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Poland Reading and Viewing

Multiple forum members have September trips to Poland planned, including me. I'm marking out this little corner of the forum for me to comment on interesting books/films I encounter in preparation for the trip (which, of course, may need to be deferred). I invite others to contribute Poland books/films they like -- from well-known to obscure. Random comments are welcome, too, including snarky insults, as long as you limit them to me (I can take 'em!). I am aware of Judy B's post from a couple of weeks ago, but did not want to commandeer it.

A couple of background thoughts:

  1. In preparing for a trip to Germany several years ago, I asked a world history professor at a local college for recommended reading. He suggested an overview text of German history, but also strongly encouraged me to read memoirs to try to get a better sense of personal reactions to the periods/events that interested me. I found the advice regarding memoirs to be excellent, and memoirs tend to be disproportionately represented in my reading.

  2. An author named John Piper once wrote something to the effect that books don't change people's lives; sentences change lives. I've run into one of those sentences in my Poland reading. In White House in a Gray City, Itzchak Belfer credits Janusz Korczak, an early 20th-century Jewish pediatrician turned orphanage director, with the statement, "I do not exist in order to be loved or cherished, but rather to act and to love." Many of you are probably higher on Maslow's hierarchy than I am, but Korczak's sentence is quite meaningful to me -- one that has prompted quite a bit of reflection and aspiration.

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Writing as one of the forum members with a September Poland trip and hoping hoping hoping that we still get to go, but trying to be realistic. I liked Things We Cannot Say, by Kelly Rimmer recently. I felt she did a good job with the dual timeline story. I often feel like, with historical fiction using interwoven stories, the modern story is shortchanged, with stilted writing that doesn't ring true. Not so for the Rimmer novel, and so it stuck in my mind.

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Dave - I recommend The Last Jew of Treblinka: A Memoir, by Chil Rajchman. It is a short, powerful read.

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Heading to Poland, hopefully in September as well.

Movies, of course The Pianist, which I just watched. Now I know why it won so many awards.

Warsaw 44 was good. Watched a documentary about the uprising right after, and the movie seemed to follow the history for the most part.

Web site, just stumbled across this, their site has an amazing range of historical articles, very interesting.

Thanks for starting this, I'll be following along looking for some book recommendations.

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Hello! I think you have WWII and Communist history of Poland already pretty well covered with the above recs. However for me it is the long and illustrious history of Poland that preceded WWII that is just as interesting and dynamic, and offers much insight into the current Polish psyche. I'll try to recommend other things from my response to Judy B's post. Here would be some of my own recommendations, based on three very important chapters in Polish history:

For King Casimir the Great (r. 1333–70) - one the most prolific monarchs of Polish history and protected/ encouraged Jews to settle in Poland - this is why Poland had such a large Jewish population:

For the conflict with the Teutonic Knights (13-15th centuries) - transformed Poland from a fractured collection of Dukedoms into a strong Commonwealth that occupied much of central-eastern Europe.

  • The Baltic Crusades Podcast: Episodes 260-321
  • The Last Years of the Teutonic Knights: Lithuania, Poland and the Teutonic Order by William Urban
  • The Knights of the Cross by Henryk Sienkiewicz
  • Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960) - a Polish Epic film based on the book by Sienkiewicz

For the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (17th century) - one of the largest and most populous countries of 16th to 17th century Europe, marked by high levels of ethnic diversity and by relative religious tolerance for the time.

  • With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe by Henryk Sienkiewicz (famous trilogy of novels about this time in Polish history)
  • The Deluge (1974) - Polish Epic film based on one of the novels of Sienkiewicz, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the 47th Academy Awards.
  • On the Field of Glory by Henryk Sienkiewicz - King John III Sobieski and the Battle of Vienna
  • Day of the Siege (2012) - English-language Polish film about the Battle of Vienna, I think on Netflix

Just for fun -

  • The Witcher (book series) - written by one of the most prolific Polish fantasy writers, Andrzej Sapkowski. The Witcher is a bit like a Polish "Lord of the Rings", based on Polish/Slavic lore, mythology, and fictionalised history. Has a very big following in Poland and Europe.
  • The Witcher (Netflix Series) - based on the book series, adapted into a Netflix Original Series in 2019, very popular.
  • How I Started World War II (1970) - very funny Polish comedy film about a Polish soldier who thinks he accidentally started WWII. He then travels to the different WWII fronts to redeem himself, including Yugoslavia, Mediterranean Sea, Middle East, Italy. A masterclass in Polish humor!
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I watched World on Fire last night and think it will be a great series especially when I saw Helen Hunt is in it. She will make this show.

I appreciate your not wanting to commandeer my post! Hope you are well.

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Just a note that you can get "The Greatest Historical Novels" by Henryk Sienkiewicz for $0.99 on Nook or Kindle and get a whole quarantine's worth of reading at once.

Some people might object on principle, but Andrjez Wojda's 1957 film (with a very young Roman Polanski) "Kanal (Sewer)" is a pretty intense picture of survival during the Warsaw Uprising. Its interesting because of the pro-Communist viewpoint that was required of filmmakers during that time.

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You would probably have to find a used copy somewhere, but I highly recommend Courier from Warsaw by Jan Nowak — his autobiography of his time as a spy for the Home Army. One of his escape tales is so compelling that Alan Furst later used it in one of his spy novels!

(That’s another suggestion if you are interested in the WWII period — any of Alan Furst’s books that have Poland in them — quite a few of them do.)

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Also other books that if you can find a used copy:

Timothy Garton Ash’s Facts are Subversive is a collection of his essays and includes several on Poland (same for the earlier volume, “History of the Present.” Also his The Magic Lantern and The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. Ash profoundly loves Central and Eastern Europe and was there before the revolutions began — and his writing is excellent.

Check out summaries of his books at

Also Tony Judt’s Postwar —but that is a serious commitment. Nothing I know, however, treats the whole continent — and Poland’s place in it — as well.

And Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation. A memoir of leaving Poland for Canada as a young girl.

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The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy, by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.

Poland, by James Michener.

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The Lilac girls, set in the camps
The Tattooist of Auschwitz
These are newer releases. You will love Poland. We spend 15 days there in July of 2018. We definitely want to return and go to more of the smaller cities.

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Thanks to all for very kindly taking the time to respond and providing a good variety of recommendations.

For the last week, I had told myself to watch World on Fire last night. I got sucked into a Poland book and forgot to watch.

Carlos... a special thanks for the comprehensive list of pre-1939 reading.

Judy B... happy to not commandeer. I'm doing well. Hope you are, too.

Eric... The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy is the only book mentioned so far I have read. It was quite sobering. I was in Krakow in 2017 and popped into the pharmacy while there.

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My trip will take me to Gdansk and Warsaw. The latter, of course, is strongly tied to Solidarity. Jack Blume's Seeing Through the Eyes of the Polish Revolution: Solidarity and the Struggle Against Communism in Poland gives an excellent overview of post-WWII events that set the stage for the rise of Solidarity, as well as the history of the union. The book relies heavily on quotes from those who experienced the events (from Solidarity leaders to government leaders [and minions] who opposed the movement), providing more than a historian's overview. There are A LOT of names to keep up with.

Father Jerzy Popiełuszko

One of the most compelling figures of the period for me is Jerzy Popiełuszko, a young priest who led the Mass for the Homeland at his church in Warsaw. The sermons were quite subversive but encouraged prayer and peace, not violence. The mass drew enormous crowds. Father Popiełuszko ultimately was murdered by Interior Ministry agents allegedly acting on their own because they tired of the government's slow response in eliminating the priest, but his death marked a significant change in sentiment of the Polish people toward an already disliked government.

Bernard Brien's book Blessed Jerry Popiełuszko: Truth Versus Totalitarianism recounts Popiełuszko's life from the perspective of a priest who called on Popiełuszko to work a miracle in healing a terminally-ill man in 2012. It is by no means an unbiased account but relies heavily on Popiełuszko's writing for its text and includes the full text of a meditation he gave at a church the evening he was murdered.

The documentary Jerzy Popieluszko: Messenger of the Truth (available with Amazon Prime) provides additional details and much video coverage of Popiełuszko and the times in which he lived.

Sites Added to the Itinerary

  • St Stanisław Kostka Church with its basement museum and its burial site for the priest
  • I would love to make it out to Włocławek to see the Popiełuszko cross monument there
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Janusz Korczak

Henryk Goldszmit, best known by his pen name Janusz Korczak, was a progressive Polish-Jewish pediatrician, educator, and author who also was the director of a Warsaw orphanage that was moved into the Warsaw Ghetto after the ghetto was created. Despite multiple opportunities to escape the ghetto, he stayed with his orphans, walking with them through the streets of the ghetto to Umschlagplatz where he boarded with them the cattle cars that went to Treblinka.

A Light in the Darkness: Janusz Korczak, His Orphans, and the Holocaust by Albert Martin is aimed at middle school students. It tells Korczak's story while juxtaposing his philosophy for children (adults should not mold children into what they want them to be but should allow them to develop into who they want to be) with that of Hitler (children are to be programmed for adult purposes). The book treats the reader as if she or he has little background knowledge, which was great for me, particularly with respect to Jewish customs and terms (which I don't really know).

Itzchak Belfer's White House in a Gray City, also published by a children's imprint, is a Jewish artist's memoir, including his life in Korczak's orphanage, his survival outside Poland during its occupation, his return to Warsaw, and his long journey to Israel. Fascinating stuff and includes a number of Belfer's drawings.

Published in 1923, King Matt the First is Korczak's most popular novel for children and tells the story of boy who ascends his country's throne after his father's death. I really liked Matt and was pulling for him! The book features a strong female character and some views of Africans that were progressive at the time, but accompanied by some not-so-progressive views for 2020, too. The ending is totally unexpected. Of note, King Matt decides that children need a flag after seeing the workers' red flag. He chooses a green flag for children. One of the orphans carried a green King Matt flag as the children marched from the orphanage to Umschlagplatz.

Sites added to the itinerary

  • The building that housed Korczak's original orphanage (Dom Sierot) somehow survived the razing of Warsaw by the Germans and remains a children's home today
  • Monument to Janusz Korczak at the city center
  • Monument at the Jewish cemetery that depicts Korczak's walk through the ghetto with his orphans.
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Book of aron, tho literary fiction, introduces Korzak as the person who can save aron

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Great topic, Dave. As one of the still-hopefuls for visiting Poland in September, I'm interested in everyone's contributions. Although, if my trip is delayed to next year, it appears I'll have sufficient reading material to keep me busy until then!

Thanks to David, above, for the mention of the Masterpiece "Worlds on Fire" - next episode airing (in California) in less than an hour.

I'm 100+ pages into Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War," currently reading about the start of the war in Poland, with 2 of the main characters trying to get out as the invasion begins.

(I picked the book up the day before our local libraries closed, which was lucky timing as it gives me much more time than I otherwise would have had to make it through the nearly 1000 pages.)

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I started watching ‘Worlds on Fire’. Masterpiece theatre always does a good job, I’m hooked.
There are so many excellent suggestions. I’ll picture myself browsing through the local library, and browsing through Barnes and Noble, and deciding which one, they’re all good!

Before my 2018 Eastern European tour I read Madeleine Albright’s, ‘Prague Winter’. Her personal family story interwoven with historical events from 1937-1948 provided me a better understanding of that time period and the countries visited on the tour. In 2012 I did the Berlin-Prague-Vienna tour and most of my knowledge related to Germany. Prague was intriguing and insightful. That tour inspired me to take the Eastern European tour. This tour really tugged on my heart and I definitely would like to revisit those countries again.

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I really enjoyed Prague Winter, too!

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I’ll strongly second Poland by James Michener. I have no desire to visit Poland, but the book is amazing historical fiction. It’s too bad the miniseries era ended so abruptly in television, it would have been a very good one.

The follow up to Winds of War is War and Remembrance which also has many scenes set in Poland. There are some graphic descriptions of concentration camps.

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Ryszard Kuklinski

Traveller99 recommended the film Jack Strong on a thread in the Poland forum. It portrays the clandestine activities of Polish military officer Ryszard Kuklinski, who gave the US copious Soviet and Warsaw Pact military documents from 1972 to 1981, making him one of the US's most valuable Cold War espionage assets. The movie intrigued me enough to look for a biography, and I found A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser. It's a book that reminds me why I personally prefer non-fiction over historical fiction: the events of real people's lives are often far more fascinating than anything a novelist's mind can contrive. The book offers insight into Kuklinski's motivation for spying, the nuts and bolts of Cold War espionage, and the consequences of his choice to support Poland's independence by working with the CIA. A good read!

Time to move on to some literature, though...

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...but first some more non-fiction books I've read since the beginning of the year that I posted on another thread...

  • Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising by Alexandria
    Richie. A very readable history of the Warsaw Uprising that provides
    a nice scaffolding for processing other works on the Uprising. It was
    released in Europe as Warsaw 1944: The Fateful Uprising. Sadly, the
    US title seems to imply that in the US, Hitler sells (or people don't
    know what the Warsaw Uprising is?).

  • A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising by Miron Białoszewski. A 22-year-old
    civilian's story of the Uprising that is written in the manner of an
    oral recollection. I read it after Richie's work; I think it would be
    hard to follow without some prior knowledge.

  • The Color of Courage: A Boy at War by Julian Kulski (originally
    released as Dying, We Live). A powerful memoir written by the son of
    the mayor of occupied Warsaw during his late teen years as therapy
    for the PTSD resulting from his early teen years. The book chronicles
    small acts of rebellion at 10 years of age, joining a youth
    paramilitary organization at 12, Gestapo arrest at 13, participation
    in the Warsaw Uprising as a soldier at 15, and time in a POW camp in
    Germany at 16. For Kulski's later life, pair the book with Goliat -
    The Forgotten Hero
    , a documentary available on Amazon Prime Video.

  • Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage by Tilar Mazzeo. The story
    of Irena Sendler, one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," who used
    her social work credentials to obtain a pass from the Germans to
    enter the Warsaw ghetto, to support the Jewish community, and to
    coordinate the smuggling of 2,500 Jewish children out of the ghetto.

  • Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film by Glenn Kurtz. The author's discovery of his grandfather's film from a 1938 trip to Europe yields three minutes of video of a Polish Jewish community that was later wiped out by the Nazis. If you read the book, don't fail to look up the actual 3 minutes of film on YouTube.

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Poland's "National Poet" -- Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1955)

I first ran across Mickiewicz in the context of Poland's Student Uprising in 1968. The National Theater's production of Mickiewicz's play Forefathers Eve (Dziady) was shut down by the Communist government, which felt that the audience's enthusiastic applause during the play's anti-Tsarist scenes reflected an unsavory, anti-Soviet sentiment (it did!). The students in Warsaw protested the closure, and civil unrest spread across the country.

So... it seemed worth reading Forefathers Eve. It is 19th century European Romanticism in its highest-flying form. I'm more of an Enlightenment fellow -- the type against whom the Romanticists reacted. So... I did a little eye-rolling during the main's character passionate soliloquy ("Improvisation"). The play does give some nice insight into the hushed practice of paganism in Poland during the reign of the Catholic church, though, as well as some insight into the psyche of the oppressed 19th century Polish people.

Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania was next on my reading list. It apparently is considered Poland's national epic (despite playing out in Lithuania) and tells the story of two feuding members of the Polish gentry who ultimately join forces to defeat a Russian garrison. I found Pan Tadeusz pretty satisfying -- a nice recounting of 1811 Polish noble life, loving descriptions of the landscape... romance... action... what more can one ask for in an epic poem?

Finally, I read a biography of Mickiewicz. Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic by Roman Koropeckyj offers a fairly comprehensive look at Mickiewicz's life over close to 500 pages... of tiny print. I made it about half-way through the book and all of Mickiewicz's literary works had been written. I found myself wondering at that point how Koropeckyj was going to fill those other 200-250 pages of the book. Let's just say Mickiewicz jointed a cult... and rose to second in command... before falling from grace. The final chapter deals with how his legacy was reworked (largely by his children) to make him look like a good Catholic so he could be interred in Krakow's Wawel Cathedral with Poland's political and war heroes. It was interesting reading. In fact, I found the second half of the book more interesting than the first half.

Sites added to the itinerary:

  • Adam Mickiewicz statue in Warsaw
  • The Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw, which includes an exhibit on the author
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I am finishing up volume 1 of Norman Davies' history of Poland entitled God's Playground. It has a lot of good info, but it's pretty dense. I found myself searching Amazon for a good book on the Teutonic Knights tonight -- I think that implies I'm enjoying Davies' book.

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Dave, if you also like podcasts and are interested in the Teutonic Knights, I can heartily recommend The History of the Crusades by Sharyn Eastaugh, from Tasmania of all places. Her section on the Baltic Crusades roughly follows the history of the Teutonic Knights, from their humble beginnings in the Holy Land, to how they colonized Transylvania with German settlers, and up to their demise at the hands of Poland-Lithuania in the late 15th century.

Start at Episode 193, happy listening! -

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Poland Revealed: Warsaw

I stumbled across this travel documentary on YouTube that explores the architecture, art, and culture of Warsaw. It's definitely not your typical travel piece. Absent are snazzy video of must-see sites and Instagram-perfect photo locations. To the contrary, the images are actually a little dull and drab, but the interviews and featured venues inform the mind and excite the heart (at least, mine), while bringing to light a richness to the city that I think many tourists/travelers miss due to Warsaw not having the same degree of eye candy as a place like Krakow.

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Norman Davies, *God's Playground: A History of Poland*

I finally finished it! A good comprehensive history of Poland. Over 1000 pages of reading in 2 volumes. Probably more than the average traveler wants to know, but good for someone who wants a comprehensive history of Poland. Apparently the proof reader's eyes glazed over on volume 2 -- frequent minor errors, the most annoying of which was the frequent misspelling of Józef Piłsudski's name -- Pilsudski, Pitsudski, Pifsudski, Piłduski, Piłseudski, and my personal favorite Pi?sudski (yes, with a question mark).

Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father's Court and *A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw*

Two books -- one for adults and one for children -- that contain the Nobel Prize winning author's memories of growing up in Warsaw (and later Biłgoraj) in the early 20th century as the son of a rabbi. Both books are made up of sequential short stories that share a piece of Singer's childhood; there is some cross-over between the books. The stories are great, but occasionally end with a jarring sentence about what happened to people in the stories 30 years later, during the Holocaust.

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(from my own post above)
...if my trip is delayed to next year, it appears I'll have sufficient reading material to keep me busy until then!

While I would much rather be packing for my early September departure for my 3rd visit to Poland in as many years (1st Poland-exclusive trip) I'm glad to have the time to learn more about my destination.

I finished Herman Wouk's Winds of War and am deep into the sequel, War and Remembrance. And while I don't care much for some of the fictional contrivances, they do give the author a vehicle to convey a broad set of perspectives within a narrow character set.

At the same time, I'm also reading Irena's Children (mentioned above, thanks Dave!) and am glad to have the increased context for memorials in Warsaw such as Umschlagplatz Monument and the Zegota memorial.

A few titles that I've collected, and am looking forward to reading in context with Irena Sendler's story:

A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and His Children, by David A. Adler
A Cup of Tears: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto, by Abraham, Lewin
The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto, by Mary Berg

This thread has served me well, and could easily keep me supplied with reading material until I'm able to reschedule.

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CWsocial, if you need one more book on Irena Sendler, there is Life in a Jar which is really about a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown, Kansas who discovered the story, and wrote a play about her for a school project, which has been subsequently performed all over including Poland, The girls traveled to Poland and met Ms Sendler while she was still alive. It gives a perspective from midwestern American kids who had no idea or connection to the story but became inspired researchers as a result.

The recent book, The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather is the true story of a Polish Army officer, who volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz to find out what was going on, and eventually escaped and survived to report what was happening to the Underground. The information was passed on to the US and UK governments who didn't think it was significant. Very detailed discussion of what he experienced.

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I knew the story of the schoolgirls, but hadn't come across the book. Such an amazing woman - I can understand their enthusiasm to learn about Irena Sendler. I'm very interested to read about their school project and play. My library doesn't have Life in a Jar, Amazon does. Time to pull out the Kindle. The library has The Volunteer, which I've added to my reading list.

Thank you for those suggestions!

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As you may already know, Abraham Lewin's memoir was a component of the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, created by the Oneg Shabbat group.

As you may also already know, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw has an exhibition on Oneg Shabbat and the Archive:

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Dave, I was not aware of the archive and its exhibition, so thank you!
(I knew I could easily fill 7 days in Warsaw ... and more.)

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The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman

bdokeefe mentioned the film The Pianist above. I will highly recommend the book by the same name, which for me deepened the meaning of many scenes from the film -- for example, the scene in which Władysław's family shares an exorbitantly-priced caramel creme at the Warsaw Ghetto's Umschlagplatz prior to his family being loaded onto a cattle car. Perhaps many of you are sharper than me and made the connection, but the book helped me recognize the significance of this as the Szpilmans' last family dinner.

The German captain who protected Władysław at the end of the war played a greater role in assuring Władysław was not discovered than what is shown in the movie. The edition of the book I read (Picador, 1999) also included excerpt's from the captain's diary, as well as a helpful Epilogue.

The next post will be about Polish writers who survived WWII and how they responded to a socialist/Communist government. I've read 2 books -- probably will read 2-3 more before that post.

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How timely! I'm picking up the Pianist - both the book and the movie - from my library tomorrow. I've seen the movie before, but it's been a long time and well prior to my intended travels to Warsaw. I was thinking I would read the book before watching the movie again.

I've finished Irena Sendler's Children (couldn't put it down!) and tomorrow will also be picking up The Color of Courage, A Hero and the Holocaust, The Last Jew of Treblinka and Warsaw 1944 by Alexandra Richie.

After I read A Hero and the Holocaust, the Story of Janusz Korczak, I'd like to read White House in a Gray City, which includes the author's life in Korczak's orphanage.

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My local library now includes the "Kanopy" streaming video/film platform. An initial search shows quite a few WWII, Warsaw and Jewish topics.

Last night I watched;
After Auschwitz which profiles 6 women survivors and their lives after the Holocaust

I've added numerous titles to my watchlist:

The Last of the Unjust, The Life of WWII Jewish Leader Benjamin Murmelstein
We Were So Beloved, The Jewish Community in New York During WWII
No Job for a Woman, Pioneering Women Reporters in WWII
The Holocaust: What The Allies Knew
912 Days of The Warsaw Ghetto

And many other (mostly) documentaries of the holocaust and survivor stories.

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Definitely read The Pianist first and then watch it!

Thanks for mentioning Kanopy. I looked at my library's website, and it is offering the service now, too. I'm going to sign up! It has a German movie I've been dying to see -- Balloon. It's a true story about a family that escaped East Germany via a hot air balloon that they made themselves. I've read the story in a book about escapes from East Germany... looking forward to seeing the movie!

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I can see why you wanted to watch the movie Balloon. It's riveting! Thanks for that mention, Dave, I wouldn't have known to look for it.

I watched two documentaries:

Karski and the Lords of Humanity, a "documentary film about Jan Karski, who risked his life to try to prevent the Holocaust."
Korczak, "Janusz Korczak and his heroic dedication to protecting Jewish orphans during the war."

The latter might interest you, and certainly paints the depth of character of the doctor whom you quote in your original post.

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Glad you like Balloon. A friend and I are planning to watch it together, so I'm holding out for a week or two! Jan Karski. That reminds me of a book I failed to add to this thread...

Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World by Jan Karski

Karksi's book, originally published in 1944, details his observations as a courier for Poland's Government in Exile from 1940 to 1943. It quickly became a best seller, selling more than 400,000 copies by the end of the war. The book follows Karski's life from his call up for military duty in 1939 to his 1943 meeting with President Roosevelt. It is a remarkable 4 years. Russian prisoner. Courier who made dangerous trips to France/England. Gestapo Prisoner. Suicide attempt. Witness to the Warsaw Ghetto. Witness to the Bełżec concentration camp. Stunning reading, I'm sure, for 1944 US Americans, whose government apparently thought stories of the Holocaust were exaggerated. Worthwhile for the modern reader with an interest in Poland.

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Thanks, Dave! I was intrigued by the Karski documentary (on Kanopy) and have added his book to my readng list.

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Czesław Miłosz -- Winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature

Born to a Polish family in Lithuania in 1911, Miłosz survived WWII in/around Warsaw and emerged from the war as a diplomat/cultural attaché for the Communist Polish government in the US. He defected to France in 1951 and ultimately chose exile in the US, where he was a professor at UC Berkley.

He primarily wrote poetry, but one of his most well known works is The Captive Mind, an analysis of totalitarianism with particular attention to Stalin's form of Communism (which is distinguished from Marxism in the book). The first 3 chapters are a reflection on totalitarianism; the middle four chapters recount the experiences of 4 writers (given the names Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta) who survived WWII and wrote under the Polish Communist regime. The final two chapters are a summary and an analysis of the Baltic experience.

While all the book is thought-provoking, I found the most pleasure in the middle chapters; the authors had outcomes ranging from thriving career to suicide. With the aid of other resources, it is easy to identify the authors. Two of them had works for which I was able to find an English translation

  • Jerzy Andrzejewski (Alpha) thrived. One of his most well-known novels is Ashes and Diamonds, which spans a few days in a Polish town immediately following the end of World War II. I loved this novel! It felt genuine -- probably because it was written by a guy who survived the war and experienced a Polish town at the end of the war. Strong, well-developed characters. Good pacing. And it ended like a good Communist novel should end. The 1958 Adrzej Wadja film adaptation, available for free on Kanopy (thanks, CWSocial) and for a small fee on Amazon, is beautifully shot, compresses the action into 1 day, and strengthens the pro-Communist message. The novel, as usual, is better than the film (though the film is not bad).
  • Tadeusz Borowski (Beta) did not thrive, perhaps because he spent much of the war in German concentration camps. His book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman is a collection of short stories about his time in the camps as a non-Jewish Pole, and as such has a different perspective than works by Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel. Borowski stood near the platforms as the trains arrived, waiting to collect/process the luggage left by the Jewish arrivals.

I read Miłosz's 1959 autobiography Native Realm. I skimmed the first half of the book, which was more about the development of his consciousness than the events of his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I read the second half, which was more of a narrative of his life beginning with the outbreak of WWII, more closely. Not a bad book, but if I were an influencer with a blog, it wouldn't appear in my Top 10 Poland Reading post.

Finally, I have been working my way through a compilation of Miłosz's poetry. It's good stuff.

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Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe by Peter Hetherington

A 700+ page biography of Joseph Pilsudski, one of the more interesting men of the 20th century. Son of Polish (lower) nobility. Prisoner in Siberia. Publisher of an underground leftist newspaper. Prisoner who faked insanity for about a year by, among other things, eating nothing but boiled eggs (with shells!). Self-trained military man. Leader of the Polish Legions under Austria. Prussian prisoner. Poland war hero. Head of state who perhaps saved Central and Western Europe from Bolshevik Revolution in 1920 by going to the battlefield and leading his men. Supporter of democratic and parliamentary government in Poland until it didn't act the way he wanted it to act, then.... Coup leader. Dictator. Grumpy Old Man. Wow. What a life.

The book is well written -- not surprising given that it was written by... a petroleum geologist? Who apparently really likes history. And Pilsudski.

After reading this book, I find myself wanting to ask Poles what they think about Pilsudski. And I'm very interested in seeing the recently opened Józef Piłsudski Museum in Sulejówek (just outside Warsaw), adjacent to the Marshal's old manor, which was financed and built by his admiring military subordinates. For what it's worth, Andrzej Duda has revealed his thoughts at the opening of the museum: "Józef Piłsudski is one of the greatest Poles in history" (

Warsaw 1920: Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe by Adam Zamoyski

This book limits itself largely to a history of the battles of the Polish-Soviet War. There is not a lot of analysis of the over-arching issues and geopolitical conflicts, which the author notes early in the book can be found elsewhere. Interesting but a little dry.

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Great topic as I, too, am part of the hopefuls going to Poland in September.
It's been many years since I read it, but Mila 18 by Leon Uris is a wonderfully written book about Poland during the German occupation during WWII. Mila 18 is the address of the headquarters of the Polish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. The book is about the Warsaw uprising. It is historical fiction based on true events and some historical figures. If you have read any other of Uris's books, you know what a great author he is and this book does not disappoint.

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I recently finished The Pianist, book first and then movie. I really appreciate the suggestion to consume in that order, as it did allow my mind to expand on the scenes I was seeing in the film. And especially to more thoroughly appreciate the life-saving relationship with German officer Wilm Hosenfeld.

I'm nearly finished reading *I Remember Nothing More" - the memories written by Adina Blady Szwajger, in her later years, of her work at the start of the war in the Warsaw Children's Hospital as a newly certified (barely) doctor, and her work during the war in the Jewish Resistance. It's an easy read, and a new (for me) perspective from her vantage point in the hospital. Her anecdotes of her role in the Resistance brought a sense of the never-ending concern for those she helped to hide, and the innumerable "close calls" on her own life.

As you've said many times, Dave, her real-life story is more compelling than fiction, in part because her perserverity, frequent near misses, and repeated good luck could be viewed as implausible, if not for being her true story.

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Hi, Lisa. Thank you for your contribution and for bringing Leon Uris to my attention. I read his biography on Wikipedia. As you may know, he joined the military after Pearl Harbor was attacked and fought in the Pacific theater. He has about three novels including Mila 18, that look very interesting to me. Off topic for this thread, but Battle Cry is probably highest on my list due to a recent visit to the US WW II Museum in New Orleans; the novel is based largely on the author's war experience and includes the Battle of Guadalcanal.

CWSocial... Thanks for the summary of the book you are reading. It sounds like the type of memoir I like to read. I have added it to the reading list! I'm glad you found the "read then view" approach to The Pianist helpful.

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Hi Dave, I'm so glad you took interest in Leon Uris. I think you will enjoy his books. He truly is a wonderful writer. I've read most of his books over the years and find that I get completely engrossed quickly. Have fun reading them.

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Jan Sobieski: the King Who Saved Europe by Miltiades Varvounis

This biography of Sobieski took me a while to read, even though it was only about 200 pages of actual text. The book has extended passages about his battles that bored me a bit, but I did learn a lot about a king with whom I was not all that familiar. I feel like I should have heard his name in high school. Of course, I may not have been paying attention 🙂... especially since I had a totally-disinterested, burned-out world history teacher. He gave oral tests. We would ask him to repeat the questions; he would reply, "Just put down [the correct answer] and let's be done with it."

Edit: I should add that Sobieski is important because he played a significant role in preventing Vienna from falling to the Ottoman Empire in 1683.

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The Jan Sobieski book sounds quite interesting. I didn't find it at my library. I'm not sure I'd make it through the 700+ pages .... well, I suppose it depends on how long our lockdown lasts :-)

As an alternative, I've added this 30 minute "Great Course" on Kanopy to my watchlist, which may whet my interest:
Second Siege of Vienna, 1683, Episode 27 of Turning Points in Middle Eastern History

The 1683 Ottoman siege of Vienna is often cited as a critical turning point in European history. Investigate the events leading to the siege and battle, witness the dramatic defense of the city under the Polish king Jan Sobieski, and examine both the legacy of the clash and historical misconceptions surrounding it.

I'm well into Jan Karski's "A Secret State" - he's been rescued from the Gestapo and is beginning his efforts as a propagandist for the Underground. I really enjoy the writing style and find myself going back to re-read paragraphs where I appreciate his "turn of a phrase."

I'd like to read about Józef Piłsudski, and you've sparked my interest to visit the museum.

ETA: I find it an incredible irony of my life that the only course I dropped in high school was "World History." I just couldn't sit through it, didn't care, wasn't interested. And thankfully (for me at that time) my father had just been transferred and my new school didn't require it. Apparently, I prefer to study history in person and on location :-)

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Another history book The Last King of Poland by Adam Zamoyski. Its about Stanislaw Poniatowski, the Last King of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. Polish nobility elected its kings. After him (1798) the lands were carved up by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, until the end of World War One. Reunification of Poland was one of Woodrow Wilsons's Fourteen Points.

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CWSocial... Karski's story is, like your description of that of Adina Blady Szwajger, more amazing than fiction. He is definitely a good writer. i will admit history was not of high-interest for me in high school. In college, I took a class on the Holocaust, which sparked a bit of an interest but it was not until after graduate school and establishing my career that I had a chance to pursue it more.

Stan... Thanks for the recommendation on the book. I have added it to the reading list.

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The Singer Brothers -- Unpacking the Polish Jewish experience in the late 19th/early 20th century through literature

The brothers Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1903-1991) were the sons of a Hasidic rabbi. Much of their formative years were spent in the city of Warsaw. Both immigrated to the US -- the older brother in 1934 and the younger in 1935. Both wrote in Yiddish. Israel Joshua was originally felt to hold more promise as a writer than his younger brother, but he died of a heart attack at a young age. Isaac Bashevis became a prolific writer and became the only Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Among Israel Joshua's works is The Brothers Ashkenazi, his shot at the great European novel that was published in 1936. It tells the story of the Jewish community in Lodz (and at times elsewhere in Poland) from the late 1800's to the end of WWI through a saga that follows two brothers as they negotiate industrialization, capitalism, socialism, and Bolshevik revolution. The writing is tight, focusing on the story line and avoiding a lot of flowery descriptions. I liked it a lot!

The more prolific Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote for both children and adults. His Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories contains 7 short stories for children and earns a spot on Rick Steves' recommended reading list for Poland. I really liked 2 of them (including Zlateh); I found the others a little annoying or creepy. A far better book is Stories for Children, which contains a number of beautiful gems of stories (and a few annoying ones). The annoying ones in both volumes poke fun at people, particularly the poor people of Chelm, who apparently are known as fools. I think I would tolerate those stories better if I weren't living in a time in which those with opposing ideologies often portray each other as morons (or outright evil). Reading the fools of Chelm stories seemed a lot like reading my Facebook feed before/after the election, which made me shudder a bit.

The Magician of Lublin boils down to a morality story (at least to me) in which the author takes pleasure in describing the immorality of the main character before allowing him to find redemption. I'm working my way through The Family Moskat now, one of the author's stabs at the great family saga novel. Isaac Bashevis Singer does not share his brother's parsimony with respect to words. In The Family Moskat, he goes into great detail in his descriptions of each character and each setting. It slows down the beginning of the book considerably, but the pace happily picks up.

Both brothers' novels give great insight into Jewish life in Poland during the late 1800's and early 1900's. While I am not the biggest fan of fiction, I have found a lot to like in both authors' works.

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The Family Moskat update: Yeah, that book ended up making my 10 most hated books list. By the mid-way point, I felt like I was trapped in a soap opera instead of reading a novel. Certainly there are some nice insights into early 20th century Polish life, but, gee, what an unlikeable, depressing, self-loathing lot of characters.

I did find Zofia Nalkowska's *Medallions* much more worthwhile. It consists of 7 short reflections on some aspect of WWII/Holocaust Poland plus a brief summary of Auschwitz in a 49-page book written by a member of the Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes at Auschwitz -- a member who was a progressive female literary voice who rose to fame during the Interwar period and a member whose life strikes me as worth further exploration through ordering her biography from an Amazon distributor in the UK. Medallions was published in 1946 and apparently became part of the anti-Fascist literary cannon (though perhaps not the Holocaust literary cannon) for Poland.

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Mila 18 by Leon Uris, a novel set in German-occupied Warsaw. But the book that took me to Poland 50 years later? The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P Kelly. The school librarian read it to our class when I was in 4 th grade. Teachers touch lives. They really do!

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The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 by Timothy Snyder

This remarkably interesting book follows the history of the people, borders, and countries of the land once known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the Union of Lublin in 1569 to the early 21st century (the book was published in 2003). It vastly increased my understanding of how borders moved during that time and how populations viewed each other. About a third of the book covers the emergence of post-Soviet Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus, and how Poland's even-handed foreign policy from 1989 to 1993 under the direction of Minister of Foreign Affairs Krzysztof Skubiszewski influenced the development of its eastern neighbors. The book would be a bit of a difficult read for someone with minimal background knowledge of Polish history (i.e., me 12 months ago).

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Timothy Snyder is an outstanding writer. If you're interested in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, he has written extensively on this subject. He is also an excellent speaker, my husband and I have listened to quite a few of his lectures.

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I just watched two films on Kanopy:

"Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge" is the 2016 film about "The most turbulent five years in the life of a genius woman: Between 1905, where Marie Curie [born and grew up in Warsaw] comes with Pierre Curie to Stockholm to be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the radioactivity and 1911, where she receives her second Nobel Prize."

Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw

(Viewer discretion advised)
The 2018 war drama "Sobibor" which is "based on the history of the Sobibor extermination camp uprising during WWII and focuses on Soviet officer Alexander Pechersky. When he was a POW in SOBIBOR, he managed to do the impossible - to organize a revolt and mass escape of the prisoners. Many of the escapees were later caught and died - the rest led by Pechersky managed to join the partisans.

Sobibor Commemorating Museum