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 last days of the Old Town

         23 August
         Together with "Janka," "Isia," "Gruba Zosia" and "Teresa" we go to see "Benesze" on Krzywa Latarnia Street. They are lying in the gate on the stretchers. "Janka" has her pockets full of gingerbread and biscuits looted specially for them. We transport them to our tiny hospital on 19 Podwale Street.
         In the evening I find myself in the sanitary room located on the ground floor near the "paper mill." I hear some clearly excited voices of some group of people coming from the courtyard. I discover that our boys returned from Zoliborz. I jump to them through the window, which is the shortest way. I greet them. I am overjoyed that nobody had died; "Bandera"'s death (Kazimierz Skupien) has been concealed from me; from "Stasiuk" (Stanislaw Olejnik) I get a small bag of almonds with the words " for you, the wounded and 5 pieces for "Nietyksza" (Zdzislaw Niekrasz) and 3 for me." Supposedly, there is some luxury in Zoliborz in comparison to the Old Town; whole houses, a lot of food, and the people tucking in tomatoes and fruit. Something really incredible, totally unattainable for us.

         24 August
         Together with "Teresa" we are on duty on Jezuicka Street. This day there is relatively calm here. Our redoubt is in the ruins of the cathedral. After the fire, only the outside walls, stripped and partly demolished, are all that remained of it. There are no vaults anymore, while the chancel and the aisles are covered with rubble. The rooms on the side of Jezuicka Street and Baryczka Chapel are best preserved parts.

The ruins of the cathedral: Baryczka Chapel on the left (photography by Leonard Sempolinski); on the right the chancel

         The sacristy's panelling is almost intact. The boys are on their positions as usual. Three on the small gallery that used to connect the cathedral and the Castle. From our side, one can reach there by going through the rubble remains of the former stairs, covered from Dziekania Street by a part of remaining side wall.

"The small gallery" - passage from the cathedral to the Castle, the view from Kanonia Street (photograph by Maria-Tadeusz Gancarczyk 1946)

         From the small gallery, because it is cut off from the side of the castle and located several metres above its surroundings, there is a perfect view towards Vistula, and through the barred side window one can observe the ruins of houses on Kanonia Street. This is the most dangerous point, the one most protruding towards the enemy, where the Germans often aim their grenades, coming from Dziekania Street. Here, the people who are most often on duty are glued to the wall: "Stasiuk," "Koch" (Kazimierz Kakol), "Nietyksza," Robert," "Roch" Jjerzy Kowalski), "Zbych;" here, one always has to be watchful, since the enemy attack from the side of the castle ruins and Kanonia is imminent every moment.
         On the ladder, leaning on the side window of the burned-out chancel, there usually sticks Edek "Kanski" with a machine gun aimed at Kanonia and the Castle, I wonder how this thin boy can stand in such an uncomfortable position. The side chapel and the sacristy are also manned by our boys. The rest take positions on the barricade on Jezuicka Street, at the intersection of Kanonia, and on the floors of the Central Archives of Historical Records building adjoining to the church. Another side of Jezuicka Street as well as the existing corner house on Kanonia Street is the "kingdom" of Lieu. "Roman" (Jan Golanski) and "Korwin" (Edward Matuszynski) from the 1 "Wigry" company.
         The girls serving there include: "Justyna," "Krystyna" (Krystyna Grabowska), "Bellona" (Malgorzata Przedzymirska) and "Honorata" (Honorate Wodzynska-Kokocinska). In the dinner time, me and "Teresa" go the Ministry to get a cauldron of soup. Even such a prosaic chore as carrying meals to the barricades costs us a lot of effort and nerves. One constantly has to climb on the rubble, creep stealthily by the walls during an air raid or shelling. The moments of rest are short. The boys have the right to get " a spoonful of warm food" at least once a day. The meal included always the same soup without fat, with groats and noodles, cooked on some water which is far from clean. For twenty-some people we have at our disposal only 3 deep plates and the same number of spoons, which are not washed due to the lack of water, and are only wiped with paper, if it is at hand. Poor "Falinski" (Stefan Filipowicz), who is gravely ill with tuberculosis, always gets his ration at the very end. In the evening, me and Teresa cook coffee.
         We spend the night in the partially demolished flat on the ground floor of the house on 1 Jezuicka Street, adjoining the barricade. We have a wide couch at our disposal, unfortunately without a mattress. The bare bedsprings pinch us mercilessly. The wadded German trousers and camouflage jackets do not protect us from the cold.

         25 August
         We get up at 5 a.m. and begin to cook noodles with pate. They are delicious. Some of them are left for Lieu. "Andrzej," "Stasiuk" and "Koch" who appeared by us in the morning.
         The Germans attacked the cathedral again: about noon Lieu. "Andrzej" sends me with a report to the headquarters. I return after several minutes.
         By my side, "Nietyksza" gets hurt while he is on a barricade, aiming with the machine gun at the Germans approaching from Kanonia Street.
         The blow is strong, and pushes the boy to the back: Together with Lieu. "Andrzej" we crawl to him, drag him with difficulty to the closest gate. The right hand hangs torpidly, and bleeds heavily. After the first, provisional dressing, together with my friend we transport the wounded to the hospital on 7 Dluga Street.
         One enters "the operating room" from the corner of the building. This side of the courtyard is usually strewn with piles of used dressings, soaked with pus and blood. Around there are swarms of disgusting flies. Next to the entrance, the wounded sit or lie on the stretchers or on bare concrete. The rest of them waits for their turn in the basement neighbouring with the room where the operations take place. As a rule, only the people for whom the operation is a life-saving procedure, take precedence. "Hopeless" cases or some other cases of people who are not so seriously wounded are constantly put off to some later time. "Nietyksza" had his hand totally smashed. The great loss of blood weakened him to a large extend.
         I manage to convince the nurse who is regulating the movements, that that in this case the immediate help is essential. We wait in the queue for relatively short time. Next to us, a German wounded in the abdomen groans.
         The so-called "operating room" is in fact a spacious basement, poorly illuminated by some candles. The entire equipment usually consists of two normal tables, several chairs, stools and one soft armchair. In the semi-darkness it is hard to distinguish anything else. Two teams, each consisting of one doctor and one or two nurses, are simultaneously working here, often for 36 hours without a break or longer. Their endurance is admirable. Falling down with exhaustion, falling asleep while bandaging, they constantly have to pull themselves together, find new strength to keep their posts... keep their post on all costs, until another shift comes.
         I seat "Nietyksza" on the stool, I prop him against myself, so that he will not "turn somersaults" during the operation. By the light of the candle the examination of the scrap of the hand takes place. The doctor nods his head, and quickly makes a decision: for the time being, there will be no amputation, only disinfection of the wound and a new dressing with splint will be put.
         There are no anaesthetics used here, everything happens without them. The only deliverance from the pain is to faint. Unfortunately, the boy is conscious for the whole time; he grits his teeth out of pain, but does not groan; does not scream. Maybe out of fear? The sounds of bombardment reach us from outside. The subsequent explosions shake the walls of the building. We feel the floor shaking. One moment, the candles fall down and go out. The plaster falls on our heads. Luckily, the open wound is safeguarded by the bandage. When the candles are lighted again, the doctors and nurses calmly return to the interrupted work, without any panicking... as if nothing special had happened.
         Now I have to find someone to help me carry the stretcher with "Nietyksza" to the "Wigry" hospital on 18 Podwale Street. I run through the Ministry courtyard, to our quarters . I am so preoccupied, blinded by the light and this is probably why I do not react, at the first moment, when I hear a familiar voice pronouncing my name, At last, I recognise.. why, it is Professor Manczarski, Wanda's father. He questions me about his daughter, about her friend Stasia Witkowska, about Zbyszek Smidowicz. Unfortunately, I do not know anything about them, except the fact that they were assigned to Srodmiescie. The professor works in the communications unit. He has the military radio stations under his care. Tomorrow, he goes through the sewers to Zoliborz. He stops me and he is sorry that I break free, he cannot understand my haste, even though I explain that a wounded friend waits for me. We are delighted with this meeting, just like people who had long ago despaired of ever seeing each other again. I promise to come soon to the address of the quarter he gives me, as soon as I will have some free time.
         After transporting "Nietyksza" to Podwale Street I return to Kanonia. I find out that there are more newly wounded people: "Falinski." "Isia," "Orzel" (Arkadiusz Rudzki). So, the new transport awaits me.
         Meanwhile, the Germans cut us off from the rest of the Old Town for some hours, having attacked Celna Street. We are surrounded. We feel uneasy. Only the backing of other units frees us from this difficult situation.

         26 August, Sunday
         Together with "Gruba Zosia" I am sent to the chemist's on 23 Miodowa Street. The chemist's is partially demolished, but perfectly stocked with dressings and medicine. We return heavily-laden with bundles.
In the evening, Father Rostworowski says Mass in the basements of the hospital on 7 Dluga Street. The altar is placed in one of the basements. Around, the wounded lie side by side. The hospital staff and few soldiers from units who are not on duty - all stand in the passageways. The songs which are sung are songs of suffering people, sometimes broken down by unbearable experiences, full of sadness and begging for mercy; there is no power or faith in a wonderful victory in them. And the priest's sermon, though cheerful and comforting, prepares us all for the possibility of taking one's cross instead of a sword.

         27 August
         I am on duty in the chemist's. I help to make dressings.
         In the evening, "Jelen" (Bogdan Zajac-Zaniewski) organises a campfire. All people from the "Wigry" units who are more or less safe and sound and are not on duty at the time, gather there. Someone recites a poem. "Modrzew" (Roman Zielinski) and "Moskito" (Waclaw Sieminski) sing. A pre-war hit song mixes with military songs, as an insult.

         "The world's again in flower, sweet aromas have their power,
         Warsaw has fun again, her smiles are in the air,
         On this vibrant night, Warsaw, have a good time,
         Warsaw, enjoy your fame, you who our love claim!"

         The mood is pleasant, merry and almost careless. Red mulled wine did its job.
         Unfortunately, me and Janka could not stay to the end of the party. Because of the dangerous situation in the area of the cathedral and the incessant attacks, of which "Krystyna" is sent to inform us - we are detached as the reinforcements for the sanitary of the 1st company to Kanonia.
         It is night. "Krystyna" is leading. In the Marketplace there is as bright as during a day. Almost the entire left side of the street is on fire. The smoke stings the eyes, the hot air hits the faces, there is a lot of soot and dust. The ruins of the bombarded house at the intersection of Celna Street blocked up the passage to Jezuicka Street. One has to climb up on them, jump over the burning beams. Bent, we run through the section from Jezuicka to Kanonia under the walls of houses. There is fighting going on in the cathedral. The insurgents set the sacristy on fire to block the way for the Germans.

         28 August
         On 7 a.m. we end our duty. It is relatively calm. The night attacks had been repelled, but our boys had to retreat from the cathedral.
         The rest in the quarters in the Ministry does not last long. As soon as 11 a.m. I run with "Teresa" to Bugaj Street, where Lieu. "Andrzej" had been sent with his platoon as a reinforcement at dawn. We are directed to the house on Krzywe Kolo. In the room on the ground floor we found "Massalski" (Jan Piatkowski), wounded in the abdomen. After making a dressing, we hand him over to our friends to transport him. A moment later, "Sokol" (Zbigniew Derkuczewski) is carried inside - he had been shot in the kidney. He is not unconscious, but his condition is critical. It was hard to drag him from the place where he had fallen. The shelling of the machine guns prevented us from getting there. It was "Massalski" who run to save his friend, in spite of the warnings of "Andrzej" and got hit.
         The tank begins to shell the house in which we are, so together with the wounded we hide in the rooms on the other side of the corridor, in order to finish making the dressing there.
         Having left for Brzozowa Street, I come across Lieu. "Andrzej," covered in blood. Farther on, on the other side of the street, in the ruins, I meet the wounded: "Brzeski" (Zdzislaw Sliwinski) and "Olbrycht" (Jerzy Olszewski). Luckily, all of them are more or less able to walk on their own.
         On this day, the second platoon of our shock troops met with huge losses. In the afternoon, "Markiewicz" (Seweryn Pasikowski) died on Rybaki. "Roch" and 16-year-old "Klecha" (Tadeusz Suski) suffer from serious leg injury.
         In the evening, I take advantage of a bit of free time to visit "Massalski" and "Sokol" who had been wounded a few hours earlier. I enter a small room, in the basement of the house on 19 Podwale Street. At the first moment, I cannot tell the people apart in the semi-darkness. After some time, the eyes get used to the darkness. On the couch by the wall, where Jurek "Ikar" (Jerzy Szymanski) was lying yesterday, I see "Sokol." He has a wide, bloodshot dressing on his back. He is lying on his stomach. He is covered with a sheet to his waist.
         I know that he suffers. A deep sigh escapes my lips. I hear the urgent request: "give me something to drink." I know that because of the internal haemorrhage he is not allowed to drink anything. I want to bring him some relief, however, and I wet his scorched lips with a bit of cotton wool. He rapidly catches every drop of water. All this time, he is conscious. I hear a whisper:
         "Who's that?"
         I say my name. As an answer there is a voice full of anxiety:
         "Basia, please tell me why the doctor didn't want to operate on me?"
         I explain to him that as a result of a great loss of blood, the operation directly after the accident would be dangerous, that he must wait about two days, during which he would be strengthened with appropriate injections. I try to speak confidently, calmly, without any tremor in my voice. I hide the grimace of pain with a smile, as if everything was OK.
         How many times in these tragic times did we force ourselves to smile... through tears.
         I must confess, I had a soft spot for this boy, because of his attachment and the strange trust which he gave me. After "Klecha" he was the youngest one in our platoon. He was 17 years old.
         I would give a lot to be able to help him or at least ease him pain. I embrocate his legs with rubbing alcohol when he complains that they grow numb. I bend over him and warm his naked arms with my hands. Suddenly I feel that he catches me on my neck, pulls me closely to himself and brings his cold lips close to my face. There is something boundlessly sad, almost despairing in this impulse. Searching for protection from approaching death? The last farewell?
         "Gruba Zosia" (Zofia Loszczynska-Nowak) gives" Massalski" an injection. A few minutes later, short death throes come.
         I leave for a moment to go to the neighbouring kitchen. I seize a rare opportunity to wash myself with some water, gained with difficulties, got by standing and waiting in a long queue. A few minutes later "Szpak" rushes in, saying that "Sokol" is calling me. When I come close to him, he is already unconscious, he does not recognise me, he does not react to words. His gasping suddenly stops. This is the end. I close the half-open eyes.
         In the late evening we organise the funeral. We put the bodies of two boys, one of whom sacrificed his life for the other, to a wide, makeshift coffin made of planks. Their funeral rites are very short, we carry them to the closest... backyard. Father Rostworowski prays, while the friends finish digging a not too deep a grave. There are no flowers, the closest family is not present, there are only tears of group of friends and the funeral rites - with standing at attention.

         Our platoon took the positions in the St. John's Cathedral and defended the barricades on Jezuicka Street from 12 to 15 August 1944. We were on duty in the cathedral on even days. On uneven days the 1112 platoon of "Jelen" command was there. "Boncza" units defended the barricade on Swietojanska Street. After 25 August, the first company of "Wigry" remained in the area of the cathedral. The cathedral was taken by the Germans on 28 August.
         In the second half of August we were on duty mainly by the units. When we were not on duty, we were engaged in the hospital on 7 Dluga Street or in our dressing points. The number of the wounded was increasing, but the medical staff was decreasing at an alarming rate. The hospitals were shelled by artillery. Doctors and nurses died. I feel a lot of respect to the hospital staff who had indefatigable strength so that it endured many days' long duty. We also played our roles, standing in for nurses during the night duty.
         Unit nurses had to take the wounded from the field of fire, usually with the help of someone else, make the first dressings, and apart from this, transport the wounded to dressing points and hospital. It was the most difficult chore for our weak, girlish hands. The transports of the wounded from the outposts, from barricades to the hospital were the most difficult ones. In theory the sanitary patrol was to consist of five people. Usually, there were only two of us. When there were three of us, it was a luxury, we could change the hands then. Usually the two of us had to manage, and the weight of the stretcher with the wounded was often quite large. As I have calculated, there was about 20 kilograms for each of our hands.
         The stretch from the cathedral to the hospital on Dluga Street can be covered in 10 minutes, but then we needed a hour or a half and an hour. It was because there were constantly air raids in the meantime. One had to hide in the gates. One had to cross burning streets, some basements. The buildings were interconnected, they had broken openings, one could go through several building via the basements.
         Apart from this, one did not go on a smooth pavement, nor on a roadway, but on the rubble, often reaching to the first floor. During air raids or shelling one had to hide in the gates and various nooks and cranies. One went through dark, crowded basements, where the openings were once larger and once smaller. The basements were usually narrow, the basement stairs in Old Town tenement houses were wooden, narrow and winding. The transport of a heavy young man was not easy. Apart from this, civilians camped in the basement, so there was a horrible crowd. We tripped on the spaced bundles, shoved our way through the crowd, the basements were interconnected by openings broken in walls. Often one had to take the wounded from the stretcher and carry him through the openings. The basement stairs were usually narrow and winding. These transport passages were very difficult.
         We had a lot of wounded in the cathedral. Initially, the Germans did not bombard the cathedral, as it was too close to the German position. It was, however, shelled by the artillery, as well as grenade launchers and later, Nebelwerfer. During the last days it was also bombed by the planes. Bombs fell on our barricade by the gate, through which we carried the statue of Christ earlier on.
         It was not that bad with food in the Old Town. Most of all, there were the storehouses on Stawki. From there, sugar was provided in great amount, canned meat in great variety, beef and pork in cans, very tasty. There was also flour, because we had bread in abundance. It was of course rationed, but it was. There were rations of fresh bread, with fragrant crust. One time a day there was a soup, which was carried in cauldrons. There was also black coffee.
         In the first half of August, there was even running water. I recall that after the explosion of the tank I went with my friends to the bathhouse which was located on Nowomiejska Street. So, there must have been water in abundance then. Later on, the problems with water began. The hospital on 7 Dluga Street had a great demand for water. The meals for units staying on their positions and quarters were cooked there. From Dluga Street soup in cauldrons, groats and noodles were carried. On the courtyard of the hospital on Dluga Street there were wooden barrels filled with water, these were the water reserves. Later this water was taken both for washing, and for drinking, preparing meals and for the wounded. It was not particularly clean, but it was nevertheless. Also, wells were dug up. I recall that somewhere on Podwale I stood in a queue to get some water. One usually stood in the queue 2 or 3 hours.

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.