Welcome to the Warsaw Rising Museum – a museum dedicated to one of the greatest battles of the Second World War.
On 1 August 1944 about twenty five thousand badly armed underground army soldiers are about to begin their struggle against superior German forces. Fifty thousand went on to join the struggle. Over two months of fierce fighting, Polish units managed to seize a significant part of the city and inflict heavy losses upon the enemy. However, lack of sufficient support from the Allies, the unquestionable technical superiority of the German army and enormous casualties, eventually forced the Polish command to end their heroic struggle after sixty three days. Fighting in the city, planned to last only a few days continued for over two months. The people of Warsaw did all they could to help insurgents from the very start of the Rising. They fought street battles, built barricades and organised support bases. The Germans, threatened by the approaching Eastern Front, sent several select units to fight the resistance. Their task was to put down the Rising using all available resources, and by doing so, to send a terrifying signal to the rest of Europe. This led to the total destruction of the city and numerous acts of genocide. About 180 thousand civilians were murdered by Adolf Hitler’s soldiers.
We have used the words of Polish Home Delegate and Deputy Prime Minister, Jan Stanislaw Jankowski, code name “Sobol” (in English, Sable) as the motto for the whole exhibition: “We wished to be free and to have only ourselves to thank for it.” The whole complex truth about the five-year occupation of Poland and the two months of the Warsaw Rising is contained in this one sentence. For the Rising was not a mindless, romantic act of a group of madmen, but a conscious, though tragic, political decision made by the legal government of Poland. Having experienced two cruel occupations – German and Soviet – the Poles were clearly aware what was on the Soviet agenda. They knew that the Red Army, approaching from the East, was fighting not to liberate Poland, but to exchange Nazi totalitarianism for their own, Communist totalitarian regime. The Warsaw Rising attempted to liberate the Polish capital by Polish forces allowing Poles to welcome the advancing Soviet troops as genial hosts. It was the last attempt to save Poland from Soviet enslavement.
At the very start of your Museum visit, take note of the anchor sign, combining the letters “P” and “W” (standing for Polska Walczaca – or Poland Fighting). This sign will be with us throughout our visit. It has been the official symbol of the Polish Underground State since 1942. Painted almost everyday on the walls of Polish towns, it stood for resistance against the invaders and the will to fight for freedom.
The Museum building was built between 1904 and1905 at the turn of the twentieth century. It is one of the few preserved examples of pre-war industrial architecture in Warsaw. The building originally housed a tram power station. Damaged by the Germans during World War II, it was completely destroyed during the Warsaw Rising. After the war, despite being rebuilt as a heat and power plant, the power station complex gradually lost its splendour and deteriorated.
The decision to locate the Warsaw Rising Museum here marked a new era for this historic building. New architectural details, designed by Wojciech Obtulowicz, were added during renovation work. A beautiful brick façade, typical of late nineteenth century industrial architecture, was revealed. It had been hidden for years under a thick layer of plaster. The vast yard of the former power station is being transformed into a unique garden – a Freedom Park – the central feature of which is a 156 metre long Wall of Remembrance. Its grey, granite columns are inscribed with the names of thousands of insurgents killed in August and September 1944.
You are also welcome to visit the Jozef Stanek Chapel, where Holy Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 12.30 by the Museum Chaplain.
The Rising 60 years on – Telephones
The Stalinist regime in Poland after the war could not tolerate the truth about the Waraw Rising, which was intended, after all, to prevent Stalin enslaving Poland. For many years, the communist authorities falsified the truth about the Rising and those who had participated in the struggle were persecuted. The Stalinist period from the late 1940s until 1956 was the most difficult. At that time, previous membership of the Home Army was sometimes enough to merit the death penalty. Following the political thaw in 1956, the Communist regime stopped criticising the rank and file insurgents, but intensified accusations against Rising commanders and politicians from the Polish Government in Exile. Only after the fall of the Communist regime in Poland was it possible to hold an open debate on all aspects of the Rising and to take the first steps towards constructing the museum. Unfortunately it took another 15 years until the project was completed in 2004.
The Museum was officially opened on 31 July 2004 – the eve of the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the battle for the capital of Poland. Thousands of surviving Insurgents came to Warsaw from all over the country and abroad. They were the first to enter their own Museum. Memories, thoughts and emotions that had lain hidden for years, came back to life….
You can use the telephones to listen to the Insurgents’ recollections of that Summer 60 years ago.
The Room of the Little Insurgent
Enter the Room of the Little Insurgent through the door on the right. This room is prepared especially for our young visitors, used for activities and classes for kindergartens and young school groups. Here they can learn, in a way appropriate to their age, about the history and the values that guided the Insurgents in 1944. At weekends the room can be used by individual visitors – parents may leave their children here in the care of experienced tutors. Among many period toys and games, children can draw, play with replica puppet theatre from the Rising, build a barricade or re-enact the experiences of their peers in the Scouts’ Field Postal Service.
Here we also want to show that the reality of the fighting city was equally ruthless and perhaps even more frightening for the young than for adults. Everyday shootings, bombings, having to live in cellars – it was all incomprehensible and brought death and terror….
Save the children, ours, yours, Polish, the children of Warsaw…- the insurgent slogans appealed. So-called milk kitchens were organised from the very start of the Rising, collecting milk and formulas badly needed by babies and toddlers. Everyone united in an effort to protect children from the ever-present cruelty of the war.
Initially children were strictly forbidden even to come close to areas where there was a risk of direct fighting. People tried to keep up the appearances of normal life: they organised puppet theatres, games and entertainment, illustrated magazines like “Jawnutka” or “The Children’s Daily” were published. Thanks to these activities, the children were able, at least for a while, to escape to the worlds of dreams and fantasy.
But not all children watched events from a distance. Many of them in their own way helped the Insurgents. Some very young people, only 10 years old or just over, who very often had already lost their families, tried to contribute to victory. Thanks to them, the Scouts’ Field Postal Service was formed immediately in the first days of August.
The numbers of couriers and sewer guides grew every day. They were not allowed to fight – but they could not be stopped from carrying food parcels, bottles of petrol or dispatches. This room has been named after one of these child heros – a twelve year old liaison officer for the “Gozdawa” and “Parasol” battalions – Corporal Witold Modelski, code name “Warszawiak” (in English Varsovian). He was the youngest Insurgent to be awarded the Cross of Valour for his bravery and courage. Tragically he died on 20 September 1944, while defending one of the last insurgent strongholds at Czerniakow.
In the Little Insurgent Room you can touch almost all of the exhibits. Visitors can play and learn at the same time. Yet there are also some original exhibits here. For example, a piece of paper with an eight year old girl’s prayer for her father, who is joining the Rising. Touched by this gesture, her father put the paper in his wallet which he carried in his left breast pocket. Shot in combat, the bullet stopped at the paper with the prayer written on it by his child. He survived the Rising – and after almost 60 years, the author of the prayer donated it to the museum collection: the ragged edge of the left-hand corner of the paper is a trace of the bullet that missed its target.
Another original exhibit is a toy – a little wooden train engine. No German patrol paid attention to a baby in a pram, playing with a toy. So women liaison officers used the train to hide secret dispatches and carry them safely between the underground command posts.
The central feature of the Museum is a steel monument spanning all levels of the exhibition. Several metres tall, the obelisk represents "the beating heart of fighting Warsaw." Each day of the Rising is recorded on the monument and these dates are interspersed with bullet holes. If you put you ear to the holes you can hear the "sounds of the Rising": the rattle of guns, fragments of songs, a prayer, radio announcements, bombs falling.
6. The outbreak of war and the occupation
On l September 1939 the German army launched an assault on Poland. The Polish troops defended themselves with great determination. When, on 17 September, the Red Army treacherously attacked from the east, the fate of our country was sealed. In autumn 1939 two occupying forces ruled Polish Society: the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.
Warsaw was in a particularly difficult situation. The Germans wanted to destroy Polish national identity and Warsaw lay at its heart. Between the end of May and the autumn of 1940, in Warsaw, the Germans mounted the so-called AB-Aktion, in English the Extraordinary Pacification Campaign, aimed at eliminating Polish intellectuals – conducting mass arrests and executions. Most of those arrested were then shot in Palmiry, a village in the forests outside Warsaw. On 20 and 21 June 1940, 358 people died there, including the former Speaker of the Polish Parliament Maciej Rataj and Olympic gold medal winner, Janusz Kusociński.
The other invader – the Soviet Union – had the same aim: to exterminate the Polish elite. In spring 1940, near Katyn, Miednoje and Charkov, on Stalin's orders, the NKVD murdered over 20 thousand Polish prisoners of war, mostly Reserve officers. In their civilian lives many of them were civil servants, teachers, doctors, lawyers, some were scientists or artists...
From the beginning of the occupation property was unlawfully confiscated. Street names were changed, and in shop windows, cafes, playgrounds and even on park benches notices saying „Nur fur Deutsche" (in English Germans Only) started to appear. Every month there were more and more arrests in the streets of Warsaw, public and secret executions and round-ups which led to deportation to the Third Reich as forced labour.
7. Polish Underground State
And yet, the Polish State survived underground: the President, Government and the Commander-in-Chief operating in exile. The highest authority in the Polish Underground State was the Home Delegate of the Government. He was in charge of the underground civil administration. Its structures organised and supported all areas of public life in spite of bans imposed by the occupying forces. The extensive network of secret schools deserves special mention. Thanks to these schools young people were educated up to university level at so-called "komplety" – secret classes held in private homes. The underground judicial administration was equally efficient, passing sentences, including the death penalty, on traitors and collaborators. The Home Army (AK) emerged from the Polish Underground State – it was the biggest underground army in the whole of occupied Europe. In 1944 its ranks numbered around 400 thousand soldiers. The main goal of the AK was to fight for independence. The underground army amassed weapons, carried out training, and conducted sabotage operations and intelligence activities, preparing for an armed national insurgency.
In occupied territories all over Europe the Germans treated Jews cruelly and inhumanely. They were forced into ghettos – the first of which was founded as early as October 1939 in Piotrków Trybunalski. Others soon followed. In autumn 1940 the Germans created the largest ghetto of all – the Warsaw Ghetto. They detained almost 450 thousand Jews from Warsaw and the surrounding countryside in a small area, in inhumane conditions. Unlike in Western Europe, in Poland helping Jews was a capital offence. In January 1942, during a conference in Wannsee, the Germans adopted the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” It was an unprecedented plan to murder all Jews in Europe. The liquidation of the ghettos commenced and Jews were transported to extermination camps. When the Germans began to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, an uprising broke out there. In spite of being poorly armed and few in number, the Jewish units kept fighting for almost a month – from 19 April until 16 May 1943. After suppressing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Germans systematically demolished the ghetto, flattening the whole district.
9. Operation "Tempest"
In 1943 the war entered a new phase. The allies launched an offensive in Italy and in the Far East. In the East, after defeating the Germans in the Battle of Kursk, the Red Army started its march to Berlin. It was simply a matter of time, before the Germans would surrender to the greater might of the Allied forces. On 25 April 1943 the Soviets broke off their diplomatic relations with the Polish Government-in-Exile. They used as a pretext the Germans’ discovery of the graves of thousands of Polish Army officers, brutally murdered on Stalin's orders in the Katyn forest in 1940. Several weeks later, having received information from collaborators, the Germans arrested the Commander of the Home Army, Gen. Stefan Rowecki codename "Grot" (in English “arrowhead”). The Polish Commander-in-chief and Prime Minister, Gen. Władysław Sikorski died a tragic death in an air-crash off Gibraltar. The international situation in Poland deteriorated significantly. The Allies changed their policy on the Polish eastern border. The Soviet army, whose march West was supposed to liberate Poland from the German occupation, turned out not to be Poland’s ally. All these factors forced both the Government-in-exile, and the Polish underground state to abandon plans for a general Rising. The Home Army began a sabotage operation code-named "Tempest".
The AK Chief Command’s Operation "Tempest" planned to attack the retreating German units as the front moved westward, and to gain control over the area and immediately establish Polish administrative structures there. The idea was that the newly established Polish authorities would grant Soviet troops permission to pass through Polish territory. When the Red Army entered the territory of the pre-war Polish state on 4 January 1944, operation "Tempest" turned into a series of local insurgencies, moving from East to West, along with the front. One by one, AK units in Wołyń (Volhynia), the area around Vilnius region, in Lviv and the Lublin region began their struggle. Unfortunately, military successes such as the liberation of Vilnius and Lviv by the AK, and relatively good cooperation with the Soviet forces there, did not mean that the political goals of the Operation were met. The final result always was the same: the Soviet secret police arrested members of the Polish civilian administration and military commanders who disclosed their identity, and the Home Army soldiers were forcibly disarmed and either sent to camps deep in Russia or forced to join Berling’s Army.
10. Before Hour “W”
In order to describe the situation in Warsaw just before Hour “W” and during the subsequent days of the Rising, you will find calendar pages placed among the exhibits. We encourage you to collect these cards – the full collection covers the period from 27 July to 5 October, each one describes the most important events on that day in the streets of the invincible city. Collecting the full set of cards will help you learn more about the Warsaw Rising and will be a special souvenir of your visit to our Museum.
As you cross the white and red line you enter the zone devoted to the last moments before the outbreak of the Rising.
At the end of July 1944, when the bad news from the Eastern Front started to reach the Germans, the German administration and auxiliary services began to evacuate Warsaw. Panic spread. After a few days, the Germans regained control of the situation and the police forces together with the SS returned to the city. At the same time in order to prevent an armed riot, the governor of the Warsaw District, Dr Ludwig Fischer, issued an order summoning 100 thousand Poles to report for work to build defences. The citizens of Warsaw spontaneously ignored the order. Soviet and Polish communists encouraged people to fight the Germans, while at the same time criticising the Home Army. The Moscow sponsored Polish Committee of National Liberation assumed power in the territory captured by the Red Army. The Soviets reached the Vistula River and rumours spread in the city that they had already entered the eastern suburbs of Warsaw. As a result, on the afternoon of 31 July, the Home Army Commander Gen. Tadeusz Komorowski, codename "Bór" (in English “forest”), ", issued an order to launch armed action after consultations with the Home Delegate of the Polish Government, Deputy Prime Minister Jan Stanisław Jankowski codename "Soból” (in English “sable”). This was code-named Hour “W”: 17:00 on Tuesday, l August 1944.
The night before the Rising broke out, there were nearly 50,000 Polish forces in the Warsaw District of the Home Army. However, they did not have the necessary equipment and weapons – only 10% of the Insurgents had guns. The Germans were in a rather different position.
At the end of July 1944 there were almost 20 thousand well-armed and highly trained soldiers in the German garrison in Warsaw, located at strategic points in the city. The Germans also possessed reserves of heavy weapons, artillery and an air force. In spite of being so heavily outnumbered and poorly equipped, on l August the Insurgents began the struggle that would last for 63 days...
11. Hour “W”
The first clashes broke out three hours before Hour “W”. Even though the element of surprise was lost, and in spite of problems with weapons and communications, at 17.00 around 25 thousand Home Army soldiers started fighting.
On the first day of the Rising the German units sustained heavy casualties, approximately 500 soldiers. The losses on the side of the Insurgents were, however, much heavier, amounting to nearly 2000 fatalities. The areas captured in the first days of combat did not give the Poles a tactical advantage. Nevertheless, they captured almost 3/4 of their capital – nearly all of the Old Town, the centre of Żoliborz and a significant part of Śródmieście, as well as Warsaw’s tallest building at the time – the Prudential building, on the top of which they raised the Polish flag. Yet the Germans defended themselves in several important strongholds, still retaining control over the city. Strategic targets such as bridges, railway stations, airports, numerous administrative buildings and military barracks remained in German hands.
12. The Print Shop
From the first months of the occupation, one method of eroding Polish identity was to close down independent Polish publishing houses and press. The printed word became an important instrument for the implementation of German policy against the conquered nation. Throughout the occupation the Germans published almost 40 newspapers and magazines in Polish. Poles referred to them colloquially as "reptile press". Self-respecting people did not read them. Articles in these publications frequently undermined the very concept of an independent Polish state. At the same time the press promoted an ideal image of the invincible German army and occupation authorities.
Underground presses promptly appeared in response to the growing constraints on those independent Polish papers that had not yet been closed down. Several secret organisations began to publish. Their publications drew special attention to German atrocities hidden from the public and brought news of the successes of the Allied forces. The underground newspapers also published reassuring and encouraging information aiming to inspire patriotic attitudes.
The scale of the phenomenon was enormous. In Warsaw itself, during the occupation over 700 press titles were published as well as numerous books, including the famous Kamienie na szaniec by Aleksander Kamiński.
The press published during the Warsaw Rising from 1 August to 5 October 1944, was unlike anything seen before anywhere in the world. A total of 167 press titles were distributed despite the difficult combat conditions. It was unusual that freedom of speech and democracy prevailed under such difficult circumstances. Papers appeared representing the whole political spectrum and authors of different political views published their articles.
The Insurgent press differed from the earlier underground press. Both its size and volume kept changing constantly. None of the newspapers had a fixed circulation. At its height in mid-August, the news dailies reached their highest circulation. These included the "Biuletyn Informacyjny” – Information Bulletin (the Home Delegate’s official newspaper) with a circulation of 20-28 thousand, and nearly 10 thousand copies of "Rzeczpospolita Polska" (Polish Republic). Towards the end of the struggle, due to lack of materials, many newspapers were published as posters and pasted on buildings.
The Press became a very important instrument for influencing the attitude of both the fighting units and the civilians in the city under siege, cut off from the outside world. It raised morale, and brought news about the situation in the city from the rest of the country and abroad. The news came mainly from foreign radio stations, the Press War Reporters news agency and the Polish Telegraph Agency, under Stanisław Ziemba’s editorial control.
After the Second World War, in spite of the Polish Parliament’s declarations of 1947, and the provisions of the 1952 Constitutions ensuring freedom of speech and press freedom, the Polish government introduced far-reaching censorship, administered by the Central Office for the Control of Press, Publications and Shows. This censorship was defied by the so-called “second circulation”. Active from 1975-1989 “the second circulation” drew directly from the Polish tradition of underground publications. Thanks to these unofficial editorial efforts a number of valuable books were published, including Tadeusz Zenczykowski’s The Lonely Struggle of Warsaw and Tadeusz Komorowski’s The Underground Army.
13. The Insurgents' Joy
The soldiers and the inhabitants of the city were euphoric about the outbreak of the Rising. People were convinced that victory was in sight. They were intoxicated by the idea of freedom regained after five years of brutal occupation. They were happy finally to be able to fight the much-hated enemy in the open. The Polish civil administration, operating underground up to that point, began to operate officially. The people of Warsaw carried out their orders with dedication. Thanks to the citizens’ spontaneous help, the life of free Warsaw got underway. Hospitals were established, anti-aircraft defence units were formed, the printing and distribution of press began, and work was in progress on launching two insurgent radio stations. The whole of Warsaw was united and took arms to fight for freedom.
According to the plans of the Home Army Command, the Rising was expected to last for a few days at most, after which the Red Army would enter the city. As a result of a number of offensive actions, by 4 August, the Insurgents had captured three Warsaw districts: Śródmieście with a part of Wola, the Old Town and Powiśle; Lower Mokotów; and Żoliborz, which constituted nearly 3/4 of the city area. However, the Soviets held back. They did not intend to help the Insurgents. The lack of weapons and ammunition and the constant growth of the German forces combined with Soviet intransigence, forced the Poles to abandon their attack and take defensive measures. They awaited support from the Soviet forces on the east bank of the Vistula.