He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Manewry Szwejkowskie

Cyclists setting off for the tour of the ring of
fortifications around Przemyśl.
Przemyśl was the stage for one of the scariest episodes of Švejk's odyssey on the way to the Galician front. Taken prisoner by his own troops in Felstyn, he had been escorted to the recently recaptured fortress city on the river San and faced summary execution. He was even given spiritual consolation by the venerable Father Martinec. This was how obvious his fate seemed at the time. He was only saved by the intervention of the duty-conscious Major Derwota who managed to convince his blood-thirsty superiors that they at least ought to establish the culprits identity before they strung him up.
All this must have happened some time in June 1915. Przemyśl had fallen to the Russians on March 22 after a long siege. The 110,000 strong garrison of the huge fortress complex surrended after having literally been starved out. The city and the fortress remained  in Russian hands only for a few months; on June 3 the forces of the Mittelmächte recaptured the city. This was all part of the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive which was eventually to cause the Russian "strategic withdrawal" which left all of current Poland in German hands. Galicia was recaptured in it's entirety and the front was established (mainly) on Russian territory for the rest of the war.

Švejkologs of Poland, united.
It had always been clear to this avid follower of Hašek that Przemyśl was to be a key stop on the route. I had even spent a day in the city on my "mini-Švejk" trip back in 2004 and had liked it. Przemyśl sits prettily on the river San and has an attractive old core with an impressive number of ecclesiastical buildings. The city is small and easily negotiable on foot. Another attraction is the ring of fortresses, an enormous conglomerate of steel and concrete which even today is a landmark. Some of the fortresses offer fine views of the surrounding countryside, even as far as the Ukraine.

During those July-days of 2010 I was back in the realms of the Latin alphabet before my anticipated 10 week disappearance into Cyrillic incomprehension. I had incredible luck with the timing of the visit. Richard Hašek had informed me  just a few days earlier that I absolutely should try to be there from July 11-13. These were the dates of the annual Manewry Szwejkowskie, the largest Švejk-related happening anywhere on the planet and now arranged for the 13th time. Jaroslav Hašek is immensely popular in Poland, perhaps even more so than in his homeland, where there exists a certain ambiguity. And nowhere else are his admirers better organised than in Poland. Richard himself has been to the manewry three times and he told me that he has a few hundred personal acquaintances in Poland alone! How he keeps track of them only Richard and the Good Lord knows. These excellent connections between the authors grandson and Poland now came to benefit me greatly. I was put in contact with a certain Marek Chodań who introduced me to the inner circle of szwejkologs where I was immediately welcomed and taken care of, even announced in public on the square!

The arrangement itself was extensive. Cycle trips around the fortresses, bands on the square, music, film and grill party at Fort XVI "Zniesienie", guided city tours, a lot of piwo, events involving local businesses etc. The organizers sported fine k.u.k uniforms and many visitors were similarly dressed for duty. I  didn't have that privilege, but in the summer heat it might have been just as well.

There were visitors from all over Poland: Kielce, Gdańsk, Warsaw, Kraków, Cieszyn and a few more. The group from Cieszyn spoke Czech and also performed a few of the classic songs mentioned in Švejk. Cieszyn is right on the Czech border, it is logically the same town as Český Těšín. After the break-up of Austria-Hungary in 1918 the town was split between the two nascent states of Poland and Czechoslovakia. The group from Gdańsk were a colourful lot and even included Carol Dixon, a teacher of English from Bristol. It meant that I for the first time since Austria could speak a language which I was reasonably familiar with. This was a privilege I rarely  enjoyed on much of this trip, and certainly not from this point onwards. Foreign visitors were few, but included a brass band from Lviv and a stray Norwegian.
I found my new friends in Poland an extremely welcoming lot, despite my limited ability to communicate with them. The manewry was such a good experience that I am seriously thinking of going down to Przemyśl again in 2011 just to relive it. I also realised that I had done very little serious research on Švejk in the days of the manoeuvres. Some spots mentioned in the novel I just forgot to ask about. It regards the city baths and a wine-bar called Vollgruber. There is also a mention of a statue of a former mayor Grabowski which is just as unclear who was. Hašek himself seems generally quite muddled about this city, and it's unclear if he ever went there. Radko Pytlík devotes a whole chapter in his book Osudy a cesty Josefa Švejka on whether Hašek visited Przemyśl or not. He concludes that he could have been there; either on one of his wanderings in Galicia as a young man, or after the battle of Sokal at the end of July 1915. He could also have dropped by during his company's march to the front in July 1915, although this unlikely. So there is still work to be done for some dedicated Švejkolog!
People in Przemyśl are in two minds themselves. We were taken on a fine walking tour to a spot where it's  believed that Švejk's lice-ridden dungeon was. The location is not pin-pointed by the author, so the former prison in Ulica Franciszka Smolki 13 is simply a theory. Still, the site was worth the visit. Dark and dingy, it has been converted to flats, albeit not exactly in the luxury category. The tenants were very understanding of the partly uniform-clad visitors...

Former prison
Fortunately someone had figured out that the this  visitor's grasp of Polish was minuscule so I was unexpectedly accompanied by German-speaking Halina Stadnik whose profession is Stadtführerin (Tourist Guide). A very pleasant and well-informed tourist guide she is too, and thanks to her I got a lot of information that otherwise would have got lost in a plethora of consonant-ridden Polish syllables. The siege of Przemyśl in 1914/15 was a hard time for the population and the mostly Hungarian garrison. Halina told me that two cooks had been hanged after it was revealed that they had made goulash from human meat. On the other hand general Kusmanek, the commander of the fortress, lived relatively comfortably, at least he had a descent villa, now the home of Ing Bank. After the fall of Przemyśl, Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustädten spent the rest of the war in Russian captivity. On his release and return to Vienna he was court-martialled for treason, but acquitted. He who one day was hailed as the lion of Przemyśl had suddenly become a traitor...

On the Sunday Marek Chodań took me on a tour to some of the fortresses. The mass graves are enormous, and the lists of names on those marble plates have no end. Every name printed there has once been a human being, a person with his own history, his own value. These countless soldiers didn't try to get their names into the history books as the idiot Herostratus did; forced as they were to fight for whoever sent them  to the slaughterhouse of Przemyśl, whether it was Kaiser Wilhelm II, Kaiser Franz Joseph I or Николай Александрович Романов.

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