I Do This Because: Terry Tegnazian

by Terry Tegnazian on March 25, 2011

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 TegnazianTerry 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!

Nine Pilots Walking

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:

  1. Physical terror—he arrested, tortured, executed and/or deported to Siberia anyone he thought might be capable of resisting the communist takeover; and
  2. 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.)

AQP Logo

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.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Zbigniew Koralewski 03.27.11 at 9:53 am

I’ve lived in the USA for over 30 years and frequently
experienced a clever propaganda against Poland.
It is a truly miracle that God send Terry for a rescue !

2 Terry Tegnazian 03.28.11 at 11:26 am

Zbigniew, thanks so much for this lovely comment! I am humbled by it. Feedback like this makes me feel that what we are doing really is worthwhile, and keeps us inspired to keep going.
Best,
Terry

3 Rich Widerynski 03.31.11 at 9:52 pm

We in LA know that Terry and her husband are great!
Rich

4 Richard Brzozowski 04.03.11 at 3:53 pm

Hope runs eternal. The truth must be published and all in Polonia thank you for your efforts.

5 Terry Tegnazian 04.04.11 at 11:15 am

Rich - thanks for that vote of confidence:-) You’ve been so supportive of our efforts from the very beginning, and we really appreciate it.

Richard - thank you! Support from Polonia, in buying our books and spreading the word, will help us make a greater impact.

All the best,
Terry

6 Bill Brandt 04.07.11 at 1:15 am

Terry - if you are interested in this piece of history and like film I would suggest seeing Battle of Britain from 1969. I believe that historically it is very accurate right down the planes - Messerschmidts, Heinkels, Hurricanes and Spitfires were actual.

They had a section on the Polish pilots - who flew mainly Hurricanes (as shown in your picture) and when they wanted to go after some German planes, violating squadron discipline, they pretended to “No Habla” with the exasperated British commander.

That prayer is one worth saving - we all want our lives to mean something …

I am glad you found something you want to do and is worthwhile.

7 Gary Takacs 04.11.11 at 5:03 pm

Terry:
I want to encourage you to continue your work! My undergraduate degree is in History and had a particular emphasis on WWII and I knew very little of the Polish Resistance. Thank you for uncovering this Heroic chapter and telling the story!

Best regards,
Gary Takacs

8 Terry Tegnazian 04.12.11 at 2:01 pm

Hi Bill - I know that film very well! In fact, I have it at home in DVD. The section of the film about the Polish pilots is actually very funny — someone’s posted it on YouTube at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1pplBZu0oU . I’m not sure if it happened quite as they portray it, but these guys were in fact superb pilots and real heroes — in that first battle portrayed in the film, the squadron downed 6 German Me109s. One of our recent books, “303 Squadron: The Legendary Battle of Britain FIghter Squadron” by Arkady Fiedler is all about these guys.

9 Terry Tegnazian 04.12.11 at 2:04 pm

Hi Gary - thanks for those kind words! It’s so interesting to me that you, even as a history major with special emphasis on WWII, hadn’t learned much about the Polish resistance in school. That’s why it’s important to fill in this missing piece of history.
Best,
Terry

10 C. Stead 05.01.11 at 10:04 pm

My Dad flew for the Polish Squadron 318 - RAF. He flew Spitfires as a reconnaissance pilot. A friend of mine told me about your article in a magazine he subscribes to. Thanks for what you are doing. It means a lot to those who could not return to their homeland.
Christina

11 Terry Tegnazian 05.10.11 at 6:25 pm

Hi Christina - thanks for your kind words. I hope you’ve been able to get some of your dad’s experiences down in writing or on tape — it’s so important to preserve such memories for your own family, and perhaps also for future researchers.
Best,
Terry

12 "heroism" 05.27.11 at 6:57 am

the main ingredience of polish “heroism” is wodka

13 Ewa Wierzynska 08.28.11 at 5:13 am

Terry, I am Polish and very interested in the relationship between Polish Christians and Jews. For several years now I have been working on various aspects of this story, contributing to the establishment of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and - more recently - trying to find a place in the memory of nations (including Poles) for Jan Karski, a man who brought a first person account of the Holocaust to the Allied leaders. There are so many lessons to be learned from his moving story, including his last years when - finally, honored in Poland following the fall of communism, he relentlessly spoke out against prejudice and anti-semitism! Among the lessons he taught us was that - there is no such thing as the conscience of states, but there is the conscience of individuals. And then there is such a thing as honor. And the love of one’s country which is not at all the same as shovinism and the real thing does not drip sentimental sap. These are lessons I wish we could all - Poles, Americans, French, Mexican and Isreali absorb, so that we at least try to bring up our youth with the values without which humanity will self-distruct. I hope that you publish a book about Karski, my hero. You would love him too.

14 Terry Tegnazian 05.21.12 at 11:19 am

Hi Ewa - I was thrilled to see that Jan Karski will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama! We would love to do something about Karski. He did so much to convince the Allies to do something to stop the Nazi Germans from continuing their “Final Solution” of the Jews.

I agree with you about the importance of exploring the relationship between Polish Christians and Jews. We’ve just released a book by another Polish hero of WWII, who is virtually unknown in the West — “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery,” Captain Witold Pilecki. In September 1940, he volunteered for an almost certainly suicidal secret mission for the Polish Underground — to get himself arrested and sent to Auschwitz undercover as a prisoner, in order to smuggle out intelligence about the camp and to build a resistance organization among the prisoners. He barely survived for nearly three years, but accomplished his mission before escaping in APril 1943. His reports were received by the Allies beginning in early 1941, and chronicled the horrors that were going on at Auschwitz

Best,
Terry

15 Halina 11.29.12 at 8:24 pm

Terry,
A big thank you for all you are doing! Your work has been truly appreciated by Polonia. I purchased the Aushwitz Volunteer book and I would like to purchase 5 more as gifts. Is there a way to purchase them directly from your you, the publisher?

please advise.
Sincerely,
Halina

16 Christopher Novak 01.09.13 at 12:45 pm

Hello Terry,
if you scan back into Polish history, and even back to the history of Poland’s beginnings, you will see much of why Polish pilots, or most ANY
Polish people have always been so heroic. The history of Poland is full of centuries of the kind of force of will and devotion to duty. And a deep rooted desire to regain the nation they had a very few times past that was a joy to their people, community, and freedom, be it artistic, religious, or commercial. I hope they have at least some of that today.

17 voytek 02.18.14 at 10:02 pm

Terry,

my sincere thank you for what you’re doing.
My father escaped Soviet arrest in Lwow, only to be arrested by Nazis in ‘lapanka’ in Warsaw, he was on the first transport from Warsaw to Auschwitz;
my mother and grandparents escaped Soviet deportation from Lwow, survived Warsaw uprising
thank you

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