Rebuilding our past

The Polish Mission Honors the 72nd Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising

b259“Tense” couldn’t begin to describe the moments in that late afternoon on August 1.  It was 1944 and for the residents of Warsaw, every tick of the clock struck like hammer in anticipation of what was to happen.  For almost five years Warsaw had been the hands of Nazi German occupiers.  Speaking Polish in public places was forbidden and ruthlessly punished.  Wherever the gestapo didn’t have hidden microphones, they had agents who would penetrate even the tightest circles of Polish patriots.  Warsaw’s Jewish citizens had been all but exterminated at the hands of the Nazis, following a heroic uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in the previous year.  All that remained of the ghetto was rubble and ash.  Those years of “ethnic cleansing” only served to fuel the ire of Warsaw’s Polish patriots, many of whom valiantly defended Warsaw in 1939.  They remembered passionately defending Poland’s Capitol for twenty days staring into the jaws of death from Nazi cannons, panzers, and Stuka dive bombers.  Still more remembered the “Miracle on the Vistula,” when despite being weakened by the First World War, the Polish Army crushed the invading Bolshevik Russian force in 1920 on the outskirts of the city.  Warsaw had a legacy of resistance, and no invading army could stop the city’s beating heart.

And so it was on the eve of battle in 1944.  The captured German weapons, Molotov cocktails, and crude machine guns made in clandestine mechanic shops and basements were hidden under trench coats and disguised in parcels.  They were waiting to set Nazi German authority ablaze, to set their city free amidst the looming clouds of total German defeat in the war, to retaliate with ferocity against those who sought to destroy Poland.  At around 17:00, as if it was the sound of raindrops falling at the onset of a storm, shots were heard from every corner of the city, growing in frequency.  Explosions were heard, and the machine guns of the German soldiers rang out in response, firing so quickly that the sound was like ripping canvas.  The Warsaw Uprising had begun.

For 63 days, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa – AK), gathered into Warsaw from across the Polish countryside, and organized a heroic resistance, using secret tunnels, sewer passages, and even captured enemy uniforms to take advantage of the German Wehrmacht and SS.  Everyone had a role to play.  Children delivered mail, women fought alongside men, ordinary citizens built barricades, teenage girls tended the wounded, and together, the people of Warsaw fought for every inch of the city, winning their freedom at the muzzle of machine pistols for an amazing 63 days.

It was the definition of heroism, and the definition of suffering at the same time.  Warsaw eventually capitulated, and the tremendous loss of life and resulting destruction of Warsaw is still the topic of debate among historians, and the freedom fighters are today lauded with the highest honors.

We at The Polish Mission consider the service of our veterans to be a core element of what we do.  An excerpt of our mission statement reads: The purpose of the Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools, which were founded in 1885 by Polish immigrants, is to preserve and promote Polish and Polish-American culture, tradition, and history for present and future generations.  Against this backdrop, we see no greater obligation to our history than to salute the heroism of yesteryear and honor those who sacrificed for freedom; those who risked it all for the values good people have held dear for ages and ages.

Many know of the great repository of art, artifacts, and archives at The Polish Mission.  Ever since the appointment of Polish Mission director Marcin Chumiecki in 2008, great and dynamic actions have been taken to organize and care for the holdings here.  Mr. Joe Drobot and Fr. Tim Whelan, former Chairman of the Board of Regents of the Orchard Lake Schools, and Chancellor, respectively, recognized that the long-familiar treasury needed to be modernized and given attention, to ensure that future generations could behold our Polish and Polish-American legacy in its entirety.  A key element of our program in service to our Polish history has been our cooperation with the National Archives of Poland.  In one of Chumiecki’s first strategic partnerships, he initiated this dialogue with the purpose of safeguarding our document and photograph holdings.  We at The Polish Mission are proud to have welcomed several representatives from the National Archives to our campus over the years to accomplish this goal.  Most recently, Tomasz Szpil has been the familiar man in the Ark building, fighting the heat for three summers in a row, meticulously cataloging and organizing our archival holdings, one document at a time.  Over the years, several sub-collections have been identified and cataloged.  The very first one, was that of the A.K.

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In addition to smaller sub-collections, the A.K. related collection is substantial in size and rich in content.  It was selected for processing by the National Archives at the request of Mrs. Halina Konwiak, who made the suggestion in the midst of a critical period for the history of the Polish A.K. veterans in the US.  Konwiak served as a nurse in the Warsaw Uprising, and today is a dynamic community leader who served in a variety of leadership roles related to Polish-Americans who fought in the Home Army.  Following the death of Juliusz Przesmycki in 2015, and general decline in activity of Home Army veterans’ circles, Konwiak made the decision to formally dismantle the modern day Home Army veterans’ chapter of Michigan, and pass the torch to The Polish Mission.  In recognition of that, and in honor of the service of all Polish veterans, we have dutifully committed to safeguard all A.K.-related collections with the utmost priority.

This year, August 1st marked 72 years since the Warsaw Uprising, and The Polish Mission paid a special visit to Konwiak’s home to mark the occasion.  Curator of Collections JJ Przewozniak was accompanied by Tomasz Szpil and fellow archivist Wojciech Kowaluk, who all came to greet Konwiak, and to receive several large boxes of A.K.-related materials for the archives.  Przewozniak, Szpil, and Kowaluk poured quickly over the materials, which included several WWII-period documents, and formal records of the A.K Veterans’ Circle.  After exchanging some smiles over a plate of cookies and some ginger ale, the group departed from Konwiak’s home to take the materials to their new permanent location on the shores of Orchard Lake.  We ask our community to join us in saluting the service of Halina Konwiak, and the many other Polish veterans out there who risked everything in the name of freedom.

2After Warsaw’s capitulation on October 2nd, 1944, teenaged Konwiak narrowly escaped death and was taken as a prisoner of war.  Fortune smiled when her POW camp was liberated by the Allies, and despite the impending demise of the Axis powers, she wouldn’t rest until Nazi Germany was defeated.  So, she became a secretary at the headquarters of the 1st Polish Armoured Division, fighting the Nazis from Western Europe under the command of Lieutenant General Stanisław Maczek.  Konwiak’s experience and determination today serves as an inspiration to us all, and is a particular point of focus for our work at The Polish Mission.  We’ve been very proud to have offered many educational programs and commemorations through the years, which have highlighted the service of Polish and U.S. veterans alike.  Several thorough exhibitions, brought to the U.S. thanks to our cooperation with the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej – IPN) have been seen on our campus and at partner locations across metro Detroit.  The 1939 Commemoration, our official remembrance event, held the first Sunday of September in honor of the heroic defense of Poland against Nazi Germany at the beginning of WWII, is another familiar point of reference.  Through the years, our Polish veterans have been guideposts by which we execute America’s best stream of Polish cultural programming.

But this year, we’re doing something different.  In honor of Halina Konwiak and the legacy she has entrusted to The Polish Mission, this year, we’re suspending the 1939 Commemoration, and inviting everyone to join us on Sunday, October 2 for Home Army Sunday.  Like the 1939 Commemoration, Home Army Sunday has been an Orchard Lake event for many years, observed in memorial of those who perished for Poland in the Uprising.  Please watch www.polishmission.com for updates on the program of events for the day, and please help by spreading the word to friends, family, and colleagues.  Through early September, the Polish Mission team will be out of the country, traveling with Orchard Lake Schools Chancellor-Rector Msgr. Machalski for a cross-country business trip in Poland.  Stops include governmental offices, museums, and educational institutions from Oświęcim to Gdynia, and though we’ll be far away from Orchard Lake, we ask that everyone remember the 1939 defense of Poland in your hearts and prayers as we lay a memorial wreath at Westerplatte, in honor of our Polish veterans in Michigan and across the country.  In solidarity with our community at home, we will salute the defenders of Poland where the first shots of the war were fired in 1939, and after that, we’ll lay a second wreath at the Warsaw Uprising Monument in downtown Warsaw.

Please visit www.polishmission.com, for all updates and information, and make sure to visit between August 29 and September 10 to read JJ’s day-by-day blog!  Finally, make sure to find us on social media, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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