Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A story of two wars

This is a true story and I never tire of hearing it.

My paternal grandfather was born in 1899 in what was then Prussian territory, and so at seventeen, he was drafted into the Prussian army to serve during World War One. He was Polish, of birth and of heart, which he later proved through his actions in the Uprising of 1918, but being born in bilingual territory, he spoke the cleanest German. He was an officer, a professional soldier, and his name was Stanisław Bryll.

Grandpa Staś
In 1939, he fought under General Kleeberg in the last large battle of the September 1939 defensive campaign.

This battle was fought by the small town of Kock (pronounced Kotsk) in the Podlasie region, close to the present Belarussian and Ukrainian borders. Grandpa Stanisław was a scout, mainly on account of his excellent German. Kleeberg's Corps was in fact the last organised unit of the Polish Army left standing, and his men fought fiercely to defend their position, hoping for the aid promised by the French and English Allies.

The Allies, however, never came, and Kleeberg was running low on supplies. My grandfather took part in one desperate skirmish fought with bayonets- the soldiers had no bullets left. But the mad advance was such a shock to the Germans that they retreated. The hopeless charge turned into another victory.

Thus, though outnumbered, the Polesie Group, as they were called, continued to win battle after battle- but their time was running out along with their provisions and ammunition. And when Bolshevik airplanes roared in from the East, Kleeberg was forced to make the difficult decision to disband the Corps.

General Franciszek Kleeberg
So, on October 6th, after sending his men away through the forest, Kleeberg capitulated. He had not lost a single battle in that campaign, and was the last Polish general to surrender in 1939. He did so knowing that there was no hope of winning another battle, and that if his men would be captured by the advancing Bolsheviks, they would no doubt be executed. He was right- by the end of the war, thousands of Polish officers were murdered by the Soviet Secret Police in one of the many attempts of the aggressors to eliminate the Polish elite.

Kleeberg died as a prisoner of war,  but his men escaped through the thick, primeval forests of the Podlasie region. Alas, the hunt was on, and finally, grandpa Stanisław was taken prisoner. Luckily- as it turned out- by the Germans.

Along with a few others, he was marched West, to an unknown fate, under the supervision of a man only slightly older than him. Since he knew German, he began to chat with this Wehrmacht officer, who was after all just another man and not the barking Hollywoodian stereotype Nazi we have come to class all German soldiers as. They talked about the battle, about weapons, this and that- and it was not long before the German noticed something curious about Stanisław. This Pole, he observed, did not only speak perfect German, but he used a particular military jargon.

A very familiar military jargon.

This is the coincidence that saved my grandfather's life. It turned out that Stanisław and his German captor had both served in the Prussian army in 1916. They had practically been brothers in arms, fighting the same battles and skulking in neighbouring trenches at Verdun. They spoke the same language; the instantly recognisable, very particular jargon of WWI soldiers.

I don't know how long the Wehrmacht officer thought about what he did next, and how he rearranged his loyalties. I don't know exactly what went through his mind when he asked Stanisław where he lived.

Fifty, maybe sixty kilometres from here, was the answer. Not too long a walk, for a soldier.

"Kameraden," said the German. "I will turn around, and I will not look. And you will run home."

Who knew whether he would keep his word? As Stanisław turned and made away through the forest, he feared a bullet in his back, as any fleeing prisoner would. Maybe the German was playing a cruel game?

He was not. No shot was fired, no chase given. Out of sentiment, or perhaps out of some complicated loyalty towards his fellow soldier, the German had let my grandfather go.

I never met my grandfather- he died before I was born, in 1969, still hiding from socialist repression towards Home Army soldiers. But in October 1939 he did make it home to his wife and son, exhausted and ill, crawling with lice and wearing a disguise of rags pulled from clothes lines and scarecrows- his uniform would have been a death sentence. He went on to fight in the underground, often working as a spy, using forged papers to pass as a German and gather information.

Here is his grave, which I visited this week for All Souls' Day. He is buried in Falenica, a district of Warsaw, where he died unexpectedly while walking to the train station to meet my stepbrother, and my grandmother. Her name was Helena, and I remember her as she outlived him by nineteen years. She is buried beside him, and it is worth mentioning that she, also, worked for the underground, gathering information while working as a translator in a hospital for German soldiers.


They were both remarkable people. But so was that German officer, whose story we'll never know, at the very least in that moment when he decided to turn his back, and let my grandfather escape. He must have been quite aware that he would not only risk being tried for treason if his deed was discovered, but that the man he had let go would never cease to fight against the invaders.

Whatever it was that made you do it, thank you, unknown German soldier.

Meta info:

Wikipedia page for General Kleeberg's Corps, the Independent Operational Group Polesie:


General Kleeberg's photo taken from a Public Domain file:



  1. Dang, it's a bit dusty in here.

    "and skulking in neighbouring trenches at Verdun" -- you always have at least one phrase with the kind of word choice that makes me gleeful.


  2. Yeah, I wish more people commented here instead of just liking on facebook. ;) Thanks for doing your part. :D

    Grandpa Staś is indeed very handsome...my dad looked a lot like him when he was that age.

    Dad and my stepbrother

    Actually this photo is closer to the time of the story- it's around 1936 or so.

    Grandpa back from manoeuvers

  3. I have learned the Wehrmacht was full of loyal, competent, highly professional soldiers. The SS, not so much. But the Wehrmacht was worthy of respect. It wasn't their fault they became Hitler's tool.

    Thank you for another great story! I am always in awe of the things our grandparents did in WWII. They weren't called the Greatest Generation in jest.

  4. Thanks for your comment! I'll be certainly writing more about the heroes of WWII, the subject is too much a part of Polish history and reality to be overlooked.

    And you are right, the story of Hitler's army is more complex than most people realise- it certainly includes unwilling or unwitting draftees. Just like my grandfather was taken into the Prussian army in World War One, so did many Poles living on German territory find themselves drafted into the German army during WW2. Some deserted, some could not. Some would not, but even they were likely faced with the heart-splitting choice of protecting their country, or their family.

    After all the partitions, migrations and border shifts, the nationalities were so mixed in those days, it was all too easy to end up on the wrong side. My grandmother, because of her roots and the fact that she was born on Prussian territory, was asked to sign the Volksliste. She did not- and that simple refusal was not an easy thing, as it made her and her young son (my father) targets. In Lodz, the town where I live, there was an even mix of Poles, Jews, Russians and Germans- and many of those Germans were executed by their kinsmen for rebelling against the invasion of Poland. They were Germans, but they were citizens of Lodz, a Polish city, and they died for it.

  5. Every country at war wants to vilify the enemy, but for the most part they are just ordinary men and women doing their part for their country. In the case of the Nazi's you have the indoctrination of the Hitler Youth and other groups that turned some of those ordinary people into monsters. Of course, from their side, they were the ones fighting the monsters.

    Great story though! Especially when you attach the photos so we can all see him! :D

  6. "Of course, from their side, they were the ones fighting the monsters."

    I think it was the book 'All Quiet on the Western Front' I had to read in school. You got attached to the main character and wanted him to fight off the enemies, yet the main character was German... really makes you think.

    That was a great story Madzia. Thank you for sharing it. :)