Over the past few weeks I've made much mention about the amazing people who participated in the celebrations of the Polish Anders Army. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of these heroes still around, which is why I feel so blessed to have participated in this event. For five days, our large contingent was bused from place to place, sometimes arriving back to the hotel as late as 1 AM, and nobody ever complained. The camaraderie which enabled these soldiers to survive the most brutal conditions to win a decisive victory still exist today, where friendships have grown through an experience that bonds this group in ways that anyone not involved in the Anders Army Trail of Hope will most likely never understand. Yet every single person I met opened their hearts with warmth, compassion, and often humor to make everyone present feel a special part of this celebration. There were close to 30 veterans present, each with an amazing story.... here are just of few of the veterans and people who made this trip so memorable for me.
This lovely lady was born an aristocrat in pre-war Warsaw, but her life suddenly changed when Germany invaded Poland on 1 Sep 1939. She went underground where she was a leader of the Warsaw Uprising, saved countless lives, and did everything possible to disrupt the German control and eventual destruction of her city. She's had a book written and a documentary film about her life. A decorated general approached her over dinner one evening and said he'd trade all his medals for the one shown farthest left, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a Polish hero. She carries herself with such grace that even when captured and spending her final days of the war in a Prison Camp, her German captors treated her with respect. The apple doesn't fall far. Her daughter left her successful business to retrofit an old bus, which she will live in alone as she travels coast to coast across Canada to raise awareness of mental disorders afflicting so many young people, and indirectly took the life of her son and only child.
Most of the veterans I met now live in Canada, and what a joy it was to spend time with the Szwender family from Edmonton, Canada. Walter Szwender's incredible life is beautifully documented in the book, No Way Back, which was given to me as a gift from the family. They all made arrangements to book their own transportation and hotel room so that Walter's daughter, two sons, and a grandson could all make this trip to spend time together. As told in the book, Walter is a true hero, his story so inspiring, one that needs to be told and heard, and this family exemplifies the true meaning of family complete with much laughter, appreciation, and love.
Marek is not a veteran of Anders Army, but he is a Captain in the Polish Army, commands over 3,000 soldiers, and bares a striking resemblance to perhaps Poland's move beloved statesman, the famous Marshall Jozef Pilsudski. He is an extremely proud soldier who carries himself like a true statesman at all times and was more than happy to don the vintage uniform of the Polish leader he so closely resembles.
I love this guy! Jerzy brought a smile to my face every day. He was such a symbol of happiness. His raspy Godfather-like voice could be heard in a crowd and his ever present mischievous smile let me know he had something fun to share with me, typically about the lovely Italian ladies. I came to learn that he was a high-ranking officer in the deadly battle that eventually took Monte Cassino, but he now lives by the mantra that "everyone should be happy and in love." He invited me to his hometown of Przemysl (which I have visited), and said that ... since he is a liberator ... I'll be so welcome that I'll be captured in liberation.
By far the most emotional event for me was escorting Genowefa to visit her father's grave. He died May 17, just one day before Polish soldiers seized the abbey. Her daughter has since sent me a beautiful letter with this and other photos taken by the swarm of media present. She thanked me, saying that her mother (who does not speak English and was the only person alone on the trip) felt calm and safe with my presence. I managed to take a video of her speaking to her father, and I do not believe it is possible to watch that video and not be moved to tears. It was also interesting to watch her transformation. Shortly after decorating his grave site and saying a prayer, she appeared overcome with relief and happiness, as if some sort of burden had been removed from her soul. Was a beautiful tribute for me to experience and witness.
I'd love to mention everyone who made this trip so special, but will close with a tribute to my father and our friend Anna Maria Anders, who made this trip possible for us. Over these past two weeks in Poland and Italy, the smile never left my father's face. For 95 years he's devoted his life to his family and country, so this gift was so precious and deserving for him.
And of course Anna Maria Anders. She and I have experienced some fun adventures over the past year since her trip to Cleveland in October (including witnessing the Brown's FIRST win), and now I see her on a world stage making an impact among world leaders. She is truly her father's daughter, and I will always cherish our friendship and everything she has done for my family.
So ends another chapter to my travel blog, but there is more to come ... including follow-up with a Polish Publisher and a wedding to attend in the remote mountains of Poland.
Until then, DO WIDZENIA!
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.