A novel about an unknown hero

Obrońca Grodna. Zapomniany bohater (Defender of Grodno: Forgotten Hero) by Piotr Kościński is an important and interesting novel. These are already two reasons enough to read it. But it is also well-told, fast-paced and a has well-drawn main character. However, the novel is based on a real-life person—Major Benedykt Serafin, a professional officer in pre-war Poland, who was the actual commander of the three-day defense of Grodno against the Red Army, from September 20 to 22, 1939.

The main strength of the novel is that it is not a linear description of the hero’s life. The main axis of narration is Major Serafin’s return from England in 1948 and the interrogation, conducted in the form of almost a private conversation, by a counterintelligence officer of the People’s Army of Poland, an army controlled by the communists and supervised by the Soviets. As a result, every scene of this “conversation” grips the reader’s interest—what will Serafin say and what will he have to hide about his life story?

At the same time the novel is a great compendium of knowledge of the episode, for decades suppressed, of the defense of Grodno. In many Polish houses throughout the period of the People’s Republic of Poland there was knowledge of the Katyn massacre or the Polish–Bolshevik war of 1919–1920. The legend of Major Henryk “Hubal” Dobrzanski, the commander of a first Polish guerilla unit following September 1939, was officially acknowledged. But resistance against the Russian army was, of course, a taboo in the official narrative. This taboo was so carefully adhered to that the authorities succeeded—without undermining the popular memory of the Soviet invasion of 17 September—and Polish society was almost completely ignorant of whether this invasion was associated with any fighting. Piotr Kościński’s book fills this gap in the collective consciousness.

However, Defender of Grodno: Forgotten Hero is a story not only about the battles of September 1939. Major Serafin—and the readers along with him—wanders from Grodno to Lithuania, from Lithuania to a Siberian camp, and from there to the Polish army formed by General Wladyslaw Anders. Through the fate of the individual the novel shows a great fragment of history, along with a historical context. Yet, the author does not avoid bitterly summing up the efforts our allies on the western front—when Major Serafin fills in a personal form before demobilization in England. There are questions about civilian qualifications in this document, which clearly give Poles the understanding that they must forget higher aspirations if staying within British society.

The novel gives us a representative hero, who we follow without even considering that he was a historical figure. And at the same time it pays tribute to the real-life man who undoubtedly deserved it.

Defender of Grodno: Forgotten Hero is for people interested in the history of Poland in the 20th century, the history of Polish losses after World War II, and for all those who are are interested in heroes fighting for the homeland –obligatory reading!


Janusz Petelski

The author is a film director and screenwriter

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