September 1939 is not a good month in my country's memory- the Nazi advance was swift and overwhelming. To put things in context, here is another map which shows, roughly, the borders of Poland in 1939.
|You shouldn't trust in the details, my mapping skills are very amateurish- but you get the idea.|
As you can see, Germany was much closer to Łódź than it is today, and so the industrial town would be one of the first larger targets for the advancing army, which was then to move on to Warsaw. To stop the attackers and protect the city was the immediate goal of the 30th Rifle Regiment of Kaniów (named so to honour a 1918 victory, the Battle of Kaniów) and the Łódź Army.
There had been, of course, some anticipation of an attack, and so a line of defense had been built along the banks of the Warta river. Alas, it remained unfinished on the day War broke out- supposedly, farmers had asked the army to hold off construction until after the harvest. The defense had to make do with what was on hand- 47 concrete bunkers, few of them complete.
|Seven bunkers remain in the area, and are kept clean by volunteers.|
Seven of those artillery bunkers remain to this day in the stretch between the villages of Beleń and Strońsko, in the river valley that saw one of the first battles of World War Two.
Last Saturday, I biked down there to watch a reenactment.
|I park my bike, I walk away for two minutes, and when I get back, there's German motorcycles everywhere. Oh dear.|
The event's main organisers were the Strzelcy Kaniowscy Historical Society, a group of military history buffs who work to preserve artefacts and sites relevant to the Rifle Regiments of Kaniów. A few hundred amateur reenactors and extras took part, with several thousand people gathered on the hill above the battlefield to watch.
|An audience for a memorial.|
In a strangely contradictory manner, it was at once fun and extremely upsetting.
This was not a victorious battle for Poland. The Łódź Army and Kaniów Riflemen held the defense for three days, but were eventually overpowered by the German forces. They hardly stood a chance- one regiment against a whole division. And so, the colourful, picnicking crowd of families that spread over the hillside last Saturday had in fact gathered to honour the valor and memory of those who fought, and failed, by watching them desperately fight and fail again.
Shivers down one's spine are not optional in such a situation. Sitting high up in this naturally-formed amphitheatre, we were directly behind home trenches, our soldiers's backs to us as they scanned the forest line for enemy forces. All was peaceful, at first, and we watched as a group of peasants slowly walked across the valley, the adults carrying bundles, the children clutching beloved teddy bears and dolls. A strangely gentle image of flight- they looked like families out for a pleasant weekend stroll.
|My dad was four when the war began. His family packed up and ran East, because the Germans were coming.|
Soon enough they turned around and ran back West, because, word had it, the Soviets were coming...
And then, the skies roared, and a Luftwaffe machine tore through the blue. Down in the valley, the civilians froze, then began to run. Where were they expecting to go? With the forest line behind them, and the trenches too far to offer any shelter, they scattered like rabbits.
|I didn't know there would even be an airplane. My first reaction was: "Wow!" And then: "Oh god."|
Boom. Boom. Smoke and fire; screams that we heard even where we sat. Most dove to the ground- some never rose again. The airplane tore away and vanished behind the trees, only to return again and again. In the trenches, guns aimed for the skies and the plane, trying in vain to destroy it and protect the refugees.
Then, by the forest, something moved. German troops crept forward, the plane covering their advance.
Closer and closer they came, and even sitting among the colourful crowd, it was not difficult to forget, for a moment, what year it was, and that there was no need to seek shelter. It was over quickly; much quicker than in 1939. From where I sat, I had a good view until the police line thickened and official photographers wandered into my frame. It's always like that, isn't it? The light did not favour me, either- we were staring West at the setting sun. So, the photos are what they are.
Since the reconstruction was spread over a good couple kilometres of the valley, I couldn't possibly see everything. For one thing, I missed the TKS tankette in action on the battlefield, but I'd snuck over earlier and caught it on video. You can watch that here:
This TKS is a particularly interesting vehicle as it is one of a handful still in existence, and was recovered in a remarkably good state from Norway, where it was being used as a tractor. Its rescuer, private collector Jacek Kopczyński had his work cut out for him, but he restored it beautifully. This machine dates back to 1936- it was a Polish improvement on a British design, manufactured in Poland and a significant tank force for our army in 1939. It's a titchy thing, but very maneouvrable and good for reconnaissance missions.
|The TKS by one of the remaining bunkers.|
So, that was my Saturday. I'd never been to a reconstruction like this before; not one dealing with history as fresh as World War Two- and in Poland, even for generations born decades after the war was over, it is still fresh. Some people say events like these are ridiculous, childish. I would rather say, seeing all the care put into the reconstruction by the historical societies, that they are like a living memorial. An open-air history lesson. This was no popcorn and candy-floss affair, there were no stalls with plastic guns and chinese knock-offs. As we sat on the hill, every minute of the battle was narrated and explained through large speakers, and the conclusion was inevitable- our side would lose. Our country would be invaded and tormented for long years- not only during the war, but after it.
If any of the thousands of kids and teenagers standing on that hill last saturday thought of their fighting counterparts from seventy-two years ago, if any of them found that the distant memory had suddenly become much more fresh and painful for them, then I think the reenactment was worth it. We all need to know where we come from.
|Anointment with fake blood. They were not so lucky seventy two years ago.|
The Strzelcy Kaniowscy Historical Society:
The Łódź Army Wikipedia entry:
The TKS tankette Wikipedia entry: