Saturday I got to watch historic justice: Jarek Piekalkiewicz finally being presented with the Cross of the Brave, known as Krzyz Walecznych in Poland, for his immense courage and heart in fighting for his country in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The second-highest honor given by the Polish government finally made its way to Jarek 77 years after it was to be awarded. He was also celebrating his 95th birthday with family and friends.
It turns out that although the Polish government, in exile in London in 1944 when Jarek was to be awarded, couldn’t follow through in a timely manner (to say the least). Once WWII ended, the new Polish columnist government refused to recognize and decorate people like Jarek. Looking at this history, this isn’t so surprising. In my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other — based on oral histories with Jarek and his late beloved friend, Lou Frydman — I wrote about what I learned from Jarek and other scholars.
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which could have defeated the Nazis, was disastrous because of the Soviet Union, which, by this time in the war, was on the side of the Allies (having switched from fighting with the Axis powers). At the cusp of the uprising in the summer of 1944, the Soviet soldiers were on one side of Warsaw’s Vistula River, the Nazi army on the other side, and the Polish Resistance qwew prepared to fight the Germans with the understanding that Soviets would join in and help them finish the job. As many of you know, the Soviets cooled their heels for the close-to-two-months of fighting, letting the Nazis kill, injure, and eventually imprison resistance fighters like Jarek. As Jarek explained to me when we were doing the book, this turned out to be an easy way for the Soviets to have “all the troublemakers,” the people most prone to advocate for an independent Poland, wiped out or forced out of the country, which is exactly what happened.
After the war, Jarek couldn’t return to Poland because he would have likely been killed or imprisoned by the new government. Sharing the same last name of his uncle Jan Piekalkiewicz, one of the main leaders of the home army until Jan was captured, tortured, and killed, Jarek wouldn’t have had any way to blend in. So he ended up, after the Sagan POW March and the Sagan POW camp, joining a Polish regiment of the British army. He went first to Italy, then to Glasgow, and then to England until he was able to go to Trinity College in Ireland. Along the way, he met and fell in love with Maura (from Ireland) and ended up, amazingly enough, in Lawrence, Kansas to teach in the Political Science department (after doing his graduate work at the University of Illinois and beforehand, living a bit in New York City).
Jarek is still active in advocating for justice and helping educate people on the Warsaw Uprising and the Polish Resistance. His new book — yes new! — is Dance with Death: A Holocaust View of Saving Polish Jews During the Holocaust. The book examines the vast capacity of so many Poles to save and hide Jews during the Holocaust, and the book, when still in manuscript form, helped me immensely in writing Needle in the Bone. When I did a reading from my book at Ellen Piekalkiewicz’s home (Jarek’s daughter), I was surrounded by many Poles from the area, all of whom had stories of their parents or grandparents hiding Jews during the war. “And that’s the story of Poland,” one Polish woman told me at the time.
At the ceremony, Robert Rusiecki of the Polish consulate, came from Houston as well as Polish Air Force Major Gen. Cezary Wisniewski from Washington, D.C. to present Jarek with the medal and to honor Jarek’s brave and passionate defense of his home country. Watching the ceremony in Jarek’s living room, I remembered what Jarek had told me when we were writing the book: he lived four lives. The first was in Poland before the war, the second during the war and its aftermath when he was fighting for his life without any sense of a real home, the third in Ireland when he came back to his roots of education and service, and the fourth when he came to America, a country he chose because he felt our multicultural (“give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free) embrace would work for him….and it did.
It’s a joy beyond joys to see him properly recognized by his home country in his adopted country. And it’s about time!
P.S. Special changes to Andrew and Ellen Piekalkiewicz, Jarek’s children, for all they did to make this day so special.