From this vantage point far up the mountain of Monte Cassino, I am standing at the Polish cemetery where 1,050 Polish soldiers are buried. This is also the location where thousands of people gathered on Saturday May 18 to celebrate the 75 year anniversary of the victory of Monte Cassino. The abbey above is rebuilt from the original abbey that was destroyed during months of battle, before Polish soldiers finally made it to the top and planted a Polish flag among the ruins.... a major turning point of World War II.
This was a big day for Genowefa. She found me as soon as I got off our bus, and took my arm as I escorted her to the grave site of her father who died on May 17 1945, the day before Polish soldiers seized the abbey. We searched as scouts were organizing. One scout stood behind each grave site to honor every soldier buried from the battle. After some searching, we finally found his marker, and she was overcome with a full range of emotions. Genowefa was five when her father died that day, and I could see her overflowing tears eventually turned into a sense of relief and joy. Media members quickly joined us to learn her story, and I am so honored that I could be there with her. This was her 2nd visit to the grave site, but she does not recall the first because she was too overcome with emotion.
As people milled in their seats for the Mass and pomp and speeches presented by the president's of both Poland and Italy, Anna Maria stood before the graves of her parents to honor them on this historical day. She was soon swarmed by media, and was quite graceful to the crowds of people who wanted their photos taken with her. She told me earlier about the dress that was made for her so she was quite thankful that the rain held off, enabling her to go without an overcoat. I gave her a wink and thumbs up as I took this photo.
The mass was presided by the local bishop and the entire cemetery area was filled with dignitaries, local and international media, scouts, and every branch of the Polish military. The military band and choir provided music unmatched by any I've ever heard from a church service. In addition to the two thousand participants and volunteers who participated in the ceremony, thousands of onlookers from all over the world were in attendance. Of course the veterans of the Anders Army were seated in the front row ... alongside the presidents of both Poland and Italy and their entourage of bodyguards and key cabinet members.
One thing I've learned from these ceremonies is that political figures LOVE to give speeches. Of course the presidents of Poland and Italy gave speeches. Anna Maria was told by one of the ministers (who managed to say more than a few words) that it is not proper protocol to have anyone other than the the two presidents give the main speeches. She is her father's daughter, so she insisted that she also give a speech. Thank god she did.... spoken in Polish, Italian, and English (which she also insisted), she gave a very moving speech which mentioned that all of her father's dreams have now come true. This was the first ever ceremony at Monte Cassino where both the Polish and Italian leaders spoke.
The long day was topped off by a formal dinner in a 5-star hotel at the base of the mountain. President Andrzej Duda and his wife, seated in the middle of photo below, sat at the next table to us. Polish Generals and dignitaries mingled throughout the evening to speak to the veterans. Did not get back to the hotel until 1am. A long day for everyone, especially the veterans, but I did not hear one person from that group complain.
So now it's on to Ancona. Barely made the five-hour bus ride this morning. Had to chase it and flag him down, than a nice Italian family drove my dad with our luggage to catch up moments before the driver was about to take off. Already having a great time in Ancona.... more to update soon.
After driving from the Vatican, three buses drove for two hours to the mountainous region near Monte Cassino. It is easy to see from this beautiful area of Italy how the Allies would have difficulty penetrating the wall of mountains that the Germans referred to as the Gustav Line. The Allies needed to penetrate that Line to move northward into Italy, and for the first 4 months of 1944, 3 failed attempts to penetrate the Line led to the loss of thousands of lives, soldiers from virtually every nation involved in the War. Dotted across the region are monuments and remnants of these great battles. Of course the pivotal point, where the Germans were most heavily fortified, was at the abbey of Monte Cassino. Our first stop was at this cemetery, which buried many of the brave Italian soldiers who died in defense of the liberation of their country.
Our second day in the region took us to a monument on a hillside about one mile from Monte Cassino, San Germano, which was liberated several days after Monte Cassino. It seems that villagers from the entire town came up to greet us, and also visitors from around the world. The staging area on a plaza overlooking the region was overflowing with onlookers.
This woman walked up from the village right before the ceremony. She was a five year old girl when the battle for her village took place, which she says she will never forget. The woman standing by her is visiting from England with her husband, their fathers also fought at Monte Cassino. We found this great sheltered spot behind the crowded staging area and gave this lady a seat. She left as soon as the ceremony ended, simply wanted to pay her respects.
All the veterans here are received with the utmost respect. Escorted by appreciative boy and girl scouts, and questioned by the media. Here dad is being interviewed by TVP, a Warsaw television station. He is holding a diploma and wearing a medal he received with other veterans for the work they did for Poland.
A family connection made in Italy
As mentioned earlier I am surrounded by history, and the stories I've heard combined with friendships made are quite moving. One of the people I've met here is Jay, a Canadian power-lifter from Montreal who runs a school for under-privileged kids. Jay is also the great grandson of General Wladyslaw Anders. For various reasons, his side of the family has been separated from Anna Maria's side, but after years of effort on his part, he made this trip with the hope of meeting Anna Maria, his great aunt. I've been in the middle of it all, and they met here for the first time ever. Jay is quite overcome with joy in connecting with his family. We took a walk in the historic town of Gaeto on Friday morning, and he is having breakfast with Anna Maria today (Saturday) before a busy day at Monte Cassino, I'm going to update this blog after this trip with photos and stories of just a few of the amazing stories I've learned here.
So today is May 18, the 75 year anniversary of the historic victory at Monte Cassino. A battle which proved pivotal in the liberation of Italy and ultimate Allied victory in the war. A busy schedule topped with a dinner that concludes at midnight. The Italians love to eat... every lunch and dinner multiple courses with two bottles of wine per table. But tonight will be even more special. So I will have an historic day to update after leaving the region tomorrow morning for Ancona.
Our group of veterans, guests, dignitaries, and media have now been together for a few days, and I am surrounded by history. Much being captured by media, a man next to me right now is being interviewed and there is a buzz in the atmosphere. But mostly this is about some amazing people and I am enjoying the stories and friendships. Our trip to Italy yesterday morning began in the Vatican, where our group was escorted to a chapel inside St. Peter Basilica for a private service.
So many amazing stories here. This woman below has been travelling alone. Her father was killed on the hillside leading to the abbey at Monte Cassino on May 17 (today's date), the day before Polish soldiers took that abbey and planted their flag on the ruins. She will visit his grave sight when we go to the Polish cemetery. I am going to post photos and provide just some of the amazing people and their stories in a later blog.
I was going to add more from yesterday's activities, but there are too many distractions from working here in the lobby and have to leave soon. So hopefully tomorrow will provide updates to first few days.
If you go back to the beginning of my blog in the summer of '15, you will see and read mention of my cousin Michal, Henryk's grandson. He drove me to Przemysl, through the Carpathian Mountains, and to a desolate train station in Hungary that continued a journey to retrace my father's footsteps. In the summer of '17, he took me wherever I needed to go as I gave a talk in Bochnia, my father's hometown. And now in the spring of '19, he arranged a meeting with a major Warsaw publishing company to translate and publish my book in Polish. Michal arrived by train Tuesday morning, just as our lost bags arrived, and we met in the hotel lounge with an executive from the Publishing company. Lengthy translated discussion proved quite productive, and we left with an agreement in principle to update and translate my book in Polish. The book would be sold in over 150 bookstores across Poland and receive significant promotion, including a major Expo in November. From day one, Michal has always been there for me, a true testimonial to the power of family. After the executive departed, we felt a need to relax and celebrate with an afternoon pivo.
And now we are ready to continue the journey. In a few hours, we will depart for Rome on a military plan for a weekend of activities to celebrate the 75 year anniversary of the Anders Army historic victory at Monte Cassino.
Made it to Warsaw on Saturday morning, one day late due to a delay which caused a missed connection, and NO luggage. No excuse not to carry on ... Our much anticipated dinner Saturday evening with Minister Anna Maria Anders was everything I hoped for. Great atmosphere, wonderful food and wine, interesting discussion in topics ranging from her father's army to world politics to her being named Poland's new Ambassador to Italy, which means I'll have to refer to her in public as 'Her Excellency'. And of course the highlight was presentation of my father's compass to her. He was so excited, couldn't wait to give it to her... we barely sat down:
Celebration of two Polish heroes
Sunday, May 12 was a big day in Poland. And for me, the first May 12 without my mother Iris who left us in June. All across Poland celebrations took place to honor two Polish heroes who died on the same day of my mother's (and Anna Maria's mother's) birthdays. Marshall Jozef Pilsudski and General Wladyslaw Anders will be forever memorialized in Poland. Warsaw was the center of these celebrations, and it began for us in style, as Anna Maria's driver picked us up at our hotel to drive us to the magnificent Field Cathedral of the Polish Army, where a special Mass, presided by the local bishop, was celebrated. Tourists flocked outside as military brass and pomp echoed inside the Cathedral.
From there we joined a group of Monte Cassino veterans and guests and were driven to a spacious square which houses both the tomb of the unknown soldier and a monument to Jozef Pildsudski. In moving ceremonies, wreaths were placed to honor the many brave soldiers who lost their lives in battle at the tomb of the unknown soldier, and to honor their beloved Marshall who was the father of :Poland's independence in 1911 at the Pilsudski monument. We were also greeted by family members who drove three hours from Bydgoszcz to meet us.
The day's celebrations ended at a park which houses a monument to General Anders and the Poles victorious battle at Monte Cassino. A number of moving and informative speeches were made to both the recognize and educate about this historic battle. A military band played numerous songs, including the historic 'Red Poppies on Monte Cassino' which memorializes the battles. To my delight, all speeches were translated into English. Anna Maria's speech was not only impressive but quite moving. She mentioned how proud her father would be if he knew that she was now giving this speech in a free Poland as a member of the Polish Government. Hers was the only speech that did not require a translator as she repeated her speech in English. Her secretary told me the speech was repeated perfectly identical, and done without notes. Yes I am proud of her.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) my cousin Michal will arrive by train from Krakow to join us for a meeting he arranged with a Warsaw Press company. If all goes well, they will translate and sell my book here in Poland. He is also kind enough to bring a few sundry items with him as our luggage still has not arrived. Then we leave Wednesday on a military plane to Rome for more ceremonies commemorating the 75 year anniversary of the historic Battle of Monte Cassino. So I'll have much more to share in the coming days.
The Compass Points to Monte Cassino
When my father was a prisoner during World War II in Romania, he convinced a guard to give him this compass, which ultimately aided his escape on a quest to join the Anders Army. Next Saturday, on the eve of a celebration recognizing General Wladyslaw Anders in Warsaw, my father will present this compass as a gift to Anna Maria Anders, the daughter of General Anders. I expect that to be just one of many highlights on a trip that will take us to Warsaw, Rome, Monte Cassino, Ancona, Bologna, Krakow, and Bochnia. This trip came about at the invitation of the Polish Government, and will include visits with friends and family who have impacted my family story, Captured in Liberation. Throughout that trip, I'll be updating this travel blog, so invite you to join us in what should be an exciting and emotional journey.
Author - Andrew Bajda
Since publication of my book in December of 2016, so many amazing things have happened on both a personal and professional level. As the journey continues to evolve, I'll update my travel adventures on this blog, and invite you to join me along the way.