[Welcome Author and Journalist, Rita Cosby, and Host Dennis Showalter, Professor, History, Colorado College]

Quiet Hero: Secrets from My Father’s Past

“I know my dad was in the war, but I only began understanding what that meant when we were going through his stuff after the funeral and I found…” It may be letters home, read and never discarded. It may be a barracks bag, dust-covered and full of mementos. The background is the same. Veterans, whether of Korea or Vietnam, World War II or Iraq, Korea or Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli or the Indo-Pakistan conflicts are reluctant to talk of their experiences within the family.

The usual consequence of children excluded from a defining element their father’s life is distancing, alienation. The damage ranges from marginal to destructive. Rita Cosby shows that it need not be permanent, and we welcome her to Firedoglake.

This compelling story begins when Rita’s Polish-born father leaves his family for another woman and a new life—on Christmas Eve. His daughter, who grew up to be investigative reporter Rita Cosby, remained angry and alienated until she found an old suitcase full of her father’s bits and pieces from World War II. Curiosity overcame rage, and the result was Quiet Hero.

Rita’s father had been silent about his wartime experiences. He finally brought them out in order to bridge a gap that had endured too long. He was Ryszard Kossobudzki when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. At fifteen he became involved in the resistance to the Nazis’ genocidal occupation. He was a soldier of the Polish Home Army during the August, 1944, Warsaw Uprising, and recollects in matter-of-fact fashion the vicious, close-gripped fighting in the Polish capital. The Home Army expected support from the Russians just across the Vistula. None was forthcoming.

Polish airmen in the Royal Air Force dropped a few token planeloads of weapons and supplies. It was little enough against an enemy that regarded the Geneva Convention as waste paper.

The Poles retaliated in kind. Hostages were used as human shields by both sides. High explosives butchered men like animals.

“Being shot or stabbed or executed never scared me all that much,” Ryszard told Rita. “The only death that terrified me was death by explosion…you were completely annihilated.” It was ironically a shell burst that took Ryszard out of the fighting. Seriously wounded, he underwent surgery over three or four days as the doctors removed embedded fragments without anesthesia.

Ryszard was still in the hospital when the resistance forces surrendered.

The terms stipulated that combatants be treated as prisoners of war, and the Nazis for once honored their word. Moved to a hospital in Germany, Ryszard was transferred to a POW camp in January 1945. His description of its routines reflect Spartan conditions but nothing resembling the concentration and labor camps that were the fate of so many Poles.

Ryszard hoped in the long run to go to America for a fresh start, and in the short run to escape rather than take the risks of being “liberated” by the Russians who had left the Home Army to its fate in Warsaw. He succeeded in both—first as part of a mass breakout in April, then on a roundabout path that led to the Polish Corps in Italy, to civilian life in England, and finally in 1956 to the US. But a fresh start and the Americanized name of Richard Cosby did not erase memories that kept him running.

Cosby inter cuts this narrative with references to her own experiences and emotions. Interviewing Holocaust survivors and Iraq veterans gave her some background for understanding her father’s narrative. Her perspective nevertheless shifts back and forth between objective journalist and astounded daughter as she comes to terms with her own feelings . The book ends with a reconciliation and what Richard called a “pilgrimage” to Warsaw. In reconnecting with his past he found a present—and a daughter.

[Alike originally posted at History Book Club – bev]