Major Sergiusz “Kawka” (English: “Jackdaw”) Papliński is a 93-year-old living legend for the Polish community in Great Britain. His turbulent life could make an excellent action movie based entirely on his immeasurable love for Poland.
Papliński was born on September 9, 1927, in Radom, a town in Poland, and raised in a patriotic family. Throughout his long life, he was a member of the Home Army – the dominant resistance movement in Poland during World War II, a “Cursed Soldier” – a resistance member of the anti-communist underground, a prisoner of the communist detention center, a soldier of Freedom and Independence (Polish: Wolność i Niezawisłość or WiN), a Polish underground anti-communist organization, an emigre, a special force paratrooper (a so-calledSilent Unseen,Polish: cichociemny), an acrobat, a waiter, and a painter. He also worked in a quarry and a casino. He spent his entire life being a “lone wolf” and never started a family. Why? We interviewed “Kawka” in his painting studio in South Kensington, London – a place always open to his large group of friends.
George Byczynski: Major, how did your resistance activity begin?
Sergiusz Papliński: I supported the Home Army in Radom. My role was to smuggle weapons out of the armament factory in Radom. One day, I received a warning that I was at risk of being arrested so I had to escape to the underground resistance. I could not even go home. I received a contact to the famous commander of resistance units in the Kielce and Radom districts – Antoni Heda “Szary.” But the problem was that “Szary” did not even want to talk to me. He refused, saying: “No, we do not accept children; we do not have diapers.” I was only 14 years old, but at the time it seemed to me that I had enough combat experience to fight for a free Poland. I decided not to give up and said: “The only difference between us is that you are an adult, trained commander, and I am a Polish child. But if each of us takes a gun, we will see who is better.” I think that this determination convinced “Szary” because he accepted me into the underground resistance – firstly into the minesweeping section. At that moment, the resistance members became my second family.
Has your upbringing had any influence on your infinite love for Poland?
Of course! I remember the words that my mother said: “The most important thing in every woman’s life is to defend her child. The worst – to lose it. The only case when a Polish woman can justify the death of her child is when it happens in a fight for homeland.”I was very young; I wanted to fight. I ignored the possible consequences, especially keeping in mind what my mother had said.
You took part in many battles, blew up the bridge and railroad tracks. What was the most notable moment that you have experienced?
I went through the entire combat route of the resistance unit of “Szary”.I did not think about any trouble; I was too young for that. I took part in the famous raid on Końskie prison on June 5, 1944. My task was to plant explosives and blow up the gate. Then I got my first machine gun. It was a German Bergmann, and I was incredibly proud of myself. We saved 70 prisoners.
While we were recapturing the village of Radoszyce, I was so willing to fight that Heda shouted: “Come back! Do you want to die?” We managed to save the whole village.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out, we would stop German trains transporting weapons and ammunition to hand them over to the fighting insurgents.
When did you have to run away from Poland?
Unfortunately, the communist authorities were ruthless. I was arrested and imprisoned in Radom by the communist secret political police. I was repeatedly interrogated and cruelly beaten there. I lost all my teeth. The officer who interrogated me said: “For people like you, there are only two options – ‘white bears’ or a ‘wall’.” The former meant sending me to Siberia, and the latter… a bullet in the head while standing against a wall. I was lucky because on my 18th birthday, September 9, 1945, I was liberated from prison, together with 300 other colleagues – political prisoners. Soon afterward, at the end of 1945, my escape from Poland was organized. Through Germany, I got to Italy, where I started attending a cadet school. Later on, I made it to Great Britain with the Polish II Corps.
But you did not rest on your laurels in Great Britain, am I right?
Of course, I did not! In England, I was an active member of the underground organization “Freedom and Independence.” Our section cooperated with the American and British army which trained us for special force paratroopers (called the Silent Unseen, cichociemni in Polish). We were all sure that World War III with the Soviets will break out. The sabotage and parachute training were held in England and West Germany, where the Americans gave the entire military camps over to us. I was in the first group to train there in the early 1950s. The groups of Silent Unseen redeployed to Poland during the war underwent the same training. I was supposed to be in the next group for such redeployment. I was a so-called “sleeper soldier” – on full alert, waiting for further orders. We were supposed to interfere with the Soviets’ communication routes and cut off the flow of arms so that Americans would have more time to organize the defense. There were three options of transfer to Poland: parachuting, for which I was trained, overland via Czechoslovakia, or in submarines through the Baltic Sea. Everyone around me would say that the British were ready to fight the Soviets with the support of the Americans. We were supposed to take Poland back from the communists.
Were you expecting World War III to begin back then?
Of course. Throughout all this time, we were all ready and waiting for orders. My friends are still surprised that I never started a family. But how was I supposed to? After all, it would have been completely irresponsible on my part. My life so far has always been devoted to military actions. For this reason, I could not have children. Who would have taken care of them if I had died?
In England, I studied painting. I received a scholarship from General Tadesz Bór-Komorowski himself, who then was Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile. But in my heart, I was still a soldier who was in full readiness to fight for the freedom of Poland. Neither my redeployment there, nor the war with the Soviets have ever happened. Poland was subjugated, and the world forgot about us.