Teddy Bear Legionaries: Patriotism For Kids In Interwar Poland
#language & literature
small, Teddy the Legionary: Patriotism for Polish Children in the Interwar Period, Illustration from the book ‘Bajka o Żołnierzu-Tułaczu’ (The Tale of the Soldier-Wanderer) by Edward Słoński, 1923, Vilnius, published by L. Chomiński,, center
During the interwar years in Poland, a lot of patriotic children’s literature was published. The stories showed kids how wonderful it was to fight, and even die, for one’s country. How did these books impact the generation forced to fight in World War II?
What kind of soldier
Many people today are lucky enough to only know about war from books, movies and computer games. From their perspective, some may even think that telling their small children about the horror of armed conflict is unnecessary, to put it mildly. But imagine what Poland was like before it regained independence, when war was the everyday experience of millions of Poles. The country’s borders were not stable, there were constant conflicts, including an unstable domestic situation.
During this period, pacifism was the ideology of a scarce minority, and reinforcing people’s morale in the face of violence was a must. There was a strong belief that this had to apply to children too. As Kazimierz Króliński, the epigone of positivism, wrote:
What kind of soldier will of a boy who is afraid of his own shadow, who is scared of night and loneliness ever become?
Liberation- and independence-focussed children’s literature was dominated by stories about the three events, which became the founding myths of the Second Republic of Poland: Poles fighting in World War I – especially those who fought in Piłsudski’s legions; the Polish-Ukrainian war for Lviv; and the victory over the Bolsheviks. Some of these stories were written ‘in the moment’, about events that were happening at that very time. In the 1930s, the cult of the Marshal Józef Piłsudski and his authoritarian turnover made such stories even more popular.
All the kids want to go to the front
Our review of this intriguing period in Polish literature will begin with a short book. Although it relates to more remote events, it became an inspiration to a legion of artists and had an impact on the imagination of several generations of children. It is the of tale Lolek Grenadier: Czarodziejska Historia dla Chłopców (editor’s translation: Lolek the Grenadier: A Magic Story for Boys) written by Antoni Gawiński in 1912 – six editions of the story came out before World War II.
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The main character was apparently considered a paragon of virtue by the young Wojciech Jaruzelski, the boy who would go on to become the infamous communist general who imposed Martial Law. While Papcio Chmiel, creator of the beloved Tytus, Romek & A’Tomek comics later in life, remembers
My patriotic education started (…) from the book Lolek Grenadier and with children’s toys. One time under the Christmas tree, I found the cap of a light cavalier [an Uhlan], a little sword and a rocking horse.
Lolek is fascinated with the Napoleonic wars, which he re-enacts while playing with his toy soldiers. On a magical Christmas Eve, he travels through time to Austerlitz, where he is honoured with a personal meeting with the Emperor Napoleon for his heroic behaviour. At first, he is terrified by the atrocities of a real battleground, but with time he understands the meaning of words said to him by Bonaparte:
Those who are suffering and dying now, are buying the happiness and greatness of their Fatherland for the price of their blood.
In the final scene, back home, Lolek receives a grenadier’s uniform for Christmas from his parents and he says:
'I will hang it in my arsenal. Because war is beautiful.'
'But only in a picture,’ said his mum (...)
(…) 'I learned it on the battleground while seeing the atrocities of war and while missing you.'
Lolek’s longing to join the army became a motif that returned in numerous other stories: in the short story Rycerz Złotego Serduszka (The Soldier with a Golden Heart) by Maria Buyno-Arct, as well as in Wszyscy na Front (Everybody to the Front) which was published in instalments in Moje Pisemko (My Little Magazine) in 1930.
So what that he’s only five! Everybody says he is big, very big and strong. He can lift a little gun! (…) Why can’t he protect Poland? What about Lolek the grenadier? He was not very much older than him!
In many of these stories, war is described as an adventure. It comes across more like a game full of exciting experiences, with none of the hopelessness and misery of the trenches. Books written using this convention feature the theme of an orphan boy or a commoner child, who is exceptionally brave and clever, and who tips the balance toward victory. Such a character appears in the short story by Helena Zakrzewska ‘W Obronie Własnego Gniazda (Fighting for my Own Nest) or Janek w Legionach (Janek in the Legions) by Bronisława Bobrowska, dedicated to ‘the youngest fighters for the Polish cause’.
During World War I, Edward Słoński, the bon vivant, socialist, soldier who fought under Piłsudski and fervent patriot, was an unquestioned star of ‘liberation literature’, for both children and adults alike. He wrote numerous works, among them the rhyming Bajka o Żołnierzu-Tułaczu (A Tale of a Soldier-Wanderer) in 1923. Its main character, Little George from the village of Chłopska Krzywda (Peasant’s Grievance), had a gloomy childhood – he had to work hard on a farm, and as a seven year old, he had to take horses out to graze at night in a forest.
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In order to pass the time, George sings songs that the forest animals love. After some time, his animal fan club decides that he ought to be the first human in history to receive the annual Forest Award. He is awarded the ‘Cap of Invisibility’ and ‘fast walking boots’ because, being a Pole, he would soon have to go to war, and such equipment would be of use to him.
He took the hat in his hands, and they tremble –
A grey maciejówka hat with a white eagle emblem…
The animals also gave him some basic military training:
But with every passing hour George became a man, ready
And it wasn’t long before he conquered the old Teddy.
(…) But Teddy was happy, and walking in the woodland
He murmured: ‘May he grow and strengthen for Poland!’
When the possibility of independence appears on the horizon, George joins the army with pleasure. He uses his superpowers and, in his free time, he tries to rid Poland of the occupiers’ influences:
And when he saw an orthodox church with five domes in town,
He picked it up and flipped it upside down,
So that it wouldn’t offend with its orthodox shape
This Catholic land, enslaved by rape.
Słoński also wrote a poem called Zaślubiny Polski z Morzem (Poland’s Wedding to the Sea) after a request from the Sea and Rivers League. Here, Mother Nature becomes a natural ally of the Poles:
And soon the great seas,
And soon pines in thickets,
Began to buzz in Poland:
‘God bless! God bless us!’
A lot of pages were written in order to show children the courage of their friends from Lviv, who fought for their city during the Polish-Ukrainian war in 1918 and during the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1919 and 1920. Edward Słoński’s 1921 book Na Progu Polski (At the Threshold of Poland) was about ‘the Lviv Eaglets’ – a youth organisation operating fighting under the Rifles Association. It was illustrated by the painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski, who later became notorious for killing Gabriel Narutowicz, the first elected head of state following Poland's regained sovereignty from partitioning powers.
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Works dedicated to Polish and Ukrainian war often feature the motif of an almost ritual offering of innocent youngsters sent into carnage. This is the case in the short book by Juliusz German dedicated to a brave ten-year-old boy O Janku, Co Walczył we Lwowie (About Janek, Who Fought in Lviv) or in the poem by Henryk Zbierzchowski ‘O Antosiu Petrykiewiczu’ (About Antoni Petrykiewicz), about a thirteen-year-old who was lethally wounded on Lviv’s Executioner’s Hill, the youngest ever cavalier of the War Order of Virtuti Militari.
In memory of the little soldier
who saved Lviv
for Poland’s glory
Helena Zakrzewska in her short story Lulu from a 1919 book of short stories entitled Dzieci Lwowa (Children of Lviv) presented war as seen from the perspective of a child. The main character is from a well-to-do and loving family, but the events of 1914 put a stop to his idyllic life. His father becomes a soldier and his mother is killed by the Kozaks: ‘she went to God to pray for father’.
Lulu wanders about homeless and hungry: a poor peasant family who takes him in, sells him to a Russian soldier who misses his children while in the trenches, and wants to raise him to be a Muscovite soldier. Lulu gets used to life on the front, spends time building fences from sticks and bombarding them with pine cones. However, the war deprives him of yet another guardian. Afraid of ‘the Austrians, who eat children’, he hides in the forest, then in a convent, and later he joins a gang of war orphans, to finally find his father during a triumphant parade of Polish soldiers in town.
The Eastern borderland conflicts are also depicted in books for girls. The Ukrainian rebellion and the October Revolution had an impact on Ania z Lechickich Pól (Ania of the Polish Fields) by Maria Dunin-Kozicka. This three volume saga for girls (Childhood, Youth and Ania’s Love) was regarded as a Polish response to Anne of Green Gables.
The Polish Anne was a paragon of feminine virtues – beautiful (of course with fair hair and blue eyes), kind to other people and clever. However, the description of political and social background is what makes the book different from typical novels for school girls. In the following fragment, revolutionary turmoil is confronted with the myth of civilising the gentry in the East.
The rural community, tempted by a programme which promised to change to ‘all, all, all’ into prosperity and happiness, was very willing to listen to the political preaching. The attitude towards the gentry was changed fiercely, however, like in a distorting mirror. The most civilised establishments of ‘the rulers’ were destroyed. (…) People destroyed a brick hut housing ‘a little bank’ established by Mr Alfred for peasants in order to fight with the Jewish usury.
All of the above mentioned themes were highlighted in the 1922 book Białe Róże: Powieść dla Młodzieży z Czasów Inwazji Bolszewickiej (White Roses: A Novel for Youth from the Time of the Bolshevik Invasion) by Helena Zakrzewska. Other than telling the story of the main characters, the book describes the ethos of the scouts’ and the gentry.
Two siblings – Janek and Wandzia, are orphans raised by their aunts. They were raised as patriots and, when Poland faces a communist invasion, they are happy to do something for their homeland. Wandzia helps out as a courier, Janek, as a scout helps as a telegraph operator. The younger and more carefree (albeit no less brave and courageous) Janek treats the whole ordeal like an adventure at summer camp.
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This will be a wonderful journey! (…) Do you remember us playing all day when we were small? I would travel far for the crusades, and you, brave lady, would take a ribbon from your French braid and attach it to my helmet. Now we will really do what we once just pretended.
The aunts did not want to let them go, but the kids persuaded them that scouts could not be used in battles and they would not be on the front lines. For a long time, there was a lot of adventure and bravery – it was easy for the two clever kids to dupe the primitive Bolsheviks. However, the story does not have a happy ending:
I will go to my first real fight, in a moment I will go to my first real fight!’, [Janek] whispered to himself with trembling lips ‘Like Wołodyjowski, like Kmicic! God, God, how lucky I am (…)’
And he urged the horse forward while smiling and crying. (…) And a new salvo was heard. Janek spread his hands and fell slowly to the ground (…), smiling, beaming, with his mouth open in a shout, with a tear glittering in his eye. A bullet hit him right in the centre of his forehead.
‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a Bolshevik by the toe!’
The interwar period also saw the publication of a number of books which took on Poland’s military history with less pomp and circumstance. The book Bohaterski Miś czyli Przygody Pluszowego Niedźwiadka na Wojnie: Dla Dzieci od Lat 10 do 100 (The Brave Teddy-Bear, or the Adventures of a Teddy Bear at War: For Children from 10 to 100) by Bronisława Ostrowska is a good example, however, it too is not free of clichés. The main character is a toy owned by the Lviv siblings Hala and Staś.
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You were born in a beautiful year 1910 – the Grunwald jubilee year (editor’s note: The victorious Battle of Grunwald was fought in 1410). (…) As a bear, you have a bit of Lithuanian in you, as a toy of a Zawisza team scout, you have a bit of knight in you, and as the well-raised and educated son of my sister, you are the first bear to be a Polish citizen.
After Lviv was captured by the Russians, the Teddy Bear also went to captivity. He was liberated by the Legions and becomes Piłsudski’s mascot (Piłsudski’s name is, however, never mentioned in the book. Instead, he is described as the Grandpa or the Commander). Later, he consoles an orphan found by the soldiers next to her mother’s dead body. He is captured again – this time by the Prussians. By happy accident he ends up among the French allies, who give him back to his rightful owners. In the meantime, Staś becomes a brave fighter pilot and Hala turns into a beautiful and wise woman.
Military humour found its way into comics. Ogniem i Mieczem, czyli Przygody Szalonego Grzesia (With Fire and Sword, or the Adventures of Crazy Grześ) is regarded as the first Polish comic. In 1919, it was published in instalments in the satirical magazine Szczutek (Flick). The idea of the comic strip was conceived by cartoonist Karol Mackiewicz. He was joined by writer Stanisław Wasylewski to create, as he himself described it, ’corresponding goofy captions’.
Poland wants to have armed forces,
So Grześ went to war.
He put on his brave face,
Czechia and Russia. beware! (...)
In the army, every day is fun
A battle here, a briefing there,
You can warm yourself by the fire,
You can also get hit in the face.
Grześ fights anyone he meets on his path: Ukrainians, Bolsheviks, Germans in Greater Poland and in Silesia. He has an honest face – you can see he of good stock. He somewhat resembles Hašek’s Švejk (except the fact that Švejk was rather unwilling to fight). He’s a womaniser and enjoys his adventurous lifestyle.
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At the end of 1919, Szczutek decided to publish more stories independently. Mackiewicz and Wasylewski continued the series writing stories about Grześ’s children, the twin brothers Kubuś and Bubuś, who, armed with a bow and a slingshot, fought Poland’s enemies fiercely. The lively kids had a lot of adventures including chasing a Jewish spic or the execution of Bolshevik spies. All rather disturbing for comic books addressed to readers between the ages of 6 and 10…
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In the scouts & on the stage
Time to leave the battle grounds and death behind for a moment – after all, going to war for your country is not the only manifestation of patriotism. The apotheosis of the scousts, its merits in countering the demoralsation of youth and showing scouts as paragons of virtue – these are the themes which come back in works for youth by writers such as Maria Dąbrowska, Gustaw Morcinek or Kornel Makuszyński.
These themes are also present in early works by Aleksander Kamiński – the Polish scouts favourite author. His 1932 Antek Cwaniak (Smart Alec Antek) tells a story of a scout team leader, who teaches his scouts respect for nature and attachment to Polish historical traditions. Along with Książka Wodza Zuchów (The Book of a Scout Chief) from 1933 and Krąg Rady (The Scouts’ Council) from 1935, the book was part of a scouting trilogy which, apart from being a novel, was also an educational manual for scouting instructors. The book includes descriptions of Polish boys favourite games from the time – sailors, firemen, Bolesław III Wrymouth or a Battle of Cedynia.
Dramatic scenes, short plays to be put on in school theatres, were a big part of patriotic education. Anna Świrszczyńska, who revolutionised the female lyric poetry later on in life, started her career with such works. In 1936, she published Rok Polskiego Dziecka: Wiersze i Obrazki Sceniczne na Doroczne Święta Państwowe i Szkolne (A Year of the Polish Child. Poems and Dramatic Scenes for Annual National and School Holidays). The booklet includes poems written for various celebrations, such as ‘Sea Day’, anniversaries of national uprisings or Piłsudski’s nameday.
In 1918, another young writer, Maria Dąbrowska, wrote Dzieci Ojczyzny (Children of the Fatherland) – stories presenting the history of Poland, from the signing of the Constitution of 3 May up until the Legions, from the child’s point of view.
(…) And it seems to us, that in a while, a little Christ will ascend from over the bed, sit among us, prop his chin up with his hand, as wooden figurines do in old Polish shrines. He will think, make a sorrowful face and say:
‘Oh, good old times... Boys went to the army to serve their Fatherland when they were thirteen. They fought many battles. You did not hang over the bed. You protected the fighters’ chests.’
Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna, connected to the Skamander group, also wrote some patriotic books for youth, such as one about Piłsudski. Apart from that, she wrote a volume of poems for children entitled ‘Rymy Dziecięce’ (Children’s Rhymes), illustrated by Zofia Stryjeńska. Among the poems about nature, dolls and games, there were also poems condemning Jewish pogroms or describing the Bolshevik invasion:
The Bolsheviks, the Bolsheviks,
They’re sniffing, hunting on the border:
One is creeping up
On a Polish soldier
The second is getting close
Taking an axe to the cross…
Magazines for children such as Płomyk (Flame), Płomyczek (Little Flame) and Moje Pisemko (My Little Magazine) were available all over the country and they were trying to instil patriotic values in their young readers. The content of the September 1939 edition of Płomyk, which was apparently printed in August, is very unsettling from today’s perspective. The edition features the UK – the articles describe the alliance of Warsaw and London and present the life of English children to their Polish counterparts.
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Apart from that, we can read a touching story of a young repatriate from Brazil, whose father came to Poland having learned about the construction of the Central Industrial District (and although he does not remember Poland, he can recite Konopnicka’s poems by heart), or a letter from a rural boy to his friend, where he tells the latter about marvels he saw in the Museum of Polish Army during his holiday in the big city. The edition also features a poster with the inscription: ‘We will not be pushed away from the Baltic!’.
During Stalinist times, libraries were cleared of many books. After 1945, such themes as Lviv, Vilnius, the Legions’ traditions and scouting, the cult of Piłsudski cult and religious worship all became taboo. The lion’s share of the books mentioned above were banned. A few of them, however, were adapted to the new reality. The post-1945 version of the popular ‘Pyza na Polskich Dróżkach (Pyza on Polish Paths) was purged of catholic themes and fragments of Pyza’s journeys around areas which had once been Polish but then belonged to the USSR.
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Originally written in Polish, Aug 2016; translated by IS & AZ, Apr 2017
Sources: 'Trzy Legendy: Walka o Niepodległość i Granice w Polskiej Międzywojennej Literaturze Młodzieżowej' by Anna Maria Krajewska (2009); 'Dawny Komiks Polski' by Adam Rusek (2014); Lektury Kolumbów: Rozważania o Prozie dla Młodzieży Dwudziestolecia Międzywojennego by Marta Ziółkowska-Sobecka (1989)