A Historical Atlas

By Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski. New York. Hippocrene Books. 1987. 321 pages. Index. Hardcover. $22.50.

Aleksander Gella

The shortest way to describe Iwo Pogonowski's Atlas is that it is a means of self-defense.

It is my opinion that Americans of Polish descent need such works because of the tendentious image of Poles made popular by the mass media and nurtured by ignorance and ill will. For some fifty years now, or since Poland was betrayed by its Western allies during the Yalta and Tehran meetings, Americans who have a Polish connection have lived under the pressure of false presentations of the Polish nation and its history. For an average American, Poland is an exotic country, one that he or she hardly ever encounters in school textbooks. The first encounters with Poland of most American citizens occur through the media and entertainment industry. It is here that images of Poland's recent history in particular are suggested, and most of these suggestions are pure fabrications. An example of such fabrications is William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice printed in three million copies and made into a movie seen by millions of viewers. In this novel, a fictitious figure of a Polish professor is said to have conceived of a project of the annihilation of Jews. This fictitious Jagiellonian University professor is introduced side by side with such real life characters as Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann so that an average reader treats all three as historical figures. Asked by a U.S. News and World Report reporter about that, Mr. Styron replied that the situation of Jews in Poland in the 1930s was similar to the situation of Negroes in the American South before the Civil War. This imbecile answer would be laughable, were it not so tragic. In Mr. Styron's book, Poles are presented as uncouth and uncivilized people - one might say, well deserving to stay under the Soviet boot.

Most likely, the total printings of Mr. Styron's novel far surpass the recent total printings of all books by Polish authors in America, including the works of the Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz.

In those infrequent cases when Polish history is taught, it usually starts with the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century, and its presentation is biased (to use a euphemism). The cannibalism of the partitions is hardly ever mentioned, as if they consisted of a peaceful division and rearrangement of rooms in a house. The international crime of the partitions is obscured, even though the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) guaranteed the continued existence of all Christian nations in Europe. Among these nations, Poland had the best developed parliamentary system and the largest percentage of free citizens (it was, after all, a "noble republic" with an electable nonhereditary king). It also had the largest territory. It was a Western nation par excellence.

The partitions brought misery to Poland and, it can be argued, future disasters to Europe. They also sealed the fate of Poland in nineteenth- and twentieth-century works on European history and culture. Starting with the eighteenth century, the history of Poland has been narrated by Germans, Austrians, and Russians. Their works formed the basis for the image of Poland in France and the English-speaking countries. Catherine the Great of Russia paid handsome sums to Voltaire and to other writers of the French Enlightenment to present a good image of herself to the Europeans and to popularize mendacious versions of Polish history.

DidnŐt the Poles have their own historians? They did, but these men were read by Poles only. Who in the West would care to learn the language of a country that did not even exist on the map? As a rule, nations that do not have their own state are but poorly represented in world public relations. In addition, Poles were facing powerful ideological and nationalistic interests of their neighbors who had a big stake in having the image of Poland wiped out from European memory or, failing that, having it besmirched beyond recognition. Generation after generation, hundreds of books appeared that eventually obscured the image of Poland as one of the major nations of Europe and one whose Western roots were deeply planted in east European soil.

It is only recently that books began to appear in English contesting the many layers of falsehoods that have accumulated. It is not surprising that often they have met with mistrust and hostility, even though their authors, the British-born or American-born historians, do not have an ax to grind. Professor Norman Davies' God's Playground: A History of Poland (1982) evoked such controversy that the author was booted out of Stanford University in spite of the international academic acclaim which his book had given him. Another historian who encountered vitriolic hostility from university polemicists in Slavic Review is Richard C. Lukas whose Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation, 1939-1944 (1986) details what the title says, the martyrdom of Poles under the Nazis. Among Polish authors who write in English, one should mention Jozef Garlinski's books which deal with Polish contributions to the Allied victory in World War 2.

These are scholarly books which are not designed to serve as quick reference works for those who intuitively feel (but cannot well document) that the image of the past is being altered and that the Polish cultural identity is distorted by the mass media. For people who are not academic scholars and need an accessible reminder of what Poland was and is, Iwo Pogonowski's Atlas is a real find. It provides a means of self-defense, it entertains and delights.The Atlas presents the history of Poland through maps which are the hardest to distort, deny or obscure. It contains an Outline of Polish history as an accompaniment to maps (which themselves are richly annotated). It is a joy to just browse through this work; anyone even vaguely interested in the history of eastern Europe will find Pogonowski's Atlas to be a goldmine of information and ideas.

Pogonowski is a polyglot and an engineer by profession (he has over fifty industrial patents to his name). These two assets served him well in his voracious reading habits, in formulating the conception of the Atlas and in the drawing of maps. His knowledge of history is phenomenal on many counts: not only is it detailed in a way that would evoke the envy of professional historians, but also it is unhampered by the current fads of these historians. As a student of history, Pogonowski is second to none, but his knowledge is not arranged in ways that remind one of university courses. Nil sine magna labor dedit mortalibus vita [Life does not give anything to mortals for free], said Horace. Indeed, Pogonowski's Atlas is a testimony to the hard daily labor, to many years of study, to the process of conceptualizing and writing his magnificent opus.

The Atlas is probably the most accessible encyclopedia of Polish history in English. It contains 190 maps, 14 graphs, a 14-page chronology of events, and four appendices. It is not a work of academic scholarship but rather a great textbook for both students and teachers. It shows Poland as the most important country in east central Europe, one that has been crucial to the formation of the east central European identity which is distinct from the Germano-Romance world on the one hand, and the Byzantine-Slavic world on the other. It shows the self-generated development of liberty in pre-partition Poland and the evolution of Polish national awareness. On the basis of his Atlas, Mr. Pogonowski has videotaped 230 talk shows on Polish history shown on local TV in Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere.

In Poland, Pogonowski's work has been positively evaluated by former President of the Polish Academy of Science Aleksander Gieysztor, and former President of the Jagiellonian University Jozef Gierowski. A Polish edition of the Atlas is in preparation. It will probably become a textbook for senior high schools in Poland.

My only wish for this Atlas is that subsequent editions of it in English are financed more generously, so that the maps in color replace those in black-and-white.

Aleksander Gella is Professor of Sociology at SUNY-Buffalo.

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