She called him a Hussar, and the foreignness of the word immediately attached itself to the fiction any boy adores. This Hussar, her brother, my uncle, joined the Polish cavalry in the late 1930s, or so she said. In uniform he wore a neat officer’s cap that made him elegant Warsaw society, though she never spoke of that time and rarely even of Poland.
Of my Hussar uncle I knew only that he looked good in uniform hat and that when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939 he defended the realm on horseback only to be mowed down by German tanks.
This myth sat well in a boyish brain captivated by wild valor of any kind. Later, when I read about the period, I found that the image of Polish cavalry charging Nazi tanks came from the mind of a visiting Italian, Indro Montanelli, the renowned war correspondent, who had written of horses charging tanks in Pomeria, at Krojanty. This was the same Montanelli I later interviewed and who confessed his brand of reporting was sometimes fashioned after newsreels. “I’m like a kid,” he said. “I have my own coloring book. If I occasionally color the sun blue, what’s the harm?” None at all if you believe legend and dramatic romance are the spice of life.
The story my mother told of her little brother charging tanks did seem very grand, until she burst into tears. He hadn’t survived the charge. He never came back to Warsaw. My mother’s family was soon decimated.
This at least was how I imagined it, since she rarely got any further than the charge, and the invasion that followed, which led to her exile in Rome and the beginning of a new life that would blot out the old and obscure memories of its characters.
I carried the story of my Hussar uncle forward, but in pectore, a fanciful family slide I shared with lovers. Chances were, I knew, there had been no uncle, no charge. My mother had fled Warsaw, yes, but the rest was part of a teenaged girl’s mythology, since girls as easily as boys can take to the protection offered by handsome fiction — particularly when penned as true by dashing coloring book foreign correspondents. Italy is especially fond of such coloration.
Romance aside, the Polish cavalry did charge armored cars near Krojanty but was dispersed. German tank Gen. Hans Guderian’s famous version of the clash — the Poles, he wrote, “were in ignorance of the nature of our tanks and charged with swords and lances and … suffered tremendous losses…” — was set aside.
By the time I came across that debunking, I no longer took my mother’s stories seriously. What we remember is often what we make up, I’d decided — and my uncle seemed to belong to a make-believe realm, perhaps for the best in a century that adores metrics, measurements and data, and has little or no recollection of chivalry, since chivalry by definition requires self-effacement and impulse control, lost concepts.
Cavalry uncles and light brigades don’t even have much sway in video games. So imagine my surprise while in the attic taping a leaky pipe and by chance finding a brooch, my mother’s, inside which was a tiny circular photograph of a mustachioed man in a Polish cavalry officer’s cap, a man who might be kin, a real and handsome man, my then-teenaged uncle, pure fiction but still charging.