2 February 2018
Here is a picture of an object that is very far from commonplace.
As an artefact it has no commercial value. As a relic of war there may well be others like it, in museums or private collections; for this is a mug that was standard issue to the Polish Army in 1939. It would have been used not only for drinking purposes, but for food, for washing and shaving, etc. A mug is more useful than a plate; a spoon is as useful as a knife (Every soldier carries a knife).
The landmass between Russia and Germany has been fought over, trampled on, pillaged, and violated since forever. Flat, and with few natural borders, the temptation to rape and despoil has been the lot of Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine throughout history. Every now and then the temptation is irresistible and one neighbouring country or another invades and emerges victorious. And when not being invaded the peoples themselves fight each other like tigers; suspicious with centuries of distrust, they battle to keep what they regard as their own, and maintain their boundaries, language, and culture.
The turbulent history of Central/Eastern Europe is little known in the West. Ask the man on the Clapham omnibus where Latvia is, or Minsk, and chances are he hasn’t a clue; no more did I until I married BH all those years ago. It’s a subject for the specialist. This mug could be a lure to further study.
The Mug, now deserving of a capital “M,” was given to BH by his godfather in Cairo as the war was drawing to a close. BH would have already decided to head for the UK and his godfather to return home to his family in what was left of Warsaw. The city had been razed to the ground by deliberate and systematic German bombing in 1944, while the Soviets looked on cynically, from beyond the river Vistula. The combined hatred of those two systems of evil for Poland, a nation already on its knees, is almost beyond comprehension. Books have been written on the subject, no doubt.
However, it’s the story of the Mug I want to tell you, not potted history. That was merely en passant.
BH was devoted to his godfather who stood in place of his own father, missing since 1940. Uncle Henry (as we shall call him) joined the Polish Reserve, Signals, with the rank of Captain. Born in 1889 he was too old for active service. The Reserves were ordered to defend the Eastern border when the Soviets invaded in October ’39. It was, of course, a hopeless task. Those that could returned home as tanks and troops rolled into Vilnius. Uncle Henry and other Polish officers still at large were soon arrested and taken by cattle train to the deserted monastery of Kozielsk where they were “housed.” Kozielsk is near the infamous forest of Katyn, roughly 250km south east of Smolensk.
It was in the Katyn Woods that 4,440, the flower of the Polish officer corps, were shot in the back of the head and tossed into graves of their own digging. This heinous crime was assumed to have been committed by the Germans; it transpired later that it was the Soviets under the direct orders of Stalin who murdered them.
About 200 of the prisoners at Kozielsk survived the massacre, of which Uncle Henry was one.
As you can see the Mug is decorated with Uncle Henry’s initials, HS, and with the date, 15.VII.1940. His comrade and friend used motifs from the murals in the church to adorn the Mug. I understood from BH that the artist’s name was Stach Romer.
The Sikorski-Majski Pact of 1941 led to release of the remaining Polish prisoners and they left the Soviet Union under command of General Anders. A ragtag army they must have looked, but the inspiring presence of “Moses,” as they called their General, proper food, exercise, and, above all, the hope of freedom transformed them in due course into a brave fighting force ready for Monte Cassino. Uncle Henry did useful work in Cairo with the Red Cross, BH told me, and eventually went home to Poland.
The heroic Mug has now travelled full circle back to Vilnius where it was issued. That, and the gold cross given him by his godfather for his Baptism, and worn round his neck all his life, were two of BH’s most precious possessions.