Through Their Eyes

JJ almost waxes poetic in this article, featured in:

It seems like more and more people are taking pictures these days. Especially now that film has practically gone from industry standard to old-time novelty, or even charming retro medium, the age of the digital photograph has empowered unheard of numbers of folks to record more and more images from the world in which we live. How wonderful! With all due apologies for the cliché, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and for the historian or cultural enthusiast, not much could be more exciting! Even though I’ve heard more than a few complaints about how what used to be an easily manageable couple of shoeboxes filled with printed photographs has now evolved into an unwieldy collection of thousands of digital snapshots, the value of those pictures can’t be understated! Trust me, even if seems silly, the next generations of historians and ethnographers will sing our praises for taking so many pictures, regardless of how silly they seem to us today. Mark my words!

Recalling my days as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college student studying history, I can’t remember how many hours I spent pouring over historic photographs, searching for elements that I could use to support my thesis. I’d bring a shovel with me to the library! At times it was so frustrating to have no pictorial account of some important moment from the past. Finding just the right one, even snapped candidly from the sidelines, can provide much clarity and insight for the researcher. If I had a nickel for every time I’d wished that at one specific moment in time, someone took more pictures, I certainly wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I’m pretty sure my people mover expenses would be covered for at least a few years. Photographs are primary sources, that is, accounts of an historic event recorded first-hand by those who were there.  As such, they’re an exceptional tool for learning about the past.

Apart from all the young historians leading to the library with a pick-axe, what we do to memorialize the past takes on a different path.  Where treasuries of photos can create an intimate connection with history, public commemoration of great events is usually helps the most to shape the memory of the next generation. We build monuments, create museums, and dedicate works of art to the memory of those who made some of the greatest moments in history happen.  When we read the inscription on the plaque, or read the panel at the museum, we’re encouraged to learn more about our history and we’re led to wonder what things were like when that great moment happened. It can be a sad, in a way, to stand by some monument and long to do something great in your own life like those who went before, but then again, that’s where inspiration kicks in—it’s the awesome way history works—to inspire us to create a better future!  In any case, the people who inspired the creation of monuments and museums are largely lost to the past, so when we want to know what happened back then, what we’re left with are the stories they told, and the records they left.  Sometimes that can be nothing more than a poetic few lines in stone. That’s great and all, but the degree to which you can experience closeness with the past is something that many monuments, though beautiful and epic, and museums, though interactive and fun, fail to get across.  It can be a real downer, but that’s the passing of time for ya.  That’s why those written accounts, recordings and photographs are so important to us; they fill in the details of history’s most epic events by giving life to those monuments and feeling to those museum exhibitions.

All those hallmarks of the past we’re going through invoke an amount of reverence in us. Be it a monument or photograph, it goes hand in hand with all the inspiring I mentioned earlier.

What’s often missed though, I think, are the most valuable primary sources there are. I’m talking about the living photographs! These are the people whose testimony to the past is something that makes up the very definition of invaluable. Though the monuments and museums tend to draw most of the attention, it’s those people, often unassuming and mild-mannered, who command more reverence than even the most grandiose monument. Just the other day at Orchard Lake, we were proud to host a group of people whose perspective on one of Polish peoples’ most significant events is as valuable as it gets.  If you were to find yourself in Warsaw, in August of 1944, you’d likely be pretty scared.  Odds are you’d find yourself fearing the ominous siren of the Stuka dive-bomber, while feeling soreness in your legs from so much crouching under the bullets whizzing just overhead. You’d probably be busy building a barricade across the street, made from all types of scavenged materials, to stop the next wave of armored vehicles, or, rushing through holes and sewers as fast as you can bearing stretchers from wounded fighters.

Amidst all that chaos though, I’d imagine that you’d combat your fears with the courage gained from the determination of the people all around you.  The loving hand from a nurse, unflinching in her duties to bring aid from under a blanket of enemy bullets, or the friendly smile, expressed in freedom from your comrade-in arms, given as if to assure you that all will be well, would probably do a lot to cool your nerves. Some of those very people who so impassionedly fought back against the German occupation of Poland from 1939 are still with us today, and command a degree of reverence that no monument can equal.  Here at Orchard Lake, it never fails to amaze me that I can be amidst this group. Drawing on a long history of Polish identity, Orchard Lake regularly draws a very special crowd to reminisce, celebrate, and enjoy each other’s company, and I have to say that I’m honored to be close to that group. From my office here, I’m so proud to stand on the shoulders of those who went before, to stand on the same path blazed by Fr. Dabrowski, so be a part of the Polish community that traces its roots to shore of Orchard Lake.

Just like standing at the foot of those monuments, what’s before me can feel intimidating.  What can I do to support this?  What shall I do to teach others about this?  The great events that those people directly shaped are a constant source of inspiration, and as long as we allow ourselves to be inspired, we’ll always have a place in the pages of history, perhaps not in the section reserved for heroes of bygone days, but in the special section reserved for people who remembered.

Until next time,


Day-by-Day in Buffalo with the Batalion

Whoo!  You know, upon returning from our odyssey to Buffalo, Pete acting in his role as artistic director, reminded us all of an important detail we missed in all of our passion-infused rhetoric about storms, fronts, thunder, and the like.  As much as we all love the imagery, the rainbow that comes at the storm’s end leaves a little to be desired for our intimidating, no holds barred image.  Oh well.  So yes, the storm has dissipated for now, but only after a huge success in Buffalo!  We let loose a downpour on Buffalo, and had a great time too.  In case you were wondering what exactly goes on for one of our gigs, here’s a day-by-day blog of our excursion to Buffalo’s Polish Heritage Festival.


It began it began like any other day in high anticipation of a “Burza” gig; sleeping in and last minute errands.  Tying up local loose ends ahead of a five-day gig was an important factor in setting our departure time and moreover, packing for this specific trip was a bit of a challenge.  James over in Buffalo was nice enough to save us the trouble of bringing tables, thus saving us a decent chunk of space in the cargo hold.  But, because we committed to a full presentation with the entire display, we still had to pack all the heavy gear along with the Spanish Knights.  know what they are?  Check this.  Yep, they’re big, ugly, sharp, and we found out later that they work quite well (more on that later).  I still have no idea how the hell we packed 3 knights, two busts, an mg34 with AA hardware, enough gear and period clothing for 5 people, and all the usual “Burza” equipage into a Dodge B-1500.  Let’s hear it for packing skills!

While JJ and Jenny put the final touches on the van, Jeff was hard at work rounding up some Polish candy and road snacks.  When he returned with an armload of chocolate bars, an assorted collection of canned fish products, and a giant jar of pickles, we were set to pick up Pete in Dearborn and hot the road.  With  an expected 7.5 hour drive time, our target hour for liftoff was a decent 2pm, which added up to pulling out of my driveway at around 6pm.  That’s what we call Burza-perfect time, because hey, you never can predict exactly when the storm will strike.

Alright, I promise to be done with the weather references.

With the notorious Ohio Turnpike speed traps successfully dodged, the team made it to Buffalo fast and in good order.  Despite our building enthusiasm, we all hit the sack early in to rest up for our TV interview at 7am.


I’ll be honest, it felt a little funny being some of the only guests at the Tallyho-tel.  (The name says it all, by the way)  A long line of rooms, a ton of empty parking spaces, and our ersatz band of AK hooligans.  At least we knew we’d have the pool to ourselves.  In any case, Pete and I had the privilege and honor of violently ripping our traveling buddies out of a pleasant and much needed slumber (always fun!) as we kitted up around 6:30am to meet James for our slot on TV. Let me tell you, it’s rough trying to be witty for the camera that early in the morning, but I think we did a pretty good job bouncing off James and the TV Personality on Buffalo’s channel 4.  The worst part of it all was having to stand by while they shot a cooking segment–watching folks prepare a chicken pizza with caviar, sour cream, and dill while on an empty stomach was beyond frustrating, but they were kind enough to share aft the cameras stopped rolling.  Upon our return to the notable Tallyho, Pete and I extracted Jeff and Jenny from the rooms, and we hit Denny’s for a champion-size breakfast.  Then, to the event site!

Pulling into the fairgrounds was a pretty nifty experience: it was the Erie County Fairgrounds, which brandishes the proud distinction of hosting the largest county fair in the country.  Ever been to a fair with a permanent casino?  Yeah, it was pretty large.  James was a good man for giving us a prime spot amidst all the other exhibitors, and with our location scouted, it was time to get busy with the Spanish Knights.  Those things are such a pain in the @$$ to build, but they provide some very cool atmosphere for our story, and that’s why we make ’em.  In practically every picture you see of a German-occupied urban area in WWII, you can find some knights strewn about blocking roads, etc.  That’s a pretty powerful image that generates a lot of feelings, sometimes eerie, sometimes reverent, sometimes even triumphant now that we know it’s a thing of the past.  The atmosphere we create with those things sparks a sobering reminder of the past, and we love to start our presentations that way.  After suffering a few pokes from the barbed wire, it was time to calibrate the MG34.  It was working fine after just a few attempts at finding the right BFA diameter, and before we knew it, the sun was setting and we were late for an important engagement with some hot wings at the Anchor Bar.


Go time.  Zero-hour.  D-Day.  W-Hour.  We made sure to arrive with plenty of time to arrange the display.  You can imagine how confusing it might be to deal with a big number of priceless WWII artifacts, lots of firearms, all the period clothing and equipage, and the other components of our setup, but for us, it’s what we do–like a well-oiled machine, we were off and running for the very first guests.  As far as we’re concerned, an event like this was a great opportunity to inspire Polish-American people to re-examine their own heritage, as opposed to other events where the audience is primary non-Polish, then the delivery of our message changes a little.  A very healthy amount of people visited us through the day, and our team made sure everyone left with a good experience.  Speaking of which, good experiences were especially plentiful when the crowd could watch us shoot a vintage K98, our hear the MG34 eat a belt of rounds during the firearms demo.  Because of our close proximity to the fairgrounds’ stable, we only had time for one demo before the horses were turned out for the night.  Way to conserve ammo: Każdy pocisk – jeden Niemiec


More of the same, only this time with lots more people, and firing demos on the hour…talk about busy!  Other than that, we had a very special guest: Alexandros.  You may not have heard if him, but to us, he’s a hero.  When he visited us wearing a blue collared shirt and a dapper fishing hat, we greeted him like any other guest: introducing ourselves, thanking him for coming by, and starting to talk about the 1944.  Anyone could tell by his accent that he was Polish, and his age told us that he was one of the greatest generation.  Sure enough, Alex was a young boy  of 17 when the Rising broke out, and recalled the exodus through Warsaw’s kanals toward the time of surrender.  It’s people like him that truly drive what we do; Alex and his friends and comrades are the real heroes.  Only they are the real deal.

All in all, Buffalo was a successful every way you look at it.

Thanks for a great time, Buffalo.  See you next year.

An Open Letter to the Citizens of Buffalo

In a couple short weeks, we’ll be at your gates.  There’s a strong front moving east from Detroit, and the storm will hit on June 10.  We have a message for you all: we will tell you our story; our Polish story.  It’s a story with romance, sacrifice, grief and glory, and it’s resonating deep inside everyone with Polish blood in their veins.  We’ll tell this story to everyone, without apologies or timidity, because this story is one for all people, written by our Polish ancestors.

We will tell this story with vigor.  Our confidence is built on the bricks that lined the streets of Warsaw in 1944, that were torn up by heroes to create the barricades that would save countless lives from the enemy’s fire.  Our confidence is built on the lathe and mill that turned out illegal weapons in underground workshops so our ancestors could fight the occupying enemy.  Our confidence is built on the historic foundations of Warsaw, that saw a triumphant center of European culture turned into rubble, and then methodically and perfectly rebuilt to show the world that we cannot die.

We will tell this story with passion.  We stand in the shadow of those heroes who went before; who with unflinching dedication rushed to defend their friends and families in ’39.  They fought the enemy, suffered tragically, and emerged only to be forced into a red muzzle.  Theirs is the legacy of tragedy and triumph.  Theirs is the real story; we tell it for those who cannot.

We will tell this story for the future.  Heroes will die and monuments will fall, but great events will be remembered and revered as long as you allow them.  You are the agent of the past.  We will bring this story to all audiences, and we will bring it as a treasured lesson for all to learn from.  Will you hear it?

Uwaga!  The storm is coming!


So here begins this illustrious creative avenue for my observations on humanity.  It’s a bit intimidating, you can imagine.  This “Burza” enterprise was originally birthed from the recesses of the young Pole behind the keyboard at this very moment–yes, this is JJ.  Since it’s inception, my cadre of enormously valued friends have supported this project as it’s grown to crazy new levels.  That is astounding.  I owe the success of this entire gig to people like Jeff, Tiffany, and Mr. Chris, who’ve all gone completely out of their way to support this.  All the work everyone’s done, all the feedback and consultation, all the sacrifices everyone’s made are truly inspiring.

Now what?

Well, just sit tight world, because a storm is brewing.  This will be an amazing summer, as Batalion “Burza” takes on the Polish Museums at Orchard Lake’s Polish Mission.  The Polish Mission is home to an amazing collection of Polish WWII artifacts, and it’s in dire need of a little TLC, a few fresh coats of paint, and a re-camped storyline for the visitors.  Burza’s members will be putting aside the rifles and potato-mashers in favor of a Nikon D700 and a paint brush as Tiffany, Pete, and Jeff along with myself get busy taking the Polish museums into the 21st century.  The formal updates on the project can be found over on the Polish Mission’s website, but I’ll be checking in on here periodically as well, just to give you the juicy details.