Life & Culture

In the steps of the Polish Moses


Wladyslaw Anders was not dubbed ''The Polish Moses'' lightly. In 1941, the Polish general led his people out of slavery in Stalin's gulags to the "Promised Land" of Mandate Palestine. Catholic Poles celebrated Christmas 1942 in Bethlehem and 5,000 Polish Jews travelled with the army from the frozen wastes of the Arctic to the wartime streets of Tel Aviv.

Following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland just a few weeks after their allies in Germany marched into the west of that country on September 1, 1939, Stalin ordered a round up of the Polish army and their families. They were put in cattle wagons for the long journey to the Soviet prison camps of Siberia and Central Asia. There they remained; many died on the journey, others from the cold, from beatings, malnutrition and disease. Those who survived were released under the terms of a British-negotiated ''amnesty'' with Stalin - in effect the release of the Polish army following the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. This imprisoned army had to make its own way across thousands of miles to
join the British forces in Iran, Iraq and Palestine.

Among these people, a ragged army of over 120,000 victims of Stalin's terror, was a future Prime Minister of Israel. The destination for this army was British-controlled territory in the Middle East. Here, they would recuperate and train for onward battles against the Nazis in Italy. In 1942, the soldiers of the Anders Army arrived in Palestine - 70,000 of them of which around 5,000 were Jews, many of whom were destined to become highly trained members of Israel's nascent military force.

If you haven't heard of this monumental story of exodus and delivery, then you are not alone. The incredible journey undertaken by the Poles from frozen captivity to pre-independence Israel, has somehow been buried under the weight of time.

The epic journey of the Anders Army has now been told by no less an authority than Professor Norman Davies, author of scholarly works on the history of Poland, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20.

The title of his latest book illuminates his theme: Trail of Hope – the Anders Army, an odyssey across three continents. Anders in fact led his men (and a small army of civilian women and children) over a 12,500 kilometre trek.

Davies, a self-effacing academic recently spoke to a packed audience at the Centre for Polish Studies at Cambridge University. Writing this history has been a labour of love for a man whose passion for Polish history has made him something of a legendary figure in the salons of Warsaw and Krakow. Says Davies: "I first heard of General Anders and his army more than 50 years ago. I admired him then, and I admire him still; and I feel a special bond with the men, women and children whom he rescued from hunger, disease, and official abuse. Theirs is a story of endurance and fortitude that gives one faith in the human spirit."

His book is certainly thorough - around 600 pages of testimonies from survivors and a research journey that took the professor to Russia, Poland, Kazakhstan and modern-day Israel. It is striking that the first colour plate in the book is that of Davies and his photographer standing in Jerusalem's old city.

Davies is keen to remind us of the role played by the Polish sojourn in Palestine and has stumbled on a little-known fact; "Though it is quite well-known that 3,000 Jewish soldiers in Anders' army deserted once they reached Palestine, many Jews of Polish descent, already there, decided to join up and travel with the Poles to fight the Germans in Italy."

In fact the word ''deserted'' is not wholly accurate. Menachem Begin, duty bound by the oath of allegiance he had sworn to the Polish army, made a formal request to General Anders that he be relieved of duty once in the Holy Land. Anders accepted and Begin was given an honourable discharge from the Polish army.

Zionist leaders in Palestine were in close correspondence with Jewish Polish troops as soon as they arrived (often on foot) in the British military camps of Iran and Iraq.

Some, including David Azrieli (he of the huge properties now in Tel Aviv) deserted on arrival in Baghdad where, disguised as a poor Arab peasant, he was helped by a local Jewish family. Many Jewish babies were born during the epic journey and Davies has interviewed members of a group who in Israel are known as "the Teheran Children".

The Palestinian Jews (including Moshe Dayan) set up a sophisticated network of offices, safe houses, and remote kibbutzim where desertion was offered alongside effective hiding places and false papers. Anders, according to Davies, was actually sympathetic to his Jewish soldiers, telling a group of Polish officers: "The Jews are fighting for their freedom and I do not intend to stand in their way." Writing 20 years later, Anders commented, "I gave precise instructions not to pursue the deserters. I considered that the Jews who saw their first duty in the struggle for Palestine's freedom, had every right to that view."

Not surprisingly, this willingness to let his Jewish soldiers go AWOL did not go down well with the Mandate authorities. The British military police offered to send any discovered deserters back but Anders refused the offer. After some bloody skirmishes, the British authorities decided to reduce the number of Jewish immigrant licences to Palestine by the same number of deserters from the Anders Army.

According to an official document cited by Davies, by January 1944 the former members of the Anders Army headed for four locations: kibbutzim with appropriate political affiliations, political organisations, family and friends, and the Jewish Legion within the British Army. Davies suggests that relatively few followed Begin's journey to Zionist military bodies.

By the time the Polish army left Palestine at the end of 1943, the one third of Jewish soldiers who remained with Anders went with him to Italy. Davies tells us that there were 850 soldiers and 126 Jewish officers, many of whom were decorated in battle. These soldiers stayed in Italy until the end of the war, when the entire Anders Army was shipped to Britain for a new life as refugees (for most, a return to a Communist dominated Poland was not a safe option).

Davies's book is a colourful account of the epic journey of the Polish army. It does not pretend
to be a weighty academic work but rather a lively series of anecdotes, facts, contemporary reports and many fascinating photographs including Anders in Nazareth and an outing to Jerusalem. One Polish Catholic soldier remembered a communion in Bethlehem in Christmas 1942 and recalled that, "I visited Tel Aviv where everything was in Polish… the locals liked us more than the British".

For the Oxford-based Davies, the book has been a true labour of love. "I first came across the Anders Army story by accident. When I first went to live in Oxford in the 1960s, I discovered that some of my close neighbours had been on the Anders trail. One was a lady who had been released from the gulag with her four children and spent two years walking to freedom - at one point travelling with her kids on a flimsy wooden raft down a Russian river."

This book is one that Davies has long wanted to write. "I wanted to produce a book that would demonstrate not only the rich diversity of people who answered to Anders's command but also the extraordinary variety of their experiences and emotions: from death to despair, fear and longings and eventually to hope."

Davies clearly enjoyed his research in Israel. "I met the representatives of the Teheran Children who have recently won recognition from the Israeli Supreme Court. I also met several surviving Jewish members of the Anders Army and found an enormous diversity of experiences. A few complained of antisemitism in the 2nd Corps but this was not a universal experience - how else would you explain the numbers of Polish Jewish soldiers who actually joined Anders in Palestine, keen as they were to fight the Nazis?"

Davies also has his theories about why the whole story has been kept out of the limelight: "It's partly to do with the post-war cult of Stalin - 'Uncle Joe could do no wrong' - and we didn't want to be reminded that our allies in the free Polish army were for a long time incarcerated in the gulags"

Davies's book casts a strong light on a hitherto forgotten episode that had strong connections to the founding of the state of Israel. He deals with the accusations that Anders's army was antisemitic (strongly refuting them) and paints a fascinating picture of a forgotten exodus led by a Polish Moses.

Mike Levy is a freelance writer and playwright. His play about the Anders exodus, 'The Invisible Army', was performed at the Polish Social and Cultural Centre in London in 2012 and was awarded a Pro Memorium Medal by the Polish government.

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