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.
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|
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.
Wikipedia page for General Kleeberg's Corps, the Independent Operational Group Polesie:
General Kleeberg's photo taken from a Public Domain file: