Poland is a country I’d wanted to visit for some considerable time, so towards the end of last month (August), I finally took the bull by the horns, booked a return flight, selected a suitable hotel and the weekend before last, set off for a short three night visit.
The southern city of Krakow was always going to be my destination of choice, given its long and illustrious history, and the fact that it escaped relatively intact from the devastation of World War II.
No nation endured the suffering that Poland did for much of the 20th Century, as after re-emerging as a proud, independent nation in 1918, just twenty years later the country was invaded by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. After the former attacked from the west, the latter piled in its forces from the east; the two dictatorships dividing up the country between them.
A brutal six-year occupation then followed, during which around 6 million Polish citizens perished – nearly one-fifth of country's population. Over 90% of these deaths were non-military in nature. Around half of the number killed were Polish Jews, as Poland at the time was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe.
Following the end of hostilities in 1945, Poland’s borders were shifted westwards on the order of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The shift in boundaries allowed Stalin to keep hold of the eastern part of Poland, which Soviet forces had originally occupied in 1939. Over 2 million Polish inhabitants of this region were forcibly expelled
At the same time the Poland’s western border became the line of the Oder-Neisse rivers, which meant the annexation of a slice of eastern Germany. This included the provinces of Pomerania, Eastern Brandenburg and Silesia, and involved the expulsion of around 8 million ethnic Germans. This shift in boundaries, is said to have involved the forced migration of around 20 million people, most of whom were Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews.
I’ve always felt an affinity with the Poles, especially as in 1939, Britain went to war with Germany, to try and assist them. It was a symbolic and largely futile gesture as there was little Britain and her ally France, could do to assist the Poland, but the UK did provide a home for the Polish Government in exile, and attempted to act as the nation’s guarantor as World War II drew to a close.
In the end these guarantees came to nothing, as the British Government was powerless against Stalin and the all-conquering Red Army. Poland came under Soviet influence, and with the installation of a repressive, communist government, the country’s suffering continued for a further 45 years.
It wasn’t until the emergence of the Solidarity movement, and the collapse of the country’s socialist government, that Poland’s citizens finally regained their freedom and took their place on the world stage. In 2004 the country became a member of the European Union and has benefited enormously, both economically and socially from joining the EU. It does make one wonder then, why narrow-minded individuals in the UK are desperately trying to force us out of the world’s largest trading bloc.
So for the above reasons, and several more personal ones, I wanted to visit Poland to say sorry to its people for appearing to have abandoned them, both during and after WWII, but also to thank them for the enormous contribution made by Polish servicemen during that conflict, both on land and in the air – and in particular during the Battle of Britain.