The Holy Cross Brigade Got a Bad Rap

On February 18, 2018, in Munich, Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki laid a wreath at a military cemetery to honor the fallen soldiers of the Holy Cross Brigade of the National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne – NSZ), a Polish wartime and postwar hard-core Christian nationalist outfit.  This symbolic recognition of the unheralded heroism of the NSZ does not reflect Morawiecki's private ideological preferences.  His family is staunchly Piłsudskite, which means firmly in opposition to the National Democrats, who fielded the outfit.

One can legitimately question the timing of the premier's visit to the cemetery. It came on the heels of the now infamous exchange with an Israeli journalist when the Polish politician misspoke about "Jewish perpetrators" of the Holocaust, instead of either suavely neutralizing the question or sonorously explicating about the complexity of the phenomenon of collaboration during the Second World War. The media not only reacted hysterically to the press conference misstep, but also went ballistic at Morawiecki's trip to the cemetery, which was widely perceived as an act of bad will, indeed a provocation.  One the one hand, the journalists exclaimed, the Polish prime minister blamed the victims for the Holocaust.  On the other, he glorified "Nazi collaborators" of the Holy Cross Brigade of the NSZ.

What was the Holy Cross Brigade?  It was a lguerrilla unit of over 900 men and women cobbled together from smaller forest detachments of the National Armed Forces in the Kielce region of western Poland in August 1944.  The Holy Cross Brigade fought the Nazis and communists simultaneously.  It was engaged in several serious battles against the Germans and dozens of hit-and-run operations.  It also clashed with the communists, including the NKVD commandos, who were robbing, raping, and assassinating patriotic Poles and civilian bystanders.  The Polish partisans served as protection units for helpless civilians.

When the Red Army launched its surprise offensive in January 1945, the front collapsed, and the Brigade raced westward.  Its command was hoping to be able to link up with the Free Polish Army in the west.  The alternative was to remain in Poland and be destroyed by Stalin.

After initially battling it out with the Germans, the Brigade trekked west through bluff and bluster, taking advantage of the general disintegration of the enemy.  But after a while, the forces of the Third Reich reorganized and barred the way to the Poles.  Faced with either death or capitulation, the Brigade command chose a stratagem.  Stressing their anti-communism, the Poles entered into a non-aggression agreement with the Wehrmacht at the end of January.  Therefore, they were permitted to continue to march southwest to Bohemia, where their unit was confined at an encampment in March. The collapsing Third Reich was hoping to use the Holy Cross Brigade for propaganda purposes and to deploy it at the front.

The Polish command flatly refused to fight for the Nazis.  However, it agreed to assign a small number of volunteer troops to be sent, including by air, behind the Soviet lines.  The volunteers were given confidential orders to shoot any German assigned to them upon landing.  In any event, no Germans were attached, and a small number that made it back to Poland promptly reported back to the NSZ leadership and re-entered the struggle against the communists.

Meanwhile, by the end of April, the Holy Cross Brigade took off from its place of confinement in search of the Allied forces.  Soon, its reconnaissance elements linked up with the U.S. Third Army.  The bulk of the brigade commenced ambushing retreating German army and S.S. units.  Soon, the Poles obtained intelligence about a Nazi concentration camp at Holleischen (Holysov), which was a sub-installation of the Flossenburg mother facility.  On May 5, the Holy Cross Brigade swiftly attacked Holleischen, freeing several thousand women, including about 200 Jewesses who were about to be burned alive.

A French prisoner recalled: "Suddenly about 10:30am, as in a movie, when I was looking out the window with a few others, we noticed in a part of the forest ... a group of people in khaki uniform.  They moved in an enveloping way, and there were many of them, and other groups were coming from the other side as well.  There was no noise.  We did hear neither command nor shooting.  We were paralyzed and it was astonishing to see simultaneously our guards in the courtyard who could not see anything.  The military in khaki uniforms moved swiftly and then they attacked the gate to the Camp of the Jewesses as well as our gate.  They opened it, one did not know why, but very quickly and the yard was full then with people in khakis, fast and silent.  The guards on duty lift their hands and drop their weapons[.] ... We ran downstairs; the doors to the blocks were opened, the cupboards opened too.  There was a dead German at the gate.  It all seemed like we were dreaming or we were mad[.] ... Suddenly, artillery opened up close by, rifle and machine gun fire resounded around us.  That was the Polish partisans conducting guerrilla war.  From time to time stray bullets hit the shingles."

The commanding officer of the Holy Cross Brigade, Colonel Antoni Skarbek, aka Bohun, recalled in the Jewish Voice (New Jersey): "At this moment my aide de camp Second Lieutenant Zygmunt [Borowiecki] ran up to me to report that there are two barracks on the left side.  They are surrounded by a double row of an electrified barbed wire fence.  The gate was closed with a chain and locks.  The doors to the barracks were also closed.  Emaciated faces appeared from little windows, and there were loud screams for help.  I ordered immediately to bring the [German] commander of the camp and turn off the electricity to the barbed wire fence.  Answering my question about the reason to lock up and isolate these two barracks, he responded that on Hitler's orders prisoners of Jewish origin were locked up there.  The buildings, along with the women, were to be doused with gasoline and burnt at the moment when [the Americans] would be approaching[.] ... After opening the gate, I entered the enclosure and I saw gasoline barrels positioned next to each barrack[.] ... The doors to the barracks were then forced by the [Polish] soldiers.  I wanted to enter inside, but a macabre sight which I noticed stopped me at the threshold.  From the darkness of the building there was emerging a horrible stench of human waste mixed with the smell of rotting cadavers.  From the depths there crawled out with great tears of joy, the surviving [Jewish] women."

The Holy Cross Brigade continued its assaults on the XIII German Army.  The Nazis desperately fought back.  The Poles took over 500 prisoners, including an army staff jointly with an American company, and cleared the way for the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division to enter Pilzen.  The Americans recognized them as allies and, to honor the Polish soldiers, allowed them to wear the "Indian Head" insignia of the division.

Within a few weeks, however, the situation deteriorated as the Soviets and Czech communists appeared in the Pilzen area and began to butt heads with the Holy Cross Brigade.  Stalin demanded that the Poles be handed over to the Soviets.  General George Patton refused and adopted the brigade, transporting it to the American zone of occupation and enrolling the Polish guerrillas in U.S.-led Guard Companies.  For the next decade, they were getting ready to liberate Soviet-occupied Poland with the Americans.

For all those reasons, Prime Minister Mazowiecki Morawiecki resolved to honor the Holy Cross Brigade.  This was not to spite Israel.

Marek Chodakiewicz is professor of history at the Institute of World Politics D.C.