Ed Note: “I Do This Because …” is a series of guest essays on this site by adventurers, entrepreneurs, and brave explorers of experience, uncharted territory, and life. As the title indicates, the essays offer the authors’ reflections on why they chose the path they did, and why they continue on that path, despite all the challenges, costs, and discouraging moments that come with any uncharted adventure.
For more information on the origins of the “I Do This Because” essays, see my own entry. And, as always, if you know of anyone you think would make a good guest essayist, or have your own answer to why you’re pursuing the particular, challenging path you’re pursuing, please share it!
About the Author
Terry Tegnazian, a former entertainment attorney, is a graduate of Brown University (A.B. Applied Mathematics) and the Yale Law School. Among her many involvements, she is president and co-founder of Aquila Polonica Publishing, which specializes in publishing the Polish World War II experience in English. Aquila Polonica has offices in Los Angeles, where Terry is based, and in England. For more info, see www.aquilapolonica.com.
“I Do This Because …”
I’m a sucker for heroes!
I’d have to be a sucker for something pretty huge (or maybe, some cynical persons might say, simply a sucker?) to start a publishing company from scratch, in one of the most “niche” of niche markets, with a partner in England whom I met over the internet, at a time when the book business is reeling from fundamental structural shifts caused by rapid technological advances …
If you’d told me ten years ago …
I would (a) start a publishing company, that (b) specializes in publishing the Polish World War II experience, I would have said “Why? Don’t know anything about it, not interested in it.”
I’m not at all Polish (my personal background is Armenian), nor is my husband or anyone in our families.
But then, I’ve never been a person with one-year, five-year, ten-year plans, or a Plan A, B or C for my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up—I still don’t know, but now I’m a lot more comfortable with the unknowing and the adventure of it all.
How it all started …
I burned out on practicing law after twelve years. I was in private practice in Los Angeles, specializing in motion picture finance, and thought I wanted to be a film producer. I have one film to my credit, but discovered I didn’t love it enough—what I did love was the story conferences and script analysis.
Cut to … writing a novel. A few drafts into it, I added a character who was a Polish fighter pilot in World War II—I needed a male of a certain age as a buddy for an aging American fighter pilot. Somewhere I’d heard that the Polish fighter pilots were super ace pilots who helped save England during the Battle of Britain. I thought that making the character a Pole might be more interesting than making him another American.
I didn’t know anything more about it. So I went to the nearby UCLA library and started reading the section about Poland in World War II. I read principally primary source material: memoirs of the key resistance leaders, mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s, and long forgotten.
As I read, I became so moved and inspired by the incredible heroism and resilience with which the Poles faced insurmountable odds. Yet, oddly, this was a part of World War II that I’d never heard about.
I was hooked by the heroism …
And by the honor, loyalty, self-sacrifice. By the Poles’ dogged fight for freedom despite the crushing, brutal occupations by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. And by the fact that this most heroic and tragic story is virtually unknown in the West.
For example, when we think of the “resistance” in World War II, it’s the French who come to mind. But in German-occupied Poland, the entire government, both civil and military, went underground to form the “resistance.” At its height, the underground Polish army (Armia Krajowa, or AK) counted 300,000 brave men, women and even children. The average life of an AK soldier was three to four months—yet the AK never lacked for volunteers.
There was also the secret Zegota Committee, part of the Polish underground government, whose mainly Christian members risked their own and their families’ lives to save Polish Jews. Poland was the only German-occupied country where helping a Jew was automatically punishable by death—in fact the entire household would be put to death if a Jew was found hidden on their property. Nevertheless, of the more than 26,000 men and women honored by Yad Vashem in Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” for saving Jews during the Holocaust, more than 25% are from Poland.
Then, too, there were those marvelous Polish fighter pilots!
303 Squadron, composed of Polish fighter pilots under joint British and Polish command, was the highest-scoring Allied fighter squadron during the Battle—downing three times the average RAF score, with only one-third the casualties. In the most critical month of September 1940, as England was desperately battling for its life against Nazi Germany, 303 Squadron downed 108 enemy aircraft, while the next highest-scoring RAF fighter squadron (a British one) downed 48. At the time, Polish airmen were lionized by the British press and adored by the British public.
Poles fought with great distinction on every front, abroad and at home, from the first day of World War II until the war’s end in Europe—an end that proved more bitter than sweet for these gallant men and women when their American and British allies consigned Poland against its will to the Soviet sphere of influence. In a sense, World War II did not truly end for Poland until the fall of communism nearly fifty years later.
The missing piece …
So why isn’t this amazing story of one of the Western Allies better known? Why is Poland the missing piece of the iconic Western myth of World War II?
In a word: Stalin.
Stalin knew that the Poles hated the communists as much as they hated the Nazis. In order to control the country after the war, he used a two-pronged strategy:
- Physical terror—he arrested, tortured, executed and/or deported to Siberia anyone he thought might be capable of resisting the communist takeover; and
- Propaganda—he mounted a comprehensive propaganda campaign to discredit and marginalize the Poles, both within Poland and internationally, with repercussions that continue to reverberate even today.
On my first research trip to Poland in 2005, the 50-something woman I’d hired as my translator and guide came to our first meeting with books by two former AK soldiers that she had gotten from the library to prepare for our project.
“I want to thank you for this assignment,” she told me. “I knew none of this. When I was growing up, we were taught that it was the communist resistance that saved Poland from the Nazis, and that these AK guys were clowns.”
I literally got goose bumps. Here was an intelligent Polish woman who did not know her own history because of propaganda. This was one of the important steps on my path to forming Aquila Polonica.
Doors opened …
My decision was not immediate. It evolved over time. Every step of the way, another door opened—from meeting my partner in Aquila Polonica, Stefan Mucha, on an internet chat group; to a serendipitous meeting with a former Polish Secretary of State for Veterans Affairs, who became our first author; to being signed by one of the largest independent book distributors in the United States before we’d even published our first book …
Looking back, it seems as if I was being led by the hand to undertake this mission.
It always seems to take longer than you expect …
Although our company is more than five years old, we’ve only recently completed our first full year of publishing, and now have four books and a DVD available. (See Aquila Polonica’s current title list.)
We’re very proud of what we’ve published so far.
We spent our first three years, and several trips to Warsaw, in acquiring rights to thirty books in order to give ourselves a starting base for our catalogue.
Since then, we’ve had to learn about the book distribution business, pricing and discounts, typesetting and printing, copy editing (The Chicago Manual of Style and Webster’s Dictionary have become my pals!), shipping and packing options, publicity and marketing, website design, video and audio editing, copyright, accounting … and of course, the biggest challenge facing publishers today: how to deal with the explosion of digital books in the marketplace and the quickly evolving hardware, software and economic issues.
But one lovely benefit of this entire project—I’ve met wonderful people here, in Poland, Canada, from Australia, and via our Facebook fan page elsewhere throughout the world.
In sum …
I do this because I was called to do it. And because it’s interesting, challenging, creative … and important. The world needs heroes. And heroes deserve truth.
I leave you with this short prayer from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which so resonated with me when I first read it:
“May I be given a god’s duty, a burden that matters.”*
*From Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead, translated by Normandi Ellis (1988, Phanes Press), at 54.