On this 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, which launched World War II, I find myself thinking as much about my father, Zygmunt Nagorski, as about the cataclysmic events set in motion on September 1, 1939. Especially when his health was declining before his death at age 98, he told me repeatedly how lucky he and my mother were to have survived the war unscathed when so many millions did not. Nearly 20 percent of the inhabitants of prewar Poland—about six million people, half of whom were Jews—perished in the ensuing conflagration and the Holocaust.
When my father wrote about or discussed his experiences, or offered his comments on the books I was writing about the Third Reich and the war, he made no secret of the fact that he never could shake a sense of survivor’s guilt.
At the start of the war, he was what he called a “cadet officer,” an inexperienced soldier in the Polish Army who was put in charge of a tank platoon defending the fortress in Brest, a town in the eastern part of the country. The tanks at his disposal were French World War I castoffs that had been sold cheaply to the Poles; their maximum speed was six miles per hour.
Given the vastly superior firepower of Hitler’s forces, the Poles never had a chance. During intense German shelling, he and his men survived by hiding under their tanks. While his men displayed remarkable courage and embarked on dangerous forays, he said, he was often “paralyzed with fear.” When it looked like the Germans were about to storm the fortress, he fired his tank’s gun blindly. When he heard later that some of his own men were hit from behind, he agonized over whether they were struck by his friendly fire.
Once Stalin’s Soviet Union sealed Poland’s fate by invading from the east on September 17, a prelude to the carving up of the country under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, my father and his men knew they were in a hopeless position. They burned their tanks and joined the swelling ranks of soldiers seeking refuge wherever they could. As he trudged back towards Warsaw, he knew that his young bride—my mother—was probably no longer there, but he was determined to find out what had happened to her and the rest of his family.
“Here we are, you should see us,” he wrote to her, not knowing if she would ever read his words. “We are running away from the war. Are we cowards? Maybe. But I would do anything to see you again. Maybe that was why I was hiding under that tank.” Arriving in German-occupied Warsaw, he learned that his wife and parents had fled in the early days of the invasion but, initially, could find out no more than that.
In those chaotic early days, many young men had shed their uniforms and tried to blend back into everyday life. The German High Command quickly ordered former Polish soldiers to report to POW camps, threatening to execute anyone who disobeyed. My father and his army buddies decided to ignore the order.
This was an act of courage, but he never portrayed his decision—or any of his other actions in those perilous times—that way. But observing him when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I felt he was fearless, never backing away from a confrontation. As he aged, that did not change. One late evening in New York when the crime rate was at its height, a young man snatched my mother’s purse and fled into the darkness of Central Park. My father, who was well into his seventies at the time, immediately raced after him; the mugger was so startled that he dropped the purse, and my father brought it back.
“What were you thinking?” I asked him later, pointing out that the man could have been armed. His response: “I wasn’t thinking; I was reacting.” That was typical Zyg, as his friends called him.
Back in 1939 when three German officers showed up at his parents’ house in Warsaw where he was staying, they were impressed by the large library, which included books in German that my grandfather had collected while studying law in Berlin and Zurich before World War I. They helped themselves to several bottles of wine, and warned my father to report to the occupation authorities who needed to check out the cover story he had given them. It was a close call, and he decided not to risk another visit.
Along with a friend from his university days, my father—outfitted with false papers that identified him as a timber merchant—boarded a train to Krakow, with the goal of then reaching Hungary, and ultimately France where other Polish Army escapees were regrouping into new units. Mostly on foot and at times by jumping aboard trains, they made it close to the Polish-Hungarian border. By then, they were a group of 26 soldiers.
Local farmers warned them that German patrols with dogs were hunting for men like them—and that, once caught, they were either shot or sent to camps. As they were debating what to do next, a young peasant boy offered to guide them to a point where they could cross the border while eluding the Germans. He asked them for no reward, saying that the only contribution he could make to the war effort was to help men like them rejoin the Polish Army in France.
The boy did so flawlessly, but two months later the underground grapevine reported that he had been caught and shot while guiding another group of soldiers. My father always talked about him as one of “the unsung heroes” of the war, adding him to the list of people he considered to be more courageous than he was.
When he completed his circuitous journey to France, my father donned a Polish uniform again. Miraculously, my mother and his parents had made it there as well, with my grandfather taking up a post in the Polish government-in-exile. Evacuated to Britain when France fell, my father first served in a paratrooper unit based in Scotland.
By the time his unit made its most dangerous drop into German guns at Arnhem in 1944 and fought to liberate other Dutch cities, he was assigned to temporary civilian duty, writing dispatches for the Polish authorities. “That call probably saved my life,” he explained, pointing out that so many of the paratroopers he trained with were killed. “I survived, and to this day a sense of guilt sits deep down in my throat.”
Not all members of our family survived the war. My mother’s favorite cousin rests in the Polish military cemetery in Normandy; he was part of the Polish forces that fought there after the initial D-Day landings. My grandfather’s brother, an accomplished architect, was caught in a German roundup of civilians in the early days of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944; all of them were summarily shot.
But compared to most of their countrymen, our family got off easy. Which is another reason why my father never could shed his lingering sense of guilt.