Ewa PONIŃSKA-KONOPACKA

Participant of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944  -  Part 2

 

Members of Platoon 227 were called the “Canal Rats,” because these boys kept communication with the rest of Warsaw by going through the underground sewer system. The water had stopped running a few days after the Uprising began. Long lines of civilians formed at the wells for drinking water; washing was a luxury nobody could afford; and we dug pit toilets in the courtyards, since those in the buildings couldn’t be used. But now useless sewer served another purpose for the Home Army: they became our communication and supply lines, and an escape and evacuation route for troops. By the second month of the Uprising the Germans were damaging our telephone lines more and more often, and they had to be repaired constantly. I gladly volunteered to do this job; I preferred moving around to sitting in one place. The job was quite simple: I would check for broken wires with a special telephone, do the repair, and then check the connection. But constant bombardment, explosions and shelling were damaging the wires faster than they could be repaired, and many people were killed and wounded while repairing the lines. The commander eventually decided to use us as couriers.

Once I was sent on a secret mission, to replace a guide who had fallen ill. This guide used to lead our patrols from Zoliborz to the German occupied suburb of Bielany, where arms and ammunition were hidden in an orphanage. I was given a pistol and four grenades, and told to use them only as a final resort. There were seven of us: me, and six strong armed men to carry the heavy supplies. We left at midnight from the old factory building. We had to cross an opened area of several kilometres of sand dunes, without any building or vegetation, and secured by the Germans with machine-gun fire. We walked like shadows; when flares lit up the dunes we would fall down and hug the ground. A fight with the Germans was to be avoided at all costs; there would be no help coming if we got in trouble. Fortunately, the Germans didn’t like to come out at night.

Finally we arrived at orphanage and got our load. We started back immediately, to take advantage of the darkness; but at dawn I realized that I had lost my way. The situation was very dangerous, but I didn’t anyone know what had happened – I didn’t want the soldiers to panic. Finally we did make it back, though not to the positions we were expected. I was greatly relieved since it was my responsibility to bring everybody back safely.

The last days of the Warsaw Uprising are still very vivid in my mind. Catastrophe seemed unavoidable; still, we didn’t consider capitulating. The complex of apartment buildings occupied by our command, “Giraffe,” occupied 20 and 29 Krasinski Street as well as the convent of the Sisters of Resurrection. All these buildings were heavily damaged by bombs and artillery fire; the large convent was exposed to enemy fire from three sides, where there were opened fields. There was only one trench joining our positions. After heavy artillery fire, the Germans often attacked the convent with tanks and infantry.

These attacks were always repelled; but in the final days the situation changed. The artillery fire on all three positions was intense and devastating, and we thought it would never end. Attacks by the tanks and infantry came in waves. One of the boys, codenamed “Fox,” described it this way: “The grey dawn was beginning to light up the sky and the flood of fire and the steel exploded around us in a never-ending assault. Shells were landing one next to the other. Every square metre was covered with craters.” Communication with the convent was broken when corner of the building nearest it collapsed, its ruins burying part of the trench. Since the convent was our bastion against the German attacks, it was essential to regain communication at any cost.

Our commander “Tatar,” asked for volunteer, and I decided to go. Our boys told me that it was a difficult, if not impossible, task – they didn’t believe I could reach the convent. It was already heavily damaged by artillery shells; now the Germans used a flame thrower to start fires on the top floors. But I was determined to go. Once I left the safety of our building I was in an open area, all alone. I crawled slowly over the pile of bricks from the ruined building, trying not to be noticed by the Germans. I saw the little fountains of sand rising into the air as bullets hit the ground next to me. Finally I was able to jump into the remains of the trench. In front of me there was a big hole in the convent wall, the only entrance, and it was under fire from a Tiger tank’s powerful cannon. I said to myself, “I have to move immediately when it fires its next shot.” Then I hesitated: “If I stumble, what then?” I tried not to think; I just jumped, I was lucky. No shots hit me as I raced inside and gained the safety of the convent walls.

But the situation inside was tragic. There were many dead and wounded, lying in the large hall in the basement. More bandages were needed, and the ammunition was almost gone. The Germans were attacking the windows, and there was hand-to-hand combat in the wing. While I was waiting for “Jan”, the convent commander, a sixteen old boy was brought in with one leg missing. He was conscious, I thought that he didn’t know about his leg; but he did know, and was in despair. “How will I fight the Germans?” he said. In his distress, he was still thinking about the war. But there was no time for conversation; I had to go back and report on the situation at the convent.

In the meantime the German tanks had withdrawn from their positions at Krasinski 29, so the return trip was a little easier. After I reported back, we began to bring ammunition and dressings to the convent, which had repulsed the German attack by the time I got there. In spite of being totally exhausted and grey with dust, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Reinforcements arrived: a unit containing our youngest scout fighters, called “Zawiszaki.” They moved along the corridor grenades as the Germans renew their attack and tried to enter the building.

I had to report back to my post; but later found out what had happened at the convent. Soon there was another danger: the weakened walls could collapse at any moment. Two girl couriers and a scout named Andrew, not realizing the danger, were running under the wall when it collapsed. The two girls were killed outright and Andrew was buried up to his waist in the ruined walls; he couldn’t free himself. His comrades tried desperately to free him with their bare hands, but to no avail. Andrew begged them to leave him, with a pistol and ammunition so he could defend himself to the end. They granted his wish. His fellow scouts, cut off from the rest by the fallen wall fought to the last bullet. Those who didn’t perish were taken prisoner.

The Germans were preparing for the final attack, intending to take the whole building. Commander Jan unable to retain his position, decided to retreat. The upper floors were already on fire; now, at his order, the basement was set on fire too as well. Gasoline was poured over the beds where the dead lay, and the smoke covered the retreat of those remaining.

But Tatar was unaware of all this, and send me to the convent again in the evening with orders to retreat. My heart was heavy with sadness at this; but when I reached the building, the stillness surprised me. The large corridor at the entrance was filled with smoke. I went deeper into the building, calling the commander’s name. There was no answer. The only sound coming from the depth of the building was the series of shots. Finally, I realized that nobody was there, and I was mistaking the explosion of burning ammuni9tion for the sound of fighting. Almost suffocating from the smoke, I ran into the basement hall where the wounded had lain that morning. There was no one there but the dead, burning in their beds. I realized that I was totally alone. At first I was paralyzed with fear, thinking that may be the Germans had cut off my escape. I knew about their atrocities and sadism. In panic I ran for the exit, but there was no one around – only the sun setting red.

As I stood thinking that this was the end of a long and momentous day, two civilians came up and told me that there were two wounded soldiers in an abandoned building. I found a nurse, and we went with a stretcher to the ruined building. Part of it was burned down, and the wounded were in the coal cellar. It would be difficult to get them out, because the street entrance of the building was already occupied by the Germans. We had to bring the wounded one by one to the ground floor and evacuate them through a window on the other side. This was very painful for the wounded, but it had to be done; we knew that in spite of the Geneva Convention, the German were executing our wounded.

New orders came to retreat in the direction of the River Vistula. We still had some hopes that help would come. The whole Giraffe command moved out and gradually all our troops followed I went in search of the Platoon 227, but couldn’t find them. They were at the old quarters; and in the chaos of the general retreat of the Home Army, the orders hadn’t reached them. I rushed back through the underground maze of cellars, packed with civilians. Somebody put a teaspoon of jam in my mouth – a deeply moving gesture, because there was much hunger. I found a group of lost soldiers trying to find their platoon. There was a short downhill path to the shallow trench that led to the Glass House. It was often the site of the heavy fire, and this time it was no exception. After attempting it and barely escaping with my life, I tried another route. The boys followed me one by one.

All our fighting units were now concentrated around the Glass House, and it was there that we heard about one-hour armistice. Our boys rested and cleaned their weapons. Soon afterwards, we heard that our surrender had been arranged. It was a terrible shock – we couldn’t believe it. So many sacrifices, so many lives, all for nothing! We sat in gloomy silence devastated.

I stayed the night beside the burning Glass House, where two months ago the Uprising began we were so full of hope. In the morning our troops, fully armed, marched between two lines of heavily armed Germans to the square. The Germans placed tanks at the corners of the square with their guns turned in towards us as we marched, laying down our arms. On the 30th of September 1944, Zoliborz capitulated.

I was decorated with the Order of Virtuti Militari and promoted to Sergeant in the underground army. When decorated I realized that many others who deserved this distinction more, didn’t get it, because many heroic deeds had no witnesses. Nevertheless I was very proud to be chosen to represent them all.

 

WISIA’S REPORT

What went on in the other parts of Warsaw during the uprising is best described by Wisia, who later became my sister-in-law. She was a nurse, picking up the wounded wherever they fell and taking care o0f them. On the evening of September 1st, as it got dark, the command decided to retreat from the area. The only way to retreat was to use sewers taking wounded who could walk. The badly wounded had to stay behind. Wisia decided to stay with the severely wounded and said goodbye to the boys of the unit.

In the morning the Germans burst in, screaming “Bandits, bandits!” The commander asked her if she and the wounded were the only people in the building. She said “Yes,” but he kept his gun on her and ordered his soldiers to check under every bed to make sure she was telling the truth. Her face was as white as a sheet, and fear made her speechless. After the inspection the German lowered his gun and ordered the wounded to be moved to the hospital at Dluga Street.

The Germans were ready to leave and their voices seemed to be gentler. Wisia turned to the commander and asked him if his soldiers could help her to move the wounded. He flew into rage, pointing his gun at her again. “German soldiers will not carry Polish pigs!” he screamed. Scared out of her wits, she stammered, “I will manage, I will find somebody to help me.” The Germans left, warning that they will be back soon and anyone remaining would be shot.

Wisia run out into the street and begged passersby to help her to move the wounded. Soon she found some helpers; they had to go to the hospital first to get the stretches. She watched to be sure that everybody was taken. In the hospital courtyard was a piece of cloth painted with an enormous swastika. Suddenly the German ambulances arrived, and the Germans started to remove their own wounded (who a few days before had been our prisoners and were treated by our doctors for their wounds.) The Germans were also looking for somebody. Finally they found him: a young Polish partisan with a crew-cut. They took him out to the courtyard and shot him. Wisia never learned who he was.

There was much worse to come. Around noon, the Germans arrived back in force. Wisia saw a great commotion in the courtyard: those who could move were crawling from their rooms, hoping to save themselves. She went back to the hospital to help a young soldier closest to the door. He could only use the one leg; the other was badly wounded, bent at the knee. She gave him a broom for support, which he used on one side as a crutch; and leaning heavily on her shoulder, he left the room. Behind the door there were two Germans with automatic pistols. Wisia and the wounded young man began the slow descent, step by step. One of the Germans directed her to the courtyard, where they were told to stand on one side with the other wounded. The civilians were on the opposite side. The distance between the two groups was getting smaller as more people came out and filled up the courtyard. German soldiers walked up and down between the two groups to keep order.

Suddenly she had a premonition that something terrible was about to happen. She pulled the wounded boy, whose name was “Ikar”, to the civilian side. But a German noticed them and ordered them back. Then another came up and said, “Nurse, you are not needed here. Go to the other side.”

It dawned on her that this side meant death. Suddenly her legs felt paralyzed; but the Germans pushed her roughly to the civilian side. She stood there for a few minutes, observing everything carefully. The situation was becoming more and more chaotic. The Germans probably received fresh orders, because they kept looking at their watches and began to regroup the new comers, whose numbers were constantly increasing. They shouted loudly and their behaviour became even more brutal. Wisia took advantage of the confusion and moved Ikar again to the civilian side. Again a German noticed, but this time he let them stay there.

Suddenly there was enormous outcry. She could hear shooting in the building and the noise of airplanes flying overhead. They began to bombard the hospital with incendiary bombs; and at the same time, the Germans opened fire with machine-guns on the wounded gathered outside. It was hell. The screams, and the clouds of dust and smoke, rose to heaven. She stopped thinking. She became part of terrified crowd, waiting for the end.

Her heart pounding, she turned her head away so as not to look at the massacre. By then, the hospital was burning fiercely. Then through the smoke she noticed their army chaplain, Father Rostworowski, standing with his hand outstretched to give the last blessing to the dying. Clouds of dust and smoke blocked her view; but whenever the wind blew them away, Father Rostworowski still stood there with his hands raised in the prayer to God.

Wisia found out later that the Germans shot 430 people at the hospital in their beds and in the courtyard.

THE PRISONER OF WAR

As soon as Platoon 227 had laid down its arms, we became prisoners of war and were marched away under German guard. Knowing that the Uprising has ended, the Soviet Army began to shell Zoliborz. Shrapnel exploded nearby, and our German guards crouched in fear. But we were too depressed to feel fear. And despite the shock of defeat and our sorrow for the lost lives, we did also feel relieved that nobody would be killed or maimed that day.

The Germans took us to Pioner Park in Powazki for the night, and then the next day to Pruszkow. The concrete floor of the huge warehouse was so crowded that I couldn’t find a place to lie down for the night. Boys from my platoon tried to make room for me, but they stretched out in their sleep and I lost my place.

The next day we were packed like sardines in the cattle car and sent to the camp of Gross Lubars, near Magdeburg. Our train often stopped to let military transports go through. We could hear Allied bombs exploding quite close. We were worried; it would be a joke to survive the Uprising only to be killed by American bomb.

Gross Lubars was a very large camp, with many wooden barracks. A neibouring camp was occupied by prisoners of war from the Allied Forces. When the wounded began to arrive from Warsaw I visited them every day, singing scout and partisan songs to cheer them up. The saddest one were the boys who had been blinded in the Uprising. One gave me a Polish Eagle fashioned from a metal can. I also visited seriously wounded girls in the hospital. One of them was Anna, whose sister Krystyna, a nurse, was my troop leader in Warsaw. Anna was badly wounded, with many dangerous shrapnel wounds. At one point, she was close to death. Gradually she recovered; but it was many years before all the pieces of shrapnel were out of her body.

Couple of weeks after out arrival at the camp, the Germans sent sixty of us girls to work in a war factory in a little village of Parchen. It was only a country road with a few houses, a movie theatre and a one story building with a flat roof that looked like a huge garage, but was in fact a factory that produced parts for airplanes and tanks. Our arrival caused an enormous excitement  among the Dutch and Belgian forced labourers there: they had never seen female prisoners of war before. We still wore our white and red armbands bearing the Polish Eagle and our platoon numbers.

Although our work began at 6 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m., we had comparative freedom at Parchen. We were housed in the movie theatre, with straw on the floor to sleep on. There were no guards, and we were free after work. When the weather was fine, we liked to take walks in the forest. For breakfast we had bread, margarine and marmalade; for dinner, thick vegetable soup with meat. In the factory, we were assigned to different types of work. Some of the girls did welding; I was given work at the electric lathe. My master was a good-natured German who explained to me patiently what I was expected to do. I refused to cooperate, though – according to the Geneva Convention, we weren’t supposed to be employed in any war production work, and I certainly didn’t want to help the Germans in their war effort. My master soon realized what I thought when he saw big pieces of steel damaged and the lathe machine stuck! In despair, he let me do anything I wanted, as long as I didn’t touch his machine. I took advantage of this privilege to visit other girls at their work stations, or to sleep in the corner behind some tools.

This state of affairs didn’t last long, unfortunately. One day an SS officer came to suggest that we relinquish our prisoner of war rights and join the civilian population. In return we would receive better quarters and better food. He gave us a couple of days to think things over. We decided to remain the prisoners of war. The Germans were not pleased, and decided to punish us. Next day guards appeared carrying rifles; and from then on we were taken to work under guard and even guarded in the factory – to the great amazement of the Dutch and Belgian workers. Our movie house dormitory was lit all night long, and we were not allowed to use the outdoor toilet; a bucket was brought in instead.

Eventually we were taken off factory work and made to work outside, carrying heavy beams of wood back and forth. Our food also changed for worse. After six weeks of this, we were taken back to our previous camp; and two days later loaded on a cattle train and sent to a POW camp called Stalag VIC Oberlangen, near the Dutch border.

When we arrived at Christmas Eve, and didn’t get any food that day – perhaps the camp wasn’t ready for our arrival. Stalag VIC Oberlangen was an all- women camp, situated in the barren area of swamps with no villages in sight. Barracks each provided room for 200 people; and we girls from Zoliborz stayed together in barrack 5. Inside there were three-tiered bunk beds. My friend Lucyna and I choose to share the top bunk, although there were no ladders. We reasoned that the straw covering the planks would fall on others, not us! At the end of the barracks was a washroom with 20 taps with running cold water – in the morning, they were usually covered with ice. It took courage to undress and wash in the icy water. Eack barrack had only one metal stove, heated with turf bricks.

Every morning we had to stand at attention in front of the barracks, while our company leader reported the number of prisoners and the number of sick to the German SS officer. Then the Germans, who were always accompanied by the vicious dogs, would count us again. This was a lengthy procedure, considering that there were over 1,500 women. Then our leader would assign us chores for the day: cleaning the barracks, helping in the kitchen, bringing the loaves of bread from the warehouse, supplying turf for fuel, bringing the large buckets of soup from the kitchen.

The least popular job was emptying ditches. Every so often, a German farmer would arrive with a horse-drawn tank to empty out the liquid manure. These primitive outdoor toilets were deep and dangerous: they were slippery in winter, and it was easy to fall in. This happened once to a friend of mine during the night. Fortunately, she wasn’t alone and was pulled out before she could drown. None of us had any extra clothing, so she had to stay in her bunk, covered with straw, until her clothing was washed and dried by her friends. There was talk among us of an Italian soldier who had once drowned in the ditch, whose ghost would appear from time to time.

Along with hunger, vermin was our worst problem: we fought a losing battle with bedbugs and lice. I was still wearing the same clothing I had worn when I had left home to fight the Germans the only addition was a military coat. At night, I couldn’t sleep for hours because of the bugs, and the sucking feeling of an empty stomach didn’t help. Our only consolation was the sound of the Allied bombers who flew in waves over Germany at night. We often thought with envy about the pilots, who were free men.

We were constantly hungry, and our main topic of conversation was food. Sometimes I was able to get a potato, which I carefully cut into thin slices and baked against the metal stove. Our greatest joy was to receive a parcel from the Red Cross, containing chocolate, condensed milk, cocoa, cans of meat and cigarettes. (We were supposed to get these every month, but I only got two in the six months.) When parcels arrived, we would have parties for many days. How long a parcel lasted depended on the character of the owner. Some ate everything practically in one sitting; others divided the food into small portions. I belonged to the group which ate everything very fast, while Lucyna liked to make hers last.

Time dragged. Every day felt like a month. We visited friends in other barracks and took walks along the barb wire fences. Lectures were organized on various topics; languages were taught a play was produced. Still a deep depression got hold of me again and I lost an interest in life. Fortunately, others were more active. At Easter, celebrations were organized by our Italian chaplain, who didn’t speak a word of Polish. Masses were celebrated in an empty barrack and our camp artist drew a charcoal silhouette of Christ behind barb wire. On Good Friday, I volunteered with a group of other girls to keep a guard of honour at Christ’s tomb. We changed over every half an hour, but thirty minutes was too much for two girls; they fainted, too weak to stand. During the Easter Sunday Mass, girls served as altar boys while the priest gave a general absolution and Holy Communion.

We knew that the Allied front line was approaching fast. The German became very restless and treated us better than usual. Then one day the shots could be heard. Our commander ordered us to stay inside the barracks, to be out of the way of stray bullets. Then suddenly, through the windows, we saw tanks – and they were not German tanks! Nobody could stop us to running outside. We heard commands in Polish, and knew that we were free – liberated by the advance troops of the First Polish Corps of General Maczek. That day was April 12, 1945.
           

Fifty years later, there was a veterans’ reunion in Warsaw. It was a very happy and emotional meeting of survivors, brothers in arms. I met Lucyna again, though at first I didn’t recognize her because she was wearing a nun’s garb. As for the “boys,” I could hardly believe that these balding, greying gentlemen were the same young Boy Scouts who had fought so bravely many years ago! But then the fifty years melted away in front of our eyes, and we were young again as we relived our experiences and talked about our lives since we had last met.

Permission to include this story was kindly granted by SPK Branch No. 8 in Ottawa, Canada

http://www.spkottawa.ca/ 

Ewa in 1936

Ewa and her father in 1939

Ewa during the uprising, 1944

“Ewa” (Eva Poninska-Konopacka), the Chaplain “Homo” ( Wincenty Marczuk and “Mietek” (Mieczyslaw Kowalski)

Stalag VIC Oberlangen – picture taken after the liberation in 1945

Ewa in uniform