“In London, crowds of people are gathering at Downing Street, waiting for the report from the cabinet meeting. In Berlin, gauleiters and ‘parliament’ members are waiting in antechambers, waiting for their ‘leader’ to give a sign so they can applaud his decisions and agree with them in the name of the ‘German nation’. Paris accepts the anti-aircraft defense measures with the usual humour. In Rome, Delphic comments prevail, ‘Duce’ keeps summoning councils with his generals. And in Warsaw? Car after car driving along Łazienkowska Street! An unending wave of people pushing forward… to make it for the Poland–Hungary football game!” wrote Przegląd Sportowy, describing that momentous August Sunday.
An impressive 20,000 supporters sat in the stands of the Polish Army Stadium in Warsaw, despite the international tension, Hitler’s threats and quiet mobilization already happening across the country. Of course, the spectators did not know that the Molotov–Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, signed several days later between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, included a secret protocol discussing the upcoming partition of the Second Polish Republic. Were the Germans to carry out their initial plans, the war would have already been happening by then! Hitler’s general staff expected to attack Poland on 26th August, but the invasion was called off at the last minute due to the signing of an alliance pact between Poland and Britain on the day before.
The fates of war and peace were on the line until the very last moment. Hitler was hesitating.
The order calling off the attack did not reach all German units, which is why a group of Abwehr saboteurs tried to take over a railway tunnel and railroad by Przełęcz Jabłonkowska in the Zaolzie region. They were fought off.
The war was hanging by a thread, but there was still a sliver of hope that tragedy could be avoided. Many of the spectators at the match in Warsaw were clinging on to that hope. Even the reserve soldiers, who made it to the stadium at the last minute with their gas masks thrown over their shoulders. They trusted the promises of Poland’s Western allies and believed in the strength of the Polish army. More than in our footballers’ skills, anyway!
The Polish devils
Despite memorable appearances in the 1938 World Cup and Olympic Games two years earlier, the white-and-reds were a team much less acclaimed than the Hungarians, who were the world’s vice-champions back then. Yet the Poles surprised everyone, beating the front-runners 4:2!
It was a moment to enjoy, and good progress, too. Once Poland regained its independence and was back on the world map, its football representation lost to Hungary 0:1 during its first international game in 1921. The match took place in Budapest, with Józef Kałuża playing for the white-and-red team. In 1939, Kałuża had a different role: he became the team’s manager. He was the one collecting praise for defeating Hungary, along with Scotsman Alex James, the former star of Arsenal F.C., who was invited from England by the Polish Football Association to share some modern Western training ideas with his Polish colleagues.
The press was delighted. “In theory, the Polish team had no chance against Hungary when they entered the field. After all, their opponents were players of European fame. It was literally a ‘sky full of stars’, shining so bright they could easily make one’s eye swell. And so it did blind our boys for 30 minutes, during which they ‘caught’ two goals, and from the look of it, were on the way to double that number very soon,” related Przegląd Sportowy. “And yet… Our team was suddenly taken over by some devil. Our white-clad players caught a gust of new wind in their sails. Every cherry-coloured Hungarian was followed by the white spot of a Polish uniform and surrounded by two more, ready to fight. The perfectly-constructed Hungarian team suddenly stopped working.” After that moment, only Polish players scored new goals. Three were the work of the attacker Ernest “Ezi” Wilimowski, the brightest star of the Polish team.
“The team was splendid.” “One more triumph of the will of victory. The Hungarian professionals could not take the fierce attack of the Polish team,” screamed press headlines on Monday 28th August. Still, it was difficult not to think of the looming threat of war. “Polish football began its post-war history with a game against the Hungarians. And who knows if this game isn’t the last before the war, too,” said the president of the Polish Football Association, Colonel Kazimierz Glabisz, at the post-game reception.
Just several days later, Hitler’s army attacked Poland. Despite being Germany’s allies, the Hungarians refused to help with the invasion. Hungary’s Prime Minister Pál Teleki had already sent a telegram to Berlin, informing Germany that his country was “not willing to partake in military action against Poland, neither directly nor indirectly.” And he kept his word. Still, the Hungarians did take part in World War II, supporting Hitler’s armies.
The Hungarian footballers were spared a terrible fate. The war brought plenty of tragedies and struggles upon the Polish heroes of the 27th August game. The manager Józef Kałuża refused to collaborate with the occupying forces, who had offered him a lucrative position in the General Government, and he died of meningitis in 1944. His assistant, coach Marian Spoida, was taken captive by the Soviets after the September Campaign and was killed in the Katyń massacre. Halfback Henryk Jaźnicki fought in the September Campaign, and later spent several years in prisons and concentration camps. Defender Władysław Szczepaniak and halfback Edward Jabłoński played in underground football games. Edmund Giemsa, a footballer from Ruda Śląska, was enlisted for the Wehrmacht, but he deserted his post and found the Polish army in the West. A similar fate met Wilhelm Góra, a player from Piekary Śląskie. The Silesian Ewald Dytko was forced to sign the Volksliste and played for German clubs, but when he was enlisted to the Wehrmacht in 1945, he deserted and joined the Americans.
The most complicated fate, however, met the pre-war football superstar of the Polish team, Ernest “Ezi” Wilimowski. He was a citizen of the Second Polish Republic, he lived in Katowice and played for the Polish team despite his German roots. During the war, he used this to keep on playing, albeit in German clubs and in the Third Reich’s representation. Wilimowski also served in the Nazi police and army. Yet his family was still not safe: Wilimowski’s mother had an affair with a Jew, for which she was sent to a concentration camp. The Wilimowskis were finally saved by Colonel Hermann Graff of the Luftwaffe, also a footballer and football fan.
After the war, “Ezi” played only in Germany. For many years, he was considered a traitor in Poland. Only after 1989 did people start viewing him differently. He was a man who considered himself neither Polish nor German – he was a Silesian, and he wanted to play football and just survive the war on whichever side.
On 27th August 1939, the victors of the football game and their supporters didn’t realize the horrors that awaited them. History could have had taken a different turn. But it chose the path of a tragedy that broke countless hearts and took away millions of lives.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano