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Silesian Life Pictures

Piotr Korczyński talks with Józef Kłyk about the Silesian western, experiences from the “Hubal” movie set, the Silesian uprisings, and the dramatic fate of the Silesian people during World War II.

When you served in the bomb disposal unit in Łódź, you ended up at the set of the “Hubal” movie, believed to be one of the best Polish wartime films. How come?

As sappers, we were responsible for pyrotechnical effects, but we also worked as extras in the battle scenes. In my unit, there were many Silesians who spoke both the Silesian dialect and German language well, so most often we played Wehrmacht soldiers. There were often funny moments, like the one involving German helmets, which, for the purposes of the film, were made of plastic. In one of the scenes we stepped in as a German unit between two burning barns. There was such heat there that the helmets deformed on our heads and began to resemble those of the Red Army. Germans entered the clouds of smoke and Russians ran out of them. The filming had to be interrupted, and real, steel German helmets had to be brought in.

But your film experience began much earlier.

In my childhood I found old issues of the German magazine “Filmwelt” in the attic of my family’s house, which, incidentally, had a cinema before the war. There were, for example, beautiful photos from the set of “The Gold Rush”. All this “backroom of illusion” immediately captured my imagination. I was then inspired by Charlie Chaplin, but also by Douglas Fairbanks, who performed, among others, in westerns. My first fascination with the Wild West is closely tied to him. I started to prepare western accessories: belts with pouches, collars, vests, hats. I was also looking for a stage because I wanted to shoot a classic western scene of an assault on such a vehicle. I remembered then that in Bojszów there is an old landauer [a glass coach in the Silesian dialect]. Its owner Tomek Rogalski was a full-fledged horse-rider. He used horses for field work, but he also liked to show off his riding skills. At that time. I was only 17; so when I came to him with my friends, he saw me as a little boy, but he said in dialect, “Fine, you shan’t hav’ the horses, you will make a fuss, you brats, unless I go with you”. When Rogalski appeared on the set, I was amazed to see that he had a Pszczyna [a town in Poland] hat with a wide roundabout on his head, a checked flannel shirt, a westa, that is a vest, tall leather shoes and so-called manchestroks – tight trousers. Just fasten the belt with collars and it’s ready! But what surprised me the most was the cowboy shawl around his neck. I told him then: “Mr. Tomek, I think you tied this scarf to the coolness of yours”. And he said, “No, sonny. When I ride in the field it gets sweaty; here’s the rein, here’s the whip, here’s where the levers be to the machine – when it gets sweaty ‘dis shawl take my sweat away, and then it dry on my back as I be turning it around.” He used the scarf like cowboys on the prairie! Anyway, when Kazimierz Kutz saw “Człowiek znikąd” (Man from Nowhere), he praised us, “You are natural there because the Silesians in Texas didn’t buy horses for adornment but for work, so after work they would sit on their mounts and run as much as they could to a saloon to get a beer.”

You also made films about the fate of the Bojszów residents during the Silesian Uprisings, which were no less dramatic than the experiences of the Silesians in Texas.

I made my first film about the Silesian Uprising in 1976. The script of “Ku Polsce” (Towards Poland) was based on the memories of two veterans of the Bojszów Uprising still living at that time – Konrad Kapias and Wiktor Piekorz, who survived the massacre in the Third Silesian Uprising. However, in the film, I focused on the motifs of the First Uprising. In 1919, Bojszów was on the German side, but in June 1919, the headquarters of the Polish Military Organization were installed in Oświęcim, a few kilometers away. They ordered the Bojszów residents to acquire weapons from a warehouse located in the German manor. They gladly followed the order. They thought, however, that the weapons would be used in the planned uprising, so they reported with them to the headquarters in Oświęcim. There, they were collected, and the staff announced that they were needed to fight the Bolsheviks on the eastern border. The boys rebelled, for which they were thrown into custody by the Poles. Then a paradoxical situation arose – the militiamen were outlawed by both the German and Polish authorities. However, when the uprising broke out in August 1919, they entered the battle. They killed four Grenschutz [a volunteer territorial militia unit] but their commander managed to escape in a woman’s disguise and brought relief. When the Germans surrounded the village to pacify it, there was a wedding ceremony going on. Those who managed to escape from the cauldron took the escape route across the Vistula River to the Polish side. My film tells the story of the events in question.

You show the equally convoluted fate of the Silesian people in the Second World War. Did you use your father’s frontline experience in these films?

Interestingly, my father’s life was marked by a truly western-like episode. Before my father was sent to the Second Corps of General Anders, he had been taken prisoner by Americans. He had been captured by Indian scouts who, instead of helmets, had ritualistic bands and held bowie knives in their hands. But let’s start from the beginning. My father was incorporated into the Wehrmacht even though he had only one eye. He lost the other one when he was 16-year-old and chopping wood. For this reason, he was not conscripted into the Polish Army. However, it did not bother the Germans in 1940. When my father reported to the recruiting officer that he couldn’t see one eye, the latter one answered, “You are the best prepared of all for the army here; others have to close the eye when shooting.”

How long did your father serve in the German army?

In total, he “visited” 12 countries in its ranks. When he was stationed in Przemyśl, he was appointed a liaison officer and often took a train to Warsaw with one of the officers. He told me that he always started his journey in the “Nur für Deutsche” compartment, but quickly moved on to the Polish one. There, the passengers did not look very favorably at his uniform. Once upon a time they talked quite freely about the contraband they had hidden in their luggage and under their clothes. Just before Warsaw, my father suddenly spoke dialectical Polish, to their dismay, “Listen, how do you want to transport all of this? After all, there will be a military policeman’s checkpoint and they will take all of you to jail.” He also turned to a teenage girl sitting next to him, “Lass, this case be filled with grenades, it’s too heavy for the violin alone.” Everyone went pale, and dad said, “I take it through the checkpoint for you”. Of course, the gendarmes stopped the soldier loaded with suitcases. Then father pointed to his commander sitting in the wagon and shouted, “Shut the hell up, it’s all his!” The officer looked out only through the window and confirmed in German, “Ja, ja.” That’s how my father started working with the Polish underground.

Later he was sent to the real hell, to the eastern front...

First he was in Sevastopol where the fights took place in the heat of 50 degrees Celsius. When he reached Stalingrad, the winter started, and the temperature reached minus 50 degrees Celsius. However, my father managed to break away from the Stalingrad hell thanks to a friend of his, an officer who issued a pass for him. Together with a certain Bavarian he deserted and both of them reached Romania. There they were arrested by the SS and put against the wall. Lucky for him, the same familiar officer with the survivors of their unit was passing by and he certified that the convicts were not deserters but soldiers sent for reconnaissance. After all, any filmmaker would be afraid to invent such a story so as not to be accused of too much fantasy! Then there was Hungary, the Czech Republic, and a short stay at home. In Bojszów, someone reported to nearby Auschwitz that two soldiers in field uniforms with frostbite marks on their faces, thus most likely deserters from the eastern front, were hanging around the area. An SS officer who came home gave both of them an alternative: either death or they return to the mother unit in Przemyśl. From there, however, in the winter of 1944, father was unexpectedly sent to the eastern front again, but eventually he was sent with the unit to the West. And so, defending, or rather pretending to defend Frankfurt against the Americans, he was taken prisoner.

After a few days, Polish officers came to the POW camp and announced that those who felt Polish should come forward. Some of the boys did come forward but my father decided to wait. He did the right thing because the Germans slit all their throats at night. The next time Polish recruiters arrived in trucks and then father entered on the list of volunteers for the Polish Army. After they left the camp, they were taken to Marseilles. They were traveling on open train platforms, and the French thought they were German prisoners, so they poured boiling water and hot tar on them from bridges and viaducts. In Marseilles they were dressed up in British battle tracksuits with patches with the inscription “Poland” and sailed to Naples. From there they were taken to Bari and incorporated into the armored regiment of the 2nd Corps. It was after the Italian campaign, so they started to practice fighting with... Japanese, because then it was planned to send Poles to the Japanese front. Meanwhile, the war ended. The communist secret police officers waited for my father at home Not because he served in the Wehrmacht, but in the Anders Army... Luckily, he managed to get away from them and hid for a year. On the basis of my father’s experiences I made “Czterech synów ojciec miał” (Father and His Lordship had Four Sons) and “Nie wszystko mi wojna zabrała” (War Didn’t Take Everything away from Me).

You used many other accounts of Silesian people on the fronts of World War II in your films. Which one is the most memorable to you?

In “War Didn’t Take Everything away from Me” I told the story of two Wehrmacht conscripts who were taken to Lviv. One day they stand under barracks and smoking cigarettes. Suddenly a young woman with a child in her arms approaches them and asks, “Gentlemen, you speak Polish and you are in the German army?” And they answer, “We speak Silesian, and you what, and what about your man?”. “My husband was taken away by the Russians,” she answered. “So, you don’t go under the barracks here because they’ll think badly about you,” they advised her kindly. “But I don’t have anything to give my child to eat,” she cried. From that time on, the Silesians prepared a food package for her every day. One day, however, their unit was ordered to go to the front to the depths of Russia. One of them was seriously injured during the fighting, a friend thought he was dead, so he took his immortal, which he gave to the wife of the fallen man. He later married her, and they had a child. When the year 1956 came, the Russians released the last prisoners of Stalingrad from captivity. Then it turned out that his friend survived the war! And there is a scene in the film when the survivor, in a ruined trunk, aged in captivity, enters his house, and here his ex-wife and his front friend play with a small child. He stares for a second and says in dialect, “Oh, so you’re already married... We had no kids, so I won’t interrupt you,” and he goes to Pszczyna to start a new life for himself. Then the repatriates from the East come to the town. The man, as if struck by lightning, stops in the middle of the road because in the crowd he sees a woman he knows from Lviv! She also recognizes him, “It was you who brought us bread!” It turned out that her husband died in a Russian camp. The man took care of her and so, unexpectedly, he found a new family.

Józef Kłyk is a creator of Silesian westerns and war films that he shoots in Bojszów near Pszczyna.

Talks: Piotr Korczyński

autor zdjęć: Piotr Korczyński

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