The Nazis and the Soviets did their best to erase all evidence of the Warsaw Uprising. But the Poles have a way of enduring.
You come across them in unexpected places: in the foyer of a church, for example, or on a quiet street in the suburbs.
They don’t celebrate great military victories. On the contrary, they silently commemorate a nation’s anguish. An inconspicuous plaque at 15 Wawelska St is typical. It recalls the events of August 5, 1944, when soldiers of the notorious Kaminski Brigade – Russian collaborators under the command of the German occupying army – forced their way into the Radium Institute founded by Marie Curie for the treatment of cancer patients.
After looting the hospital, raping the nurses and destroying much of the equipment, they set the building on fire. Some patients were burnt alive but dozens managed to shelter in hiding places. Discovered days later, they were dragged out and the building was set ablaze again. An estimated 50 critically ill patients were shot on the spot. Others were sent to the hastily improvised Zieleniak prison camp, where they were executed and their bodies burnt on a funeral pyre. It’s thought that 170 patients and staff lost their lives. They were civilians, not combatants, but the distinction was academic. In the savage German reprisals that followed the Warsaw Uprising 75 years ago this month, all Poles were the enemy.
The launching of the uprising by the Polish resistance movement, on August 1, was a cue for the Nazis to shed all restraint and adherence to the rules of war. By the time the rebellion was quelled two months later, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians – women and children as well as men – had died, mostly by execution, and more than half a million had been exiled to Germany to work in slave labour camps. My wife’s parents were among the latter group.
As an example to other occupied cities, the Germans then began the systematic destruction of the city. Hardly a building was left intact.
The bitter irony was that the Polish resistance, officially known as the Home Army, was complicit in its own destruction. The leaders of the uprising made the fatal mistake of believing the Soviet Army, which was rapidly advancing on Warsaw from the east, would come to their assistance against the common enemy.
It was assumed the uprising would last only a few days – just as long as it took for Soviet troops to cross the Vistula River and help drive the hated Germans out. Poles took heart from a Radio Moscow propaganda broadcast on July 29, which urged them to rise up and promised help in wiping out the “Hitlerite vermin”.
In fact, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator and supposed liberator of Eastern Europe, had no intention of committing troops to the intense fighting that was raging in the streets and squares of Warsaw. It suited him for the German Army to crush the uprising, because in doing so, it would eliminate the people most likely to resist his plan to install a pro-Soviet government in Poland once the Germans had been defeated.
Accordingly, Stalin ordered his army to halt on the eastern bank of the Vistula, immediately opposite Warsaw, then waited while the Germans did his dirty work for him. Allied planes dropping munitions and other supplies to the Polish fighters were denied the use of Soviet airfields, forcing them to fly all the way from Italy with greatly reduced payloads because of the extra fuel they had to carry.
The uprising, which lasted a remarkable 63 days, was the fiercest challenge to Nazi rule in any occupied country. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Nazi SS, said it was the fiercest fighting of the war and compared it with the epic Battle of Stalingrad.
But Stalin’s refusal to help the Home Army, which he contemptuously dismissed as “a handful of criminals”, ensured the rebellion’s failure. It also cleared the way for the installation of a communist regime that would prolong Polish repression for another 47 years.
Marking hope and despair
The uprising is most strikingly commemorated by a famous bronze sculpture in Krasiński Square that shows resistance fighters surging forth from the ruins of a collapsed building. Another monument nearby depicts others scrambling down a manhole into the sewers that served as vital communications and supply lines for the Home Army.
But the small, discreet plaques in unlikely places speak just as eloquently of Warsaw’s tragedy. The one in Wawelska St is in a style known as Tchorek plaque, after the sculptor who designed them. At last count, there were still more than 160 Tchorek plaques in Warsaw, each marking a place where fighting took place or Poles were executed.
Another memorial, a simple, low stone monument at the corner of Daleka and Tarczyńska streets, in the Ochota district, stands where 17 civilians were shot and their bodies burnt.
It’s just a few steps from what was the site of the apartment building from which my wife’s parents were ordered at gunpoint in August 1944 before being transported to Germany with tens of thousands of others and put to work in a Mauser factory producing weapons for the Nazi war machine.
When my wife and I walked down Daleka St two months ago, candles and flowers had recently been placed at the base of the monument – evidence that the victims of Nazi infamy are not forgotten. The apartment building where my in-laws lived was destroyed, like the rest of Warsaw, as part of the German retribution for the uprising. An office block now occupies the site.
Ochota was the scene of some of the most vicious reprisals. It’s estimated that 10,000 civilians were killed there in a rampage of mass murder, arson, looting, torture and rape.
Another low-key plaque, on a wall at 104 Grójecka St, commemorates scores of civilians who were killed with hand grenades in a basement, and others who were shot in a backyard. The perpetrators included regular German soldiers, as well as members of the so-called Kaminski Brigade – officially SS Sturmbrigade Rona.
It was a soldier from this unit who gave my parents-in-law five minutes to pack whatever they could fit into a small bag (my mother-in-law chose her wedding photos) and assemble in the street before being marched to a transit camp.
My mother-in-law, who died this year aged 96, recalled a teenage girl being shot in the neck by a drunk soldier because she was slow to respond to an order. She was left to bleed to death in the gutter. Yet my in-laws could be considered among the more fortunate residents of the Ochota district. They survived the war and eventually emigrated to New Zealand.
My late father-in-law’s brother wasn’t so lucky. He was one of many Poles who died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which was used primarily for political prisoners and prisoners of war. His family assumed he was executed.
Hospital a target
On a wall in the porch of St Hyacinth’s Church in Nowe Miasto, or New Town (although it dates from the 15th century), we came across an account of yet another atrocity. The church was targeted by Stuka bombers intent on destroying a makeshift hospital that had been set up in the crypt, which was also used to shelter civilians.
Bombs pulverised the church but the hospital, remarkably, continued to function until it was overrun by the Germans in early September. All the medical staff were executed and the remains of the building were blown up, burying 500 people beneath the rubble. After the war, it was considered too difficult to exhume the bodies, so the ruined crypt was sealed under a marble floor and the victims permanently entombed.
Ochota wasn’t the scene of the worst Warsaw massacre. In the city’s Wola district, more than 40,000 people were murdered.
As the Germans advanced through the city’s streets, they systematically cleared the buildings, executed all the inhabitants and burnt their bodies. Civilians were placed in front of tanks as human shields and captured fighters were shot on the spot.
Boy scouts and girl guides who had participated in the uprising as couriers and messengers were shown no more mercy than adult combatants. The aim was to crush Polish morale. The American historian Timothy Snyder observed that the Wola massacre “had nothing in common with combat … the ratio of civilian to military dead was more than a thousand to one”.
Warsaw was the scene of not one but two doomed challenges to the Nazi war machine. Only the year before, Jews incarcerated in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto had staged their own heroic insurrection. It was put down with the same pitiless force that the Germans demonstrated in 1944.
Unlike the Polish patriots of the Home Army, who were fighting for freedom, the ghetto rebels were fighting for their very survival. More than 250,000 of the 400,000 Jews crammed into the ghetto had already been transported to the gas chambers of the Treblinka concentration camp. Many others had died from illness and starvation. The ghetto uprising was a last desperate bid to avoid extermination.
It’s estimated that 13,000 Jews died in the month that the uprising lasted, half of them burnt alive or suffocated by smoke after the Germans set the ghetto alight using flamethrowers.
The 1943 revolt is commemorated by the sombre Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, erected in 1948. Nearby stands the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, opened in 2013 on the 70th anniversary of the ghetto uprising. An outstanding museum and deservedly a major tourist attraction, its exhibits cover not just the Holocaust and the ghetto but also the entire rich and colourful history of Jewry in Poland, which was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population until the Nazis set in motion the Final Solution to what they perceived as the Jewish problem.
The 1944 uprising has a museum devoted to it, too, although it is poorly organised compared with the Jewish museum.
Tragically, Poland’s agony didn’t end with the Allied victory in 1945. The country merely passed from the control of one ruthless totalitarian regime based in Berlin to another based in Moscow.
Poland’s Soviet communist masters went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that all remaining embers of Polish nationalism were extinguished. Just as Stalin had ordered the extermination of more than 20,000 Polish army officers, intellectuals and public officials in the infamous Katyn massacre of 1940, when the Soviet Union was an ally of the Nazis, so he now set about erasing the uprising from history.
For decades, Polish monuments were forbidden from mentioning the Home Army. Official accounts concentrated on depicting Poland as having been liberated by the Red Army. It wasn’t until after 1990, when Poland had broken free from Soviet domination, that the full story of the uprising could be openly told.
More shocking by far, however, were the arrests of Polish resistance fighters by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, on trumped-up charges of fascism. Many were executed, tortured, exiled to Soviet gulags or simply disappeared. In a notorious show trial, 16 leaders of the uprising were found guilty of illegal activity against the Red Army.
My parents-in-law, liberated when French soldiers arrived at their labour camp near Stuttgart in 1945, considered returning to Poland but wisely decided against it. They knew of other Poles who had returned home and never been heard from again – casualties of state paranoia.
Perhaps the saddest victim of communist malice was the Polish hero Witold Pilecki. Remarkably, Pilecki had heard stories about the extermination of Jews in Auschwitz and deliberately got himself arrested and imprisoned so he could check on their veracity. He spent two years in Auschwitz before escaping and passing detailed information about the gas chambers to the Allies, who dismissed his reports as mere rumours.
Pilecki joined the Home Army in the latter stages of the war and took part in the uprising, only to be arrested, tried and executed by Poland’s communist government in 1948 for treason, presumably because, during the war, he had made the mistake of declaring his loyalty to the London-based government-in-exile.
Warsaw today is vibrant, prosperous and sophisticated. The hideous Stalinist monstrosity known as the Palace of Culture and Science still stands in the heart of the city, but it seems symbolic of Poland’s transformation that there’s a Club Mirage – a symbol of capitalist decadence – on the ground floor.
Once derisively labelled “the Russian wedding cake”, the building no longer monopolises the skyline as it did in the communist era. It now competes for attention with a cluster of architecturally audacious high-rise office towers.
Wandering around Warsaw’s picturesque heart, Stare Miasto (Old Town), no one would guess the entire city was obliterated 75 years ago. It was painstakingly rebuilt stone by stone between the 1950s and 70s – arguably the one worthwhile achievement of the communist era. Detailed 18th-century paintings and old architectural drawings were used to help recreate buildings in their original form.
Virtually no physical evidence remains of the damage done by the war, although the ugly pockmarks left by bullets and shrapnel are still plainly visible on buildings in the suburb of Praga, directly across the Vistula, which was held by the Red Army and thus spared demolition by the Germans.
But in the unlikely event that anyone could forget what Warsaw endured 75 years ago, there are always the memorials.
This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.