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Fighting Warsaw: The Story of the Polish Underground State, 1939-1945 Paperback – 1 Jan 2004
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program)
Stefan Korbonski lived through this nightmare. His account and details of facts leave a lasting impression on the reader. This highly intelligent Pole makes this book difficult to put down once one begins reading it.
An excellent, well written historically significant books on times when very few who defied the Germans survived. The few survivors were then persecuted and eliminated by the Russians.
Freedom takes on a stronger meaning when so many who sought it paid for it with their blood.
However these criticisms are a little petty in the context of the very real dangers Korbonski, his wife, and his co-conspirators faced. Korbonski comes across as a remarkable man who was in just the right place at just the right time to make sure the Germans and their collaborators paid the highest blood price possible for their crimes.
His many close calls suggest angels were at his side. He describes one incident in which his life was spared by events in which seconds one way or the other would have had lethal consequences.
This is not a 5 star book. This is a very important book but it could be a more transformative one if it was better written and better translated. The Polish Underground State is a subject that truly deserves to be told, as it was the most magnificent achievement of resistance during WW II - perhaps of any war. That the Poles ran an entire state (justice system, schools, military, etc.) under the noses of the Gestapo is nothing short of remarkable. And Stefan Korbonski, as the incredibly courageous chief of the Polish underground state is certainly one to tell it.
The problem with this book lies with the fact that it is so crammed full of minute detail that it makes for difficult and laborious reading. I suspect that this meticulous attention to detail is a result of the author being a lawyer and his desire to preserve as much of what he remembered as possible. Unfortunately, that detail may be of historical importance to a historian, but not to a general reader. There is much important data here, and much important information, but one gets bogged down in the dry details of something that undoubtedly was very important.
Also, as I read (and I had to limit myself to a snore inducing 10 pages a day) I got the idea that Korbonski was editing the story to tell us of the exploits of his particular clique -- not of the collective efforts of many, many people. Being somewhat familiar with the underground state and the AK and the stories of those who were there, I thought that there was much missing on the one hand, and too much minutiae on the other. It was a very strange read.
Moreover, the translator, albeit true to the original Polish, did not help matters. I found the translation to be dry and concrete. As far as I am concerned, I do not mind a translator putting a minor interpretation on a narrative if it livens that narration up and does not change the intent. Polish cannot be translated literally, just as English cannot. The skill of a good translator is in his/her ability to impart the spirit of the narrative, not just the words.
The translation of the Milennium trilogy comes to mind.
I will keep looking for a more compelling telling (pardon the alliteration) of the Polish Underground State. Unfortunately, although undoubtedly a classic, this is not it.
The recent widely-acclaimed publication of FEAR, by Jan Thomas Gross, has accompanied accusations, by Gross and his fans, of Poles being too proud to admit negative aspects of their history, specifically acts of Polish collaboration being ignored because they do not fit the ruling paradigm of Polish resistance. The utter nonsense of such charges is readily evident in Korbonski's book. He devotes considerable detail to Polish consorting with and collaboration with the Germans (e. g., pp. 256-257).
Of course, the line between accommodation and collaboration was not always clear-cut. Korbonski clarifies the Volksdeutsche. While most of them were Polish-speaking Germans, some were ethnic Poles, of which only a small fraction should accurately be reckoned collaborators: "No sentence of death was ever passed on a Pole for having registered as a `Volksdeutsche'. The reason for this leniency was that the problem was more complicated than it appeared on the surface. Roughly speaking, the problem bore different aspects in the various aspects in the various provinces of Poland. The Silesians, for example, at the very beginning of the German occupation and in sheer self-defense, decided to register as Volksdeutsche, which in my opinion did not affect their patriotism and devotion to Poland. In Pomerania, from which district large numbers were deported to the General Government, the remainder of the population was compulsorily registered as German, and all men of military age were conscripted into the German Army. The same occurred in Posnania. These soldiers by compulsion eventually deserted from the German army and jointed the ranks of the Second Polish Corps in Italy. It was only in the General Government that the Poles were not compelled to register as Germans and cases of defection were extremely rare."(p. 135).
Another borderline case of accommodation and collaboration is exemplified by the Polish Blue Police (the Policja Granatowa). Wrongly equated with the Jew-killing Ukrainian and Baltic collaborationist units (the infamous Hilfspolizei, or Hiwis), the Blue Police was, in actuality, an anti-criminal force: "The Blue Police consisted of the pre-war Polish Police force; the Germans made them co-operate for the maintenance of public order."(p. 93). Of course, individual Blue Policemen did become open collaborators, and some of these were killed by the underground for helping the Germans kill Poles (p. 130, 134) and Jews (p. 206). Otherwise, some units of the Polish Blue Police were used by the Germans, with or without their consent, for anti-Polish and anti-Jewish actions. For example, the Blue Police was warned by the underground not to take part in the roundups of Poles for forced labor in Germany (pp. 118-119, 224). All in all, the actions of the Blue Police defied simplistic classification: "The attitude of the underground authorities towards the Blue Police was hostile, because as a body it had become a tool in the hands of the German police; but a number of policemen, such as the above-mentioned Inspector, were members of the underground, and frequently carried out most dangerous instructions. The Blue Police were aware that the underground authorities had ordered the suppression of banditry, so they were always glad to take a hand against them."(p. 242).
There are common mischaracterizations of Poles being indifferent too, or even secretly approving of, the Germans' extermination of the Jews. The truth is otherwise. Korbonski recounts the fact that underground Polish reports of Jews being sent to death camps were disbelieved by the British (pp, 252-253). Neither were the events of the Warsaw Ghetto (p. 359) accepted. (The advantage of John Ward reporting on the Germans' use of Polish civilian shields around their tanks during the Warsaw Uprising was the fact that he, an Englishman, was believed: p. 359).
In a cruel irony to the malicious charges (e. g., Schindler's List) of Poles cheering as Jews were being railroaded to death camps, the laughter was actually on the other side: "However, when the trains from the various countries continued to arrive, and when here and there Polish railwaymen were able to whisper a warning to the unfortunate Jews, they were not believed and were laughed at, especially by those Jews who traveled in passenger trains with their luggage and bedding; who were convinced that they were being transported to some labour camp, and that they would be able to survive the war by working hard."(p. 254).
On the basis of the fact that the Kresy (eastern borderlands) had only an ethnically Polish minority (albeit a large one), the British supported Soviet claims to Poland's eastern half. However, most of the non-Poles on these territories were not pro-Soviet, and some were pro-Polish. Consider the following entreaty: "I am a man from Minsk. Now that the Minsk province is under German occupation we can get in touch with people in the motherland. I have come to Warsaw as a representative of the ancient province of Minsk to ask the Polish Government not to forget our country, so that after the war the Minsk territory may be reunited with the motherland. It has been a Polish land for centuries, and wherever you go you'll find evidence of it. There are Poles still living there, and they are dreaming of a reunion. And the White-Ruthenians, too, dream of Poland as their deliverer from the Soviet hell."(p. 314). This was not to be.
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