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Miedzy swiatami. Dziennik Andersowca 1939-1945

Afterword by Norman Davies

No two wartime memoirs are the same.  Individuals share some collective experiences with other people, but they also encounter events that are special to themselves; and they have their own private thoughts, their own perspectives and their own ways of remembering.

 

In the case of Edward Herzbaum's memoir, or rather his fragmentary diaries, the particularities are very striking. Born in Vienna in 1920, the son of an assimilated, Polish-speaking family of Jewish descent, Herzbaum writes almost nothing about his pre-war life - his childhood, relatives, schooling, or opinions, and readers have to glean hints about his background as they proceed. He had joined the army in 1939 as a volunteer, had fought in the September Campaign, had escaped from German detention, and had fled to Lwow in the Soviet Zone of Occupation, only to be arrested there by the NKVD.  From then on, he followed 'the Anders Trail' from start to finish, living through ordeals and adventures that were shared by more than 100,000 people. He toiled in a Soviet labour camp in the Volga region, benefited from the 'Amnesty' of 1941, joined the 'Polish Armed Forces in the USSR' at Tatishchev, and stayed with the Army all the way through the Middle East and the Italian campaign until he was eventually resettled in post-war Britain.  The first entry in the memoir was written in a remote Russian lazaret or 'camp hospital' on 20 July 1940: the last, somewhere in Italy on 27 May 1945. "Niedlugo bede stary", he concludes with typical gloominess, "a przeciez nie zaczalem zyc." [' Soon I will be old; - and yet I haven't even started living'.]

 

Herzbaum shows a surprising lack of interest in writing about the political or international circumstances that led to his misfortunes. His memoir centres almost exclusively on himself, on his feelings and emotions, and on his reactions to the immediate problems that beset a lonely and fragile young man far from home. It seems to have been written as a form of self-therapy, as a means of coping, and as a way of trying to make sense of the cruel and irrational world into which he had been cast. It was certainly not written with a view to publication, and only came to light by accident almost forty years after his death. As a result, it has no axe to grind, no message to convey, and is marvellously honest and authentic.

 

One should say from the outset that Herzbaum was something of a physical and mental invalid, well aware that he could easily have perished like thousands of his comrades and compatriots. He appears to have been carrying a wound; he suffered from repeated bouts of Chandra, the 'Black Dog of Depression', which afflicted him for long periods; he had poor eyesight, and for a long time no glasses; and, though assigned by the Army to the 5th Border Division of Infantry, he was classed in the lowest medical grade of 'Category D', or "fit for auxiliary services".  Nonetheless, he was able to keep functioning and to carry out his duties, and was raised to 'Category C'.  He was transferred in Iraq to a light artillery regiment, where he received anti-aircraft training. Being a skilled sketcher, he worked for a time as an official artist and reporter. And in Italy he was fit enough to spend extended spells at the Front under constant German bombardment, dodging shrapnel and stumbling over corpses. He was intelligent and articulate, and would have been capable of describing all sorts of other things that he was too preoccupied to examine.

 

The narrative, therefore, provides what one might call 'a worm's eye view', that ignores a long list of topics to which others attach great importance. It reveals no interest whatsoever, for example, in international politics; the names of Hitler and Stalin, or of Churchill and Sikorski, do not darken its pages.  It throws no light on the Jewish question, about which he cannot have been indifferent.  Refreshingly, there is no mention of antisemitism; there are no reflections on Zionism or Bundism, no hint of the numerous desertions that took place during his time in Palestine. Indeed, the reader could easily overlook his Jewish connections, if not for occasional lines such as that of a sergeant who declares "Non-Catholics can't take leave during Catholic holidays!" Equally, the memoir is completely devoid of officers and of the relations between officers and soldiers. Not only does Herzbaum never appear to have seen General Anders, even from a distance; he seems blissfully uninterested in his Commander's existence. Similarly, when he reaches Italy, Herzbaum has nothing to say about the Army's military tasks or strategic goals.  In May 1944, at the Front in the vicinity of Monte Cassino, he devotes barely one sentence to the battle. "Wlasciwie dzis juz jest po calej ofensywie, ale wcale mi sie nie chce o tym pisac, "he writes on the 18th. ['Essentially the whole offensive is over but I don't feel like writing about it.'] "Jedyna nowosc - to zdobycie klasztoru Monte Cassino. Ewentualnie jeszcze to, ze zgolilem nieszczesna brode." ['The only thing that is new is the conquest of the Monastery of Monte Cassino and that at last I have shaved off my beard'.] Shortly afterwards, he reflects despairingly on the battle's consequences. "Nie znam sie na polityce, " he writes bitterly, "nie rozumiem sie na patriotyzmie, ale widze jedno - straszna, niepowetowana? I niemozliwa do naprawienia krzywde ludzka."  ['I know nothing about politics, I don't understand patriotism, but I can see one thing and that is the terrible, irreparable harm that has been done to people'.] He is totally unmoved by Cassino's Ponura Legenda, its "Dismal Legend".  The following year, in 1945, when he was surrounded by men and women weighed down by independent Poland's abandonment by the Western Allies, he doesn't find a single word to say about Yalta.

 

Readers and critics are entitled to ask, therefore, what contribution Herzbaum's memoir can make to our knowledge of  'the Anders' Odyssey'. The answer is: 'more than one might expect.'

 

Firstly, since he has a great eye for detail, Herzbaum presents a compelling picture of everyday life - first in Russia, and then in the Army. In the first hundred pages, for example, where he is incarcerated in a Soviet labour camp, he closely observes not only the privations of his fellow prisoners but also the Russian guards. He records their language, their acronyms, their attitudes and their odd habits. Having been assigned to a Slabkomando or 'Invalids' Unit', he notes that the doctors' chosen method for judging their patients' vitality is to pinch their buttocks; and at one point he realises that the Russian staff are no freer than he is; they are all either offenders, who have been sent to the camp as a punishment, or have been directed there compulsorily by the Soviet work system. Many are content to be somewhere that feeds them. One of them advises him:  privyknyosz ili podochniosz, 'either you adapt or you perish'.  And this wasn't the Gulag, but a less rigorous POW camp.  Moreover, towards the end of his stay, he obtained a desk job in a design office. From time to time, he could even relish a happy moment. One occurred when he learned of his release under the terms of the so-called 'Amnesty'. "Lekko I wesolo bylo mi na dusze," he related, "chlodne, swieze powietrze zdawalo sie czyms zupelenie nowym I cudownym." ['I felt light and cheerful, and cold fresh air seemed to be something new and wonderful'.]

 

Two years later he was lying in an RAF hospital at Habbaniyah in Iraq. "Bardzo przyjemnie I wygodnie", he concludes with uncharacteristic satisfaction. ['It's very pleasant and comfortable'].

Secondly, Herzbaum constantly comments on his fellow soldiers and their foibles. He is often annoyed by them, and has difficulty finding a friend or fellow spirit for mutual support. "Deszcz bije w dach, " he writes in the Appenines; "Paszkiewicz jeczy na swojej harmonii. Kulesz jednostajnie gega ta sama melodie. Dluzej nie wytrzymam".  ['Paskiewicz is whining on his accordion.  Kulesz keeps muttering under his nose, always the same melody.  I can't stand it anymore']. And he is disgusted by their morals; "Tulali po wszystkich bordelach na Bliskim Wschodzie." he complains, although he follows their example by succumbing to drink for the sake of getting drunk.  ['These comrades who have wandered through all the brothels in the Middle East.'] Yet seeing their graves in the cemetery at Aquafondata, his blood boils with the injustice of it all:

 

"Gdy przy swietle ksiezyce odczytalismy teraz nazwiska - jakie wielu bylo dla mnie zywymi ludzmi, kolegami, ze ktorymi tak niedawno rozmawialem….. Maly Palukejtis, ktory w Tatiszczewie w sniegu chodzil w pantoflach. Staszek Iwanowicz z mojej druzyny, wesoly pilkarz, lwowiak - kolega ktory nigdy nie zawodzil - bylem z nim w pierwszym namocie w wojsku. Wrescie Lucek Czerkowski, spokojny Lucek, ktory w razie potrzeby umial brac za morde swoja druzyne, ze bylby z nimi pieklo zdobyl …..

 

Potem znalazlem wielu z mojej dawnej kompanii, od dowodcy, -Kapitan Janickiego, po innych:  sierzant Kowalski, kapral Roszczek, Saniuk, celowniczy naszego lkm-u, obok ktorego tak dlugo spalem, wrescie rudy Mauer, znany jako Kasztan, z ktorym bylem jeszcze na polnocy, na Wolgostroju …… Ile tam jeszcze jest znajomych? …… Za co oni leza? Zaden z nich nie lubil szumnego gestu, wznioslych slow, po prostu szli swoja droga …"    (pp 180-1)

 

['When we read the names now by moonlight, we wonder how many of them belong to people we knew, friends with whom we were talking just recently.  A few mates from the officer's school, little Palukeiski who in Tatiszcewo in the snow, was going to training in summer shoes.  Stasek Iwanovic from my team, a keen football player from Lwów, a reliable friend with whom I shared a tent, our first tent in the army in Tatiszcewo and Dzalalabad.  And finally Lucek Czerkowski, the quiet Lucek who, if it was necessary would bully his team into such effort, that with him we felt we could conquer hell.  I also found many from my former company, from the commander, Captain Janichki and many others such as Sergeant Kowalski, Corporal Roszcok; Saniuk the view finder of our machine gun, next to whom I was sleeping for so long; and finally the red haired Mauer, known only as 'the chestnut,' with whom I spent time in the north in Volgastroi and many others.  It's getting tighter for the spirit; with each new name, it is as if a cold hand has been laid on the chest.  On many of the graves there are no names yet, the records are stored in jars.  How many more people that I knew will be found here?

The night is chilly. We are smoking and going back slowly.  I understand well why Jurek is embittered.  Why?  Why are they all lying here?  None of them were prone to theatrical gestures, lofty words.  They were just going about their business'.]

 

Herzbaum, too, was simply 'going on his way' as an ordinary soldier, except that, unlike his comrades, he was chronicling his inner life as he went along.  His focus was not on the official explanations of what he and his fellow soldiers were supposed to be doing - like " defying the enemy" or "fighting for Poland" - and he pays no attention to the brave faces which soldiers put on to impress either their superiors or each other.  The whole purpose of his writings, which in its early stages in Russia had to be compiled in secret, was to record his innermost feelings, to document the emotional rollercoaster to which he was involuntarily clinging. He doesn't say so openly, but one senses his basic attitude; in 1939, when he was a volunteer and in some measure responsible for his fate, he had felt himself a free agent.  But later he became an innocent and helpless captive, a hostage to fortune, whose only aim was to survive. And his notebooks related the most intimate aspects of his struggle. On several occasions, he tries unsuccessfully to sum it up:

 

"To wiecznie glupie pytanie: po co to wszystko? Po co ta cala wojna? Po co ja tu jestem. Na jaka cholere trace tu, w wojsku, nerwy I zdrowie? … To wszystko - to jakis wariacki, diabelski taniec, jakis wsciekly balagan; siedzimy w srodku I nie mozemy go zrozumiec."  (p 154)

 

['The never-ending stupid question. What is all this for? What is this war all about? Why am I here? For what hell am I in the army ruining my nerves and health? All this is some sort of crazy, devilish dance, some awful mess. We are sitting in the middle of all this and we cannot understand it']

Waiting in Egypt for the voyage to Italy, he makes a list - "exhaustion, hunger, misery, lice, boredom, and fear." (p158)

 

Three issues recur. One concerns his future prospects. In addition to queries about his present state of mind, he constantly worries about his destiny. In Palestine, in September 1943, he is deeply pessimistic. "Dla nas, juz nie ma szans," he reports, "ludzi bez wiary, bez celu, bez milosci."  ['For us, there is no chance, people without faith, without aim, without love'.]

Five months later, having landed in Taranto, he feels the pessimism lifting. "Dziwna rzecz," he notes, "budzi sie nadzieja.  Nie boje sie smierci a zycia. Boje sie pierwszego dnia po wojnie." [‘A strange thing. I am not afraid of death but of life. I am afraid of the first day after the war’.] But then, as the fighting stops, the anxiety returns. "Wojna sie konczy. Nadzieja? Zadaleka," he concludes, "mam wszystko a nie moge zyc." [‘The war has ended?  So what? – Hope? Too unknown. Much too far off’.] 

Another cluster of concerns are moral in nature. He freely and frequently admits to being scared. But he can't work out whether feeling fear is equivalent to a soldier's greatest failing – tchorzostwo (cowardice) So he dares to raise the matter with his colleagues: 

"Raz w Habbaniji, w spitalu, rozmawialismy o froncie. Ja uparcie stwierdzielem, ze kazdy czlowiek jest tchorzem w odpowiednich warunkach … Wtedy ten mlody blondynek, Zbyszek, spytal, "A Ty nie boisz sie frontu?" Odpowiedzialem na to szczerze: "Troche, bo mam wrazenie, ze nie wroce z tej wojny." Zbyszek sie zamyslil I mruknal: "Jednak nie nazwalby tego tchorzostwem." (p157)

 

['Once in Habbanija, in hospital, we talked about the front. I stubbornly said that every man is a coward in the right conditions ... Then the young blonde, Zbyszek, asked whether I was not afraid of the front? I answered honestly,  that maybe a little, because I had the impression that I would not return from this war. Zbyszek thought about it and said that he would not call that cowardice'.]

 

The judgement no doubt helped poor Herzbaum to keep going.  Lastly, being a super-sensitive soul, Herzbaum longed for love, and doubted his capacity for loving. He had been a teenager when he left home to go to war. He was a loner by nature, had experienced a close relationship only once, and felt himself "exceptional".  So his pangs of loneliness and frustration were all the keener.  In Russia, in the forest in summertime, he watches a girl stripping off to bathe in a river. "Russian women are not given to prudery" he remarks with approval. In Uzbekistan, he reopened the love letter that he had received on the day of his departure from home and had accompanied him on all his travels.  It was written by a girl called Wanda, whom he had met in Zakopane in the summer of 1939, whom he had known for only two days, and whom he would never see again.  Yet it said what every young man is dying to hear. "Dobrze mi bylo z Toba," writes Wanda, and "Kocham Cie, lajdaku!"  ['It was good being with you, I love you, you scoundrel'] It is a beautiful moment. One can imagine him pulling the letter out of his backpack whenever he had a moment to himself and re-reading it many times over - in the Russian forest, in his tent in the Iraqi desert, and in his frontline dugout in Italy. It obviously underlay one of the few positive sentiments in Herzbaum's mental landscape, when he writes in 1945: "Ja sam jeszcze wierze w milosci." [' I myself still believe in love.']

 

It is a truism to say that most soldiers enter the Army as a boy and leave it as a man. The class of 1939 were conscripted from the tender age of 18, were cast into the most devastatingly stressful circumstances after a few weeks training, and, if they survived, would often leave the service disillusioned, traumatised or embittered. In this regard, Herzbaum's career was nothing unusual and certainly not unique. Yet most accounts of World War Two say little about the ordinary soldier's ordinary experiences. Here we can see them directly, and sympathise.

 

From sources beyond the memoir, we know that Edward Herzbaum made a passable life for himself in the post-war world. He studied architecture, first in Italy and later in the Polish University College in London. He married, changed his name to Hartry, and fathered a child. He died young, aged 46, in 1967. We don't know whether he ever re-visited Poland. We equally cannot judge what the quality of his post-war life might have been. One can only say that the worst of his fears were not realised.

 

In my recent illustrated book on the odyssey of the Anders Army, "Trail of Hope", I mobilised nearly one hundred substantial extracts from eye-witness   memoirs; I wanted my own narrative to be enriched by the voices of people who knew the events at first hand. I quoted generals, politicians, officials, deportees, children, nurses, schoolteachers, chaplains cadets, engineers, mothers, writers and poets, resettled refugees, and foreigners who met the Poles, but, with the exception of the inimitable Alexander Topolski, very few soldiers from the lower ranks. So I regret that I had not yet heard of Herzbaum.  If I had learned about him earlier, I would have happily supplemented my account with some substantial quotes from the lonely private from Lodz, who paid less attention to where he was or what he was doing than to how he really felt.

 

1.              Norman Davies,  Trail of Hope: the Odyssey of the Anders Army across three continents, (Osprey Books, Oxford, 2015), translated as Szlak Nadziei:  Armia Andersa Marsz przez trzy kontynenty, (Rosikon Press,  Izabelin-Warszawa, 2015)

2.               Alexander Topolski,  Without Vodka (Ottawa, 1999); Bez dachu, (Poznan, 2012).

 

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Kubica Jerry

August 10 at 9:54pm

HERZBAUM
Miedzy swiatami - Dziennik Andersowca 1939 -1945

I finished reading, closed the book and held it for a while; "what a lovely book" - the thought brought a smile to my face. I have read quite a few books on the subject but never a "lovely" book - not about War, and WW2 in particular There is nothing here about "Za WaszaWolnosc i Nasza!" / for our freedom and ours / nothing about fighting for Poland! dying for Poland! for Honour!, revenge or hatred of the German occupant. There is no great relief or euphoria when Hitler went for Stalin's throat, or when the Amnesty was declared. At times I wondered what made the author join the army in the first place, and yet, he fought in the front line; he did what was required of him, and more; but always as if his soul was detached, somewhere else. He must have been a remarkable man though - not a leader or a forceful personality, but one that drew people to him for where and who in Stalin's GULAG would let a prisoner make notes, who would dare supply him with scraps of paper to write on - all punishable by locking-up in the cooler, or worse. Reading this book I too slowly succumbed to his personality; I do like the style of his writing, but there's more to it than just that and his story - I feel that inner peace of his soul reflected in his writing and paintings A soldier, who while in the front line, with artillery shells exploding around him, still dares to poke his head into the open to live the beauty of the sunrise and finds a moment to paint that marvellous scene. One section of the book I find unforgettable - his observations as he walks down the bombed-out main street of Cassino town are unique - is it real, is it possible? - I still wonder. This is not a review of the book - Norman Davies has done that - only my personal reaction to what I read; I like the book so much I will read it again. (I read the Polish version published by Karta)

Jerry Kubica is the author of three books 'The Road Home', 'Footprints on Monte Cassino' and 'The GulagTrail:Footprint into Exile'.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Jerry+Kubica

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   Review by Irene Tomaszewski

http://cosmopolitanreview.com/lost-between-worlds/

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Review by Dr Danusha Goska, author of 'Bieganski' winner of the 2010 PAHA Halecki Award

http://bieganski-the-blog.blogspot.com/2011/03/edward-herzbaums-lost-between-worlds.html

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Review by Julian Hoseason

http://www.polandinexile.com/bookreviews8.html

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Review by Derek Crowe

 www.derekcrowe.com/post.aspx?id=110

 
 
 
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