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