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Professor Iwo Pogonowski, RIP

Iwo Pogonowski Born on September 3, 1921 in Lwów, Poland, Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski died on July 21, 2016, in Sarasota, FL. He was a true Renaissance man: a man of letters, an oil industry engineer, an elegant equestrian, an avid reenactor, a gentleman farmer, an academic teacher, an eclectic architect, a multifarious artist, a multitongued linguist, and an accomplished historian. He was born in a family of Polish Catholic intelligentsia of noble origin. His father was a barrister and a diplomat with two doctorates in law and Slavic literature, while his mother a painter, a sculptor, and a pianist. Historically, many a Pogonowski served in the military, also during the struggles for Poland’s rebirth in 1918-1921, when some of them perished, including his two paternal uncles. This heroic legacy was imprinted on Iwo since childhood.

Barely eighteen when the Third Reich and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, he volunteered for the army and participated in the struggle. In December 1939 he attempted to escape to the West to fight on but was caught by the Germans and incarcerated in Tarnów. In June 1940, along with other Polish Christian political prisoners, he was dispatched with the first transport to a newly opened German concentration camp at Auschwitz. Since the facility lacked room to accommodate all of them, after an agonizingly long wait at the railhead, Pogonowski’s train car was dispatched to the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. He entered the hellish universe of inhumanity to emerge from it victorious in sprit but broken in body, having survived, among other things, a death commando and a death march, the former by learning how to walk in his sleep. At the end, he barely escaped an execution by the SS to be liberated by the Americans in April 1945. “I survived by being myself: I acted swiftly, I behaved decently the way I was brought up at home, and obeyed the Lord’s Commandments.” Iwo saved a few lives of fellow prisoners, including a Jew, and he participated in the camp resistance, sabotaging Nazi war industry.

After his liberation, Iwo learned that both his mother and father barely survived a Gestapo prison in Poland, his aunt Dr. Maria Pogonowska perished in a Soviet goal in Lwów, his cousin Janusz Pogonowski was executed in Auschwitz, and his teenage brother Krzysztof was killed fighting in the insurgent ranks in the Warsaw Rising in August 1944. His house was leveled by Nazi bombs, and most of the family property lost. His milieu was targeted both by the Nazis and Communists. The latter were ascendant and continued the terror of the former against the Christian elites. Iwo wisely decided against returning to Soviet-occupied Poland.

Iwo Pogonowski's coat of arms - OgonczykThe survivor wanted to join the Free Polish Forces in the West but the military preferred for him to recuperate and, then, to study. Accordingly, he enrolled at St. Ignatius University at Antwerp (now University of Antwerp), Belgium. Despite good grades, after two years, destitute, the political émigré was forced to quit school and leave for Venezuela, where he worked as a draftsman. In 1949 he was stricken by polio and paralyzed but through sheer will he began to walk again. The following year Pogonowski emigrated to the United States sponsored by his acquaintance writer Clarence Pendelton and Senator William Fulbright. There he enrolled at the University of Tennessee, where he earned his BS and MS in engineering. While at school, among other things, Iwo supported himself by teaching geometry.  After graduating in 1955, he joined Shell Oil as an engineer. He worked in Louisiana and Texas. One of his greatest inventions was a triple-legged drilling platform which was virtually impervious from tipping during storms and hurricanes.

From 1972 he taught oil and oceanic engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) at Blacksburg, VA, where he moved with his wife, Dr. Magdalena Pogonowska, MD. Simultaneously, Iwo pursued his passion in the humanities, in particular as it pertained to Poland and its culture and history. The crowning achievement was his three volume Unabridged Polish-English Dictionary. However, it was an abridged, paperback volume of the dictionary that proved to be an absolute bestseller, published in at least five editions. It greatly assisted successive waves of Polish immigrants to Anglophone countries into the 21st century. In 1987, Pogonowski published Poland: A Historical Atlas, with a multitude of maps and copious annotations, and, in 1993, a massive Jews in Poland: Rise of the Jews as a Nation from Congressus Judaicus. His work was enthusiastically endorsed by his high school friend Professor Richard Pipes and Professor Zbigniew Brzeziński.

A stalwart proponent of Jewish-Christian reconciliation and a close friend of famous Jan Karski, Iwo Pogonowski threw himself into every historical controversy with a gusto. He insisted that the truth was obtainable and it was our scholarly duty to approximate it. His was a dissident, and often controversial, voice on the massacres in Jedwabne and Kielce. Patience was not his virtue and the speed of his brilliant mind left almost everyone behind in the dust. His penchant for Ockham Razor’s simplifications was legendary as was his resilience. “I learned to be swift in Sachsenhausen. That’s how you survived,” he often exclaimed. Mere mortals were often befuddled, if not shocked. And shocking people was his forte. But most stories drew on his horrific war-time experience and, thus, are not fit to print in popular venues.

Along with his wife, Iwo Pogonowski was a staunch supporter of the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics. They hosted many a student and sponsored many a project.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years Magdalena and daughter Dorota, who – along with his stalwart friends — grieve his departure tremendously. 

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 27 July 2016