Back in 1939 it was obvious to many in Poland that there would be war, but as with most young adults starting out in the life, there was much denial. My mother was a mere 19 years old, just graduated from high school and had her sights on college.
Hitler had already made some moves into eastern Europe by annexing the Sudetenland and Austria in 1938. He took over Sudetenland, referring to those northern, southwest, and western areas of Czechoslovakia which were inhabited mostly by German speakers, specifically the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and those parts of Silesia located within Czechoslovakia. Sound familiar? An aggressor wanting to protect its people in another country by annexing portions of that country! Something which was just done in Crimea.
Earlier in the year Hitler also took over Austria by forcing his will on the Austrian government, wanting to unify the two German countries. After invading Austria, he scheduled a mock plebiscite asking the Austrians if they wanted the Anschluss, or unification, and miraculously the vote was 99.7% in favor. This also sounds rather familiar to recent events in the Crimea. Interestingly, according to the Treaty of Versailles, the treaty that ended WW I, Germany was forbidden to unite with Austria. So much for treaties and their enforcement.
The Sudetenland and Austria were not enough for Hitler. By spring of 1939 all of Czechoslovakia was taken. During the summer of 1939 Poland was sitting there bordered by Nazi Germany and its perennial aggressor, the Soviet Union. As my mother tells the story, her life in Poland at the time was optimistic, as is with the young who don’t know any better. The older generation did know better and they were frightened. My mother’s generation of young adults were all patriotic and optimistic for a quick win and good outcome no matter what sacrifices were needed.
Poland was no stranger to aggression from predator nations as witnessed in the 1700’s when it was partitioned three times, previously a country of imperial majesty, which then ceased to exist. It made itself vulnerable by having a decentralized government and allowing the ruling nobility to veto any law that it didn’t like against its own special interest, and therefore ending any current session of the legislature. This created chaos because no laws were passed, all because of liberum veto, or “the free veto”. The poles were always a freedom loving people, even when it was an open invitation to be conquered.
My mother was very fortunate to be a part of the post WW I generation that grew up in the newly formed free Poland after it emerged from foreign rule in 1919. The interwar years, a mere 20 years before another world war shook the globe, were her formative years.
Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and since my mother’s town of Kosow was in the south-eastern part of Poland, the people did not experience the bombs, fighting and devastation from the Germans. 17 days following the German invasion, the Soviet red army invaded from the east, so in my mother’s region the problems were just beginning.
Kosow was ten kilometers from the Romanian border, and as the Polish Army was clearly retreating from the Nazi and Soviet advance, the soldiers needed a way out of the country. The patriotic citizens of the area banded together, went underground to help the escaping officers cross the border. The hope was that they would go to France or to England and continue to fight the enemy. If the soldiers were caught, they were either shot or sent to prison or to Siberia. My mother and her father were among those patriots that helped soldiers escape. For seven months their network managed to hide, house and disguise many such soldiers as adopted uncles and cousins, and when it was safe, helped them to the border and hopefully to freedom.