Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of occupied France on June 6, 1944 under the command of Dwight Eisenhower. The invasion set the stage for the liberation of France and march toward Berlin. A year earlier, Allied troops began the assault on Southern Europe through Sicily, and two years before that Soviet forces had begun fighting the Wehrmacht as a result of Hitler’s invasion of Russia in Operation Barbarossa.
There exists a tremendous amount of research, scholarship, commentary, and testimony regarding D-Day, so I would like to make one simple observation. It concerns Poland. Most people know about American infantry and airborne divisions landing at Omaha and Utah beaches, British divisions at Gold and Sword, and a Canadian division at Juno. They even may have heard of Army Rangers storming German artillery positions at Pointe du Hoc. But few know that Poles participated in D-Day.
The First Polish Armored Division supported the D-Day assault by taking part in a battle south of Caen known as the Falaise Pocket, in which Allied forces encircled and defeated German Army Group B. The battle was so brutal that, upon inspecting the scene several days later, Eisenhower remarked that it could have been described “only by Dante.”
I have taken an interest in Poland for two reasons. First, it had the misfortune of being attacked by Hitler on September 1, 1939 after a false flag operation at a radio station in the German border town of Gleiwitz. Then, on September 17, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the opposite border. This was part of a pact between Hitler and Stalin to carve up Europe and neutralize Great Britain. The pact unraveled when Hitler ordered the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941.
The second reason has to do with a movie I watched recently entitled Katyń. It tells the story of the execution of twenty thousand Polish officers by Soviet forces in May, 1940, just eight months after the Soviet invasion. Four thousand of these men, all shot in the back of the head, were buried in a mass grave at Katyń, Poland. The Russian duma, or lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly, confirmed this in 2010 and admitted that Soviet troops had acted under the direct orders of Stalin. Then it apologized for the crime.
One wonders whether Stalin thought he would get away with the murders because he and Hitler would soon subjugate Europe. Or perhaps he was overcome with totalitarian blood lust. He might even have had the Polish occupation of Moscow in the early 1600s in the back of his mind. Ancestral animosity embeds itself like a virus in individual and collective psyches. Then again, looking for a rational explanation for evil is irrational.
What impresses me most about the Poles, particularly in times of suffering, is their resilience. They seem to be able to endure great hardships and atrocities so that they not only survive but grow stronger. I am not one of those who claim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you maims you for life or renders you useless.
Not so the Poles. Their resilience does not come from brute strength but from a basic faith in life and love of their country. Their religious faith certainly plays a part in this, and Katyń the movie highlights this point in dramatic fashion. But there also exists a dark side of these virtues–vices, if you will–and it would be irresponsible to overlook the plight of Jews in Poland who suffered at the hands not only of the Waffen SS but their fellow countrymen.
Can anyone reconcile Poland’s role in the Holocaust with its deep spirituality and resilience? Perhaps, like most human categories, these are irreconcilable. But resilience is a matter of acceptance rather than reconciliation. Acceptance does not mean surrender, neither to hostile armies without nor personal demons within. It entails acknowledging reality but not stopping there. It pushes us to will something better.
Poland’s role in World War Two remains extraordinary, because it was conducted by people whose country was overrun, occupied, and crushed from both sides.
And still they would not give up.
Feature image by herb1979. D-Day landing by WikiImages. Katyń monument by Katarzyna Tyl. Source material courtesy of Cassie Pope at historyhit.com, britannica.com, and wikipedia used under Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976.