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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.

Posted by
1701 posts

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.

Posted by
5017 posts

As luck would have it, PBS is just starting (literally, right now, as I write this) a new drama series, World On Fire, set in WWII and at least in part set in Poland. I just set my DVR to record it. Might be worth a look for anyone interested in Polish history.

Masterpiece World on Fire

Posted by
918 posts

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

Posted by
26 posts

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.

https://www.thefirstnews.com/category/history

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

Posted by
1793 posts

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 https://historyofthecrusades.podomatic.com/
  • 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!
Posted by
1533 posts

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.

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

Posted by
4866 posts

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 Roman Polanski's 1957 film "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.

Posted by
5311 posts

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.)

Posted by
5311 posts

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
Https://Timothygartonash.com/books.php

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.

Posted by
578 posts

The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy, by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.

Poland, by James Michener.

Posted by
1400 posts

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.

Posted by
1841 posts

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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1841 posts

Solidarity

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
Posted by
1533 posts

Dave,
I have bookmarked this post. So many excellent suggestions.

Posted by
1841 posts

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.
Posted by
1033 posts

Book of aron, tho literary fiction, introduces Korzak as the person who can save aron

Posted by
1384 posts

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.)

Posted by
484 posts

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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1841 posts

Diane,

I really enjoyed Prague Winter, too!

Posted by
1029 posts

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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1841 posts

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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1841 posts

...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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1841 posts

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, love, 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