July 26, 2010
By the late summer of 1939, Hitler’s forces had absorbed Austria and Czechoslovakia into his growing empire, and Germany’s military was massed at the Polish border clearly preparing for invasion.
In an astonishing display of perhaps the greatest complacency in the history of the modern world, however, Polish people sat lazing about their lakes, beaches, and riverbanks worrying about more pressing matters– like how to beat the summer heat.
In September of that year, German troops easily vanquished the Polish army, and Krakow became the colonial seat of the occupying forces. Almost immediately, under the direction of the German SS, anyone who posed a threat was rounded up and imprisoned. This included over 180 Polish university professors and many businessmen.
Krakow, of course, is also very close to two of the main concentration camps used during the German occupation, nearby Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Plaszow.
The worst part is that, even after the war was over, Poland merely swapped fascism for Stalinism. Overall, the country was shrouded in brutal totalitarian control for half a century; undoubtedly, the Nazi invasion of Poland set off a chain of events that would forever affect the lives of all Poles.
It’s true that no one had a crystal ball back then… but it would certainly stand to reason that with Hitler knocking at your door, you would probably want to have an escape plan. Even more prudently, perhaps to have already executed it.
Many Poles did just that; they spent the preceding seasons liquidating assets, stocking up on gold, and getting their travel documents in order. By the time Hitler came to town, many of the smart ones were already gone.
My guess is that the ones who left were probably ridiculed by their peers as “crazy”, or “fringe”, or “out of touch”, or my personal favorite, “unpatriotic.” It’s as if they had a solemn national duty to stay, get roped up and waste away in a concentration camp for the ‘greater good’ of Poland.
For those who escaped before the war, many of them went on to build new lives in places like the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. They prioritized freedom and opportunity, and they went to the best places that were safest for themselves and their families.
I’ve met a businessman here (I’ll call him “Jarek”) who I think has the best story to sum this up; when Jarek’s father was just a boy in Krakow, the family saw the warning signs and decided to leave town. This was 1938.
Jarek’s grandfather owned a successful bakery at the time, yet he felt that he would rather start over somewhere else than risk the safety of his family by living in a police state. They sold everything– the house, livestock, and business… and everyone else thought they were crazy.
Within six months, the family was in Curitiba, Brazil; Jarek’s grandfather soon established a new bakery that eventually became a thriving business. Jarek’s father grew up in Curitiba and integrated into the local culture, yet he maintained his roots since there were many other Poles who followed them there.
30-years later, the face of Brazil started to change. By the mid-1960s, the whole of Latin America was becoming a military dictatorship. Once again, the family decided to get out while they could and head towards better opportunity; they sold the business, liquidated their assets, and this time headed towards the United States.
Jarek was just a baby when the family made this move. He grew up in a Polish neighborhood of Chicago, spoke Polish at home, and married a Polish girl from his neighborhood.
He was working as a young real estate professional in the Chicago suburbs when the Berlin Wall fell, at which point he began making more frequent trips to Poland to visit his family’s homeland.
In his subsequent trips throughout the following years, Jarek began feeling like there was more and more opportunity in Poland; in 2003, fearful of what would happen in Chicago because of the “War on Terror,” Jarek moved his family full-circle back to Poland because he felt like it was the safest, most opportunity-rich place for him to be.
He may have been right; his business is booming, and the family really enjoys the life they have built for themselves here. To listen to him talk, though, they would happily leave and go somewhere else if the right circumstances were presented.
“My most important obligation is to my family,” he told me. “I will go wherever I can provide the best life for them, whether that is Poland, America, Brazil, or anywhere else. Nothing lasts forever, you have to expect that these things will change from time to time. People have to learn to change as well, to not get rooted in ideology.”
I think Jarek has an interesting point; I’d really like to hear from you, though, what do you think?