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‘Quiet Hero’: Learning her father’s true story

Rita Cosby knew little about her father Richard’s background — just that he had left Poland after World War II and refused to talk about it. Later in life, she learned the truth. Here is an excerpt from her book, “Quiet Hero: Secrets From My Father’s Past.”
/ Source: TODAY books

When Rita Cosby was 8 years old, she first noticed scars etched across her father’s body. She was quickly told, “We don’t talk about it.” Even after she grew up and became a TV host and correspondent, she knew little about her father Richard’s background — just that he had left a decimated Poland after World War II and had always refused to answer questions about it.

After her mother’s death, Rita discovered a worn and tattered suitcase tucked away full of mementos, including an old Polish Resistance armband, rusted tags bearing a prisoner number, and an identity card for a POW named Ryszard Kossobudzki. She decided she needed to reach out to her father and talk with him about his life.

Here is an excerpt from Cosby’s new book, “Quiet Hero: Secrets From My Father’s Past”:

The train hissed to a stop at the Kings Street Station in Alexandria, Virginia, jarring me from my introspection. I gathered my things and stepped out onto the platform into the bright June afternoon sunlight, preparing myself for the encounter I was about to have. My father and I haven’t been in close contact for years now. After my mother’s death, my already strained relationship with him became even more troubled. Why didn’t he comfort me when my mom died? How could he so easily detach himself from the woman he had been married to for 32 years? What made it so simple for him to segment his life so perfectly and just move on, start over again? I felt he had forgotten about us. About me. It made me furious ... and terribly confused, wondering what, if anything, I had done that was so terribly wrong?

I wanted our relationship to be better. I longed to have as warm a connection with my dad as my friends seemed to have with theirs. I had decided to make an attempt at a deeper bond, to somehow break through his tough shell, hoping to find a soft center. Unsure what to expect, but knowing I wanted answers, I climbed into a cab and headed to his house. I had begun looking into his past, and I carried with me a few conversation starters, as well as a few secrets of my own I’d reveal at the right time.

In 1977, my eighth-grade teacher assigned a term paper on World War II. I entitled mine, “Jews Under Nazi Rule.” I still have it, the A- written in red ink prominently on the title page. The paper was one of the first times I exercised the research skills that would eventually come to serve me in my career as a journalist. (After all these years, that minus after the “A” still bothers me.)

World War II was discussed often around my family dinner table. My parents would talk about Hitler’s horrible hatred, the British and U.S. forces, and how the Jews suffered during the war. Not usual dinner table talk for a family in Greenwich in the 1970s. Having grown up in Europe, my parents knew a lot about the war. My dad always discussed how the United States had saved the world from a great evil, how, if it weren’t for the Americans stepping in, Europe and the world would have been a different place. I remember cooking hot dogs over a campfire one July 4 and Dad saying, “The world owes America a debt of gratitude. I am lucky to now be an American.”

Little did I know that America had in fact saved his life.

There was never a mention of my dad’s involvement in the war, but there was mention of my mom’s. She recounted how she was rushed into air raid shelters as a little girl in Denmark. She always thought that the king of Denmark was very heroic for publicly defying Hitler in World War II. And she was very proud that the Danish underground had saved virtually all their Jewish residents by covertly sending them on boats to nearby Sweden.

I had no idea that my dad’s discussions were not taken from the history books he liked to read, but rather from his own memories, or that he had at one point lived about two hundred yards from Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. I realize now that those casual dinner table conversations were my mom’s way of trying to finally draw out the details of what her husband had seen and done.

Knowing only that my dad had been a young man in Poland during the war, I thought he’d be a great primary source for my eighth-grade “Jews Under Nazi Rule” term paper, and the window into his past would have been extra credit for me. One evening, we sat down at the dining table, and I began interviewing him, taking notes on my pad of paper as I had seen reporters do while talking to notable people. For every question I asked, he asked me two back, testing to see if I had done my homework on the subject. I wanted to hear his personal stories, to get an insider’s account of what had really gone on during the Nazi occupation, but my father obviously didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to know what I knew.

“Adolf Hitler was an ignorant, vulgar, and unsuccessful housepainter,” I remember proudly telling him. I had gleaned those biographical tidbits from reading part of Winston Churchill’s book “The Gathering Storm.”

I don’t know what I expected my father to tell me about his experiences, but in retrospect, I see that he revealed very little. He said he had grown up in Warsaw, a city that became a center of conflict at the beginning of the war. He talked about how Poland’s Jewish population suffered tremendously at the hands of the Nazis, and mentioned that some brave Poles had organized to resist the invading fascists. He said that unspeakable horrors had occurred in the Jewish ghetto. He didn’t say that they had happened right outside his front door.

His input helped me organize my research project, but I sensed that I was only scratching the surface of what he’d seen, what he knew. It was, after all, my first interview, and I didn’t yet know the Barbara Walters trick of asking a question and letting it float around in silence until it’s answered. It’s torture for the interviewee. But, one thing is certain: If I had known then what I know now about my father’s early life in Poland, Mrs. Jones would have given me an A+.

‘What do you want to know?’As the cab weaved through Alexandria’s streets toward my dad’s house, I pulled the report from my bag and leafed through it, yellowing sheets of wide-ruled notebook paper bound in a black folder with a stark, large, hand-drawn swastika on the cover, and my own careful, oversized eighth-grade cursive writing filling each page. I tried to imagine how much more meaningful and different the essay and my own life could have been if my father had opened up earlier and revealed the truth.

The driver pulled onto my dad’s road. The area he and Judy had picked to live in was developed during the 1970s when builders began purchasing lots and putting up homes for the area’s many military families who wanted quality homes at fair prices. The Army’s Fort Belvoir as well as a Coast Guard installation are both close by, and the area is a short drive or quick Metro ride to the Pentagon.

The cab stopped in front of my father’s house. After paying, I stepped out onto his driveway. The house is small and unassuming, a modest brick dwelling surrounded by houses of similar style and size. I climbed the cement stairs and knocked on the metal screen door.

After a moment, I see my father through the glass. My first impression is that he looks older — still in great shape for an 84-year-old, but older. His chiseled good looks and strong European features are still evident, but his hair has thinned and whitened. He opens the door.

“Rita,” he says, his accent as apparent as it’s always been. He holds the door for me, which saves him the awkwardness of a perfunctory hug. He leads me into the house where he has lived since remarrying. The house seems smaller from the inside than it looked from the outside. It has been a while since I’ve been there. The mumbling hum of a television spills out from the living room. My father offers me a chair in the kitchen. I had gone maybe three feet into his house.

“Would you like some juice?” he asks.

“No, thanks.” I reply.

“I blend it myself,” he says proudly. “My special recipe. It’s half cranberry and half grape juice.”

“No thanks,” I say. My dad doesn’t know that I’ve never liked grape juice. The table in front of me is stacked high with piles of papers and envelopes, bills and circulars. My father put his glass of home brew on the table and sits down next to me.

“Okay,” he says, matter-of-factly. “What do you want to know?”

He smiles, his glasses slipping a bit down his nose. He’s definitely looking older. I wonder if he thinks the same thing about me. His belly is a bit bigger than it’s ever been. When he divorced my mom his waist was “a thirty, half his age.” I remember him telling me so.

His commitment to fitness had always kept him youthful, but in the past few years his asthma has finally brought his beloved running to a stop. The man I see now looks tired in a way he never has before. The races he trained for had always seemed to be his greatest joys. For several years he ran in the Boston Marathon. I remember going to watch him, following his progress and cheering him on. I’d stand at the edge of the crowd of spectators to hand him water at the 10-mile mark, Gatorade at the 20. It always seemed peculiar that he never displayed any of the ribbons or trophies he brought home, instead stashing them in the top drawer of his dresser, even when he won the “seventy and older” division of the Marine Corps Marathon.

He never gave up. It took everything he had to finish his first Boston Marathon. I joined him at the 20-mile mark, running the last 6.2 miles with him. I could tell the race had taken its toll on him already at that point and begged him to stop and rest for a while. His paleness worried me. “Can’t take breaks,” he said, huffing on. He crossed the finish line, felt light-headed and collapsed. As a young teenager, I was so scared to see my father suddenly fall, and I rushed to get him help. True to form, he recovered quickly, and even said that experience only made him a better runner, and better prepared for future challenges. He would go on to run a total of 33 marathons over the next 20 years, training and running enough to, in his words, “run around the equator two and a half times.”

More recently, I’ve realized that my father’s almost obsessive commitment to fitness was more complex than a simple desire to stay in shape. Running and exercise were ways for him to escape, to get away from something else for a few precious hours, and in his younger years, those skills had kept him alive. After he left us that Christmas Eve years ago, I began to think of him as a man constantly on the run, figuratively as well as literally. He was hounded by some part of his past that he never talked about, and it was always nipping at his heels. Now, with my father coming to the finish line of his own life, I’ve finally gathered the courage to find out what that is.

Surprised and terrifiedI pulled my eight-grade paper from my bag and put it on the table in front of him. I slowly push it toward him, looking at his reaction. He does not pick it up, but there is a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me you were there, Dad?” I ask. “That you experienced this.”

He sighs. “Rita,” he says, “look at the title. It says ‘Jews Under Nazi Rule.’ I wasn’t a Jew.” A dodge.

I push forward. There was no retreat. “Dad, what’s your first memory of the war?”

He leans back in his chair, and I see flashes of thought play across his face, as though he is watching a movie in fast-rewind. After a moment, he takes a deep breath, and says, “It was Friday, September 1, 1939. I had just turned thirteen years old. It was the day World War II descended on Warsaw. When the first German air raid came, I was standing in the yard with my father, your grandfather, Konstanty Kossobudzki. We heard them before we saw them. The sky filled with a low rumbling sound, like gravel sliding down a metal chute. Soon, planes were visible in the sky, squadrons and squadrons of bombers. For a moment there was nothing but the sound of engines, and a swarm of planes like birds migrating en masse in the same direction. My father tried to reassure me, saying, ‘Look, the Polish air force is flying again!’ ‘But Dad,’ I told him, ‘those planes are coming from the west! The Germans are west!’

“As the planes drew closer, my father insisted, ‘No, I think they’re ours.’ After a few more minutes of nothing but the dull drone of the engines, a new sound greeted us. Rumbling concussions, two or three at a time, low and ominous, rolled across the land from the outskirts of town.” The sound of bombs falling. The sound of war.

“‘My God,’ my father whispered with sudden grave concern. ‘Germans.’”

It began with a lie. To justify the invasion of Poland, Hitler had faked a Polish attack on the German border town of Gleiwitz. SS troops dressed in Polish uniforms took over a local radio station and broadcast a phony call to arms against Germany. The staged event was exactly the spark Hitler needed to start his war against my dad’s homeland.

Poland was no stranger to conflict. The land that constituted the Second Republic of Poland at the beginning of World War II had been fought over, divided, reunified, and divided again for centuries. In fact, for 123 years of its history, Poland didn’t even exist on a map. So Poles were raised to fight for their freedom. The country had only been reformed and independent again for 21 years, after being forged from the ashes of World War I in 1918. When German forces invaded, they advanced into Poland from the west, north, and south, cutting a swath of destruction toward Warsaw. It didn’t take long for the United Kingdom and France, Poland’s allies, to reciprocate and declare war on the invading Germans. But for the most part the Poles were trapped in the conflict, begging for assistance.

Since the end of World War I, trouble had been brewing. Germany had been in a state of economic and political turmoil. The heavy blows dealt by the Great Depression and the strict terms of the Treaty of Versailles had left the German economy in shambles, and the German people wanted someone to blame. Increasingly, public opinion turned against Germany’s ruling Weimar Republic. Rightwing thinkers blamed the regime for the country’s woes, describing the signing of the Versailles treaty as a betrayal of the German people. Many of the loudest voices of criticism came from the conservative right, most notably from Germany’s ultra-right-wing Nazi Party.

It was in this volatile political climate that pressure from the right forced German president Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, as chancellor. The year was 1933. In the years that followed, Hitler used Germany’s economic woes, his own careful political maneuvering, and a fire at the Reichstag, the building that housed the country’s parliament, to dissolve the republic and install himself as the sole leader of a single-party Nazi government.

Germany was pushed into a state of nationalist overdrive, and Hitler used the situation as an opportunity to begin his violent agenda of expanding Germany’s borders across Europe. Hitler had strategically chosen that week in early September to start his offensive in order to catch my father’s country off-guard. Schoolchildren like my dad were returning to their first week in the classroom, and adults were returning to their jobs from vacation. It was a period during which the nation usually fell into a routine, but the Nazi invasion threw everything off-balance. Germany unleashed a kind of warfare in Poland that the world had never seen before.

The Germans attacked with everything they had — planes, tanks, cavalry, infantry, and artillery. Hitler had also decided to disregard the Geneva Conventions and authorized the killing of civilians, including women and children. The goal of this blitzkrieg, or lightning war, was to surprise and terrify. And the Nazis did.

It was the end of everything my dad had known.

A slow escape effortOnly days later, on September, Edward Rydz-Smigly, the commander-in-chief of Poland’s armed forces, along with most of the government, quickly evacuated Warsaw. They instructed Polish officers to go door to door and order all able-bodied men to take up arms and defend the northwestern front of Warsaw at all costs.

“Polish leaders ordered all intelligentsia, like my father, who might be able to play a role in a new government to head toward Romania,” my dad tells me as we sit at his kitchen table now, an incredible 70 years after the Nazi offensive began. Despite the passage of seven decades, his memory is lucid and clear.

“My father said we had to go immediately. I said I was staying to fight, but he grabbed me by the ear and said we were going.” Many other Poles made the same decision to flee, and the roads that ran out of the city quickly became crowded with women, children, and old men, carrying their lives on their backs. “We didn’t own a car, so we loaded the few things we could carry into a horse-drawn cart. My cousin, Yolanda, and her mother joined us. It was incredibly slow going in the cart, but before too long we had left Warsaw behind and began to ride into the countryside.

“After the first long day of traveling we had no other choice but to spend the night at a farm. When my father pulled the cart up to the small house, we knew we’d be expected to pay for room and board, but the farmer wouldn’t accept Polish money. ‘What’s the point?’ he asked, nodding in the direction of Warsaw. ‘It won’t be worth anything in a few days anyway.’ With nowhere else to go and nothing else of value, my mother pulled off her wedding ring and gave it to the man to pay for our shelter the first night. My father was visibly shaken, but my mother, ever pragmatic, did the best she could to take it in stride. Watching the exchange, I was struck for the first time with the grim realization that from the moment the bombs started falling over Warsaw, nothing would ever be the same.”

While the Kossobudzkis made their way toward the Romanian border, Warsaw endured bombings night and day. Terrifying explosions followed nerve-wracking whistles. The air rumbled constantly with artificial thunder. Streaks of flame poured down from the night sky. Poland didn’t have the planes, weapons, or soldiers to withstand the immense German onslaught. Poland’s pilots were skilled and courageous, but their planes were obsolete compared to Germany’s fast, maneuverable Stukas. With their government gone and their allies silent, the Poles in Warsaw were all alone, left to fight on as best they could. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Germans launched an all-out air attack, leveling much of the city and starting widespread fires.

With Warsaw smoldering in the background, my dad and his parents continued the slow journey to the border. They became part of a stream of Poles fleeing the Nazis, all of them carrying with them their dearest possessions in wagons, hand trolleys, and assorted luggage. They were pushing, pulling, and dragging their lives with them. Little did the Kossobudzkis know that it was truly all they had left in the world. They continued making their way to Romania, traveling in that sluggish cart about 30 miles each day, and stopping at night to stay with friends of friends, or wherever they could. It seemed as if their escape plan would actually work.

“Then, one afternoon, close to the Romanian border, all hopes of escape were suddenly dashed,” my dad explains. “My father had stopped the cart in a small town to pick up supplies. While we were standing in line at the general store, a sudden message came crackling through the radio behind the counter. The announcer was dramatically reporting that the Soviets had now invaded Poland from the east, and were beginning a push toward Warsaw.”

‘We had no choice’It was on September 17, 1939, that one final event sealed Poland’s fate. The Russians had arrived. The Soviet army invaded eastern Poland and began to claim anything that hadn’t already been taken by the Germans. This had all been prearranged in a secret agreement between the Russians and the Nazis called the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, named after both their foreign ministers. While on the surface the document appeared to be no more than a nonaggression agreement between the Germans and the Russians, a secret protocol was included in the pact that actually divided Poland into western and eastern territories, to be controlled, once the war had ended, by Germany and Russia respectively. Poland was being suffocated on both sides by ferocious armies bent on annexing land; power-hungry regimes ready to break Europe into two new empires ... and Poland was just the opening play.

News of the Soviet invasion stopped my dad’s father in his tracks.

“Outside people were shouting in the streets. We heard cries, ‘The Soviets are coming!’ echoing back and forth across the town’s little square. The color drained from my father’s face. ‘We’re not going,’ he said. “I protested. ‘We’re so close!’

“‘We’re not going,’ my father said again, setting his jaw. ‘If I have the choice, I’d rather be under the Germans than the Soviets any day of the week.’ He remembered being forced as a child to attend Russian-controlled schools in Warsaw where they didn’t even allow him to learn his native Polish tongue. He had experienced Russian oppression before and didn’t want to see it again.”

Sitting now in my dad’s Virginia kitchen, I asked, “What did you do? What did your mom say?”

“We had no choice,” he says. “We obeyed. We packed up the cart and hastily turned around. We made the return trip to Warsaw in a lot less time than it had taken to escape. We were headed against traffic, you might say. On the way back the magnitude and gravity of the events unfolding in Poland became clear to me. Partway through the journey, we passed through an area that had seen fighting between the Polish army and the invading Germans. When the cart crested a hill, we came upon the remains of a battlefield. I stared, unable to speak. Destruction was all you could see. The field was scattered with smashed cavalry units; mutilated bodies of horses and their riders laid out on the grass. Destroyed pieces of artillery reduced to heaps of twisted metal. My father stopped the cart and gestured at the scene.

“‘There,’ he said, ‘that is the glory of combat. That’s what it looks like.’ I swallowed hard and looked out at the terrible stillness. My father had been a lifelong pacifist, more interested in books than bullets. He thought things could be solved with nice words. I knew there were no words that could stop the Nazis. Until that moment, in my innocence, I had always associated war with a certain degree of valor and glory. But there, staring out at the obscenity of the scene in the field before me, I got my first glimpse at the true face of war. I would bear witness to far worse in the years to come, but the sight of that ruined battlefield stayed with me for the rest of my life.”

My dad sits quietly at his kitchen table, lost in the horrific snapshot from the now-opened diary of his mind. There is no sound but the soft chatter of the television in the other room. I sit there, looking at him. It’s the first time I’ve actually understand how drastically different his childhood was from my own. The worst thing I had ever seen as a 13-year-old was in a horror movie I’d snuck into.

“What happened when you got back to your house in Warsaw?” I ask, finally breaking the silence that had settled in the kitchen.

“What house?” he asks.

“Your family’s house,” I say, not understanding.

“Rita,” he says, “there was no house.”

Excerpted with permission from “Quiet Hero: Secrets From My Father’s Past” by Rita Cosby (Threshold Editions, 2010).