Warsaw is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzynska, 1928-1945

Warsaw is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzynska, 1928-1945

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Beth Holmgren

Series: Jews of Poland
ISBN: 9781618117588 (hardcover) / 9781618117595 (paperback)
Pages: 130 pp.; 27 illus.
Publication Date: February 2018

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This book tells the story of Krystyna Bierzyńska, an acculturated Polish Jew, from her birth in Warsaw in 1928 up to the war’s end in May 1945, when she was reunited with her brother, Dolek, an officer in the Polish II Corps. Bierzyńska not only survived the Holocaust due in large part to the extraordinary efforts of her parents, blood relatives, and surrogate Christian family, but also served as a 16-year-old orderly in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Hers is a Warsaw story, a biography that demonstrates how, in urban interwar Poland, the lives of liberal educated Catholics and acculturated,  unconverted Jews significantly overlapped. Co-creating the culture and developing the economy and industries of independent Poland,  acculturated Jews at last dared to believe that they qualified as Polish citizens and patriots. Bierzyńska’s story details her experience of two very different Warsaws: a cosmopolitan oasis of high culture, modern amenities, and tolerance, and an occupied capital intoxicated and united by conspiracy, where the residents joined together to overthrow a common enemy.

Beth Holmgren is Professor of Slavic Studies at Duke University. Her recent books include Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America (2012) and Transgressive Women in Modern Russian and East European Cultures, co-ed. Yana Hashamova & Mark Lipovetsky (2016). Her current research examines the role of popular entertainment and the experience of its primarily Jewish performers in the Anders Army (1942-1946).

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This is a fascinating read as well as an outstanding addition to syllabi for courses in history, gender, identity, and memory studies, making also a notable contribution to the theme of ‘reading and writing cities,’ as Bierzyńska’s story situates the city of Warsaw in its very center. … Apart from being a needed monument to the much ignored female heroism in Poland’s war struggles, the book testifies to the remarkable richness and complexities of Polish Jews’ double identities, rendering impossible any simplistic affinity towards one ethnic group over the other. As such, the book should be considered a ‘must have’ for any American or European library.
— Elwira M. Grossman, University of Glasgow, Slavic and East European Journal Vol. 62.3
Part memoir, part coming-of-age story, part primer on the Second World War, Beth Holmgren’s Warsaw is my Country is an unparalleled representation of the key events unfolding across Poland from the perspective of a remarkable young woman who experienced them all. Krystyna Bierzyńska’s journey from a sheltered childhood in an acculturated Jewish family to fighting as an insurgent in the Warsaw Uprising illustrates how the worlds of Catholic Polish society and acculturated Jews intersected and overlapped. Krystyna’s story and Holmgren’s gripping account of it offer us a fresh window on wartime Warsaw, one that will be compelling to all readers interested in the mid-century catastrophe in Central Europe.
— Keely Stauter-Halsted, Professor of History and Hejna Family Chair in Polish Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
Krystyna Bierzyńska’s journey through the horrors of war and Holocaust may not be in itself unusual, but in the hands of a skilled storyteller and scholar it becomes a remarkable exploration of Polish Jews’ survival, resistance, and ordinary life. From a spirited, exuberant life, Beth Holmgren has crafted a moving tale of Poland’s twentieth century.
— Padraic Kenney, Professor of History and International Studies, Indiana University
A beautiful and unusual book, Beth Holmgren’s account of Krystyna Bierzyńska’s youth in cosmopolitan Warsaw before WWII and her experience during the war, including her efforts as a sixteen-year-old participant in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, sparkles with empathy, historical sophistication, and humanity. Based on extensive interviews with the protagonist herself and richly interspersed with relevant material from other published sources, Holmgren’s narrative demonstrates the complex place of the daughter of affluent acculturated Jews, whose belief that she could be a proud Varsovian, patriotic Pole, and citizen of the world faced extreme challenges during the war, but ultimately proved true.
— Nathaniel D. Wood, University of Kansas

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 Under the Portrait of Gustawa
2 Being a Bierzyński
3 Warsaw before the War, 1928–1939
4 A Citizen of the World
5 Warsaw: Invasion and Occupation, 1939–1940
6 Learning the Life of a Fugitive, 1940–1942
7 Warsaw: A Conspiratorial Identity, 1942–1944
8 The 1944 Warsaw Uprising
9 A Polish Prisoner of War, 1944–1945
10 A Family Pact
11 Krystyna Bierzyńska in Polish History

Works Cited