A Soldier's Testament [Testament Zolnierza]
by Prof. Rudolf Tarczynski
At last I am going back to Poland! After many long years of wandering, my dearest dream about my faraway Homeland [Fatherland], as it remained in my memory, is coming true. I am returning to the great fields of Mazowsze, to the roadside crosses decorated with dried-out wreaths, to the willow trees covered by a great torn canopy of leaves -- to the cottages which are like mushrooms, overgrown with moss, growing among the flowers and surrounded by orchards of plum and apple trees.
We were to return together, I and my friend Antoni Krzyzyk. But I am going alone for Krzyzyk had made the journey from which no traveller returns. Equipped for eternity with his blue uniform of Haller's army and a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa in his hand, Antek [diminutive for Anthony] is resting under a mound of earth at a cemetery in Detroit and dreams his eternal dream. It was not granted him to return to the homeland and his family, though this kept him going all during the years of wandering, that led him from continent to continent over the long years. But when the long desired day of departure for the homeland arrived, death came to claim him.
It happened quickly; it is still difficult to believe in the fact that Antek had passed on. Just three weeks ago he was busy and made arrangements, counting the American dollars he had saved to see if they would buy him a piece of land in Poland, so that he, his wife and daughter who were in Poland all this time, could settle on their own place. His eyes would smile in joy [looking forward] to a few furrows of land, a little garden, and a cottage wreathed in wild vines. And then -- nothing!
Antek's wonderful dream blew away when death struck, like a dusty vision. A cold, the flu, complications and the man was gone like a blown-out candle. Before dying he asked me to take the money he saved to his wife and daughter together with some other things; then he handed me a packet bound with string and sealed with wax.
"This is for you," he said with difficulty, "you will read this after my death... There is my entire life... You will know it..." Then he added, "I will not see Poland again..."
"He could not finish, his strength had gone. He had loved Poland without limit, and now he would not see it after it had been resurrected. His chest shook with weeping, that he would not see it.
But now he must be able to see it. I believe that the soul, after crossing the bridge of death, will find on the other side that which was the purpose of its life, the thing it longed for all that time. Could anything else have awaited Antek among the heavenly places than the Poland of his birth, decorated with fruitful fields; painted like a [multicolored] Lowicz sash. There he could converse with God about his little bit of farmland, and decide what he would sow there.
Don't worry Antek! Your fields will be beautiful because you have watered them with blood during your life and you will plant on them with the pure seed of poetry that sprouts in your soul and from this planting will spring a plentiful and immortal crop.
Gray dawn peers through the windows of the hotel room. From the depths of the street which is 18 floors below I can hear a tumult, noise, the honking of auto horns, the continuous roar of life in an American city which tears forward with incredible rapidity, and always forward -- life that flashes by with nights and days going past like the images in a kaleidoscope.
Tomorrow, all this will be behind me. I will be surrounded by the majestic silence of the Atlantic that is interrupted only by the murmur of the waves, the flight of gulls and the shrill of a ship's whistle. Tomorrow, I will be poorer by a day, but richer by the 24 hours that have brought me closer to Poland.
Meanwhile, I am sitting here for a few hours, poring over Antek's diary. Among the yellowed scraps of paper I find the occasional dried flower, a piece of faded blue ribbon. These are mementoes of the heart, who does not have them? The events in the great days fade and pass as they depart into the past.
I turn the pages and go past the dried flowers with the blue ribbon. The pages start to tell the story. Here are some portions of Antek's memories.
"That I have saved some of the brighter moments from my childhood I can only credit my inborn imagination. To this day past events come back to me in colors that are far from reality. Reality, you see, is a provincial city, a poor family home, the endless care parents put into bringing up and feeding their six children. It is daily life that pours out like the sand in an hourglass, separating the monotony of yesterday from the colorlessness of tomorrow.
"Inbetween these days are the wondrous and unique childhood experiences connected with some rather insignificant things -- a shiny button, a wooden toy horse bought at the village market, a crowing rooster, a deck of well used cards from which palaces created in the mind of a child were built -- lead soldiers, which when arranged, awakened the excitement of war that grew from the atavism of his noble ancestors, and finally the etchings seen in annuals [illustrated magazines] of "Wedrowiec" [Wanderer] and "Klosy" [Ears of Grain] that directly took a sensitive child's soul into the maelstrom of the great world, one full of exciting adventures and tales.
"The ability to experience all, even the most mundane external phenomena, in my own deep way, but in a strangely lively and colorful way, plus the exultation produced in me a need for solitude. My apparently ill and over emotional soul defended itself against the noisy play of my siblings -- counter to that -- quiet, the dark nave of a church, the rays of the sun playing out a rainbow of colors on the stained glass windows, old cemeteries with their thickets of green, led me into a state of contemplation and prayer. Not knowing the cause, I cried in such moments, not knowing why -- perhaps from the excess of emotions that prayer brought out, and who knows, perhaps I felt in my subconscious a premonition of the things that fate had in store for me as life progressed.
"Those are the later days of my life -- but why get ahead of events.
"I was raised in the Russian zone of partition in times when great national ideals, stifled by the occupier's awful might, were maturing in the Polish soul. This is when the suffering masses would rise to protest through heroic deeds in the name of freedom. I grew up under the inspiration of that wonderful legend of Poland being reborn. In my soul was nursed, by an almost superhuman desire, the mirage of freedom, [the rising] of 'the white lady [Polonia] in her shackles, sleeping under the wings of the royal eagle' -- the prayer on the lips and in the heart of every Pole. Conspiratorial [forbidden] Polish books read secretly in the night by the flickering light of a candle, the poetry and songs of Niemcewicz, [Father] Skarga's sermons awakened in me, above all other emotions, the active element of love for the Homeland. As years went on, this feeling grew in strength and then while in prayer by the May flowers on the altar of the Blessed Virgin, I made a solemn oath to devote my life to the service of God and the Homeland. That moment I decided to become a priest.
"This plan was difficult to put into practice because of the poverty of my parents who were not able to pay for my studies. In addition, in school I had the reputation of a dullard and a lay-about despite the fact that I was diligent and hard-working. The prefix of "dunce" during school days was my mark [of nobility], and the switches I collected in math class, the seal on my crest.
"This state of things did not contribute to my advantage nor being recognized as a genius in home or school, to the contrary -- it produced unpleasant incidents which painfully and firmly were felt on my skin. In the end, one may become used to anything, so I became used to the blows falling from the punishing hand -- as to the fulsome greetings uttered by my father on my return from school: "Show me your daily book [report card], you blockhead." And these would be invariably accompanied with a disciplining of the flesh. My instinct under these circumstances was unerring, because this was the limit of my father's interest in my school accomplishments, as expressed in my marks.
"The epilogue of this was the horoscope my father would cast as to my future where I would be a swineherd or sew boots [shoemakers being held in low esteem]. These visions of my future were illustrated lively in my parent's interpretation.
"I was no expert in math, but there was something that took me into the realm of emotions, and I was absolutely devoted to poetry and music. Beautifully rhymed speech, modulated tones when heard under the silvery light of the moon, could transport my soul into the magical world of fantasy. This was one more plus to benefit my emotional life but a definite minus to its algebra.
"The need and desire to do God's work grew stronger in me. But to become a priest in those times was not easy. On the one side was my parents' doubt in the sincerity of my calling; on the other the oppression of the Russian government and its negative stance as regards the clergy. The number of students at the seminaries in the Congress Kingdom was limited.
"But there are no barriers to those who would not recognize them. With difficulty, by executing my plan in order to reach the goal, I found myself at a seminary school in Wloclawek.
"My memories from that period were the best. At that time I did not know the disturbing currents of life, to me the sensual desires were a sealed book. In this regard my soul was still sleeping. Free from the secrets of amorous experiences I lived my days in peace, saturated by the mysticism of prayer and the firm faith in the righteousness of my calling, among the old walls of the seminary.
"With assurance I walked toward my priestly future, and this future was very near to reality. In taking up this life's mission I felt an increase in my awaking powers. This shy, reticent young man, whom I was, was moving into the first phase of his adult life and through the victorious energy of youth, which could be seen burning in his eyes, I moved toward victory at my goal, sure and without reservations.
"From my youth my soul had been praying. I had an appreciation for beauty and my imagination was supplemented by lessons in history and literature, which were given secretly at the seminary. This inspired my writing talent. I started to put pen to paper, and I wrote guided not by the brain but by the heart -- with a strange inner inspiration, which filled me like a fluid. The subject of these first poetic stirrings was always a love of the Homeland, the resumption of heroism and sacrifice as the price for liberating Poland.
"These emanations of my heart and soul played on the strings of my youthful exaltations and sang to deepest internal stanzas, devoted to 'the lady sleeping under the shadow of the wings of the white eagle.'
"I had no intention of reading to anyone these early creations of my imagination. But in some way they found their way to the rector of the seminary, who was an enlightened priest, scholar, aesthete -- an enthusiast of beauty. This enthusiast allowed me to discover in those literary attempts a first-class writing talent.
"Under the influence of his statements, for the first time I felt then a penetrating shiver of pride. For the first time I saw other possibilities before me. I would be no longer a quiet worker in the harvest-fields for Christ, but a famous author. A totally unknown world was opening before me. Youth with its longings, its burning blood, youth that fills the head with the wine of madness manifested itself in me. The simple pleasures of contemplation were gone, I felt the need to take flight, to experience freedom. After all I was a poet.
"In the gardens the lilacs and chestnut trees were blooming, while the lark trilled its springtime song.
"On a sloping line I was moving toward my destiny. I was to meet it in a short time.
"I fell ill. I was weak, dizzy, spasms in my chest, fainting spells -- were more and more frequent. The doctors advised that I take a cure. I was given a stipend. Taking advantage of the spring vacation I went to one of the more popular spas.
"An unforgettable time began. The days live in my memory like a legend. This all seems far from reality, all is like a dream, an illusion, a daydream -- but it was real.
"Moonlit nights. There was a beautiful strip of forest, a slowly flowing river with reeds on its banks, all bathed in the moon's silver glow, coo-coos, thrushes, blooming roses, meadows covered with flowers, shaded with green growth, the extensive park of the spa resort, tennis courts, and then Janka [Jane] whom I first met [at this resort] in Ciechocinek.
"I once again live these events and write of them, though I am old, and my heart longs for these youthful times while it beats with the madness of those days.
"At arrival I was alone, but after a few days I found my way into the rapidly moving social life. My 22 years, a melancholic look in my eyes, something reminiscent of Werther [Goethe's love-sick tragic hero] made a very favorable impression on all.
"There were walks, trips, I started to play tennis with a passion. I felt that I was at the spring of life and youth, forgetting that I was a seminarian who would soon become a priest. I had not mentioned my theological studies to anyone, about my vocation, but I did talk about my literary aspirations, and they knew me as a beginning poet. But I was enjoying the beautiful summer, the space, the freedom, the lack of care. I was more and more attracted to the secular life.
"On one occasion Zosia L., my tennis partner announced that her friend Janka would be coming for a visit on the following day. 'You will see, Janka is exceptional. She just finished high school with a medal, and she is very pretty.' On the next day we met at tennis. A thin, delicate girl, who looked like a child, ran back and forth intercepting the ball while her two long braids of light hair trailed behind.
"Beautiful! It was my first impression after the first time I shyly peered into her eyes which seemed exceedingly wise and shaded by long lashes.
"We played tennis, and then took a walk into the interior of the park, she and I. We walked among the thickets suffused by the aroma of flowers, leaves and mowed grass. We wandered on paths bordered by geraniums. In the first moments of this unforgettable evening, Janka's braids became entangled on the branch of some thorny bush. In helping her to free herself I took into my hand these soft and silky braids as she was putting her hands on them. Our hands met, and then so did our eyes. For an incalculable moment we gazed into each other, burning inside. For the first time in my life I felt the full surge of life, the beauty of youth and love.
"I could not sleep that night. I spent it on a park bench, my head thrown back, staring at the stars. I was in love. The world was mine -- I could put my winged arms around it, and as my soul sang I could embrace it to my breast with the wind of a first love.
"So began satisfying, undescribable days. There was tennis, walks, trips, and the reading of Slowacki [poet second only to Mickiewicz]. There was the music of the word and the song of life. Love vibrated in our stilled voices, love filled us totally without words, and yet it expressed itself.
"I was only worried by Janka's interrupted dry cough. I remember how she held her handkerchief to her lips to stifle the attacks of coughing. But despite this she was so joyful, full of life, such color burned in her cheeks, that I forgot about her illness, and thought it to be a temporary disorder, that was not very serious.
"We were overfilled with feelings which carried us in a more and more powerful way and all reality disappeared under the influence of this miraculous symphony of the heart. Then came the moment when I was no longer able to keep silent. I told Janka how much I loved her and our first kiss fully joined our lips.
"But when Janka started to talk about our future together, I was petrified! I realized quite clearly that I was a seminarian, and would soon be a priest.
"God! A penetrating cold overtook me. To run, but to where and from what? From the wonderful happiness just recognized and already passing? What about the vocation? Was it an illusion, an errant decision? What was before me? I had made an error in choosing my life's path, my faith, a priesthood without a scared calling. I was drowning in despair. How to tell this to the girl that I loved above all? It appeared to be beyond my strength.
"But I had to do it...
"On the last evening she asked me why I was so sad, what was bothering me? A cough shook her chest, she stooped it with her handkerchief at her lips. The awful reality stood revealed before me in all its brutal truth. She was very ill, and I, I would become a priest. I would leave her forever, tomorrow. I would never see her again. All that was beautiful, so colorful just a moment before, became grey and hopelessly sad. The world before me was stripped of all its illusions, bare and pitiless.
"How will she be able to take my leaving, she being so weak, so ill? For a long time I kissed her slim transparent hands, her beautifully shaped lips-- and then I left.
"I went on the following day. I wrote Janka a letter, telling her the reasons for my leaving. I returned to the seminary sicker than I was when I left for mu vacation.
"Encephalitis, brain fever. The young organism battled the all-consuming fever and finally overcame the illness but could not quiet the torture of the heart. The conflict of vocation and love, was way beyond my strength. To rise to the promise made when I was a child I tried to stifle my feelings for Janka. For this purpose I went to the Dominican monastery. Like a ghostly shadow I moved during the night among the walls of the old abbey with a candle in my hand. The seminarian in love went to prostrate himself for hours at the feet of the Mother of God. But the prayers and sacrifices were to no avail. Love would win after all.
"I received another stipend and went to Rome, thinking that the new experiences that I would have on the journey would finally distract me from the limitless feelings. I was wrong -- distance made the longing stronger. Under the influence of the travel I again became ill, and lost the right to draw my stipend.
"During confession, the priest, as if inspired by prophecy, told me: 'Go into the world, an apostleship of the spirit awaits you, you will encounter a thorn strewn path, but it will be easier for you to win the love of God.' This decided my actions, I resolved to devote myself to literature. I started to write. Now I was writing better than a year before, for now I knew life and suffering.
"I returned to Poland. The dread of duty that had tortured me was gone. I was free to link my life with the girl whom I loved. My joy was boundless!
"From Rome I sent a letter to Janka telling her everything. She did not write back. I sent another one from Krakow where I went to study art history, but there was only silence. Much worried by this I traveled to Warsaw. I was troubled by ill forebodings that grew as I neared the end of my journey. On arrival I went to see Ms. L. to learn about Janka.
"I found Zosia at home. 'How is it you don't know?' -- I heard in answer to my question. 'It's been seven months since she died from consumption [tuberculosis].'
" 'She suffered much after you departed. We had no secrets between us,' she continued her sad story. 'From your letter she knew everything and understood the reasons you listed in your letter, but despite this she suffered much.' Then looking at me she added, 'But you did not become a priest, so why, why do all this? ...'
"The room spun around me, I grabbed the back of a chair as not to fall. I don't know how I was even able to walk out of Ms. L's house. I don't know how I made it onto the street..."
I continued to turn the pages written with the pain of a broken heart. With each passing page I experienced Antek's painful march through life and then consigned each page to the past.
He was alone, abandoned by all others. He was the victim of human prejudice -- for not going through to his eventual ordination, and this becomes the curse of his life. The priest-reject is himself rejected, his life a wreck. All the doors that but a year before were opened to him are now closed. Among this collection of oddities, ill-will and spiritual disorder he finds a sympathetic soul. Distrustful of people and life, he cannot believe in her selflessness and dedication. He marries her, inspired by a feeling of gratitude. But he does not love her at the moment. His first youthful love is in the grave. It will be a guiding light for the rest of his life.
A sad, very sad story. Above all through all of the troubles that life can offer -- lack of success, the fruitless fight for a piece of bread -- suffers a patriotic Pole.
Antek gives a lively and colorful description of the year 1905.
"I see before me a painful vision of cossacks who are beating students and workers with horse-whips, and then taking them to the citadel [prison] where they are sentenced to hanging or exile. My soul makes the journey of exile with them." The shouts of protest against the oppressors of the unfortunate Homeland, show him a purpose that once was suggested when he came to make his penance. "You will walk a thorn strewn road, you will be a missionary of the spirit."
The words uttered by a priest become a revelation to him. He is willing to pay the highest price to see the Homeland liberated.
Meanwhile, the earth seems to be burning under his feet in Poland. He goes to Paris. Through all the segments of his journey he carries the banner of an unbroken faith in the miracle of a liberated Poland. This faith becomes steel. Despite seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, he moves forward and works for the cause with all his might. Among the secret organizations in Paris he is one of the most active members. He forms secret organizations among the Falcons, the "Corps of the Grunwald Soldiers" and the "Corps of the Knights of the White Cross." He is tireless where the good of the cause is concerned.
As I read these pages, I can reconstruct the activities among the Paris emigrants of the 1830s. My friend interprets those times, not of a Paris from the songs of Montmartre, or the one that throbbed with life on the Elysian Fields [Champs d'Elysse] but a different one, one shrouded in the shadows of conspiracy, inspired by the spirit of Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Ciszczynski and Zan. There are the surges of heroism and manhood, and at the same time the envy they generate, the little ambitions, underhanded dealings, and intrigues.
Our hero experiences these things anew. Again, on the streets of Paris, he has to struggle with insufficient income and human foulness.
Through intrigue and envy he is forced to move out of work in emigree organizations, yet he does not stop continuing his work as a citizen. During this time he writes much. He has no opportunity to develop the poetic talent that was observed in his youth, so he moves into the field of journalism.
Years pass... The days go by like rosary beads, one much like the other, grey, monotonous, without hope for a better future, but each meaningful in the heart of a Pole; marked with an "Ave Maria" for the day that the nation may be liberated from bondage, for the miracle of resurrection.
.... And she rose from the dead!!! [See patriotic poster]
"I cannot tell this moment in words," writes Antek in his diary, "when my wife, the good-hearted Jasia, burst into the apartment full of enthusiasm and fire in her eyes. In an emotional voice she told me that she saw on the streets of Paris, real Polish soldiers in blue four-cornered caps. I started to run from my place and was soon on the street, as if I had sprouted wings.
"It was a miracle. The prayer had been heard. I have lived to see the moment of Poland's liberation. It was a thing unbelievable -- a free Poland! Polish soldiers! No, it was not a dream, but reality!
"On the horizon a new tomorrow is born. Our Homeland, asleep for over a hundred years is waking and spreading out its arms. The royal bird takes flight and soars through the air, telling the people about a free nation --- one that has regained its freedom..."
Moved by his patriotism, Antek joins the ranks of the Polish forces. He is appointed a lieutenant in Gen. Haller's Army. After a few months, he travels through a defeated Germany to Poland.
On the front at Lwow Antek serves as a wartime interpreter, and has various functions including as commandant of the barracks at Zamosc, and chief of Military Police in the field. As a Polish adjutant on the staff of Gen. Modellon, he is entrusted with several dangerous missions.
Forced marches, endless struggle, muddy roads, barbed wire barriers, the whistle of bullets, the crack of rifle fire -- Antek's descriptions of these dangerous moments during wartime are lively and sharp. At Belzec, by heroic effort, he saves the city from an Ukrainian takeover.
The war ends, Antek remains in Poland. But his luck is bad luck, and it does not leave him. The curse of the failure to complete his priestly calling follows him at every strep. Human evilness and envy twice conspire against him when he tries to get a position. He knocks at the doors of Polish ministers. Instead of a recommendation he has patriotic deeds to give him credence. He cites his educational work in the army, but it is all for naught. Human hearts are dead. He has no means of support nor a roof over his head in Poland, a failure in life, an exile from his own Homeland -- he gets letters of recommendation from among the most illustrious individuals in the country and again goes into the world -- he travels to America.
Again he is a wanderer and a beggar. The land of the dollar bill is cruel to him. There is no sympathy or aid. After numberless efforts to find work, he is finally given the post of editor at one of the Polish-American publications.
That is where I met Antek. I got to know his deep heart, his willingness to sacrifice and his love for Poland, and his ability as a poet, whose soul never had the opportunity to sing its song.
I turn the final pages and soon I will close the notebook, which contains an entire sad human life.
There are but a few pages left. He is ill and feels that life is draining away, and that he will never return to Poland. He is lonely. In uneven script, some of it illegible, in letters that will go into eternity as his thoughts leave this earth, he writes his final testament.
"I am dying... Bury me in the simplest soldier's coffin. Dress me in my blue uniform. May a saber rest at my side. Put a rosary into my hands -- quoniam Sodalis Marianus sum -- and to the lid of the coffin nail the crown of thorns and black cross from above my bed. No other than my companions from the Blue Army should carry the coffin, and may the horn play assembly at the funeral for I wish to be worthy to stand at assembly with my Lord..."
I closed the notebook, having finished reading. The sun had risen in the heavens. I will make a visit to say goodby at Antek's grave for tomorrow I will be far away from here!
Orchard Lake, MI, August 1931
From: Czyn Zbrojny Polonii Amerykanskiej [The Armed Effort of American Polonia], edited by Artur. L. Waldo; "Dziennik Zjednoczenia," Chicago, IL, 1938, pages 186-199
Translation by: Peter J. Obst, for The Poles in America Foundation, May 31, 2011.
1. The author states at the beginning of the story that Antek was buried in the Detroit area, and that he will be on the ocean sailing for Poland on the next day. At the end of the story he says that he will visit the grave before he departs. There appears to be an inconsistency here -- for even if he were sailing to Poland via the St. Lawrence Seaway, he could NOT be at sea on the Atlantic within 24 hours.
2. It is interesting that the author compares Antek to Werther, the tragic hero in Geothe's story "The Sorrows of Young Werther." There is a difference, Werther was disappointed in his love for Lotte (Charlotte) and in his sorrow committed suicide with a pistol. The novel was smash hit international bestseller in the late 1700s and led to other disappointed lovers emulating Werther. For this reason it was banned in various countries/localities at various times.
3. The poster/print of "Polonia Resurrected" has all the symbolism that the author mentioned throughout the story. He was probably familiar with this or another version of the allegorical painting. The central figure is a woman in white (with a red cape) coming out of a crypt. Interestingly the little pennant she holds has the Polish national colors reversed - it should be white on top. This is the figure of Poland or Polonia. She stands on the crypt's cover stone (gravestone) that has toppled over three soldiers (Russian, Austrian, Prussian - note the uniforms) pinning them to the ground. A peasant presents a gold crown to Polonia -- note the broken chain on her right wrist. The year 1795 is engraved above the entrance to the tomb, while on the rising sun is the year 1918. The white eagle (looks more like a big dove) flies above the scene while members of the various orders of society: peasants, soldiers, townspeople, and clergy are cheering. In the background is a representation of Wawel castle on the Vistula, seat of Polish kings.