4 Polish heroes you've probably never heard of

Tadeusz Rejtan
Rejtan (or Reytan) is the archetype of the Polish patriot. He had a ridiculously huge moustache, enjoyed making extravagantly romantic gestures, and completely failed to save Poland – all characteristics the Poles demand from their heroes. Most Poles feel a stirring of the heart at the mention of Tadeusz Rejtan and enjoy bickering with each other about his place in history – a more perfect figure could not have been invented.

tadeusz_reytan-rejtan

Tadeusz Rejtan demonstrating the famous baby-with-a-moustache look.

Why he is a hero
Rejtan was an old-school nobleman with the hunting dogs, absurd hats and acres of forest to prove it. He was a member of the Bar Confederation, a military associated dedicated to preserving Poland’s freedom against Russian aggression. It was, therefore, somewhat unfortunate that he found himself a member of the Partition Sejm – the puppet Polish parliament that oversaw the first partition of Poland.

A lot of people were unhappy with this idea, but it was Rejtan’s objection that caught the public imagination. According to legend our man Tadeusz ripped off his shirt and threw himself on the doorstep to prevent people getting into the chamber where discussions on partition were taking place. Presumably he also said something terribly patriotic such as “Walk across my bare manly chest if you must, but cleave not my beloved Poland in twain!” The assembled delegates thought about this for several seconds before gingerly stepping over the prostrate Rejtan and getting on with the business of cleaving in twain.

Performance rating
While Rejtan’s performance was long on style, it was a little short on effectiveness. One can’t help wondering if, say, locking the door and chucking hand grenades through the windows might have been more disruptive than simply lying on the doorstep with your nipples out.

Rejtan retired to the (rapidly shrinking) Polish countryside shortly afterward where he apparently went bonkers and shot himself.

* * *

Michał Drzymała
Drzymała is another Polish folk figure intimately connected with that unfortunate interlude of partition and occupation that kept Poles busy between the 1770s and the 1900s. Like Rejtan he also had an unfeasibly large moustache but, unlike Rejtan, he definitely wasn’t a nobleman.

Michał Drzymała

Michał Drzymała and his wife thinking happy thoughts about building houses.

Why he is a hero
Poles like to build their own houses. It’s a national obsession. Ask a Polish child what he wants to do when he grows up and he’ll say “You mean, before I build a house or after?” It’s up there with birth, death, and taxes as one of the inevitabilities of Polish life. The only mystery is why Poland still seems to be 90 percent empty after all these centuries of people building houses.

Drzymała was no different. Unfortunately he happened to live in a part of Poland that was temporarily being occupied by Prussians (a particularly virulent kind of German). When he applied for permission to build a house on his own land the Prussians said no, because he was Polish. Either the Prussians hadn’t heard of the whole Poles-building-houses thing or they just felt like being particularly annoying and oppressive that day. Drzymała was undaunted. In a classic early example of the Polish tradition of kombinować he bought a circus wagon and lived in that instead. I like to think the following conversation took place at some point:

Prussian official: Hey you, Drzymała, I thought we said you couldn’t build a house on this land!

Drzymała: If you notice those four round things, technically known as ‘wheels,’ at each corner you will understand that I haven’t built anything. Surely, by definition, something that is ‘built’ can’t be moved around (demonstrates point by pushing house backwards causing Mrs Drzymała to spill barszcz czerwony all over the carpet).

Prussian official: Well… that’s… actually a very good point (begins feverishly consulting German dictionary for definition of ‘build’)

Drzymała: Ha ha! Take that you over-officious square-head! It’s called kombinovać, get used to it.

drzymała-wagon

Drzymała’s cunning house on wheels which gave the Prussians such a headache.

Performance rating
Although he didn’t change anything much Drzymała wins maximum points for a perfect storm of civil disobedience. Not only did he invent the caravan, he showed Poles how to run rings around people who take rules and regulations too literally. Drzymała became famous in his lifetime when his story was picked up by newspapers across Europe, many of them running with headlines such as “Smart Pole makes Germans look like idiots.” He took his house-on-wheels on the road traveling all over Poland to publicize his grievances thereby performing the additional miracle of transforming a potentially tedious life looking after pigs into a lifelong road trip with groupies.

* * *

Roksolana (aka Aleksandra Lisowska)

Poland has a long tradition of migration, voluntary or otherwise, and many of the most successful Poles in history have become so away from their homeland. Roksolana’s story takes these themes to an extreme – even though her migration was about as involuntary as it is possible to be, she still managed to become one of the most powerful women in history.

Why she is a hero
Aleksandra Lisowska, as she is known in Polish tradition, was born in about 1510 near Lwów, then in Poland and now in the Ukraine. As a young woman she was captured by Tartar raiders during one of the frequent incursions into the area and sold as a slave in Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire – the single most powerful state in the world at the time. As is obvious from surviving portraits of her the young Aleksandra was a mighty good-looking woman and she soon came to the attention of the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, who selected her as a concubine.

roxelana-aleksandra-lisowska

One of those very rare portraits of famously beautiful women in which the woman is actually beautiful

Aleksandra was so good looking that the Sultan’s favorite concubine quickly became jealous of the new arrival and decided to slap her about a bit. Standards of lyrical chivalry were considerably more advanced under the Ottomans than they are under the present-day US cultural hegemony so the Sultan’s favorite bore the name “Flower of Spring” rather than “The Tall One with the Big Hooters” and Aleksandra came to be known as “The Laughing One” rather than “The Hot One with the Nice Ass.” Nevertheless the Sultan was less than pleased and banished The Tall One to a tedious provincial town along with her Big Hooters and her son who had, up to that point, been favorite to inherit the throne.

Suleiman fell for Aleksandra in a big way. Roksolana, as she came to be known, had five children with the sultan and, in a completely unprecedented move, became a free woman and the legal wife of the most powerful man on earth. One of Roksolana’s sons, Selim, became the next sultan. Roksolana and Suleiman’s love became legendary throughout Europe inspiring paintings, poems, plays, and symphonies. She was buried alongside her husband in  the Süleymaniye Mosque – one of the most fabulous buildings in Istanbul.

Performance rating
An epic win on any scale. A woman who survives the transition from Polish farm girl to Ottoman slave and then goes on to become the trusted and adored wife of a sultan, with a position similar to that of US Secretary of State, leaves the men on this list in her dust. She must have been one hell of a lady.

* * *

Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville, aka Pauline Armand,
aka
Krystyna Giżycka)
Skarbek was just one of many astonishingly brave women who took part in covert operations for the Allies during World War II, but she was perhaps the most colorful and mysterious of them all. In many ways she was the archetype of the sexy, feisty female spy made popular through James Bond movies, largely because she had an affair with Ian Fleming and he is said to have based several characters on her.

Krystyna Skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek being mysterious

Why she is a hero
Born into a wealthy noble family in Warsaw in 1908 she grew up in considerable comfort on her family’s estates in Trzepnica. Her daredevil character was evident from an early age – she was once expelled from school for attempting to set light to a priest’s cassock as he was conducting mass – and as a young woman she was a renowned society beauty and wit. In the 1930s she competed in the Miss Polonia beauty contest, got married to a wealthy banker, got divorced from the same wealthy banker and fell on hard times when her family’s business went bankrupt.

By 1939, now married to her second husband, she was in London where she pestered the British Secret Intelligence Service until they agreed to let her help out against the Germans. Sent to Hungary she crossed the Tatra Mountains into occupied Poland in the middle of winter and made her way to Warsaw where she helped set up an intelligence network channeling information from inside Poland to the Allies via Hungary. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 she persuaded them to let her go by pretending to have tuberculosis, a feat she achieved by biting her own tongue until blood poured from her mouth. Escaping back to Hungary with her new lover, Andrzej Kowerski, the pair then made their way to Cairo where Skarbek promptly made contact with the local British Intelligence office and asked for “more please.”

In 1944 Skarbek volunteered to be parachuted into France as part of the Special Operations Executive’s preparations for the invasion of southern France. SEO operatives were in short supply at the time, not least because the Germans had an annoying habit of shooting them. The woman Skarbek was to replace, Cecily Lefort, had been captured, tortured and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she was eventually gassed. SEO took one look at Skarbek, already a trained agent fluent in French and with field experience, and handed her a parachute.

vesper-lynd

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd – a character said to be based on Skarbek.

Two days before the Allied landings of Operation Dragoon several important members of the French underground with which Skarbek was working were arrested at a German roadblock. Skarbek marched into Gestapo headquarters, told the officer in charge that she was the niece of British General Montgomery and warned him that he would be in big trouble if he didn’t let her friends go. Stunned into insensibility by this outrageous approach the officer did exactly that.

Shortly thereafter German forces retreated headlong from southern France, possibly because of the 94,000 Allied troops that had landed on the coast but more likely because they had heard about Skarbek and didn’t want to run the risk of her turning up and browbeating them into doing something stupid. Back in England she was all ready to parachute into Poland, but the operation was canceled and she ended up penniless and unemployed in Cairo when the war ended.

Performance rating
Although there is disappointingly little evidence that Skarbek spent much time wearing fur coasts with nothing underneath or engaging in knife fights with other scantily clad female spies you can’t really fault her as an uber-cool covert ops chick with a sexy accent. She was awarded an OBE and a George Medal by the British and the Croix de Guerre by the French.

Not content with being a wartime hero she launched herself into further shady adventures, love affairs and generally romantic travels once the fighting had ended. Unfortunately these led to her being knifed to death in a seedy London hotel in 1952.

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29 thoughts on “4 Polish heroes you've probably never heard of

  1. guest says:

    Laura Drzewicka = the new Roksolana
    Berlusconi = Sultan
    Kinga Legg = the new Krystyna Skarbek

    history is repeating itself ;)

    BTW, is there a Pole who worked his ass off for the Brits in WWII and did not end like a rat ?

  2. Bob says:

    Jamie – well written – as usual – love your style.

    I would also have nominated:

    Ewa Sowinska, who outed Tinky Winky as being gay and being a bad influence on Polish children – she did much to prove the ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer’ concept exists

  3. Scatts says:

    Are we sure that Skarbek is not a man in drag?

  4. Ania says:

    ‘Are we sure that Skarbek is not a man in drag?’

    she must seem exquisitely ‘manly’?

    We say: Baba z jajami. Prze-cipa.

    I’ve not heard about Roxolana before. But you know what? it’s good to see the Ruthenian person included as a Polish Citizen (before citizenry, of course). I appreciate that.

  5. Ania says:

    Tinky-Winky is a bad example, as any TV-cowfeed. It started innocently with Mickey Mouse and now the little’uns can’t be peeled off the screen with a tank.
    Which of course is used smartly to help the kids grow into avid consumers, always wanting what is cool.
    And who wouldn’t want to be a trendsetter and skim that cream off? Any old firm.
    So are you really surprized that kids shows are used to promote this or that as cool?
    The easiest way to get rid of this bad influence is to chuck the TV altogether.

  6. guest says:

    The single most powerful state ? Island you live in krakow and write such things ?! :D

  7. wildphelps says:

    A nice read. Any chance you could write something clever and respectful about one of my Polish heroes – Janusz Korczak? Of course it might be hard to write something light about such a man.

  8. island1 says:

    Guest: Were they working their asses of for the Brits or for Poland?

    Bob: Maybe in some distant future she will receive the recognition she so richly deserves.

    Ania: I can’t work out if you’re being sarcastic about Roxolana and the whole Ruthenian thing or not, so I’ll assume you’re not.

    Guest: I stand by that assertion. Poland-Lithuanian was quite large in 1500, I agree, but the Ottoman Empire was larger, had control of some of the wealthiest regions of the Middle East and was growing rapidly while Poland was on the wane. By the death of Suleiman in 1566 Ottoman territories were unquestionably larger than Poland-Lithuanian and the empire included most of the Middle East and North Africa (including Egypt) and was pushing north into Europe. So there.

    wildphelps: I thought it wise to stay well away from people who died for Poland or were involved in the Holocaust (on the right side) for obvious reasons.

  9. guest says:

    You are right Island, but Poland was not on the wane in 1500. Poland was on the wane 200yrs later after the battle of Vienna in 1683…or, to be exactly after Sobieski’s death in 1696.

  10. guest says:

    …BTW. Maria Clementina Sobieski was Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.

  11. Ania says:

    I wasn’t – I have this nice side to me and sometimes can’t control it.

  12. news says:

    Guest, you are right and wrong. Maria Clementina Sobieski was married to James Stuart, known to all in Britian as the ¨Old Pretender.¨ and leader of the Jacobites.

    Also known by supporters as the ¨King over the Water,¨ James claimed (the old meaning of pretended) to be James III of England and Ireland and James VIII of Scotland. He never got to sit on the throne and was never legally recognised as King by the English, Scottish or Irish parliaments, who prefered Protestant Dutchmen (William of Orange) and then Germans (George I-IV), though the Pope supported him. He even led an unsuccesful rebellion in 1715.

    Now, Maria’s father in law, (JAmes II and VII) had lost the throne in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution, with his aunt and uncle (Mary and William of Orange (King Billy) taking over. Something about being too Catholic and believing in the Divine Right of Kings.

    The lovely Maria’s son was Charles Edward Stuart (¨Bonne Prince Charlie), whose Jacobite army lost to the Britsh army at Culloden in 1746 after another failed invastion and rebellion.

    I am sure you know all that anyway.

  13. guest says:

    No, i did non ktnow it. thx.

    BTW, “too catholic” ? Tony Blair is catholic and he was your prime minister ! :D

  14. Ania says:

    Tony Blair has converted only after he was no longer the PM. Something about not upsetting the fabric of society.

  15. news says:

    Well, it was over 300 years ago. Times change, though not by that much, as Ania noted about Tony Blair.

  16. Pawel says:

    papist plot!

  17. PMK says:

    In the 1500s the Ottoman Empire was certainly the most powerful force in the Western and Near Eastern World. Suleiman wasn’t just called the Magnificent for nothing. Poland might have been locally powerful, but they didn’t really have the projection that the Ottomans did. Poland really was on the wane by the 1600s; although, it stayed around for another 200 years, declining a gradual manner.

  18. PMK says:

    I will be so fast and reckless.

    Did you actually read those articles? In most cases Poland ends up ceding territory. Plus in most cases the Ottomans are coming to Poland (Ukraine, actually) instead of the Poles marching to the Ottomans, or even the Balkans (Peter the Great would a hundred years later and would get his ass kicked and lose the Crimea when he sued for peace.)
    Also, for much of the time the Ottomans were allied with France as a counter-balance to the Habsburgs.

    Let’s get this clear, size does not mean power. Russia was of great size during these times and was subservient to Sweden (When the Tsars were coronated they had to swear an oath to Sweden; Peter the Great eventually broke this when he wanted access to the Baltic Coast.) Plus, The Republic of Venice was by no means a giant, but it did wield significant influence and had a wide reach due to its powerful navy, which often stood toe-to-toe to the Ottoman Empire. Sweden too was neither a gigantic, sprawling empire, nor did it have the largest armies, but it did invade deep into Poland and the Holy Roman Empire. It wasn’t until they were defeated in the Great Northern War did they lose much of their clout.
    One must realize that during these times countries were often fractured, with the nobles often ruling independently to the monarch. The Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire) is the best example of these, but most other states (England, France, Poland) were ruled in the same way. Kings would often spend most of the time warring against their own nobles rather than against foreign powers. Many Kings didn’t even have their own standing armies and all of them, when waging war against a foreign power, had to go and ask their nobles to lend a hand. The Holy Roman Emperor had to go to a Diet to ask all the electors and dukes for their support. Poland was based upon the feudal system, unlike the Ottomans.
    Machiavelli compared France and the Ottoman Empire in The Prince. He stated that since the Ottoman Empire was an absolute monarchy and united completely, that the Sultan commanded the whole of it and its armies, it would be very difficult to conquer it; however, when if it were to be conquered, it would be very easy to hold on to it. France, he said, was to opposite. The many different nobles running their own fiefs, warring against each other and not being united made it relatively easy to conquer; however, it would be very difficult to hold on to it once it was conquered. (I realize I am talking about France here, but Poland was very much the way and system. By the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was primarily the nobles that emasculated the powers of the King, so this example is very apt. The szlachta spent much of their time bickering and jostling with the king and the other nations were able to eat away at Poland.)

    Here, we can see that neither land size, nor army size, means great power. Russia had both and wasn’t even remotely powerful until after 1700.
    When I talk about projection, I talk about the ability to impress the nation’s power upon others. A perfect modern-day example is China. China has the largest standing army in the world and the third-largest land size, but isn’t the largest player on the world scene. Computer simulations show that their invasion of Taiwan would end in a defeat (a nation an iota of the size and population.) The Ottoman Empire projected its power very well through its armies, trade routes, and navies. Poland’s projection at the time was significantly less (but it did have a bit.)

    I’m not saying that Poland wasn’t powerful (it was!) But the Ottoman Empire wielded significantly more power.
    We must remember that by the time the PLC was partitioned up it was still a very large country, yet it was carved up like a Thanksgiving Turkey.

    So yes, by the time the 1600s rolled around, Poland had peaked in power and began a decline, albeit a slow one.

  19. Kuba says:

    Moat articles including the one above talks about the British who participated but no mention of Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski. They actually broke the code and if a monument is constructed there names need to be on it.

  20. Island1 says:

    Ah, Enigma, my second-favourite Polish obsession.

  21. Ania says:

    What’s the first one, Island?

  22. MaterialGirl says:

    island1,

    what exactly did Roksolana for Poland to be called Polish Hero or better Heroine?

  23. Island1 says:

    Ania:Exhumation :)

    MaterialGirl: Put the sultan in a good mood so he didn’t feel like invading Poland?

  24. MaterialGirl says:

    island1,

    I see that victorian sexual abstinence of Englishman is still alive! And the stories about “Master of the harem” still work on your imagination! :D

  25. ajuc says:

    You’ve forgot Wojtek. The Polish War Bear fighting in Monte Casino.

    http://www.badassoftheweek.com/voytek.html

  26. Anonymous says:

    amazing

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