General Anders and the Soldiers of the Second Polish Corps
by Harvey Sarner. Cathedral City, CA. Brunswick Press (P.O. Box 2244, Cathedral City, CA 92235). 1997. xviii+313 pages. Index. Photographs. Hardcover. ISBN 1-888521-13-9. $40.00.
The Polish Second Corps was one of the great military units of World War II. Its story is one of the great human epics of all time. Sadly, and predictably, its history is almost unknown outside of the Polish-speaking world.
In this context, Harvey Sarner's new book on the Second Corps is most welcome. Although much of this story has been covered in other books, the author's use of new information from Russian sources and his extensive use of oral interviews enrich the narrative. General Anders and the Soldiers of the Second Polish Corps is at this point 'the state of the art' so far as English-language works are concerned.
Two sections of the book merit further mention. The first is Sarner's discussion of the Second Corps' 'Jewish question.' This issue has generated controversy. The Polish government-in-exile did spend a significant amount of time dealing with it. The two central questions are the evacuation of Polish Jews from the USSR and the 'desertion' of Jewish soldiers from the Polish army once it reached Palestine. Sarner's discussion of both matters is clear and refreshingly free of bias toward either Pole or Jew. On the question of the evacuation, Sarner notes that David Engel, no friend of the Polish government in exile, 'argues that in this case the British and Soviets skillfully created the impression that the restrictions were imposed by the Polish Army for purely anti-Semitic reasons.' Sarner quotes Engel from a letter as saying that the Soviets 'laid a trap for the Poles' by telling them they would not allow Polish Jews to leave the USSR (classifying them as Soviet citizens), while telling the world that the Polish government was keeping Jews out the transports for anti-Semitic reasons (100). For their part, the British wanted to keep as many Jews in the USSR as possible out of fear that a significant Jewish influx into Palestine would, in the words of a former British official, upset 'the right balance of Arabs and Jews' (101). Although there were incidents of Poles not allowing Jews onto evacuation trains, there are also many counterbalancing cases of Poles who smuggled Jews aboard trains that took them to freedom (96-97).
The question of Jews deserting from the army while it was stationed in Palestine continues to generate controversy. It is now widely accepted that Polish officials looked the other way in letting Jews leave the army. Some of these Jews had only been accepted into the army to allow them to escape the USSR with the knowledge that they would not be staying permanently. The use of the term'desertion' for such cases begs the question. Whether Polish officials looked the other way due to sympathy for the Jewish cause (the Polish government supported a Jewish homeland), a desire to see Jews leave the army, or an urge to get back at the British is a moot point. Regardless of the motivation, the Poles dragged their feet in helping the British find these 'deserters.' Polish soldiers who were ordered to accompany British MPs in searching kibbutzim expressed disgust at having to do so (145). The author's coverage of the British role in wartime Polish-Jewish relations is particularly notable (131-34).
Another important section of the book is the description of the battle of Monte Cassino itself. Sarner effectively refutes the spurious claims of British and American authors (including Winston Churchill) who deny the Polish Army its due or even claim that Monte Cassino fell without a fight. The fact that such claims and worse continue to appear in popular military histories about the Second Corps and other Polish units demonstrates the need for more works in English on these and related topics. Popular accounts of the battle for Monte Cassino sometimes fail even to mention the Second Corps. They usually imply that Nazi forces retreated from their mountain-top fortress due to Allied pressure in other areas, thus ignoring the Polish contribution to the United States breakout from the Anzio beachhead ('the largest prison camp in Europe') and the subsequent capture of Rome. The need for new scholarly works written in English (or translated from Polish) on Poland in World War II and immediately thereafter is great.
Sarner's book has a few demerits. Its format and prose are in need of a more careful editing. The typography fails to include Polish characters and the picture selection and quality leave much to be desired. Maps would have been a big help. When Polish-subject books in English are produced and edited in a less-than-professional manner, they fail to find acceptance among the general readership. The reason for printing books is to disseminate knowledge and their production should not hinder that. The creation of well-edited, beautiful books seems to be an art lost on Brunswick Press, at least in this case.
Sarner's discussion of the fate of Second Corps soldiers after the war is only cursory. As is often the case among Poles, the survivors have been reluctant to talk about the many problems these 'unwanted heroes' and their families had to overcome in exile. Yet the post-war period is an important part of the story and it has too long been overlooked.
Finally, a comment about the interviews quoted in the book. The author does not seem to have recorded his oral interviews on any permanent medium. Yet it is essential that the experiences of Polonia's aging veterans, especially those who suffered in Nazi or Soviet camps, be recorded, translated into English if necessary, and made available to scholars of all nations. Until that task is complete and further scholarship undertaken, books like General Anders and the Soldiers of the Second Polish Corps will play a role in recording Poland's contribution to the defeat of Nazism.
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