Prof. Wojciech NAREBSKI
MY LIFE BEFORE THE WAR
I was born in Włocławek on the 14th of April 1925. My maternal grandfather, Antoni Olszakowski, had been a respected city architect there. My paternal grandfather, Józef, was a doctor. My father, Stefan Narębski, was born in Grozne, where my grandfather had been the regimental doctor. My father started his university education in Saint-Petersburg and finished it in Warsaw. That is where he met my mother, Zofia Olszakowska, who came from Włocławek. My father’s first job as an architect was the renovation of the interior of the Namiestnikowski Palace. Later he took over the position of city architect in Włocławek from my grandfather, and designed two important buildings: The Kujawy Regional Museum and the current County Council offices.
In 1928, our family moved to Vilnius - the home town of my grandmother Konstancja Narębska, née Karnicka. My father became the city architect of Vilnius. Before the war, he became a professor at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius. After the war, my father specialised in interior design at Nicolas Copernicus University in Toruń. Some of his most prominent works include the Archbishop’s Palace, the interior of the City Hall in Vilnius, and the wooden churches in Krevno and Kolonia Vilenska. He designed the ground floor of our Vilnius house; the design is recognised as an architectural relic and protected by the Lithuanian authorities. On my request, they put up a plaque on the wall of the house, recognizing my father as a respectable architect and restorer of Vilnius’ historical monuments. He was a great man and there is so much that I owe to him, especially when it comes to the shaping of my character. It is thanks to him, and to my caring mother, that I managed to live through the wartime hardships which came upon me so unexpectedly.
Even though both my sister and I were born in Włocławek, we have always felt that our home town is Vilnius. Our friends in primary school were of various nationalities. There were Crimean Karaites, Tatars, etc. After primary school, I attended the King Zygmunt August High School. I was a scout in Błękitna Jedynka Żeglarska (a sailing club). I believe that I inherited my father’s passion for social work and his interest in life sciences and tourism.
MY ARREST AND STAY IN THE USSR
After the war started in September 1939, and the Soviets entered Vilnius, like many young Poles I joined the Polish independence movement. In 1940, I swore an oath in St. Catherine’s Church, and became a member of the underground organisation Związek Wolnych Polaków (The Society of Free Poles). The older members of the organisation were given military training, while the younger ones were trained to distribute the underground newspaper ‘For your freedom and ours’. My peers and I were responsible for hiding and transporting the copy machine to the printing house, as well as for distributing the paper. The copy machine was hidden in my house, in an antiaircraft shelter built before the war. This was dangerous due to the fact that we were forced to host the family of an NKVD officer, named Pyrkow.
In April 1941, after a year of such activity, my friends (Meyer, Wroński, and Kukiełka, whom I met after the war) and I were caught and arrested. I was 16 at the time. They put us in Łukiszki jail - a famous Tsarist prison in Vilnius located near my house, in the area called Zaułek Montwiłowski. I was interrogated multiple times; according to Soviet law, they called me ‘an enemy of the state, and ‘a counterrevolutionary’ even though my friends and I told them that the aim of our organisation was to fight the Germans. The investigation has never been closed; the majority of my actions have been lost along the way.
In June 1941, two days after the onset of war between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Soviets transported me and other prisoners, by train, to the large city of Gorka (now Niżnij Nowgorod) near the Volga River, between Moscow and the Ural mountains. They put me back in prison, cramming about 60 men into a small cell. At first, we all slept on our coats on a concrete floor but, after a while, they put up 4-storey bunk beds with mattresses.
Despite very difficult conditions, our stay there was very interesting since there were some prominent personalities among the prisoners, who lectured us on various topics. Amongst them was a Jesuit, Father Kucharski (PhD), who was one of the leaders of the Polish conspiracy in Vilnius, and Prof. Wiktor Szyryński, a psychiatrist and psychologist who examined Piłsudki’s brain.
When ‘amnesty’ was announced, they gradually released the prisoners. I was sent to a state farm called Darowskoje, near Kirow (now Wiaźma), to the north-west of Gorka, towards the Urals. I was given a train ticket and some money, but I still had to walk 60 kilometres to get to the state farm. Famine was very prevalent there. Luckily, on my way there I received a lot of help and was warmly hosted by Russians living in the area. They did not care that I just left prison. They used to say: “he who hasn’t been to prison isn’t a man”. That helped me regain my sense of dignity. I was lucky to be assigned to this particular state farm, since that’s where I met three Polish sub-officers from Nowa Wilejka, near Vilnius. They encouraged me to join the Polish Army, which was being formed at the time.
POLISH ARMY IN THE SOVIET UNION - EVACUATION TO THE MIDDLE EAST
As I was 16, I signed up to join the Polish Army. With the approval of a local Army Drafting Committee, I left for Buzułek in Orenburska Oblast, along with soldiers of the pre-war Vilnius regiment. This is where the Polish Army was forming, under the command of Lieutenant General Władysław Anders. I was assigned to a guard squad, until I became ill. I spent 3 months on the Polish ward of the Red Army hospital, where they used carrot juice to treat severe diarrhoea, as they didn’t have suitable medicines. The lady who was the head doctor for our ward was of Polish origin. She told us this in secret, as they were always spied on. She was a descendant of Poles who had been forced to migrate to that region; some still live there to this day. As she talked to us, she would regularly run to the door and open it abruptly, to check if there was anyone listening on the other side. When I left the hospital, I joined the army camp in Kołtubianka, where I again worked as a guard. It was an extremely harsh winter, with temperatures falling to -50 degrees Celsius. Later, my squad was transported to Margiełan in eastern Uzbekistan, where the Polish Divisions were forming. I was directed to the 9th Infantry Division, where I received basic trained. After a while, they started evacuating the Polish Army from the Soviet Union to the regions controlled by Great Britain, in order to support the Allied Forces in protecting oil fields in Iraq from German attacks, coming from the direction of the Caucasus and Africa.
My Division was amongst the first to be evacuated over the Caspian Sea, from Krasnowodzk to Pahlevi in Persia, and then to the Middle East. We reached Palestine in April 1942. My Division joined the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division. It ‘inherited’ a large group of soldiers, as well as the name from the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, which was famous for its victorious battles in the Libyan Desert. To us, Palestine was paradise. More than 1/3 of the inhabitants could speak Polish; they were very kind to us, as evidenced by their greeting us with happy chanting: “Our boys are coming, long live Poland!”
Unfortunately, that’s when I came down with pleurisy with effusion. As a soldier of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, I spent 6 months in a Scottish hospital in Rehovot, Palestine (Polish hospitals hadn’t been set up yet). Later, I was moved to the Polish hospital, where the head of the internal ward was my father’s acquaintance from Vilnius, Colonel Garniewicz.
When I left the hospital, they changed my Army category to C and sent me from the Infantry to a driving course. In November 1943, I was assigned to the 2nd Transport Company commanded by Sergeant Major A. Chełkowski (in Italy it was renamed the 22nd Artillery Supply Company), where I served until the end of the war. I was the youngest soldier there. They called me ‘little Wojtek’, because there already was another Wojtek there - a bear that was adopted on the 22nd of August 1943. After military and driver training, our company was stationed in Kirkuk, in northern Iran, for about a year. We would transport supplies from Egypt, which was a 7-day drive across the desert. We supplied both the Polish and the British Armies.
In September 1942, I was sent to do a preparatory course for my Junior High leaving certificate in the Youth Cadets camp in Barbara. In February 1944, I passed the final exam ‘Small Matura’, which entitled me to continue my education at the Officer Cadet School. My Latin teacher was Professor Bacciarelli, who was a relative of one of King Stanislaw August’s court painters. The leaders of the Polish 2nd Corps thought it was very important to secure the future of young soldiers by providing them with an education, which they had had to abandon in order to go to war. That’s why there were various vocational and military schools in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and later in Italy.
MY MILITARY JOURNEY WITH THE 2ND CORPS
At the beginning of 1944, we were transported to Taranto, Italy, on the “Batory”, which flew a white and red flag. In April 1944, I joined the 22nd Company, which was stationed in Venafro, several kilometres from Cassino.
In the last 10 days leading to the battle of Monte Cassino, we carried ammunition to the 10th and 11th Heavy Artillery regiments. We did that with 4 ton vehicles, at night, without any lights, traveling on winding roads through Acquafondata, which were under German artillery fire. To find our way, we would follow tips from more experienced soldiers, who told us about the most dangerous places where: “A lot of people and animals died - don’t be stupid, don’t get yourself killed”. Two people took turns driving each vehicle, which were American heavy FWDs; a rare occurrence in the Polish Forces. When the night was dark, with no moonlight, one of us had to walk in front of the truck with a white towel spread across the shoulders to show the way to the person currently driving. Thanks to this, only one truck with ammunition (of all the platoons going back and forth from our Company) was lost in a precipice, before the battle.
The battle of Monte Cassino: I always correct those who say that the Monastery at Monte Cassino was conquered. The monastery was taken over, because it was surrounded by the Polish 2nd Corps and the Allied Divisions. As evidenced by the preceding three battles for this point of German defence, attacking only the monastery peak could not have broken the Gustav and Hitler-Senger defence line.
It is worth underlining that, as opposed to other Allied Divisions that participated in the battles to clear the way to Rome, the actions of the Polish 2nd Corps were supported only on the left side by the much stronger British 13th Corps and Canadian 1st Corps, which surrounded the hill line of Monte Cassino – Monte Cairo, from the Lira valley side. In addition, we were pitted against the best German units, defending the most heavily fortified part of the German defence line. Attacking from provisional positions in the mountains -Monte Cassino (516m) and Monte Cairo (1669m) – was difficult.
I would also like to point out that the battle did not finish on the 18th of May, with the placing of the Polish flag on the monastery’s ruins. The following day, Carpathian Lancers broke Hitler’s defence line with their bold attack on Passo Corno. Other difficult battles, e.g. of the 6th Armoured Regiment, 12th Poznan Lancers Regiment, and the decimated Infantry Battalions, fought to break a different part of the German defence line up until the 25th of May. That same day, a patrol of the 12th Podolian Lancers Regiment hoisted a white and red banner on the peak of Monte Cairo (1669m).
After a short rest we were moved to the Adriatic coast. That’s where the Polish 2nd Corps started to battle on its own. The conditions were very different there: the retreating Germans were systematically destroying all the roads, railway tracks and bridges. There were many traps and mines of all kinds, which impeded our pursuit of the enemy.
Our main goal was to take Ancona. This major harbour was strategically important for the Allies who, up to that point, had to use much more distant harbours in Bari, Brindisi and Taranto. Taking Ancona, with the pincer movement manoeuvre, was the biggest individual success of the Polish 2nd Corps. Since the Polish Army was separated from the units of the British 8th Army by the Apennine Mountains, this is where Lieutenant General Anders could act independently and truly show his talent as a leader and a strategist. The Italian Liberation Corps, and several smaller Italian units, fought alongside the Poles. Over 300 Italian soldiers are buried at the cemetery in Monte Lungo, amongst them General Umberto Utili, who was Anders’ friend. The Italians really appreciate the fact that we remember their participation in the battles in the Apennine Mountains, and along the Adriatic.
While transporting supplies for our units, I personally witnessed the scale of the enemy’s defeat: numerous damaged vehicles and abandoned equipment.
As the Gothic Line was broken and the Adriatic Campaign came to an end, I was directed to Matera, where the 2nd Corps Training Centre was situated. I went there to study in the Officer Cadets School. I stayed in this historic town for 5 months, studying the craft of war. I missed out on the 2nd Corps operation in the Northern Apennines. A lot of Polish soldiers died there. The specificity of the terrain and adverse weather conditions made the action difficult. Heavy rainfall would turn the scarce roads into swamps, impeding the fighting and the delivery of supplies to the front line. It was also frequently impossible to introduce armoured units.
I need to stress that, during this period, the 2nd Corps became stronger, despite the losses it suffered. Polish deserters from the Wehrmacht created third brigades of the two Infantry Divisions, as well as new Artillery Regiments. Their role was very important in the last victorious battle of the 2nd Corps in Italy, at Bologna. The newly formed 9th Battalion of Carpathian Lancers (later called Boloński, after the town) was the first to enter the city on behalf of the Allies.
At the beginning of March 1945, I returned to my Company as a senior Lancer Officer. My company was stationed in Meldola, near Forli. We supplied the Artillery Regiments, who were supporting the Infantry, in their operations in the valley of the Senio River, opposing strengthened German positions.
During the positioning battles near the Senio River, I was ordered to go to the south of Italy, to work as an instructor in Matera, and then to attend the final exam preparatory course in Alessano, in Salenta.
MY LIFE AFTER THE WAR
When the war was over, I was again directed to attend a final exam preparatory course. In 1946, the 2nd Corps was moved to England. That’s where I passed my final exams. I took an interest in chemistry, so in the academic year 1946/47 I attended lectures and classes at the Chemistry Department of Mining and Technical College, near our camp in Barnsley.
Around that time, I received a letter from my brother Juliusz. He wrote to convince me to return to Poland, to my family, because my place was in the country by the Vistula River. During the war, my father had been imprisoned by the Germans, and then by the Soviets. In the Łukiszki prison (the same one I had been imprisoned in), they had addressed him by the wrong name, but he didn’t admit to anything and, finally, they released him. In 1945, as a punishment for demanding our father’s freedom, and for underground activity (which was never proven), the Soviets arrested my sister. She was transported to labour camp no. 0321 near Saratowo. Thanks to her artistic talent, and to the support of the camp doctor, she had relatively good working conditions. She was released in 1946 and re-joined our family, who were living in Toruń at the time.
I returned to Poland in July 1947. Soon afterwards, I enrolled in Chemistry at the Nicolas Copernicus University, where my father was the Dean of the Art Department. I was probably spied upon but, thanks to my father’s position, I didn’t have any major problems with the security services.
In Toruń, I was awarded a Master’s degree. I married my wife, who was also a chemist. While in my third year of university, and working as a junior assistant in the Institute of Mineralogy and Crystallography, I became interested in geochemistry. After graduating with a Master’s degree, I went on to pursue a PhD in this area at the Institute of Mineralogy and Petrography of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, under the supervision of Prof. Antoni Gaweł. In 1953, my wife and I moved to Cracow.
I completed my PhD in 1957. As suggested by Prof. Stanisław Małkowski, whom I knew from Vilnius, I decided to pursue a career at the Museum of Earth, in the Polish Science Academy in Warsaw. I conducted geochemical and petrologic research for them at the Institute of Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. The object of these studies was mainly the Paleozoic meta volcanites of the Sudetenland using, for the first time in Poland, geochemical methods to determine their origins. For this, I was awarded the Gold “Merentibus” Medal of the University of Wroclaw. As recognition of my research into the petrology of the rocks of the Antarctic region, one of the Capes of King George’s Island in the Antarctic was named „Narębski Point”.
I am the author of about 150 publications in this field, as well as in the history of geological science. I have written about 50 publications about the history of the Polish Army in the East, and of the Polish 2nd Corps. I hold the title of Professor Emeritus, and I am an active member of the Science Department of the Polish Academy of Learning.
Today, I am a retired professor, living in Cracow for many years. I am Vice-Chair of the Francesco Nullo Polish-Italian Friendship Society, and am the Chair of Cracow’s Branch of the Society of Vilnius and the Vilnius Region’s Friends. I am also the Chair of the Cracow Branch of the National Society of the Veterans of the Polish Armed Forces in the West. The relations between Poland and Italy, and the preservation of the history of the Polish 2nd Corps and the 22nd Artillery Supply Company (with its mascot - the bear named Wojtek) are very close to my heart. I try to bring this history closer to both historians and to the younger generations in Poland and Italy.
In recognition of my participation in these areas, I have been awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland, and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, as well as a number of other awards. I have been given the title of Honorary Citizen of Alessano, and “Merit for Skawina”, as well as the 20th Anniversary Medal of the Friends of Vilnius and the Vilnius Region. I have received the Home Army Cross, for my participation in the Vilnius Home Army; the Siberian Deportees Cross, for my deportation to the USSR; and for my service in the Polish 2nd Corps during WWII, I have received the Monte Cassino Cross, the Polish Army medal, the British Star, the Italy Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal.