|Rest in Peace Lieutenant
Jedwab. Thank You for Your service.|
So many heroes, so little attention. In researching my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype," I read many hair-raising, heartbreaking,
inspirational stories of Poles who behaved heroically in the face of impossible
odds. The vast majority of these heroes are unknown to the wider world. I met people
who pooh-poohed sharing their own heroism. They felt that there were so many
Poles who did the utmost, but who would never be recognized.
Blog reader Lukasz Klimek
offers, below, the tale of one such remarkable Pole – a man Lukasz calls
"A Perfect Pole." You probably won't read about Henryk Jedwab
anywhere else, so please read about him here. And thank you.
A PERFECT POLE – IN MEMORY OF LT. HENRYK JEDWAB (1918-2005)
The man who came to be known
by the more typically Polish first name of Henryk was born with the more
traditionally Jewish name of Haim Joel Jedwab on April 15th, 1918,
in Kalisz, Poland. Henryk's father, Lejb Leon Jedwab, and his mother, and Ella,
née Lipska, were wealthy and culturally assimilated. At a time when most Polish
Jews named Yiddish as their first language, Henryk never learned to speak
Yiddish. He once wrote, "I managed my life without that language."
The very same year of
Jedwab's birth, 1918, was also a momentous year for Poland. Poland was reborn
as a political entity after World War I. Before that, Poland had existed as a
colony of Russia, Prussia, and Austria for 146 years. During that time, Russia
and Prussia expressly stated that they hoped to obliterate the very concept of
Poland. Their goal was cultural genocide. Polish language was often forbidden in schools. For a time there was a ban on Poles erecting
permanent dwellings, even on their own land. One Pole, Michał Drzymała, became internationally famous after he turned a wagon into his home. He
would move the wagon every twenty-four hours to avoid the law. In the late
nineteenth century, illiteracy may have been as high as between sixty and seventy percent in Russian
Poland. Austrian Poland was
notorious as a site of widespread poverty, famine, and alcoholism. Rebuilding
Poland as a viable nation would take hard work. Little did the jubilant Poles
celebrating the rebirth of their nation in 1918 know that an even more horrific
catastrophe, Nazi invasion and occupation, would begin in just twenty-one
years, in 1939.
After Poland was reborn,
nationalism ran high. Some Poles regarded anything not 100% Polish as an enemy.
anti-Semitism reached its height during the interwar period, that is,
between 1918 and 1939. Polish chauvinists demanded a quota system in higher
education. Their justification was that Polish Catholics were underrepresented
in the professions, while Jews were overrepresented, and Polish Catholics were overrepresented
as impoverished peasants. As the 2018 book Against Antisemitism records,
"77 percent of Jews were urban dwellers … Jews accounted for 56 percent of
doctors, 45 percent of teachers, 33 percent of lawyers, and 22 percent of
It wasn't just an
understandable desire to elevate Polish Catholics that inspired the push for
quotas. Antisemitism was newly energized by an international wave of social Darwinism
in the sciences. Another factor fueled antisemitism: the previously mentioned
nationalism and chauvinism typical of a formerly oppressed people suddenly gaining
self-rule. Racists demanded that Jewish medical students not be allowed to
dissect the corpses of Christians. Tragically and wrongly, Polish chauvinists
did beat up Jews on university campuses.
Jedwab attended a middle
school named after the nineteenth-century Polish poet Adam Asnyk, and went on
to the military academy in Brześć (a city that is now named Brest, and is in
Belarus). He embarked on the study of medicine at the University of Warsaw.
Because of anti-Semitic violence, he and his younger brother left Poland and
continued to pursue their education at Nancy-Université in France. When Hitler threatened
Poland, Jedwab returned to his country, regardless of the wrongs he suffered,
to defend it against the Germans.
Jedwab served in 84th Polesie Rifle Regiment. On September 1st, 1939, when Nazi Germany began its
blitzkrieg against Poland, thus beginning World War II, Jedwab was commanding soldiers.
They were dug in on defensive positions. Suddenly Jedwab saw enemy soldiers emerging
from the mist. Germans were running straight for his concealed position. At
first Jedwab was caught off guard and was unable to speak. When the enemy was
really close, he overcame his initial shock, and ordered the machine-gun crew to
fire. Later that day his CO praised him for his sangfroid in combat.
Reborn Poland was no match
for wealthy, highly industrialized, Nazi Germany. In fact, no single nation
was. Great Britain and the United States, much larger and wealthier than
Poland, fought the Nazis for years. Too, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact,
Poland was invaded by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in September, 1939.
Both were massive, genocidal powers determined to obliterate Poland once and
for all. Poland never formally surrendered, but by October 6, 1939, Germany and
Russia had full control of Polish territory.
During eleven days of
fighting against overwhelming odds, Jedwab's 84th regiment suffered
heavy casualties and was almost completely destroyed. On September 27th,
Jedwab crossed the Prut river on the Polish-Romanian border as Soviet soldiers fired
Carrying no food, papers, or
money, Jedwab travelled through Romania, Yugoslavia, and Italy to France. He
received help from locals, including Italians, even though Italy was allied
with Germany. Once in France, Jedwab rejoined the Polish Army and became an
instructor in the Cadet School in Camp de Coëtquidan. "My French career
began. It was an eye-opener. One has to be an idiot to count on the French. The
Germans got bored with the Phony
War and they decided to end
this fun," he later wrote.
During the Fall of France, Jedwab
was a commander of an anti-tank battalion. His unit covered the retreat of the French
Army. For his bravery, Jedwab was awarded, three times, with the Croix de
One day in Paris, Jedwab
took a nap. When he woke up, Paris was already overrun by the Germans. They
took him prisoner, but he escaped from the POW camp after eight days. Jedwab
crossed the French-Spanish border by train. To be specific, he rode the rods
underneath the passenger car. From Spain he traveled to Gibraltar and then to
Jedwab wanted to return to
Poland. He was worried about his parents. He volunteered to join the Cichociemni That is, "The Silent and Unseen." The Cichociemni
were an elite Polish anti-Nazi unit with a high casualty rate. During training,
Jedwab broke his arm. Frustrated with what felt to him as inactivity, he caused
disciplinary problems. A sympathetic Polish colonel send him to the Special Operations Executive, a secret British espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance unit.
Because he was a fluent
French speaker, Jedwab was parachuted into France twice to organize the French
resistance. The details of his assignments were classified and Jedwab never
spoke about them.
In July, 1942, the British
Army formed a commando unit of non-British personnel from Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was called the Number 10 Inter-Allied Commando unit. The portion made up of Poles was dubbed Number 6.
Jedwab joined that. Upon arriving at the camp in Scotland, Jedwab started to
order soldiers around. Suddenly he heard someone saying "That loudmouth
must be my brother!". On that day, after three years of separation, he was
reunited with his younger brother, Abram Jan "Janek" Jedwab.
In 1942 his company was send
to North Africa. One year later they landed in Italy. On the night of December
21-22, 1943, in a town named Pescopennataro, Jedwab's unit was attacked by some
250 German Gebirgsjägers, that is, elite mountain troops. The commandos managed
to fend off the attack. For this act, Jedwab's entire company was collectively
awarded the Order of Virtuti Militari.
On January 17th,
1944, the company crossed Garigliano river and started taking nearby hills one
by one. They repelled several German counterattacks. Jedwab once again showed
courage and was wounded by a grenade explosion. He was later decorated with Polish
Cross of Valor.
In 1944, Jedwab's fate
crossed paths with the legendary Polish II Corps. As previously mentioned,
Russia's intentions toward Poland had long been genocidal. When Nazi Germany
and Soviet Russia invaded Poland in September, 1939, Russia began an anti-Polish ethnic cleansing campaign in the territory
under its control.
Hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported. Typically they might be roused
from bed in the middle of the night and put on an unheated cattle cars with
hundreds of others. They had no idea where they were going, why, or when, if
ever, they'd be released. Many died. About crimes Soviet Russians committed
against Poles, Jan Tomasz Gross has written, "Very conservative estimates
show that [between 1939 and 1941] the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths
three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size
of that under German jurisdiction."
From a paper documenting this crime:
The Milewskis counted 27 persons in their car (p. 16). Marysia Wilgut
Pienta claims that "we were packed in boxcars in groups of fifty" (p.
21), and so did Adela Konradczyńska-Piorkowska. Jerzy Wroblewski remembers 58
passengers in his cattle car, and there were 40 cattle cars for prisoners and
three cars for their escort (pp. 27-28). Anita Kozicka Paschwa insists that "in
each boxcar there were from 50 to 70 people" (p. 24). Anna Mineyko recalls
that their trip lasted 28 days (p. 26). Urszula Sowińskaís journey took 42 days
(p. 68). Stefania Buczak-Zarzycka remembers that during 21 days in transit they
received 8 pieces of bread and soup every other day (s. 18). According to
Tadeusz Pieczko, "by the time we reached the labor camps of Siberia about
ten percent of the people had already died," the old and the very young in
particular (p. 19).6 The dead were first
stored in a separate flatbed car and then dumped at the next station (pp. 19,
Later, though, after Nazi
Germany invaded the Soviet Union, a desperate Stalin, recognizing that he
needed all the cannon fodder he could get, and willing to let German Nazis kill
off Poles, released Poles from Siberia. Władysław Anders was a Pole of
Baltic-German ancestry. He was a Polish soldier. After September, 1939, Soviets
arrested him, tortured him, and urged him to join the Red Army. He refused. A
desperate Stalin allowed him to form and lead the Polish Second Corps of Polish
nationals. One of his men's crowning achievements was the capture of Monte
Cassino. The Allies lost c. 55,000 men in this capture; about one thousand of the dead were Polish. The song "Red Poppies on Monte Cassino"
commemorates their sacrifice:
The red poppies on Monte Cassino
Drank Polish blood instead of dew...
O'er the poppies the soldiers did go
'Mid death, and to their anger stayed true!
Years will come and ages will go,
Enshrining their strivings and their toil!...
And the poppies on Monte Cassino
Will be redder for Poles' blood in their soil.
On April 4th,
1944, No. 6 Troop was transferred to Polish Second Corps. General Władysław Anders
had a job for them. No. 6 Troop was needed at Monte Cassino. Jedwab took
part in two assaults on Monte Cassino. When one of commandos was wounded, Jedwab
decided to help him. He waved the white flag, but Germans kept shooting at him.
Nonetheless, he carried the wounded soldier to safety and stopped the bleeding
in very unusual way – he softened a biscuit in his mouth and used it to seal
the bullet wound.
Anders (left) personally decorated Henryk Jedwab (right) with Cross of Valor
after the battle of Garigliano.|
Jedwab (left) with fellow commandos in Italy, near Monte Cassino.|
Later he fought in the Battle of Ancona and the Battle of
Bologna. When he was sent on a reconaissance mission near Bologna, he simply
crossed the Idice river in his Bren Carrier, a type of
light, small, tank-like vehicle. Jedwab drove into the Bologna, and was the
first Allied soldier to enter that city. After returning to Polish positions, Jedwab
approached Major Bohdan Tymieniecki who described Jedwab's escapade in his book
titled "Na imię jej było Lilly" ("Her name was Lilly") as
"Colleague Tymieniecki, I invite You to dinner at Papagallo."
"Haven't you heard? Papagallo in Bologna is the best
restaurant in Europe."
|Photo of Henryk
Jedwab taken during Italian campaign. Below are his military medals.|
Henryk Jedwab was wounded in
action three times. He was decorated for bravery twenty four times. Among his
medals was the Virtuti Militari, the Monte Cassino Cross, and the Polish Cross
In 1946, Jedwab married a
Polish woman, Irena. They chose not to return to Soviet-dominated Poland. Irena
was afraid of Soviets after her experience in Siberia. Jedwab had no living
relatives left in Poland. His father died of starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto.
His mother was gunned down in the streets of Warsaw. Janek, his younger brother,
became a popular architect in UK. Jedwab became a textile engineer. In 1950, Jedwab
and Irena emigrated to Canada. The couple had one daughter Ewa, who was called "Myszka"
(little mouse) by her father. Irena passed away on August 9th, 1978.
Years later Jedwab wrote "I got married with the most valuable partner who
was my support in the fight for a place in the new world." To his great
good fortune, he did fall in love again and married Bozena.
|Henryk and Irena|
He had an illustrious career
in the textile industry and was an active member of many veterans'
organizations including the Polish Combatants' Association in Canada, the Canadian
Legion, the Commando Association and the American Rangers Association.
On May 24th, 1989
Abram Jan "Janek" Jedwab passed away in London. "I lost my only
brother, friend and comrade in arms" Jedwab wrote in an obituary published
in a Kalisz newspaper. "He was a man of a great heart and great artistic
In 1991, after the collapse
of the USSR, Jedwab decided to help the countries that had been under the Soviet
yoke. From 1991 until 1996, he worked as a volunteer consultant helping to
build or modernize twenty-four textile factories in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia,
Russia, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
In 1997, the Polish director
Michał Bukojemski conducted an interview with Jedwab. It was turned into a short
documentary film titled "Komandos" ("The
On June 11th,
1999, he was honored with the title of "Honorary Citizen of the City of
Henryk Jedwab, one of most
decorated Polish soldiers of WWII, passed away peacefully at the age of 87 on
September 14th, 2005 at the Ottawa General Hospital. He is buried in
the Field of Honour at Pointe Claire, Quebec.
On his deathbed, his doctor
asked, "Well, Henryk, what now?" The elderly soldier replied "There's
a time to live, there's a time to love and there's a time to die, and my time
to die has come."
On September 20th,
2008, a monument dedicated to his memory was unveiled at the Jewish cemetery in
his hometown of Kalisz. It is a boulder decorated with the image of young
Henryk, with cuts symbolizing four chapters of his life, as well as with
inscriptions informing the visitor about his exceptional merits. The names of
his family members who were killed in the Holocaust are also listed.
Jedwab was once asked how
many Germans did he killed. He responded "Więcej niż liczyła moja rodzina
i jeszcze dużo, dużo więcej." One could translate this as, "The
number of Germans I killed is much larger than the number of my family members
who were killed by Germans."
|Jewish cemetery in
Kalisz. Monument honoring Henryk Jedwab.|
Polish history books. The resemblance is not coincidental.|