Today, August 1, is the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, that moving and heroic attempt by the people of Warsaw to overthrow the vicious German occupiers. The Russian army was already in Praga, on the other side of the river, and the Poles had reasonable hope that the allies would provide support. The Russian army stood and watched, intent on laying claim to Warsaw when the Germans left, and very little support was forthcoming from the allies.
Early one morning, I make a pilgrimage to sites marking the Uprising.
The statue of the little insurgent commemorates the children who fought and died in 1944. The young boy identified tentatively as “Antek” (a pseudonym – everyone in the underground went by a pseudonym) wears an oversized helmet and holds a submachine gun, equipment captured from the Germans. He was killed on 8 August 1944 at the age of 13. The statue was unveiled in 1983 by Professor Jerzy Świderski who was a courier during the uprising (pseudonym: “Lubicz”). Behind the statue is a plaque engraved with the words from “Warsaw Children”, a popular song at the time: “We’re the children of Warsaw, going into battle – for every stone of yours, we will give our blood”.
Not far away a simple monument marks the site of a basement field hospital for one of the Uprising battalions. After the fall of the Old Town on September 2nd, eleven people who couldn’t be evacuated through the sewers, including two nurses, were murdered by the Germans.
And then the main monument. It’s very familiar to me from my first visit to Warsaw: every time I caught the bus I saw it across the road, and I often walked past it without paying particular attention. Early on a Saturday morning I have it to myself and I study it carefully: the fighters emerging from underground, weapons at the ready; the priest; the woman with a child; the man being helped from the sewers; the basic weapons with which they took on German tanks and planes.
As the anniversary approaches I read Miron Białoszewski’s “A memoir of the Warsaw uprising”, reviewed in some detail by the New York review of books. He recounts his experiences of the Uprising, from day 1 to day 63, in shattered prose.
Shells hurtled in from the German districts , from Wola, from the freight station or the tracks, from an armored train, from the Saxon Gardens. Planes flew overhead and dropped bombs. Every now and then. Frequently. Sometimes every half hour. Even more frequently.
People were running and running – women, children, all hunched over, gray, covered with some kind of powder. I remember that the sun was setting. Fires were burning. The people ran on and on. A flood of people. From the bombed out houses. They were fleeing to Wola.
In a moment crowds poured into the street. To make barricades. Everyone. Women. Old men. I remember. Sales ladies in white aprons. And a older woman who was quickly passing me bricks with one hand because she was holding her pocket book with the other. I passed the bricks to a salesgirl in her white apron. And so on … Suddenly we hear airplanes. Bombs. We run down to the cellar.
Excavating, digging out, extinguishing fires, helping – it was difficult, although it was done, but it was made impossible by new bombs falling all the time, incendiaries. At someone’s cry “Planes!” we rush to a cellar, a shallow basement … A crush. Panic. Prayer. Explosions. The rumbling, bursting of bombs… Nearby an old neighbour beats her breast, “Sacred heart of Jesus, have mercy on us …”
They were thrown onto common pyres. From St. Stanisław Hospital on the corner of Wolska and Młynarska Streets patients were shot to death or thrown out of the windows alive into the courtyard below. They set fire to everything as they passed. Living or not. People were buried on the spot.
Each day it was impossible to endure it much longer. Then each night. Then every two hours. Then every fifteen minutes. Yes. People kept track of time incessantly. They listened to the air or felt the ground to see if it was trembling or not. Where are they? The eastern front? Somewhere beyond the Vistula, or where? In Wiśniewa? In Piekiełko?
We rushed into the hospitals. All on the left side. There were a lot of them. I think there was still some clattering on the ground floors. But since it was dangerous (Miodowa was already quite shot up) the hospitals were in the basements. And since the basements were merely shelters, and since shelters beneath old houses were ordinary cellars for coal and potatoes with narrow cubicles and stalls, it is not surprising that even after all our experiences we were floored once again. Astounded. Signs were posted along the narrow corridors over the entryways to the potato stalls: Ward 5, Ward 6. And in the corridor itself, the one leading from the courtyard entrance, lay the wounded. That, too, was a ward number something. Some lay on the cellar floor. On what? On whatever blankets were available. On scraps of paper, too. And also under packaging paper. Others were sitting. They half sat up. There were yet others, swathed in bandages, with faces burned the color of a wardrobe, covered with strips of gauze bandages. Their arms, too. And they were so held together by these bandages that they looked as if they were propped up on it (on something).
There were always several pots on the stove, close together, so that they could barely fit. There were quarrels because of this, and even that incident with the axes … People were eating twice a day then. So it wasn’t too bad. At times one might get something from the general allotment, too. But one day panic erupted: “We’ve lost the storehouses on Stawki!”
People lost each other as suddenly as they found each other. They’d be close for quite some time. Then others became close. Suddenly these were lost and new people became important. That was common.
Pilots flying over at night to help out with airdrops for Warsaw had no difficulty taking aim. Where it was red, that was Warsaw.
She’d escaped from there. In front of her eyes people had been stood up against a wall, mostly men of course, shot, set on fire. Like many others in this confusion, burning, screaming, and shouting, somehow or other she had fled. Our large brick shelter with the altar had already been jam-packed for many days. So she had nowhere to sleep. The bunks were filled to capacity. She found herself a loose door, one with louvered panels, perhaps from a cellar toilet, and somewhere near us … closer to the altar and right next to the entrance, she spent the first night on the door (laid flat) and when she awoke her fat arms and thighs were completely covered with furrows from the slats.
The bombs were manufactured over there (in Czechoslovakia) and they purposely didn’t assemble them properly. Well, as soon as that whine separated from an airplane, the bomb falling, the direct hit, and the silence, we began to count, silently in the first days, then Swen and I together, then aloud in a family chorus: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven . . . twelve . . .”—here we already exchanged glances—“thir-teen . . .” and a wave of the hand, disbelief, dismissal, a sigh: “A dud.” But soon the airplanes flew again.
That was daytime. And at night. We’re lying there. In a crowd. A flood. By the cellarful. And suddenly: crash . . . crash . . . crash . . . crash . . . crash . . . crash . . . Windblasts, fire, and the buckling of walls—six times each, usually.
Finally there came a moment when a decision was made about the barrel. It was already stinking halfway across the shelter. “Change it.” “Change it, change it.” “But how? Who?” “With a bucket brigade.” “Yes, yes.” “A bucket brigade! Please, everyone, line up and we will pass each other the filthy water . . . one to another.
Those Sisters of the Holy Sacrament who for hundreds of years, since their founding by Marysieńka, had sung behind gratings and taken Communion through gratings, suddenly became activists, social workers, a heroic institution, the support of Nowe Miasto. They provisioned part of the troops, too. The troops distributed some of theirs to civilians. Only, the same error was committed every day in a vicious circle. It was hot. And they didn’t distribute the meat from the pigs and cows that had just been butchered but only those slaughtered yesterday or the day before yesterday.
In this stench I remember the partisans lying side by side under shared blankets with girl couriers and nurses after a nighttime action. Some of the women were offended, but only slightly, by the whispering and ogling.
This only takes us to Day 15 and things don’t get any better. All this happened on streets I know.
For a succinct account of the uprising and the experiences of three women who took part in it, read this article, written a few years ago for the 70th anniversary.
Norman Davies, historian of Poland, has written an exhaustive account of events in “Rising 44”.
The events of the Uprising are represented in the Museum of the Uprising, one of Warsaw’s iconic museums. You can read an account of my visit to this museum in 2012 here.