Tag Archives: Tadeusz Rejtan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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

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.

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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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What Happened in Polish History: Part III

I’m starting to get the hang of this Polish history lark.

The Chicken War
Back in the good old days you were allowed to give wars silly names. Poland had the Chicken War, Britain had the War of Jenkin’s Ear and France had the Battle of the Improperly-Buttered Croissant (I may have made that last one up). Nowadays the Americans get all quivery lipped and start blubbing if we don’t take Our Sacrifice seriously so everything has to have a macho no-nonsense name such as Operation Black Eagle Thunder Strike or something similar. You’ve probably never heard of the Chicken War, I certainly hadn’t until I accidentally looked it up the other day while searching for nuclear combat hens (don’t ask). It turns out, none the less, to be quite illuminating.

The Chicken War in a nutshell: the landed gentry—the szlachta—whom we last met duping the king into agreeing to allow them to vote for his successor in return for a loan, were a tricky lot. Whenever the king did something they didn’t like they all got together, had one or two more barrels of vodka than is strictly advisable, and started a rebellion. If this meant they occasionally had to raid one or two nunneries along the way they were willing to selflessly put up with the inconvenience for the sake of the greater good. In 1537 they were up in arms about one thing or another and decided to meet for a massive barbecue. The plan was to hang around in a field looking tough until the king got scared and agreed to something. The other plan was to eat a large number of roasted chickens at the same time as hanging around in a field looking tough etc. It’s important to guffaw loudly, quaff ale, and toss chicken leg bones over your shoulder on these occasions. Quaffing, as Terry Pratchet once famously observed, is a lot like drinking except you spill more, guffawing is a lot like laughing except done by a bad actor and it works best if you have a large unruly beard.

This is an actual transcript of an actual imaginary phonograph recording of the event:

Szlachta: Haa Haa Haar!!! (sounds of quaffing) Haa Haa Haar!! (sounds of further quaffing)…

King: Hey szlachta! What are you doing in yonder field quaffing and tossing chicken leg bones over your shoulder? Should I be worried?

Szlachta: HAA HAA HAAR!!! (exaggerated quaffing sounds) HAA HAA HAAR!! (whispered:) all right lads, we’ve got him worried, keep it going…

King: Umm look here chaps, is it something I’ve done?

Szlachta: HAA HAA HAAAAR!! (burp)

King: Is there something I can do for you chaps?

Szlachta: HA HA HA HAAAR!! (quaff)… (protracted silence)… damn it, we’ve run out of chickens… we’ll have to go home.

King: Phew… that was a close one! Forsooth, the only casualties in this war were the chickens, I shall name this “The Chicken War.”

Szlachta: We prefer to call it Operation Rolling Rooster Thunder, but have it your own way. Anybody got a napkin? I’ve got a beak stuck in my beard…

The Polish king looking worried.
“They’ve started on the chicken legs my lord”
“Oh blimey, we’re for it now”

There are two things we can learn from the Chicken War. First, Polish people really like roast chicken. Second, getting together for a good rebellion is a long-established Polish tradition. In fact this kind of chicken-massacring was a semi-legitimate method of resistance to kingly rule in the old days. Meetings of this kind were known as rokosz. The idea was that the szlachta were entitled to get together and have a kind of impromptu parliament if they felt the king was getting too big for his boots. Later the term “rokosz” came to refer to an armed rebellion by the szlachta in any situation where they felt they should put their foot down and tell the king to go to hell. In the next phase of Polish history the idea of rebellions was to take on a whole new level of significance.

Partitioning
The first thing that anybody learns about Polish history is that Poland Was Partitioned. This is usually something of a let down because, to be frank, it doesn’t sound that dramatic or desperately serious. In fact it was both. It’s hard to get your head around the idea of having your country partitioned so I’ve come up with the following metaphor:

Imagine a grand Victorian house built with a fortune gained through some coal-fueled industrial enterprise. Imagine the same house a hundred years later, still splendid but far too expensive to keep going as a family home. A cut price ‘developer’ moves in and converts the pile into a series of self-contained ‘flats.’ Within six months the place is falling to pieces, there’s stinking rubbish everywhere, neighbours are screaming at each other through paper thin walls, there’s a vaguely disturbing smell of gas on the staircase, and if you’re really unlucky Australians may have moved in. This is pretty much what happened to Poland except the Australians were Austrians, which is only marginally less alarming.

Exactly how this came about is a very long and very boring story that I’ve researched thoroughly by asking a Polish person. “It was the szlachta, they sold us” she said. Naughty szlachta.

The first partition took place in 1772. The Prussians, Russians, and Austrians each helped themselves to a massive slices of Polish-Lithuanian territory. There weren’t really any exciting wars or invasions, it was all done behind the scenes with political jiggery-pokery. Another partition in 1793 and a third in 1795 brought the curtain down on a very final and depressing way on Polish independence. Poland completely ceased to exist as a national entity within the space of 23 years and continued to not exist for the next 120 years. They were not best pleased.

Austria: Another slice of Poland anyone?

Prussia: (extending belt) oooh I couldn’t, honestly, I’m stuffed.

Austria: Oh go on, just a little slice off the bottom.

Russia: I could manage another bit. Something with Warsaw in it perhaps?

Austria: Greedy guts! I might just have this little slither since it’s stuck to the knife… mmmm…

Tadeusz Rejtan: The First Modern Pole
To my mind Tadeusz Rejtan is the prototype of the modern Pole, or at least the modern Pole up until about 1990. Rejtan was a minor noble who took it upon himself to kick up a fuss about the first partition of Poland. The first partition was all done legally and above board at a puppet meeting of the Polish parliament, the Sejm. The lad Rejtan could see what was going on, however, and didn’t like it one bit. In a sterling performance Rejtan laid down in front of the doors of the parliament chamber, bared his chest and no doubt said something worthy about plucking his heart from his breast. He then stole the ceremonial mace, kicked peoples chairs from under them, and generally made a nuisance of himself. These activities made not the slightest difference to the outcome of the steamroller forces that were already in motion, but he made the effort.

Rejtan deploying his massive moustache and bare chest in defense of Poland.

Rejtan is a kind of low-key national hero. He’s not celebrated much but, mention his name, and a peculiar smile comes to the faces of Polish people. At the time he was probably seen as a bit of a boneheaded bumpkin who didn’t understand the greater socio-political forces in operation. Over the next 200 years Poles discovered that sticking two fingers up to the “greater socio-political forces in operation” was the only sensible way forward and the only way to retain some level of self-respect. That and rebellions of course. For me there’s something in Rejtan that set the mold for generations of Poles to come; he didn’t stand a bat’s chance in hell but he stood up, ranted and raved, kicked up an unseemly fuss, and got completely flattened. Also he had a ridiculously huge moustache.

Rebellions
There’s nothing the Poles like better than a good rebellion, if there’s roast chicken involved all the better. Under Prussian, Austrian, or Russian rule the vast majority of Poles got on with the age-old business of breaking their backs in the fields, dying of cholera, and thanking god for their good fortunes. Some, however, felt that ‘something must be done’ and that this ‘something’ should probably involve galloping about the countryside with swords. The Age of Rebellions was born. There were so many of them in fact that they started running out of names:

Rebel 1: Seems like ages since we last had a rebellion.

Rebel 2: We had one last Tuesday.

Rebel 1: Oh yes? I must have missed it, doctor’s appointment. How did it go?

Rebel 2: We got flattened.

Rebel 1: The bastards! Let’s have a rebellion!

Rebel 2: Well…

Rebel 1: We’ll call it the Great Spring Rebellion! Avante!

Rebel 2: Sorry, we had a Great Spring Rebellion last year, just after the Great Winter Rebellion.

Rebel 1: The Great LATE Spring Rebellion?

Rebel 2: 1798.

Rebel 1: The Thursday Uprising!

Rebel 2:
1804… and again in 1806…

Rebel 1: The Late Friday Afternoon Just Before Tea Time Rebellion?

Rebel 2: Hmmm… you might have something there. To horse!!

Rebel 1: I like your moustache by the way.

Rebel 2: Really? Thanks…

Rebellion number 37. This time they tried having a woman as leader. Do you know I only just realized that Emilia Plater was a woman!

Things carried on like this for a very long time indeed. Finally, in 1918, with half of Europe bled dry by World War I or otherwise engaged in burying people Poland got its independence back. It was number 13 of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points.

Rebel 1: Well that’s it then. We won!

Rebel 2:
Things are going to be pretty quiet around here now I suppose.

Rebel 1: Twentieth century here we come! What could possibly go wrong?

…and there, I think, we will leave it.

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