It's been an excrutiatingly cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere this year. Poland too must have felt the chill. But, for the Poles, the winter of 1944 must have been one of the worst ever.
In 1939, the Molotov - Ribbentrop non - aggression pact between the Soviets and the Nazis was the begining of the darkest of ages for Poland. In August Germany attacked Poland from the west and in September Russia crossed over from the east. The Poles were badly outnumbered but fought back gallantly with the hope that the Western Allies would soon launch a counter offensive. Unfortunately that did not happen. The Polish army lost more than 60,000 men and about 1,40,000 wounded. Warsaw fell, and the Nazis and the Soviets carved up Poland; Russia took the East and Germany the West. Inhumanity reigned supreme, and there was very little to choose between the Nazi devil and the Soviet deep sea. The Soviets deported the Poles to Camps to be used as slave labour. They were transported thousands of kilometers in goods trains, packed tight standing up in windowless freight cars meant for cattle. It was freezing and many died en route and were thrown out of openings on the roof. Some went mad. With starvation some resorted to cannibalism. About one and a half million were deported and half of them never came back. The Nazis too had plans. They estimated that the nearly-disposable, about 20 million, would be re-settled in Western Siberia. About 4 million with German roots would be re-Germanised and the rest would be disposed off. To this end they set up "camps" whose names would forever be associated with the nadir of inhumanity. The infamy of Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, Lublin and Auschwitz would forever be painfully etched in Polish memory. Between 1939 and 1945, 15% of the Polish population, more than six million lives, were lost, of which only 10% was due to direct war. The rest died of disease, malnutrition, starvation and executions.
But the Poles fought back. The Warsaw uprising of 1944 was the last effort to get back their capital. But their doomed effort lasted only seven weeks before being brutally crushed, as the Soviet Red Army now a German enemy, on Stalin's orders, stood by and watched, a cannon-ball shot away from Warsaw. More than 1,50,000 were killed in Warsaw and some half million were taken away to Labour camps. On Hitler's direct orders Warsaw was nearly razed to the ground. The winter of 1944 must have been the bitterest ever for the Poles. In 1945, though the war was over, Poland had little reprieve. The Soviets took over with their brand of Iron-Curtain Communism. Within three years Poland too had a Russian clone in government with closed borders, censorship and a secret police that encouraged the common Pole to spy on each other. Mountaineers travelling abroad were all approached to work for the secret police. If they refused, their trips were held up.
The years of lethal oppression under the Germans and the Russians influenced the Polish psyche. Voytek Kurtyka said it to be "living between the hammer and the anvil". History is not just a story of kings and queens, benevolent or despotic, it is more so of the common man, the subaltern. It is this subaltern Pole who changed the course of Polish history as he did Polish mountaineering. Their courage cut through the chains of communism even before the Czechs or East Germans.
Due to their political circumstances though they came in late, they very soon caught up and surpassed their peers. The communists with their political compulsions laid stress more on the collective rather than the individual. Many clubs were formed and funded by the regime. But still the Poles were the poorest, most ill equipped team on the mountain.
But they made up for it with sheer staying power and guts, technical brilliance and the ability to work through and beyond pain, which the American Editor Christian Beckwith described as "exquisite" suffering and the achievement of their goals as "Alpine transendence". Robert Schauer who, with Voytek Kurtyka, in 1985 finished the "Shining Wall" on Gasherbrum IV, still regarded as one of the boldest alpine style achievements ever, has this to say about this transcendental state, "There is a fascination in pushing limits; finding out who you are and what you are capable of at the extreme edge of existence. Many mountaineers have their consciousness widened in the so-called 'Death Zone'. During some moments of mountaineering, only the narrowest of lines separates death and that heightened state of awareness that approached meditation. Surviving such an experience is almost a form of pleasure. This natural 'high' can be compelling. You feel irresistibly urged to climb again - but probably under more stringent conditions."
They were really tough, tunnel-vision focussed and never gave up without more than a fight. Messner summed it up simply as, "they were hungry, and very, very strong". It did not take long for them to be hailed as national heroes, for the Communist propaganda projected them as a success story of their system. This larger than life heroic status could also be a transposition of the Polish philosophy of life, akin to the sufferings and heroic deeds of the charecters found in the 18th century epic poems of Adam Mickiewicz. The swords of poetry transformed into ice-axes in the hands of these real-life legends. This warrior philosophy, synonymous with a sense of personal honour leading to sacrifices, austerity and indifference to pain was encapsulated by Voytek Kurtyka as the "art of suffering" and compared to the Japanese tradition of the Samurai and Bushido, the way of the sword.
Unfortunately finances and travel restrictions remained a recurring problem with demoralising paperwork. Though they got some grants from the state by milking the system, they also earned some more on the sly by smuggling and selling equipment and smuggling whiskey. Even some who were Doctors, Engineers or even Professors took to painting smoke-stacks, chimneys and towers to pay for expeditions. So when they did manage to go, they hated missing the summit. While others would shrug and carry on, the Poles would be bitter and shameful. Artur Hazer put it well when he said, "unfortunately we Poles prefer to be a dead hero than a live loser". How does one explain this casual approach to death? Is it a manifestation of "survivor guilt" amongst the immediate post-war generation of climbers? Or could it be, that the years of inhuman struggle just to stay alive, where surviving another day was a play of chance and animal instinct, had made them blase about death?
Very soon they had an impressive list of successes even in the Himalayas. One is sorely tempted to write about Kukuczka and Kurtyka and Zawada, as also Wanda and Anna Okopinska and Halina Kruger. But the list is long, the stories longer and M/S Google and Wiki would do it better and Bernadette McDonald has admirably done so already. So I will desist.
But I still need to talk about the best among the legends, Jerzy Kukuczka, for he epitomises and is the personification of the Polish ethos. Messner was the first to do all fourteen 8Ks. But Kukuczka, though second, did it much better. He did ten of them by a new route, four of them in winter and soloed Makalu. What took Messner sixteen years he did in only nine.
One also must talk about the "thinking man's climber", one who repeatedly refused the coveted Piolets d'Or, and his legendary ascent of Gasherbrum IV West Face "Shining Wall", the unique Voytek Kurtyka. How can one not mention the beautiful talented tormented Wanda Rutkiewicz hobbling on crutches, weeping in agony on her way to K2 BC; or the first females to summit Gasherbrum II, the angry team of Halina Kruger and Anna Okopinska.
Every country has its culture rooted in some epics, wether literary or factual, from which succeding generations draw inspiration. Modern Poland is inspired by their epical stories of survival and rise from the debris of WW 2, as they must be by the epics of their climbing legends. I just wanted to whet the readers appetite for the stories of a generation of climbers who survived the ravages and aftermath of a devastating War and then escaped from under the Iron Curtain to become the world's leading climbers; how years of suffering under foreign rule forged their ethos and strength and why they defined the "Golden Age" of Polish mountaineering in the Himalayas and as Bernadette McDonald so aptly described them as having "climbed their way to freedom".
This entire exercise was triggered by the news that the Poles are presently trying, as they have done before, to do it "the hard way", "the different way".
A Polish team is now at K2 Base Camp, trying to tick - off the last big one on the list, a winter ascent of K2.
I wish them God-speed, fair weather and firm snows, for if any one deserves it, like the British did Everest and the Germans did Nanga, the Poles do K2 in winter, because the Polish Phoenix has risen from the morbid ashes of the holocaust to the pristine snows of the Himalayas..