While going up in the lift to the Museum mezzanine, you can hear the famous Insurgent song Hej, chłopcy, bagnet na broń! (in English “Lads! Fix your bayonets!”), written by Krystyna Krahelska. In 1936, she was the model for the Siren Statue on the Vistula, sculpted by Ludwika Nitschowa. You can see a copy of the Statue on the mezzanine.
Through the glass wall of the lift shaft you can see the museum’s collection of original Insurgent armbands. One of them, marked with No. 1, belonged to the Commander of the Rising, Gen. Antoni Chruściel codename "Monter" (in English “Mechanic”).
15. Fighting in August
You can now see display cases containing Insurgents’ uniforms and weapons. Home Army soldiers collected arms throughout the resistance period. The weaponry retained after the September campaign of 1939 was far from sufficient. They bought weapons and captured them from the enemy. Allied air-drops also supplied guns and underground workshops manufactured them, producing, for example, the machine gun "Błyskawica" (in English “Lightning”) and hand grenades. That is why Insurgent units fought with such a variety of weapons during the struggle. The exhibition shows the most interesting and the most typical weapons of the time. You can see one of the most effective machine guns of the Second World War – the German MG 42, but also the Polish Sten and the "Lightning" assembled in Insurgent manufacturing shops. [Insurgent hand grenades are also very interesting, both from the point of view of their appearance and their construction: the filipinka (in English “Filipino woman”), sidolówka (in English “Sidol grenade”) and karbidówka (acetylene grenade).]
In order to suppress the Rising, the German command despatched the Korpsgruppe, under the command of SS General Erich von dem Bach. [The Group consisted of a number of different units.] On 5 August the first German units mounted a counter-strike from the West, attacking Ochota and Wola. Their main task was to capture the two main Warsaw highways running from west to east, and to establish a link with Gen. Reiner Stahel's group, which was cut off in the centre of the city.
By 11 August, after fierce fighting with the Insurgents, the Russian-Ukrainian units RONA had seized Ochota. At the same time the Germans had captured Wola, reaching the Insurgents’ well-fortified stronghold in the Old Town. Having been ordered by Hitler to kill every inhabitant of Warsaw, the German units took the district of Ochota, committing numerous crimes against the civilian population. In Wola they mounted a planned extermination operation.
As they could not capture the Old Town with a single strike, the Germans began systematically to destroy buildings and Polish positions with artillery fire supported by air raids. On 19 August, after a few days of artillery bombardment the enemy launched a general assault on the besieged Old Town. Several attempts made by Insurgent units to help the surrounded district came to nothing. Finally, after long and fierce fighting, on 2 September, the German units captured the last defences of the Old Town.
After adopting defensive tactics, the Insurgents achieved their only significant success in Śródmieście. On 11 August they captured the Staszic Palace. On 20 August – the powerful PAST (State Telephone Company) building at Zielna Street. And on 23 August – the Holy Cross Church and the Police Headquarters at Krakowskie Przedmieście. In other districts the shortage of soldiers in the Insurgent ranks made it difficult to reinforce their defences and to improve their support bases.
The Insurgents mounted two big offensive actions in Żoliborz: two assaults on Gdański Railway Station – on the night of 20/21 and on 22 August. They also tried to establish a link between the Old Town and Śródmieście on 31 August. They were unsuccessful. The Insurgents sustained great losses, and all three clashes went down in history as the most bloody battles of the Rising.
16. The Administration
The outbreak of the Rising was not only marked by an armed struggle against the occupying forces, it also meant that – after almost five years of clandestine activity – the Polish State could operate openly. For over two months, in the few square kilometres constituting the city centre the institutions of the free and democratic Republic of Poland were in place: newspapers were published, political parties were active, as were the civil administration and its subordinated services. White-and-red flags, the Polish coat of arms with its white eagle– banned during the years of occupation – appeared in the first days of August. The citizens of Warsaw, of all ages and genders, gave themselves wholeheartedly to the collective effort. Everybody contributed to the common cause to the best of their ability. From day one the citizens of Warsaw reported to work in large numbers, spontaneously building barricades, supplying the soldiers with food, tending to the wounded and taking care of refugees from other districts. The number of these refugees grew everyday.
On 5 August, the District Delegate of the Government for the Capital City of Warsaw, Marceli Porowski codename "Sowa" (in English “Owl”) was put in charge of civilian resources, that is, all matters not related to combat. The rapidly growing administration initiated and managed these matters. Within a few days officials began to take care of the population. They organised offices responsible for food and water supply, accommodation and the evacuation of civilians from particularly dangerous sites.
The "Block Commanders" and the very efficient Central Welfare Council were responsible for supplying food and accommodation for civilians. To begin with, there were many bakeries and field kitchens in the city. People had substantial supplies of food and water in their homes. As time passed, these supplies dwindled, so the authorities carefully determined how much food remained and ordered the requisition of all commercial food stocks in the area covered by the Rising. In Śródmieście, the basic source of food was the cereal stock seized from the warehouse of the "Haberbusch and Schiele" brewery at Ceglana Street, which was captured back from the Germans. But the food rations decreased every day. In an attempt to provide the inhabitants with at least one hot meal a day, the Insurgent kitchens prepared the simplest dishes, for example a barley soup, popularly known as "spit-soup", because you had to spit out the grain husks and chaff.
The shortage of water was a great problem for the fighting city. The water supply system stopped working very soon after the outbreak of the Rising and water had to be drawn from wells, built in different parts of the city. This was very dangerous as the Germans often bombed or shot people queuing for water.
18. Religious life
Faith played a very important role in Insurgent Warsaw. The city's religious life was kept alive by the celebration of Holy Mass. Crowds gathered not only in those churches that had survived the bombings, but also in open-air chapels, field hospitals, and cellars and at courtyard shrines. People prayed, singing the hymn: "Boże, coś Polskę..." (Lord, who has protected Poland…). Priests played a vital role during the Rising. Every chaplain, by special permission of the Pope, was allowed to celebrate not just one, but three, Masses a day. They also presided over funerals, kept a register of the dead, heard confessions, and sometimes – conducted weddings and baptisms. Religion provided a source of moral strength in the day to day life of the fighting city, helping many people to endure the tragedy that was unfolding in front of their very eyes.
19. Cultural life
In spite of daily attacks of brutality and violence, the cultural life of the insurgent city survived. Newspapers were published in large numbers, carrying not just news, but also poetry by insurgents. A number of distinguished figures of the pre-war cultural world cooperated with the press, including the fairy tale writer Maria Kownacka, and the young poets Tadeusz Gajcy, Zdzisław Stroiński and Józef Szczepański. Shows and concerts were held in soldiers’ pubs. In Powiśle a puppet theatre "Puppets on the Barricade" gave performances. You can see a replica of this theatre in the Little Insurgent Room. Also, in the second week of August, two insurgent radio stations started broadcasting: "Lightning" and „Polish Radio". Their cultural programmes kept up the fighting spirit.
20. The Wola Massacre
The reaction of the Third Reich to the first news of the Warsaw Rising was furious and ruthless. Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, communicating Hitler's order to destroy the city, added: "Every inhabitant is to be killed, no prisoners are to be taken. Warsaw is to be wiped out and thus serve as a frightening example for the rest of Europe". From in the first days of August the Germans followed this order meticulously.
On 5 August the German assault began that aimed to retake control of the two main Warsaw highways. The task was carried out by a group under the command of SS Gruppenführer and Police General Heinrich Reinefarth. It consisted mainly of Russian-Ukrainian units of the RONA Brigade, under the command of Waffen-Brigadeführer Bronislav Kaminski, and the Brigade of SS Standartenführer Oskar Dirlewanger, staffed by criminals.
Mass executions in Wola and Ochota were acts of genocide against the civilian population of Warsaw, one of the most horrific German crimes committed during the Second World War. From the beginning of the Rising, captured Home Army soldiers and civilians picked at random were executed in different parts of the city. Systematic extermination of Poles began on 5 August, later known as Black Saturday, the day when the Germans started killing the citizens of Wola. The murders were preceded by rapes and unprecedented looting of houses. It has been estimated that within Wola alone over 40 thousand men, women and children died at German hands. Executions were carried out in hospitals, factories and courtyards. Soon the Germans were short of ammunition. After a conversation one evening with the commander of the 9th Army, General Nicolaus von Vormann, General Reinefarth asked: "What shall I do with the prisoners? I have more prisoners than I have ammunition".
The acts of genocide visited on the civilian population continued for a few days. The rate of killing was slightly reduced by the decision to use some prisoners as forced labourers. But until the fighting was over mass executions were carried out all over Warsaw in insurgent hospitals seized by the Germans. Frequently, civilians, especially women, died when they were forced in front of tanks by the SS to be human shields during attacks on insurgent barricades. As a rule, Germans shot captured Insurgents on the spot.
The Declaration by the United Kingdom and the United States of 29 August, that the Home Army constituted a part of the Allied forces and that combatants rights applied to Home Army soldiers, did little to improve the situation of Polish POWs.
After the war, the mass graves in Wola held the bodies of over 100 thousand Warsaw citizens. Most of these people were murdered when the Germans took control of the district. This place is commemorated today by a monument inscribed with the words "They Died Undefeated". During the exhumation of the dead, special records were taken describing their wounds and their clothing. As you can see, the information is scarce – the victims of the genocide will remain anonymous for ever...
Soon after the outbreak of the Warsaw Rising, the Polish government in exile began its efforts to secure help for the fighting city. Firstly they demanded immediate air-drops of weapons, ammunition, food and medical supplies. The Polish government issued a request to the Allies to send the Parachute Brigade under the command of General Stanisław Sosabowski to support the insurgents. They proposed the Kampinos Forest as a landing area, [as well as to launch bomb raids on indicated targets]. On 3 August, thanks to the insistence of the Poles, the UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the launch of air-drops for Warsaw.
The airdrops were very difficult to implement because of Stalin's decision to refuse to allow Allied planes access to Soviet air-fields after the drops. The flight route from Italy is about 1500 km , which meant that the planes had to return over Hungary and Yugoslavia, where the air space was patrolled by German fighters. Night flights over Warsaw were equally dangerous, as most of the flightpath was above areas occupied by the enemy. The strong German anti-aircraft defence was supported by radars, which meant both that precision fire could be directed at Allied planes even under cover of darkness, and that enemy aircraft could be guided towards the Allies.
In spite of the reluctance of the British commanders, on the night of 4 August, the first planes with supplies for Warsaw took off from Brindisi. The flights suffered heavy losses. It was not just Poles who flew from Italian air-bases, but also pilots from Britain, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. Between 4 August and 21 September a total of 196 aircraft took off carrying aid for Warsaw.
Stalin's refusal to allow planes to land on the Soviet side of the Front had ruled out the possibility of using American B-17 planes, the so-called flying fortresses. They finally flew over Warsaw on 18 September, when Stalin opened his airfields to the Allies. 110 huge aircraft took off for Warsaw from four airfields in the United Kingdom. The appearance of such a huge fleet of planes over the city in the middle of the day raised the spirits and enthusiasm of the fighters and civilians enormously. Unfortunately, this great joy turned quickly into despair when most of the dropped containers fell beyond the insurgent lines – out of 1284 containers, only 228 go into Insurgents' hands. It was the first and last mission of the American air force to Warsaw.
In the final phase of the Rising, from 13 September to 1 October, Soviet planes also came to help the fighting city. The Soviets dropped supplies from low altitude, without parachutes. As a result, a significant part of the equipment so badly needed by the Insurgents, reached them either damaged or completely destroyed. It was not effective aid, and the late date of its delivery, carefully chosen to minimise Soviet losses, was clear indication of the politics underpinning the lengthy period of Soviet "neutrality"...
22. Insurgent Hospital
The Warsaw Rising was expected to last only for a few days. The events of the first days brutally verified the assumptions of the Polish command. The scale of the fighting increased and the number of wounded soldiers and civilians grew from day to day. It became necessary to open new dressing stations and insurgent hospitals. The support of the civilian population proved invaluable. The inhabitants of Warsaw shared all the medications, dressings, beds, food, and time that they had at their disposal.
In the insurgent hospitals Poles fought for their lives. These hospitals were also the scene of the most atrocious war crimes. One example is the story of the St. Elizabeth Sisters Hospital in Mokotów. On 29 August, the hospital building was shelled for two hours and completely destroyed. Most of the medical staff and the patients died. Throughout the rising the hospital was clearly marked with the Red Cross banner...
The Germans usually captured insurgent hospitals by mounting a direct assault. The sounds of screaming and stamping feet were drowned out by machine gun fire – patients died, and the nurses tending the wounded died. Warsaw knew about these atrocities – in spite of the danger doctors and nurses stayed at their posts, sacrificing their lives for the sake of their patients.
First aid was administered at the battlefield or nearby by female medical orderlies. They gave first aid under enemy fire, dressed wounds, protected the wounded with their own bodies – and many of them were shot and killed. They directed the seriously wounded to the nearest dressing station or hospital, sometimes carrying the stretchers themselves. There, doctors sought to save their lives, operating in incredibly difficult conditions, and often under fire.
It is estimated that during the two-month insurgency over 10 thousand people were hospitalised, and over 10 thousand received emergency medical aid. More than 500 doctors, supported by a number of nurses and medical orderlies, worked devotedly at insurgent dressing points and in hospitals. Their work prevented the outbreak of epidemics in Warsaw. But primarily they saved lives, fighting on one of the most difficult fronts.
23. Palladium Cinema
We are at 7-9 Złota Street, at the Palladium Cinema. Three newsreels called “Warsaw is Fighting” were shown here during the Warsaw Rising, under the initiative of the Information and Propaganda Bureau (BIP). Before we watch the newsreels, let’s listen to the story of how they were made.
In spring 1940 the Information and Propaganda Bureau was created as part of the Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ) – which later became the Home Army. Its responsibilities included informing the public about the activities of the Polish government and the Polish Underground State, and about the reality of the situation on all fronts as well as keeping up the will to resist and fight the invaders. Polish authorities understood the important documentary function of the Bureau well. They expected that materials gathered by the Polish Underground State would be vital after the war, helping to identify crimes committed by the occupying forces. In 1942 a division code-named "Rój" (in English “Swarm”) was established within the Information and Propaganda Bureau. It was responsible for the making documentaries and pro-Rising propaganda. „Rój" trained groups of film makers, photographers, radio operatives, journalists, writers and artists. It also collected equipment and necessary materials. Thanks to all these preparations, on 1 August 1944, a number of camera crews and war correspondents were well prepared for work in combat conditions and left for the front.
The film makers documented the Warsaw Rising on some 30 thousand meters of film. Wacław Kaźmierczak, together with two film directors - Antoni Bohdziewicz codename "Wiktor" (in English “Victor”) and Jerzy Zarzycki codename „Pik" (in English “Spade”) used this film to put together newsreels. On the evening of 15 August the first public screening took place at the Palladium Cinema. The cinema was packed with soldiers and civilians from the neighbourhood. Representatives of the insurgent press were also present. Two further newsreels were shown on 21 August and 2 September.
After the collapse of the Rising, most of the film reels were taken out of Warsaw by the legendary courier, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański. The material was used in the 1940s by the authors of the film Last days of Warsaw, shown in the United States and other western countries. The remaining reels, hidden during the Rising in a sealed sewage pipe, were recovered in 1946.
You can watch a short newsreel put together from that rescued footage.
24. The Old Town
From the cinema we pass into the Old Town where fires are raging. After several days of constant gunfire, bombing raids and furious enemy assaults, no single building was left intact in the Old Town. The condition of the Insurgent units deteriorated from day to day. An attempt to break through the cordon of German troops failed. The way left to get out of the siege was through underground passages.
Evacuation was carried out through two sewers: the main one, with an entrance at Krasińskich Square, and a subsidiary one, with an entrance on Daniłowiczowska Street. Most of the Insurgents reached Śródmieście, and a few hundred got out in Żoliborz. In the course of two days, over 5 thousand Home Army soldiers escaped the siege through the sewers.
25. The Sewer
We can walk through the sewer to Śródmieście just as the Insurgents did on 1 and 2 September. In 1944 the route was much longer, almost 2 km. It took about 4 hours to cover that distance. The conditions in the passage were terrible – the ceilings of the real sewers were much lower than the one in the Museum display and the Insurgents waded in toxic sewage. It was dark and the insurgents were scared that Germans lurking near manholes could hear them. In spite of all those difficulties the evacuation of the Old Town was a success.
However, a tragic fate befell the soldiers of Lieutenant-Colonel Józef Rokicki codname „Karol" (in English “Charles”), who tried to leave Mokotów on 26 October. Contradictory orders, toxic sewage, and German attacks from above, meant that many soldiers from Mokotów died in the passage. Only 800 utterly exhausted Insurgents reached their destination.
26. The Sewer Outlet
The use of a municipal sewer system in the Warsaw Rising on such a scale, was a unique phenomenon, unknown in any previous armed conflict. The Warsaw sewer system, designed in the 19th century by an Englishman, William Lindley, runs under almost the entire city. The night of 5-6 August Elżbieta Ostrowska known as "Ela", travelling from Śródmieście to Mokotów, opened a regular sewer route between the districts. The underground network of corridors made it possible to maintain links between individual sites of combat, to transfer casualty replacements, supply food and ammunition, and to evacuate the insurgent units, civilians and the wounded cut off by the enemy. The Insurgents very quickly adapted the most important routes for regular traffic. In many places they fixed wooden boards on the floor, attached ropes to the walls, and marked the direction of traffic, even using illuminated signs. Maintaining efficient communication links via the sewers was the responsibility of a specially trained group of women liaison officers – "kanałówki" (in English “sewer girls”) and young boys, including a team of so-called "sewer rats". Before the Germans worked out what was happening, the traffic on the underground routes was heavy and the sewers were the safest way to get around the city. However, in the middle of August, the enemy began to destroy the sewer routes. The Germans fitted iron barriers in passages, bricked up tunnel entrances, released gas into the sewers or dammed them. They also blew up some of the sewers using vehicles filled with explosives, known as Typhoons.
In our cafe you can relax and have something to eat whilst listening to songs from the time of the Rising. You can also read insurgent newspapers or contemporary ones. There are photographs on the walls of some of the period’s famous artists, and the whole interior is modelled on a café from the time of the occupation called the “Pol Czarnej” (in English "Half a Black Coffee") – a meeting place for artists, operating since December 1939 at 6, Kredytowa Street.
From the first days of the Rising, all over the city, but particularly in Śródmieście, workers known as “Peżetki” (in English “PŻ ladies”) from the organisation Pomoc Żołnierzowi (Help the Soldier) organised temporary kitchens and soldiers' clubs. Each club was staffed by several „PŻ ladies", who prepared meals for the fighters, and tried to provide some entertainment for them. The establishments were equipped with radios, record players and copies of current insurgent newspapers. For Home Army soldiers coming back from the front line of fighting, these places were havens of peace and normal life. Naturally these establishments run by "PŻ ladies" became extremely popular. During the armed struggle the Insurgents spent their free time at these clubs, playing chess and draughts, singing and giving improvised piano recitals.
Concerts were another popular attraction. They were organised, fairly regularly, under the auspices of the Information and Propaganda Bureau (BIP). The shows were staged almost everywhere: in courtyards, in cellars, in field hospitals and soldiers clubs. The artists who performed during the Rising included some of the great names of the pre-war stage, such as Mira Zimińska, Adam Brodzisz and Hanna Brzezińska. The performances attracted large crowds. One of the most famous artists of that time, Mieczysław Fogg, described the experience of performing during the Rising: "The room was packed with boys and girls. The young people were holding machine guns in their hands, hand grenades tucked behind their belts. How many singers in the world had ever had such audience?"