Insurgent accounts of the witnesses

War Reminiscences of the nurse of the Scouts' battalion of the Home Army "Wigry" Barbara Gancarczyk-Piotrowska pseud. "Pajak" (=Spider)

Barbara Gancarczyk-Piotrowska,
born on the 18th of October 1923 in Warsaw
the nurse of the Home Army
pseud. "Pajak" (=spider)
the 2nd platoon of the assault company
Scouts' battalion of the Home Army "Wigry"

The struggles in the cathedral

         14 August
         I remain by the side of "Isia" and "Janka." Both of them are wounded. They have a fever. I help to clean up the flat. I am totally broken down psychologically after the horrible day yesterday. I cannot concentrate on my work, I move at a snail's pace.

         15 August
         I am on duty in the hospital on 7 Dluga Street - in the operating room. Apart from this, I register the incoming and the wounded. The sight is terrible, it is too much for me to bear. I come to pieces totally, bandaging a little girl, maybe six-year-old. She whimpers out of pain like a little dog. She has no one from her family close by. Maybe they all died? I hold the drooping little head, delicately stroke the face covered with tears and feel that my own eyes are full of tears, too.
         "Gruba Zosia" (Zosia Loszczynska-Nowiak) sends me to find a catheter. I run from one chemist's shop to another in the Old Town. I cannot get any catheters anywhere. Finally, on Franciszkanska Street near the New Town Market Place they promise to prepare it for me in 2 hours. The chemist's has partially collapsed and some equipment as well as precious medicine is to be dug up.
         During the entire uprising I have not spent so much time in the basements with the civilians, as it happened on this day. Only the inhabitants of the Old Town, who lived mainly in shelters, knew the addresses of the chemist's or their owners. Out of necessity I had to go down to the basement in order to find the much-needed information. I was surrounded by people. They were thirsty for information, they seized the hope that the hell, to which they were sentenced, will end soon.
         A girl wearing a camouflage jacket, a girl taking part in action... perhaps a woman liaison officer, according to them, should know the situation.
         I am not capable of lying without faltering and telling stories about some incredible successes that have never happened. During this time, all we were fighting for was to stand our ground. We were closed in the encirclement, cut off from other city quarters, sentenced to annihilation, by concentrating here all the fire of the bombers, Nebelwerfers, and all possible weapons.
         Human tragedies multiply at a frightening speed, the houses fall down one by one, familiar Old Town alleys disappear without a trace, even the entire streets.
         I have to answer these people somehow. They are waiting for words of comfort. I tell them about the Soviet offensive, how - sticking around on the barricades - we listen to the thunder of cannon guns, which lasts for a few days, from the other side of Vistula. Yes, undoubtedly all this will soon end successfully.
         By the way, I am glad that I am taking part in the uprising, that I am not sitting in the shelter doing nothing. I would not bear such an atmosphere: all this constant listening for the approaching planes, counting the fallen bombs according to their explosions, the anxiety that I would be buried alive under the ruins of several-story tenement house.
         There is simply not enough time to brood over tragic situations. I am assigned to the Scouts' battalion. I mix with young people, like me, full of enthusiasm, maybe a little bit light-hearted (this is a characteristic of the youth) who - in spite of everything - can afford to smile or tell a joke, and - when the situation calls for it - to give help and sacrifice. We are one big solidary family. It is true, that every day death snatches one of us away. Each loss is painful and each immediately brings up the question: who is next? Maybe it is my turn?
         In spite of all this, outside we breathe a different kind of air, there is a different atmosphere in spite of it all... in spite of the fact that the light of a raging fire is sometimes stronger than the light of the sun covered by the smoke, the swish of the flying bullet, a sudden explosion - even the one that blows you off your feet - a series from an MG, all these are only a short moment of fear for us... and an affirmation of our belief that not every "plague" has to hit us. After an injury it is enough to look in the mirror to burst out laughing: "How comes that this slob is me?" In these circumstances the boys can never appreciate the beauty of the battalion's girls.

         16 August
         In the morning, together with "Teresa"(Teresa Potulicka-Latynska) I am detached to the second platoon of Lieu. "Andrzej" (Jerzy Kowalczyk) who takes over from the unit defending St. John's cathedral. The cathedral is not destroyed. In fact, the windows are broken, and the walls are deprived of some priceless works of art, they bear clear traces of the struggles which took place here, but the outside walls and the vaults are almost untouched, and the wooden furnishings are whole.
         In Kaplica Literacka there are gathered piles of valuable books, albums, works dealing with history of art. As a student of the Architecture Department, I am particularly interested in the latter. I select one illustrated book, to browse it when I would have some free time in a calm place, not sensing that there would be no such a moment during the uprising. There are also files lying there, possibly with some important documents. Someone dragged them there, thinking that they would survive. Unfortunately, they all burned down. The cathedral had been burning several times in the first half of August. Somehow the fire was always extinguished in the bud. The fire that consumed it to the ground began on 16 August on noon.
         The Germans set the houses on the other side of Dziekania Street on fire with incendiary shells. As a result of the strong wind, the fire quickly moves to the side chapel, chancel and the aisle. A group of men tries to put out the fire. Someone even drags a firehose. However, a scarce amount of water frustrates all efforts. The books gathered there, wooden panelling, pews, coatings all gradually fall prey to the flames.
         Outside of the church, from the side of Kanonia Street, our boys hastily reinforce the barricade. The cathedral is one of the most forward points of the Old Town on the eastern side. The ruins of the palace and the buildings under the slope of Vistula are occupied by the Germans and the Russians. The enemy is approaching through the burnt-out ruins of Kanonia Street.
         The boys hurriedly drag to the barricade the sacks of sugar, gathered in the vestibule by the foreseeing priests. They also carry down some furniture, carpets, anything they can get, only to do it quickly. They are tussling with some elderly man from whom they took feather beds which he painstakingly kept in the church. Lieut. "Andrzej" who is commanding the action, tears out a large-sized carpet that someone is holding.
         "What the heck, are you crazy? A carpet to the barricade? It will be of use as a bed in this gate. Do you want to sleep on the bare ground?"
         The sheet metal which falls from the burning roof in whole plates, is taken to the top of the barricade.
         Me and "Teresa" go to the cathedral. In the Baryczka Chapel the sculpture of the Miraculous Christ still hangs on the wall. One of the priests tries to take the statue from the cross. This is Father Waclaw Karlowicz. All around, on the altar and on the floor as well, there are strewn some votive objects from the display cabinet shattered by the bullets, among them the highest military decorations - the Virtuti Militari Crosses. The two of us, me and "Teresa" are helping the priest. The statue is large and heavy. We take hold of it in our outstretched hands. Together we carry the statue outside, from the church to Jezuicka Street, which was shelled.
         We have to pass the barricade carefully and then we enter the nearest gate on 1 Jezuicka Street. There, the priest detaches the spread-out arms from the body. I closely look at the Miraculous Image. It seems rather stern. Interested, I examine the legendary hair with my eyes. It is in fact real hair, but covered with dust. It is full of dust, sand, remains of the plaster, rubble. The crown of thorns is also real, not carved. In my childhood I knew a legend telling that the statue's hair grew until some time.
         This statue has been worshipped for centuries. It was famous for its miracles. Polish kings, the leaders of many national uprisings: Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Romuald Traugutt prayed in front of this statue. The king John III Sobieski prayed in front of the statue before the Battle of Vienna and after his return, giving thanks for the victory.
         I also felt great respect, esteem for this statue because of the legend about it. Seen from some distance in a dim chapel, it seemed shrouded in mystery, remote and inaccessible. Meanwhile, I have it next to me, so close. I can look at the facial features from close-up. It is an indescribable experience.
         From the gate on Jezuicka Street we carry the statue to the courtyard. I come first, carrying the arms, the priest follows me, helped by some boy who is not from "Wigry." It is an insurgent, with the armband. I have never learnt who he was and from which unit. I do not even know whether he survived the uprising.
         We go through the courtyard. On the right side there is a green belt. There the graves were dug, in which the insurgents who died in this area were buried. Amongst these graves there were the graves of the Jesuits as well. From the courtyard we go to the basements. There the Jesuits stay. Many times we went there with my friend Teresa to boil water for coffee, sometimes we were treated to some soup. But today there is neither coffee nor soup.
         The way from the cathedral to the Marketplace of the Old Town leads through the basements of the neighbouring tenement houses. Jezuicka and Swietojanska Streets are heavily shelled. The underground passages are crowded with people. It is dark. The windows are covered with something, there are also some sacks of sand for safety. In some places candlelight flickers. I go first, carrying the arms of the statue in front of me. I ask the people to make way for the priest, who follows slowly behind me, and the fellow insurgent. Told that the Miraculous Lord Jesus from the cathedral is carried here, the people make way, kneel down, pray aloud, some of them cry. It is very moving.
         We reach the last tenement house from where there is a direct entrance to the Marketplace through a widened window. I pass on the hands of the precious sculpture, treated by the inhabitants of Warsaw as the holiest relic, to one of the civilians who will carry it farther on.

The way of evacuating the statue from the Cathedral to the Old Town Marketplace

         I return to our unit, to the cathedral. There is only one nurse left there, "Teresa." It is becoming more and more hot in this area, not only because of the raging fire, but also because the Germans have intensified the shelling. Are they preparing to launch an attack? If so, the nurses may be needed any moment.
         The Germans have already captured the Castle Square, in fact they are approaching Dziekania Street. The houses on the other side of Dziekania are already on fire, only because they have no direct access to the cathedral.

         As I learnt later on, the statue was carried further through the Old Town Marketplace, Krzywe Kolo, Nowomiejska Street. Among the fires and falling missiles it was carried to the chapel of the Daughters of Charity on Stara Street. It was placed on the altar in the chapel. Two days later, the chapel was bombed. The vertical base of the altar bent at a certain angle, in this way covering the statue, which was totally unscathed. There was no vault or ceiling over the chapel at the time.
         In these circumstances the statue was moved to Dominican Friars' church on Freta Street. The statue was to be deposited in the place where the coffin of St. Andrew Bobola was located, in the church vaults.
         In the church vaults, there was a hospital. The wounded were laid down directly on the floor, one by one. Among these wounded, the statue of Lord Jesus was laid. A priest who visited these wounded, heard their confessions, anointed the sick, told me this story. He noticed a person, lying by the wall and covered with a soldier's coat. He asked this person whether he wants to confess. He did not hear any answer, so he thought that this person is already dead. He put his hand under the coat and made sure that this person must have died a long time ago, since he was cold and somehow stiff, rigid. He thought that this person should be carried away from here. He struck a match and it turned out that it is not the deceased, but a statue of Lord Jesus. A few days later, this church was bombed. A lot of people died, but the statue of Lord Jesus miraculously survived. It was intact.
         In 1948 Baryczka Chapel was already rebuilt. The cathedral was still in pieces, there were no vaults. They were building the outside walls. Because the chapel was already done, a decision was made to return the statue of Lord Jesus here. I remember this day, it was in the spring of 1948, when there was a large procession after a Mass. The statue was carried, assisted by many bishops, priests. Krakowskie Przemiescie was full of the crowd of people, walking in concentration, singing.
         I also walked somewhere at the end of the entire march. Of course, I could not get inside the cathedral. I recollected the events that happened a few years before, when we were carrying the statue away. That escape was totally different from this triumphant return.

         The fire spreads more and more in the cathedral. The eastern aisle and a part of the chancel are on fire.
         Together with "Teresa" we help the priest to pour sand on the steel cover protecting the entrance to the vaults. There are priceless treasures deposited there: golden monstrances, chalices, some of the paintings. All these miraculously survived and after the war were recovered, intact.
         Our friend from "Wigry," the Academy of Art student, Ewa Faryaszewska had a lot of share in the action of saving the relics from the cathedral and the monuments of the Old Town. She risked her life to carry out the priceless treasures of our culture from burning churches, damaged houses. She died in action on 28 August.
         The shooting not only does not stop, but even increases. Some people are wounded; "Kanski" (Edward Kuminek ) was hit by a piece of grenade launcher, luckily, the wound is not very serious. "Teresa" escorts him to our dressing point on Kilinskiego Street. In the cathedral, "Wigry" staffed the western part of the church which was not on fire. The barricades on Swietojanska Street are defended by "Boncza" units.
         The fire of the grenade launchers is so strong that one is afraid to leave the building, so the ones who are not on duty are gathered in the gate of the Archive on Jezuicka Street. The missiles of grenade launchers are very dangerous. The missile is shot up almost vertically, curves and falls to a small distance - straight on our heads. Even if one is on a courtyard surrounded by walls and tenement houses, one is not fully safe, the missile may fall from above.
         Suddenly, a heart-rendering scream of a woman reaches us. Thinking that I would have to come to her rescue in these circumstances makes my flesh creep. I hesitate for a moment. Fear struggles with a sense of duty. Hope that maybe someone will get there before me to help this woman holds me back. Seconds pass... The despairing call for help repeats several times. There is no doubt as to where it comes from. Someone must have been hit on the way from Swietokrzyska to Jezuicka Street.
         I follow the voice, running. Through a hole in the wall I get to the courtyard by the cathedral. I do not see much, it is twilight and apart from this, the dust flying around after the explosion covers everything. At last, I notice two forms of men bent over the wounded woman. They lift her up from the ground, carry her. Together with "Teresa," who at that moment appears near me, we go to the vestibule of the cathedral - the first aid point. The first examination confirms that there is quite a deep wound in the thigh and the lower part of the abdomen. A despairing question reaches us:
         "Will she live?"
         "Of course.
"          The wound is rather deep, but not very dangerous. Even so, we have to try and transport her to the hospital as fast as possible. I learn that the wounded woman is called Barbara Rankowska; she is a nurse or a woman liaison officer in the unit defending Swietojanska Street. I volunteer to inform her family and friends from the sanitary point, quartered in the building of PKO on Celna Street. I find them in the shelter, inform them about the accident and the necessity of immediately organising medical help.
         In spite of my insistence, the girls do not have courage to go out with me. I do not wait any longer. I haste back to my own people. I return through the Celna Street. Around me: fires, falling missiles, one of them closer, another - farther on. Out of fear, I run through Celna like a crazed one. I reach the Marketplace. There, one has to go through a barricade. I run to the gate on Jezuicka Street. Farther on it is safer insomuch as one can go along the Jezuicka street through the ground floors of the buildings which are connected to each other. Luckily, I reach our quarters in the gate of Jezuicka Street. Several minutes later, a sanitary patrol going for Barbara Rankowska passes us.

The quarters of the 2nd platoon in the gate of Jezuicka Street: the statue of Lord Jesus was carried this way (photograph by Maria-Tadeusz Gancarczyk 1946)

         At night, there is no bombardment, the grenade launchers do not shoot at us, we are not plagued by the artillery or Nebelwerfers, but anyway no one can get a wink of sleep. Nearby, the cathedral burns, with large flames.
         I go to see the spectacle. I stand in the vestibule on the side of Swietojanska Street, under the strong vault of the choir. The view is incredible. The entire interior is on fire, flaring with a powerful light, in different hues from bright gold, through red, to the dark violet. The incessant crackle and hiss are from time to time muffled by the bang of falling vaults; then, something like a fountain of fire and sparks bursts out from the earth.
         When I look at it all, some kind of grief and anger overcomes me. I become aware of the entire ruthless, unbounded power of destruction, for which there is nothing sacred.

         18 August
         I am on duty on Jezuicka Street in the cathedral together with Basia Wasilewska" (Barbara Kopeczek).

Barbara Gancarczyk-Piotrowska

prepared by Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz

translated by Katarzyna Wiktoria Klag

      Barbara Gancarczyk-Piotrowska
born on the 18th of October 1923 in Warsaw
the nurse of the Home Army
pseud. "Pajak" (=spider)
the 2nd platoon of the assault company
Scouts' battalion of the Home Army "Wigry"

Copyright © 2012 Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz. All rights reserved.