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< Echoes of Memory

My “Career” in the Polish Army


by Marcel Drimer

In the 1950s in communist Poland, military service was mandatory for all men starting at age 18. Physically fit university students had to attend officer training courses. Most high-ranking officers of the Polish Armed Forces were Poles born and educated in Russia. Each university trained officers in a different specialty; ours was military engineers, sometimes called Sappers. One day each week, in my case on Tuesday, we would put on our uniforms and attend classes and practice at the shooting range. We studied the structure and strategy of the US Armed Forces as the enemy that we eventually might face in the next war.

Henryk Szwarc, one of the three or four other Jewish men in my company, was my sergeant. He was four years older than me and fulfilled his two-year military service, finishing as a sergeant. He lived with his family in Wrocław and they often invited me for Shabbat dinner. We became friends and still are.

During the summer breaks after freshman and junior years, we attended six weeks of activeduty camps. The first day we were issued uniforms, boots, cigarettes, and other necessities. When asked if I smoked, I replied, “I don’t.” Henryk said, “Of course you do, you idiot.” “If the sergeant says that I do, then I do,” I replied. The cigarette ration was ten per day, and he smoked 20.

Another time he assigned me to a 24-hour guard duty. I was furious, but he told me to shut up. The reveille sounded at 2 a.m. and everyone, except the guard unit, got 15 minutes to gather their belongings and guns. They were each issued two 20-pound anti-tank mines to carry with them on a 30-kilometer march. After that, I never questioned Henryk’s orders.

A noncommissioned officer (NCO) asked for volunteers to play chess. I thought, “What could be wrong with playing chess?” When he got “a team” of six players, he handed each of us a bucket with sawdust and ordered us to clean the floor tiles with it. We were housed in old German Army barracks where the tiles, looking like a chess board, were grooved so that nail studded boots of German infantry would not slide on the floor. The only way to clean them was to press sawdust into the grooves with bare knuckles.

Later, when asked to volunteer again we would reply in unison, “All volunteers went to Korea.” It was a reference to Chinese “volunteers” fighting in Korea.

The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was started by students, and most of the student soldiers in my unit decided to demonstrate in solidarity with the Hungarians. We were planning to wear our uniforms and march through town in formation with pro-Hungarian placards. Our commander, Col. Maculewicz, pleaded with us in his Russian-accented Polish for restraint, addressing us for the first time as “Panowie” (gentlemen). He explained that Russian forces were standing on the borders of Czechoslovakia and East Germany, waiting for a provocation to attack Poland. We listened to him, had a few beers, shouted some slogans, and went home.

Before the end of the camp after junior year, we were supposed to take final exams and receive an NCO rank. At the same time, some of my family got permission to immigrate to Israel. I asked for a Sunday pass to say goodbye to them, but was refused by the commandant. Here is the conversation that took place. The commandant: “I can’t give you a pass, because you would use the military discount for the train tickets.” Me: “Give me back my civilian clothing and I will pay full price.” Him: “If you leave the camp in your civilian clothing, you will be arrested as a deserter.” Me: “If you don’t give me the pass, I will refuse to answer any questions on the final exam.” Him: “We will see about that. Furthermore, I am not going to give you the pass because your family is going to Israel, an enemy of Poland.”

When I sat for the exam, I saluted, gave my name and rank (private) and stated, “That’s all I will say.” When the diplomas were handed out to the cadets, I received mine as well. The officer in charge said: “We have invested in you through four years of training, you did okay, so you have passed.” However, I had barely passed and received a rank of “corporal aspirant.” In 1960, while I was preparing to immigrate to America, I was summoned to report for three months of active military duty after which I would be promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. The problem was that after any term of active duty, one would not be allowed to leave the country for three years. I requested a private meeting with the recruiting officer. I gave him some made-up excuses and bribed him with vodka and money and promised to serve the following year. It was risky, but it worked. The next year, I was already in America. Father wrote to me that military police came looking for me. It seems that I will never rank higher than a corporal.

My consolation was that after working for the US Army, which I did for 20 years, my civil rating of GS-15 was considered to be equal to a colonel. My friend Henryk stayed a year longer at the university, earned a master’s degree in engineering, and moved to Israel. He worked for the ZIM-International Shipping Company as chief engineer.

He quit smoking a long time ago.

© 2019, Marcel Drimer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 12marcel drimerlife after the holocaustpolandpostwar experience

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