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.
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.