The cloister of the Dominican Basilica in Jerusalem hosts the exhibition of previously unknown photos of the Polish soldiers of the II Corps, who fought during the WW2 side to side with the Allies. The opening ceremony was presided by the Representative of the Republic of Poland to the Palestinian National Authority, H. E. Aleksandra Bukowska – McCabe and took place on 17 February 2018.
The Polish II Corps (Polish: Drugi Korpus Wojska Polskiego), 1943–1947, was a major tactical and operational unit of the Polish Armed Forces in the West during World War II. It was commanded by Lieutenant General Władysław Anders and fought with distinction in the Italian Campaign, in particular at the Battle of Monte Cassino. By the end of 1945, the corps had grown to well over 100,000 soldiers.
During the Second World War there were no military operations in the Holy Land (when it was part of the British Mandate of the League of Nations called Palestine). This area, however, was the immediate hinterland of battles fought in North Africa by the British and Allied forces (including Polish) with German and Italian troops. It was also the place of the formation, training and transit of Polish units formed from soldiers after the September campaign infiltrated the West, the Balkans and Turkey, and those soldiers and civilians who, after being released from prisons, labour camps and exile, were evacuated through Persia and Iraq from areas of the Soviet Union.
The Polish II Corps was created in 1943 from various units fighting alongside the Allies in all theatres of war. In the Spring of 1940, with the consent of the French government, the Carpathian Rifle Brigade was created in the city of Homs in Syria. After the capitulation of France in June 1940 the brigade moved to British Mandate Palestine where it became part of the British forces.
The first Polish tactical unit subject to Polish Armed Forces and stationed in the Middle East was called the Polish Army in the Middle East (WPnŚW) and was initially formed in Egypt and later in Palestine. In 1942 it grew to about 40,000 soldiers and the Supreme Commander, General Władysław Sikorski, approved the merger plan of WPnŚW and II Corps Rifle (separate from WPnŚW) of Persia, evacuated by the Polish Army in the USSR, to create the Polish Army in the East (APW). Its commander, and later commander of Polish II Corps, was General Władysław Anders.
Disease, malnutrition and exhaustion from slavery of those who survived the Soviet camps, wounds on the battlefield of Libya and Egypt and the usual accidents meant that not all Polish soldiers left the Holy Land. The remains of 351 Polish officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of different units are buried in eight military and civilian cemeteries in the Holy Land.
The photos shown in the exhibition come from photo albums of the French religious Congregation of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, SCJ. They are also known as “fathers of Bétharram” after the name of the village – in the French Basque country, not far from Lourdes – where the congregation was founded in the 19 th century.
The fathers of Bétharram were in charge of the Grand Seminary of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, located in Beit Jala. The fathers also used to have a house for studies and spiritual retreat not far from the Trapist Monastery of Latrun. It is near this house that the photos on display were taken. The house was located next to the Palestinian village of Amwas – one of the biblical Emmauses – on the top of the last hill of the Judean Mountains looking west, towards the biblical Shephela. It is on the plain where the British set up a tent camp to host the Polish Army. The British themselves kept a fort opposite the Latrun Monastery.
The pictures are small prints glued to album pages. No negative has been found. The pictures you can see in the exhibition are high definition scans of these small photos. The quality is lower due to the lack of negatives. The photographer who took the pictures was a French religious man, Pierre Médebielle. The pictures are stored in two separate albums. The first one belonged to a certain “frère Jacques”, a father of Bétharram. He is visible in the photos as a bearded religious figure among the soldiers (eg. in the centre of the group, SCJ, 0473). Father Médebielle often used to place him into his photographs and offered him prints of the pictures as a gift.
The two albums, from which the photos were taken, were made available for scanning at the end of 2015 by Fr Felet, SCJ, of the Bétharram community in Bethlehem, where all the albums are kept.