Tag Archives: Hero

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 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’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.


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,
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.


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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Lech Wałęsa: a hero / a lesser hero / a traitor. Choose your title.

[edited June 20th, 3pm]

This is a follow up from Ian’s post just below. Read his post first, and then come back to mine.

Done? Ok. The book in qustion was not published yet. However it has already become the subject of a heated debate. Fragments were published in one of the dailies. Television presenters parade around their studios carrying massive files containing this book photocopied before publication. News channels and front pages are not talking about anything else for at least three days.

The book came as a special gift for the 25th anniversary of Wałęsa’s Nobel Peace Prize and Wałęsa’s nameday – which he is celebrating this Saturday.

Those, who criticise he book, say it is based only on Secret Service paperwork, and not cross-examined with other possible sources (like party files, interviews with communist figures, former oppositionists, diaries, etc…. and impossible sources like the vast archives in Moscow, to which there is no access). They also say that where proves cannot be found, authors make guesses and assumptions that prove their theory.

The book authors are educated historians, however some people claim their clear political agenda allows to call them politicians. They are employees of the IPN, the Institute of National Remembrance. It is an institution that was created to educate about the history of Poland, investigate unknown facts, and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against the Polish nation. Many of its employees have a clear opinion about the recent Polish history, that is corresponding with the ideas of the Kaczynski brothers (see below).

Notice that when talking about Secret Service inkjob, I am deliberately  not using the word “documents”, as in my vocabulary this word only applies to paperwork produced legitimately.

How did the Secret Service work?

Lets try to have a look at how were they getting their their paperwork. They had their own people lets call them secret servicemen. The secret servicemen were trying, among other things, to infiltrate the opposition and do all sorts of things to disturb them. And give information about what is going on to those who were holding political power. What were the ways of disturbing? First that come your mind are probably arrests, beating, threatening, detention – yes that of course was there. But also trying to make some oppositions distrust others (giving for instance false evidence of some of them conspiring with secret services), to make them quarrel, to strengthen personal dislikes among them, to make the opposition look bad in the eyes of the general public (once for instance fake recordings of Lech Wałęsa discussing how to fraud Solidarity money was broadcast in tv). Using various methods they tried to gain their agents (“tajny współpracownik”) among the oppositionists. Agents were (mostly, but not always) those who were aware that they were talking to the Secret Services. Sometimes they were worked on, someties they wanted to co-operate, sometimes they were forced to. They could be threatened, given money in exchange for information or “favour”. Agents had code names, and could also be given tasks – in order for instance to orchestrate some situation, or gain information from someone else. Apart from agents, there were also “sources of information” (who were also given codenames). People labeled in  such way in the papers may or may not have known that they have supplied Secret Services with information. They could be thinking they were talking to a friend or a co-worker. Or someone might have installed a bug in their flat. Etc.
Apart from that Secret Services are known for creating fake “agents” and “sources of information” in their paperwork, to use these papers later somehow. Information for such fake papers could come from person A, while attributed to person B. It could come from recorded telephone calls, from anecdotal knowledge, from serviceman’s imagination etc. etc. Why? For producing good and interesting results, Secret Servicemen were, for instance given more money, or promoted. Alternatively such papers could be shown to one oppositionist to make them think someone else was a traitor. Et caetera.. Secret Services were very creative. For instance special actions could be organized, like kidnapping of agents-oppositionists, just to make them more credible in the eyes of their opposition colleagues.

Apart from that some people could have been registered as candidates for agent (“tajny współpracownik”), there could be their signed pledge for cooperation in files, while they did not take any action whatsoever.

People’s attitudes towards Secret Services were different. Some were afraid and talked “with caution” trying not to spill the beans, some wanted to play their game with them and trick them… Only when in late 1970s an instruction was issued by Komitet Obrony Robotników (Workers’ Defence Commitee – an intelligentsia opposition organization) people became aware they shouldn’t talk with Secret Services at all, and shouldn’t sign anything.

Credibility of Secret Service files is questionable, and it is difficult to say what is fake and what is based on facts. Many files were destroyed or hidden in various moments in time: some most likely during the times of transition in 1989-1990.

Basic claims in the book

The book reportedly claims that Lech Wałęsa was giving information to the Secret Services in the early 1970s, as “tajny współpracownik” – agent. He was not a known figure back then, he was an ordinary person, taking part in opposition demonstration in Gdańsk and engaging in the movement. The Secret serviceman whose report is in the file, writes that he has paid “Bolek” 13000 złotys. However there are no receipts. Nothing signed by Wałęsa, nothing hand-written at all.

And then, when Wałęsa became president he requested to view his file. When the files were reopened during the presidency of Aleksander Kwaśniewski, it turned out several hundred pages were missing.

However the index is still there, it is therefore known what is missing. And these are typed reports of this agent “Bolek” – of being whom Wałęsa is being accused. Among the missing papers there are no signed or handwritten papers or receipts. Therefore the material missing would only be handy for cross-examination with other sources.
It is not certain when the pages were taken away and who did it. Pages were not checked when the file was being delivered to Wałęsa, and Wałęsa reportedly did not check them either.

What does Wałęsa say?

Wałęsa says that if had done what thay say he did, he would have said long time ago. He denies any involvement with Secret Services. He claims he never gave them any information, never gave in his colleagues. He claims he was not important enough then for the Secret Services wanting him for an agent. He is very angry, and thretens to sue the authors of the book. He says he did view his file during his presidency, however he did no remove anything from there. He wanted to check whether the files contain any materials from his and his wives sexual lives.

What do others say?

Other oppositionsts are divided. Some of them, who believe in the vision 2, believe these accusatins are true. Other’s don’t, and are talking about how the reality of the time is difficult to explain.

What is the political context?

What the book does is to try and put Wałęsa in a certain context, of an alternative interpretation of Polish history and current Polish affairs.

The history most people know looks like this: Solidarność fought our freedom. And thanks to the Round Table Compromise between Solidarność and communist government Poland was able to enter the path to independence and democracy. It also opened the possibility for democratic change in other countries from the Eastern Bloc. And this was one of the greatest moments in Polish history.

The alternative version of history (let’s call it version 2) has it that Wałęsa and Solidarność were orchestrated by the Secret Services, the Round Table Talks were the moment when Polish nation was betrayed. That the elite of Solidarność betrayed the ideals of the workers, and, conspiring with the communists, sold Poland. Sold the companies and factories, the market, the people as work-force. To the foreign capital, to foreign banks… Arranging the new reality in such a way, that post-communists (incl. Secret Servicemen), intelligentsia and elites are well-off, while workers are poor and disrespeted. Elites did not care for them.
Ian in his previous post rightly points that Kaczynski brothers and their party, who also have a deep personal dislike for Wałęsa, strongly believe in the second version (although Lech Kaczynski took part in the Round Table Talks himself).
There is also a claim, that Wałęsa’s policies, which are interpreted as againt lustration, during his presidency, were because of his problems with his own past.

The book is a supporting the version 2, reportedly being such an interpretation of certain facts from Lech Wałęsa’s past (and assumptions of Wałęsas 1970s agentship) to make the version 2 work well together.Some of those who prefer this version believe that Wałęsa is controlled by ex-Secret Servicemen until this day.

What is the general context?

What I would like people to remember from this story is not the fate of Wałęsa, who EVEN IF was broken by the Secret Services was also a victim. A victim of Police state, a victim of Secret Services who imposed themselves on people’s lives, who destroyed people, whowere paid by the state to disorganise, to plant distrust…

Wałęsa is still a great figure in Polish history, he was chosen by workers as their representative. In the 1980s had the strength and courage to stand up. He was a real leader, he had the skills, he had the talk, he had the charisma.


So was Wałęsa or was he not an agent? Did he or did he not remove his papers from the file? That depends on what you want to believe. It can’t be proven that he is guilty. It can’t be proven he is not guilty. Do you prefer to assume innocence or guilt?

See a Polish news report with Lech Wałęsa (youtube).
Have a look at other news from Poland.

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