October, 2019. I am in the Sikorski Archives of the Polish Institute in London; archive-browsing. Today’s mission is to see if anything can be found about a very specific activity of civilians attached to the Polish 2nd Korps, AKA the Anders Army of the Second World War, in Bethany, Mandate Palestine. I am searching for any documents for their presence in one location in Bethany; a long shot, but at any rate, it’s an excuse to visit. The staff is extremely helpful and provide me with their Mandate archive folios.
The story that emerges from the documents before me helps further illustrate what little I already know; a story of an army refitting, training and preparing for their fateful campaign in Italy, of providing for civilians and establishing welfare, education and leisure committees to make the best of adverse conditions. Photos of sunburned Poles in British-issued khaki desert uniforms; military camps in the Negev, West Bank and the coastal plain, of weekend holidays to pilgrimage and archaeological sites and trips to the sea help capture this moment in time.
Palestine was just one stop for this massive migration of approximately 120,000 Polish soldiers and civilians in the epic, tragic experience of Poland and its people during the Second World War. Yet for a people having survived unimaginable hardships first in war and Soviet prison camps, then having traversed across the expanse of Iran and the Middle East to arrive in Palestine, this stop was seen as almost providential by this devout, mostly Roman Catholic mobile community; indeed, commander General Wladyslaw Anders was often referred to as ”Moses”, having led his people to the Promised Land. The opportunity to partake in the major feasts of the Catholic Church in such places as Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth was both an individually rewarding experience as well as a means of bolstering the esprit de corps of the army. In later years, postcards and olive wood rosaries were often kept by resettled veterans as treasured relics of this incidental pilgrimage. The 3rd Station of the Via Dolorosa, the place commemorating Christ’s first fall while en route to crucifixion, the chapel of which is decorated with Polish national symbology, drawing heavy parallels to the Passion of Christ to the struggle of wartime Poland, was paid for with donations of soldiers of the Anders Army. An elderly acquaintance of mine from the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem once commented on how children would gather outside the Notre Dame convent on Sunday just to watch the Poles gather for mass and observe the officers kissing the hands of the ladies in traditional Polish courtly fashion.
The army arrived in 1943 and left in 1944; civilians trickled out as post-war resettlement began. Some would stay behind; most notably, the majority of the Jewish soldiers and civilians. A handful of women married into Palestinian Christian families. Others found their eternal rest in the Holy Land; civilians at the Catholic cemetery of Mount Sion, and soldiers at regional Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. Far more would be buried at Monte Cassino, and then, in the years to come, England and Scotland, Canada, Australia, America, but rarely, Poland. Yet many were born in Palestine as well.
I finish the final document folio on Mandate Palestine. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but as I pack up, I notice a children’s copybook, apparently from an English composition class set up by the Polish civilian committees. On the backside of the faded coloured paper cover, a delicate pencil sketch of a village, depicting a European rather than Middle Eastern setting, has been drawn in. A fading memory of home, sketched on a boring day at school, or perhaps in the evening, by a Polish youth who will never return there, learning a language they will need in another nation that must become their home when they leave, for the journey out from under the scorching sun of Palestine would not lead back to that village.
I carefully put back the copybook, and shut the last folio a half hour before the reading room closes. It’s time for me to be moving on as well.
Dan Koski was a resident of Beit Jala in Bethlehem district from 2009 to 2019, where he frequently wrote, guided and lectured on a range of topics pertaining to the Christian presence in the Holy Land. He presently resides in Transylvania, Romania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on academia.edu/DanKoski.