The Polish Liberators: Not forgotten in the Netherlands

By Hubert Kozieł

Commemorating the Polish liberators in Driel.

A young Dutch girl is holding a tablet. On the screen of this device you can see the map illustrating the route that Polish veteran Henryk Rećko during WWII. Henryk was from Sokółka, a small city in eastern Poland. The Soviet occupying troops took him to a forced labor camp in eastern Siberia, near Vladivostok. He escaped and went through Iran, Egypt, South Africa, Brazil and the United States to Scotland, where he joined General Stanisław Maczek’s 1st Armored Division, with whom he participated in liberation of the Netherlands. After the war, he was unable to go back to Poland, so he stayed in the Netherlands. The girl informed me that he was a close friend of her father as she told me this amazing story at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the start of the Liberation of Netherlands, in the city of Terneuzen. I was there on a press trip organized by the Liberation Route Europe.

I was really surprised how important it was for the Dutch to keep the memory of their Polish liberators alive. In the photos depicting liberation of the Netherlands that the local population greeted the Polish soldiers in 1944-45 very warmly and quickly created the bonds of friendship with them. Some took it further, and married Dutch women, making a choice to spend the rest of their lives in the Netherlands. In Breda, we met the child of one of these Polish liberators – Lt. Col. Frans Ruczynski, chairman of the General Maczek Museum. Many of these men were unable to cross the Iron Curtain and return to Poland, and as such integrated into local Dutch communities. They became the living reminders of the liberation, but also of the Poland’s cruel fate during the WWII. Ruczynski also showed us the grave of general Maczek, the graves of his soldiers, and the place where the Maczek Memorial Museum will be constructed. In this city, you could find two monuments associated with the Polish soldiers. One of them depicts the White Eagle, the national symbol of Poland, defeating a German eagle. The other depicts a German Panther tank captured by Poles and sent to Breda as a gift. We were also able to witness where the bloody and surreal battle for a small piece of polder at Kapelsche Veer.

At the Liberation Museum Zeeland in the village of Nieuwdorp we could see, among other unique exhibits, the “triumph gate” that the local villagers constructed to greet the liberators from the Polish 1st Armored Division, which was inscribed with “Dank an den Polen bluft ons bevolen” (“Thanks to the Poles for liberating us”). I also enjoyed finding traces of the Poles at the Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Oosterbeek and Museum “Ergens in Nederland 1939-1945” in Emmen – a great private collection of weapons, uniforms and military memorabilia. At the commemorations in Terneuzen, among the veterans greeted by the King of the Netherlands Willem Alexander, there were two Poles – one from the Maczek’s division and one from the 1st Independent Polish Paratroop Brigade, which fought during Operation Market Garden.

In Oosterbeek, I was excited to look from the bank of the Rhine to where the Polish paratroopers landed at Driel. I was thinking about the desperate efforts of these troops to help the British at the Oosterbeek and about how close the British XXX Corps was from Arnhem. Arno Baltussen, chairman of the Foundation Driel-Poland, had shown us the places in Driel associated with the Polish Airborne troops. His aunt, Cora Baltussen was a nurse who cared for soldiers in 1944, and later she helped to rehabilitate General Stanisław Sosabowski, the commander of the Polish Parachute Brigade – a great soldier who was made a scapegoat for Montgomery’s military disaster in Arnhem. It was very heartwarming to see the monument dedicated to general Sosabowski in Driel funded by the British veterans of Market Garden. The sacrifice of the brave Polish soldiers has not been forgotten.

Hubert Kozieł (born 1983) is a journalist working for the Polish daily newspapers “Rzeczpospolita” and “Parkiet” (where he writes articles mainly about economy and financial markets), and also for the historical monthly magazine “Uważam Rze Historia”.

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