Let me tell you the story of a brilliant soldier and an unwavering Polish patriot, who relentlessy chased Germans during World War II.
Stanislaw Maczek is largely appreciated by historians as one of the most gifted commanders of that period. Maczek spent most of his adulthood fighting Russians first, and Germans afterwards. He was bent on confronting both murderous, totalitarian regimes, which were bent on conquering the entire continent to enslave Europeans.
The Polish warrior emerged victorious, although he never had the chance to liberate his own homeland.
Maczek belongs in the pantheon of intrepid Polish war heroes. Alongside Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz, to inform the world about the tragic fate of the camp’s inmates. And Jan Karski, who warned the American president of the ongoing extermination of European Jews.
However, if you're looking for a cold-blooded, implacable Nazi hunter, Stanislaw Maczek is the incarnation of the perfect avenger.
Eighty years ago, on September 1st, 1939, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany. Seventeen days later we were attacked by Soviet Russia. The two dictators, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, had a secret plan to carve up central and eastern Europe and share the spoils.
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At the time Maczek commanded a mechanized brigade. It was not the first war in his logbook. He had combated the Russian invasion in 1920, when Poland thwarted the Bolsheviks’ attempts to roll their tanks into Europe’s heartland.
After the September 1938 campaign, he escaped Poland with thousands of Polish soldiers, who vowed to keep fighting the Germans wherever and whenever they could. The general ended up in Scotland, where the Polish army was being reconstructed. He had traveled through Morocco, Portugal and Gibraltar, disguised in…Arab dress.
Five years later he set foot in France again, this time leading the 1st Polish Armored Division in the Battle of Normandy. Payback time had arrived. As the division’s emblem was a black-winged hussar, it quickly earned the nickname the "Black Devils." They were feared by the Germans, and the Allies admired their courage and efficiency. Maczek's pioneering tactuics were a precursor of modern tank warfare: he preferred speed and mobility over mass firepower.
The 1st Armored Division played a decisive role in the famous Battle of the Falaise Pocket, in 1944, in which the Allies encircled two German armies. The British general Montgomery, supreme commander of the ground forces in Operation Overlord, wrote after the war: "Under Falaise we locked the Germans like they were in a bottle, and the Polish Armored Division was the cork in this bottle."
In the autumn of 1944 the Black Devils continued their raids into Belgium, liberating Ypres and Ghent. Then they stormed Breda in the southern Netherlands, reconquering the town without any civilian casualties. Maczek reportedly insisted that no bomber aircraft be deployed in the assault, since he wished to preserve the unique architecture of the old city.
Breda’s citizens welcomed the liberators enthusiastically, displaying thank-you notes, written in Polish, in their windows. Years later residents of the city applied for Maczek to be granted honorary citizenship of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The petition was signed by 40,000 people.
The war ended. Maczek returned to Britain, his division was demobilized.
Then they came again. The Soviets.
First they liberated Poland from Nazi occupation, but soon they imposed their own bloody rule. As the communists hated those who had fought in the West, many soldiers who chose to go back to Poland immediately after Germany’s surrender were swiftly thrown into jail or summarily executed. Others were eventually barred from re-entering Poland.
Maczek, an honorary Dutch citizen, was stripped of his Polish citizenship. Since he was also deprived of retirement benefits, he had to work as a bartender in restaurants owned by Polish immigrants in Scotland. This time it was the Cold War which exacted its appalling toll.
In 1989, after the collapse of communism, the wartime lionheart was rehabilitated. The Polish government restored his citizenship. Five years later he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish distinction.
Stanislaw Maczek died in Edinburgh in December 1994, at the age of 102. At his prior request he was buried in the Polish war cemetery in Breda, along with his brothers-in-arms.
He once said: "The Polish soldier fights for the freedom of all nations. But he dies only for Poland."
Maczek fought for the freedom of Europe. He fought for the French, for the Dutch, for Belgians, for Jews. He set thousands of people free of German oppression. He was brave and merciless. But he also remained human, even in the darkest moments of World War II.
Marek Magierowski is the Polish ambassador to Israel. Twitter: @mmagierowski