Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Marek Probosz about Captain Witold Pilecki

Six years after the premiere of The Death Of Captain Pilecki directed by Ryszard Bugajski and starring Marek Probosz in the title role, the stark film still attracts a lot of attention around the world. In October 2011, the Polish Cultural Center in London, U.K., celebrated the 110th birth anniversary of Pilecki with a screening of this astounding film about the Captain’s tragic death and a meeting with Mr. Probosz. Additional screenings took place planned in Poland and California, the two “residences” of the star.

Who was Witold Pilecki, why is Probosz promoting him, and why we (most of us, in any case) have never heard about him? One of the forgotten heroes of World War II, Captain Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901 – May 25, 1948) He played a crucial role in obtaining information about the atrocities at Auschwitz death camp, fought in the 1921 war against the Soviet Invasion of Poland and in the Warsaw Uprising. His exploits are almost unthinkable to all, who are focused more on their personal survival than doing the right thing. If there was a living embodiment of heroism anywhere on the planet, Pilecki is it.

As a seventeen-year old Boy Scout, Pilecki participated in World War I in a Polish self-defense unit. He soon enlisted in the Polish Army (cavalry) and fought in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 – defending Grodno, and participating in the Battle of Warsaw, and the liberation of Wilno. He received two Crosses of Valor for this campaign. Then, he came back to finish high school, continue his military training, work on his family estate, marry and raise a family. Ever dedicated to volunteering and social causes, he received the Silver Cross of Merit in 1938 for his contributions to the community. In August 1939, Pilecki returned to active service as a cavalry commander, participating in the September campaign. It may seem improbable, but his horse-mounted troops fighting near Lwow (now Lviv) were able to shoot down a German plane and destroy two other planes and seven German tanks.

Pilecki in Auschwitz, 1941

After the Soviet invasion of Poland, Pilecki returned to Warsaw where he co-founded the Secret Polish Army that grew to 8,000 men and became one of the seed-groups of the Home Army. In 1940, Pilecki volunteered to be arrested and sent to the German Concentration Camp at Auschwitz (“Tomasz Serafinski”) in order to gather intelligence for the Allies. (Wladyslaw Bartoszewski was arrested along with 2,000 other Poles in the same street roundup in Warsaw).

As a prisoner no. 4859, Pilecki formed an underground Union of Military Organizations in the camp to help inmates, provide news, and improve morale. The group also sent out the first intelligence reports from the inside, proving the reality of the Holocaust to the Allied command. (The International Red Cross delegation visited the camps in September 1944 and saw nothing unusual; the Allies refused to believe Pilecki’s reports, intervene and bomb the camp to stop the atrocities and help inmates). After escaping from the camp in 1943 and stealing some German documents to prove the reality of the improbable, Pilecki participated in the Warsaw Uprising, again with heroic results. Following the capitulation of the Home Army in Warsaw, and after being imprisoned by the Germans at Zambinowice and Murnau, Pilecki joined the Second Polish Corps in Italy and, after the war ended, accepted General Anders’ orders to return to Poland and gather information for the Polish government in exile. Caught, tortured and executed in 1948, Pilecki was rehabilitated only in 1990. He posthumously received the Order of Polonia Restituta and the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish state honor.

His story makes us uneasy, both because of the superhuman heroism, intelligence, survival skills, and virtue, and because of the tragic and senseless destruction of such a worthy life. Infamously, Józef Cyrankiewicz— Poland’s Prime Minister in 1947-1952 and 1954-1970 and the country’s President in 1970-1972—testified against Pilecki and his companions during the public trials. Ryszard Bugajski’s film The Death of Captain Pilecki transfers our discomfort to the screen, as it visualizes the imprisonment, trial, torture and death of a true war hero. The film is so effective in bringing Pilecki’s story to life due to the talents of Marek Probosz, a Polish-American actor, director, writer and producer, based in Los Angeles and professionally active in Poland and the U.S., with over 50 films as well as screenplays, books and theatrical performances to his credit.

In June 2011, Marek Probosz traveled to Oswiecim where the State Higher Vocational School was named after the war hero. The school is located in the buildings where the first prisoners sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp were held in 1940. At the solemn dedication ceremony, a memorial tree was planted, and Probosz read fragments of Pilecki’s reports. He also received a commemorative Witold Pilecki medal, awarded to those who were dedicated to his ideal of remaining “Invincible to the end” (Do końca niezłomny). The event also featured the publication of a volume of studies about Pilecki and other Auschwitz prisoners, Free and Enslaved (Wolni i zniewoleni), a result of a 2009 conference held in Oswiecim. Probosz contributed to the proceedings an article “To save the Spirit of Witold Pilecki.”

When asked about his interest in becoming Captain Pilecki on the screen, Probosz answered: “The arrival of Captain Pilecki in my life was an unexpected joy. The proposal of impersonating one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century was for me a great challenge, a way to give justice to history that was completely denied by the communists. The more I studied the tragic fate of this hero, the more delighted I was with his spiritual and physical power. I could not stop reading about him. Pilecki never gave up, he kept his dignity and internal freedom to his last breath. His final words before his execution at the Rakowiecka Prison in May 1948 were “Long live free Poland” (“Niech żyje wolna Polska"). To identify with Pilecki transformed me internally. After the completion of the film, I still felt a need to share his incredible history with the world. Five years after the premiere, I still travel around the world with The Death of Captain Pilecki, I meet audiences of many nationalities and discuss the phenomenon of Pilecki’s human nature. I repeat his mantra: “We raise our children to become honest people.” Political and social regimes always change, depending on the global balance of powers, but the final truths – love, freedom, truth, nobility – are universal and eternal. You get them from your mother. If we become aware of the responsibility that we carry, there is a chance that a new generation of heroes would be raised – new Pileckis. In Poland and around the world.”

Probosz responded to my second question, about the significance of Pilecki’s heroism with the following comment: “Pilecki is so important to us today, because the world we live in is in the throes of a profound inflation of the most important moral values. We miss true, uncorrupted, invincible heroes, who remain faithful to their ideals to the last breath. The character of Pilecki deserves a great, epic film that should be known to the whole world.

We had in Poland a James Bond who was not a fictitious super-agent, but a true hero of all nations. He is the only person in the world who volunteered to go to the death camp at Auschwitz in order to organize underground resistance among the prisoners and to liberate, without religious, racial or ethnic divisions, all the prisoners. We dream about such characters, we invent them in literature and film and here, such a story is written in blood, it is a true story of a Polish national hero.”

Whether he’s teaching, writing, directing, or performing in Poland and the U.S., Marek Probosz has vowed to keep alive the memory of Captain Pilecki, one of the greatest heroes that the world has ever known.


Article by Maja Trochimczyk, reprinted from Polish American Historical Association Newsletter, Fall 2011.   Photos of Marek Probosz as Captain Pilecki from The Death of Captain Pilecki.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Polish- and Polish Nobel Prize Winners

Nobel Medal from 1947

Poland contributed many names to the list of Nobel Prize winners in arts and sciences. The following list of 19 distinguished individuals connected to Poland by birth, language, or residence, was published in PAHA Newsletters in 2010.

How many Poles have won the Nobel Prize? This depends on how you count. The full list of everyone with Polish ancestors and those born in wha tis now or was Poland includes 16 names and 17 Nobel Prizes: Poles, Americans, Canadians, French citizens, an Israeli and a Swiss. They won five Nobel Prizes in Literature, four in Physics,three in Physiology or Medicine, three Peace Prizes, and  two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. A shortlist of Poles from Poland would include: Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Lech Wałęsa,Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz (though he defined himself as and both a Pole and a Lithuanian, from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). A longer list of scientists who became double (or triple) citizens of several countries would consist of: Maria Skłodowska‐Curie (French), Tadeusz Reichstein (Swiss), Georges Charpak (French), Andrew Schally, Frank Wilczek and Jack W. Szostak (Canadian‐American). Isidor Rabi, Isaac Bashevis Singer (who wrote in Yiddish), Roald Hoffmann, and Joseph Rotblat were both American and Jewish, with more or less distant roots in Poland. Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, was born in Poland and served in the Polish Army under Gen. Anders, but spent most of his life in Israel. Another Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres was also born in Poland and fluent in Polish.


1. Marie (Maria) Skłodowska‐Curie,Nobel Prize for Physics, 1903,Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1911: Known to many as Madame Curie, Maria was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw. She left Poland for Parisin 1891 to study sciences,following in the footsteps of her sister Bronisława. She was the first female professor at the University of Paris,funded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw. She worked with her husband Pierre Curie, with whom she shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (alongside Henri Becuqerel). Maria Skłodowska‐Curie created the theory and name of radioactivity, discovered techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes and is credited with the discovery and naming of two new elements, polonium and radium. She also pioneered the treatment of cancer using radioactive isotopes. She is the first person honored by two Nobel Prizes.Her 1911 award was given “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element."

Henryk Sienkiewicz by Kazimierz Mordasewicz
 2. Henryk Sienkiewicz, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1905: Born on May 5, 1845 (as Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius), on his family estate in Wola Okrzejska, Podlasie, a part of the Russian Empire, Sienkiewicz belonged to impoverished gentry family and became a journalist and novelist. A prolific author of historical fiction, Sienkiewicz wrote over 60 volumes of novels,stories, essays, and travelogues.

His adventures in California with a group of emigrants headed by Helena Modrzejewska gave rise to his first successful travel reportage and his recognition as a journalist.He received the Nobel Prize for his “outstanding merits as an epic writer.” Sienkiewicz’s historical fiction like the Trilogy and the Teutonic Knights contributed to the national fervor in Poland and paved the road to regaining independence. He died on November 15, 1916.

3.Władysław Reymont, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1924: Born on May 7, 1867 in a village of Kobiele Wielkie near Radomsko, Reymont (b. Rejment, he formally changed his name) was largely self‐taught. A certificate as a journeyman tailor was his only proof of formal education.He first tried to establish himself as an actor,repeatedly running away from home to join travelling theater groups, but having failed in that,turned to writing full‐time, and started publishing short stories and novels. His prolific literary output consists of 30 volumes. The Nobel Prize recognized the merits of his naturalistic novel Chłopi (The Peasants). Reymont died on December 5, 1925.

4. Isidor Isaac Rabi,Nobel Prize in Physics, 1944: Born on 29 July 1898 in Rymanów, Galicia, a part of Austro‐Hungarian Empire now in Poland, Rabi came to the U.S. the next year and is known as an American physicist of Jewish descent. He graduated from Cornell University (B.A.) and Columbia University (Ph.D., 1927). After graduation, he stayed at Columbia, specializing in nuclear physics.His discovery of the magnetic resonance detection method was recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1944. His research had practical results in the  creation of radar, laser, and atomic clock. He died on 11 January 1988 in New York.

5. Tadeusz Reichstein,Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1950: Born on July 20, 1897 in Włocławek, in central Poland,then a part of the Russian Empire, he moved with his family to Kiev, Jena and to Zurich, Switzerland, where he became a Swiss citizen and embarked on his career. Associated with the University of Basel, Reichstein is recognized for his invention of a method of synthesizing Vitamine. His prize,shared with two scientists,rewarded his work on the hormones of the adrenal cortex and the discovery of the cortisone.He died on August 1, 1996 in Basel.

6. Andrzej "Andrew" Viktor Schally,Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1977: Born on November 30, 1926, in Wilno, the capital of Lithuania (then in Poland, now Vilnius in Lithuania), Schally is a son of Brigadier Kazimerz Schally, chief of cabinet for President Ignacy Mościcki. Schally was educated in theU.K. and received his doctorate from McGill, Canada (1957). In his Nobel Prize autobiography, he described himself as being of “Polish, Austro‐Hungarian, French and Swedish ancestry” and he became an American citizen in 1962. As an endocrinologist he worked at Tulane University and is now at Miami VA Medical Center in Florida.His prize was shared by Roger Guillemin (“for their discoveries concerning peptide hormone production in the brain”) and Rosalyn Yalow.

7. Isaac Bashevis Singer,Nobel Prize in Literature, 1978: Born on November 21, 1902, in the village of Leoncin near Warsaw, in the Russian Empire, Singer came from a prominent Hassidic family; hisfather was a rabbi and they lived in Jewish quarters in Radzymin, Warsaw, and Biłgoraj. Singer’s religious studies were not finished and in 1935 he emigrated to the U.S., where he worked as a journalist and established his literary career.He wrote novels and short stories in Yiddish to save the e language from oblivion, and helped translate his works into English. Singer died on July 24, 1991.

8. Menachem Begin, Nobel Peace Prize, 1978: Born as Mieczysław Biegun on August 16, 1913 in Brest‐Litovsk (Brześć Litewski), Poland, in a Jewish family, and educated at the Mizrachi Hebrew School and the Polish Gymnasium (High School).He studied law at the University of Warsaw (1935) and was involved in nationalist Zionist movements. In 1940 he was arrested by the Soviets and spent a year in a gulag in Siberia, before being released under the Stalin/Sikorski agreement, and joining the Anders Army that took him to Palestine. Since 1943, he was active in Palestine and then Israel as a leader and politician. While serving as the sixth Prime Minister of the State of Israel, he negotiated a peace treaty with Egypt,for which he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Anwar Sadat.

Milosz in 1986

9. Czesław Miłosz, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1980: Born on June 39, 1911 in the village of Seteniai in Central Lithuania, a part of the Russian Empire, Milosz came from a Polish noble family. He refused to identify himself as either a Pole or a Lithuanian – and both nations claimed him, but his choice of language, Polish,made him a Polish poet. In 1951, while working as a cultural attaché in the Polish Embassy in Paris, he claimed political asylum, and in 1960 he emigrated to the U.S., where he was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley from 1968 to 1998. After retiring, he returned to Poland,settling in Kraków,the magnet for poets, where he died on August 14, 2004.

 10. Roald Hoffmann,Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1981: Born on July 18, 1937 in Złoczów (now in Ukraine), Hoffmann came from a Jewish family and the majority of his relatives perished in the Holocaust. He and his mother survived and Hoffmann later funded a monument to the victims in his hometown.He emigrated first to England and then to the U.S., where he studied at Columbia University (B.A.) and Harvard (M.A. and Ph.D. in Chemistry).Hoffmann teaches at Cornell University, Ithaca. The Nobel Prize (shared with Kenichi Fukui) recognized his contributions to chemistry including work on reaction mechanisms and the discovery of the “isolobal principle” in organo‐metallic chemistry.He is also a published poet, author of a play and broadcasts about arts and science.He is named after a Norwegian discoverer, Roald Amundsen.

11. Lech Wałęsa,Nobel Peace Prize, 1983: Born on 29 September 1943, in Popowo, Wałęsa was an electrician by training and aGdańsk shipyard worker by avocation, before becoming the leader and spokesman of Solidarity,the firstfree‐trade union formed in an Eastern Block country in 1980. The rise ofthe Solidaritymovement was a decisive step in the fall ofthe communistsystemand the Soviet empire.Walesa later became a politician and served asthe President of Poland (1990‐1995).

12.Georges Charpak,Nobel Prize in Physics, 1992: Born on August 1, 1924 in a village Dąbrowica, now inUkraine, hemoved to France as a child. Spending his entire career as a nuclear physicist, he wast he inventor of particle detectors for which he received the Nobel Prize as a sole winner. During the war, Charpak was active in the resistance, captured and imprisoned at Dachau.He became a French citizen in 1948 and received his doctorate in nuclear physics in 1954 from College de France, later working in the lab of Frederic Joliot‐Curie. He is an advocate for peaceful uses of nuclear power.

13.Joseph (Józef) Rotblat, Nobel Peace Prize, 1995: Born on November 4, 1908 in Warsaw, Rotblat came from an affluent Jewish family and became a nuclear physicist, with a doctorate from the University of Warsaw (1938).

A specialist in nuclear fission, he worked with James Chadwick (who had won a Nobel Prize for discovering the neutron) at Liverpool University and together they joined the Manhattan Project. Rotblat left the Project due to his anti‐war views and returned to England where he continued his research on nuclear fallout.His discoveries led to banning aerial nuclear bomb tests and he became one of the most vocal opponents of the nuclear arms race, serving as the president of the influential Pugwash Conferences. The Nobel Peace Prize recognized him and the Pugwash Conferences for this work.He died in Paris on August 31, 2005.

14. Wisława Szymborska,Nobel Prize in Literature, 1996.  Born on July 2 1923 in Kornik, since 1931 she lived in Krakow. After spending the war years in Germany as a forced laborer,she attended Jagiellonian University, but never graduated. She is known as a poet, essayist and translator. Since 1945 she published a relatively small, but highly regarded body of about 250 poems, while working as a poetry editor for the weekly Życie Literackie. She wrote in Polish and her poetry is widely available in translation. She died in Krakow on February 1, 2012.

15. Frank Wilczek,Nobel Prize in Physics, 2004: Born in 1951 in the U.S. Wilczek’s family came from Poland (paternal line) and from Italy (maternal line). In his Nobel Prize autobiography he stated, “my grandparents emigrated from Europe in the aftermath of World War I, as young teenagers; on my father's side they came from Poland and on my mother's side from Italy, near Naples. My grandparents arrived with nothing, and no knowledge of English.”He was educated in public schools in Queens,NY, and graduated from the University of Chicago and Princeton where he selected physics for his career, now working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Nobel Prize was shared with his former mentor David J.Gross and H.David Politzer, “for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction."

16. Jack William Szostak,Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, 2009: Born on November 9, 1952, in London, and raised in Canada (in Montreal and Ottawa), Szostak is a biologist and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.He also works for Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He shared the Nobel Prize with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W.Greider, "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase."

He also constructed the world's first yeast artificial chromosome (YAC) that helped map the location of genes and contributed to the development of the Human Genome Project.

Based on the biographies on the website of and two different award listings by Wikipedia.  Quotations from Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes, published by Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 2000‐2009.

ADDITIONAL NAMES (in PAHA Newsletter, Fall 2010)
(added by Monika Glowacka Musial)

17. Albert Michelson (1852–1931) was born into a Jewish family in Strzelno, Provinz Posen in the Kingdom of Prussia, now Poland. He moved to the United States with his parents when he was two years old. Michelson is mostly known for his measurements of the speed of light with the ground breaking precision, using an interferometer of his own design. The famous Michelson‐Morley experiment showed that light  travels at a constants peed regardless the system of reference. The surprising result, at that time considered by Michelson as a failure, had a great impact on formulation of the Lorentz transformation and, indirectly, of the special theory of relativity. Michelson received the Nobel Prize in 1907 as the first American scientist.

18. Leonid Hurwicz was born in 1917 in Moscow to a Polish‐Jewish family, displaced by World War I. Soon after his birth and right before the October Revolution,the family returned to Warsaw. Hurwicz received his degree in law in 1938 from the University of Warsaw were he discovered his future vocation while taking the obligatory class in economy.He emigrated to the United States in 1940. Hurwicz is best known for his contribution to the mechanism design theory which is used for explaining interactions among individuals, institutions and markets. As one of the first researchers to apply the game theory in economy, he proposed the most efficient formula for an organization to reach a desired outcome,taking into account individuals' knowledge and self‐ interest, which may be hidden or private.

(added in May 2013 by Witold Sokolowski)

19. Shimon Peres, born Szymon Perski in August 1923 in Wiszniewo (Vilnius region, now Lithuania). He left Poland in 1934 and emigrated to Israel, where he has served as the ninth President of Israel since 2007. An official in the Department of Defense since 1952, he was first elected to political office in 1959. An oldest head of state in office, he was twice the Prime Minister of Israel. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Ytzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, for peace talks between the Israeli and the Palestinians that led to the Oslo Peace Accords.


Illustrations from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.