Intense and Gripping! You Could Hear a Pin Drop in the Theater at the End of the Movie; Reality Becomes Greater Than the Myth
By Frank J. Dmuchowski
I doubt that many of us will see a movie as intense and gripping as “1939 Tajemnica O Westerplatte (1939 The Secret of Westerplatte). The movie deals with the real life conflict between Major Henryk Sucharski (played by Michał Żeborowski) and Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski (played by Robert Żołedziewski) over when or if ever to surrender the Polish military depot transit center at Westerplatte after it was attacked by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. The movie is one of those works where fiction and reality are blended in very interesting ways which are often very difficult to untangle. It challenges the audience!
Westerplatte, which was near Gdąnsk, held out for 7 murderous days before surrendering to overwhelming Nazi military forces who were preparing an even more vigorous and final attack and what would probably have been an overwhelming defeat of the Poles in which there would have been few if any survivors. For Nazi Germany the resistance of Westerplatte was a great source of anger and displeasure because the Gdańsk area was their symbol of Polish resistance against the Germans. For the Polish nation, through radio messages transmitted from Westerplatte it was a symbol of pride and the will to resist. It was 200 Poles against the might of Nazi Germany. For Americans there is the immediate connection to the fall of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC against an overwhelming Persian army.
At Westerplatte the Poles were only required to hold out for 12-24 hours. Yet less than 200 men, including 6 officers, managed to hold out for a week against a German onslaught that included taking direct fire from the battleship Schleswieg-Holstein, which was less than 200 yards away. Can you imagine taking that kind of firepower at such a close range?
Polish losses during the Battle of Westerplatte included approximately 20 killed, 53 wounded and the rest captured. The way in which 3-4 of the Poles died is also a source of controversy which the movie presents.
Holding out until the Last Man dies or an Honorable Surrender – That is the Question
Would the Poles have held out to the last man? Certainly this would have probably been the situation if Captain Dąbrowski had held sway and if Major Sucharski would continue to be incapacitated. However Major Sucharski, who suffered from an epileptic seizure, was able to assume full command toward the end and it was he who made the final decision to surrender on September 8, 1939.
Why did Major Sucharski make the decision to surrender? It was certainly not for cowardice as he was a recipient of the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military medal for bravery and wounds he experienced at the battles of Potnica and Bogdanówka on August 30, 1920 during the Polish- Bolshevik War. He also was the recipient of the Cross of Valor (Krzyż Walecznych) which is also one of Poland’s highest military honors. He knew the face of war and its consequences. (You will have to see the movie to find out the answer to the question of why an honorable surrender became the selected option)
His protagonist Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski, who pressed not to surrender and was no doubt a man of great courage, simply did not have the military combat experience of Major Sucharski. It appeared that Dąbrowski was personally committed to having Westerplatte become another Polish Thermopylae, comparable to the famous Battle of Zadwórze in 1920.
Herein lay the basis for their approaches and conflict to the defense of Westerplatte.
This movie pulls no punches on the desperate situation of the Poles, nor does it in any way minimize the random reality of war. If anything it understates the tremendous pressure that each person – officer or regular soldier—was under. In combat situations you must often keep your emotions in check regardless how dire the situation. This is true even though the next explosion or bullet could have your name on it. This observation in many ways helps to explain the intense and tightly wrapped behavior of many of the films actors as they sought to accurately portray what was the probable behavior of the military participants.
For me, one of the most powerful images of the movie was my continuous awareness of the Virtuti Militari medal which the person playing Major Sucharski constantly wore during the movie. In fact if you look at the actual photo of his surrender you will see that he is wearing the Virtuti Militari.
The audience is constantly confronted with the challenge of trying to understand how a recipient of the Virtuti Militari would even contemplate surrender to the hated Nazis.
Why the Controversy?
Events at Westerplatte have an almost mystical relationship to the Polish experience of World War II and to the sense of Polish identity embedded in the expression “Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna (God, Honor, and Country). The Polish troops at this small military depot became a great symbol of Polish resistance which no doubt inspired many Poles in their fight against the Nazi’s and eventually the Soviets under what were incredibly difficult circumstances.
The Polish participants at Westerplatte were eulogized during and after the war for their bravery. So to find out that Major Sucharski was considering surrender after the requisite 12-24 hours comes as a great shock to many Poles. He was and perhaps still is viewed as “the symbolic hero of Westerplatte”. The actual behavior of Major Sucharski, it could be argued, has become a major point of conflict for today’s Poles. It is a conflict that the movie reinforces and leaves unresolved. The movie places you in his position and asks the question “what would you do?”
One of the Best Way to Understand a Pole’s Emotional Connection to
The Battle of Westerplatte
Perhaps one the best ways for Americans to understand the emotional connection of Poles to the Battle of Westerplatte is through poetry. In America we may think of the Star Spangled Banner, or the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Each was first a poem which eventually was put to music. Whether as poems or songs these two pieces evoke powerful images with great emotional intensity.
For Poles it is through the words of a poem written by the poet Konstanty Gałczyński just days before his capture by Nazi Germany’s great ally at the time the Soviet Union/Russia on September 17, 1939.
His poem is titled “A Song of the Soldiers of Westerplatte” (Pieśń o żolnierzach z Westerplatte). This is a poem that every adult knew and every child learned by heart after World War II. I will present it to you in both English and Polish, although the English does not capture the full emotional impact of the poem. I would encourage my English speaking readers to speak to a Polish friend and ask them about this poem and what it means to them. I will bet you that they can still recite it by heart (The translation by Walter Whipple was the only one that I could find in English.)
A Song of the Soldiers of Westerplatte
By Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (1905-1953)
-translated by Walter Whipple
When their days had been filled
and it was time to die in the summer,
They went straight to heaven in a coach-and-four,
the soldiers of Westerplatte.
(Summer was beautiful that year.)
They sang: “Ah, ‘tis nothing
that our wounds were so painful,
for now it is sweet to walk
the heavenly fields.”
(On earth that year there was plenty of heather for bouquets.)
In Gdansk we stood like a wall
in defiance of the German offensive,
now we soar among the clouds,
we soldiers of Westerplatte.
Those with keen sense of sight
and sound are said to have heard
in the clouds the measured step
of the Maritime Batallion.
This was the song they heard: “We’ll
take advantage of the sunshine
and bask in the warm days
in the heather fields of paradise.
But when the cold wind blows
and sorrow courses the earth,
We’ll float down to the center of Warsaw,
The soldiers of Westerplatte.”
Pieśń o żołnierzach z Westerplatte
Kiedy się wypełniły dni
i przyszło zginąć latem,
prosto do nieba czwórkami szli
żołnierze z Westerplatte.
( A lato było piękne tego roku ).
I tak śpiewali: Ach, to nic,
że tak bolały rany,
bo jakże słodko teraz iść
na te niebiańskie polany.
( A na ziemi tego roku było tyle wrzosu na bukiety).
W Gdańsku staliśmy tak jak mur,
gwiżdżąc na szwabską armatę,
teraz wznosimy się wśród chmur,
żołnierze z Westerplatte.
I ci, co dobry mają wzrok
i słuch, słyszeli pono,
jak dudni w chmurach równy krok
I śpiew słyszano taki: – By
słoneczny czas wyzyskać,
będziemy grzać się w ciepłe dni
na rajskich wrzosowiskach.
Lecz gdy wiatr zimny będzie dął,
i smutek krążył światem,
w środek Warszawy spłyniemy w dół,
żołnierze z Westerplatte.
Let me simply say that the movie is more than worth seeing even if you speak to a friend who has seen it. Your opinion may differ considerably. I plan on seeing it again when it is played on March 10, 2013.
It is my belief that while the movie has contributed to altering some of the “myth of Westerplatte”; it has in reality elevated the Battle of Westerplatte to a higher plane because of its presentation of the decisions and behavior of “ordinary Poles” who were thrust into the maelstrom of a powerful Nazi Germany’s lust for the destruction of Poland. These Poles, officers and regular soldiers, at Westerplatte gave as much as could be asked and prevailed for 7 days under what was often a great personal conflict of self sacrifice and duty to Poland.
This is a story of incredible bravery and conflict that probably could be told many times in many places by Poles during World War II. It is a story that deserves to be told today and tomorrow as it truly symbolizes the will of so many Poles to fight and survive the tyranny of World War II directed by Berlin and Moscow.
Please remember that for Poles the war lasted for 50 years until 1989 when a freely elected Polish government came into being after the Soviets/Russians had finally left Poland and their Polish collaborators yielded power to the will of the people.
I would like to encourage our readers who have seen the movie to send a letter to the editor in English or Polish to present their perspective on this very interesting movie as well as actual events that happened at Westerplatte