Olbert’s debut biography chronicles her husband’s experiences as a young man in Poland during the second world war.
Staszek Olbert was born in the eastern Polish city of Lwów but spent his childhood in the small village of Pustomyty. While his rural childhood was in many ways happy and peaceful, the region’s violent history constantly loomed in the background. He grew up hearing stories about his father, who died after suffering for several years from injuries sustained in World War I. Staszek’s uncle Józef warned him not to play soldier as a child because “Someday, my boy, you may well have to fight in a real war, and that will not be a game.” As a teenager, Staszek exceled in school, but his studies were interrupted in 1939, when eastern Poland faced occupation, first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany. While laboring under the Germans, he was recruited by an operative from the underground Polish Home Army, and Józef’s prediction from long ago became a reality. Staszek contributed to the national cause in any way he could, ultimately fighting in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. When that failed, he and his surviving comrades were sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp. Although this book is a third-person biography, the fact that the author’s subject is her husband, and that her narrative draws primarily from his recollections, allows for a more intimate accounting of his experiences. For this reason, the book reads more like a personal memoir than a historical biography. Staszek’s perspective is intriguing and relatable throughout. However, it comes with certain limitations. Although the descriptions of his internal reflections always ring true, the reconstructed dialogue often seems unrealistic, and the historical context of Poland’s relations with other nations, as well as its internal relations with ethnic minorities such as Jews, Germans, and Ukrainians, seems simplistic and underexplored. Still, despite these missed opportunities, Olbert accomplishes her primary task of depicting Staszek’s powerful personal story. His hopes for himself, his family, and his nation are moving, and his perseverance is inspiring.
A lean, engaging account of a heroic young man’s resistance and survival under communist and Nazi occupation.