Retired KU professor receives medal for WWII heroism 77 years after fighting in Warsaw Uprising
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Nearly eight decades after he fought with the Polish resistance in the Warsaw Uprising against the occupying forces of Nazi Germany, retired University of Kansas professor Jarek Piekalkiewicz was finally presented with the Polish military’s Medal of Valor on Saturday.
Piekalkiewicz was belatedly awarded Poland’s second-highest combat honor on his 95th birthday at his west Lawrence home.
Polish Air Force Major Gen. Cezary Wisniewski, of the Polish embassy in Washington, D.C., said that in 1944, while the war was still going on, the Polish government in exile in England approved awarding the medal. But the confusion of war prevented Piekalkiewicz from receiving the honor, and the post-war communist government then refused to honor the country’s wartime resistance fighters. The recommendation that Piekalkiewicz receive the medal was recently discovered in Polish military archives.
Robert Rusiecki, of the Houston, Texas, Polish consulate, said it was important that Piekalkiewicz’s deeds and their historical context be remembered. He said Piekalkiewicz joined the Polish resistance at age 16, two years before the bloody street fighting of the 63-day uprising in the late summer and early fall of 1944, in which an estimated 6,000 resistance soldiers were killed. During the uprising, Piekalkiewicz was promoted to platoon sergeant and commanded 1,000 men. The Polish resistance — the largest resistance force in World War II — was eventually forced to negotiate a capitulation in early October when its fighters ran out of ammunition and food.
During the war, some of Piekalkiewicz’s family members were executed by the Germans — including his mother, who was an officer in the resistance, and his uncle, who was a leader in the Free Polish government.
Wisniewski emphasized that Piekalkiewicz’s service to Poland didn’t stop after he came to America. Piekalkiewicz, who taught at KU from 1963 to 2000, still served his homeland by being one of the influential Polish-Americans who helped Poland become a member of NATO through their advocacy.
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In an interview with the Journal-World before Saturday’s ceremony, Piekalkiewicz described how the Germans took him as a prisoner of war after the resistance forces surrendered and how he attempted to escape from his captors. During his first escape attempt, in November 1944, he hid under a train hauling resistance fighters to a labor camp. Although his plan worked, the place he had escaped to was a forest in eastern Germany, where it was cold and he had no food.
Piekalkiewicz got sick and was eventually recaptured when he wandered onto a German airbase in search of food. But fortunately, he said, the officer in charge of the base helped him with his recovery. The officer told Piekalkiewicz he had admired the Polish resistance fighters’ bravery during the uprising.
During a later escape attempt, Piekalkiewicz and some comrades were captured and beaten by Saxon peasants before a German military officer intervened and saved them.
“I still don’t like Saxons,” he said. “I have to say the German military treated us well. They honored the conditions of the capitulation agreement.”
It wasn’t until his third attempt — in March 1945 — that he was able to escape from German captivity for good. This attempt took place near Germany’s border with Switzerland, when American forces were waiting across the Rhine, and Piekalkiewicz said it was successful in part because by that time the German soldiers knew the war was lost. A mayor of a German town helped Piekalkiewicz and his fellow escapees get the papers they needed, which were accurate except for repeating their cover story that they were agricultural workers.
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Rusiecki, whose uncle was killed on the second day of the uprising while fighting for the resistance, said that it was especially important to honor people like Piekalkiewicz in the 21st century. He said that today, there were still people in the media, government and elsewhere trying to rewrite or distort history, and that the memories of the horrors of World War II were fading from the public consciousness. He said that some people he meets in Texas these days don’t know who the Nazis were.
Piekalkiewicz shares Rusiecki’s concerns about historical knowledge being lost or distorted. His fears are based on his own wartime experience and his knowledge of how the Nazis seized power in Germany, he said.
“As an American, I am fearful for our democracy,” he said. “(Former President Donald) Trump is a threat to our democracy, and that scares me.”
Rusiecki said it was fortunate that people like Piekalkiewicz could help preserve the historical record.
And that might not have happened if not for his bravery and his determination to escape.
After Piekalkiewicz met up with the advancing Americans, he served with the U.S. Army for a time. Later, he was given a choice of returning to Poland — which he said would have meant his execution — or serving with the British military. He opted for the latter, and after several postings he took advantage of the British G.I. Bill to earn his undergraduate degree at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. It was there that he met his wife, Maura.
“I then came to America and got my Ph.D. from Indiana University,” he said.
“Then I came to Lawrence and KU.”