My pilgrimage to Monte Cassino

My Pilgrimage to 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino – May 2014

“Passer-by, go tell Poland that we have perished obedient to her service”, “For our freedom and yours. We soldiers of Poland Gave Our soul to God, Our body to the soil of Italy, Our hearts to Poland”, “God Honor and Country”


These moving words are found on the epitaphs and various monuments at the Polish Cemetery in Monte Cassino, Italy. The Cemetery, located below the Abbey, is the burial place of 1072 Polish soldiers from 2ndPolish Army Corps who died during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 or were buried there later. They lie at the bottom of a valley, they themselves dubbed “The Valley of Death” or “Dolina Śmierci”. May 18 2014 marked the 70th Anniversary of the battle, known as one of the most important and bloodiest of World War II. The success of the battle opened the route to Rome, but also came at high price. Approximately 115,000 allied soldiers were killed or wounded during the 4-month campaign, excluding German casualties.

This past spring, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the anniversary celebration. This was my 4thsuch visit to Monte Cassino Celebration/Anniversary. I attended the 45th, 50th and 55th anniversaries while my father, a soldier of this corps, was alive. This time, I was there with my mother, 2 sisters and very small Canadian contingent. This is where I met Janusz Pietrus, the editor of the SPK magazine and where I agreed to write this article.

My father, Zbigniew Filipowski, was a corporal posted to the Transport Company 21, 2nd Polish Corps under the command of General Władysław Anders, the same corps that partook in the infamous battle. My tata was a Polish patriot, a proud soldier and like most soldiers of the II Korpus, Siberian labour camp survivor. I grew in Edmonton, Alberta in a Polonia (Polish community) which had large Siberian camp survivor and former 2nd Polish Army Corps soldier contingent. I heard stories of bravery, suffering and tragedy, but also funny stories, like the ones about Wojtek, the bear guzzling, cigarette smoking, orphaned Syrian bear and fellow soldier. Wojtek an orphan like them, was adopted by 22nd Artillery Supply Company as their mascot and accompanied them to Italy and to the Monte Cassino battle. When I was a child, I thought my dad was making this story up. To my surprise, I heard other Polish combatants speak of him. Well, I could check him out recently! One noticeable thing about my father and the rest of the Siberian survivors was strong will, determination and usually strong bond, one which I still cannot describe. It was almost like a secret code. I did not understand their deep faith, devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa, their patriotic spirit, and especially the need to associate with each other. They seemed to understand each other in a way only they could. I suppose, they too has secrets and stories of which even they would not speak. And who else would understand better than they? I admire them more now. They experienced so much hardship, suffering and had to start their life all over in foreign lands. Even after the war was over, they had to deal with not being invited to the Victory Parade in London, and not being able to return to beloved, free Poland. How do you describe this group? Devoted, faithful, strong willed, patriotic, stubborn, fragile, misunderstood is a start. Obedient, loyal, determined, honourable, proud children of Poland, survivors, are more words that come to mind. All Polish communities can remember the śmieszny / funny quirky person in church or at the Polish hall, but considering what these people experienced, they were normal.

During my previous trips I met a lot the “kombatanci” from various parts of the world. I had opportunity and honour to listen their stories. It was the best history lesson ever! Most of the combatants I met, like my dad are now gone, with their stories untold. I decided a few years ago that I would like to attend the next Anniversary Celebration. I was so glad when I heard that Chopin Travel from Toronto was organizing such a tour. As a daughter of a Polish soldier, it was important for me pay homage to all the service men who partook in the campaign. I felt an obligation and duty to do so, not just for me, but in memory of my father and others. I am convinced that the sense of duty and tradition go hand with hand, keeping a people and culture alive, not lost, or forgotten. It is important to honour and remember past sacrifices. We need to appreciate what they did for us, and not get caught up with our lives so much that we forget or consider it unimportant. Like the epitaph says, it was for “Our Freedom and Yours”, words that are still valid and echo deeply in our present world. Their death and sacrifice should not have been in vain. We need to remember.

Before I left Italy, I dropped by the Vancouver Poppy Fund office where, for a donation I received one small wreath and 1000 Canadian poppies to lay at the Polish cemetery. The small wreath was put on General Anders grave, the poppies pinned to gravestones. When I got to the cemetery, I was worried about the wind blowing the poppies away and littering the area, but was very pleased to  find elasticized Polish Flags around each cross or tombstone courtesy of the Polish Government. We pinned the poppies on to Polish flags after mass. The litter problem was solved, and the cemetery received nice Canadian touch. Special thanks go to my sisters Hania and Basia, Lorna and Ken, Krysia and BJ and a few strangers, for graciously helping me with my project.

The day of the celebration, May 18, 2014, it was sunny and very hot day. The service was beautiful and moving. Everyone was gathered on the cemetery site. There was an honor guard of over one thousand Polish scouts and girls guides standing along the walkway to the cemetery, each with large poppy in hand. A few thousand people attended the 2 hr long mass. There were some thirty priests, including the primate of Poland around the permanent field altar about 200 ex-service men from the 2nd Polish Corps, over a thousand harcerze from Poland and London, England, the Official Polish Army Orchestra and Choir, as well as number of dignitaries that included His Royal Highness Prince Harry, the Prime Minister of Poland Donald Tusk, the Mayor of Cassino and General Władysław Anders daughter Anna Maria. There were many moving moments during celebration, the “Boże Coś Polskę” hymn, the “Pieśń Obozowa”, the playing of the Hejnał Mariacki, seeing the young scouts standing as honor guards at every grave, and looking at the gravesites after mass with the Canadian poppies attached. Though the ceremonies and mass were beautiful, the weather outstanding, it felt a little empty and sad Monte Cassino. My father and other former servicemen I met over the years were not there. I was glad I took the time to participate in the celebration and put Canadian poppies on the graves. I plan on attending the 75th Anniversary in 5 years. If you have a chance, to visit the cemetery or partake in the ceremonies you will be glad you did. You gain a better appreciation of soldiers and what they went thru, after all, it was for their freedom and ours. After some reflection, I decided that my favourite part of the anniversary celebration was seeing so many young scouts participating. I was even more impressed with them when I heard they were camping around the area on the former battlegrounds. The next generations were taking over. I am very trilled that the lesson has not been lost, and that they, the future keepers of duty and tradition, will pay homage and keep the memory of Monte Cassino alive. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his Recessional poem, Lest we forget!

Maria Filipowska

Opis zdjęć:

  1. Our family at Monte Cassino cemetery. From left my sisters Basia and Hania, myself and our mom Anna Filipowska
  2. Zbigniew Stanisław Filipowski
  3. From my father archives, probably his platoon during training camp in preparation for the Italian Campaign

Source: SPK w Kanadzie, Grudzień 2014