Many representatives of other nations fought Shoulder to shoulder with the Poles in the Warsaw Rising. From the first hours of the struggle, following the traditional Polish motto "for your freedom and ours", they joined the Polish ranks. They included foreigners who lived in Warsaw before the war, soldiers escaped from POW camps, people who escaped from forced labour in the Third Reich and also deserters from the German army and Red Army soldiers. The most numerous groups fighting on the Polish side were the Slovaks, the Hungarians and the French. Among the Insurgents brothers in arms there were also a few Belgians, several Dutch, Greek, British and Italian nationals. There was also a Romanian and an Australian.
The contact between Slovaks and the Polish resistance began quite early during the occupation. This was maintained among others, by 2nd lieutenant Mirosław Iringh known as „Stanko". He was later an insurgent commander. Full cooperation between the Slovaks and the Polish Underground State began with the establishment of the clandestine Slovak National Committee. It was created in Warsaw in mid-1942. After a year, the Committee’s authorities formed a military sub-unit, formally subordinated to the Home Army and bound to it by the pledge of allegiance until the end of the war against Germany. The 535th Independent Slovak Platoon became a part of AK V District units. In the Slovak Platoon there were also Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Czech and Ukrainian fighters. During the Rising, the Platoon took part in the assaults on Belvedere, Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego and the church at Łazienkowska Street; as a part of the "Kryska" Grouping they defended the positions in Czerniaków.
The Slovaks were the only foreigners fighting in the Rising, who fought under their own banner. Their arm-bands also sported their national colours. The tri-colour flag of the Slovak Platoon is one of the few original insurgent banners that has survived.
Most of the 348 Jews, brought to the German concentration camp at Gęsia Street from places such as Greece, Holland and Hungary, also joined the Uprising. Freed by the "Zośka" battalion, 50 of them became members of the "Radosław" Grouping, the rest joined the auxiliary units, dealing with transport of the wounded, extinguishing fires, producing and transporting weapons.
Hungarian units, brought by the Germans to help quash the Rising, appeared to be quite sympathetic towards the Poles. However, the Hungarians had no intention to fight with the Insurgents. In late August, one of the officers of the Hungarian regiment despatched to pacify the Kampinos Forest, sent an alarming message to the Polish command: "They are sending us. We have to go, but we do not want to fight with the Poles. We will just go through the Forest and if we are not harassed, we do not want to know anything".
40. The Big Three
In 1943, after the victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, the Red Army began to advance west. The international position of the Soviet Union grew stronger. At the turn of November and December 1943, the leaders of the three greatest superpowers - Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin – met in Tehran. Contrary to the provisions of the Atlantic Charter, signed two years before, the so called Big Three decided to begin talks about the future world order without informing other nations. The Americans and the British, unable to keep their promise to open the Western Front, were prepared to grant significant concessions. Stalin was well aware of the difficult situation of the Allies and exploited it very skilfully. He forced them to accept a border between Poland and the Soviet Union along the modified "Curzon Line", which in fact confirmed Soviet territorial gains after their invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939. The Polish Government-in-Exile was not only unrepresented at the conference, but was not notified of its results, even those directly concerning Poland. The Big Three decided to keep their decisions secret, which undoubtedly affected both the fate of the Warsaw Uprising and the post-war history of Poland...
Less than a year after the conference of the Big Three, fighting in Warsaw broke out. Polish authorities did not know the decisions taken in Tehran, de facto transferring Poland into the Soviet sphere of influence. That is why they still hoped for strong western support. Aware that Stalin was no fan of independent Poland, they believed that, pressured by the Allies, he would not be able to leave the struggling Warsaw to its own fate. Those hopes, however, turned out to be wrong. On the twelfth day of fighting Stalin declared that the Warsaw Rising was an unreasonable and terrible adventure from which the Soviet Union categorically disassociated itself. From that moment Soviet press and radio started to publish articles condemning the AK insurgence in Warsaw and slandering Polish command.
The Western Allies did not have the political will to force the Soviets to support the Rising. A priority for western diplomacy was to maintain good relations with Stalin, almost at any cost. The efforts of the Polish government, demanding effective action from the Allies, were fruitless. Churchill attempted to persuade Roosevelt to adopt a firmer stance towards the Soviets, but the American president had no intention of being persuaded and the position of Churchill on his own was too weak.
The Western public did not support the Polish cause either. In spite of much praise for Polish courage in the English and American press, no sensitive questions were asked. In the left-wing press, on the other hand, numerous critical voices appeared. The "Daily Herald" and the "Daily Worker", using the Soviet rhetoric, wrote about the "Warsaw adventure", led by "fascists" and "reactionaries". Very few people in the West were aware of the real reasons behind the tragic situation of Warsaw. George Orwell bravely condemned the cowardly attitude of the western public, media and governments in the "Tribune" published on the 5th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, but his was a lonely voice.
41. The Death of the City
During the Second World War, Warsaw was destroyed four times. First, during the German siege in the September Campaign of 1939, when air raids caused serious damage to a number of buildings. Secondly, after the Ghetto Rising was crushed, and the Ghetto was demolished when the Germans wiped out the whole of what had been the Jewish quarter. The third time was during the Warsaw Rising, as a result of heavy artillery fire and shelling of insurgent positions. The fourth demolition, after the collapse of the Rising, took place when the Germans began the systematic flattening of the Polish capital. The German operation resulted in the destruction of nearly 83 percent of the city's buildings, and the destruction of almost all of the capital’s cultural heritage – the intellectual centre of Poland.
From the very beginning of the Rising Warsaw was overwhelmed by rapidly spreading fires. In spite of the efforts of thousands of people, house after house turned into smouldering rubble. Systematic shelling by the German artillery together with air raids reduced yet more houses to rubble, and many Warsaw historic churches and monasteries were seriously damaged. The Krasiński, Ossoliński, Kazimierzowski, and Czartoryski palaces along with many others were ruined. The historic buildings of the Old Town were particularly vulnerable. For 3 weeks the Old Town was courageously defended by the besieged Insurgents of the "North" Group under the command of Col. Karol Ziemski known as "Wachnowski". The Old Town Market Square was completely burned down, and the walls of the Royal Castle and St. John’s Cathedral were damaged. Warsaw archives and libraries sustained irreparable losses. Individual archives lost between 70 and 100 percent of their collections.
After the capitulation, in spite of the ceasefire and the expulsion of the civilian population from the city, Warsaw was still shaken by explosions and the piercing clatter of falling walls. The Germans stole everything: during a few months they took about 45 thousand railway carriages loaded with goods from the city. They carried off to the Third Reich not only machinery and furniture, but also street lamps, cables, kerbs – everything that might be of use. What they could not take away, they meticulously and systematically destroyed, blowing up buildings that were still standing and those that were already in ruins – building after building, churches, palaces, public utility buildings, factories, tracks, streets, viaducts and railway stations. The city slowly died. Even the autumn rains and the severe winter that followed could not extinguish the smouldering ruins. The Germans achieved their objective – not only to destroy Polish culture, but also to erase all its traces.
The Soviet troops, stationed on the other side of the river, did not take any action to stop the Germans. Once again, the aims of Hitler and Stalin, deadly enemies, turned out to coincide, as far as policy towards Poland was concerned. It was very convenient for the Soviet dictator that the "bourgeois" elite of the nation be destroyed and no trace of pre-war Warsaw remain. As a result he could rebuild the city according to his own social-realist urban vision, erecting in the city centre his “gift” to the Polish nation, the Palace of Culture and Science – a symbol of soviet domination.
The scale of destruction in the city is reflected in the results of research carried out by a commission chaired by Prof. Wojciech Fałkowski, appointed in 2004 by the Mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczyński, to estimate the losses sustained during the war. According to the researchers, an initial estimate of material losses sustained by Warsaw is around 45 billion 300 million USD.
After the defeat of Mokotów on 27 September, and Żoliborz on 30 September, with no hope for the future, the Home Army High Command in agreement with the Home Delegate of the Polish Government, Deputy Prime Minister Jan Stanisław Jankowski codename „Soból" (in English “Sable”), decided to start negotiating a surrender. On 1 October Gen. Tadeusz Komorowski, codename „Bór" (in English “Forest”) sent a telegram to the Polish government in London: "Further fighting in Warsaw has no chance of success. I have decided to put an end to it. The terms of surrender guarantee full combatant rights to the soldiers and humane treatment to the civilian population".
On 2 October, the representatives of the Home Army High Command – Certified Colonel Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki known as „Heller" and Certified Lieutenant Colonel Zygmunt Dobrowolski known as „Zyndram"- in the headquarters of Gen. Erich von dem Bach in Ożarów near Warsaw, signed an ceasefire agreement for Warsaw. According to its provisions, the Insurgents were to lay down their arms and leave the city in close ranks, headed by their commanders. The civilian population also had to leave Warsaw.
The mass exodus of the civilian population of Warsaw took place during the first few days of October 1944. The Germans directed them to the so called transit camps. The biggest camp was "Dulag 121" in Pruszków, established in the first week of August. By 10 October, nearly 550 thousand citizens of Warsaw and 10 thousand people from the suburban towns had passed through the camp. A stay in the camp did not usually last longer than a week. During that time the Germans carried out a "selection" procedure, which decided the fate of the detainees – deportation to the territory of the General Government or to the Third Reich to forced labour, and in the worstcase scenario – to concentration camps.
The first insurgent units left for captivity on 4 October from Śródmieście, the district involved in heavy fighting until the very end of the Rising. A day later, in gloomy silence, the last Polish units together with the general staffs of the High Command, Area Command and the Warsaw Corps of the Home Army marched away. The Home Army Commander, Lieutenant General Tadeusz Komorowski codename „Bór" (in English “Forest”), standing alone in the street, saluted the units leaving for captivity. Then, assisted by a German officer, major Kurt Fischer, he followed them, determined not to abandon his soldiers.
The journey made by Insurgents to POW camps began on 6 October from Ożarów near Warsaw. The largest group went through Stalag 334 Lamsdorf (now called Łambinowice) in Silesia, the oldest and the biggest POW camp in the Third Reich. In the camp, the Insurgents received their POW numbers, and were then sent out to Oflags and Stalags all over Germany. The location of the major camps is shown on the map displayed here.
The displacement of practically the entire population of Warsaw after the Rising was an unprecedented event in the history of Europe. What we are talking about here is totalitarian engineering on a massive scale– for a few months a big city, the capital of a big European country, practically ceased to exist. After the war, only part of its pre-war population returned to Warsaw – many of them settled where the war had thrown them, and many remained overseas.
44. The Robinsons
Not everybody, however, left the ruined city. Those who could not or did not wish to leave stayed among the rubble. They were mainly Jews, for whom disclosure of their identity to the German authorities would mean certain death. In extremely difficult conditions, without food and in danger of being discovered, they hid until the Red Army took over the city in January 1945. The fate of the "Warsaw Robinsons" is very accurately described in the Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, which won 3 Oscars. The film tells the story of the Polish pianist of Jewish origin, Władysław Szpilman, who hid alone in the ruins of the city after the Rising.
The insurgents were transported to POW camps in terrible conditions. They were herded in cattle trucks into the unknown, feeling cold, hungry, tired and thirsty. At their destination the Poles were treated as "sub-humans". But the Germans reserved the worst treatment for the Russians who, as numerous reports show, were detained in inhumane conditions. In spite of this, the Warsaw insurgents endured, waiting for the end of the war. Christmas Eve 1944 is a particularly strong symbol of the tragic situation of the Poles at this time. It was the only Christmas Eve in history not to be celebrated in Warsaw. The exiled insurgents tried to be together on that day, singing Christmas carols and sharing bread. But it was the most difficult Christmas Eve of all – away from their homeland, behind wire fences of the camps, without their loved ones or any news of their fate. A former female courier from Żoliborz, Ms. Lidia Wyleżyńska, detained in Stalag VI C Oberlangen recollects: "We found ourselves in barracks on 24 December and even though Red Cross parcels had travelled with us we only received them the following day. It was a sad, hungry Christmas Eve. Two of us slept on each bunk, it is warmer that way. Every morning I achieved the heroic feat of washing myself in the bathroom, where the windows had no panes and the water was bitterly cold."
In this room you can listen to other descriptions of the Christmas Eve celebrations in the camp.
Despite very difficult living conditions and despicable treatment by officers of the detaining country, most Polish POWs managed to survive until liberation. The gates of POW camps were open by Allied forces marching to Berlin. The camp in Oberlangen, in which the Germans detained nearly 700 female participants of the Warsaw Rising, was liberated by Poles on 12 April 1945 – the soldiers of the First Armoured Division under the command of Gen. Stanisław Maczek. After liberation some of the Insurgents put on uniforms and went on fighting until the end of the war. Some looked for a place to live in the liberated western countries. Most went back to Poland.
46. Insurgents in the Polish People's Republic
The authorities in Poland did not welcome the Insurgents with open arms. Home Army soldiers and the Insurgents of the Warsaw Rising were considered by the ruling communists as "the spit-drenched dwarves of reaction" and enemies of the "people's homeland". The fact that they had fought for Poland and for Warsaw, and had been ready to sacrifice their lives, was now considered a crime. Insults, persecution, arrests and murders increased under the communist law. The omnipotent Security Bureau decided the fate of the Insurgents. Returning to normal life was almost impossible.
In Moscow in the middle of June 1945, Stalin staged a trial of the sixteen leaders of the Polish Underground State, who had been arrested in March of the same year. According to the political agenda of the Soviet rulers, the "trial of the sixteen" was supposed to create circumstances conducive to establishing a Soviet sponsored Provisional Government of National Unity, whose emergence was agreed at the Big Three conference in Yalta in February 1945. The aim of the trial was to compromise, in the eyes of Western leaders and the public, the authorities of the Polish Underground State and as a consequence, all Poles who opposed Soviet domination. To that end, false accusations of collaboration with the Germans were devised.
This marked the beginning of a period of condemnation of former Home Army soldiers, and in particular the participants of the Warsaw Rising. Communist propaganda was everywhere: "Traitors led by Sosnkowski and Bor pushed Warsaw into the fire of senseless insurrection." Until the mid-1950s, Home Army soldiers were persecuted and could not find work. Arrests and accusations of treason abounded. Many soldiers of the "Zośka" Battalion or "Radosław" Grouping including its commander Col. Jan Mazurkiewicz, were tried and sentenced to many years imprisonment. Many Home Army soldiers never got out of prison. They were sentenced to death on the basis of forged evidence or died in prison in unclear circumstances. The last Home Army Commander Gen. Leopold Okulicki, codename “Niedźwiadek" (in English “Bear Cub”), was a victim of the Soviet imprisonment in 1946. The first commander of "K-Div" of Home Army High Command, Gen. August Fieldorf, codename "Nil" (in English “Nile”), was hanged in 1953. The Home Delegate Jan Stanisław Jankowski, codename „Soból" (in English “Sable”), died in a Soviet prison in 1953, two weeks before the end of his sentence. Lieutenant Jan Rodowicz codename „Anoda" (in English “Anode”), was arrested on Christmas Eve 1948 and died after being tortured during the investigation. His torturers maintained that he had committed suicide. Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki, who voluntarily went to Auschwitz and initiatied and organised the resistance movement in the camp, was sentenced to death by the communist authorities. He was shot in the back of his head in 1948.
After 1956, when Władysław Gomułka returned to power, criticism of the Rising slowly relented. Individual insurgents were no longer persecuted because the authorities decided that it might be harmful to their image. The Insurgents were still treated with suspicion and hostility. In 1956, the authorities allowed a commemoration ceremony in Powązki Cemetery marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the Rising for the first time. But security agents took photographs of the participants and marked those of interest to them on the photos. The photographs have recently been discovered at the Institute of National Remembrance, and can be seen in this display.
The Commander of the Warsaw Rising, Gen. Antoni Chruściel codename „Monter" (in English “mechanic”), wrote to Gomułka in 1957 asking to have his Polish citizenship restored. It had been taken away by the communists in 1946. He also requested permission to return to Poland. He never received a reply.
47. John Paul II
It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that great changes took place, especially with regards to Poles’ the social awareness. The fact that a Pole, Karol Wojtyła, was elected Pope in 1978 was a very important part of that process. The Pope's first journey to Poland became a catalyst for a great social movement. The words of the Pope "Do not be afraid" and "Let Your Spirit come and renew the face of the earth. This earth!" spoken in June 1979 in Warsaw, gave the Poles unusual strength and faith. As a result, a year later, a strong and universal social resistance emerged with the birth of the "Solidarity" movement. Underground publications not subject to state censorship – know as the "second circulation" –flourished. Poles began to learn the true history of the Warsaw Rising and its leaders, a history that had been either concealed or falsified until then. The time of truth and objective evaluation was approaching, this was the time of the next generation.