Peter F. Dembowski
“Like the Polish flag, composed of two contrasting colors, red and white, my memoirs are cast in red and white. ‘Red’ treats largely my wartime life in Europe, life full of blood and death. My success in that part of my life was survival. ‘White’ represents my successful migration and peaceful life in America.” — from the Preface
Born after World War I into an educated and progressive Polish family, Peter F. Dembowski was a teenager during the joint occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. His account of life as a young Polish soldier, as an immigrant to Canada, and finally as an American professor is a gripping narrative of life before, during, and after the horrors of World War II. Skillfully weaving a tapestry of emotion and history, Dembowski recounts the effects of loss: at age twelve, his father’s death; and later, the arrest of his mother and sister by the Gestapo and their execution in 1942 in the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück. Balancing those tragedies, Dembowski recalls the loving care given him by Janina Dembowska, the wife of his paternal uncle, as well as the inspiring strength of character he witnessed in his teachers and extended family.
Still a very young-looking teenager, Dembowski became involved with the Polish Underground in 1942. Suspected as a konspirator, he was incarcerated in Pawiak Prison and later, after a rare release, fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. His on-the-ground account describes the deprivations Polish soldiers faced as well as the fierce patriotism they shared. With the defeat of the Uprising, he was deported to Sandbostel; once liberated, he joined the Polish Army in Italy, serving there for two years.
In 1947, Dembowski made the momentous decision not to return to Poland but rather to emigrate to Canada. We learn of his stint as a farmhand and, later, of his studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He continued his education in France, receiving a Doctorat de l’Université de Paris in Russian philology and, in 1960, a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in medieval French. In tandem with his successful academic career teaching at the University of Toronto and at the University of Chicago, Dembowski describes his happy marriage and the joy of family life.
“Peter F. Dembowski’s Memoirs Red and White: Poland, the War, and After is the moving testimony of an individual who has had firsthand knowledge of the most dramatic moments in the history of the twentierth century. His story is one of heroic courage, honesty, and optimism.” — Thomas Pavel, Gordon J. Laing Distinguished Service Professor in Romance Languages and Literature, University of Chicago
“Memoirs Red and White: Poland, the War, and After is a powerful portrait of Polish life in the late 1930s and 1940s, told beautifully through the lens of Peter F. Dembowski’s heroic family. Dembowski recounts the adventures of his brave and ethical family members during the Depression, as members of the konspiracja, as well as his mother’s and sister’s executions in Ravensbrück. The author provides a riveting account of his own heroism during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and his incarceration in Stalag XB near Sandbostel, as well as his life in the United States after the war. The book describes the patriotism of Poles during a very difficult era. Dembowski’s book is an excellent choice for readers who want to learn more about Polish life, patriotism, and history during the Second World War." — Eric Sterling, Distinguished Research Professor of English, Auburn University at Montgomery
“Memoirs Red and White vividly describes life in Poland before and during the war. It touches on the issues of war and resistance, life in the camps, and the gruesome toll of death and survival. While there is no shortage of literature on the war and camps, Dembowski adds new vignettes and details that will be of interest to a general reader. I think it is important to have Dembowski’s record of the events in print as the last of the war generation is disappearing, taking with them their memories and life stories." — Michael Khodarkovsky, Loyola University Chicago
“Peter F. Dembowski . . . provides an engrossing glimpse into his early life growing up in Poland prior to World War II and his subsequent immigration to Canada and eventually the United States. . . . In the summer of 1943, Dembowski participated in the Polish resistance. He was captured and detained by the Gestapo, and his release was quite unexpected by his family. A year later, Dembowski was again captured and sent to one of the many internment camps outside of Warsaw until it was liberated by the British. . . [This] success story of a World War II survivor from Poland is enlightening, inspirational, and thoughtful.” — Foreword Reviews
“An impressively written and detailed autobiography, Memoirs Red and White: Poland, the War, and After showcases a life lived out in the interesting times. An informative and absorbing read from beginning to end, Memoirs Red and White is very highly recommended for bother community and academic library Contemporary Biography collections.” — Midwest Book Review
“To this memoir [Dembowski] brings the academic’s discipline and dispassionate approach not to mention a lifetime of reflection. . . Dembowski has a flair for the out of the ordinary. Here he strives to present complexity, challenging simplistic notions of Polish-German animosity, anti-Communism, and anti-Semitism. . . This book is but a modest contribution to a fairly hefty body of material but will nonetheless reward the reader seeking insight into Poland’s world war.” — Humanities and Social Sciences Online
“Written in an engaging, conversational style, Memoirs Red and White is both a witness to the tumultuous course of events in the 20th century and the record of a life truly well lived. It will certainly have appeal to those interested in Polish culture and history, World War II, the lives of Polish Americans, or biographies of academics, as well as those who enjoy stirring examples of heroism, courage, and endurance. Highly recommended, this book is suitable for public and academic libraries alike.” — Catholic Library World
“Dembowski is exceptional for conveying a truthful picture of what he witnessed during the war. He avoids the trap of obviously interpreting his memories through the prism of subsequent accounts. He is impressively balanced and objective even though the account of his war-time experiences are harrowing and in many ways complex.” — European History Quarterly
“This compelling memoir offers much to historians researching the twentieth century. . . . Dembowski’s memoir is particularly moving when he writes of his family. . . . Throughout his life Dembowski has drawn strength from his Christian faith. And even those who profess no faith are likely to be touched by his reflection on death in the final pages of his memoir.” — Journal of Contemporary History
AAUP “Best of the Best” Title, 2016 ALA Annual Conference