Tadeusz KONOPACKI

(pseudonym “TRZASKA”)

Participant of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944

and later joined the Polish 1st Armoured Division

 

 

Tadeusz was born May 17th 1923 in Warsaw. His father, Major Jan Konopacki was by profession a chemist and his mother Halina Maciejewska a housewife. Tadeusz and his two sisters Jadwiga and Krystyna had a happy and carefree childhood in Pionki, where his father was an expert at the Government Factory of Gun Powder and Explosive Materials. Pionki was a well-organized small village and, at the same time, it was a military territory. 

Tadeusz was participating in the sailing camp at Narocz Lake when the war broke out. His father was taken prisoner of war in September 1939 and Tadeusz with his mother and sisters stayed in Warsaw with his mother’s family.

At first he attended Staszic’s High School in Warsaw, later he studied architecture for two years in a clandestine school of Jagodzinski. Officially, all higher education, including high schools, was forbidden by the Germans. At the same time he became a member of Home Army and, in 1943, he completed officer’s training in the clandestine military college.

From the 1st of August 1944, Tadeusz participated in the Warsaw Uprising in the group of insurgents called “Harnaś”. On the 28th of September, Tadeusz was decorated with the Cross of Valour and was promoted to officer’s rank. He left Poland as a prisoner of war and, during the next six months, was a prisoner in the following oflags: Bergen Belzen, Gross Born, Sandbostel and Lubec.

He was freed on the 2nd of May 1945, in Lubec, and went to Paris where he became member of the Polish Forces (Polish 1st Armoured Division) in the Bessier barracks. He received a scholarship from the Belgian Government, and studied architecture in Liege, Belgium. He completed Architecture with distinction and worked for his professor for 3 years in Liege. He left for Canada in 1951. He arrived during a time of enormous development in this great country where the demand for qualified professionals was great. He immediately found work in his field in Montreal, and also began to participate in the social life of the Polish community by becoming the secretary of the Association of Polish Engineers and Technicians.

In 1954 he married Ewa Ponińska and moved to Toronto for four years, where in 1959 he became a member of the Association of Canadian Architects in the province of Ontario. He moved to Ottawa, where he worked for the Canadian Government on different projects:  airports, laboratories and offices.  Later he moved to the Historical side, and worked in the reconstruction of the historical buildings in Louisburg. For many years he designed and worked on projects and on different buildings at the National Parks (Banff, Jasper and Pacific-Rim). In private practice, he designed residences and commercial buildings.

Tadeusz, called Ted by his friends, has four daughters and seven grandchildren. Traditions and the Polish language were part of family life, with the help of his wife and Ted’s mother Halina. For three years, Ted was the director of the Polish Saturday School, also attended by his children. As a lover of music, he played for 30 years first violins in the amateur Parkdale United Church Orchestra. Every daughter had to take music lessons and two of them played with him in the orchestra. In 1963 he was President of the Polish Canadian Congress. For 20 years he participated with his wife in the charitable work of “Z Pomocą”. He is a member of the Polish Combatants’ Association in Canada.

FIRST DAYS OF THE UPRISING

We began the uprising at Kopernik Street. It was there that we were waiting for the “W” hour on the 1st of August. Everyone received a white and red armband, personal field dressing, two Neel’s grenades, a pistol or a rifle with a small amount of ammunition. We heard the sound of shooting from other directions when we were on our way at 5 o’clock p.m. We walked in one line towards Krakowskie  Przedmiescie,  no longer hiding our weapons, certain that the time has come to make a stand.

I don’t remember what our first assignment was.  It seems to me that we didn’t reach the designated place - we rather joined another group already engaged in action. We took our positions on Oboźna Street opposite Warsaw University and began to fire at an SS position. This was our first battle experience. Stachurek got hit right in the heart, before he had time to shoot his first bullet. Many others were killed and helping the wounded became impossible. Germans were much better armed, especially with machineguns, and cut off our retreat. Not to become totally annihilated, we retreated amid machinegun barrage along Oboźna. The wounded were left behind. One of them, with a wound through his lungs told me what happened, when I met him at the end of the Uprising. After our retreat, Germans came to the place of the attack and threw the wounded into the burning houses. My wounded colleague was able miraculously to get out from the burning building and he survived.

According to 'Marabut', who was commanding the company “Genowefa”, we retreated along Kopernik and Tamka streets, and people, standing in windows, seeing us were cheering wildly. We were bringing hope to everybody. We moved toward the Vistula River and Poniatowski Bridge and reached the convent. I don’t remember the name but there we found the most desired rest. This moment of rest was necessary to collect our thoughts and to make our next decisions. It was quite clear to us all that, despite partisans occupying the whole Powiśle, efforts to capture  the main centers of German resistance had ended in failure. In the face of German weaponry it looked like we couldn’t  even defend ourselves. The next evening and night, it rained. 'Marabut' decided to move our group to the west side of Nowy Świat and make contact with the battalion commanding officer 'Gustaw'. Our first encounter with the enemy became a lesson of what happens when one meets a better-armed enemy and what to do in such cases. Those who survived, learned from the experience. After this lesson we were ready for the next action.

'Marabut 'came to me with the idea of sending a messenger to the commanding officer and saying that it should be a volunteer. The way he looked at me I had no doubt whom he had in mind. I knew 'Marabut' from the time when we were together in conspiracy and, being his subordinate, I couldn’t refuse cooperation, although I thought that the plan was very risky and unnecessary.  We didn’t know exactly which territory was in our hands and which in German hands. During the attack at the university building he had also been looking for a volunteer to rescue a wounded man; the volunteer went to get him but he never came back. After our conversation I prepared myself for the trip. There were no written instructions in case I was stopped by the Germans - I was to pretend to be a crazy civilian, caught on the way home, having nothing to do with the uprising. My mission was to inform the commanding officer about the situation of our company and ask for further instructions. I left my arm band, pistol, helmet, and documents with my colleagues and went on my way. While crossing territories occupied by our forces I got information about German positions and which places to avoid. Finally I reached Plaza Grzybowski. I passed a number of dead bodies of civilians going through transient territory when I noticed a German armoured car moving towards me. It was too late to hide so I put up my hands and continued walking. I don’t know why they didn’t shoot, maybe my miserable look made an impression that I was not worthy of wasting ammunition. Finally, I reached my destination, checked the number on the gate and knocked at the door. A little window opened and I saw the barrel of the machinegun and an impatient voice asking for a watchword. – Open – I shouted – this is I “Trzaska from “Genowefa”! The gate opened and I saw the members of my own battalion, it was a moment of great joy.

After the conversation with “Gustaw” I realized that he himself was surprised with the way everything was developing and had no suggestions for our company. He thanked me for the report and his advice for me was to stay with them and continue the fight. I couldn’t accept his offer as I knew that 'Marabut' was waiting for me. On my return 'Marabut' listened to my report and, after a few days, began again to talk about contacting 'Gustaw'. I promised to try but I had the conviction that this contact would not bring anything new. I made an effort to get through but was blocked by a new German position. In the end this new development forced us to engage our company in the Centertown.

we met 'Gustaw' one month later, on the 1st of September, after he came through the canals from Starówka to Centertown. 'Marabut' life ended before that - he was killed on the 5th of August during an attack by German tanks. That was the most dramatic day of the uprising when we had to shoot while the Germans forced the civilian population to shield  the tanks with their bodies.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

AFTER THE UPRISING, OFLAGS, then FREEDOM

During the night, between the 2nd and 3rd of October, capitulation arrangements were made. It stopped the fighting on both sides.  The agreement was signed and military detachments of partisans left the ruins of the capital. The civilian population was also evacuated, leaving a ghost city.

Our commanding officer 'Gustaw' had told of the decision about the capitulation and gave us some last instructions. We were preparing to leave the city we loved. German soldiers came close to our barricade, watching us. Their expression didn’t show any hate but rather curiosity and sort of admiration. The city where we fought the hopeless struggle for two months was a horrifying picture of destruction. Buildings in rubble, smoke still hanging in the air,  and smoldering ruins was all what was left. The short time of freedom was buried with those who died before us.

On the 5th of October we laid down our arms and marched to Ożarów, on the way to the prisoner of war camp. The next day, after a night on the cement floor of an enormous manufacturing hall, we presented a rather unusual look. We had slept on different colour powders used to make paints,which, in our exhaustion after the long march, we had not noticed the night before.

Our first camp was in Fallingsbostel. This first reality of camp life didn’t seem too awful. Other Poles who were there quickly explained to us the general situation. I still remember the Polish sailor Radwan who broke a thick metal rode with his teeth - he broke metal coins with his fingers and showed some extraordinary feats with his strength. He was a financial wizard in camp, because people were ready to pay for a good show. We began to learn camp routine. Delousing and shower at the beginning, then the everyday roll call, gymnastics, meals, etc.. There was a lot of time.

After a few days we were transported to the camp IIB – Bergen-Belzen. This ominous name was depressing, however the Germans kept their agreement and our camp was not a concentration camp, although it bordered with the death camp. The food was meagre. We had to go to the forest to bring wood for heating the barracks. Soon these excursions ended when three of our colleagues escaped. One was caught and sent to penal camp, from the other we got a postcard from Krakow, about the third we didn’t hear what happened to him. In Bergen-Belzen we spent 3 long months. We read, studied, played cards and roulette organized by 'Koń', took walks around the camp and traded with the German guards. Cigarettes replaced money and available items could be bought for a certain number of cigarettes. Lectures and religious celebrations were very popular. We visited each other. Often I saw my two cousins Eugeniusz and Maks who lived in nearby barracks.

From Bergen-Belzen we were moved too oflag 2D Gross Born, situated not too far from the pre-war Polish border. We met there a large group of Polish officers who had become prisoners of war in 1939. Some of them became our close friends but, on the whole, there were big differences in our attitudes. As Home Army soldiers in occupied Poland we lived in constant danger and we were more active and aggressive.

After two weeks spent in Gross Born, we were told by the Germans that, because of the approaching front line, our camp will be evacuated to the West.  Those who want to stay will find themselves controlled by the Soviet Army. Most of us decided to evacuate and we began preparing for the journey. It was winter time and we had to take blankets, warm clothing and a small amount of food which was left from the Red Cross parcels. We organized ourselves in groups; our group included three good friends: I and two brothers, who were called Horses. The older one called 'Koń' (horse in Polish) knew how to improvise in every situation and immediately began procuring a sled for our luggage.  Unfortunately we didn’t get permission from our commander and had to carry everything on our backs.

After a few days of marching we were getting tired. We thought at first that the march will last only a few days, but we were mistaken. The march to the next camp Sandbostel, close to the Danish border, took us two months. We were moving west and that was a consolation because the war was nearing the end and the situation in Poland looked grim after the Teheran-Yalta Agreement. Nobody thought of going back.

German guards armed with rifles divided us into smaller groups and at dawn each morning the march began.  There was time provided for short rests and meagre meals, everything according to regulations. The first night we spent at a saw-mill. Although it was very cold everybody found a spot and we slept like stones until the next morning. The next day was the same routine, only the views were changing. The guards were also changing. On the whole they were polite but distrustful; most of them were elderly, probably bitter about the way the war was going, sometimes they had dogs to make sure that we didn’t escape.

We spent the nights in places assigned in advance. Usually these were barns with hay. We spent one night with sheep bleating into our ears that didn’t stop us from sleeping very soundly. Another night was spent with Italian generals who supported Gen. Badalio and were arrested. They were also marching to a camp. One night we slept with chickens walking over our heads laying eggs. We found a few the next morning.

Moving through villages and hamlets we noticed many Slavonic names which Hitler had had no time to change. We saw German civilians who lost everything, escaping from bombed cities. It reminded us of Poland in 1939. We often met Polish civilians on forced labour in Germany. They could recognize us by our white and red armbands. They threw food to us. One day they offered us such a fantastic soup that we couldn’t bend after eating too much. Occasions of having a full stomach didn’t happen too often.  We decided to visit our compatriots during the night when the whole camp, including the guards, was asleep. I mentioned this plan to 'Koń' and with his and his brother’s approval, I dressed in a civilian coat borrowed from Maks and left the camp. Guards slept and this night they had no dogs, going through the forest I easily reached the hamlet. While walking I had this extraordinary feeling of being free. I found the Poles and was fed, then I got a big loaf of bread and other provisions to share with my friends. After a few days I repeated the excursion successfully and from that time on I did it many times. It was great to be free even for a few hours but I didn’t want to escape.  The war was close to the end, there was chaos in Germany and it was better to be protected by guards. I became so sure of myself that I traded with the Germans. We still had coffee from our Red Cross parcels and I knew German. I wasn’t afraid of a serious punishment because Germans recognize the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war. Nevertheless, one time I was caught by the guards and as a punishment I had to spend the whole night standing in the rain until it was time to march. Another time the guard who caught me decided to help me. I told him about my plans to get food and he decided to accompany me. 

When we reached Sandbostel it was spring. The camp was settled on sands and it looked grim. There was hardly any food and it was a hopeless place. Prisoners of war from the Home Army immediately did something unheard of. One day an empty barrack disappeared - taken down for fuel. I don’t remember how the matters ended, I only know that what was left of the barrack was the washroom and pipes, the walls and the roof had disappeared. After two weeks we were notified about a new march, this time to Lubec. Lubec was a camp that was well-organized. We had games of soccer between the different nationalities. In a special barrack was Stalin’s son, who was a pilot. It was from this camp that we were liberated by the British Army on May 2nd 1945. It was a dramatic moment. British tanks came from the west directly toward our camp and Germans were guarding us to the very last moment. Prisoners came out from the barracks to see what will happen. At a certain moment the German guard who was close to me threw his rifle into the bushes, put up his hands and ran toward the tanks to surrender. In this moment our roles changed and we were free. Administration was taken over by our army. A number of colleagues stayed at the camp, later they went to Italy and joined the Polish 2 Corps of Gen. Anders. On the first occasion I went to Murnau to find my father, who was there from the 1939. On the way back, I went through Belgium to Paris and joined the Polish 1st Armoured Division at the Bessier barracks. We were free, but for us the war didn’t end.

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

http://www.spkottawa.ca/