Saturday, 18 July 2015

Birds of Prey (The story of Lucjan “Vulture” Wiśniewski)

(Originally posted on Sunday, 30 October 2016)

The symbol on the cover above the title (the letter P with a bottom like an anchor) means “Polska walczy” (“Poland fights”) or “Polska walcząca” (“fighting Poland”).

My rating: 9/10

This book is mainly an interview witch Lucjan “Vulture” Wiśniewski, who gives first-hand descriptions about some very interesting, yet dreadful things that happened during World War II in Warsaw under the occupation of Germans. The interviewers/authors (Emil Marat and Michał Wójcik) add some other information they obtained from other sources, which builds quite a picture of what was happening there and then.

I don’t want to give you a wrong idea about the book, so I'll write something that is found in the beginning of the book. In January 1940 Lucjan Wiśniewski was not “Vulture” (his pseudonym in the Polish underground), but just a 15-year-old teenage boy who witnessed a mass execution of Polish citizens that was carried out by German soldiers. He saw it from a window of his home – from a distance of several hundred meters. He (and his parents too) were shocked and they didn’t know why the execution took place. Even today there are no details about that particular tragedy.

After some time Wiśniewski joined the Polish underground army AK (“armia krajowa” – usually translated as “home army”) and went through a training for partisans and underground soldiers. He was able to keep his calm even in very stressful situations, which was noticed by his commanders. One of them offered him a job that was a bit different, but it was the most dangerous and the most stressful of them all – carrying out death penalties issued by Polish underground courts on people working for Germans as informers or secret agents (on traitors in general) or on people who were blackmailing Jews (on people threatening Jews’ lives). During that time he assumed his pseudonym “Vulture” – he was in a unit that was called “Birds” because all the members of the unit assumed pseudonyms after species of birds.

From the book you can find some estimates on the Polish society in Warsaw during the German occupation. Around 70 % of people were passive and just wanted to survive – they didn't actively plot or fight against the occupiers. Around 25 % of people were heroic and risk their own lives to actively plot and fight against the occupiers. The third part (around 5 % of people) were traitors and blackmailers of Jews. It was the people from that part of the society that were sentenced to death by the Polish undergrounds courts. So, “Vulture” ended up carrying out death penalties issued mostly on Polish citizens, but it was as important as fighting directly against the German occupiers. Moreover German soldiers and German agents were constantly patrolling Warsaw, so it was a doubly dangerous job indeed.

The executioners never participated in the proceedings of the Polish underground courts that were judging such cases. Those who were emotionally involved in a case (who wanted to avenge a friend for example) were not allowed to participate in the execution either. Overall they were just carrying out orders of their commanders.

“Vulture” came from a religious family and he went to a priest to talk about his job. The priest told him that it is not enough to use an aspergillum, considering the terror spread by Germans. “You have to shoot at them!”, told the priest. “What about women?”, asked “Vulture”. “And what if they deserved it?”, answered the priest with a question. Those were truly dreadful times.

The book is not only about carrying out death sentences, but also about the Warsaw uprising in 1944. “Vulture” took part in several hair-raising actions during the uprising, but what is truly interesting is the fact that “Vulture” adds his own point of view on some of the Polish commanders from that time. “Vulture” defends some of them, by disagreeing with negative opinions about them stated by other people (including other Polish commanders). Some people feed on criticizing other people, but “Vulture” seems to be the kind of person who tries to place himself in the shoes of another person. I like it.

Another good thing about the book is the fact that there are some very interesting things about Józef Retinger (a very influential and unique person). However I have to add something that is missing from the book. The problem with Retinger is the fact that he was also partly responsible for the terrible things that happened in Mexico in 1920s and 1930s (he was an unofficial political advisor to Plutarco Elías Calles and he stayed in Mexico from 1917 to 1934). The authors of the book mention the fact that Retinger was an advisor to Plutarco Elías Calles, but they do not even comment what it really meant (what happened in Mexico then). I don't like it.

The main problem with this book (it's not a big problem, but only the main problem), is the lack of chronology. Some additional info (for example about a particular person other than “Vulture”) is given when it seems appropriate, but it breaks the overall chronology. What’s worse some things about “Vulture” himself were not in a chronological order. I didn’t like that. Yes, it was a kind of an interview, but the authors (the interviewers) could have asked the questions (or pick the topics) in a different order.

Overall the book is well worth reading. There are many unique, yet true little stories about brave men who didn’t want to give up and didn’t want to end up as slaves to the German occupiers. It also makes you think how terrible a war (any war) is. The best thing about this book is the fact that it makes you realize that there are always some individuals who are in the thick of the action most of the time and yet, somehow, they come out of all that mess alive. Even though the book is mainly an interview, the descriptions of some of the actions are quite long and such parts feel more like a book written in a first person perspective. A book telling a real, hair-raising war-time story.

PS. I am not going to even try to translate an excerpt of the book, but I will put it in my own words, making a kind of summary of one of the missions described in detail in the book. There are many interesting things about war-time Warsaw in the book and this part is a very good example that in some cases German soldiers patrolling the streets preferred not to get involved and simply vanished from the area when a shooting started.

It was an execution that was carried out by only a couple of men – usually it was a team of 5 men patrolling an area and protecting each other. The target (a man of Ukrainian origin who was a very influential blackmailer of Jews) was very hard to locate on his way to work, but it was the only place they could execute him in any safe way. It was in a town very close to Warsaw and after several unsuccessful attempts by the whole team, “Vulture” and “Bullfinch” went there on their own. Only “Vulture” knew exactly what their target looked like and he was stunned when he saw the target riding a bicycle straight toward them! But the place was very bad and some German soldiers patrolling the streets were visible in the distance. “Vulture” must have had a strange expression on his face because “Bullfinch” realised that the guy on the bicycle is their target (“Bullfinch” did know a rough description of the target). So “Bullfinch”, without thinking, took out his pistol and started shooting. “Vulture”, with nothing to lose now, added some shots on his own. When the target was dead “Bullfinch” turned toward “Vulture” and asked: “Where do we run?” “Vulture” swore at him and they started running. “Vulture” was sure that they were going to die, but they were lucky – the German soldiers vanished from the view. “Vulture” and “Bullfinch” escaped to relative safety by scaling several fences. They got out of town and were going on foot on a side road when two German soldiers on a motorbike appeared on the road behind them. “Vulture” succeeded in keeping “Bullfinch” from shooting at the soldiers from afar. “Vulture” knew that they could take the Germans out easily, but he was afraid that it could provoke a pursuit by other soldiers. He saw that the German soldiers had no weapons ready (it’s hard to have them ready when you are driving a motorbike on an uneven road). When the Germans were close they saw the determination on the faces of “Vulture” and “Bullfinch” and they realised the danger they were in. The motorbike passed “Vulture” and “Bullfinch” by, accelerated and drove away. Both sides wanted to live and they parted in a kind of peace.

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