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Lying Down With Dogs A Personal Portrait of a Polish Exile

Reviewer: Maria Szonert-Binienda

Lying Down With Dogs: A Personal Portrait of a Polish Exile

By Mark Zygadlo. Foreword by Norman Davies. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, Inc. 2002. xii + 274 pges. Maps. Paper. $16.95.

"Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas." This is a favorite proverb of the main character of this book, Bronek, a Polish soldier in the Second World War who settles down in Wales after the war. Although the story is about Bronek, it is also a study of the mind and heart of the author of this book, Bronek's son Mark. The author tells his father's story based on recollections of their trip to Poland in the mid-1990s. Bronek dies soon after the trip. Out of grief and a deep sense of loss, the author sets out to write a portrait of his father. Although the portrait includes images from the years spent in Wales and from his early childhood in Chicago, the core of Bronek's personality is shaped by his formative years spent in Poland. How much and what aspects of his Polishness was Bronek able to pass on to his son? An easy answer is out of the question. Polishness or, more generally, nationhood is a very fragile concept, replete with symbols and essentialist meanings. Additionally, to use Bronek's metaphor, he never described to Mark the dogs he had to lie down with, and so Mark was left with just the fleas as clues to where his dad lay. Mark struggles with these fleas throughout the text. The easiest to identify are the Soviet "fleas." While visiting Warsaw with his father, the author hears details about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. However, he learns about this historic event in two different ways. First, he learns from his father that Stalin denied the RAF planes carrying supplies for fighting Warsaw permission to refuel on the Soviet side of the frontline, thus virtually eliminating Allied support for this anti-Nazi insurrection. He also learned from his father that Stalin purposely stopped the westward advances of the Red Army, ordering Russians to sunbathe on the east bank of the Vistula River while waiting for the Warsaw Uprising to be crushed by the Germans. Later, he learns from a young Warsovian brought up in Soviet-occupied Poland that the whole uprising idea "was a mistake" because the Red Army was not able to get to Warsaw on time to give support to fighting Warsaw. The Warsaw Uprising was unnecessary and was yet another mistake of the Polish Home Army and the London Poles. Thus, the colossal losses and the destruction of the city were the Poles' own fault! The Western "fleas" are painful too. Some of them are those of the author's father, but some of them are his own. Approaching Warsaw by car, the author wonders about "the relative primitiveness of the surrounding countryside" and dwells upon the all-too-frequent car thefts taking place in the country that was occupied by the Soviets for two generations. Although his observations are correct, he handles them in a way that reminds one of some prominent American and British historians engrossed in academic debate about the backwardness of Eastern/Central Europe. Such debates would be much more insightful if these prominent historians would trade with Poland and Poles, at least for a moment, their comfortable British or American geopolitical and personal positions. Before the war, Bronek attended high school where most of the students were wealthy sons of the Polish gentry. "The rest were a few misfits such as myself [plus] a number of Jewish students. They kept themselves apart from the rest of the students," he recalls. In a laboratory class Bronek was asked to pair up with a Jewish student and the gentry group pressured him not to work with a Jew. He resisted the pressure and worked with the Jewish friend. When the Soviets entered Poland and put him in prison, he was released thanks to the effort of his mother and the help he received from the same Jew. At one point Bronek says: "Knowing what I know now, knowing what happened to 90 percent of them I am ashamed of what I thought then, what was the normal attitude. But at the time we had no such insights. We resented them. We resented their success, their wealth, and. . . we resented them because they were even more tragic than the Poles themselves." Clearly, his father did not pass on to him any Polish anti-Semitism. Indeed, the author is strongly philo-Semitic. But the most fascinating aspect of this book is the author's search for his Polishness. As a son of a Polish expatriate and a British mother, he grew up in Wales with half of his family unreachable behind the Iron Curtain. He meets his Polish family and discovers his father's childhood only as a grown-up man with a limited command of the Polish language. "Do you feel very Polish?" a cousin asks him halfway through his journey through Poland. "Not very, but pretty sentimental," he replies. This fundamental question does not go away. He struggles with his Polishness throughout the rest of the book. "What makes you Polish, Dad?" he asks. He finds the most powerful answer to this question in the writings of Stanislaw Wyspianski and Pope John Paul II. That love for where we come from, physically and spiritually, makes us Polish. The author struggles further with his own identity. "I look through my father tonight for the first time, [I look] directly into his past and realize how infinitely distant from it I am. The momentary insight brings me closer to him," he observes. "I cried with a painful shock at the immense scale of the brutality and the loss. Sitting with my Dad I see clearly . . . his bitter loss and my own distance from it." His fascination with the Polish side of his family grows as the trip progresses. "How can you not speak Polish yet? Your father would have wanted you to," someone observes. At Bronek's deathbed, the author recalls his father starting a conversation with him in Polish and then laughing at himself. That recollection leads to a confession: "I wish to God I really could have spoken to him in Polish." The book makes one realize that treasuring and preserving what is best in our Polishness will strengthen us from the inside and ultimately help us better understand Poland's history and Poland's best interests. That awareness should help us find and eliminate all these fleas that have been bothering us for so long.

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Last updated 10/03/03