused. A desperate Stalin allowed him to form and lead the Polish Second Corps of Polish nationals. One of his men's crowning achievements was the capture of Monte Cassino. The Allies lost c. 55,000 men in this capture; about one thousand of the dead were Polish. The song "Red Poppies on Monte Cassino" commemorates their sacrifice:
red poppies on Monte Cassino
Drank Polish blood instead of dew...
O'er the poppies the soldiers did go
'Mid death, and to their anger stayed true!
Years will come and ages will go,
Enshrining their strivings and their toil!...
And the poppies on Monte Cassino
Will be redder for Poles' blood in their soil.
On April 4th, 1944, No. 6 Troop was transferred to Polish Second Corps. General Władysław Anders had a job for them. No. 6 Troop was needed at Monte Cassino. Jedwab took part in two assaults on Monte Cassino. When one of commandos was wounded, Jedwab decided to help him. He waved the white flag, but Germans kept shooting at him. Nonetheless, he carried the wounded soldier to safety and stopped the bleeding in very unusual way – he softened a biscuit in his mouth and used it to seal the bullet wound.
General Władysław Anders (left) personally decorated Henryk Jedwab (right) with Cross of Valor after the battle of Garigliano.
Later he fought in the Battle of Ancona and the Battle of Bologna. When he was sent on a reconaissance mission near Bologna, he simply crossed the Idice river in his Bren Carrier, a type of light, small, tank-like vehicle. Jedwab drove into the Bologna, and was the first Allied soldier to enter that city. After returning to Polish positions, Jedwab approached Major Bohdan Tymieniecki who described Jedwab's escapade in his book titled "Na imię jej było Lilly" ("Her name was Lilly") as follows:
"Colleague Tymieniecki, I invite You to dinner at Papagallo."
"Haven't you heard? Papagallo in Bologna is the best restaurant in Europe."
Henryk Jedwab was wounded in action three times. He was decorated for bravery twenty four times. Among his medals was the Virtuti Militari, the Monte Cassino Cross, and the Polish Cross of Valour.
In 1946, Jedwab married a Polish woman, Irena. They chose not to return to Soviet-dominated Poland. Irena was afraid of Soviets after her experience in Siberia. Jedwab had no living relatives left in Poland. His father died of starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto. His mother was gunned down in the streets of Warsaw. Janek, his younger brother, became a popular architect in UK. Jedwab became a textile engineer. In 1950, Jedwab and Irena emigrated to Canada. The couple had one daughter Ewa, who was called "Myszka" (little mouse) by her father. Irena passed away on August 9th, 1978. Years later Jedwab wrote "I got married with the most valuable partner who was my support in the fight for a place in the new world." To his great good fortune, he did fall in love again and married Bozena.
He had an illustrious career in the textile industry and was an active member of many veterans' organizations including the Polish Combatants' Association in Canada, the Canadian Legion, the Commando Association and the American Rangers Association.
On May 24th, 1989 Abram Jan "Janek" Jedwab passed away in London. "I lost my only brother, friend and comrade in arms" Jedwab wrote in an obituary published in a Kalisz newspaper. "He was a man of a great heart and great artistic soul."
In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, Jedwab decided to help the countries that had been under the Soviet yoke. From 1991 until 1996, he worked as a volunteer consultant helping to build or modernize twenty-four textile factories in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
In 1997, the Polish director Michał Bukojemski conducted an interview with Jedwab. It was turned into a short documentary film titled "Komandos" ("The Commando").
On June 11th, 1999, he was honored with the title of "Honorary Citizen of the City of Kalisz".
Henryk Jedwab, one of most decorated Polish soldiers of WWII, passed away peacefully at the age of 87 on September 14th, 2005 at the Ottawa General Hospital. He is buried in the Field of Honour at Pointe Claire, Quebec.
On his deathbed, his doctor asked, "Well, Henryk, what now?" The elderly soldier replied "There's a time to live, there's a time to love and there's a time to die, and my time to die has come."
On September 20th, 2008, a monument dedicated to his memory was unveiled at the Jewish cemetery in his hometown of Kalisz. It is a boulder decorated with the image of young Henryk, with cuts symbolizing four chapters of his life, as well as with inscriptions informing the visitor about his exceptional merits. The names of his family members who were killed in the Holocaust are also listed.
Jedwab was once asked how many Germans did he killed. He responded "Więcej niż liczyła moja rodzina i jeszcze dużo, dużo więcej." One could translate this as, "The number of Germans I killed is much larger than the number of my family members who were killed by Germans."