Dressed as a German general, Kazimierz Leski took secret documents obtained by the Polish resistance movement to transport them across Europe. His generation paid a terrible price for its attachment to a free Poland – writes Bogusław SONIK
.At the darkest hour of the occupation, Kazimierz Leski travelled across Europe dressed as a German general. He was the head of an intelligence group called the “Musketeers” and smuggled military documents about the communication infrastructure and fortifications on the Eastern front that had been obtained by a Polish spy network. His route was mainly from Warsaw to Paris and Brussels where he was helped by underground Republican refugees from Spain.
I would probably never have met Kazimierz Leski had it not been for a conversation I had with a young Frenchman representing an important social organisation. The year was 1993. I was director of the Polish Institute in Paris. The clever student (or PhD candidate) surprised me when he asked why there had been no organised resistance in Poland during WW2. I can hear his voice to this day: “All countries had their Résistance movements, except for Poland.”
I told him about the Polish Underground State, the 390,000-strong underground Home Army, the Peasant Battalions (170,000) and the Warsaw Uprising routinely confused with the rising in the Warsaw Ghetto. The conversation made me realise that there was a huge blank spot in French historical consciousness.
As the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising was approaching, I and Alexandra Kwiatkowska-Viatteau started preparing the programme of commemorative events in Paris. This was when I came across the memoirs of the Home Army soldier Kazimierz Leski.
His story read like a script of a spy thriller. During WW2, Leski used IDs forged by the famous “Agaton,” head of Home Army’s “false identities” unit. “Agaton” was a master of his craft: the documents he falsified did not raise doubts anywhere in Europe.
In 1939, during the Soviet invasion of Poland, a plane piloted by Leski was shot down by the Red Army and the young pilot injured his spine. His documents might well have been impeccable and his German accent native-like, but he could not stand long journeys on crowded trains. To rectify this, he had to change his status. He asked for a “promotion” and soon received perfectly forged documents issued for general Julius von Hallman. He also appointed himself Plenipotentiary for Communication Networks and Fortifications on the South-Eastern Front. From then onwards, he travelled in luxury compartments reserved for German officers.
Once in Paris, to make his identity legitimate, he reported to staff HQ of Marshal von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief of German forces in the West. He was well-received as a high officer involved in Eastern front fighting. Having secured his “cover,” he got in touch the French resistance. The natural liaison was Henri de Lipkowski. Born to Polish parents, he was one of the directors of Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas. Due to his underground activities, de Lipkowski contacted Leski with Gilbert Védy („Médéric”) from the important resistance network “Ceux de la Libération”. They both organised routes across the Pyrenees for Polish couriers.
I invited Kazimierz Leski to Paris for a number of open meetings. The room was packed. I was very happy to see the young man who had asked me about the “non-existent” Polish resistance a few months before. Leski made a tremendous impression on him, especially that some of Leski’s comrades from the French resistance were also present. Not all of them survived the occupation: de Lipkowski was arrested, tortured and eventually killed in the Buchenwald camp.
As we walked around Paris later, Leski took me on a tour of his 1942–43 addresses. He showed me where the Stadtkommandantur used to have its seat. The building requisitioned for that purpose was a bank near the opera. It was there he went each time he came to Paris to collect his hotel assignment documents, ration cards and… theatre tickets. We also visited Halle aux Fruits, a place unrelated to any heroic story of underground work. Quite simply, the false general could go there to exchange his very real ration cards for fruit no one in occupied Warsaw had seen for years.
He also told me about his post-war life. His membership in WIN (Freedom and Independence, an organisation associating people who would not accept Soviet domination) earned him 12 years in prison or which he did 6. Then he was sentenced again: 10 years for “collaborating with the occupiers.” Tens of thousands of Home Army heroes met a similar fate, many were tortured to extract a false confession, while others were brutally murdered and buried in anonymous graves so that their remains could not be identified until today, 70 years later.
Leski’s second term in prison finished after two and a half years due to the thaw following Stalin’s death and reforms in the USSR. He was rehabilitated. He could finally find work – first as a ship-building engineer equipped with his pre-war Dutch diploma Technische Universiteit Delft, then in the Polish Academy of Sciences. He had a lot of patents to his name.
.Leski’s generation paid a terrible price for its attachment to a free, democratic Poland. The Allies gave Central and Eastern Europe away to Stain in Yalta. The resulting Soviet domination came to an end in 1989. It was only then that Poland could pay tribute to the heroes such as Kazimierz Leski and restore the memory of their brave actions.
The text was published in the monthly Wszystko co Najważniejsze and in the international press as part of the project “We are telling the world about Poland” implemented in cooperation with the Institute of National Remembrance.