Warsaw a city haunted by its past- an overview of events and sites associated with World War 2 and the aftermath.

Warsaw the capital of Poland with a population of 1.7 million inhabitants is often overlooked by tourists. This of course, may be due to the fact that the city was completely destroyed in 1944 following the Uprising against Nazi occupation and so is really a new city masquerading as an old one. Nevertheless it is a definite must on any European tour and contains a huge amount of history – especially the horrific events of WW 2 . Set on the banks of the Vistula river Warsaw like the country it is the capital of has been a victim of its geography trapped on a main route between eastern and western Europe, between Berlin and Moscow,  and during WW2 between two madmen both intent on its destruction. The pain of Poland in the War years and the subsequent Soviet domination is everywhere in this the country’s Capital – a white eagle arising from the ashes of destruction and a must for WW 2 history buffs. 

Castle Square Warsaw

Sigismund’s Column in the centre of Royal Place Square.  

WARSAW THE CITY

Built on the banks of the great Vistula (Wisla) river, which flows south north to the Baltic sea and divides the city into east and west. Warsaw dates from the the mid 14th century but was declared a capital in 1569. Napoleon stopped by in 1806 on his way to invade Russia, there is a monument to him in Uprising Square. The Napoleon Bonaparte Monument was erected to honour the French emperor in 2011 on the 190th anniversary of his death. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the city was integrated into the Russian controlled Kingdom of Poland. Independence came in 1918 after WW1 and Warsaw was once more the capital city of an enlarged and new Poland . Warsaw was the home of Frederic Chopin, Marie Curie among others and by 1939 had grown into a major city, with a population of about 1,350,00 inhabitants at the crossroads of Central Europe

THE GERMAN INVASION

On September 1st 1939 the German army entered Poland and so World War 2 officially commenced. Although the Polish army fought bravely it was no match for the huge numbers of Germans troops and mechanised armour supported by aircraft as they swept across the plains of western Poland. The German offensive came from three directions, the North, the west and the south. All three attacking forces aiming to converge on Warsaw. The city was immediately subjected to devastating bombing raids from the sky which continued for nearly three weeks. The Luftwaffe bombed Warsaw targeting the 600 year old Royal Palace and the symbolic heart of the old city. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 civilians were killed in Warsaw in the daily and deadly air attacks. On September 13th 1939 the Polish Government left the city for Lublin.

On September 17th 1939 Russian troops entered the country from the East and North east and the beleaguered Polish army now found itself battling two powerful enemies on two Fronts. The Polish troops based in Modlin Fortress, built by Napoleon in 1810, 40 kms to the west of Warsaw finally surrendered to the Germans on September 29th 1939 and Warsaw was lost. (The Germans built an airfield at Modlin to launch their air attack during the invasion of Russia and it now Modlin airport). A ceasefire had come into effect for Warsaw three days earlier and on October 1st 1939 German troops entered the city and the Nazi occupation of Warsaw began and continued until January 1945 when Russian troops entered the ruins of the city. In 1939 Warsaw had roughly 1,350,000 inhabitants. Over a million were still living in the city at the start of the Uprising in August 1944. In January 1945 it was almost empty.

ADOLF HITLER AND HIS PLANS FOR WARSAW

The destruction of the historic city began immediately on October 4th 1939 when Hitler ordered the complete destruction of the already damaged Royal Palace, seat of the Polish head of state since 1918. In truth Hitler wanted to ultimately destroy Warsaw and build a brand new Eastern Germanic city in it’s place. Adolf Hitler himself, arrived in Warsaw on the morning of October 5th 1939 by plane and crossed the Vistula River at Most Poniatowskiego (Poniatowski Bridge) in his Mercedes and dressed in a leather coat, reviewed a two hour victory parade beside Ujazdowski Park and Pałacyk Rembielińskiego. He then went on a short tour of the city centre of Warsaw passing through the Old town marketplace, the Castle square and the Presidential Palace before returning to the airfield by the Poniatowskiego bridge. He had achieved his first military victory and was already formulating his plans for the eventual destruction of the city. “The destruction of the Polish capital was more than a mere metaphor; on the contrary plans had been drawn up for the purpose. The Pabst Plan of 1939 which Hitler approved just before his invasion called for the removal of all but 80,000 of Warsaw’s 1.3 million inhabitants“. (Richie Alexandra p 5). ” The Germans had decided that only the Old Town was worth saving, along with a few palaces that might be used by Hans Frank and Hitler as official residences. The rest of the city was slated for destruction“. (Richie Alexandra p 5). Pilsudski Square in the centre of Warsaw overlooked by the magnificent Saski (Saxon) Palace was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz in honour of the Fuhrer.

All that remains of the Saxon Place – parts of the central  arcade now The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The remains of the Royal Place were finally totally destroyed in 1944 during the complete destruction of the city by the Nazis after the Warsaw Uprising. Sigismund’s Column which had stood since 1644 was also demolished though the bronze statue, although damaged, did survive and it was re-erected on a new column close to its original site in 1949. The Saxon Place overlooking Adolf Hitler Platz was also destroyed in 1944 with only parts of the central arcade remaining which now house the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

However the Royal Place was completely rebuilt between 1971 and 1980 and now once again sits at the hear of the Old Town housing a museum and art gallery. The art gallery houses two magnificent paintings by Rembrandt “The Girl a the Picture Frame ” and ” The Scholar at the Lectern” both painted in 1641. The pictures, depicting Jewish subjects, were confiscated from their Polish owners by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation but returned in 1947. The beautiful Royal Palace Square today with its centre piece of the Zymuth’s Column is a gathering place for locals and tourist alike and so much in contrast to the wanton destruction of the Nazi regime.

STALIN’S FIRST BLOOD – THE KATYN MASSACRE

During the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939 thousands of Polish troops were captured. The Polish regular army and reserve army officers were separated and moved to different camps including one on Kozelsk in western Russia. ln March 1940 a decision was made by Stalin to execute all Polish officers in captivity. In May 1940 a total of 4,404 Polish officers were transported from the camp in Kozelsk to a forest near the town of Katyn. Katyń forest is located near Smolensk in western Russia, where the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, (the NKVD, forerunners of the KGB), rounded up the prisoners of war and executed them by a shot to the back of the head over 28 consecutive nights in a specially made basement execution chamber. The bodies were then interred in mass graves in the forest to be forgotten about. The Soviets also murdered 3,896 prisoners from Starobelsk in NKVD chambers in Kharkov, 6,287 of them were shot in Kalinin (today known as Tver). In all about 20,000 Polish were executed by Stalin in an attempt to get rid as much of the educated intelligentsia of Poland as possible. The graves in Katyn were discovered by the Nazis in 1943. The Russians denied all responsibility and blamed the Nazis. The truth about the Katyn Massacre was finally revealed in 1990, when Boris Yeltsin, the then President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and a future President of Russian Federation, released top-secret documents about this issue and handed them over to the new Polish president Lech Wałęsa.

Today the Katyn massacre is remembered, along with other associated tragedies, in in Warsaw at the Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East located at the intersection of Muranowska and General Władysław Anders streets in Warsaw.  It was officially unveiled on 17 September 1995 – the 56th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of 1939 and was erected in honour of Poles killed and murdered in the East, in particular those  deported to labour camps in Siberia and the victims of the Katyn massacre. The statue shows a pile of religious symbols (Catholic and Orthodox crosses as well as Jewish and Muslim symbols) on a railway flatcar, which is set on tracks. Each railway sleeper displays the names of places from which Polish citizens were deported for use as slave labour in the USSR, and the names of the camps, collective farms, exile villages and various outposts of the gulag that were their destinations, including the mass murder sites used by the Soviet KKVD.

The Katyn Museum in Warsaw is museum is built into part of the southern wall of the Warsaw Citadel, a massive 19th century former Czarist prison and stronghold. It was also the scene of an ill fated attack during the Warsaw Uprising in which the Germans manged to successfully defend the citadel and inflict heavy casualties on the AK attackers. It is located at Jana Jezioranskiego 4, Warsaw 99-200, (Poland). The Park Traugutta 04 metro stop is practically outside (just walk down to the road beneath the bridge), and can be reached on trams 1, 4, 6, 18, 28, or 41. The N12 and N62 buses can also be used to get to that point. The Museum is very moving and contains the photos of the murdered officers as well as personal items retried from the burial site.

There are also others Katyn Memorials in other Polish cities, including Katowitz and one in Jersey City, USA. Unveiled in 1991 on the Hudson River Walkway “Katyń 1940” was created by Polish-American sculptor Andrzej Pitynsk and is was erected by the Polish community in Jersey City.

The Citadel Katyn Museum, Warsaw.

LIFE UNDER NAZI OCCUPATION

It soon became apparent that life under the Nazis was going to be brutal. The Polish Government, who had manged to escape through neutral Romania made their way to Britain. They set up Polish Government in exile in London and coordinated operations and resistance to Nazi rule from there.

The immediate terror unleashed by the Nazis on the Polish population was so swift, so brutal and so deadly that collaboration was rare. Any sign or act of resistance to the German occupation was swiftly and harshly dealt with. New laws came into force which primarily aimed at the huge Jewish population (The Jewish population of Poland in 1939 was about 3.5 million – 10% of the total) though the Gentile population was also subjected to a cruel and ruthless regime. There were regular round ups , taking of hostages, public hangings and shootings in reprisal for the slightest sign of rebellion. The city was stripped of essentials such as food, which was shipped to Germany and all production was geared toward the Nazi war effort. In November 1940 – 14 months after the occupation the Nazis established the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw.

RESISTANCE

The Nazis set up a Gestapo HQ and interrogation centre on Szucha Avenue (aleja Jana Chrystiana Szucha 25, 00-580 Warszawa), in the building of the prewar Ministry of Religious Beliefs and Public Education (now the Ministry of National Education). The building was turned it into the headquarters of the  Security police and the Security Service  forces. The whole street was closed to Poles. In the basement of the building, the Nazis set up rough jails. Prisoners who were located there were usually freshly caught or transferred from Pawiak Prison. Prisoners were subject to brutal interrogations, during which they were tortured and severely beaten, resulting in deaths. Torture was no exception for any prisoner, and even pregnant women were beaten and tortured sometimes to death.

PAWIAK PRISON

Pawiak Prison in the west of the Warsaw city centre was built in 1829–35. During the 19th century, it was under czarist control as Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire and it was the main prison of central Poland, where political prisoners and criminals alike were incarcerated.

After Poland regained independence in 1918, the Pawiak Prison became Warsaw’s main prison for male criminals. In 1939 Pawiak Prison became a German Gestapo prison. Approximately 100,000 people were imprisoned during the prison’s operation, some 37,000 died on premises (executed, under torture, or during detention), and 60,000 were transferred to Nazi Concentration Camps.  

During the  Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, because of its proximity to the Ghetto, Pawiak Prison became a German assault base. Some Pawiak jailers actively participated in the suppression of the Jewish Uprising. On 19 July 1944 some prisoners attempted a mass jailbreak  supported by an attack from outside, but it failed. Next day, in reprisal, the Germans executed over 380 prisoners. The final transport of prisoners took place 30 July 1944, two days before the 1 August outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising  Two thousand men and the remaining 400 women were sent to Gross- Rosen, Rogoźnica, in South West Poland and Ravensbruck female concentration camp in Germany.  Subsequently the Polish insurgents captured the area but lost it to German forces. On 21 August 1944 the Germans shot an unknown number of remaining prisoners and burned and blew up the buildings. After World War II, the buildings were not rebuilt. Half of the gateway and three detention cells survive. Since 1990 a surviving basement has housed The Pawiak Museum, which along with the former Gestapo HQ on Szucha Avenue, is part of the Museum of Independence.  

Despite the awful consequences if arrested Polish resistance toward the Nazi occupation commenced from the first days of the Nazi takeover. The various resistance factions were consolidated under the Amia Krajowa (AK) or Polish Home Army, officially formed in February 1942, and came under the command and were loyal to the Government in exile in London. The AK became the largest, up to 3000,000 members, and most potent resistance force that had come into being under the Nazi regimes in Europe. The first AK commander in chief was General Stefan Rowecki known as “Grot”. On 30 June 1943 he was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw and sent to Berlin before ended up in Sachsenhausen  Camp. He was succeeded his more right wing second in command General Tadeusz Komorowski better known by the name Bór-Komorowski, who was to eventually order the ill fated Warsaw Uprising 13 months later.  

So the resistance was maintained during the terrible years of occupation with many brave Poles paying the ultimate price for their actions. As well as attacks on German military targets the Polish Resistance gathered vital intelligence and information which was fed back to the Polish government-in-exile in London. During the rebuilding of Warsaw Tchorek plaques were used to commemorate places where battles or executions took place during the German occupation of the city. They are based on an original design by sculptor Karol Tchorek  from 1949. These plaques were installed at various locations in Warsaw from the 1950s until the end of the communist era in Poland, and are one of the most characteristic elements of the landscape of the capital. Many of the original plaques no longer exist, having been removed or destroyed during the ongoing modernisation and expansion of the city and its transport network. However, even today many Tchorek plaques are visible in various streets and buildings around Warsaw.

3/5 Kozia Street, Warsaw. “The place sanctified by the blood of Poles who died for the freedom of their homeland. Here on 10.VIII.1944 Hitlerites shot several hundred Poles”

The plaque commemorates the victims of the crimes committed by Germans during the Warsaw Uprising. On August 10, 1944, German soldiers killed between 100 and 300 Polish men (inhabitants of the surrounding houses).

THE VOLUNTEEER

Witold Pileki was an active member of the AK, a former Polish Army cavalry officer who, in 1940, aged 39, volunteered for a task that displayed heroism beyond reproach. Assuming a false identity he allowed himself to be arrested in by the Nazis. On September 19th 1940 he was part of 2,000 Varsovians arrested in a round up in the Zoliborg area of northern Warsaw. The AK were aware a roundup was due in the Zoliborg area and Pileki stayed in his sister in law’s apartment knowing it would be targeted. His mission was to gather intelligence, on reports of huge Camps being constructed through Poland by the Nazis using slave labour. After his arrest he ended up in Auschwitz in southern Poland where he saw first hand what was being constructed and eventually it’s ultimate purpose. He endured beatings, sickness, starvation and the possibility of random execution but smuggled out the vital intelligence on the Camp as it was steadily enlarged and evolved into a place of mass murder. He lived under the daily threat of discovery and organised a resistance cell within the camp. He had to endure over 3 years as a slave labourer in the Camp before he managed to escape in 1943. He later took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Pileki survived the War only to meet his end in 1948 under a past war Soviet regime, as brutal as the one he had fought against . Today Withhold Pileki is membered in a moving memorial unveiled in May 2017 on Ajejja Woyska Polskiego, near where he was arrested in 1940, north of Warsaw city centre. His story is movingly recounted in the book The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather.

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THE WARSAW GHETTO

In November 1940 – 14 months after the occupation the Nazis established the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. After over of year of discriminatory laws confiscating of their property all Jews were ordered into a small area just west of the centre of the city. All non Jews were relocated and a wall erected around the Ghetto. It was forbidden to enter or leave the Ghetto on pain of death and within a short time over 460,000 people were crammed into the small area. Starvation and disease became rampant and thousands died. Meanwhile life continued outside the Ghetto for the other citizens of Warsaw. Though spared the overcrowding, disease and malnutrition of their Jewish fellow citizens life under cruel and ruthless Nazi occupation was far from pleasant. The Ghetto was divided into two distinct parts the Large Ghetto for the less well off Jews and the smaller Ghetto a little to the South for the better off. The two Ghettos were divided by Chlodna Street, a main thoroughfare going from west to east Warsaw. To facilitate traffic a wooden footbridge was built over the Street to allow Jews to travel between the two ghettos. This wooden bridge became burned into the memories of many people as it allowed the Jews crossing the bridge to get a limited view into Aryan Warsaw and for those outside the Ghetto a glimpse of their former friends and neighbours they would never see again. It’s presence for a brief eight months, it functioned from January to August 1942, symbolised the division of the city and became an emblem or symbol of the Ghetto. After the great liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto the footbridge was no longer necessary, as the Small Ghetto was closed and the bridge was dismantled. It is also present in many photographs, and in films as well as in literature. Today there is a representation of the Bridge in the form of two tall steel structures either side of Chlodna Street showing how high the bridge was and it’s location.

The Ghetto, in reality was only a temporary solution to the Jewish issue. In 1941 work had commenced at an old quarry situated in a forest some 50 miles north east of Warsaw on the final solution. The quarry was isolated and well hidden but did have a very useful spur rail line for the moving of wood and stone from the quarry. In the forest two separate camps were constructed. No 1 was a camp for slave labour where fit inmates would be utilised harvesting wood from the forest to provide fuel for the second camp No 2 where especially constructed chambers had been constructed to gas to death large numbers of people at once. Also the inmates of No 1 had to dig huge pits to fill with the dead. The forest was near the town of Treblinka half way between Warsaw and Białystok, another Polish city with a specially constructed, and by now overcrowded, Jewish Ghetto.

In the summer of 1942, the two camps were now complete and ready for business and on July 21st the order was given to commence the clearing of the Jewish ghetto. The next day the Germans authorities announced that the Ghetto’s 400,000 inhabitants were to be deported to factories in the east and the Ghetto was sealed. On July 23rd the first 6,000 were forced to march to the railway line at the edge of the Ghetto, herded into into an open yard and then made board cattle trucks. From that date until September 12th 1942 between 4,000 and 7,000 Jewish men, women and children were placed on two overcrowded trains per day and taken 50 miles north of Warsaw to the horrors of Treblinka extermination camp where the majority were gassed or burned alive within hours of arrival. In those two hot summer months over 300,000 were moved out of the Warsaw Ghetto. This combined with about another 92,00 dying of disease and starvation depleted the population of the Ghetto to about 70,000.

None knew where the trains were going, and the next day the Jewish Bund organisation sent a spy from the ghetto, Zalman Friedrich, to secretly trace their route. He learned from Polish railwaymen that these prisoners were unloaded at a camp near Treblinka, fifty miles north east of Warsaw. The barbed wire enclosure hidden in the woods was too small to accommodate thousands of people arriving. Yet none left. It seemed likely they were being murdered en masse”. (p.246 The Volunteer);

Zalman Friedrich served as a ZOB courier in the Warsaw Ghetto due to his Polish appearance and good Polish accent. Zalman was mainly responsible for the contacts with the Polish underground and the first to figure out where the trains full of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto were heading; Treblinka. The realization that everyone who had been deported had been sent to a death camp severely shook him. He fought bravely in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and successfully escaped into the Aryan Section of Warsaw. Sadly, Zalman was betrayed and his hideout discovered by the Gestapo in May 1943. He was survived by his wife Zille and his daughter Elsa. 

Often those awaiting the arrival of the trains were held at the Umschlagplatz “Collection Point” overnight. In 1988, a memorial was erected in Warsaw to commemorate the deportation victims from the Umschlagplatz on Stawki 10, on the north side of the Ghetto. The monument resembles a freight car with its doors open.

One of the most poignant memorials to this awful time is that of Janusz Korczak at Swietokrzyski Park . Korczak is surrounded by five childen and the monument was erected at the site of a house for Jewish orphans, from which Janusz Korczak set off on his journey to the concentration camp with his pupils. Korczak was a famous teacher, paediatrician and author of children’s books and had served as a Doctor in the Polish army. He was director of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw and moved with the children into the Ghetto in 1940. On 5 or 6 August 1942, German soldiers came to collect the 192 orphans and about one dozen staff members to transport them to Treblinka. ” He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man” (Szpilman Wladyslaw, The Pianist).

There is another monument to and his children at the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, in the west of the city, part of old Jewish Ghetto, with a monumental sculpture of Korczak leading his children to the trains created originally by Mieczysław Smorczewski in 1982.

THE GHETTO UPRISING

After the initial clearance of the Ghetto and reduction in both population and size those left behind knew that their days too were numbered. These consisted of mainly able bodied young Jewish men and women who immediately began to prepare to defend themselves against the inevitable. Led by among others 24 year old Mordechi Anielewicz, leader of Jewish Combat Organization, also known as the ŻOB, the remainder of the Jewish population of the Ghetto began to acquire small amounts of arms, build bunkers and make improvised weapons. The first act of rebellion began on Jan 1943 when a group of Jewish men being taken for forced labour attacked their guards.

Monument to the Ghetto Heroes The monument was raised in the square bordered by Anielewicza Street, Karmelicka Street, Lewartowskiego Street and Zamenhofa Street was unveiled on April 16, 1946.

After months of stubborn resistance and failure to make headway with further deportations plans were drawn up to deal with the problem. Himmler appointed the ruthless SS-Gruppenführer Jurgen Stroop to carry out the task which he set about with his usual barbaric efficiency. On April 19th 1943 Germans troops, commanded and directed by Stroop, moved into the Ghetto to clear it out once and for all. They immediately met with stiff resistance. From then until May 8th 1943 the Jewish men and women fought heroically against tanks, flame throwers and heavy artillery as the might of the army of the Third Reich fought street by street building by building. The end was a foregone conclusion but for the most of the resistors of the Ghetto it was better to die fighting then be marched off to a horrible death by extermination. Despite this thousands were captured and those not involved in the resistance had no choice but give themselves up. Mordechi Anielewicz and the last resistors died in Mila 18 bunker the only remaining outpost on May 7th 1943. Most committed suicide or were gassed to death as the Germans attempted to extinguish the last flame of resistance. A small number of survivors escaped through the sewers. In his report Stroop detailed the capture/and or killing of 57,065 Warsaw Ghetto inmates while German forces had 110 casualties (17 dead and 93 wounded).

The final spiteful act was carried out on May 16th 1943 when Stroop  personally blew up the the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, located on Tiomackie Street, it one of the grandest buildings constructed in Poland in the 19th century. At the time of its opening, in September 1878, it was the largest synagogue in the world. It was never rebuilt. “What a marvellous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theater. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously. Jesuiter called for silence. I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of the burning buildings. After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted: Heil Hitler and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colors, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done“. p.24 – Conversations with an Executioner by Kazimieerz Moczarski (Author) – January 1, 1981. Publisher: Prentice-Hall; First Edition (1981); ISBN 0131719181;

The ghetto was almost entirely levelled during the Uprising; however, a number of buildings and streets survived, mostly in the “small ghetto” area, which had been included into the Aryan part of the city in August 1942 and was not involved in the fighting. In 2008 and 2010 Ghetto boundary markers were built along the borders of the former Jewish quarter, where from 1940 to 1943 stood the gates to the ghetto, wooden footbridges over Aryan streets, and the buildings important to the ghetto inmates. The four buildings at 7, 9, 12 and 14  Prozna Street, close to the PAST Tower (Polish Telephone Joint-stock Company) are among the best known original residential buildings that in 1940–41 housed Jewish families in the Warsaw Ghetto. They have largely remained empty since the war.

The Nozyk Synagogue, located on Twarda Street also survived the war. It was used as a horse stable by German troops. The synagogue has today been restored and is once again used as an active synagogue. The best preserved parts of the ghetto wall  are located 55 Sienna Street, 62 Złota Street, and 11 Waliców Street (the last two being walls of the pre-war buildings). There are two Ghetto Heroes’ Monuments a small memorial tablet unveiled in 1946 and a larger monument in 1948, near the place where the German troops entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943.

Mordechi Anielewicz depicted holding a grenade central figure on Memorial.

On December 7th 1970 after laying a wreath the then German Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt in front of the Ghetto Uprising Memorial and remained in that postilion in silence for half a minute. The “Warsaw Genuflection” was seen as a gesture of humility and penance for what had occurred. The gesture was and remains, a source of contention among Germans at the time. However a 2 Euro German commemorative coin was struck in 2020 on the 50th anniversary of the Kniefall von Warschau.

TREBLIKA (THE AFTERMATH).

Throughout the Ghetto Uprising the mass murder in Treblinka continued. However already a spirit and a plan of resistance was underway amongst the few surviving inmates. The arrival of survivors from the Uprising in early May brought an additional element of resistance – one man even smuggled in a grenade which he let off in the changing rooms. Everyone knew now that the only way out was through death. It was how you went to your death that was all that mattered. However the German and Hiwi guards realised that new arrivals from Warsaw could spell trouble and only 7,000 arrived from the city the remaining 42,000 others were sent to Majdanek Camp near Lublin. On August 2nd 1943 an uprising was launched . Some prisoners unlocked the door to the arsenal near the train tracks, with a key that had been duplicated earlier and stole a number of weapons.

At 3:45 p.m., 700 Jews launched an insurgency that lasted for 30 minutes, they set buildings ablaze, and an armed group attacked the main gate, while others attempted to climb the fence. Machine-gun fire from the guards resulted in near-total slaughter and only about 200 Jews escaped from the camp. About half of them were killed shortly afterwards, around 70 are known to have survived until the end of the war.

Although the camp was badly damaged the gas chambers were intact, and the killing of Polish Jews continued through the rest of August but much reduced. The last two rail transports of Jews were brought to the camp for gassing from the Bialystock Ghetto on 18 and 19 August 1943.  The 39 wagons that came to Treblinka on 19 August 1943 were carrying at least 7,600 survivors of a second Ghetto Uprising in Bialystock which had commenced 3 days before. The camp was then closed and work began on dismantling the camp. On October 20th 1943 a large group of Jewish workers  who had worked on dismantling the camp structures over the previous few weeks were loaded onto the train and transported to another camp Sobibor to be immediately gassed. All traces of Treblinka had been erased its work was done. Between July 1942 and August 1943 and estimated 870,000 people were exterminated at Treblinka (The Treblinka museum in Poland states that at least 800,000 people died at Treblinka; Yad Vashem which is Israel’s Holocaust museum, puts the number killed at 870,000; and the USA Holocaust Memorial Museum  gives a range of 870,000 to 925,000). The vast majority Polish Jews. When the Soviets entered Treblinka on 16 August 1944, the extermination zone had been levelled, ploughed over, and planted.

THE WARSAW UPRISING

Possibly inspired by the Ghetto Uprising the Polish resistance or Home Army, began to formulate plans for a large scale uprising, against the Nazis a year later. With Germans in retreat the Red army edged closer and closer to Warsaw. The Uprising began on August 1st 1944 as part of a nationwide Operation Tempest. The main Polish objectives were to drive the Germans out of Warsaw while helping the Allies defeat Germany. There was also an additional goal liberate Poland’s capital and assert Polish sovereignty before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of Nation Liberation took control.  Other immediate causes included a threat of mass German round-ups of able-bodied Poles and an emotional Polish desire for justice and revenge against the enemy after five years of German occupation. The Uprising initially caught the Occupying Germans troops by surprise. The mainly, young, some very young, men and women of the AK (Polish Home Army) about 30,000 strong (only about 10% were armed) took on the German army and armed with the twin elements of surprise and enthusiasm captured strategic buildings, in and around the centre of Warsaw, but not without some heavy losses. The first day of fighting killed 2,000 insurgents and 500 Germans. Now all they had to do was hold out until the Russians could get into the eastern part of the city and then across the Vistula river and back them up against German attempts to regain the city.

Hitler was in Poland on August 1st 1944 planning the new German offensive against the Soviets who had crossed the River Bug into Poland proper on July 21st 1944. He was in his HQ the Wolf’s Liar at Rastenburg deep in the forests of northern Poland when he heard of the Uprising in Warsaw. ” As news poured in about entire districts being overrun by “bandits,” Himmler raced to see Hitler in Rastenburg. He found the Fuhrer purple with Rage ” . (p. 2). It must be remembered that this was only 12 days since the attempt on his life in the same location in Rastenburg and he was still not fully recovered from his injuries and quite irrational. He was not in a mood for leniency and the immediate killing of captured Polish leader General Stefan Rowecki, who was in Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp north of Berlin was ordered and carried out. (The General Stefan “Grot” Rowecki Bridge (sometimes called the Toruń Bridge, the Grot-Roweckiego Bridge or the Grot Bridge) is a bridge in central Warsaw over the Vistula River was completed in 1981 and named after the executed AK Commander).

The first part of the revenge was complete and the rest was going to reach horrific proportions.

By August 5th 1944 the Poles had established control over most of central Warsaw. The areas controlled by them were Zoliborz in the north of the city, Mokotow in the south and the city centre including the Old Town, the area to the west of it, including the former Ghetto area and Czerniakow to the south of the city centre along the banks of the river. However the Soviets ignored Polish attempts to make radio contact with them and intense street fighting between the Germans and Poles commenced as German reinforcements approached from the West to retake the city. The suppression of the Uprising was to take on a cruel, brutal and barbaric edge.

The Battle of the Skyscrapers

The two tallest buildings in the city stood 700 metres apart in the city centre. The PAST Tower – a building situated on Zielna street close to its intersection with Krolewska street. It had been Warsaw’s first high building it had been had been constructed between 1904 and 1910, which at the time of its construction was the first and tallest skyscraper in the Russian Empire. It was the main HQ of the Polish telephone system and in 1944 was the the centre of the German communications system in the city and therefore a vitla part of the regime. The PAST-a building immediately became one of the strongholds of the Nazi German army. On the first day of the uprising, it was boarded up, abundantly supplied and over 120 SS men were stationed there to defend it. It soon became the only island of Nazi German defence in the centre of Warsaw, which was entirely controlled by Polish insurgents. It was, however, a thorn in rising Warsaw’s side, because Nazi snipers had a great view of the whole of Marszałkowska Street and fired often and without warning, even at civilians. Moreover, the building and its telephone switchboard were fully operational and served the Nazis as a communication centre. Unable to take it the AK put it under siege.

The Prudential Tower was built between 1931 and 1933 in the  Art Dec style and it served as a base for the British Prudential Insurance Company. It was situated on Napoleon Square along Swietokrztska Street. The AK seized the 16 story building and hung a Polish Flag from its roof mast. It was a central observation point and strong hold for the AK and soon became a target for German artillery. The Germans peppering the building with over 1,000 rounds of artillery over the course of the conflict – for the 63-day duration of the Uprising. Determined to seize it, the Nazis rolled out the big guns, and on August 28th, 1944, it was battered by a two-ton shell from a Karl-Gerät mortar. The building wobbled and creaked, but still the steel skeleton refused to topple. It was never taken until the final surrender in October 1944. The building became an iconic image of the Uprising. It is now the 5 star Hotel Warszawa.

THE REPRISALS

Under strict orders the German troops began systemically slaughtering thousands of civilians they came across in their push into the city centre from the west. German troops sent to suppress the Uprising massacred 40,000–50,000 inhabitants of the western district of Wola, mainly in organised mass executions. The vast majority of these were innocent civilians who had nothing to do with the AK. On the express orders of Hitler, people were murdered regardless of their age or sex. The greatest number of killings took place in the area near Górczewska and Moczydła streets, in particular at a building on Górczewska Street located near a railway embankment. The mass executions at this site began on 4 August and continued until 8 August 1944. The greatest number of victims were killed on 5 August (known as “Black Saturday”). Historians estimate that up to 10,000 Polish people – men, women and children – were executed near the location of the Wola memorial, located at 32 Górczewska Street (near the intersection with Prymasa Tysiąclecia Avenue) west of the city centre. After rounding up and killing the victims, the Germans burned the bodies,  which made a precise determination of the number of people murdered impossible.

On August 4th 1944 in the affluent Ochota District the Nazis let lose the RONA or Kaminski Brigade a savage militia unit made up of Russian criminals, ex POWs and collaborators whose orders were to push through and take the Poniatowski Bridge. Instead they engaged in the systematic robbing and slaughtering en masse of any civilians they came across. They engaged in this activity with such fervour they made hardly any progress toward the AK positions they had been ordered to attack. In one of the worst of many atrocities they took over the Radium Institute Hospital founded by Marie Curie and over 14 days systematically murdered all the patients and staff. Approximately 10,000 people were killed in the Ochota massacre, including 1,000 people who died in the Zieleniak camp before the RONA were withdrawn between August 22nd and 24th 1944. Many different sites were used for mass executions, some of which are now marked with memorial plaques to commemorate the victims.

The massacres had a reverse effect on the Poles. The men and women of the AK knew now they could expect no mercy and so once news of the mass killings became know the resistance to the Germans became even more determined.

THE WARSAW AIRBRIDGE

Winston Churchill was the only Western Leader who did anything to try and assist the Uprising Without Soviet air clearance, Churchill sent over 200 low-level nightly supply drops by the RAF, South African air force and the Polish Air Force under British High Command from bases in Italy. The first air-drops from Italy were conducted by 1586 Polish Special Duty Flight accompanied by seven Halifaxes successfully delivering their cargo to Krasinski Square and to Vola on the night of 4/5 August. Flights continued through August and into early September when all flights were suspended due to bad weather. The last airdrops took place on 21/22 September, flown by 31 and 34 Squadrons SAAF as the Polish resistance was nearing total suppression by the Germans. During these dangerous airdrops an estimated 360 airmen and 41 British, Polish, South African and American aircraft were lost. Later, after gaining Soviet air clearance, the US Airforce  sent one high-level mass airdrop on the 18th of September 1944 but by then the battle was lost. There is a memorial stone in Skaryszewski Park next to the The PGE Narodowy or National Soccer Stadium  on the east side of the Vistula which commemorates seven of the crew of the Liberator bomber EV 961, which was taken down in the night of 14 August 1944 above Warsaw. The inscription on the stone reads ” On the night of 14 August 1944 whilst bringing help to the Warsaw Uprising the crew of `78 Bomber Squadron RAF Liberator EV 961 gave their lives. We salute their memory”. (Flying Officer George Douglas Macrae, RCAF; Lieut Percy Gordon Coutts SAAF; Sgt John Edward Porter RAF, aged 21 from Dagenham, Essex; Sgt Arthur Sharpe RAF, aged 22 from Chorley, Lancashire; Sgt Hugh Vallance McLanachan RAF ; Sgt Richard H.C. Scott RAF, aged 21, from Bromley, Kent). Interestingly the memorial was unveiled in November 1988 by Margaret Thatcher in the presence of Sergeant Henry Lloyd Lane, the only survivor of the crash after being ejected by the impact onto an island on the lake in the Park.

Battles of the Uprising

On the night of August 19th 1944 AK units from Zolibroz attacked the German stronghold at Gdansk Railway Station (ul. Zygmunta Słomińskiego 6) and lost 80% of their men in a vain attempt to take the station. Two nights later a second attack launched from simultaneously from both Zolibroz and the northern part of the Old Town it too ended in failure and a slaughter, nearly 500 Home Army soldiers were killed in assaults carried out by the insurgents. Today, the events of those days are commemorated by a sculpture depicting a young woman bending over an insurgent grave.

In other parts of the city there were small victories. On August 20, 1944, the AK finally captured the PAST Tower (Polish Telephone Joint-stock Company) on Zielna street, close to its intersection with Krolewska street. Warsaw’s first high building it had been the centre of the German communications system in the city and took over 100 Germans prisoner. Though badly damaged it still stands today.

In the city centre AK insurgents tactically held up the Germans by taking and holding strategic buildings. “In one particular spot on Jerusalem Avenue, for example a Company led by Captain ‘Roman’ repeatedly invested a strategic building which overlooked the traffic on the boulevard. Roman who was one of the very few people to have escaped from Auschwitz, was an unusually determined soldier. Almost everyday during the first two weeks he captured, lost, and recaptured this building. Repeatedly driven out, he repeatedly returned and with deadly cunning he repeatedly expelled the German defenders. ( Davies Norman p. 323). Capt. ‘ Roman’ was none other then Withold Pileki.

The Siege of the Old Town

The narrow streets and alley ways of the Old town was the heart of the Uprising. The Old town surrounded by medieval walls proved to be a formidable defensive position. That initially proved to be the case until Hitler unleashed hell on it. After some preliminary attacks the German operation to retake the Old Town began in earnest on August 14th

The defenders of the Old Town got a foretaste of what was to come, when, on the morning of August 13th 1944, the Germans sent forward a Borgward IV (heavy demolition carrier), a remote controlled tank packed with a load of high explosive. It was initially driven forward to try and clear an AK barricade on Podwale Street beside the Royal Place Square. Once in position it would be sent forward by remote control. Under heavy fire the driver abandoned the tank near the barricade and it was captured by the AK defenders who were unsure what it was. Later than evening it was driven through the streets of the Old Town in triumph surrounded by a cheering crowd. At 6.05pm it exploded at the junction of Kilinskiego Street and Podwale Street and killed a huge number of people, blowing body parts onto the roofs of buildings. “Three hundred people were killed as a result of this single 500kg explosion. “(p. 412 Alexandra ).

St John’s Cathedral was destroyed after the Uprising. Today a plaque, attached on the outer wall of the rebuilt cathedral, commemorates this horrific event. A part of the original Borgward IV tank track is also built into the wall and can be found below the plaque.

The caterpillar of the German tank-mine “Goliath”, which destroyed part of the Cathedral walls during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Throughout the latter weeks of August the old town was pounded with artillery, including a huge gun on a Panzer train that moved up and down the tracks around Gdansk station to the north. A massive mortar was situated in Sowinski park to the west and reigning down huge shells on the Old Town. Ongoing bombing and strafing by aircraft softened up a path for ground troops armed with flamethrowers.

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Ulica Kamienne Schodki, (The Street of Stone Steps) in Old Town – cleared by German troops using flamethrowers when retaking the Old Town in late August 1944.

On August 27th the Germans launched an old out attack on the gigantic Mint Building (Polish Security Printing Works) Romana Sanguszki 1, a strongpoint held by the AK in the north of the Old town. For 24 hours insurgents and Germans engaged in hand to hand fighting throughout the building before the Germans took control and murdered all the surviving wounded in the cellar. The way into the Old town from the north was now open. This did not stop the continual bombardment and civilians and wounded huddled in cellars and basements. Strategic and landmark buildings were targeted including the historic St Kazimierz Church in the New Town Square, just to the north of the Old Town. On August 31, 1944, four priests, 35 nuns and over a thousand civilians sheltering in the church’s crypt were killed and the magnificent church and cloisters was destroyed.

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St Kazimierz Church in Warsaw. During the Warsaw Uprising it was used as a hospital. The nuns housed many civilians in the church and cellars and gave medical aid as well as they could. In August 1944 they decided to suspend their rules to assist wounded insurgents. Because of this decision the German military targeted the church and during a single raid on August 31, 1944, four priests, 35 nuns and over a thousand civilians sheltering in the church’s crypt were killed and the magnificent church and cloisters was destroyed as was most of Warsaw. The church was reconstructed in 1947-53.

Knowing that the outcome was inevitable the AK took to the sewers to try and reach other AK held areas of the city. Early on the morning of September 2nd the Germans made their way into Kraninski Square- the Old Town had fallen. Reprisals and the the murder of the wounded AK left behind commenced immediately.

The beautiful and ancient Market Place in Warsaw’s Old Town was rebuilt in the 1950s, after having been destroyed by the German Army after the suppression of the 1944.  Today it is a major tourist attraction.

By the first week of September both German and Polish commanders realized that the Soviet army was unlikely to act to break the stalemate. The Germans reasoned that a prolonged Uprising would damage their ability to hold Warsaw as the frontline. Now split up into different areas, with the stranglehold on their positions was tightening, the Poles were concerned that continued resistance would result in further massive casualties. On 7 September, General Rohr, the German commander proposed negotiations, which Bór-Komorowski, the leader of the AK agreed to pursue the following day. Over 8, 9 and 10 September about 20,000 civilians were evacuated by agreement of both sides. The Poles suspended talks on the 11th, as they received news that the Soviets were finally advancing slowly through the Praga district the other side of the river and the possibility of assistance breathed new life into the resistance and the talks collapsed. On September 13th 1944 the Poniatowski Bridge was destroyed by the Germans to prevent it being used by the advancing Soviets.  

FALSE HOPES IN CZERNIAKOW

By 14th September, the eastern bank of the Vistula River in Praga opposite the Polish resistance positions was taken over by the Soviet 1st Polish army. Stalin finally ordered the Polish General Berling to start sending his troops across the Vistula into the city. However it turned out to be a token gesture by Stalin to appease Churchill and appear he was assisting the Poles.

The poorly trained and poorly equipped Polish 3rd Division (1st Polish Army) were selected to make the crossing from Praga to AK held Czerniakow area of Warsaw. At 4.30am on September 16th 1944 the first 300 of the Polish soldiers of the Soviet army successfully made across the river south of the destroyed Poniatowski Bridge to be greeted by the AK. They were followed by 900 more. More troops began to make their way across the next night but by now the Germans were aware of the crossings and began to shell the small boats as they crossed the river inflicting terrible casualties. Very few made it.

Although 1,200 Polish soldiers had earlier made it across the river, they proved to be too little, too late. Their poor training had not prepared them for the horrors of street fighting in Warsaw and they were not reinforced by the Red Army. This, and the lack of air support from the Soviet air force indicated that  Joseph Stalin tactically halted his forces to let the operation fail and allow the Polish resistance to be crushed. Their arrival increased the ferocity of the German onslaught on the Czerniakow district and bolstered by tanks and artillery they slowly pushed the AK and their newly arrived Allies into a tighter and tighter pocket. “On the 19 of September Berling’s army Army began to retreat across the river. ” (p. 522); The next day the AK defenders began to try and escape via the sewers and storm drains. Others, along with some unfortunate civilians made their way to the river in a vain hope of rescue. Hundreds were killed or drowned as they huddled around the crowded riverbank. Boats did come and rescue some but not enough and many were sank. At 6am on September 23rd 1944 the Czerniakow district was back in German hands. The usual massacres and executions followed including the murder of a large number of Berling’s men who having been seriously wounded crossing the river were in a hospital at Zagorna Street.

Today a commemorative plaque, is situated in the place where Polish soldiers landed. Unveiled in 1951, on the main axis of the Park of Marshall Edward Rydz-Smigly between the bank of the river and Solec Street in Warsaw, it contains the following text “On this coast , from September
16 to 23, 1944, the units of the 3rd Infantry Division of the Polish Army supported by artillery
and the Soviet air force – rushing to help the fighting people of Warsaw -after crossing the Vistula, fought an unequal battle with the overwhelming forces of Nazi troops. 2056 soldiers and officers of the Polish and Soviet Army, as well as hundreds of insurgents from Czerniaków and Solec

died with the death of the brave. Glory to the Heroes who died for the freedom of the Homeland.

Well I suppose they got it half right.

THE SURRENDER

By the 30 September, Żoliborz the district held by the AK in the north of city fell to the Germans and the Poles were being pushed back into fewer and fewer streets, and their situation was ever more desperate. The capitulation order of the remaining Polish forces was finally signed on 2 October. All fighting ceased that evening.  The Uprising had lasted 63 desperate days. According to the agreement, the Wehrmacht promised to treat Home Army soldiers in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and to treat the civilian population humanely. This was not to be the case. Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded during the Warsaw Uprising . In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. 

Mały Powstaniec (the “Little Insurrectionist”) is a statue, unveiled on 1 October 1983 in commemoration of the child soldiers who fought and died during the Warsaw Uprising  of 1944. It is located on Podwale Street, next to the ramparts of Warsaw’s Old Town.  The statue is of a young boy wearing a helmet too large for his head and holding a submachine gun. It is reputed to be of a fighter who went by the pseudonym of “Antek”, and was killed on 8 August 1944 at the age of 13. The helmet and submachine gun are stylized after German equipment, which was captured during the uprising and used by the resistance fighters against the occupying forces.

EVACUTION AND DESTRUCTION

The city of Warsaw was completed evacuated and on Hitler’s orders a systematic destruction of the great city commenced. After the remaining population had been expelled, the Germans continued the destruction of the city. Special groups of German engineers were dispatched to burn and demolish the remaining buildings. The demolition squads used flamethrowers and explosives to methodically destroy house after house. They paid special attention to historical monuments, Polish national archives and places of interest. By January 1945, 85% of the buildings were destroyed: 25% as a result of the Uprising, 35% as a result of systematic German actions after the uprising, and the rest as a result of the earlier  Ghetto Uprising and the September 1939 air raids. On January 15th 19145 Russian troops finally crossed the Vistula and entered an eerily deserted snow covered ruined city. The Nazis were gone and a new regime began.

Warsaw Uprising Monument is a monument in Warsaw, Poland, dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Unveiled in 1989, it was sculpted by Wincenty Kućma and the architect was Jacek Budyn. It is located on the southern side of Krasiński Square.

THE WARSAW RISING MUSEUM, Grzybowska 79, 00-844 Warszawa, Poland situated in the Wola District of western Warsaw is a moving testament to the ill fated Uprising of August 1944. A visit to the museum is very moving as one see the photos and reads the stories of those who survived and those who did not.

Celina Pastuszko “Wanda” killed aged 17 at Scout girl of the 50th team of the Warsaw Banner. During the German occupation, her parents’ apartment at ul. Żurawia 11 was the “contact box” of the scout platoon 101. On August 1, at At 17.00 “Wanda” found itself at 2/4 Dąbrowskiego Square. During the Warsaw Uprising, she devotedly served as a nurse in the 2nd company of the “Bartkiewicz” group. She died on September 4 during the bombing of a tenement house at 30 Świętokrzyska Street.

Polish Jew and Warsaw native, Władysław Szpilman gives a vivid account of life in Warsaw from the Nazi takeover until the Soviet liberation in his book The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45. This was later made into an extraordinary film in 2002 directed by Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman.

THE TWO POLISH ARMIES

Following the takeover of Poland by the Nazis in the west the Soviets in the east those Polish soldiers who had not been killed or taken prisoner had to make tough choices. Many chose to make their way to France and offer their service to the French to prepare for the coming German attack on France. Others took more circuitous routes, via Romania, to western Europe and Britain. A number of Polish soldiers and airmen, about 20,000 manged to get evacuated through Dunkirk and in 1940 the Polish government in exile had enough soldiers, sailors and trained pilots to put at the disposal of the British armed Forces. Polish airmen were well trained and had combat experience, and after an initial reluctance, Polish fighter squadrons were formed and took to the air during the Battle of Britain. Their tenacity , skill and hatred of the Germans contributed to their effectiveness in the air. The Polish 302 and 303 squadron, in particular, notched up an astounding number of kills and were acknowledged as being making a valuable and vital contribution to the British air victory in 1940.

Back on the ground Polish First Corps was formed in Scotland where Polish soldiers volunteered to train as commandoes, paratroopers and for Special Operations. During the war 344 Cichociemni specially trained Polish SOE operatives were dropped into Poland in clandestine missions – 112 were killed, in action or captured and executed. The Polish contingent was enlarged in 1942 by “Anders Army”. This army formed in Russia and commanded by General Władysław Albert Anders was made up of nearly 100,000 Polish POWs and civilians released by Stalin after negation with the British Government and the Polish government in exile. After making their way across three continents Anders’ Army arrived in Palestine and was transferred to the operational control of the British government, as part of the British Middle East Command  The unit travelling through Iran, Iraq, and Palestine, where many of its soldiers joined the Polish 2nd Corps, a part of the Polish Armed Forces in the West. Troops from Anders’ Army fought in the Italian campaign, most famously during the Battle of Monte Cassino where Polish troops finally took the ruins of the Monastery on May 18th 1944.

Polish soldiers fought in North Africa, Italy and the Polish Airborne were dropped into Arnhem in the Netherlands during the disastrous Operation Market Garden. They suffered high casualties. By March 1944, the Polish Armed Forces in the West, fighting under British command, numbered 165,000 at the end of that year, including about 20,000 personnel in the Polish Air Force  and 3,000 in the Polish Navy.   By the end of the Second World War, they were 195,000 strong, and by July 1945 had increased to 228,000, most of the newcomers being released prisoners-of-war and liberated labour camp inmates.

The Monte Cassino Memorial, Warsaw.

Unfortunately after the War many of these brave Polish soldiers and airmen were unable to return to their homeland and spent the rest of their lives in exile in English towns and cities as well as in the USA and Australia.

In Russia another Polish army, this time under Soviet control, emerged from Poles who remained in the Soviet Union, the Polish 1st Infantry Division was formed in May 1943 and placed under the command of General Zygmunt Berling. It was made up of recent exiles, POWs, who for various reasons and unfortunate coincidences have failed to join General Anders’s army. For ordinary soldiers this was the only way to be released from Soviet captivity and possibly return to the homeland and the soldiers in the ranks had no influence on how their military units would be used in Stalin’s policy towards Poland. The Division, largely composed from civilians and prisoners exhausted by slave labour, passed its baptismal battle on October 12th and 13th 1943, at the Battle of Lenino in Belarus. Poorly prepared and devoid of suitable support artillery, also due to mistakes of command, the division suffered heavy losses. By March 1944, the corps had been strengthened with increasing armoured and mechanical support, and numbered over 30,000 soldiers. It was enlarged and reorganised into the Polish First Army  (Berling’s Army) and the Polish Second Army – The Polish People’s Army. However it continued to fight on the Eastern Front under Soviet command all the way to Berlin. However the People’s Army operated in opposition to the Polish government-in-exile. After the war, the Polish People’s Army became the military of communist ruled Poland.  

Monument of the Soldier of the First Army of the Polish Army (General Anders Street), Warsaw.
“1943 – Lenino, Warszawa, Kolobrzeg, Berlin – 1945”;

Erected on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the battle of Lenino in 1963. The 8 meter high statue of a figure in uniform, with helmet and a machine pistol on the chest, represent a LWP (Ludowe Wojsko Polskie) soldier. The monument, which is the last work of Ksawery Dunikowski, was created in the 1960s at the behest of then-Minister of National Defence, General Marian Spychalski. Its unveiling took place on October 12th 1963, on the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Lenino. During the Polish People’s Republic this lost battle was presented as the one of the greatest victories in the history of Polish arms. Since 1950 October 12th, the day of the start of the battle was celebrated as the Feast of the Polish Army. This holiday was abolished in free Poland in 1992.

POLES IN THE WEHRMACHT

Following the  German invasion in 1939, some Polish citizens of diverse ethnicities served in the  Wehrmacht, in particular, citizens from parts of Poland annexed to Germany, like Upper Silesia and Pomerania. These were by and large, though not exclusively, ethnic Germans.  Service in the German military was universal in nature in these areas, however assessing the number of ethnic Poles involved is difficult due to the fluidity of national identity. “However there were no Polish quislings or Polish SS Divisions during the Second World War”. (Richie Alexandra p. 7) At the low end, Polish estimates often place the number of native Poles serving in the Wehrmacht at 250,000. Overall, nearly 90,000 former German personnel served in the Polish forces in the West. Interestingly by VE Day  in 1945, nearly a third of the Polish service members in the West were formerly in the service of Germany. On the Eastern Front prisoner-of-war camps for Wehrmacht were also a significant recruitment pool for the Soviet controlled Polish Army.  

SOVIET WAR MEMORIALS

After liberation and the installation of a Communist government in Poland after the War. Numerous Memorials were erected in Poland as well as around Warsaw commemorating the glorious liberators from Nazi tyranny. These memorials are now a source of resentment among Poles and many have been vandalised and removed.

The Soviet Military Cemetery in Warsaw, is the burial place of over 20,000 Soviet soldiers who died fighting in Poland against the Nazis.  It contains one of the first major monuments to be built in Warsaw to those who fought in the War. It includes examples of  Socialist Realism art showing workers (with tools) and other civilians greeting the victorious soldiers. The monument is located in Warsaw’s Mokotow district, near the centre of the area where, ironically, the Warsaw Uprising took place. The dedication on the monument reads: “To the memory of the Soviet Army soldiers who fell while liberating Poland from German occupation in the years 1944-1945.” More than 20,000 Soviet soldiers lie in the Cemetery, mostly in mass graves. The cemetery was built soon after the war and was officially opened in May 1950.

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) – a state body set up over a decade ago to investigate crimes made by totalitarian regimes, both Nazi and Communist, against Poland – decided to remove over 200 monuments to the Red Army from towns nationwide to the site of a former Soviet military base. After months of deliberations since the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power late last year, the IPN proposed housing the so-called “monuments of gratitude to the Red Army” in a park in the former base at Borne Sulinowo, 275 miles (440 km) northwest of Warsaw.

Monument to the Red Army Soldiers (15 September 1946). Originally built over a grave of twenty six Soviet soldiers, killed between 10-15 September, 1944 during heavy fighting in the area. In 1968, the bodies were buried in he Russian Cemetery and the monument relocated to Park. After 1989, it was devastated and restored on multiple occasions. Despite Russia’s protests, the monument has been demolished in October, 2018. Photo taken by author in March 2018.

The Kościuszko Infantry Division Memorial  commemorates the unsuccessful attempt to aid the Warsaw Uprising  by soldiers of the 1st Polish Infantry Division in September 1944. It stands at the intersection of Wybrzeże Helskie and Okrzei Streets at the entrance to the Port of Praga on the east side of the Vistula. The 12-meter, 48-ton sculpture was cast in bronze and depicts a soldier clutching a PPsh -41 (Soviet sub machine gun papasha” (папа́ша), meaning “daddy”)  and clothed with a billowing cape, desperately reaching out his hand towards the left-bank of Warsaw. The whole composition is over 16 meters high, and is surrounded by a large stone-paved square planted with greenery. The architectural designer of the monument was Bogusław Chyliński. The project involved contributions from numerous businesses, veterans groups, youth groups and the soldiers from the Polish Army. The unveiling of the monument took place on January 17, 1985 on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Warsaw. It is sometimes jokingly referred to as “five beers please” by the locals, in reference to the hand gesture of the soldier.

Zygmunt Berling, commander of the 1st Polish Army during WWII, a role that saw him honoured with his own statue in 1985. Designed by Kazimierz Danilewicz his white marble monument was frequently attacked and it was not uncommon to see Berling’s hands daubed with blood red paint. That’s on account of Berling’s associations with the USSR and his perceived inaction during the Warsaw Uprising.  The monument was due to be removed however, on Sunday August 4th 2019, it was pulled down by a group of anti-communist protestors.

The Monument to Brotherhood in Arms was erected in Vilnius Square also in the Praga District in 1945, to commemorate the joint struggle of Polish and Soviet soldiers against the Nazis.  In 2011, it was temporarily taken down during the construction of an underground railway station and sent to restorers. However, when it was about to be reinstalled, a minority of Praga’s residents objected and in 2015, the City Council  overturned its earlier decision to return the monument and made the removal permanent. The monument was colloquially known as “the four sleepers or “the four mourners” in reference to the figures of two Polish and two Soviet soldiers with bowed heads at the four corners of the monument.

POST WAR POLAND UNDER SOVIET DOMINATION

Warsaw, or what was left of it, was liberated by Soviet troops on January 1945. They pushed on through Poland toward Germany and the war finally came to a close in April 1945. No country had suffered as much as Poland during WW2 – about 25% of it’s population had perished including nearly all of it’s pre-war Jewish population of 3.5 million. There was a complete realignment of it’s borders losing large swathes of territory in the east but gaining parts of former Germany in the west. There was population exchanges accompanied by civil unrest and atrocities on all sides. Stalin ensured the Polish communists took control effectively leaving the pre-war Government in exile powerless. Stalin was also very impressed by the resistance and bravery of the AK under the Nazis. However he was going to ensure that such a powerful organisation was no threat to Soviet domination and set about arrested, imprisoning, exiling and executing any AK members he came across.

This purge included Witold Pilecki who was executed after a show trial in Warsaw on May 25th 1947. The same year the Communists and Socialist, allied as the Democratic Bloc “won” the general election and merged into the PZPR (Polish United Worker’s Party) the following year. As a result Poland became locked into the Soviet sphere of influence and regime of economic and political development.

The monumentus task of rebuilding Warsaw commenced immediately and took a decade. The painstaking reconstruction of the Stare Miastro (Old Town) was a remarkable feat of engineering and endeavour. Today it is hard to believe, as one strolls around the Old Town that it has not been there for decades. Elsewhere in the city constriction was little les precise and although many f the Places were reconstructed much of the city is a perfect example of functionalist Socialist housing.

Comrade Stalin put his own mark on the reconstruction with a gift to the people of Poland, one I imagine they could not refuse, when he authorised the construction of the Plac Kultury i Nuak (Palace of Culture and Science). Construction started in 1952 and lasted until 1955. A gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland, the tower was constructed, using Soviet plans, With a total height of 237 metres (778 ft) it is the tallest building in Poland. Stalin died in March 1953 before it was completed but to many the building remains a highly controversial building, and is often viewed as a reminder of Soviet influence over the Polish People’s Republic,  especially due to its construction during mass violations of human rights under Stalin.  

Plac Kultury i Nuak (Palace of Culture and Science). Construction started in 1952 and lasted until 1955.

Despite Stalin’s death in 1953 Poland remained perched behind the Iron Curtain until 1989. The northern district of Zoliborz , which had featured in the 1944 Uprising, again became a cornerstone of Political confrontation in the 1980s after the formation of the Solidarity ( Solidarnosc) movement. Many rallies took place at the Plac Wilsona where one can visit the Church of St Stanislaw Kostka, where Father Jerzy Popieluszko was once parish priest. Jerzy Popiełuszko  born Alfons Popiełuszko; was a Polish RC priest  who became associated with the Solidarity trade union and was very vocal in his criticism of the Political regime. He was murdered on October 1984 by three agents of the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who were shortly thereafter tried and convicted of the murder. He has been recognized as a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church and was beatified on 6 June 2010. A miracle attributed to his intercession and required for his canonization is now under investigation. Today the basement of the Church houses a memorial to Father Jerzy.

The church also has a small memorial to Witold Pilecki who was arrested nearby in 1940 and held with others in Plac Wisona before his transfer to Auschwitz.

WARSAW TODAY

Today Warsaw remains the capital city of a modern Poland with it’s population of 38.5 million (now 5th highest in the EU). It officially joined the EU on May 1st 2004 but maintains it’s own currency the Zloty. The majority of Poles seem to have their hearts and minds set on becoming modern European citizens and their appetite for travel and hard work has brought them to all corners of the European Union. Warsaw’s Old Town is the touristic heart of the city and is full of shops, bars, restaurants and cafes which cater for the visitors. The rest of the city has become a modern European capital with the ongoing construction massive office blocks and towers. Across the river the Praga district, relatively untouched by the destruction wreaked on the city gives some indication of the pre-war Warsaw.

ART

In addition to the art gallery in the Royal Place Warsaw has more to offer. The Museum of John Paul II Collection (Muzeum Kolekcji im. Jana Pawła II) is housed in the building of the former stock exchange and National Bank at 1 Bank Square,  It is considered one of the finest collections of European art in Warsaw. The collection includes around 400 exhibits including Van Gogh, Goya and Sir Joshua Reynolds as well as a portrait of Martin Luther and his wife by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The Museum Narodowe (National Museum in Warsaw) is situated at No 3 Jerusalem Avenue ( Aleje Jerozolimskie) in a building especially constructed in the 1930s and one of the few to survive the mass destruction in 1944. However during this time most of the art was looted by the Nazis. After the war the Polish Government retrieved many of the works seized by the Germans but more than 5,000 artefacts are still missing. However the Museum is well worth a visit and includes some interesting words by Polish artists for example Jewess with Oranges ( Żydówka z pomarańczami, Pomarańczarka, Przekupka z Pomarańczami) is an 1880-1881n oil painting  on canvas by the Polish artist Aleksander Gierymski.  During World War II, the painting was stolen by German forces, and since 1945, Poland had sought its return. In 2010, the painting appeared in an antique market in Northern Germany and Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland began negotiations to bring the painting to Poland, which was successful in 2011, after compensation was paid out by the Polish PZU Foundation to the German owner.

Aleksander Gierymski - Jewish woman selling oranges - Google Art Project.jpg
Jewess with Oranges ( Żydówka z pomarańczami, Pomarańczarka, Przekupka z Pomarańczami) by the Polish artist Aleksander Gierymski.

WARSAW CHURCHES

Warsaw, of course, being the capital of a predominantly Catholic country has a host of beautiful churches. Most of course were destroyed in 1944 and had to rebuilt. One church St Augustine’s Church, ul Nowolipki 18, inaugurated in December 1896 did miracously survive demolition. After the German creation of the Warsaw Ghetto  the church was within its bounds, effectively closing it. Despite the official closure of the church, the home parish priest, Father Franciszek Garncarek and vicar Leon Więckowicz (or Więckiewicz) continued to live there. They took part in smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. Father Garncarek was shot on the steps of a church outside the ghetto on 20 December 1943. Więckowicz was arrested on 3 December 1942 and deported to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Lower Silesia, where he died on 4 August 1944. With the liquidation of the Ghetto,  the church was used as a warehouse in which property stolen from Jews was stored, then the church was converted into a stable. During the Uprising  the church tower was a vantage point and German machine gun nest. On 5 August 1944 the tower was damaged during the assault on the nearby Gesiowka prison by soldiers the AK. After the uprising, Germans set fire to the roof of the church and a considerable amount of the church was burned. The fire also took the rectory and parish house. The Germans had a plan to blow up the church, but it was not realized.

St. Hyacinth’s Church n is located in the New Town at Freta Street 8/10. Founded by the Dominican Order and had an adjoining Monastery and the original building was competed in 1639. During the Uprising it was used as a field hospital by the AK and completely destroyed in the German bombardment killing over 1000 people inside. It was completely rebuilt after the War.

St. Alexander’s Church (Polishkościół św. Aleksandra) is a situated on Three Crosses Square in central WarsawPoland. It marks the historical southernmost entry into New World Street (Nowy Świat), the Royal Route and the Old Town. The temple is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Warsaw. It was designed in the neoclassical style by renowned Polish architect Chrystian Piotr Aigner, and constructed in the years 1818–1825. In the late 19th century, St. Alexander’s was remodelled into a larger, more grandiose Neo-Renaissance church, with two side towers and a higher ornate dome. It was destroyed during an aerial bombardment by German Luftwaffe in the first days of September 1944, the church was hit by 9 bombs resulting in collapse of the dome, main nave and one of the towers. In the years after the war it stood as a ruin before being reconstructed in its initial simpler form by 1952.

St. Anne’s Church (PolishKościół św. Anny) is a church in the historic center of WarsawPoland, adjacent to the Castle Square, at Krakowskie Przedmieście 68. It is one of Poland’s most notable churches with a Neoclassical facade. The church ranks among Warsaw‘s oldest buildings. Over time, it has seen many reconstructions, resulting in its present-day appearance, unchanged since 1788. Currently it is the main church parish of the academic community in Warsaw.

The Church of the Holy Cross (PolishBazylika Świętego Krzyża) is a Roman Catholic house of worship in WarsawPoland. Located on Krakowskie Przedmieście opposite the main Warsaw University campus, it is one of the most notable Baroque churches in Poland’s capital. The main building was constructed between 1679 and 1696. Its main designer was Józef Szymon Bellotti, the royal architect at the Royal Court of Poland. It was financed by abbot Kazimierz

During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the church was severely damaged. On 6 September 1944, when the Germans detonated two large Goliath tracked mines in the church (they usually carried 75–100 kg of high explosives) the facade was destroyed, together with many Baroque furnishings, the vaulting, the high altar, and side altars.[1] Afterward the church was blown up by the Germans in January 1945.[1]

Between 1945 and 1953, the church was rebuilt in a simplified architectural form by B. Zborowski. The interior was reconstructed without the Baroque polychromes and frescos. The main altar was reconstructed between 1960 and 1972. Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849): His heart is interred in the church. His body is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

SOCCER

Warsaw is home to 2 major professional football clubs and a number of smaller clubs. The only one currently playing in the first division ( Ekstraklasa) is Legia Warszawa, once the main official football club of the Polish Army. They play at Marshal Jozef Pilsudski  Legia Warsaw Municipal Stadium  located on Łazienkowska street in Srodmiescie district. The other team is Polonia Warsaw  Polonia Warszawa,  founded on 19 November 1911, is the oldest existing club in the city but are now in the 111 Liga which is in the 4th tier of the Polish League. Their home ground General Kazimierz Sosnkowski   Polonia Warsaw Stadium located in the Muranow district north of the Old Town.

The Republic of Ireland have played Poland a total of 30 times since May 1938 mainly in international; friendly matches and only four times in competitions. In 1991 in the European Championship, under Jack Charlton which resulted in 2 draws. Then again in the European Championship in 2015, under Martin O’Neill which resulted in another draw, 1-1 in the Aviva in March 2015, attended by a capacity crowd of 50,500. The return match resulted in a 2-1 win to Poland on October 11th 2015, attended by 57,497 at the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw.

PERSONAL THOUGHTS

As an Irish person who has visited Poland and conversed and talked to many Polish people about their sad history and suffering during WW 2 I always admire how they can talk about it without any outward display of bitterness. To them our quest for Freedom from British Rule must seem miniscule and if not rather pathetic. Compared to their suffering what tyranny they were we fighting?

Most embarrassing for me is that during the time of their crucifixion our Government maintained a policy of neutrality. The only saving grace is that many Irishmen and women did volunteer and serve with the British armed forces to rid Europe of a tyrant never before seem in modern Europe. One thing I cannot abide is that our leader Eamon DeValera went to German Embassy in Dublin to offer his condolences on the death of the architect of the destruction of Warsaw- Adolf Hitler, just 10 months after the slaughter of so many civilians in the city on his personal orders – we must hang our heads in Shame, shame, shame.

References

Books

Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising. By Alexandra Richie. William Collins; ISBN-13 : 978-0007180417

Rising 44 The Battle for Warsaw by Norman Davies. Macmillan; Unabridged edition (17 Oct. 2003); ISBN-13 : 978-0333905685

Jack Fairweather (2019). The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz. London: WH Allen.  IBSN 978-0753545164;

Conversations with an Executioner by Kazimieerz Moczarski (Author) – January 1, 1981. Publisher: Prentice-Hall; First Edition (1981), 282 pages. 

  • Karski at 30/32 Lubelska Street in Warsaw.

FILMS

Kanal (1957) – In 1944, during the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis, Polish Lieutenant Zadra and his resistance fighters use Warsaw’s sewer system to escape the German encirclement. ( Director Andrzej Wajda);

The Pianist (2002) – Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. ( Director Roman Polanski);

Warsaw ’44 (2014) – A story of love, friendship and the pursuit of adventure during the bloody and brutal reality of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.  ( Director AJan Komasa);

Stones for the Rampart (2014) – Based on a well-known Polish novel with the same title the movie re-tells a true life story of a group of scouts called ”Szare Szeregi” (Gray Ranks) during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. (Director Robert Glinski) ;

Pilecki (2015) – A fictionalized documentary depicting the story of Witold Pilecki, from his youth through action during World War II, up to the imprisonment and death in May 1948. (Director Miroslaw Krzyszkowskiego) ;

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