Participant of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 - Part 1
Eva Ponińska was born on the 4th May 1926 in Paris the only child of the Polish diplomat Alfred Poniński. From the fourth year of her life she lived with her mother in Poland. In 1931 when the first sigh of the tuberculosis was discovered in her lung she was sent to Rabka, a mountainous region of Poland, where she attended elementary school run by the Sisters of Nazareth. In 1938 she continued her education at the Sisters of Immaculate Conception High School at Novy Sacz.
In 1939, when the war broke out Eva with her mother left for Lwow and then in February of 1940 they tried to reach Eva’s father stationed as a diplomat in Bucharest, Romania. They were arrested by Soviet border guards on the Polish territory, for crossing the border illegally. They found themselves in the prison, first in Kolomyja, later in Stanislavov. Prisons were overcrowded with the political prisoners, mainly Polish officers and their families. Walls were covered with names and addresses of those who were send into unknown places. In the prison, men wore heavy chains on their legs and hands. In Stanislavov, Eva and her mother were placed in a cell originally meant for one person but there were already 8 women sitting on the floor. After spending one month in prison, Eva was released but her mother was sent to Kiev prison as a spy and later to a gulag. Eva reached Lvow and having nowhere to go she knocked at the door of casual friends and was warmly received. For one year Eva continued to attend High School studies at Lvow. When the occupational forces of Lvow changed hands Soviets left and German army took over the city in July 1941, Eva left for Warsaw to join her aunt. She left with terrible memories of unspeakable crimes committed by the Soviet secret police NKWD on political prisoners. Before Germans entered, Lvow, for one day the city was free. The moment Soviets left, people rushed to two prisons to liberate the prisoners. What they found were the tortured bodies some of them with heads covered in tar to make the recognition difficult. In one cell on Łącki Street, a Dominican monk was found crucified on the wall.
In Warsaw, Eva continued High School studies, although officially it was called a gardening school. Germans abolished Polish universities and higher education including high schools. Only trade schools were allowed. Soon Eva found out about the secret organizations and joined Girl Guides were also illegal. In February 1943 she was accepted as a member of the Polish Home Army. She finished courses as telephone operator and general courses in street fighting.
During the Uprising of 1944, she was member of a platoon 228 in telecommunication for division called “Żywiciel”. In the second month of the uprising she was moved to the group called “Żyrafa”. At first, Eva served as telephone operator then she repaired telephone lines broken by shrapnel, finally as a courier passing orders. During a concentrated attack of the German forces connection was lost with an important fortified building where the insurgents were under heavy attack, Eva volunteered to make connection. For this act she received the Polish highest war decoration for bravery the Virtuti Militari. After capitulation she became the prisoner of war and was sent to Stalag XIA Gross Lubars, then to Stalag VIC Oberlangen in Germany.
Stalag XIC Oberlangen was freed by the division of gen. S. Maczek on the 12th of April 1945. Eva left for Italy to become member of the 2 Corps of gen. Anders whose Corps was occupying Italy. She was able to finish the last year of high school in 1946. With the 2nd Corps she travelled to England where she was demobilized. Soon after she was offered a scholarship by the Polish Government in Exile and was sent to the National University of Ireland in Cork. After three years she received the B.A. degree in history and sociology. After one more year at London University, she obtained the Diploma in Education. For three years Eva taught in a Catholic high school in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and an English colony. In February 1954 she left for Canada, the same year she met her future husband Thaddeus Konopacki, whom she married in the fall of the same year. They lived in Montreal, Toronto and finally in Ottawa. For the first nine years Eva looked after their four daughters. In 1964 at the request of dr. Żurowski, she became one of the founders of the Polish Women Federation in Ottawa.
In 1964 she went back to teaching career and for 20 years she taught at the Catholic schools for the Separate School Board of Ottawa. She also took classes of painting at the Ottawa School of Art and developed an artistic career. Her paintings found their way to private collections in Canada and Poland. Four religious paintings can be found at the Catholic Church of St. Hyacinth in Ottawa. She is member of the Polish Combatants’ Association in Canada and works for the Polish Missions “Z Pomocą”. Eva and Thaddeus have four daughters who speak Polish and seven grandchildren.
In September 1939 the German army, at Hitler’s bidding, hit Poland with all its might – changing the course of history not only in Europe, but in the whole world. In Novy Sacz, the convent high school became a hospital – meant a prolonged vacation to all us school children. The grim fact the hospital would be filled with casualties somehow didn’t sink into my mind. I plastered the long strip of newspaper to the window panes, to protect them from breaking in case of bombardment. For me at thirteen, the war seemed an exciting adventure.
When our school became a hospital, my mother Anna decided to travel to Eastern Poland. She hoped that the school at the other end of the country would stay open and continue teaching. She thought that in the east everything would be peaceful. But on the journey we our first taste of war: our train was bombed and strafed a number of times. People were killed and wounded. My concept of war as an adventure was changing rapidly.
But when we reached the convent school, near Kowel, close to the Soviet border, everything there did seem calm. Poland had a peace treaty with the Soviets, and no danger was expected from that side. But what did we know about politics? The fate of Poland was already sealed by the secret treaty between Hitler and Stalin, tearing Poland into two and sharing the spoils between them. While the Polish army was in a deadly struggle with German armoured troops, the Soviet army would begin crossing Poland’s eastern border under the false pretence of bringing help against the Germans.
When we arrived at the school, it was already filled with refugees. The nuns did their best to feed everyone. I still remember the large park around the convent, with walnut trees covered with fresh crops of nuts. They were delicious.
Three days late, early in the morning, I heard voices singing a strange song. My mother woke up too and listened. “Only Russians sing like that – that’s a Russian song,” she said in disbelief. That was the day the Russian army entered Poland.
The new authorities closed the convent, and the nuns and refugees had to disperse. We went to Lvow the largest city in Eastern Poland. Lvow, “the city of the lion”, was built by the Polish monarchs, aristocracy and rich merchants, and was known for its beauty and fine architecture. Again we found refuge in the convent, the Contemplative Order of St. Claire on Kurkowa Street. The ascetic life of the nuns, normally spent praying day and night, was now dedicated to caring for the refugees. We crowded into their cells and corridors by the hundreds, and they fed us homemade soup once a day.
In January 1940, my mother decided to cross the Polish-Romanian border to reach my father. As far back as I could remember, my parents’ lives had gone separate ways, although my father provided for me and often wrote to me. But now we were at war, and my mother decided to seek his help. Romania was still a free country, and my father held an important position as a charge d’affaires at the Polish Embassy at Bucharest.
The Polish border with Romania was guarded by the Soviets, but local farmers would guide groups of people across secretly for a price. This illegal crossing was called “the green border”. Many young men crossed to join the Allied Forces in the West. My mother made the arrangements; and on the appointed day, she and I took the train from Lvow to Sniatyn, a border town. There only a few people on the train, mainly local peasants in their country garb, and I felt uncomfortably conspicuous wearing my navy blue winter coat with the school emblem on the sleeve.
We arrived at Sniatyn late at night and travelled by sleigh through the snow to a little farm house, where we stayed until the time arranged for our crossing. Two men were to cross the border with us. One was a short middle-age university professor from Poznan, called Maricz; the other tall and burly Polish army colonel called Jampolski.
The night of our crossing was very dark and cold, with no moon. We walked across the fields in single file, in complete silence. The snow crackled under our feet and our breath formed white clouds above our heads. After a long march, we were so close to the border that we could see the lights from the Romanian train station. All we had to do now is to cross a wooded area and then the frozen River Dniestr. I though5tr of the surprise my father would get when we arrived. He always loved, trying to make up for not being with me. He came to see me as often as he could, wrote long letters, and sent me picture books from the countries he visited.
But the moment we were among the trees, my reverie was broken by laud shouts in Russian: “Ruki na vierh! – hands up!” At once we surrendered by the white silhouettes of armed Soviet border guards, who had been hiding behind the trees. Their long white fur coats made practically invisible. (We later found out that this was a trap, arranged in advance by our guide.
Everybody put their hands up, and I did the same. My mother and I were on one side of a small clearing, away from the men. Seeing us standing there, one of the Russian soldiers shouted, “Turn around! “ At that moment, I was sure that he is going to shoot us, but nothing happen to us then.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the guards viciously kicking the Colonel and hitting him with rifle butt.
Then we were led to the guard house, and everybody but me was interrogated all night. I was told that as a child I have to sit quietly. An armed guard accompanied me to the washroom.
Next morning we were put on the train with guards and taken to the old prison in Kolomyja. Though the prison we led through the long corridors. Suddenly we told to stop and face the wall: the guards wanted to prevent us from seeing another group of prisoners that was coming. Still, I managed to turn my head slightly and look. What I saw heart my heart: thin bearded men wearing Polish uniforms – with heavy irons on their hands and legs.
We were taken to a large hall to wait until we were assigned to cells. The walls were all covered with scribbled messages: “We are taken to a gulag in the Soviet Union, please notify our family.” “The transport is leaving tomorrow, destination unknown.” There hundreds of names and addresses. We found out
later that most of the prisoners were Polish officers, judges, teachers and community leaders.
The conditions in the Kolomyja prison were terrible. The cells were overcrowded; and instead of toilets, we only had large buckets. (Many prisoners suffered from diarrhoea, and had to use the buckets quite often – which caused some nasty remarks.) On our first day, everybody was taken to the showers. We had to remove all our clothing and stand naked while the male guards distributed small pieces of hard, sand soap. It was February and there was no heating in the prison; the shower water was freezing cold. Afterwards we had to wait, shivering, for our clothing to be returned: it had been taken for delousing. We protested that our clothing was clean, but the regulations demanded every garment to be cleaned. When we finally got our clothing back we found a few stunned lice inside, which had come from other prisoners’ garb.
After only three days in Kolomyja, we were taken by train to Stanislavov, a much bigger city. The prison there was built before the war to house criminals; now the Soviets used it for political prisoners. The large prison was eight stories high and rectangular in shape, with a big covered courtyard in the centre. All the cells faced the courtyard, and all doors had a viewer for the guard to watch the prisoners.
Our fourth-floor cell had only one bed – but there were seven women in the cell. One occupied the bed the others sat or lay across the floor with their feet under the bed. We soon realized that all the women were the wives of Polish officers, except the one on the bed. She, we were told in whispers, was a petty thief acting as an informer for the police. We were glad to have her at distance, because she was covered with lice.
Those who slept on the floor stayed as far as possible from the leaking toilet at the end of the cell. The electric bulb was lit all night. We were so crowded that during the night everybody had to turn over at the same time – though the advantage was that it kept us warm. The prison was not heated, and the glass in the little window close to the ceiling was broken. My mother who liked fresh air, slept under the window. I was next to her. We wore our winter coats all the time, except for the few moments each morning when we removed all our clothing to check for lice.
During the day the women tried to forget the present by talking about their families and their normal lives before the war. One young woman hoped, foolishly, that she would be relisted soon: after all, she hadn’t done anything wrong. None of us could guess that Stalin had ordered the total destruction of the Polish upper class – not just officers and their wives and families, but thousands of policemen, judges, intellectuals, businessmen, or anyone with an education who held a civil or religious position. Although these people had never fought against the Soviets, they were all accused of espionage. A year later 25,000 would be shot and buried in mass graves.
Our breakfast consisted of a cup of hot brown liquid and a thick slice of bread. At noon we had a bowl of thin soup; and for supper, some more brew. The only advantage of drinking this was that it was hot. From the bread which had the consistency of clay, my mother made three small balls and taught me how to juggle. The most popular topic of the conversation was food. Everybody talked about what they would like to eat, and to prepare delicious dishes. My dream was to eat a piece of buttered white bread with a thick slice of ham.
During the day we sat on the floor, and at night we slept in the same place. One day we were told that those who wished could take a walk. My mother and I, and a couple of other women, decided to stretch our legs. We were taken to an open courtyard. There were prison buildings on three sides, and the forth there was a two-storey brick wall with barb wire on the top. We had to walk around the courtyard in a single file, our hands behind our backs. We looked exactly like Van Gogh’s painting Prison Court. Although the walk lasted only 15 minutes I was frozen nearly to death and never volunteered again.
At night, interrogations were held. Being underage I was never interrogated, but my mother was taken several times: like everybody else, she was accused of espionage. At one interrogation, after we had been at Stanislavov for three weeks, she was told that she will be moved to Kiev prison in the Soviet Union. Now she had to decide about my future. She was told that she had two choices: I could be placed in the Soviet orphanage, or sent to relatives. To save me from the orphanage, my mother told the KGB that we had relatives in Lvov. In fact, they were only acquaintances.
Parting was heart-breaking for both of us, but especially for my mother, who had to stay in prison and send away her only child to an uncertain future. We didn’t know if we would ever see each other again. After short goodbyes, the KGB agents drove me to the train station and put me on a train going to Lvov, with a transport of the Russian soldiers. Soldiers absorbed in their card game didn’t pay any attention to a pale thirteen-year old; and as soon as we reached suburbs of Lvov I slipped off the train, afraid that somebody might try to stop me.
Full of anxiety, I knocked on the door of our casual friends, whom I had met only once before. But I needn’t have worried: they received me very kindly. Mrs. Szwabowicz was an elderly widow whose three grown daughters lived with her. Even though the times were hard and they didn’t have much, they still took me in. (A month later, they took another refugee girl.
First of all, their maid Mary gave me a thorough bath and washed my hair with a special soap to kill the lice. Then, for the first time in many weeks, I slept in a bed with clean sheets. It was a wonderful feeling. But a few days later, I developed a high fever and became very ill. Mrs. Szwabowicz called the doctor. I was too week to ask what was wrong with me, and never did find out. It took me a full month to recover.
After my suffering in prison, normal life was wonderful to me – I was even grateful to be back at school! Because of the war I lost a year; now I was to pick up at the Grade Eight level. Our coed school was still called Stefan Batory, the name of the powerful Polish king who had ruled Poland in the sixteenth century. The Communist dictated curriculum: as well as mathematics, history, geography and literature, we also studied Russian, Ukrainian and the history of Marxism. (Religion was not part of the school program, but was secretly taught by the Dominican Friars at the nearby church.) I made my way to the top of the class – competing fiercely with another student, Stan. We liked each other although his father was a Communist. As a head girl of our class, I organized tutoring for students who were behind with their school work also Stan often stayed after school to help other students.
Twice a week we had gymnastics lessons, accompanied by piano music. The piano was played by a striking looking woman; young, with luminous dark eyes, short black hair and pale complexion. She never used any make up and was always dr3essed in black. I still remember her sweet, gentle smile. Her name was Fulla Horak, and she would often play piano after school just for pleasure. I stayed and listened; and one day she asked me if I would like to take piano lessons. I explained that I had only just started lessons before the war, and was still a beginner. She told me that she would give me free lessons if I wanted.
Soon she became my teacher and my best friend. I often went to the other end of the city to visit her in her small apartment. She lived with an elderly woman who was her companion and served her as best as she could. You could see that she loved her. She told me one day that Fulla prayed a lot and had religious visions. I thought that she might be a nun in the disguise. Our friendship lasted until I had to leave Lvov. In her presence I found encouragement to help me fight off fits of depression
It was during that time that I decided to be confirmed in the Catholic Church. Times were hard, and I wanted to become a fully-fledged member of the Catholic Faith. The Sacrament of Confirmation was given by a bishop at the ancient Lvov cathedral. It had a severe and lofty look, supported inside by enormous columns branching off high above into graceful arches. The faint and mysterious light came through the long stained glass windows. Even in the summer, the interior remained cool and dark. But on that day of confirmation, the cathedral was filled with light and crowds of people came to watch the many young people receive the sacrament. I chose Mary Mother of God and St, Theresa as my patrons, and a stranger put a hand on my shoulder as a witness.
Otherwise, the winter of 1941 was bitter, with gloomy weather and strong winds. I was depressed: I worried constantly about my mother, and found it hard to adjust to living with a new family. As an only child I had always been the centre of attention, and my mother was very affectionate. Suddenly I found myself alone, burden to the people I lived with. Although Mrs. Szwabowicz was a good and religious woman, she was cold and reserved by nature. I could never expect any hugs from her.
Looking back, I realized later that I had been spoiled, with completely wrong priorities. One day while I was practicing my music for Fulla, the maid began to sweep the room. When she reached the piano, she asked me to move out of her way. I ignored her request, feeling that practicing the music was a far more important task than cleaning – that could be done any time. But the maid, who was a husky woman, didn’t discuss the subject: she just removed me physically from the stool and placed me in another room. \i shocked, and I felt that a terrible injustice had been done. I went to Mrs. Szwabowicz and complained bitterly – and to my surprise and humiliation, I was told never to interfere with the maid’s work. I was learning my lesson.
The change was too sudden for me to accept easily. Before the war, I had been drenched with affection by my grandfather and my aunts Sophie and Mary. And I was accustomed to being treated as an adult: although I was only thirteen, I had a vast knowledge of arts and literature. Now, no one was interested in what I had to say, and I found the coldness and rejection very hard. When I walked alone through the streets of Lvov, I thought of suicide. But that was just wishful thinking; I was too religious to seriously consider committing a suicide.
The grocery stores were totally empty, there was nothing to buy. From time to time a truck would arrive with bread and sugar, and immediately a long line formed – sometimes more than two kilometers. Quite often you had to get up at three o’clock in the morning to get a good start. After two or three hours, somebody else would replace you,; and so on until you got some bread, or occasionally a piece of meat. Quite often, after people spent hours waiting, the store would run out of food and people had to go home empty-handed. Sometimes we waited in cold so bitter that I had open sores on my fingers and toes from frostbites.
At one point, my life brightened up for a while with the hope of escaping. I have no idea how my father found out where I was, but he sent visas through the Romanian Consul for me and two of my cousins, I had discovered them quite unexpectedly. They were both refugees from north-eastern Poland: Katherine who had a one-month son Andrew and her sister Theresa.
Day after day we stood in lines at the KGB offices with other foreigners trapped by the war. We filled out endless forms, only to be told to come back next day. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that although the Soviets did supposedly allow people with official Romanian visas to leave Poland, the authorities were not prepared to let them go.
After two month waiting for the permission, everything changed in one day. That day, thousands of people were forcibly arrested during the night and put on cattle trains for Siberia. Among them were Theresa, Katherine and her baby son. The ethnic cleansing had begun.
Being sent to Asiatic parts of the Soviet Union – Siberia or Vorkuta – was everybody’s greatest fear. Cattle trains loaded with Polish families were leaving every day. In our apartment building, one family after another had been taken away. One night it was a family living above us; we waited tensely for our turn to come – but for some unexplained reason, it never did.
In all, at that time about two million Poles were forced out from their homes and sent to gulags in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Vorkuta. Those who left were allowed to take only two suitcases, and had to leave behind their homes, furniture and all their other possession. These were taken over by Russian families.
The German friendship broke down unexpectedly in June 1941, when Hitler attacked Soviet Union. After short bombardment, Lvov was taken by the German troops without the fight. People run to the prisons to free the thousands of political prisoners arrested by the Soviets. They found them all dead. Although the Soviets left in a hurry, they had found enough time to murder the prisoners. Some were tortured to death – among them priests and nuns. One Dominican priest was crucified on the wall in his cell. In one prison the heads of the murdered victims were covered with tar to make them difficult to identify. The bodies were laid out outside the prisons for the relatives. It was July and the stench of decomposing bodies spread over the city.
One enemy has left, and another arrived. Soon I was to learn the extend off the tragedy of the German army arriving. Almost their first act was to arrest and execute all the university professors of Lvov University and their families. |Other signs of the new order were soon to appear. I went to see my friends Adam and his wife Janka, whom I met at the beginning of 1941. Adam was a layer, and they had two children about my age. They often invited me for tea and we had long and interesting discussions. They had a big library and gladly let me borrow their books. I enjoyed the company of these warm and friendly people.
When I went to see them in July, after the Germans entered Lvov, they were anxious and depressed. They told me that from now on they would have to wear the Star of David on their sleeves. I was quite shocked; I even didn’t know they were Jews. A few days later, they told me they would have to leave their lovely apartment and move to the ghetto, an area designated for the Jews by the Germans. Some people went into hiding. Adam’s family decided against this, because it would mean splitting up, and they went to the ghetto together. Janka wasn’t Jewish, but she said she would go wherever her husband and children went.
Once Lvov was in the hands of the Germans, I could send a letter to my aunt in Warsaw. Her answer came quickly: she paid a man to come to Lvov and bring me to her. Before I left to begin my new life in Warsaw, I said goodbye to Mrs. Szwabowicz and her daughters, and to All my friends – especially Fula Horak, and Adam and Janka. I never saw Adam’s family again.
Soon I was living with my Aunt Mary and her hu8sband Zygmunt in a suburb of Warsaw called Bielany. My grandfather lived in an apartment below in the same building, and Aunt Mary took care of him. She asked me to take dinner to him every day, and we would chat. He was an engineer; and although he was eighty. He was in very good physical and mental shape. He was working on an invention that he felt had a great future after the war.
I began to attend high school in Warsaw, and every day I had a long trip by streetcar. The streetcars had a special section in front, reserved for Germans only. Nazi Germans regarded themselves as a master race, and would not mix with Poles. There were also security reasons for the segregation: Germans felt very unsafe in the company of Poles – and for good reason.
But when my grandfather took a streetcar, he would always sit in the front part. I asked him why he did this, as he could be arrested for it. His answer was: “I am in my own country, and I will sit wherever I want.”
My new high school at Invalid Square, in Warsaw was officially designated as gardening school to satisfy the Germans, who only allowed trade schools for Poles – they had abolished all secondary education and universities. Despite these changes we maintained a patriotic atmosphere, because the teachers were the same as before the war. We learned the official curriculum subjects at school, and in private homes we learned forbidden subjects such as Latin, history and Polish literature.
Soon after joining the school, I was introduced to an underground organization of scouts and guides that prepared young people for the underground army. Our troops were called “The Bulls”, because we were all born under the sign of Taurus. We had plenty of adventure, and the day was always too short for everything we students had to do – especially since there was a police curfew at 8 p.m., and everybody had to be home by then. (One of my courses was First Aid, and I was assigned to give my grandfather the injections he’d been prescribed. After my first try, he asked me gently – “Can you find a thinner needle next time?!”
We also trained in proficiencies that would be useful during the war. When we learned to use automatic pistols and revolvers, our excitement was accompanied by fear of being caught and tortured. We used pseudonyms for safety in the underground, but of course we all knew each other’s names from school. Sometimes, I would ask myself: “Could I withstand torture without revealing the names and addresses of the other underground members?” I couldn’t answer that question.
Reprisals for underground work were brutal. The Germans often took hostages from people travelling to work. Their names were printed on the large red posters throughout Warsaw, announcing that fifty hostages would be executed if any sabotage occurred anywhere in the country. The result was always the same: fifty hostages were publicly executed on one of Warsaw main Streets. The executions were usually carried out during the lunch hour, when the streets were packed with people. German soldiers arrived in the army trucks to close off the street, and those who were there had to watch the execution. The hostages were brought in by military trucks, lined up against the wall, and shot in bursts of machine-gun fire. The bodies were taken away, and the superintendent of the building where the execution had taken place hosed away the blood on the pavement. A few hours later, flowers and lighted candles appeared in front of the wall were fifty lives had just been snuffed out. People said furtive prayers there. Later, the Germans would fill the young men’s mouths with plaster before executing them, so they wouldn’t shout “Long live Poland,” before their death.
My aunt didn’t realize for several months that I was a member of the underground movement. But one day I came home after the curfew, and she was anxiously waiting for me at the door. She was afraid I’d been arrested. She was so distressed that she turned pale with relief and fainted when I finally came in. But when she recovered, she asked me directly if I was member of the underground organization. When she found out the truth, she packed me off to a boarding school run by the Sisters of Nazareth – so I couldn’t do underground work for a year. Then the school was closed and I had to come home. By this time my aunt had accepted the inevitable: that all young people had to fight the invaders.
In 1943 I took the underground soldier’s oath in the presbytery of the church, witnessed by a priest who was himself a member of the underground. I promised to serve my country faithfully, and to keep the secrets of our organization even in the face of death. Then we went back to our training.
I took special courses in communication – learning how to build and repair telephone lines, and how to service army telephones and switchboards. We also learn military skills such as the techniques of street fighting.
Life was dangerous, and practically everything we did carried the death penalty. As a result nobody paid much attention to the German rules, although the consequences could be tragic. Patriotic youth was often arrested, tortured and killed, or sent to concentration camps to die a slow death. But that didn’t stop us. On national holidays, we decorated historical monuments with flags and flowers. We also painted walls with the anchor emblem – the sigh of hope and struggle. It was shaped to spell out the words “Poland is fighting.”
Heinrich Himmler had begun organizing concentration camps on Polish territory back in 1940, to terrorize the population. The first ones were built at Auschwitz and Stutthof. The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners arrived there on June 14, 1940 – nearly all of them the young men caught trying to escape to join the Allied Army. Over the next few years, more than two hundred camps were built. Their purpose was to provide the Germans with slave labour, before the prisoners died from undernourishment and sadistic treatment.
And in 1940, the Germans had begun a systematic campaign of exterminating the Polish Jews in the ghettos through starvation diets. A worker requires an average of 2,400 calories a day – the Jewish workers were given 184 calories. But though the Jews were dying of starvation, it wasn’t fast enough for the Germans; and in summer of 1942 they began their policy of immediate mass murder, liquidating the ghettos.
The final destruction of the Warsaw ghetto came in 1943. I had travelled through it a few times in a streetcar, and it was like seeing a tragic foreign land. The gates in the high walls were guarded by the armed soldiers, who made sure that no one got in from the outside to bring relief. I saw overcrowded streets, with many emaciated people sitting starving on the sidewalk. Some looked at the streetcar as if it were an apparition from another world. The ghetto was the city within a city, ruled by other laws than the rest of the country. Its inhabitants were a people marked for immediate destruction.
In late April 1943, we heard explosions and saw that the sky was red with fire over the ghetto. An uprising had been started by a group of some seven hundred Jewish youths, who decided to die fighting instead of being led to the slaughter like sheep. When I saw the fires, I went to visit another student who lived in the apartment overlooking the ghetto. From the upstairs stairway I could see into the ghetto. The building on the other side of the wall was burning fiercely, with flames coming out of the windows. German soldiers stood in front of the building with weapons, waiting for their pray. People came out of the burning building very slowly, one by one, with their hands up. \I could hear German commands, lining them up along the wall. I knew what was to happen next, and I didn’t want to see it. Coming down the stairs, I could hear the bursts of machine-gun fire.
We were all aware of the terrible fate of the Jews, but there wasn’t much we could do. All Poles were in constant danger from the German occupation forces, but we had advantage of numbers; a country of thirty-six million people could not be destroyed easily. The Jews were in a different position. Although half the total Jewish population of Europe was in Poland, there were still three millions of them – and Nazi Germany did not recognize Jews as Polish citizens. We were all to give way for the German population expansion; but Hitler had singled the Jews out for destruction in the first round, Poles in the second. And the Jews were forced into ghettos, only a few realized the extent of Hitler’s plans.
Before the war, the Jew had mostly kept to themselves, divided from Poles by their religion. Some villages in eastern Poland were more than half Jewish, living their separate lives. The Jewish religion didn’t allow the mixed marriages. Although they were Polish citizens, they dressed differently from us and spoke Yiddish – many were unable to speak fluent Polish. These people were ethnic islands within the community; so when the war broke out, it was difficult to pass them for Poles. (If the Nazi chose to look, the males always could be identified by their circumcisions.) Hiding the Jews was the only solution.
Of course, not all the Jews kept to themselves – many, by their own choice, became part of Polish society. They were lawyers, doctors, politicians, writers, even poets. Many had exceptional talents and worked hard. Many were saved by their Polish friends during the war, and many Poles died trying to protect Jews. Being caught hiding a Jew meant death to the whole family. Sometimes the Germans sent families to Auschwitz; on one occasion, they publicly hanged all the members of a family on their own balcony, for giving refuge to a Jewish child.
In response to these atrocities, the Polish Underground created a special organization, “Zegota,” whose sole purpose was saving Jews. They produced thousands of false documents for the Jews, helped greatly by the Catholic Church. Monasteries and orphanages gave refuge to Jewish children secretly transferred from ghettos by their desperate parents; it was dangerous but it worked; provided false baptismal certificates for Jews to allow them to pass as Poles; and provided food and shelter for the Jews in hiding. The Polish Home Army also posted an order punishing by death those who betrayed Jews to the Germans. These were the lowest criminal element, making money on human deaths.
By July 1944, the German Army was in full retreat. The Soviet Army was closing in, and the thudding noise of the approaching front line could be heard quite clearly. The Germans announced that 100,000 young Poles would have to help build the defences on the Vistula River. The underground army feared that the youth would be killed after finishing their work. The risk of leaving that many people at the mercy of the Germans was too great. The decision was made to start the uprising on the first of August and free Warsaw from German hands.
As the time set for the uprising approached, the tension was increasing every minute. As a messenger, I had been running to deliver final messages since early morning. I stopped briefly at the Convent of the Resurrection, where I put myself in God’s care and was given a small medallion of the Virgin Mary. I felt proud to be one of the Freedom Fighters, and happy that the awaited moment had finally arrived. (My exalted feelings were only a little dampened when I remembered how my aunt had wanted to shut me up in the bathroom to stop me from doing my duty.)
As it happened, we lost the element of surprise. The uprising was due to start at 5 p.m.; but at 3 p.m. some of our boys carrying arms and ammunition in Zoliborz suddenly found themselves facing German soldiers. Shots were exchanged, and the uprising had begun. I was at Headquarters at the time, but was soon ordered to take some reports to the Powazki district. The streets and squares were deserted. I saw a woman standing uncertainly near one building, not knowing what to do. From the next street iI could hear the crackle of the machine-gun fire and the explosions of the grenades. “That must be our boys “, I thought. (Their average age was between fifteen and twenty, but they were splendid soldiers.)
Suddenly a group of German soldiers opened fire in our direction from about 100 metres away. I fell down, as we had practiced in our underground exercises, pulling down the woman, who just stood there helplessly. We were showered with broken pieces of stucco and bricks as the bullets thudded into the wall above us. Soon the Germans stopped shooting and turned their attention somewhere else. Taking advantage of the lull, I moved on.
But after a while I met an obstacle I couldn’t get around. German soldiers were blocking every street, lying behind trees and shrubs and shooting at our troops, who were attacking from several sides. It was clear that the German automatic pistols and machine-guns were superior. I was forced to return, taking with me a little boy who had been caught in the crossfire away from home.
Back at my post, I was given a new assignment – and a red-and-white armband bearing the Polish Eagle and the number of my platoon. It was a very moving moment. After of so many years of German occupation, I was wearing the Polish national colours openly for the first time.
I was ordered to direct the flow of people entering and leaving a large apartment building called the “Glass House.” They looked at my armband with incredulity, hardly believing that the underground work was over and that the time had come to fight openly. I found a moment to go upstairs and look out of the windows at what was going on. Among the weeds in overgrown field, I notice some helmets moving. At first I thought they belonged to Germans; but looking more carefully, I saw they were our boys. Some wore German helmets the underground had collected, others Polish helmets hidden since 1939. Most were bare-headed. They had a variety of weapons: a few rifles, some pistols, revolvers and grenades.
Unfortunately, our exultation didn’t last long. After the failed attempts to conquer our targets, late at night our Commander, “Zywiciel,” decided to retreat to the Kampinos forest. Those who wanted could go back home; those who wished to continue to fight were to march to the forest. I decided to go to Kampinos. It started to rain, and kept on raining until we reached our destination. We marched as quietly as possible, unnoticed by the Germans. At the suburbs of Bielany, where I lived, we had to pass close to military airport. From time to time, flares would illuminate the dark sky and we had to fall down in the mud until darkness returned and it was safe to move on. During one such incident, we heard an explosion. It turned out that the home-made grenade had exploded, fatally wounding its owner. He was left at Bielany and we continued our march.
We reached the trees at dawn, and felt safe there. The forests were in the hands of the Polish partisans, and the Germans avoided them if they could help it. Our destination was a group of forest ranger’ building. We were totally exhausted when we reached the barns and utility buildings. We fell asleep on the floor fully clothed, and slept like logs.
The next morning, I still can remember my surprise when I saw our commander, Colonel Mieczyslaw Niedzielski, for the first time. He was short and stocky, wore civilian clothing and walked under a black umbrella. He didn’t look very heroic! However, he was an excellent commander.
Later that day, a courier from Warsaw brought us orders from the head of the Polish Home Army, General Bor-Komorowski, to return to Zoliborz immediately. All Warsaw was fighting, and the Germans were unable to extinguish the uprising. We went back the same way we had come; the rain continued, the mud got deeper, and we were so tired that we were falling asleep as we walked. The German noticed our arrival in Bielany and attacked us with tanks. We hid in small houses occupied by workers’ families, who tried to help us as much as they could. They hid in the basement while our boys threw grenades and gasoline-filled bottles at the tanks. The battle lasted all day. At dusk the Germans had retreated; we had lost twenty-two fighters.
We reached Zoliborz that night, and our troops took up their positions in apartment buildings. With the help of the civilians we built barricades so that our soldiers could defend our independent territory against prowling German tanks. Still, the sky belonged to the German planes, which sometimes bombed us two or three times a day; and their cannons and mortars rained fire on us non-stop. Most terrifying were the rocket mortars, which came in group of eight, spreading death and havoc among the population. There were also unmanned Goliath tanks carrying explosives, which did a lot of damage; and constant machine-gun fire from outside buildings. To protect ourselves we dug connecting trenches across the streets and from house to house. Because of the constant bombing, the civilian population lived in the cellars. The nights were a little quieter; but our greatest problems were lack of arms, ammunition and food.
I was sent with the communication patrol to lay cables and organize the telephone service. My duties consisted of servicing field telephones and switchboards. The watches would pass on their observations about the movements of the German army to the switchboard operators, who in turn passed the information on to the commandant. Situation changed often. When the explosions got really laud, I was so fearful that I would hide behind our quartermaster. He was a large man, and his back seemed to offer good protection! (His pseudonym was “Old Man”, and he took good care of us as far as possible under the conditions. Food was scarce: our only meal every day was a coarse kind of oatmeal, with lot of hard hulls.)
Death became our close companion, and seeing people wounded and killed no longer made much impression on me. But it was different when I saw a young soldier from our platoon badly wounded. He was carried in on the stretcher before being moved to the hospital. I looked at him and gasped; he had no face, only one horrible wound. My first thought was very selfish: God preserve me from such a wound.
In the second month of the uprising, the Soviet army began to drop arms, ammunition and military biscuits. It was their gesture for the Allies, showing that they were helping our uprising against the Germans. Our joy didn’t last long; the arms and ammunitions, thrown without parachutes, were usually damage beyond repair. One night, the sky suddenly lit up with flares. I could hear planes flying low overhead; then containers started to fall around me. I flung myself to the ground and tried to make myself as small as possible. It would have been terrible getting killed by a bag of biscuits!
We were on the go all the time, from one assignment to the next. It was the best to forget about the hovering death. Sometimes, though it was hard to forget. I remember crawling over a pile of rubble one sunny afternoon, when a ray of sunlight hit a strand of beautiful blond hair sticking out from among the broken bricks. To whom did it belong? Who was under this pile of bricks?
One particular day etched itself in my memory. I was awakened by the sound of the airplanes and the nearby explosions of bombs. As I left to report for duty at my station, the sun was shining warmly, its rays lighting the trees and shrubs in the courtyard. For a moment I couldn’t believe there was a war on. But at a street corner a few steps farther on there was an enormous bomb crater with human remains at the bottom. I got through an opened area that was often under German fire without incident, and reached the entrance to the Glass House just as the planes arrived. The bombs fell so close that we could hear them hissing as they fell. We breathed the sign of relief when the planes flew away.
The morning went by, then the afternoon. Again we heard the planes coming. Suddenly the whole building shook violently, and a cloud of powdery dust from the crumbling walls turned us into white mummies. Dazed but unharmed, I run outside, as the shaky silhouettes of other people emerged from doorways. I went to see were the bomb had hit. With disbelief I saw a gaping hole where the lobby full of people had been. The building had been cut in half. Shaken, I went by trench to the next building, crawling through the opening made in the foundation into the cellar. The ground floor was covered with stretches full of the wounded.
Among the moans I recognized a voice calling my name. It was my friend Klara, a nurse, who had been seriously wounded as she ran through the field. Because of heavy gunfire, nobody was able to reach her for many hours. With great difficulty, she had manage to put a pressure bandage on her own thigh to stop the bleeding; now she was waiting, without painkillers, for her turn to be taken to the hospital. (Our hospitals were in the coal cellars for safety. Our dedicated doctors and nurses worked day and night, often without sleep and by candle-light, to sew up mangled bodies and amputate useless limbs.)
I found somebody to help me carry Klara there, through the same field where she had been wounded. This time all was quiet. Exhausted by the day’s events, I suddenly felt faint. In order not to drop the stretcher, I had to put it down very quickly. She moaned loudly. Somebody else replaced me, and she was taken to the hospital. The doctor wanted to amputate her leg, but she wouldn’t allow it. She died the same night from loss of blood.
Another victim from our scouting Platoon 227 was the commander, Cadet Adam. He was killed during a German attack on our barricade. I had known him from the first day of the Uprising, and when I heard about his death I couldn’t stop crying. It took me quite a while to get over it. His body, wrapped in a black plastic, was buried next to the apartment building where we stayed.