Insurgents' accounts of the Uprising
Wartime memories of Marek Tadeusz Nowakowski - a soldier of Lawa's unit
THE LAST DAYS OF PEACE
My summer holidays ended ten days before the beginning of the new school year. Family council at Karczmiska, where my sister Zosia and I were spending the summer, decided, after a phone call from my mother, that I had to come back to Warsaw. The reason for this was a wound from a dog bite, which kept oozing pus even after aunt Janka's and later the local doctor's remedies. What's worse, every scratch that usually healed no problem now looked infected, and recently a strange pink line had appeared on my left elbow, near my armpit. My mum insisted that I go back to Warsaw immediately.
I was very happy about this decision, since it meant going on a train alone for the first time - in first class! - so I was disappointed when, at the last minute, it turned out that someone from the neighbourhood was going to Warsaw, too. My opportunity for solo travel was lost. I travelled in second class with my new companion.
My mum picked me up from the station in Warsaw and that same day we went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with the first stages of general infection. I was given an injection, powders, compresses and the advice to keep my arm in a sling and not overexert myself. I had to completely avoid any strenuous physical activity.
For the first few days, I had a slightly raised temperature so I wasn't allowed to leave the house, not even to walk Czau, our Pekingese. I was bored to death sitting at home, especially since my father was at a treatment in Zegiestow, so he wasn't around. My only entertainment - aside from reading books, leafing through magazines or listening to the radio - was checking out what was going on at Mokotow airport (which was weirdly desolate) and how demolition of the stands was progressing at an old horse racing venue. My friends were away, so I didn't have anyone to call. I couldn't paint, draw or build any models because of my arm. The only thing I could do, but that I really didn't like, was revise Latin, since I had to do written exercises and a resit in order to improve my grades and fill in gaps in my knowledge. Not even my fever was enough to get out of it.
My mum would come home from work around 5pm. Although she was tired and stressed out from her job and the worsening political climate, she never forgot to ask me whether I'd revised Latin and done the exercises. I had to show her my books with both things finished.
Thankfully, after a few days the doctor said my infection was healing and I could start leaving the house. I still had to save my strength, not put pressure on my arm and, as he said, "not go crazy". I went for walks with Czau, sometimes into town. My mum wasn't very happy about this, but I loved strolling around, people watching and taking in the hustle and bustle of the city which I had only recently started to explore by myself. Back then, it seemed normal, but I saw some hints at the upcoming events. In some places, the digging of trench bunkers had commenced, and it looked like preparations for a blackout were underway - reinforcing basement windows, where bunkers were to be. There were also more uniformed officers on the streets than usual.
It was surprising that, a few days after my return, Czau started hiding under pillows or under the sofa and yelping, something she'd never done before. My mum, as if she'd had a premonition, ordered two tons of coal to keep in the basement, even though we had central heating and a coal depot round the corner. My surprise at this development was met with a short "It won't go bad, and if there's no war, then we'll use it up in the kitchen anyway, but if there is - if something happens...". A long pause, then, "Just in case."
My mum, who remembered WW1 and the hunger she'd felt at that time, had already begun a now hurried stockpiling of supplies. Stasia (our maid) started bringing home groats and flour by the kilogram, and in the evening she melted pork fat, which she poured into marmite pots. Sugar was poured into cloth sacks. Also, for the first time, some boxes and cans appeared. Rusks might have been made too, but I don't remember anymore.
My father arrived without warning on the morning of August 28th, three days before his expected return date. He took a taxi from the station, with only his dressing case. He hadn't picked up his big suitcase, given in at Zegiestow, where all his summer clothes were, since he felt too tired to wait at the crowded station. Stasia, who went to get the bag later on, returned empty-handed since - as she told us - it was packed in there, and there were so many piles of suitcases in the baggage return that the staff couldn't keep up, getting lost in the luggage. My father decided he would pick up the bag when everything calmed down. But it didn't calm down, as this was the day mobilisation was announced.
My mum decided to get Zosia home, but when, after a few hours of waiting, we were finally able to get a phone connection, we were told that there was nobody who could accompany her on the train home, and my mum wasn't going to let her travel alone. My father reassured her, saying it's only mobilisation and there wouldn't be a war, since we have guarantees from England and a pact with France. But I saw that he, too, was on edge and had even called the mayor to let him know he had returned early. He was told that mobilisation had been recalled, which gave him a certain sense of calm.
That day, someone came with a message from 16 WDH, the scout group I belonged to, saying I was to carry out my duties at the station, at the information point, with the rest of the group. My mum was very against me going there and not even my father could make her change her mind. So, in the end, I didn't go - not that day, nor any other - even though I was basically healthy again. I took her decision as a personal attack, and felt a tiny twinge of disappointment towards the fact that my father hadn't taken my side, not wanting to annoy his wife. Honestly, my father believed the situation wasn't that dangerous and that there would be no war, but he didn't argue, leaving domestic matters with my mother as usual.
Even though mobilisation had been recalled, tensions were rising and one could feel the uncertainty in the air. In accordance with ruling from the officials, my father put dark paper blinds on our massive windows to keep them covered during the night, and Stasia and I stuck strips of paper on the other windows, so that if an aftershock from a bomb explosion made them shatter, glass shards wouldn't spray everywhere and nobody would get hurt.
Hurried digging of trenches had begun on the opposite side of the street, almost directly in front of our house. I wanted to go there and help, but my mum was absolutely against this, reminding me that the doctor had said not to put pressure on my arm. She told me that if I was to go outside, I had to have it in a sling. Once, when I left, someone who was digging saw me with my arm in a sling and joked that there wasn't even a war yet, but there was already an invalid. I felt embarrassed and ashamed and, to avoid similar situations in the future, I restricted my time out of the house. The recalling of mobilisation had decreased the tensions in the house and also generally but, in Warsaw, preparations for defence were going full steam ahead.
The next day, since Stasia was busy shopping and preparing supplies, my father took me to dinner at the Europejski hotel. We sat in the bar, at a table by the window, through which you could see Marszalka square and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I don't remember what we talked about or what we ate. I only remember the feeling I had, eating with only him for the first time, the feeling that I was no longer a young boy treated like a kid but, at last, something more.
After dinner, we visited "Dom bez kantów", a military bookshop, where we got a few books. Then we went to the "Roma" cinema, where, next to a colourful American adventure movie, there was a film with the hopeful title "France is watching over us". This film gave a strong impression. Everyone who watched it was fascinated by the power it showed us France had; so much power that, after the film ended, everyone clapped and believed that if Germany started a war, the Allies would attack from the West and turn the invaders to dust. At that time, I had no idea that the next time I would end up at a cinema or a fancy restaurant would be six years later, in the second half of 1945, and not in Warsaw, or even in Poland.
Evening came, and lots of cars with barrage balloons arrived at the old racecourse. Next to them was an artillery battery. I watched with bated breath as the full-to-bursting balloons were released, their silhouettes sharp against the twilight sky.
That evening, the last day of August, was full of my mother's uncertainties and my father looking calmly into the future, still assured that the Allies' attitude wouldn't allow war to break out. But Czau continued yelping and burrowing deep into the sofa, refusing to leave her hiding place no matter what we tried.
At about 6am, I was woken by the sound of sirens and, after a moment, two or three anti-aircraft artillery shots. I leapt out of bed, ran to the balcony, and immediately noticed a massive fireball falling from the sky along with an anchoring rope and the remains of a barrage balloon. The crew in the car, who were controlling the balloon, scattered to the sides so they wouldn't get hit by the rope. At the same time, the crew in the other car was trying to get their balloon to the ground as quickly as possible. Both divisions, standing by the unfinished, dark airstrip on Marszalka Pilsudzkiego Alley had their sights on the sky, and the crews stood on militant alert, but were no longer firing. I looked over the clear morning sky and neither saw nor heard any planes. I never found out who was firing and why that balloon burned. But that morning's events are the first of my wartime memories.
The sirens started wailing at almost exactly the moment I appeared on the balcony.
I went into my father's room, where he had already turned on the radio that stood on top of the mirror, just above the sofabed. We heard some music; but it was not the regular music that played every morning. This was dignified, as if for a special occasion. My mum appeared in the doorway, wearing a bathrobe and looking unsettled, and Stasia appeared soon after, already ready to leave the house. Both looked anxious, and my father tried to calm them down, assuring them that it was just a test alarm. His reassuring words were cut short by the radio, which played a strange announcement: "Warning, warning! Ta-ra thirty-two - passed" and after a moment "Chocolate, incoming". Later on, we were told that the German army had crossed the Polish border, our soldiers were conducting a strong defence against the overpowering enemy soldiers, and that German aeroplanes had already attacked several cities and locations around the entire country.
This information clearly shook my mother to the core. She didn't say a word, but her face was full of despair and worry. Whether anything was said in that moment, I do not remember.
Stasia went to buy bread and newspapers, like she did every day, and upon her return it turned out that there was nothing about the war in the first editions of the newspapers. It was only a while later that we heard running paperboys holding special editions. Their shouts: "Speeeecial editionnnnn! Hitler has attacked Poland!" could be heard all around the city.
Some time after the first siren, a second was announced. Stasia went down to the bunker with Czau, while my parents and I stayed at ground level. Even though we were dressed and prepared, we somehow couldn't believe that the Germans would dare to bomb Warsaw.
I stood in the balcony doorway with my binoculars and observed the sky, searching for our planes. My father, who didn't believe the Germans would have bombed open cities such as Warsaw and, in addition, since there were no bomb targets in our district, didn't see the use of going down into the bunker. He only banned me from going onto the balcony, worrying that there might be falling shards from SAMs.
This time the divisions standing on the racing track were silent. Only far away, above Okecie, silhouettes of planes could be seen, around which (I noticed through my binoculars) there were dark clouds. After a moment, I began to hear the explosion of bullets from the anti-aircraft artillery. Suddenly, one of the planes in the sky began to fall. We started to cheer because it had been hit, but just before it reached the ground, it swooped back up again, and a moment later we heard the low boom of an explosion. A few seconds later a mushroom cloud of smoke began to rise from the ground, then another, and a third, and the low booms reached us. The next few "falling" planes also swooped back up to the sky, creating even more clouds of smoke, and the sound of explosions was continuous. Now we realised the Germans were bombing the Okecie airport and plane factory. My father, who had survived WW1, explained that the mushroom clouds were exploding petrol tanks or ammunition dumps. I searched the sky in vain, looking for our planes, but I couldn't find a single one. I didn't see a single falling German plane, although there were bullets exploding near them. I felt somehow betrayed, let down.
At some point we noticed rising smoke from Wola. A moment later firetrucks arrived at Polna, their sirens at full blast, and drove down 6-go Sierpnia St. towards the racing track.
All of this was accompanied by a rising number of radio communications that someone is approaching or had passed. This created an incredible backing track which made what we were seeing feel more real. I know now that, back then, I didn't really understand what was happening. I did not yet have a feeling of dread. That was to come later. The beginning of the war, despite my parents' clear agitation, felt more like an airshow.
After the alarm, Stasia brought home the special edition and new copies of today's papers in which, clear as day, we had the given situation; that, which father said was bleak.
A second later the radio played President Moscicki's address, which we listened to with sombre mood.
I desperately wanted to go to the information point at the central station where my scout group was, but my mum was still absolutely against this. Although I asked him for support, my father was not on my side, and with that, the discussion was over. It was very hurtful for me, and for a long time I could not bring myself to forgive him.
At 8am, my father, who was technically still on vacation, called President Starzynski and put himself at Starzynski's disposal. He was given the command to immediately report for duty in the City Hall. A car was to arrive for him in a few minutes. My mum had gone to work a bit earlier, so once my father left, I was alone with Stasia.
Since I had been banned from leaving the house, I could only listen to the radio, read the news and watch what was happening outside. My mum told me to go into the bunker without fail in case of an alarm, but I didn't listen and instead preferred to watch what was happening in the world through my binoculars.
There were a couple more alarms that day. After one of them, two firetrucks drove down Polna again with their sirens blasting and the radio announced that during the bombing of Warsaw, a few homes had been destroyed and fires had started. It also gave information about several bombed cities, towns and even villages, as well as trains, including passenger trains.
In the evening, my parents called the council in Karczminska to find out if getting Zosia back to Warsaw was possible - under adult supervision, of course. But for now, it wasn't. We decided to wait for some occasion.
The next day, during another air-raid siren, I noticed a large formation of planes flying very high above Warsaw. The division standing at the racing ground shot at them fiercely, but the bullets kept exploding much lower than the flying machines, so the entire formation continued North undisturbed, as if there had been no shooting at all.
We waited with concern for the moment that our Western allies would attack the Germans. Communications from the fronts were not optimistic, although they did talk about our strong resistance.
The problem of Zosia returned again the next day, but there was still no solution; and the return of my sister became ever more problematic, which did not do anything good for the mental wellbeing of my mum, who kept thinking about it.
The air raids occurred more and more frequently and the news in the papers and on the radio did not improve. We waited the whole time for the allies, who didn't seem to show any interest in attacking. Finally, on the third day of war, we were given - at first on the radio and then in special editions of newspapers - the message that England and France had declared war. At the same time came the announcement that Germans had torpedoed a massive British passenger ship "Athenia", which had many Americans on board. My father believed that this would cause the US to quickly join the war, and even more quickly end it. I desperately wanted to go to the city and see how many people had crowded in front of the French and English Embassies, since it had been talked about on the radio, but another of my mum's decisions stopped me from leaving the house.
That same day, or maybe the next, father used the fact that Colonel Jeziorski was sending a company vehicle to Lublin and asked him if the driver could go to Karczminsk on his return journey and pick Zosia up. To our joy, Zosia arrived late in the evening and finally, we were all together. For me, the return of Zosia was the end of my sadness. Now I had someone to talk to throughout the day, to share feelings and worries and even to fight with, which happened to us often, since we had slightly differing views on what was happening around us.
The situation on the front lines was gradually worsening, and the Allies in the West pretended that they were leading a war. The newspapers tried to publish many stories to keep spirits up, but the reality said something different.
On the fifth or sixth day of war, my mum's office suspended work, giving their employees 3 months worth of dismissal. Many other companies and institutions, which as a consequence of wartime chaos could not function properly, were doing the same. The evacuation of some state institutions also began.
That afternoon, family friends arrived at our house: engineer Szymanski and his wife. He was wearing a military engineer captain's uniform. He was leaving for the West and was allowed to bring his wife with him. They had come to say goodbye. During their visit, my father noticed that Mr. Szymanski did not have a sidearm. It turned out that their unit had run out of guns. Then my father stood up without a word, went to the other room, and returned a moment later with his personal Browning and ammo and gave both to a shocked Mr. Szymanski. He believed that an officer should not be without a gun during wartime, and he himself would not find it useful anymore, since he was too tired and sickly to go to the front line. Mr. Szymanski was moved. He accepted this gift and promised to return it after the war. Then we said goodbye and the Szymanskis left. The giving of the gun by my father left a big impression on me. I, too, was moved when I saw how touched both him and engineer Szymanski were.
The next morning, Col. Jeziorski called with the information that he had to evacuate to the West and was bringing his wife and children with him. He could take us, too, since he had two large cars at his disposition. My father called President Starzynski who told him that, if he could and was able to, he should evacuate. But my mum was vehemently against this. She explained that she would not leave Warsaw, her main argument being father's health. She believed he would not be able to endure the difficulties of evacuation. She was also scared of what was happening on the roads, that which the papers were writing and people were talking about, and she didn't want to expose us to, as she put it, ill-treatment. Her decision remained unswayed no matter what arguments my father put forward: that we have family in Lvov, that the government was leaving the capital city and Germans would come soon, and in the West we would defend ourselves... My mum's resolute "no" overpowered them all. The day was full of bad news on the radio and in the papers. Despite our efforts to not panic, the news was more and more grim and disturbing.
In the evening, the Jeziorskis called and told us to please be ready for evacuation in an hour or two. After this, my parents had another talk. My father was still inclined to go, but my mum wasn't changing her mind. So when the Jeziorskis arrived, we went downstairs only to thank them for remembering and caring about us, and to say goodbye. It was a sad goodbye, made even sadder by the fact that soon after they left the radio gave an appeal from Col. Umiastowski for young men to leave Warsaw and make their way to the West, where they will be placed into new sectors of the army.
That night was very depressing. We watched from the balcony as students, who had been living at the dormitories across the road, made their way down Polna in the direction of Unia Lubelska laden with bags, backpacks and suitcases, to continue West down the Warka, or through the Zbawiciel square, where they would continue over the Poniatowski bridge to Prague, then further westward.
That night, our neighbour Dr. Goebel left for the West, too, leaving his ageing mother under our and the maid's care, even though she begged him not to go, saying she didn't want to be alone. But he felt that, as a doctor, he could be useful to the army. Leaving, he took with him a lot of gold which, as we later learned from those who went with him and returned after a few weeks, became the reason for his death. The Bolsheviks found gold with him and took it, and he naively went looking for justice from their authorities and... Nobody has seen or heard from him since.
I don't exactly remember whether it was the day that followed this tragic night, or the previous one. Just before twilight, "Elk" flew over our house. It was the first Polish war plane that I had seen since the start of the war. It was flying so low that I could clearly make out the white and red chessboard on its wings and body, as well as the observer sitting in the glass cabin. The machine landed at Mokotow airport and taxied into the hangar next to the old racing venue. It was very quickly covered by tarpaulin. I watched all of this through binoculars. The moment I woke up, I went to the balcony to check if it was still there, but the place was empty. Clearly the machine must have flown away at dawn.
The next day Col. Umiastowski's appeal was recalled, and by the command of president Starzynski, the city started preparing for defence. Meanwhile, the air-raid alarms happened more and more often. My mum banned us from leaving the house and always made us go down to the bunker with her and Stasia, something I really didn't like doing.
I don't remember exactly what day Jozef Lukaszewicz, our distant cousin from Lvov, appeared at our house. He was very imposing. His kind, intelligent face and tall, wiry frame, brought out by his Lieutenant uniform, remains in my mind. He came to us in full military gear, armed and wearing a helmet. He wanted to see my father, who he called "uncle". I wasn't sure whether he'd visited us in Warsaw before, but I think my my mum was seeing him for the first time, too.
We owed his visit to the fact that the division in which he was serving had found themselves in Warsaw the previous evening, and had been given the command of staying for its defence. He stayed with us for a long time, but what he spoke of his previous wartime experiences did not seem positive. My father, who had been an officer in the Polish Legions, and later in the war with the Bolsheviks, was outraged when he heard the events Jozef described, especially when it came to the mindset and behaviour of some commanders, as well as the troops' preparations for mobilisation.
That same day, General Czuma gave a speech in which he said Warsaw would defend itself and that he would become the commander of this defence. President Starzynski also gave a speech concerning this matter. The next day, at around noon, we received a order from the army telling us to evacuate from our house. The Germans were coming to Warsaw from the North-West and Polna was to be Warsaw's line of defence, so the army would reside in the nearby houses, and civilians had to leave. It was the eighth day of war.
My mum was fearful and distraught. We didn't really know where to go. Our parents didn't want to be far from home. My father sent aunt Zosia, who lived on the fourth floor of our building, to aunt Kuleszna at Zoliborz, and we, after many phone calls and meetings, were to relocate to professor Gravier, an architect who my father was friends with. He lived with his wife in a villa in a professors' colony near Profesorska St., next to Mysliwiecka St. It wasn't far and seemed safe.
We hurriedly packed all the necessities. My mum made sure we brought autumn and winter clothing, since there was no way to know when (or even if) we'd be back home. Of course, we hoped the house would survive and we would somehow get through this in one piece. But that was just hope.
I was impressed by my mum who, with Stasia, quickly and calmly made food packs - since she was always making sure we weren't hungry - and directed us on what to take clothes- and underwear-wise, and where to pack it.
When everything was ready, we went downstairs and waited in the lobby for a horse-drawn cab, called by I don't remember who, and went to the Graviers'. Stasia stayed in the house for now and my mum, leaving us and my father, was to return by carriage and bring her and the rest of our things. But the cabbie did not want to wait a single minute after the bags were unpacked, so we had to let him leave. My mum decided to walk back and try to hitchhike on the way.
I wanted to go with her and help with bags since there was no way my father, who after carrying our luggage already had to take nitroglycerin tablets, could go with her. But my mum refused and went alone. I felt humiliated because of this, because I was thirteen and my hand had healed, so I didn't feel ill any more. But there was no arguing with my mum.
Both of them returned at dusk along with the rest of our things, which some guy had driven over on a cart. They were very tired. In the evening, as we were getting ready for bed, my mum was very subdued and had tears in her eyes as she told us about the soldiers she saw roaming around our house since, for safety reasons, doors were to be open at all times.
We didn't get to settle down at the Graviers', since on the second or third day, due to a large family escaping from Poznan, space became limited and we had to move elsewhere. So we moved in with professor Palewicz, another friend of father's, whose villa was just by Gornoslaska St., next to the town house stairs.
I think that day president Starzynski gave the first of what became daily speeches heralding Warsaw's defence.
SIEGE OF THE "WARSAW FORTRESS"
We moved into a massive studio at the Lalewiczes, where we were comfortable and didn't feel self-conscious. My mum and Mrs Lalewicz, to not cause each other trouble, decided to make dinner together using shared products. Dry food was to be rationed while food was still available at shops, but since prices were rising like crazy, that wouldn't be for long. I remembered my mum obsessively worrying that we would run out of food and us shaking our heads and telling her she was overreacting, but then...
The first days at the Lalewiczes were fairly calm, since no bombs had been dropped in the area, and the shelling wasn't too loud. Even the nights were quiet. However, as time went on, both shelling and air raids occurred more frequently. What's worse, it turned out that there was a heavy field artillery site at the Parliamentary Gardens and in the Ujazdowski Park which shot at the Germans fairly often, and the Germans responded in a similar manner. These "conversations" happened a lot. The worst thing was that they didn't just happen during the day, but also during the night, so we were often woken by the whistling sound of flying bullets just before they exploded, or the shots fired by our side. Thanks to my father's explanation, I quickly learned the differences between the shots made by Germans and by us. Luckily ours could be heard more often, and the German bullets flew above us, causing no harm.
A few days after our move, my father stopped going to the City Hall. He was given some job to do at the Czerniakow region, where we now lived. My mum suspected that, knowing of my father's deteriorating health, president Starzynski wanted to save him from having to travel long distances on foot, since trams had stopped running and making one's way around town became very tedious.
My mum or Stasia went to town every now and then to do groceries and, aside from bread, brought back horse meat, which was cut by crafty citizens of Warsaw from killed cart horses whose skeletons were left in the road. That was the first time I tried horsemeat, which actually tasted surprisingly good. The only person who refused to try it was Zosia.
The news that we got from the Lalewiczes' radio and the newspapers, of which fewer were in regular circulation, and from those who were still around town got sadder and more gloomy by the day. We were told about the glass from the broken windows which lay on the roads and pavements, the debris on the streets and the passing troops, as well as all the runaways searching for shelter in garages and abandoned homes.
More and more often, we heard about houses getting destroyed by bombs, fires or bullets. To be fair, the news only wrote about what the Allies were doing, or counterattacks undertaken by our army, both on the Warsaw front and at other points around Poland. There was even news that Berlin, West Prussia and the German armada had been bombed by our planes.
We were even told about the British fleet that was to swim out into the Baltic Sea and prepare for a raid. Similar information appeared on the radio, which we were constantly listening to. But the information, over time, became more grim and was accompanied by ever stronger bombardment and shooting.
It started to get more and more dangerous, so much so that my father advised everyone to sleep in the ground floor corridor, which he deemed the safest place in the house. It quickly became a place to gather during the day, too, if we didn't have anywhere else to be.
This sitting in the dark and being cut off from what was happening in the city has left me with only vague recollections from that time, the order of which I cannot recall.
One day, the processing plant in our area was attacked - that is, a warehouse full of food products. I remember the crowd of people, going back and forth like ants with armfuls of cans and various conserves, returning many times in order to get as many things as possible. I remember my mother and father's despair when we heard the Poznan army had surrendered by Kutno, and Lvov was surrounded, and our army was struggling, while the Allies in the West had not yet started a general offensive, even though they had promised to. President Starzynski's daily talks were given in a more hoarse voice; the voice of a desperate and tired man.
One of the most tragic days was the one in which we were given information that the Bolsheviks had joined the battle and the government had left Poland. That day, my mum cried and we all felt glum and somehow lost in all the tragic events which were happening around us. We had had the naive hope that maybe the Bolsheviks would attack Germany and it would turn out that they were not actually against us, but rather with us. There had been much speculation about what consequences their entrance would have for Poland and how the allies would react.
The days were becoming a lot harder. We kept asking ourselves: When will this end? My father believed that further defence of the city was pointless and would just endanger the citizens and make it more likely for the city to be destroyed. The news that came to us from the one- or two-page newspapers and the radio (until it turned off during a power cut) was much more dark, at times even terrifying. The day after the Bolsheviks' appearance, we were shaken by the news that the Germans had set fire to the Royal Castle, and there was nothing to put it out with. The Germans dropped leaflets calling for us to stop our defence, but Starzynski and Rommel refused. Air raids and shelling intensified every day. There was no possibility of leaving the house to go into town for groceries any more. So we sat, day and night, in the corridor, only sometimes leaving; only when it became a bit more calm.
At some point our electricity stopped working, and soon after the water, which we then had to bring from a nearby water intake.
Near the end of the siege, Jozef Lukasiewicz visited us. He had found us through the card with our current address that my parents had left on our old front door at Polna. He brought bad news from the front lines about the lack of certain types of ammo and the low morale of the soldiers, who kept asking themselves the same question: How long left, and what are we doing all this for? To our surprise, he also brought a rifle, which he gave to my father. My mum was outraged, since she felt it was unnecessary, and that he would never need to use it. My father, however, accepted it, since he believed that in case of robbery, it wouldn't hurt to have a weapon. As he left, Lukasiewicz promised that he'd drop by again.
A day or two after Lukasiewicz's visit, the Germans began a violent bombardment of our capital city. So we sat there, in the corridor, listening to the engines of the planes circling above us and the explosions of bombs falling somewhere in the area. Suddenly, one of the plane sounds got close, very close and suddenly turned into the characteristic sound of a nose-diving plane. Then there was a short whistle and... Everything shook. The light from the lamps in the corridor went out. Broken glass flew and the room filled with lots of dust and a strange, unknown smell. A shout rose, but my father's voice rose above it with a firm "Silence!". The light from his lamp illuminated the ceiling above us, which thankfully wasn't even cracked, so our shouting ceased.
My father told us all to stay where we were, and made to leave alone, but he bumped into a woman who had just run in, dragging two young boys behind her. All three of them were covered in debris which, coupled with the weak light from the lantern, made them look like apparitions. It was Mrs Steinhagen, the owner of the villa across the road. She was babbling incomprehensibly. We gathered that their villa had been knocked down and her husband was there, trapped under the rubble. Ignoring my my mum's protests, I ran outside after my father.
The Steinhagens' villa was basically gone. Between it and the Lalewiczes' was a big crater full of rubble and above it there was a wall with some stairs and a clock, which by some miracle had stayed exactly where it hung, showing the exact time of destruction of the house. Everything around it was covered in dust and rubble, and a few branches stuck out, devoid of leaves.
We quickly located Mr Steinhagen. He was alive and calling for help. My father organised some people and equipment and started moving rubble in order to get to him. He was laying where the stairwell used to be, his lower body trapped under the rubble. The worst part was that on his stomach lay a stair, which made it impossible to get him out. When the stair was moved, the rubble began cascading dangerously, so much so that the rescuers feared becoming trapped themselves. Seeing these failed attempts, Mrs Steinhagen announced she would give a generous prize to whoever went in and attached a rope the stair so that her husband could be pulled out.
The first volunteer changed his mind after a moment, since just as preparations for attaching the rope began, the rubble started suddenly moving. There were no other volunteers. A small group of onlookers had gathered, but somehow nobody was brave enough to give it a try.
At some point, a soldier appeared. He was tall, well-built and spoke with a strong Jewish accent. When he was told of the person under the rubble, he decided to try and get him out. Then the prize was revealed - 500zl. This was equal to a very good monthly pension at that time.
The soldier put his rifle to the side, removed his jacket, took the rope and went into the crater. He was given a crowbar and small spade. He rummaged a bit and talked to Mr Steinhagen. After a while, he said to try delicately pulling on the rope. At the same time, he tried to pry the stair away, even though rubble was falling from it. It didn't work the first time, but after a few tries - all the while the rubble was sliding dangerously and people were shouting that he might get trapped, too - he managed to lift the stair up enough for Mr Steinhagen to get dragged out from underneath it.
When the rescuer exited with the rescued, people congratulated him and were in awe of his courage and dedication. Unfortunately, Steinhagen died a few minutes after getting out. After dusting off his uniform and wiping his face, the soldier went to Mrs Steinhagen to receive the prize he had been promised, but was told that the person he'd rescued had just died, and the prize was to be given for rescuing a living person. He nodded and said he had done it for the man and not for the money, and made as if to walk away. Then my father ordered that the money was to be given to him, since he had rescued a living person - even if he'd rescued a dead man, he still deserved the prize. I was not there for the (apparently very unpleasant) conversation that followed, but my mum told me that the soldier did eventually get his prize.
Mr Steinhagen was buried in the garden by what was left of the villa, and Mrs Steinhagen and both her sons found shelter at the Palewiczes, in the corridor, with all of us.
The elder of the sons was a year or two older than me, and the younger was my age. We would sit together all the time, talking about recent holidays, about school, teachers, and discussing the news. I now had friends with whom I felt comfortable and had many things to talk about.
The bombardment and shelling was almost non-stop now. The news from the city was abysmal. My mum, too, decided that further defence of the city was pointless. Russians had taken over East Poland and Germans the West, and now there was not even a sliver of hope that the Bolsheviks would show up to help us. Everyone believed that further defence of the city made no sense at all. Finally, it was announced that negotiations with the Germans would begin.
The first night that there was a break in the shelling, we heard footsteps on the first floor. Someone else was in the house. My father, ignoring my mum's protests, took his rifle and went to investigate. A moment later we heard his loud cry, some sharp words and then heavy footsteps on the stairs. A soldier stood there with his hands above his head, and my father stood behind him, holding him at gunpoint. Someone shouted, but my father, once again, silenced us with a word, and told the soldier to walk forward. They walked between us through the corridor, all the way to the stairs, which led to the road. Here, the soldier turned abruptly, and my father stepped back and raised his rifle, as if to shoot. Then he commanded the soldier to walk up the stairs and outside. When the soldier saw the dark night through the open door, he fell to his knees, begging to not be killed. My father, in the same harsh tone, ordered him to stand and get as far as possible from this house. For a moment, the soldier didn't know what to do, but then he turned and fled into the night. Then my father fired a shot from his rifle into the sky. Its echo accompanied the thudding footsteps of the escaping soldier.
The next day, the Germans dropped leaflets telling us to surrender, but didn't cease their shooting and bombing. My father now called further defence criminal towards the city and its inhabitants. He couldn't understand Starzynski or the Generals. He know them all personally, which annoyed and angered him even more, since he had thought they were rational people. He kept asking what the point was of this defence, now that the government had fled the country, the Soviets had taken over the other half of the country, and the Allies weren't helping out. He decided that whoever thinks giving up would be a dishonor should just kill themselves instead of ruining the livelihood of generations and letting innocent civilians perish. It was then that I heard him say for the first time the, albeit English, saying "It's better to be a living dog than a dead lion."
On September 27th, after nearly three weeks of war, a cease-fire took place. Silence. It felt weird. Peace and quiet came with a sense of foreboding, even though we had all been waiting for the cease-fire and the end of war. But somehow, we were sad. Maybe it was because of the big defeat and a feeling of regret and pity for everything the silence had taken with it, that which would never return.
That day, my mum and Stasia went to Polna and returned with the news that our house was still there, only partially ransacked. But the soldiers didn't let us return just yet, since it was only a cease-fire.
SURRENDER AND COMING HOME
Warsaw capitulated the next day at 1pm. My mum, like many other people, started sobbing when she found out, but quickly decided that we were going back home. The three of them went together - her, my father and Stasia. My mum returned just before the evening and we were to go home with her the next day, taking as many things as we could carry.
I had not been in town for two weeks, so walking along those familiar roads was a shock. The roads and pavements were covered in glass and grit. Barely any houses had glass in their windows. Many were covered in bullet holes, or had marks on them from shrapnel. Some were smoking, some even still burning, and others had craters from earthquake bombs. On the ground there were piles of rubble with wooden beams and people's posessions sticking out, and on the walls that had somehow been left standing there were photographs hung up, or shelves, and one could see through doors into other rooms, which looked as if nothing had happened.
There were no vehicles on the streets, and the damaged tram cars on the Ujazdowskie and Marszalkowskie Alleys were an unsettling sight. Instead of cars, people now used the roads, creating paths through the rubble and broken glass. They were holding packages, bags, taking their own - or another's - belongings out of the rubble, or looking for people who may have gone missing nearby. There were also flyers saying where those who had survived are now, or asking about those who were missing.
On the corner of Sniadeckich Road and Politechniki Square the barricade was being taken apart, and when we walked onto the square we saw the still-smoking skeleton of a house at the corner of Polna and 6-go Sierpnia.
Our house had been heavily shot at and was covered in bullet holes. Two floors had been destroyed - the fourth, which had been hit been hit by an artillery bullet, its explosion sweeping down all the separating walls between the rooms, and the third, which had had its ceiling ruined by the same bullet, making a massive hole between the two floors, and causing complete devastation.
A few soldiers and some civilians were roaming around the house, but they quickly disappeared when we arrived. Our flat, although in one piece, was a miserable sight. Even after my father and Stasia had tidied up a bit, there were clear signs of robbery. The windows and windowpanes, which had been ruined by explosions and ridden with bullet holes, weren't the worst part - it was seeing signs that strangers had been in the house.
Thankfully, the safe in my father's room hadn't been broken into. He had hidden it behind a tapestry, so his important papers and our family heirlooms were safe, among them a letter from King Stanislaw II August to our great-great-grandfather. However, the robbers had taken a large part of our clothes, all of father's photography equipment - and even my Kodak - as well as some silverware, some of my mum's underwear and dresses and... That's it, I think. My father said that it's basically nothing, and it would have been worse if we'd lost our house and everything in it, or even our lives. Mum shared this view.
We immediately got to work in order to start a relatively normal life in this unfamiliar situation. The main thing was to be able to cook and somehow sleep through the first night. Our first night in a completely different world.
OCTOBER - DECEMBER 1939
THE BEGINNING OF THE OCCUPATION
The first days after our return to Polna were not cheerful. The house, though in one piece, looked tragic, mainly because of the huge mess left by those who had come in looking for things to steal. We would have to tidy, sweep away the layers of dust and remove all the broken glass before it became a place where we could live normally again. This was not as time-consuming as we initially thought. The windows in the living room that looked out onto the Mokotowskie fields were broken, and the window frames covered in bullet holes and shrapnel. The walls were in a similar state. Thankfully, all the paintings and our bas-relief of the Angel of Death had been moved to the front room and dining room along with the furniture, so, apart from the bookcase, nothing had suffered.
My room was not in danger of direct shooting, but there were a few bullet holes and a lot of broken windows. I did, however, notice major losses in my tools, which one of the burglars had "borrowed", never to return.
There were only a few missing windows in the dining room and indents in the walls from shrapnel. My mum and Zosia's room was basically untouched, if you didn't count two or three broken windows and a couple of bullet holes. The kitchen looked like there had been no war at all, apart from a few broken windows. We had a place to live and most of our things, and were therefore happy with our lot, particularly considering how much others had lost.
Since we lived high up, the biggest problem turned out to be the lack of water, gas and electricity. We could technically replace the electricity with candles, and use our coal instead of gas. But what about water, which had to be lugged from a hospital several hundred metres away and carried up the stairs to our flat on the sixth floor?
Luckily, we had a bit of food left. We'd brought it back with us, since there was none in town. Germans used this to their advantage and gave out bread and hot soup to the hungry. However, this was more propaganda than real aid. Thankfully the next day peasant wagons came to the city with products.
The day after our return, or maybe the next, Jozef Lukasiewicz showed up at our house. He'd come to say goodbye as from the next morning, him and his division were to be held as prisoners of war. He also wanted to get my father's advice as to whether he should give himself up to the Germans since, as someone who lived in the terrain occupied now by the USSR, he would be moved to the Soviet side. He was counting on the fact that being on "the other side" would make it easier for him to contact his family in Lvov. My parents weren't too sure what to tell him, and my father decided to not give any advice since this was the kind of decision one should make alone. He simply said that he would trust the Russians less than the Germans. My mum, however, looked at this through the eyes of his mother who was in Lvov and would want him close by, of course. Leaving us he had decided to go to the East, but he must have changed his mind later on, since he stayed in a German PoW camp, and found himself in England after the war. But I only found out about this years later.
As I have already mentioned, what initially bothered us the most was the lack of water. We had to bring it from the Marshal Jozef Pilsudzki hospital by 6-go Sierpnia Road (now a neurological hospital by Nowowiejska Road), which was 300 metres away. In the courtyard stood the only well in the area. So we, like everyone else, went there often with buckets, pans and kettles to carry it back and use it to cook and wash ourselves and our clothes. The queues for the only tap available to the public were often over an hour long, sometimes even two. They were the first queues I stood in.
On the second or maybe third day after our return, while standing in the queue for water - which went from the hospital nearly all the way down to the shrine on the corner of Polna and Politechniki Square - I saw a troop of German soldiers for the first time. They were foot soldiers who had just come onto the square from the side of Niepodleglosci Street. The troop was headed by an officer riding a horse. I started looking over, trying to see what those who had beaten us looked like. My interest in them annoyed my mum, who told me to face away from them and not look in their direction. I was to treat them like air. But I was intrigued by them, which made her very angry at me, because I wasn't listening and - as she put it - I had no honour.
On our way home, we stopped for a rest at Politechniki Square, again watching the troop of foot soldiers who were now preparing to continue their journey. The officer got onto his horse, went to the front, stopped the horse and suddenly barked a command so loudly that the horse got frightened, jumped to the side, slipped on a cobblestone, and fell over, knocking the rider off too. The officer must have been inexperienced with horses, since he let go of the reins while falling. The horse quickly righted itself and galloped back towards Niepodleglosci Street before anyone could catch him. A few soldiers ran after it. The officer picked himself up, looking a bit stupid, as if surprised by what had just happened. A few soldiers tried to dust him off, while he shouted something and waved his arms around. The people who had watched it all, some from the queue and others just walking around, started laughing and someone even clapped. In response, one of the Germans yelled something sharply in our direction and everyone went quiet. My mum ordered me to pick up what I had been carrying and we went home immediately, not staying to see the aftermath.
The memory of the falling officer brought us a lot of joy since it showed that the arrogant Germans were not as amazing and undefeatable as we thought. My mum decided that the event was symbolic of what was coming for the invaders.
The first order of business to secure the house was fixing the windows. My father used broken glass from his and my windows in order to cover the windows in the dining room, my mum's room and the kitchen, since those were the rooms in which we were living for now. The lack of glass in mine and my father's windows was fixed using thick cardboard that had some of my father's competition entries stuck on it. The aim was to make sure there weren't any draughts in the house, so that rain or snow didn't fall inside. It was already October, and it was getting colder.
After this house-fixing action, we made an inventory of our losses. It turned out that all the cameras had been taken, as well as an enlarger. Our gramophone was gone, and with it all our vinyls. Also missing was a lot of silverware, a few of father's suits, and some of my mum's dresses. As I mentioned earlier, the robbers hadn't noticed the safe in father's room, hidden behind the tapestry on the wall.
Aside from the lack of food and water, our biggest worry was how to protect ourselves from the winter. My father was worried that the grenade explosion on the fourth floor had ruined the central heating installation. There was no coke in the boiler house, and we didn't know when or even if we would get more. Luckily he remembered that just after the outbreak of war, he had been inspecting the attic and had noticed two iron furnaces. He didn't know who they belonged to and they seemed to have been standing there since WW1. So he enlisted the help of the caretaker, Mr Kaminski and some other man to carry one down to our floor and the other to aunt Zosia's flat on the fourth floor. Then he found the chimney, which for us was in the living room, and connected the furnace to it. At aunt Zosia's, the furnace stood in the smallest room.
The two tons of coal we had prepared before September guaranteed that we wouldn't be cold. We worried about aunt Zosia, and whether she had enough fuel, since her supply wasn't very big. The first few days after capitulation one couldn't even dream of buying coal, since if it was in the coal depot, it was only for use as medicinal charcoal. Supplying wasn't talked about either, and coal-dealers sold it only in hopper cars. Luckily wood was easier to get, since entrepreneurs came to remove it from ruined houses, sawed it and sold it as kindling, and peasants brought more over from the village to the city in wagons. But prices were high.
Thanks to the peasants' supplies, pretty soon after capitulation one could buy food in Warsaw. Of course, prices were much higher than before the war. The Rosinscy, who very quickly opened a shop had, in perspective of the current situation, reasonable prices and decent coverage of products. A market appeared at lightning speed on Nowakowska Road by the market at Koszyki, where one could buy many products straight from carts. Old ladies who, like before the war, carried around milk from door to door, appeared again too. You had to be careful though, since a lot of them "christened" it with large amounts of water.
Our whole life underwent a lot of big changes. Firstly, we had gone from four rooms to two. My mum lived with Zosia in the room by the bathroom, just like before the war, and my father and I were in the dining room. My father slept on a sofa, moved from his room and placed by the wall to the left of the window and I on the sofabed which I slept on before the war, on the right side of the window. Stasia continued to live in her nook in the kitchen, since now everything was cooked on a coal-burning kitchen stove, rather than gas, so it was perfectly warm there.
Immediately after the ceasefire, my father showed up at President Starzynski's and on his command began working at his pre-war position. After Starzynski's arrest, Germans allowed VP Pohowski to retain his position. He was to keep doing the same role, but now under Governor Ludwig Fisher, who had taken over command the day before the arrest.
Every morning, my father left for work, but a car no longer came for him. Instead, he walked to his office at Nowy Swiat, where the Exchange is now. The Germans quickly changed his title and the nature of his work. The Committee of Expansion, which he headed, became the Committee of Restoration, since there were no plans to expand Warsaw in the present situation. Small sums of money were being given to those who rebuilt partly destroyed homes. The Germans did not agree to rebuild completely destroyed homes. As for those which had burned down, they knocked down their front wall, so it wouldn't endanger passersby.
My mother didn't go to work, since the institution that she worked at had not restarted their activities. Her and aunt Zosia, who had spent the siege with aunt Lily and uncle Razek Kulesz and returned to Polna a few days after us, decided to bake rolls and cakes and sell them to the cafes which were springing up like mushrooms after rain.
A few days after capitulation, aunt Janka returned from Karczmiska to her house at Polna 46.
Aunt Bronka, who had worked in the Ujazdowski hospital as a nurse during the war, also got in contact with us. She was now appealing to organise civilian clothes for the officers there, since they wanted to escape the hospital in order to avoid PoW camp. She also asked for help in feeding our heavily injured soldiers who were there.
My mum joined in with both actions and collected some clothes and underwear from our neighbours, which aunt Bronka secretly brought onto hospital grounds, so that the officers could share it amongst themselves. The food took a lot longer, since we didn't have the funds for it. But people showed a lot of understanding and when the Rasinscy brothers - whose shop was at our house - offered some of their products, other people who lived with us gave us products, fuel, or money. My mum, aunt Zosia, Stasia and the maid from the Goebles' took it upon themselves to cook and carry dinners over to the Ujazdowski hospital.
From then on, every day at noon we - my mum, Stasia, Zosia or me, and one of the ladies from our building - would go to the hospital together, carrying pots of thick soup to the injured soldiers and officers at the Ujazdowski hospital. As well as food, we smuggled in civilian clothing, so that those who were feeling well and wanted to escape to freedom could leave the hospital as a "visitor". This took a long time, and even long after the New Year we were still handing over bundles of clothing along with the food.
News about our family or friends came slowly, usually when they returned from evacuations and when deportees appeared from the terrain annexed by the Third Reich, or escaped from Soviet terrain.
War action brought Wanda, wife of Zbyszek Zakrzewski, to Warsaw. As a post office worker in Kepno, she was evacuated and found herself at the Head Post Office in the city. She only knew aunt Janka Pleszczynska's address, but she didn't manage to find her. Throughout the siege she ended up staying in some basement with strangers, where she gave birth to her daughter. Zbyszek, as well as uncle Zakrzewski, also showed up in Warsaw, but they didn't know that Wanda was around. They only stayed a few hours anyway, since at Umiastowski's command they were to continue walking towards the East. Thankfully all the Zakrzewskis met up some time after the ceasefire, at aunt Janka's house on Polna 46.
Zosia Starncowna and her brother, Staszek, also showed up in Warsaw as a result of the evacuation. Their other brother, a forest ranger in the East, had - as we were later told - been shot to pieces immediately after the Soviets entered.
Many friends and acquaintances hadn't returned from the big journey, so it was difficult to work out the losses. News about them came slowly, and we only found out some of their stories after the war.
There was a moment during the second month after the ceasefire in which Stasia was wondering whether or not to leave Warsaw and go back to her family in the village. Eventually, after long discussions with my mum, she decided to stay with us, since there was no way of knowing how the situation in the villages would unfold.
In the first few days of October, uncle Zakrzewski, who had returned to Warsaw from his voyage, left for Kepno, where he was almost immediately deported to Radomsk with aunties Jozia and Basia.
After a few days of basically normal life, the Germans gave an order to give up all arms and radios. My father, not wanting to give up his sabre, took the handle off the blade, and broke the blade into three pieces, which he threw out into the rubble. The handle he put on the bookcase. The radio, however, we gave in in an exemplary manner, like most other people. We wouldn't miss it - it only received in Warsaw anyway.
My first longer trip to the city showed me an extremely changed Warsaw. It wasn't so much the ruins as it was the different way of life. The city looked like an anthill which had been disturbed. In the places bereft of products, or at knocked down shops, vendors' stalls appeared, and they offered goods from baskets or had them on wagons, carriages, or makeshift stools. The shops that survived usually had broken windows. One could see how the owners had quickly attempted fix this, with small bits of glass rather than tarp, trying to fit them into the frame like a puzzle. Once the glass ran out, the rest were covered with planks of wood, plywood, or boarded up completely. One of the most curious images of this new life was a food bank organised in a ruined tram car on Marszalkowska, on which hung a sign that said: "Home-cooked dinner from 50 grosze".
Amongst all this movement, tight-knit divisions of German troops walked through the streets, singing a song whose complicated chorus went something like this: "Hey li, hey lu, hey la. Hey li, hey lu, hey la. Hey lu, hey la, ha, ha...". It was to accompany the next five years of occupation, slowly winning against the traditional patriotic songs sung by street singers, or new street ballads, such as the well-known: "The first day of September, in that unforgettable year..."
A few days after 11 October, the day the Germans entered, a new newsletter started making the rounds. "The New Warsaw Courier", published by the Germans, immediately became known as the "rag". Even though we didn't want to, we bought this so-called rag, because it was, for now, the only source of information about what was happening in the city, and in the world. Moreover, rules for our new lifestyle appeared in the Courier too. Polish press only appeared a long time afterwards, and secretly.
In the first few weeks, news came not only through German papers and "The New Warsaw Courier", but also by word of mouth, or gossip. This brought the first news about shootings and arrests, both in the city and the province. Those deported from Poznan, Pomorze, Slask, and the areas around Warsaw were the ones who brought the news. Information also came from the Bug River area, talking about the war with the Bolsheviks in September, arrests civilians and forest rangers, as well as the news that Vilnius had been given to Lithuania, or similarly that schools and theatres were open in Lvov, and the radio worked there.
There even was a little poem created about the gossip:
"There was a lady JPP
Who said that things would get ugly
It was a good warning as such
But it didn't help us much..."
If there was any more to this, then I no longer remember it.
On October 27th, the Germans announced that Fischer was to be the new President. My father had expected this to happen, since just after capitulation Germans had appeared in the city hall and were very interested in who was who.
The next day, after the inauguration of Fischer, Starzynski was arrested. VP Pohowski stayed in his role, as did the other directors. My father was wondering whether he should give himself up for dismissal, but those from the architect circle who he spoke to, as well as President Pohowski, wanted him to stay as a city officer.
Starzynski's arrest was a big deal for my father. Even though he had a lot of issues with the President, mainly for supporting the defence of the city and also because before the war he didn't bat an eyelid when it came to people in the government breaking building laws, but he still considered the old President to be an excellent organiser and someone who had done a lot for the city.
The removal and disposal of rubble had begun. Walls of houses which weren't to be rebuilt or were in danger of falling were also destroyed. For these building works, many workers and cart drivers were hired and mobilised under the occupants' command, as well as Jewish task forces, whose work was watched over by uniformed Germans. More and more often, one could see groups of workers on the street removing rubble from the roads and pavements, and working on trying to make the tram line, electricity, gas and water work again.
There were more and more groups of Jewish workers, brought over by the German officials' command by the borough, watched over by uniformed Germans making sure they were doing their work or by the polish police, aka the Navies. Attempts were being made here for the Jews and the Poles to not work together or communicate with each other.
The outbreak of the Winter War caused a lot of ruckus. Some "strategists" believed that it would lead to a war between the Soviets and the allies. There were even speculations (in November or December) that our division which had been formed in France was to be moved there. But for now, it cheered us up knowing that the Finns weren't giving up and the Soviets were unable to break through the Mannerheim line. Unfortunately, we were so focused on our daily life that the events at the Finnish front moved to the background.
The schools started running again fairly quickly, first public schools and then grammar schools (it must have been halfway through October), one of them being my school, Staszica. Unfortunately the buidlings of both Staszica and Slowackiego, where Zosia went, had been taken over by Germans. I started school in the big building Romtaler at Polna 46a, which Staszica had "hugged". It was given afternoon hours, after the French school which had been there since before the war. I don't remember where Slowackiego found shelter.
On the first day, lots of boys showed up. Nothing was known about their fate of those who didn't show up at all. Among those who came was our former classmate, Petasz. I think this was his last name but I've forgotten how to spell it, and completely forgotten his first name. This wouldn't be so weird apart from the fact that his dad, who walked him to school, was wearing a German flight officer uniform, although before the war we'd seen him wearing a Polish ensign uniform. It turned out that Petasz's father had only been a contracting officer in the Polish army, and now he'd gone back to his motherland. His son really wanted to go back to "his" old school, so they came to talk to the headmaster together. I don't remember the details, but in any case young Petasz was only in our class for a day or two. Apparently the Germans had something against Mr Petasz for sending his son to a Polish school.
During those few weeks at Staszica, I did something which now I view as stupid and childish, but back then it was the result of wishing for adventure, wanting to do something, built on the stories of people creeping across the Hungarian border to the West, to the army, to fight for Poland and... my fear of Latin, which I hated and was extremely scared of at the same time. So I dreamed of escaping from occupied Poland to France. At home, we talked about how a new government had been formed in Paris and that a Polish army was being created. There was also news of people going across the border to Hungary and further on to France. I therefore decided to escape to France. I prepared my backpack and one day, instead of going to school, I went, on foot, down the highway to Gora Kalwaria...
If I had realised this goal with another person, it might not have ended as quickly as it did. At the end of the first day I realised that I didn't have enough money, and a fear had grown in me, a fear of the great unknown.
Everyone was very worried about me at home and my return was, at first, met with more joy and questioning than disappointment. When I admitted that I wanted to escape from home and gave my reasons, my father invited me for a serious talk and calmly explained the childishness of my actions and told me what dangers would await me in that kind of journey, not to mention how stupid the plan was. We didn't return to that subject again. I know that my mum held a grudge against me for a long time about this "irresponsible action".
To my "joy", the Germans "saved" me from Latin class by closing all secondary schools the day before November 11th. But before that came my father's arrest.
MY FATHER'S ARREST
In the morning, at around 6am, on one of the first days of November, we were woken by banging on the door. Stasia, already on her feet, ran to open it and a moment later we heard German voices in the front room, and then two German gendarmes entered the dining room where father and I slept. They were wearing helmets and carrying rifles. They were calm and didn't shout, just asked whether Herr Tadeusz Nowakowski was here. My father sat up in bed and responded in German that it was him. They ordered him to get dressed and come with them.
My mum tried to not show her anger, which was difficult for her. My father, however, was suspiciously calm the entire time, even striking up a conversation with the gendarmes, asking about the weather, whether he would be gone a long time and what to take with him. They said to take some things for washing and shaving, adding that he would be home in no time for sure. They let him have some tea and eat something before leaving. When he sat at the table, both gendarmes took their helmets off and when he was saying goodbye to us all they turned around and started looking at the pictures hanging on the wall so as to not make us uncomfortable. Then, once my father had put on his coat and taken his bag of toiletries, they asked him to walk behind the first gendarme, and the other one brought up the rear.
When the front door closed after them, my mum burst into a short, tragic sob and held her head in her hands in a gesture which I had not seen her do before or since. She quickly calmed down, got dressed and told us to finish our homework and go to school, like a normal day, then ran to the city hall to tell President Pohoski of the morning's events. Pohoski was doing the work of city president, as the Germans had commanded.
My mum came back before I left for school and the news she brought was unsettling. There had been arrests in the city and president Pohoski could not reveal anything about my father, since the Germans refused to talk to him on this topic.
I went to school in a bad mood. There, I found out that some of my friends' fathers had been taken too and nobody knew what was happening to them. There were stories in which the Germans had not behaved so civilly, and there had even been very brutal encounters.
At about five, I came home full of worry about my father and... found him at the dinner table, eating dinner. But the atmosphere wasn't too good, since what he talked about didn't shine with optimism, and his return home appeared to be a rare event. The story of why he was allowed to go home was almost unbelievable.
He told us that the Germans led him slowly, since he was walking with difficulty, aided by a cane. At one point he stopped and reached for his vial of nitroglycerin, which he often used, since he suffered from angina. When he went to take it, one of the gendarmes grabbed his wrist and asked what it was. My father responded that it was nitroglycerin, and in response they both jumped away and reached for their weapons. It was only when he explained that it was medicine which he took because he had a very bad heart that they calmed down and allowed him to rest for a while, and then resumed their very slow walk. They arrived at the university, where a lot of people were gathered in a huge, empty hall. They passed father on to some other officer here. It was full in the hall and there were no chairs, so people sat atop cold heaters, leaned against walls or stood in groups.
Imagine my father's surprise when, before he found someone he knew or decided where to stand in this hall, one of the gendarmes returned to him with a chair, asking him to sit. It was so ostentatious that the officer doing his duty in the hall stopped the gendarme while he was leaving and spoke to him for a while. Then, checking something on his list, he left. Some time after this episode, my father was called to a table where some other officer started asking him what he was ill with and since when, after which he left the hall. When he returned, he called my father over and... ordered him to go home, because - as he said - he didn't want him to suddenly die in this hall.
Before my father left, many people put pieces of paper with their names and addresses into the pockets of his blazer and coat, asking him to let their families know where they were and the conditions they were in. My father stopped at the addresses which were on his way home and passed on the information about those who had been taken as well as papers with other addresses and the request to pass them onto other families.
Later, we found out that those who had been taken were meant to be hostages who guaranteed calm on the 11th of November. Clearly the Germans feared that there could be some demonstrations during Independence Day. However, nothing happened that day. Unfortunately, not many of the taken returned home. Some of them were shot at Palmiry and others were put in concentration camps after a few months in PoW camps.
It was the only time during the entire occupation that Germans had entered our flat. And a few days later, just before November 11th, all the secondary schools closed.
LIFE SLOWLY COMES BACK TO NORMAL
It was getting colder not just outside, but inside as well, which meant that life was becoming more difficult. My father was working but prices were rising so quickly these days that the salary, although the same as before the war, was barely enough. We needed to buy some of the things that had been stolen from us. There was also aunt Zosia, whose house was ridden with bullet holes and required a lot of repairing. Her modest pension wasn't enough so we helped her out when we could. One of the ways of helping the lack of money was starting to bake bread and cakes for the cafes that were popping up around town. It went well since aunt Zosia had been a baker before the war. So while aunt Zosia and Stasia took care of baking, my mum looked for clients and gave out the baked goods. I wanted to help her out, but she never let me and I don't know why.
Electricity reappeared at our house before water started running from the taps. These "normalisations" to our lifestyle brought us a lot of joy and helped keep our spirits up. The fact that secondary schools had closed seemed to be a sign of imminent danger, especially since the Germans had introduced compulsory education or employment from the age of fourteen. I was not yet fourteen, so I had nothing to worry about, but my parents didn't want me to be behind a year. It was decided that I had to go school, otherwise I would just sit at home and do nothing. My mum wanted me to become a mechanical engineer, so I went to Konarskiego, a vocational school with an excellent reputation. What Zosia's future plans were, I do not recall.
One evening before all these decisions were made, our uncle's family, the Nowakowskis from Krakow, unexpectedly came to visit us. They had evacuated in September and gone to Lvov, which then fell under Soviet occupation. They quickly realised that there was no use sitting there and illegally crossed the border that the Soviets and Germans had created between the occupied parts of Poland.
There were four of them: my father's brother, his wife, and their two sons, Jacek and Maciek. There was no news about the oldest, Tomek, an architecture student who was now an officer cadet in the army. Their arrival was a pleasant surprise, since we hadn't known that they'd found themselves on the Soviet side, or even that they'd left Krakow. Of course they were invited in, fed, and put to bed, since it was late and they were very tired. There were too many people and not enough beds, so we had to share.
Their stay confirmed the gloomy news coming from behind Bug: murders, arrests, the deportation of civilians and government officials, especially those of a higher rank, and of the negative outlook that Ukrainians and members of Jewish communities (who had sided with the occupants from the East) had on Poles. The things they told us about their journey across the border were straight out of an adventure novel, in which survival depended on loyalty and the goodwill of any passersby. What shocked us was when they said that once they had crossed the border they felt calmer; that the civilians or even Germans who they'd come across didn't seem as dangerous as the people they had met "on the other side", not even mentioning the Bolsheviks, with whom every meeting could lead to jail or exile.
They decided to leave for Krakow as soon as possible, even though my parents had suggested they stay another day or two to spend time with family, and to rest. But they didn't want to, and were rushing to get home, worried about Tomek. They took the train straight to Krakow that evening.
Once we were left alone, we realised that, considering the circumstances, our two-room living area was really quite spacious.
* * *
The frosts which had started earlier than usual caused Stasia to move from her nook in the kitchen into the dining room. She would open up her camping bed next to the dresser and sleep there. During the day, while coal was in the burner, it was bearable but keeping it going during the night would use up too much coal, which was still difficult to get, and at exorbitant prices. My mum remembered the previous war and made sure we weren't being wasteful, starting from the first day of occupation.
During the first few weeks of occupation the Germans began to terrorise us. I won't talk too much about the expulsion of people from Poznan and Pomorze. It was, compared to other news, something outrageous, something that didn't match up to the behaviour of the enemy. But later there were more, even more brutal events. The biggest shock was caused by the shooting of a hundred men at Wawer just because some hoodlums had shot one or two gendarmes. People were dragged out of their homes, at night, their pleas ignored, with no rhyme or reason. Anyone stopped was immediately shot. We found out about these things not just from the lightning-fast gossip making its way around Warsaw but also from the big posters hung up on walls by the occupants.
Meanwhile, the harassment of Jewish people had started. They were told to wear armbands with the Star of David and forced to take part in clearup works to declutter the city. I would often see columns of them on the street, working under the supervision of German soldiers. German anti-Jew propaganda had also begun.
Electricity came back near the end of November. This really changed our lives since we no longer had to carry water in buckets from the tap in the outside bathroom. We could simply use the taps in our house.
At the end of November, or maybe in the first few days of December, my classmate's father Mr Rakowski came to our house and suggested organising a group made up of a few boys from our class. Aside from me and his son Andrzej, the boys in the group were to be Janusz Prazma, Ryszard Pomierny, Feliks Sobczynski and Zygmunt Szmit. All of us apart from Zygmunt were from Staszica and in the same class, so we knew each other well. Why it was this and not some other arrangement I don't remember but I suspect it was the result of our parents' agreement. We weren't asked for our opinions.
A student from the Polytechnic in Gdansk, Jerzy Morawski, became our teacher. Why him, I have no idea. Mr Rakowski had already chosen him before he visited us. I couldn't complain because he was an excellent teacher and was able to create a good atmosphere within the group.
The teaching occurred in different houses to not burden a single household too much, but also for safety reasons. So we went to the Rakowskis at 23 Zurawia Rd., the Sobczynskis at 72 Marszalkowska Rd., the Prazmows at 40 Grojecka Rd. and the Szmits at Mianowska Rd. (I don't remember the house number anymore). All of these houses were large, more importantly, they had heating. Our house, although big, had some issues. Only one room was heated and the other was however hot the iron stove could get it. In addition, the one warm room was one people walked through all the time, so our house wasn't an option.
The most important thing for me was that I'd started education not at a vocational school, but just going through the normal second year of secondary school course. Of course we were counting on the war being over in a year so we could move up to third year. Nothing was said about Latin, leaving it for later. But I didn't worry about it at all back then.
An interesting tidbit: after the war, Jerzy Morawski, who already had links with the Communists, ended up working under one of the chancellors of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party.
Zosia had also begun working through the middle school syllabus, organised by the teachers at Slowackiego. Although it was also a vocational school, the normal pre-war course was taught and vocational subjects only appeared in the plan.
At the very beginning of December - possibly even on the 1st - the Germans commanded all Jewish people to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David on their right shoulder. I remember when Mrs Rappaportow came to our house, sobbing and asking my father for advice. If I recall correctly, he said they should move somewhere where nobody knew them and pretend to not be Jewish. But she couldn't decide. From this time on, I saw her, her husband and their young daughter walking around wearing the Star.
I don't remember our first wartime Christmas at all. There must have been a Christmas tree, but it would have been small and humbly decorated. Whether there was anyone else with us that Christmas Eve, I don't recall. Either way, it wasn't a merry Christmas, although my father believed with unchanging optimism that once the French got going in spring, they'd beat the Germans and the war would be over before next Christmas.
Just before the New Year, strong frosts came, so strong that our pipes froze up. So we had to carry it from the tap in the outside bathroom again. But what's worse is that every litre of used water, even that from our toilet, had to be carried back to the outside bathroom and disposed of there. The only thing keeping our spirits high amongst all this trouble was a saying: "Only until spring".
So we finished 1939 like this - not in the best mood but with the faith that all of this would end soon and we would go back to living normally, once the Allies attack from the West and free us from this terrible captivity.
Marek Tadeusz Nowakowski
elaboration: Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz
translation: Laura Christopher
Marek Tadeusz Nowakowski,
born 01.04.1926 in Warsaw
2nd Lieutenant (wartime commission), Home Army
nom de guerre "Abba"
Protection unit of the Home Army Air Force Command - Lawa's company
POW No. 102331
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