On 1st August, 1944, Zygmunt went alone for a morning stroll as my leg was getting worse. In the afternoon he wanted to go again into the city. I asked him not to leave Auntie and me alone. I begged him; I started crying but he went, saying that he’d be back soon. Czeslaw came and Zygmunt returned saying that something was happening in the city as the trams were not running and the shops had their shutters down. He was going out again to find out the reason for this. I became quite unreasonable, got hysterical and even had a blood nose. Zygmunt was furious with me. Czeslaw tried to calm me down saying that he would stay with us but I went from bad to worse. Zygmunt was not to be shaken. After giving me his large hanky with which to hold my nose, he said:
“I will not be dictated to in my movements by a hysterical female. I will do what I want to do and I am going, that is final. You may cry as long as you like. I will go only to Marshalkowska Street and come back soon. Stop being an unreasonable female. I am not chained to you. I AM GOING!”
At this moment we heard concentrated shooting in the street. We looked through the window and realized that the uprising of Warsaw had begun. In our suburb it was about 4:30 pm on 1st August, 1944. In years to come, many books would be written and films shown about the Warsaw uprising.
My memories are rather confused and fragmentary. I remember being hungry and thirsty and more frightened than usual. From the sky were falling either bombs or ashes or leaflets - stupid, falsified leaflets as if written and signed by Polish leaders, but one saw immediately that they were written by the enemy. No-one else was able to leave the block as everyone was shot at in the street.
There were some tragic instances like one mother who was then separated from her babies whom she had left for a short while with friends a few streets away. I remember the sounds of the tanks, the noise of soldiers’ boots running up or down the stairs, the screams of women being raped and the complete silence when some men were being shot in our yard. I remember being shot at like a rabbit when I, and some other women, were allowed to go to the market gardens and dig for vegetables.
I remember a man dying of tetanus in our yard as here we had our military hospital for the Underground, its chief being a famous surgeon. I remember the massacre of the Jesuit chapel with all its priests and people who were attending a special service when the uprising started. Only three escaped and came to our yard and told us the details.
I remember vaguely that I was sort of insane, asking Zygmunt to take me to some clean white snow - or at least a swift-flowing river to wash off the blood, but I got over it and became normal again. I remember German SS soldiers coming to our flat to maybe kill the men and rape me and that I became desperate and started abusing them in perfect German, cursing them, starting with their grandparents and finishing with their grandchildren. I remember that they left politely. Next day Wehrmacht soldiers brought us some dry bread and vodka and showed some snaps. They spoke about their children and their children looked nice and these men looked normal and human in these snaps.
They were also Germans but what a great difference between the SS and the Wehrmacht. My leg started to get smelly and dark and the swelling to get higher and higher. The doctor came and said that it was blood poisoning and I would need some injections.
How I received these injections is, to me, a very special story. In our block there lived a family with three children. The eldest boy – or rather, a man – Adam, I knew from my years at the Conservatorium, was studying philosophy. The youngest girl, Tereska, was just a school kid with long blonde plaits. This Tereska went every night to the city for medicine which was required by the hospital. She had to go through sewers, to jump over or crawl under fences and to cross streets, running. She was shot at every time but still managed to bring what was required, carrying it in her school uniform which had large pockets. To this day her mother is, to me, the unsurpassed heroine.
Her mother explained to me why they were doing it. Of course the mother would have preferred to fetch the medicine herself but she was physically incapable, being too big and unable to squeeze through the small openings. Tereska, being small and agile and old enough to understand, did it because someone had to save human lives. Tereska had already saved many lives and maybe God in His mercy would save Tereska’s life and they were both just doing their duty. I understood and admired the mother but I also despised myself as I didn’t think that I would be able to risk the life of my child – even to save the lives of others. I was lucky never to be put in the same situation. Should you still be alive, I thank you both for showing me how one should behave in extreme times. Thank you also for saving my life with which I have not done much, I am sorry to say.
I remember the cellars where we all gathered when the bombs were falling nearby, where children were crying and adults were either praying or playing cards, or having stupid arguments.
Here I suddenly recalled the forecast of the palm reader who had told me that in my fifth year of marriage I would be surrounded by death and he could not say if my husband would come out alive. I became even more frightened as we were surrounded by death and it was my fifth year of marriage. There was no food left, no water - only that which we kept in the bath. The air was heavy with smoke from all the burning buildings. In the first days of the uprising we could hear the artillery of the Russians who were quite close, just over the river, but after a few days this Front became quiet and we could not understand why. It was a continuous nightmare; somehow unreal but, at the same time, more real than anything else which happened to me.
I remember how, one day whilst sitting at the table and drinking some strange brew, we again heard soldiers in the yard and on the stairs. Zygmunt and Czeslaw decided to hide; Czeslaw in Auntie’s wardrobe with her sitting in her rocker beside it and Zygmunt under the ceiling between empty suitcases. Zygmunt told me to leave only two plate covers on the table, to hide the overcoats and to say that only Auntie and I lived there. We all knew that if they were found we would all be killed. There was no time to fuss or even to be scared as we could hear soldiers running up the stairs and hammering at doors. There were some single shots, some screams, and again we heard soldiers’ boots and then … silence. They missed our door.
This time nothing happened. When Zygmunt and Czeslaw came out of hiding they both decided never again to hide in such inadequate hiding places. They both decided in future to confront the enemy face to face. I remember how Adam (called Adas by everyone) could not take it anymore and became very odd. His professor, whom he admired greatly, had been shot dead. Adam used to hold a bullet between his fingers and repeat constantly: “This bit of lead, such a small bit, can blow out a life, a precious life, life which was needed by mankind!” Later on he committed suicide by jumping out of a window.
One day the Germans ordered us to vacate the building, saying that the buildings were to be burnt down soon. We were told to go to the gardens of the military casino. It was the first time since the uprising that we were allowed out in the streets.
Our entire suburb was in the hands of the Germans and only the centre of the city and the Old Town were still fighting. We were all wondering what the partisans were fighting with. Already in the first days there were not enough rifles or ammunition to give to every fighting woman and man. Some had hand-made grenades, some just a bottle of petrol and a match which they were able to throw at the advancing tanks. It was so hopelessly inadequate compared with the bombs falling from the sky with the tanks and with the heavy artillery which was situated near our blocks. When the uprising began, the Soviets were near the outskirts of Warsaw but now they had retreated, leaving Warsaw to fight its own battle.
From the Soviets’ point of view, it was to their advantage if more of the Polish men were killed and the fighting spirit broken because then the Soviets would come and be proclaimed the liberators who could do as they liked. So many people were dying constantly, day and night.
From the gardens we watched our houses set on fire and our city being burnt to the ground. One man grabbed a hose, trying to put the fire out, and was shot dead. The entire street was covered by flames, flying debris and ashes. The Germans were systematic people and did their job thoroughly. Silently the crowd watched but occasionally one would hear a suppressed sob. Even the children were too frightened to cry loudly. Even now, thirty years later, I still can’t look calmly at big, open fires. After we had been a few days in the gardens, there came a new order – everyone must leave Warsaw.
The leaflets, which were distributed by planes, stated that everyone would be given work and that the old people, the crippled and children, would be looked after. We knew what it meant to be given work by the Germans; we knew what “looked after” meant and how those unable to work would be looked after. The working group would be made slave labourers and the other group exterminated. What should one do? How to escape the nightmare? It was physically impossible to join the fighting partisans and anyway, what good would it do? None of us had arms, none of us would be of the slightest help – we would all be more of a hindrance.
Human life was the cheapest commodity – it was in plentiful supply. Arms were needed more than anything else. Auntie told us that she would not leave Warsaw under any circumstances. Both her daughters were in Warsaw and she would not go away. Hanka, the elder, we had seen that morning, but we did not know where Marylka was. Only years later we learned that Marylka was killed in the Old Town. Zygmunt and Czeslaw wanted very much to know what was happening farther away but no men were allowed in the streets.
In the last two days it seemed that women were tolerated during the day. I should go, being a female and speaking German well, but Zygmunt and Czeslaw hesitated, being afraid of the shooting. We all wanted to find out at least something and, as they could not go, therefore I did. There was not much shooting but still it was unpleasant to hear the whizzing bullets. There were mainly German soldiers in the streets and only occasionally some females. The few civilians walked slowly and stopped often, hugging the charred walls. I was very frightened but decided that stopping would not help; I would either be hit or not. In the side streets I saw groups of people being assembled but was not allowed to go nearer. People of whom I asked questions were just as ignorant as I.
I decided to go to the Staufer Kazerne, the military Gestapo head office. No civilians went there voluntarily but I thought that it might work if I played the stupid and helpless female. It was worth a try. When the gate closed behind me and I was told to go to the information office, I was truly very frightened, but it was too late to back out. I told the officer a really fantastic story. I wanted to go as quickly as possible to Modlin and join my HKP, I must hurry as I was held up by the stupid uprising. He checked my documents and looked suspicious. What clinched my story was asking him to ring Modlin requesting a car which should pick me up here as I was fed up with the uprising and would they hurry please.
The officer was speechless and then he started to grin and asked me to whom he should give the message. Without hesitation, I gave him the name and rank of the top officer of the Kaunas HKP. By now the officer was not even suspicious. He explained to me patiently that it was impossible, that I should go with one of the groups which were now being assembled and try to leave Warsaw as soon as possible as those who stayed behind would not be considered as working force and I should hurry and go. I think that he thought that, should I be delayed, it would be no great loss to HKP if such a stupid female didn’t turn up. Going back I was not even frightened anymore as I had achieved my aim.
I learned that people were being assembled and must leave Warsaw otherwise they might be separated. We had to move out. Our block was still undemolished and we left Auntie there with bits of remaining food, advised Hanka that we were leaving, and joined the mass of people going towards Pruszkow – an outer suburb of Warsaw.
On the streets were dead people, dead children, dying people. We went ahead and death went with us. Death and dying was by now an everyday occurrence. Now it was him or them and in the next moment it could be me or mine. This became a fact of life. I remember the Ukrainians who were even worse than the Germans, bashing people to death and robbing them of their meagre possessions.
I think that we should all have become insane but only very few did. It is hard to describe one’s feelings. We were not really callous as everyone was trying to help everyone else but, the moment when someone was beyond help – dead or otherwise – we marched on. Humans are an odd lot. There comes a time when one is unable to absorb anymore human suffering. One does not become indifferent; one simply cannot take it in anymore; it becomes impossible to cry and to suffer for oneself or for others. Is it egotism or just a defence mechanism which stops one from becoming insane? I don’t know. One just thinks: “It is war, bad luck.” If it sounds unfeeling and egotistical, it only means that I am unable to express what we did feel. The walk along the road seemed long.
We were all tired and most of us carried some bundles on our backs. Some even tried to drag suitcases. In front of us walked an elderly couple; she paralysed, he supporting her; they did not carry anything. When we passed Warsaw proper we were met by local inhabitants. They were standing along the road in front of their houses and offering us what they could spare. Milk was offered to children and we were given fruit, tomatoes, and cooked vegetables from their own gardens. Those who were too poor and had nothing to give were standing with buckets of water and we could drink our fill.
We were all very thirsty. Near Pruszkow we were one big mass of plodding people, herded by the military police and the Urkrainians (German’s auxiliary units) of whom we were all afraid. From various side streets people were joining this stream which seemed without a beginning or end. We were all herded towards a sawmill in Pruszkow which was surrounded by barbed wire and armed police. We felt stunned. We had left our city behind, our city which was still burning, still fighting and suffering. We were all tired after days without sleep or food.
None of us knew what the next moment might bring. Quick death or some kind of lingering life? Zygmunt and Czeslaw met some friends and they all put their heads together and started guessing what would be best to do. One thing seemed certain to them; one should try to get out of here. Usually it is bad to be with a mass of people. One should get out and then try to run away – somewhere , anywhere. Priority number one was to get out of here, but how? The men decided that I should go and see someone in charge and get us out. Who should I see? Where would I find someone in charge? Zygmunt pointed to an officer who had just come out and was giving orders to a military policeman. I went.
I was scared as the men had not even briefed me on what I should say to ensure that I did not let them down as they were counting on my help. I had already learned the number one lesson: Don’t show that you’re frightened; speak calmly and to the point. The Germans were also frightened. One should appear self-assured, speak precisely. The officer listened to my faultless German, my short sentences. He asked for documents, he asked for my husband and took his documents also and, still holding our identity papers, told us to get into the car. I started explaining about my cousins, Czes and Rynca, but he would not listen. We had to get into the car quickly with not even a handshake or kiss with Czeslaw. The officer was travelling in front, Zygmunt and I in the back, flanked by two military policemen, rifles at the ready. What was happening? Were they going to shoot us? Probably not as they could have done it there in the yard, but where were we going? I did not dare to speak with Zygmunt; we were just holding hands. The car stopped near a truck and the officer gave our documents to the driver of the truck and told us to hop on the truck where a few soldiers were already sitting. The officer would not answer any questions and just told us to hurry. It was better in the truck. The soldiers had their rifles beside their seats and looked rather bored and tired. We went in a westerly direction. Zygmunt and I began to whisper. Zygmunt tried to cheer me up:
“They did not shoot us. It can’t get worse; it might even get better. Just calm down.” We passed a bridge and Zygmunt became interested in the surroundings and told me that we were approaching Modlin. The big red brick building in front of us was the Modlin fortress. I was still not too happy as I was frightened of fortresses, especially those which were occupied by the enemy. It was a big fortress with many buildings. The lorry stopped, our documents were returned to us and we were told to go to the “Zersprengtensammelstelle” (a gathering point of men lost from their units).
We went in the direction indicated and realized that no guard was following us. We stopped, still uncertain as to what was happening. Zygmunt already had ideas. If there was a gate to let us in, there must be a gate to let us out. Simple, isn’t it? He briefed me: I had to go and speak with the man in charge of the gate and explain that I was looking for the Arbeitsamt and my HKP. When I asked Zygmunt what would happen if there was no HKP, he told me not to be stupid as, with all the army trucks, there certainly must be a HKP and anyway not to worry as, with the uprising, the Germans couldn’t be sure what was happening. I had to say that my husband was a sick man but, mind you, not too sick – maybe a stomach upset from malnutrition? Mind you, don’t overdo the sickness.
I did as I was told and everything went quite smoothly. The man in charge of the gate was not from the police but from the regular army. He was pleasant and sympathetic and even gave me a loaf of bread for my undernourished husband. We left the fortress and nobody was guarding us. We even had bread which we had not tasted during the weeks of the uprising.
At last we were free! That night we slept in the cottage of a very poor man who earned a meagre living repairing shoes. This family shared the bit of food they had with us. Our own family could not have been nicer to us. We were the first refugees from Warsaw. They advised us to disappear from Modlin as soon as possible as the police from the Arbeitsamt were hunting people. While walking along a country road, we met a Mr. Sylvester who started talking with us and, after hearing that we were from the uprising, invited us to share the house in which he lived. The house belonged to old Mrs. Wojciechowska in Kosewo.
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