"For nearly fifty years, this issue made me restless. Already, during the period of [communist] PRL [pol. abr. Polish People’s Republic], with the help of “Przeglad Katolicki” [“Catholic Review”] I was able to decipher and expand the existing list of officers and soldiers from 11 to 24 names. It remains as such to this day. But, the fate of the desecrated bodies of these people haunted me until the end of 1980s. During Fall of 1989, when the period of the [Communist] PRL [People's Poland] was over, I became part of a two-people team responsible for the lustration of personnel at the Council for the Preservation of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom attached to the office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland. At a later date, he nominated me to lead this new Council.
In June 1990, I took a trip to Grodno to take part in the meeting of the Polish-Belarussian Congress. In fact, it was only a pretext to help me get to Surkonty, and to discern whether there was a possibility of pushing this issue in Minsk.
I prepared myself thoroughly for this trip. During our travel from Grodno to Minsk, Consul Henryk Kalinowski and I, located Surkonty. I already had at least a general idea of what to expect when we get there. One year earlier, Marek Golkowski, a researcher from the University of Warsaw who was fascinated with this story, travelled throughout this entire area with his family, took photos, and recorded conversations with witnesses of those dramatic events. He gave me all that he had. But, to see the photos and to find yourself in the middle of a beautiful forest glade, and to see it with your own eyes, are two completely different things.
On the top of barely visible incline, I noticed a very large cowshed made of sheet metal, from which I heard sounds of hundreds of mooing cows. A beaten road covered with dried cow's droppings spanned for about half a kilometer. It is under this crust of dried cow’s droppings where THEY were laying – those dead, those severely wounded - all finished off with long, narrow, pointy bayonets. They were buried in a shallow grave, some of them only at about .5 meters deep. There were bones protruding here and there. This is exactly how it was marked – by the human bones and two stones pushed on their side, with a barely visible and fading inscription from 1863 - they pointed in no uncertain terms, where the location of once a small Insurgent cemetery was. This is where eighty years later the “Kotwicz’s” men were put to rest as well. Later, this place was being continuously leveled by the hoofs of 800 cows raced [to and from the cowshed] two times a day.
And so it was like this for almost half a century. Little further one can see paled, white tower of a small new church. From there, until the top of the elevation, and all the way to the Latvia’s boarder, were buildings of this large and hostile Pielasy village.
Why didn’t anyone warn “Kotwicz”? In principle, the Radun area was a good choice for operational activities of the Anti-Soviet underground. On the cemeteries in the area, I still saw in 1990 only catholic crosses, and didn’t see any inscriptions in Cyrillic. Even long after the war, and during the Stalinist times, 86% of the people in this county still demanded that the stated nationality in their “passports” be “Polish”. Only, at this edge of the Radun area, and around the Surkonty's farmstead [pol. “hutor”] – specifically the village of Pielasy and the remaining villages during the occupation and around the preset Latvian boarder – were particularly hostile towards Poles, and Home Army in particular.
When three years later I managed to gain access to the NKVD materials in Minsk, it became apparent that there was only one denunciation against AK originating from this area. After all, even in 1990, the local priest in Pielasy was more willing to speak in Rusian or Latvian than in Polish; even though he allegedly spoke Polish. While in Radun, we passed by a tall concrete cone-like monument with red star affixed at the top. In this neatly tended grave rested those who died fighting against the “Polish legionaries”. How shockingly different were the victims and the oppressors buried.
Officially, I was traveling to Minsk as a guest of the Polish Consul General to give a lecture to the Belarusian historians about [Polish underground] organization “Wachlarz”. But, I had another, more important goal.
Several months earlier, that is in December 1989, our Council asked Consul General in Minsk to furnish a formal letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [abr. MID – Ministerstvo Inostronnykh Del] of then still Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus. It was to enquire about the possibility of expediting creation of a formal burial place for those resting at the mass grave [in Surkonty]. The Ministry did not respond for six months.
Upon a suggestion made by Mr. Myslik, [Polish] Consul General via phone, the Belarusians reluctantly agreed to my visit with them. The meeting was scheduled to take place at 15:00. When on a scorching afternoon at 14:10, Consul Kalinowski and I were getting into the car, a motorcyclist wearing black leather jacket drove onto the consulate’s courtyard.
- "Oops, they are stalling. This is the messenger from the MID" - I was informed by the perturbed Kalinowski. He took the letter, signed for it and said:
- "This letter nulls and voids the visit of our delegation to the MID."
I withered, but only for a moment. I decided to play it “va banque”.
- "Too bad that we received this letter this late. After all our delegation is already en route to the MID."
- "K soshalenyu, vhy uzhe ne uspeli. Nashi ludi uzhe uyekhali k vam." [- "Unfortunately, you were late. Our people already left to meet with you."]
The courier indifferently nodded his head, and we drove away from the consulate. But, at the moment he left, we sped out [having diplomatic plates] to the MID. While en route, we once again studied the document [delivered by the messenger]. It was a reply to the letter sent by the Consulate six months earlier. It expressed its surprise that Poland still wants to commemorate the burial place of those elements who to this day the locals call savages and rapists. The local population does not consent to any special memorializing of this place. It can only be possible that this parcel of land be fenced off and that a plaque reading “For Polish Soldiers of Home Army who died in 1944” be placed there. This was a particularly despicable proposition. It did not include specific date of the battle, which naturally suggested that the deaths resulted from the German actions.
Our arrival at the ministry created visible consternation. We were given copy of the letter which we “didn’t receive”, and in a particularly cold fashion they asked us to sit at the table and talk. We were shown folder full of authentic letters of mass-protests against commemorating the “Polish criminals and murderers”. I asked if there were any protests made by the people form the villages I named. As I suspected – there were none.
When it was their turn to speak, they asked if there were any incidents of deaths among local villagers resulted by the presence of the “Polish legionaries” in that area.
- "There were none!" – Consul Kalinowski shouted immediately.
- "Unfortunately there were some," – I corrected him with deceitful sadness. It created consternation of my companion, and visibly exhilarated our Belarusian counterparts. I was telling the truth. About a dozen years earlier, during my first visit to the United States on a student stipend, I spent few days around New York. I met a wonderful storyteller, Lt. Stanislaw Szabunia, nom de guerre “Licho”. Szabunia commanded Second Company of the V Battalion of 77th Home Army Infantry Regiment, lead by Stanislaw Truszkowski, nom de guerre “Sztremer”. This is the first time I heard the ominous truth about the Pielasy village.
Photo above: Graves of Home Army Soldiers in Surkonty today.
During late Saturday night [before Easter], at the end of March 1944, “Licho” lead freezing and soaking wet men from his company to Pielasy . The snow was still on the ground. Despite the fact that majority of Latvian families living in Pielasy, and specifically many of the young men were associated with the Shaulisi [lit. Leituvos Sauliu Sajunga - Latvian Rifleman Union], “Licho” still decided to take quarters there. There were two reasons for that. First – his soldiers were extremely exhausted. Second – he had hoped that the wealthy Pielasy will spare some holiday treats for the partisans. Just in case, they doubled their sentries. Before midnight, guards brought two young Latvians caught while trying to leave the village to the Lieutenant ["Licho"]. Under some pressure, they confessed that the village head sent them with a message to the German Police in Lida that Polish “guests” where in the village. They [the partisans] were concerned because according to to what they [the captured men] said, the village sent three messengers, but only two were captured.
“Licho” quietly alerted his sleepy and grumpy men, and right after midnight they marched out in order to prepare ambush several kilometers away on the road to Lida. They waited for a very long time, but to no avail. The Germans didn’t drive – they flew. Before noon, two bomber planes approached from the direction of the airport in Lida, where an entire German squadron was stationed. First, they strafed the people who were exiting from the church, and then, dropped a series of bombs. As a result nearly 20 people were injured, and several farmhouses burned to the ground.
I told our Belarusian counterparts about this incident, and concluded that not only did this event take place five months before “Kotwicz’s” battle, but also, that there were two entirely different [Home Army] units that were in the area. So [in a nutshell] this was the very reason for the prevailing hatred [of Poles by the locals]. Instead of punishing their own village head, who was a German collaborator, after dozens of years, those Latvians are still looking for revenge on Poles. I noticed that the atmosphere at the table improved noticeably. We were asked what wishes we had regarding Surkonty. I summed them up in four points:
1) Closing of the existing gate of the cowshed and opening it on the opposite side of the building.
2) Permission is to be granted to the Polish side to build small military cemetery that will be fenced off, and will consist of graves of individual soldiers.
3) A solemn formal Polish military ceremony with blessing [of the cemetery] with Holy Water is to take place.
4) A permission is to be granted to affix an inscription on the mound that is consistent with the Polish tradition.
I noticed that the last point distressed them the most. So, in order to ready them for conversation on this subject, I gave them a gift from our Council – it was a folder containing several dozens of photographs depicting well cared for cemeteries of Soviet soldiers in Poland. I also included with these photos the one taken by Marek Golkowski in Surkonty. The difference [between what these photos depicted] was shocking.
The text of the inscription proposed by our side was: “In Memory of Soldiers of the Home Army Districts “Now” and “Wiano” who perished for Poland at Surkonty, on 21 VIII, and in Poddubicze, on 19 VIII, 1944.”
- "At Surkonty? What, [Fighting] against our “bojcy” [rus. fighters]? For Poland?" – one of those at the table got upset.
Luckily, I anticipated this reaction and brought with me some photos from the Polish military cemeteries overseas, where the phrase “For Poland” [pol. “Za Polske”] was [commonly] used: Monte Cassino, Tobruk, Narvik, Bologna, Teheran, and others. This put him at ease. They took these materials and assured us that we will be advised accordingly. I myself, considered this matter to be resolved positively. […] After arriving in Warsaw, the Committee decided to immediately commence with the Surkonty cemetery project. It was to be undertaken by the PAX’s Foundation for the Preservation of Monuments [pol. Fundacja Ochrony Zabytkow]. Its director, the present Chairman of the World Union of Home Army Soldiers, Lt. Col. Stanislaw Karolkiewicz, who 60 years ago commanded the 1st Company of the Third Battalion of the 77th Infantry Regiment of AK in Nowogrodek area, gave us his assurance of the most positive of outcomes for this project.
We waited for 15 months for the Surkonty undertaking to come to the fruition. At last, on a rainy Sunday day on 8 September 1991, nearly two thousand people gathered at the forest clearing in Surkonty. Despite the fact that no official announcements were made, half of them came from Poland, and the rest arrived from the entire regions of Lida, and Vilno. There were standard bearers from the Home Army Bialystok, Vilno, and Nowogrodek Districts; the veterans were shuttled on several busses, and there were military drums, fanfares, and the pastor from the Field Cathedral of the Polish Armed Forces from Warsaw, already deceased Rev. Major Tadeusz Dlubacz, and other clergy, were also present. Family members of those perished also arrived, among them the wife and daughters of Lt. Col. Maciej Kalenkiewicz. A lowly wall made of stone encircled outstretched rows of graves with crosses. For the first time in half century, it [the cemetery] was clean, recognized, and honored.
Photo above: The ceremony at Surkonty on 8 September, 1991.
In an extensive report about this event published on the pages of “Armed Poland” [pol. Polska Zbrojna”] Andrzej Wernic wrote:
“Only now, because of the efforts and initiative of the Council for the Preservation of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom, and its Vice-Chairman, Dr. Cezary Chlebowski, this place could have been set in good order. On the battlefield, among the fallow lands and meadows, near large Kolkhoz’s cowshed, erected was a small military cemetery: graves and a symbolic monument made of stone with a cross that reads: In Memory of Soldiers of the Home Army Districts “Now” and “Wiano” who perished for Poland at Surkonty, on 21 VIII, and in Poddubicze, on 19 VIII, 1944.”
Left: An obelisk at Surkonty. The commemorative plaque reads: In Memory of Soldiers of the Home Army Districts “Now” and “Wiano” who perished for Poland at Surkonty, on 21 VIII, and in Poddubicze, on 19 VIII, 1944.
Thus, we won our fight for all of it, including the content of the inscription. After the Field Mass I gave a speech on behalf of the attached to the office of the Prime Minister [of the Republic of Poland] Council. It was incredibly difficult for me to speak from this position, at this place, and at this time. Much wasn’t said during this speech on this occasion, and one wanted to say so much more. But, the common sense dictated temperance. Thus, I only said: "The time and place of this prayerful gathering has a historical significance. This ceremony will find its way not only into the history of families of the AK soldiers who perished here, but but also into the annals of history of the entire Lida region.
It will be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the sovereign Republic of Poland, and standing at the threshold of their own sovereignty [the nations of] Belarus and Latvia. 47 years ago, on this forest glade took place one of the most dramatic events of the war. The security forces of the USSR attacked the unit of Lt. Col. “Kotwicz” awaiting there. It wasn't an even fight, and the Polish unit was defeated. The 13 Home Army soldiers who perished here during the battle, were joined by 20 others who were finished off with bayonets and rifle butts. They were thrown into this pit. Three times various [Soviet] commissions arrived. They dug up corpses to check if among them was body of the “bezrukhii major”. Unfortunately, he was. For 47 years he awaited for Christian burial in this earth that was not blessed. I say this, because I see new chapter ahead of us; a new record of friendship between Poland and the nations of Latvia and Belarus. We arrived here from the land of Poland, a land of 475 cemeteries of Russian soldiers. We buried them all with dignity and with compassion. We did that because death eases hurt; and because our faith dictates it. This cemetery will remain in the care of men and women who were always faitheful to Poland, and let us hope, in the care of the hosts of this land. I ask you, our hosts, be humane to those whom we entrust into your care. May they rest in peace."
Photo above: Families of Home Army Soldiers who perished at Surkonty lay wreaths on their graves.
When I was walking away from the altar, a very old, little grandma [pol. "starowinka", or "babulenka"] unsuspectingly grabbed my hand, kissed it, and asked:
"Mister, when will you be back?"
Even today, after more than dozen years, this memory makes me choke. From time to time, I hear from Surkonty that the little cemetery remains undisturbed.
Go, passer-by and tell Poland, that we had perished, faithful in Her service.
Przechodniu, Powiedz Polsce, Zesmy Polegli Wierni w Jej Sluzbie.