Book Review: A Homeland Denied

A Homeland Denied: in the Footsteps of a Polish POW
by Irena Kossakowski 

Literary nonfiction at its best, Irena Kossakowski’s A Homeland Denied: in the Footsteps of a Polish POW tells the real-life story of Second Lieutenant Vadek Kossakowski, the author’s father. Fifty years after his release from prison, he wrote the letter to his grandson that motivated Vadek’s daughter to tell his story. “At last I understood his nightmares,” the author writes in the book’s preface.

Narrated as though from inside a Soviet prison camp in Siberia, A Homeland Denied transports the reader further back in time with memoir-like snippets of the soldier’s childhood on his parents’ farm in Poland, at boarding school, and with his first love. The contrasting threads of his life treat the reader to a kind of intimacy rarely seen in nonfiction. In addition to her father’s personal memories, Irene Kossakowski reveals the secrets of stealth and cunning that kept Vadek alive while imprisoned.

For readers of all ages, the beautifully written vignettes employ striking imagery that evokes a range of emotions. Second Lieutenant Vadek Kossakowski’s war takes us on an extraordinary journey from Russian gulags into the harrowing Battle of Monte Casino in Italy. The book’s narrative moves skillfully between the experiences of the young Vadek and those of the mature lieutenant whose courage and hope to return to his homeland are tested.

On page one, Lieutenant Kossakowski tastes Arctic air for the first time. He is at the beginning of what will be a lengthy trek—on trucks, trains, boats, and miles of forced marches—to eventual confinement at the infamous Siberian gulag, Camp Kola. “The double iron gates loomed in front of him, and with each quaking step he felt as if he were walking to his doom.” When the barbed-wire prison gates swing shut, the camp commandant’s voice echoes over the prison yard, “This will be your grave!” The mental and physical horror of isolation in Siberia sets in. “Bones and joints became as fragile as glass, so they could break with the slightest pressure … they would reset themselves awkwardly without the person knowing. Until much later.”

But just in time, the story of a youthful, innocent Vadek keeps lovers of historical nonfiction from despair and warms their hearts. Readers are rescued from the icy winds that freeze a man’s eyelids shut and are transported to a farm where a boy runs with his cousin after squealing piglets. “… you can’t make friends with a pig like you can a horse or even a cow. Pigs just stare at you, like this one’s doing,” Vadek tells his cousin. “That’s because she likes you!” answers Andrzei.

That is not to say the atmosphere of impending doom is forgotten when the anecdotes of childhood pay homage to the happiness of a carefree youth. Quite the opposite. Those endearing parts bring the reader face to face with what’s at stake for Poland if Hitler isn’t defeated. Irene Kossakowski takes on the task of describing her father’s fight for his life and his moments of dire depression when his mind wanted only to escape—but when the only escape would be death itself.

The poignancy of the prison narrative juxtaposed with memories of Vadek’s homeland is all the more necessary to give this book a complete glimpse into the Polish role in Hitler’s defeat, something that historians all too often have ignored. Even more fascinating is the fact that the Soviets moved the Lieutenant from frozen Siberia, and ultimately, allowed his transfer to the scorching Palestinian desert due to Hitler’s betrayal of Stalin by invading Russia. That event saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Polish military and civilians, and Lieutenant Kossakowski was one of them. The Polish government-in-exile was clever enough to forge an Amnesty Pact with Stalin that freed all Polish people imprisoned in or by the USSR. Once his bones thawed, the Lieutenant felt alive again, recalling, “Having endured the terrible conditions in Siberia and being denied so much for so long, even the simplest things seemed luxurious.” He had never been so happy to see a bar of soap!

The past and the present collide on the page when Vadek meets up with his cousin Andrzei on the battlefields of Monte Cassino. But again, the author holds nothing back in her description of her father’s grief when the happy reunion with Andrzei is short. During the harrowing but victorious battle for Monte Cassino, Vadek lost commanders, friends, and family, all of which he witnessed die on the battlefield.

The Polish Second Army Corps continued to push the Germans out of Italy, securing town after town all the way to the key victory at Bologna, where the Polish flag was hoisted. The Poles destroyed three more enemy divisions before Churchill declared the war in Europe over. The Polish troops celebrated with “… the American troops who had joined them, through the crowded streets, while the chorus of ‘Viva Polonia!’ rang in their ears.”

Unbeknownst to Vadek and his fellow Polish soldiers, the happiness of victory was to be short lived. The Lieutenant learned very soon that he couldn’t return home to Poland without the certainty of returning to a Soviet prison. There was no free Poland, a homeland denied because Moscow received the prize. Musings of betrayal fill the final chapter when Vadek grapples with what he foresees as Poland’s fate. Fifty years behind the iron curtain of communism was unimaginable. Another sad and shocking result of the mistakes made during the Yalta Agreement is that not one Polish soldier was allowed to march in victory parades in England or anywhere else across Europe. This tragedy is more poignant because by the end of this inspiring story, the reader develops a fondness for Lieutenant Kossakowski.

Writers of historical nonfiction carry the burden of attending to all the details of fact. What to include? What to leave out? How to keep from boring the reader who knows what happens at the end? I know plenty about this particular subject matter and couldn’t put the book down until I got to the last page. Irene Kossakowski rises to the literary challenge and skillfully transforms this historical account into a creative work of nonfiction about WWII.

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