Telling Poland’s turbulent history

Faces
Three faces of Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising of 1944 on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to Poland, and to visit two of its flagship museums.  Both located in the country’s capital city, they address some of the major themes in Poland’s traumatic and turbulent history.

The first was POLIN:Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Its subject matter is exactly what one would expect from its title and the scope and scale of its content is vast. It was awarded European Museum of the Year 2016 and it is easy to understand why.  It follows the story of Poland’s Jewish population and explains how Jews have been an integral part of the country for a thousand years.

The challenge facing the designers of this museum was to create a meaningful and engaging place with very few original artefacts.  The harsh reality of Poland’s history is that successive invasions and occupations have taken a toll on its physical history.  It is conservatively estimated that a quarter of a million works of art, a huge proportion of Poland’s cultural heritage, were looted by the occupying forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during the Second World War and few have ever been recovered. However, once inside POLIN it is very clear that this challenge has been met and overcome very effectively,with clever and innovative interpretation filling the gap.

The museum’s core exhibitions are succinctly described on the museum’s website as follows:

The exhibition is made up of eight galleries, spread over an area of 4000 sq.m., presenting the heritage and culture of Polish Jews, which still remains a source of inspiration for Poland and for the world. The galleries portray successive phases of history, beginning with legends of arrival, the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland and the development of Jewish culture. We show the social, religious and political diversity of Polish Jews, highlighting dramatic events from the past, the Holocaust, and concluding with contemporary times.

Synagoge Roof
The amazing recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue at Gwoździec in one of the galleries at POLIN.

Each of these eight galleries has its own style and method of storytelling, and a wide range of techniques are used. From a beautifully animated 3D map of Krakow and Kazimierz in the 16th Century, through a stunning recreation of the painted ceiling of the wooden synagogue from Gwoździec, the galleries are a feast for the eyes.  But of course the Jewish story has a much more traumatic side to it, as indeed does that of Poland.  The fourth of the eight galleries reflects on how at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned Poland and how during the next century Poland’s Jews, and for that matter the rest of the Polish population,  were divided to live dispersed under each of the three powers.

Jewish Street
A representation of a Jewish street from the 1920/30s inside POLIN.

This is followed by ‘the Jewish Street’ a reconstruction of a scene from the Jewish district of Warsaw in the 1920/30s and tells the story of the brief post-First World War resurgence of Jewish nationalism in Poland during this period, before the savage repression of the Nazi Occupation during the Second World War.  The museum itself stands in the centre of what was Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, opposite the memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising which was erected in 1948.  The museum therefore unsurprisingly covers in detail the impact of the Holocaust.  It chronicles its cruel consequences for Poland’s Jewish population and is told with no ‘punches pulled’. The visual impression of the Holocaust gallery is dark and oppressive as one would expect given that more than three million Polish Jews were eventually murdered during this period. The galleries finish with the opportunity to reflect on the thousand years of Poland’s Jewish history and what that memory means for Polish Jews today.

Ghetto Memorial
The memorial to the Ghetto Heroes of Warsaw is situated opposite the POLIN museum in the centre of what was the Jewish ghetto.  In was raised in 1948 in memory of those who died in the abortive 1943 Ghetto Uprising.

POLIN is a monumental museum in more than one way.  As a pure museum it is enormous in its scope, making it the sort of place one would need to visit time and again to really appreciate the depth of content.  But it is also a memorial to the human spirit and its ability to survive through adversity and emerge, battered and brutalised, despite the most awful of conditions. And it is this human spirit that is also celebrated in the second of the museums I wish to consider.

Uniforms
Uniforms worn by Polish fighters during the Warsaw Rising on display in the Warsaw Rising Museum.

The Warsaw Rising Museum, in contrast to POLIN, tells the story of a much shorter, but equally emotive, period of Polish history, the Warsaw Rising of 1 August to 2 October 1944. Housed in a building that formerly served as the power station for the Warsaw tram system, its exterior is imposing, and topped with a modern observation tower affording views over the city.

Rising Museum
The former power station for the Warsaw tram system which now houses the Warsaw Rising Museum.

The Museum was opened on 31 July 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the fighting in the city that marked the start of the Rising. The exhibitions within chart the hardships of everyday life before and during the Rising, and the appalling conditions the people of Warsaw lived under during the occupation.  It is also a tribute and memorial to those who fought and died for a free Poland.  The interpretation is excellent with great use of images and sound, as well as film that was amazingly recorded during the Rising.  At the very heart of the Museum is a steel monument which stretches from bottom to top linking all floors of the building. Inside the memorial one can hear the sound of a heartbeat which symbolises the beating heart of fighting Warsaw in 1944 and is a rather eerie presence throughout the museum.

The collection of artefacts dispersed within the museum includes uniforms worn by the combatants, the weapons they were armed with and, very evocatively, the original named red and white armbands worn by some of the fighters. There are also sections that look at many different and more unusual aspects of the occupation and Rising.  These include the cultural activities that continued despite the fighting and the role of young boys and girls who carried out the very dangerous role of postmen and women for the Field Postal Service by carrying messages around the city.

Armband
This wall displays original armbands worn by the Polish fighters during the Rising. Each is signed with the individual’s name. The letters WP denote Wojsko Polskie – Polish Armed Forces.

Like POLIN the execution of this museum is excellent.  The story is told using a wide range of interpretation methods, the scope of the content is huge, and again a single visit does not do the content justice.  It is also very clear how important to the story of modern Poland the Rising is, and how revered its veterans are held within the country.

Before I visited Warsaw I had a rudimentary understanding of Polish history and its place, by virtue of its geography, as a ‘buffer nation’ between two much more powerful, and at times aggressive, neighbours.  I knew of its Jewish past and the appalling atrocities inflicted on its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust, and I was aware of the wartime Rising.  What I was not aware of was the detail, in particular the myriad personal stories and tragedies therein. Both these museums help the visitor to access and understand these stories and I came away from my visits much better informed.  I am now also much better able to understand the huge national pride that Poland as a nation and its people display, and the important role these museums are playing in immortalising its turbulent history.

Rising Museum memorial
The towering monument at the centre of the Warsaw Rising museum which records each day of the fighting and within which can be heard, as well as a heartbeat, the sounds of the Rising such as gunfire, radio announcements, prayers and falling bombs.

The Men Who Made the Cemeteries

GRU Cpl
A Corporal from a Graves Registration Unit with an exhumed body. ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via IWM

I am sure that for anyone who has visited the battlefields of the First World War, in particular those of the Western Front in France and Belgium, one of the most vivid memories will be the war cemeteries.  These are looked after and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and serve as a permanent and powerful reminder of the death and suffering that the Great War brought. But I suspect that fewer visitors really think about how the cemeteries came about and how they were developed.

The story starts soon after the start of the First World War and, in large part, is down to the work of one man, Fabian Ware.  He arrived in France in September 1914, too old to serve in the Army, instead he commanded a mobile Red Cross unit.  He soon identified that there was no official process for documenting or marking the location of the graves of those who had been killed.  To fill this void he and his mobile unit undertook the task.  Ware’s work was quickly given official recognition and the unit was transferred to the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915.  As the work of grave registration became known to the public at home, the Commission began receiving letters and requests from relatives for photographs of graves, which it duly began to provide.  As a result, in 1916, the Graves Registration Commission was renamed the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries. Its remit was also extended beyond the Western Front and into other theatres of war including Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  As the war progressed Ware and others became concerned about the future of the graves after the war, which led to the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 (updated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the 1960s).

The work continued through to the end of the war and on into the 1920s with the recovery of bodies, concentration of some of the smaller cemeteries into larger ones and the building of large permanent memorials such as the ones at Thiepval on the Somme and the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Graves Resistration Unit
A Graves Registration Unit in France or Belgium, probably after the end of the First World War ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via the IWM

This work was crucial in helping the grieving process for those hundreds of thousands of families who had lost loved ones.  Some years ago I came across a grave in Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient.  Unlike so many in that cemetery, this one had a name on it, Private James Weir, 31st Battalion, Australian Infantry, AIF.  It also had an intriguing epitaph ‘The Lord Gave And The Lord Hath Taken Away’.  So out of interest I decided to trace Private Weir and to see if I could find out more about him.  In doing so I uncovered a tragic tale, but one that probably mirrored many thousands more.

Private Weir was killed on 27 September 1917, during the bloody Third Battle of Ypres, and was buried in a battlefield cemetery somewhere in the area of Polygon Wood. However, the grave appears to have been lost and even as late as the summer of 1921 the family, in Australia, were writing to the authorities to find to where the grave was. Eventually the grave was located, the body exhumed and concentrated with many others in Tyne Cot Cemetery, and in October 1921 the family were sent photographs of the grave. Nonetheless it is hard in these days of instant communication and rapid travel to imagine the anguish his family went through for four years, not knowing where he was buried.

Weir Grave Register
The Graves Registration Unit’s notification that Private James Weir’s body had been exhumed and reburied in Tyne Cot Cemetery. ©National Archives of Australia.

This week I came across Lincolnshire resident and author Tim Atkinson who is writing a book about the men who stayed behind after the Armistice as part of the Graves Registration Units to search for and recover bodies on the battlefields. Entitled ‘The Glorious Dead‘ the marketing blurb for the book states the following:

‘The book promises to reveal what happened when the Great War ended and the guns fell silent, to tell the story of the battlefield clearances and creation of iconic war cemeteries and to explain why so many men who served – and survived – remained in Flanders amid the ruins of the war they’d fought.

The story follows one of these men – Jack Patterson – as he busies himself doing the Empire’s dirty work. Jack seems not to mind getting his hands dirty, digging graves, living among the death of devastation of the war he and others have just fought. But there’s a secret keeping Jack in Flanders – a secret that only emerges when a visitor to the cemeteries comes searching…. for Jack’s own grave!’

Intrigued by Tim’s (TA) approach I (HM) caught up with him and we had a chat.

HM:  “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

TA:  “I was a teacher for twenty years and then decided to give up full-time work to look after my youngest child, and at the same time start writing,  Since doing so I have had a number  of books published, and my latest venture is ‘The Glorious Dead’.”

HM: “I have read the blurb, but tell me more about the book.” 

TA:  “Well it’s been five years in the making and is the story of Jack Patterson and his comrades who stay behind on the Western Front after the end of the First World War to complete the harrowing and unpleasant task of recovering bodies from the battlefields for burial. The story covers the important years just after the end of the Great War when thousands of troops remained behind to complete this task. It also touches on those who eventually married local girls and became part of Anglo-Belgium and Anglo-French communities looking after the cemeteries through the inter-war period.”  

HM: “Why did you choose to address this subject through the medium of historical fiction rather than a factual narrative?”  

TA:  “The book is principally about the people involved with this undertaking rather than the process.  There are a number of good non-fiction books already published on the subject, including Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil and David Crane’s Empires of the Dead.  And I’m not an historian so didn’t want to cover the same ground less-well.  What I wanted to do was to understand the psychology of these men.  To understand what motivated them to stay behind and complete this task.  In the case of my chief protagonist there is a personal reason and a mystery about him that eventually comes to light but I won’t spoil the story. But the historical fiction approach gave me more scope to do this.”

Serre No3
Serre Road Cemetery Number 3, a battlefield cemetery on the Somme, on an atmospherically overcast day.

HM: “These cemeteries always have a profound effect on people visiting them.  Why do you think that is?”     

TA:  “From Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery, to the smallest battlefield cemetery on the Somme their design is consistent and perfect.  This was an inspired period, from the work of Fabian Ware to establish the Imperial War Graves Commission through to that of the architects such as Blomfield and Lutyens to establish the monuments.  I have been to many of the cemeteries on the Western Front and standing in them I think the overriding impression is of the simplicity of the design and the serenity of the places.  And I think it is this contrast with the horror of the battlefields that really has an impact on people.”

HM: “Your book is being published through Unbound. Why have you chosen this route?”

TA: “Well first it is a very successful model which has had some notable successes.  The one that immediately springs to mind is Philip Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which made it on to the Man Booker long list in 2014.  Secondly I enjoy the interaction with potential readers that this form of publishing allows.  Once subscribers have pledged their support they are given access to ‘the Shed’ an interactive area where they can receive updates from the author and leave comments and thoughts. As a writer it is unusual to connect with readers while engaged in the process of writing.  Unbound offers a great opportunity to open a dialogue with your readers and allow them to help shape your book.”

HM: “Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.  Good luck with completing the book and your quest for support.”      

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries of the Western Front, and elsewhere in the world, are an iconic and important part of the Remembrance of all wars that have involved military and civilian personnel from across the Commonwealth since 1914.  As we move through the Centenary commemorations of the First World War their power to connect us with that War does not seem to diminish, indeed in many respects they are even more powerful today than they ever have been.

Tyne Cot
Tyne Cot Cemetery today.

What I hope I have done in this blog post, and what Tim Atkinson is attempting to do in his book, is to highlight the effort made to ensure the memory and sacrifice of those who died in the First World War was not forgotten.  Initially this was through the efforts of Fabian Ware to institutionalise the burial and commemoration of the dead.  Then later through the physically hard and traumatic work of men, like Tim’s character Jack, to scour the battlefields searching for bodies, and hopefully help to close a chapter for many families such as those of Private James Weir.  As we remember the dead and the wounded throughout the Centenary of the First World War, we should also take our hats off to the men who completed the grisly, but very important, task of making the cemeteries.


You can subscribe to Tim Atkinson’s book ‘The Glorious Dead’ at https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-glorious-dead