Soldiers of allied armies are interested in our country’s history. They say that it helps them understand Poles better, but also makes them aware of why they have been deployed to Poland.
Armored Brigade Combat Team, NATO Battle Group Poland, or Multinational Division North East – these are just a few of the many units in Poland where allied soldiers serve. There are almost 7,000 of them in our country. The US Army soldiers make up the most numerous group, but there are also troops from Croatia, Romania, or Great Britain, who are stationing in Bemowo Piskie. The NATO division in Elbląg alone can boast soldiers of as many as 17 nationalities.
Many of them have come to Poland from faraway places, so they are naturally curious about our country. They can often be seen walking the streets, or sitting in restaurants, having not only pizza or burgers, but also our national specialties.
“Sometimes the foreign soldiers serving at the unit ask me what is worth seeing. I usually tell them to visit Gdańsk or Toruń, because I think these cities have amazing atmosphere. Historical architecture is especially impressive to American soldiers. Most of them have only seen such old buildings in films,” says Maj Dariusz Guzenda, the press officer of Multinational Division North East.
Many soldiers visit historically significant places where Poland’s fate was determined. Americans, Britons, Croats, and Romanians, stationing in Masuria, usually visit the 19th-century Boyen Fortress, or Adolf Hitler’s headquarters – the Wolf’s Lair. “Poland has great history. We have seen many places connected with WWII, such as old bunkers. Poland has played a very significant role in the history of the whole world. It is good to be here, and to see it all with my own eyes,” says Ssg Michael Doling of the US Army. It seems that our Allies are mostly interested in the WWII period. They are curious about the fate of the “cursed soldiers,” whose portraits they can often see on the Poles’ clothes.
Ruins of the Capital
The soldiers were invited to Warsaw by the Polish National Foundation, to visit the Warsaw Rising Museum. They were surprised by what they learned about the fights of 1944 from Andreas Karabin, the tour guide. “The soldiers were shocked with the story of the first days of the uprising in Warsaw’s Wola district. They could not believe that so many civilians died during that time,” says the guide. “It was new to them that the English supported us in 1944, and they were also very surprised to see a replica of the American Liberator in the middle of the museum,” he adds. The visit was especially appreciated by Sgt Arturo Guzman of the US Army. “The story of how people fought to protect their beloved city was amazing. I had heard of the uprising before, but I hadn’t realized that the sewers were so important during the fights. I myself serve in the National Guard, so it was a very valuable lesson to me,” he says. The meeting of the NATO soldiers with combatants was also very emotional. They listened to stories told by Col Bronisław “Józef” Maciaszyk, who fought in the Warsaw Uprising, and Capt Tadeusz “Dąb” Socha, who served in the 27th Volhynian Infantry Division. “I’m very happy we had a chance to listen to the veterans’ stories. The army is changing, the equipment is changing, but the determination with which soldiers protect their homeland remains the same. I think we can learn a lot from these people,” adds Sgt Guzman.
The combatants were also very moved. “We are glad to be able to meet with you. Now that you serve in Poland, we can feel safe. We want to thank you for that,” addressed the NATO soldiers Col Maciaszyk. “14 million people died in WWI, 66 million in WWII. Remember, you are here to make sure it never happens again,” added Capt Socha.
Agnieszka Dydycz from the Foundation, on the other hand, remembers the trip to Tri-city. The soldiers visited the Museum of the Second World War, they went on board ORP Błyskawica, and walked around the Stutthof Museum in Sztutowo, the territory of the former WWII concentration camp. “When we left that place, no one said a word. None of us were able to comment on what we had seen. Three buses of tough soldiers trained to fight, were returning home in total silence,” she recalls. Sgt Guzman confirms the feeling: “I was so shocked I found it hard to breathe. It is a very sad and a very important part of Polish and world history, but it cannot happen again,” he states.
Cold Weapons and Hussar Wings
Allies are also interested in our armament, not only modern. “Recently, the soldiers of our divisional command went to Bydgoszcz to visit the Land Forces Museum. They came back enchanted,” says Maj Guzenda. Many of them also visited the Polish Army Museum. What were they most surprised by? “It is amazing that the museum is so big. It houses an incredibly wide range of armament. I really liked Hussar wings,” recalls Spec Timothy Lee from the USA. “I spent a lot of time looking at cavalry equipment. I am a cavalryman myself, so it was very interesting to learn what my predecessors used to fight,” adds Col Bell from Great Britain.
Maj Zbigniew Zielonka, PhD, of the Military Center for Civic Education, often talks to the allied soldiers about Polish history. Several years ago he served in Afghanistan, then as a representative of the Military University of Land Forces. He was asked by his superiors to prepare a lecture on Polish history, which he gave on the occasion of the 3 May Constitution Day. Everybody loved his lecture so much that he soon prepared more, mainly for allied armies’ soldiers.
When he came back to Poland, he started working on new projects. He prepared, among other things, historical booklets for the participants of the NATO Summit or the World Youth Day, while still giving lectures on Polish history. Now his listeners are mostly allied armies’ soldiers stationing in Poland. “It is not an easy task to present a cross-section of Polish history in only 70 minutes, and still make it interesting and intelligible,” says the officer. The lecture starts in the year 966, with the Baptism of Poland, and finishes in 2004, when Poland became an EU member state. Lectures include fragments of films – battle scenes from Krzyżacy, Hussar charges from Pan Wołodyjowski, or a documentary fragment showing a German battleship bombarding Westerplatte. Lecturers also play Jacek Kaczmarski’s song “Mury” (Walls) performed by Jean-Michel Jarre, or a song by Sabaton, entitled “40:1,” telling the story of Polish heroes from the battle of Wizna. “It is a very specific, strong piece of music. Americans liked it so much that each time they saw us afterwards, they shouted: »fourty to one«,” says Maj Zielonka. The officer confirms that WWII is the most interesting subject for the listeners. “The Allies, even those from Germany, were surprised that we fought on two fronts in September 1939. Also, many soldiers didn’t know what happened to our country after the end of the war,” he adds.
Attraction or Lesson?
The Allies are truly interested in our history. “During our trips, the soldiers take pictures and post them on social media. They also call their families and tell them of their impressions. They assure us they will return to Poland with their families. It is very important to us, because when they go back home, they will become our country’s natural ambassadors,” says Agnieszka Dydycz.
What do the soldiers themselves think of Polish history? “It is important that we know what Poland had to face, if only to understand why we are here,” says Capt Marin Bulog from Croatia. “We are Allies, so we should know what circumstances led us to where we are now. We also have to know the past to predict what the future might bring,” adds Spec Lee.
LtCol Donny Hebel, commander of the 2nd Squadron of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, who has been stationing in Masuria for the last nine months, is of a similar opinion. During the farewell ceremony at the unit, he gave a speech in which he mentioned Józef Piłsudski, Kazimierz Pułaski, Tadeusz Kościuszko, as well as the battle of Grunwald and Vienna, and uprisings in which Poles took part. “For thousands of years, Poland has proved its valor. We are proud to have become a part of its history and to have trained alongside a nation with such a strong warrior ethos,” he said.
autor zdjęć: Magdalena Miernicka