By Frank J. Dmuchowski
Memorial Day in the United States is observed this year on Monday May 25th primarily to honor American soldiers who have died during military service as well as to remember the service of all. I have deliberately chosen to write this article after Memorial Day. Why? Because the sacrifice of our soldiers whether American, Polish or any of our allies should be remembered each and every day in however small way. Increasingly it has also become a National Day of Remembrance in which Americans visit cemeteries and memorials for multiple reasons. There are parades in which Americans can thank their soldiers for their service.
The closest Polish analogy to Memorial Day is November 11th which is National Independence Day and National Days of Remembrance are November 1st All Saints Day and November 2nd All Souls Day. For Polonians in America, Memorial Day is a very deep and complex day with many memories very often impacted by where you were born, where you might have served, or where your family might have served. For example we have Polonians who served at Monte Cassino or at Normandy or the Battle of Britain. Perhaps even in Korea or Vietnam. They may have served in Polish military units or they may have been Americans of Polish descent who served in the American military. More recently we have Poles and Americans who served jointly in Iraq or Afghanistan or in peace keeping operations in Bosnia.
Consequently, when there are Memorial Day services, you will sometimes see not only American but also Polish flags. This is especially true in some of our cemeteries where a large number of people of Polish descent are buried. Because of the complexities of the world’s political environment we will often see Polish and American soldiers in joint actions. This may well occur again if the situation in Ukraine becomes more unstable and Russian action spills into the Baltics, most likely from a Moscow miscalculation.
Of course for Americans our civilians will not likely be in harm’s way but this is not the case for Poles and other Europeans as 20th century history has too often shown.
When I think and write about Memorial Day it is impossible for me to separate the American experience from the Polish experience. There is too much which binds us together.
Poetry it seems touches the heart most deeply, especially when it is written by someone who died from military action.
Most well-known symbols of Remembrance
The American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw are the most well known and visible symbols of remembrance for Americans and Poles respectively. Ceremonies at Arlington were on American television on Memorial Day. We saw the commemoration at the Tomb of the Unknown but for most of us we did not experience the grief of those who have lost a loved one. I hope the two photos which I have selected will touch you as much as they have touched me.
Words of Remembrance which touch our hearts
In war it is most often the young who are called to serve and perhaps to die. I have selected 3 poems that were written during wartime. All of the poets died during the war. I have selected a Canadian, American and a Pole. (While the Canadian was 46 when he died, his poem was inspired by the death of a friend who was 22.) They all died tragically. The Canadian is John McCrae who died January 28, 1918 at 46. The American is John Gillespie Magee who died on December 11, 1941 at the age of 19. The Pole is Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski who died August 4, 1944 at the age of 23.
The poem: In Flanders Field
One of the most heart touching remembrances of those died during military conflicts were the words written by the Canadian Physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872 -1918) on May 3, 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend Lieutenant Alex Helmer, 22 years old. The words were written during conflict in World War I. Dr. McCrae died on January 28, 1918.
The poem In Flanders Fields, while well known in America and Commonwealth countries, is virtually unknown in Poland. However its words transcend all nations and all cultures. I would like to cite a fragment:
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below…
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields…
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields…
It is from this poem that many countries including the United States, Canada etc. have adopted the red poppy as a symbol of military sacrifice. For Poland one need only recall the Polish song “Czerwone Maki na Monte Cassino” to appreciate impact of the symbolism of the “red poppy” on the Polish psyche.
The poem: High Flight
The poem “High Flight” was written by a 19 year old American, John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941), who was an officer pilot in the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force). He flew the British Spitfire, the same type of plane that the Poles flew in Western Europe. He died in a mid-air collision on December 9, 1941 in England.
The poem was written a few months before his death and because of its universality it is included in English and Polish. It is most often associated with pilot and astronauts. However, there is a deeper meaning which touches the soul of anyone who has looked at the sky and appreciated its beauty and had soaring dreams for tomorrow. All who have fallen in war had similar “soaring dreams”. It does not matter in what capacity they served or when they served or will serve. The feelings and dreams are always the same. His poem presents the human spirit with all of its joy, hope and potential.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung.
High in the sunlit silence, hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting winds along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God
The poem: Rodzicom – To my parents
This poem was written by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (1921- 1944) who died during the Warsaw Uprising at the age of 23 on August 4, 1944. He was a soldier in the Armia Krajowa He is regarded by many to be one of the greatest Polish poets of the 20 century. His feelings in To my Parents – Rodzicom could have been the feelings of any young person who was experiencing the combat of war, Polish, American, Canadian etc. The works of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński are little known in America.
His poem To My Paremts-Rodzicom is perhaps the most difficult because it presents the reader with feelings and thoughts of a young man who is called to fight, knows his duty, and knows the probable outcome. This poem was written July 30, 1943.
To my parents**
And so this is all you have, then.
I was like the linden’s rustle;
Krzysztof was the name I was given,
and my body-so very little.
And up to my knees in the dazzle,
like the saint, I was to bear the Lord across
a river of animals, sand, people,
wading in earth to my knees.
Why such a name for a child?
Why wings shaped in this way, mother?
Why a struggle, father, for such a fault?
The earth wet and bloody from my tears.
“He’ll bear it all,” you thought, mother:
“he’ll name the pain, bring understanding,
raise within me what’s fallen; o flower-
you said-bloom with the fire of meanings.”
Father, it’s hard at the war.
You said in your longing, your pain
for earth: “You’ll not know human scorn,
Why should a child need such faith, and why
a legacy like a house of flames?
Before twenty years have gone by,
life will die in his glittering hands.
And why a mind like a pine-tree, too high
And the crown as the cut trunk crashes?
And how can the road run so straightly,
when the clumsy heart is all ashes?
Mother, I cannot name, the pain is too great,
death strikes too powerfully from every side.
Love-mother, I no longer know if it is;
From far away my flared nostrils smell God.
Love-what will it give firth to-hatred, streams of tears.
Father, I carry my gun in my jacket;
in the dark night I fight while the faiths all fade.
Father-like you-apart from freedom
maybe nothing else matters, or maybe my deed.
Day and night, mother, father, I’ll endure
in the rifle-fire, I, soldier, poet, dust of time.
I’ll go on-this I have from you: I do not fear
death, as I bear desires like burned roses in my arms.
It is through poetry such as the above that the full emotion of our being comes through and reminds us why Memorial Day, in whatever way we choose to observe it, is ultimately an expression of our soul.
*No translation into Polish was found for In Flanders Fields
**Translator of High Flight into Polish unknown
***Rodzicom – translated into English by Professor Bill Johnston (from Johnston, Bill. Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. White Magic and Other Poems. Green Integer. Los Angeles, 2005, pp. 150-155). While This translation is not in print, its translator Bill Johnston has translated other Polish poets into English. Go to Amazon.Com and type in his name and Baczynski.