The Warsaw Uprising eyewitness accounts

Mother's account

Maria Szczepankowska,
Born 19.09.1903 r. in Warsaw
A civilian participant
in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944

The war and occupation

         I was born in Warsaw on the 19th of September 1903. My parents were Julian and Zofia (née Imszennik-Kondratowicz). I am a qualified economist.
         I married Henryk Szczepankowski on the 15th of October 1933, and on the 3rd of May 1939, my long-awaited son, Bogdan, was born. We were living at 21 Promenada Street in a lower region of Mokotow, near Morskie Oko Park. It was such a perfect place to live a happy life and create a perfect atmosphere for an only child to grow up in.

         Unfortunately, the rumors about the war were getting louder and louder. And so, the 1st of September 1939, had arrived. Getting to work was difficult because the air raids started. And ever since that day, they made our everyday life a nightmare. On the 6th of September, my husband was drafted into the army and I moved to my father's place on Wspolna Street as that seemed like a safer option. This is how I survived Warsaw siege warfare - hiding in the basement with my child.
         My husband was dismissed from the service and after several weeks of wandering around, he finally returned to Warsaw on the 27th of October 1939. He was ill, scrawny and his legs were swollen and lacerated.
         The occupation had begun. We were running out of our end of service benefits. Our apartment was shot at three times and one unexploded shell was stuck in the wall. Only the kitchen, the hall, the guardroom, and the bathroom were intact so it was impossible to live there. Without thinking too much about it, we distributed the remaining furniture to our friends and family and we left to live with our relatives in Pustelnik. We stayed there for a year and come winter of 1940/1941 we subrented a room of our own on Waszyngton Street.
         It was in that apartment that a great tragedy had happened. In December of 1940, our little son unexpectedly ran into a hallway where he got hit in a head by a swinging door. He was knocked down and fell onto a stone floor. The repercussions of the fall were tragic. The doctor sent him to the hospital immediately. He was unconscious for days and only after a week did he come around. He was able to return back home after six weeks. He suffered with a balance disorder, he had to relearn how to walk and, as we quickly realized, he incurred permanent hearing damage.
         My husband swore not to work for the Germans so he did his best to earn money in other places. It was getting harder and harder to get by. Finally, he accepted a job offer at the Municipal Department of Transportation on Mlynarska Street as a purchasing officer. Sadly, the Germans did not take care of the Polish employees. During one of the business trips, my husband caught a nasty cold which turned into pneumonia. While in a hospital, he developed tuberculosis. After the ghetto close-down in February of 1942, we were allocated a new apartment at 1 Elektoralna Street (apt. no. 7). My husband's condition was deteriorating rapidly towards the end of 1942. Unfortunately, he died on the 2nd of July 1943.
         I wasn't working during the occupation times. My father, Julian Zobl, died in 1940. I took over his restoration workshop at 3 Chmielna Street and ran it for some time after his death. However, as the German terror increased and more and more tosses and street executions were conducted, it wasn't safe for me to go outside that much anymore. After my husband's death, I had to provide for me and my son with the widow's and orphan's annuities.
         One evening (when my husband was still alive) after the curfew, someone knocked on our door (we were staying on the first floor at Elektoralna Street back then). It was a little girl cringing at the door. She handed me a little note as she whispered: "I'm here to see Mr. Henio." She was wearing only a battered dress (it was March of 1943), ragged slippers, and no stockings or a coat as she had just escaped from the ghetto. We learned that she was a sister of my husband's school friend.
         The little note read: "I beg you, save my sister." She stayed with us. We made a secret den for her by moving a huge Gdansk wardrobe so that there was a little nook behind it. In moments of terror, she would move the back screen of the wardrobe, go through it and hide behind.
         One day, a neighbor came and informed us that they were visited at 5 am by a Gestapo looking for a Jewish girl. Despite taking all the precautions, someone spotted her through the opposite window in the building on Przechodnia Street. We were lucky that they mistook the windows and therefore, the apartment door as well. I took her to my friend's house on Madalinski Street the very same day.

The Warsaw Uprising

         The uprising broke out on the 1st of August 1944. For the next week my son and I were struggling to survive in the basement of our apartment building on Elektoralna Street. The air raids were getting more and more dangerous and our house was under a constant cannon attack. Elektoralna Street was gradually overtaken by the Germans as they checked house after house.
         In the early morning of the 7th of August, we beat our way through a street full of burning houses collapsing to the ground. We reached our relatives on Inflancka Street as the area seemed to be safer there. However, that seemingly peaceful air was soon to be destroyed and two days later it also became a war zone. The insurgents appointed our house to be a resistance center. There was no shelter in our house. There were only two laundry rooms in a shallow basement on both sides of the house. The tenants from all the four floors and three wings of the house were hiding in those laundry rooms. We were on the left side of the house.
         The insurgents had to retract five days later. At this point, the Germans drove over with the Nebelwerfers (the smoke mortar) and blew the whole right side up. There were no survivors. Some people were shot, others died squashed under the debris or were burned alive.
         Unfortunately, the Polish Spirit Monopoly Concern employees lived there as well. They had just received a 20 liters worth of spirit which fed the fire and destroyed everything that the bullets hadn't. That was practically the end. The Germans burst into the yard and forced us to come out from hiding with their guns.
         They made us go to the nearby bus depot. My uncle, who had trouble walking, was sat on a stool by one of the Gestapo soldiers who shot him at the back of the head. While holding our arms up in the air, we were rushed to stand against the wall. Some of us who spoke German were ordered to go to the neighboring houses and bring other hiding people back to the Germans within 30 minutes.
         The Germans gave them the ultimatum: "You will bring those hiding people back in 30 minutes or all the people here will be executed." They rushed the rest of us through the ghetto remains on Nalewki Street straight to the storage building that was still intact. Every now and then we would be stopped and put against the wall to be shot. After the fourth time they even formed a firing squad but we were saved by a group of people coming out on Bonifraterska Street. Once we made it to the storage building, they made all the men lie down facing the ground and the women and small children were searched and led to the back of the building.
         I had this incredible thing happen to me while the search was taking place. Just next to us was a big passenger car. Inside it was a German soldier wearing a uniform, propping his head on a steering wheel. I was just next to him when I heard a muffled voice: "Don't worry." I turned my head. "Please, don't look this way", the voice said. "I heard they will be taking the children away", I whispered. The voice replied: "No, they won't. They will take you out to the countryside. Trust me, I have a son and a daughter participating in the uprising." I didn't hear much more as I had to move forward. I don't know to this day who was the person I was talking to but they gave me hope.
         Around midnight, the men were led out into the bushes to be executed. Only few of them survived - those who worked for the Germans. We spent this horrible night under the 'affectionate' eye of the Ukrainian soldiers from Galicia SS, known as vlasovtsy.
         Next morning, they made us go through Wola which was flooded with dead bodies of humans and horses all the way to Zieleniak, which was a temporary camp at the corner of Grojecka and Opaczewska Street. Then, after a few hours, we were moved to the West Train Station and from there, to a temporary camp in Pruszkow.
         There, in order to avoid being transferred to Germany, I managed to convince the Germans that I suffered from tuberculosis. I did look very sick and weighed only 53 kilos. Four days later I bribed a bahnschutz (railway security officer) with a ring and he snuck us into a freight train in the middle of the night. We waited there a longer while and reached the outskirts of Skierniewice in the early morning.

The exile and the return

         We were taken care of by the Central Welfare Council (founded with a permission from the Germans in 1940, it was a charity institution that cared for people who suffered during the war). They put us in a nearby village called Reczyce. Every morning before the sun came up, I had to peel a potful of potatoes for the breakfast borscht and after the meal I had to take the cows out to graze.
         Unfortunately, it was getting colder and I didn't have any warm clothes. I did have a fur coat but I didn't have any stockings and only a summer pair of shoes. Therefore, I caught a cold and had fever. Since it was Sunday, I decided to lie down for a bit. The landlady scolded me and said: "No work, no food." We didn't eat that day.
         Next morning, we walked to Lyszkowice where I got two bread rolls and a cup of warm milk for my child. I tried to find another lodging and only in the evening I managed to get one. It belonged to a German lady, the owner of the mill. She had three children and her husband was in the battle. She promised to take us in if I took care of her children. We stayed there until mid November but she treated us very poorly as if we were some beggars asking for alms. I guess she decided that we cost her too much so she informed us one day that her family is coming over and we have to vacate her house within three days. Sadly, I couldn't find another place to stay in the allocated time, and although it was pouring down, I had to pack my things, grab my child, and go.
         I stopped at the gate. I didn't have the courage to go forward. It was freezing cold. The child was crying and the rain was still pouring. The mill supervisor, who was just closing up the facility, spotted me and surprised, asked me what I was doing there. I told him about my situation. He couldn't do much, but he secretly took us to the equipment room in the mill where we found a little table, a chair, and a small bench. It was as cold in there as it was outside. I wrapped my child and put him on the bench. I sat in the chair. After an hour or so, a boy brought us a few bread rolls and a flask full of hot tea from the supervisor.
         We were let out in the morning by the supervisor. I went to a little shop/dinner where the local sugar factory workers ate. We had some tea and ate a few bread rolls. I learned there that the owner was looking for someone to help in the kitchen and serve the meals. I applied for the position and became a cook and a waitress. The job was demanding but we were warm and our stomachs were full. The only problem was sleeping as there was only a small kitchen room at the back of the diner. We slept on two tables joined together, covered by my fur coat.
         At some point, Lyszkowice residents had organized a collection of used clothes and gave them over to the priest. I swallowed my pride and went over to him to ask for some warmer shoes for my son. He only had a pair of summer sandals, and one shoe was broken. I got nothing though. The priest scolded me for asking for them when I was wearing a fur coat myself. He said: "Take the fur off your back and trade it for some shoes for your child."
         As you can imagine, my son got sick and I lost my job again. I took my son to the hospital. They gave him a bed and I slept at his feet. I obviously wasn't very lucky, though. As soon as my child was starting to recover from the sickness (it was a New Year's Day), the same priest who scolded me before came by the hospital. He must have recognized me and said: "What are you doing here? Get out of here immediately!" I could not take it anymore. Where was I supposed to go?
         I was walking straight ahead without knowing the time or a destination. All of a sudden, someone tugged on my sleeve and pulled me back. It turned out that I stepped into wetlands and had I not been pulled out it would have been our end. My savior happened to be Roman Pomorski. He lived in Skierniewice but would often come to Lyszkowice. He took us to his friends' place. They ran a diner as well. We stayed there for a few days and helped in the kitchen.
         There was a sugar factory in Lyszkowice. I decided to get a job there. There were three Germans and an interpreter in a director's office. They asked me immediately for my id. Once I showed it to them, they yelled: "Bandit" at me and tossed my id card towards the door. I saw three fingers pointing at the door. I hurried outside as I left my son alone in the corridor and was worried about him. I realized that I'm doomed and won't get any job that would secure my son through the winter.
         However, someone up there must have been watching over us since while I was standing there in that corridor, cuddling my son, sobbing, a man came over. He was older, nicely dressed, and looked friendly. "What happened? What are you doing here?", he asked. I told him what had happened. "Sadly, I cannot help you with getting the job - the Germans don't hire people from Warsaw. Come here to see this man tomorrow, though", he said as he pointed at the porter. I thanked him and left. I hoped he would help me find a job.
         I came back there the next day. There was a package waiting for me there. I learned that a man who I was talking to the day before was a previous director of the factory. In the package I found amenities for my child, woollen pants, two sweaters, several shirts, leggings, gloves, a hat, and the most important item - long boots and 500 zloty inside one of them. I burst into tears. This time, however, these were the tears of joy.
         A few days later, Roman Pomorski arrived from Skierniewice and took us with him. We stayed with women who were refugees from Poznan. There were eight of us there. We evenly distributed everything that Pomorski managed to get for us such as potatoes and bread. This is how we managed to survive until the Soviet soldiers took over Skierniewice. The army moved at a great pace. The Germans stampeded out of the city like rats, leaving everything behind.
         I decided to go back home as soon as I learned that Warsaw was finally free. Every day I would go out onto the road with my son and look for a ride to the city. It took us a week to finally stop a driver of a Russian tank truck. I used a bottle of vodka as a bait to stop him. I was lucky that Pomorski had given me three of those bottles and a dozen of candles. They took my son into the cabin and sat him on the guard's laps. I sat outside on a platform, nestled next to a gas tank.
         They dropped us off at Okecie. We started walking towards Dabrowka thinking that we'll find our family there. This journey turned out to be a horrible ordeal. We took a shortcut. I quickly realized that the fields that we were walking through were mined and we waded in snow up to our waists. We retraced our steps and wobbled back out of the fields. When we got back to where we started it was already dark. Once we got out on the hard ground, we felt exhausted and cold. There was no way we could have kept walking.
         There was a wooden house just next to Krakowska Avenue. I decided to go there and ask if we could stay there that night. Before I even managed to walk up to the door, a friendly landlord came out and invited us in. There was only one room inside. There was a bed, a bench and an iron fire with a cabbage soup cooking on it. They offered us some soup. What a treat that was! It brought us back to life. The landlord got a sheaf of hay from the attic and spread it on the floor for us. The iron fire kept us warm all night. I gave the landlord four candles as a "thank you" gift (candles were at a premium back then) and left the next morning.
         The sun was shining, and the snow was melting into the sloughs. We sank to our knees most of the way. We finally made it to a village. We stayed there in one of the cottages to get warm and dry. They gave us each a cup of a hot beverage that could hardly be called tea. In return for a bottle of vodka, a young man carried my backpack (that I had appropriated before) in which there was the last bottle of vodka, candles and my son's clothes, and promised to take us to Dabrowka. We did in fact find our family there. But we found them in dire poverty. What mattered most, though, was that we had a roof over our heads. We all stayed in the kitchen so that we could warm ourselves with our own breath. The candles that I had with me proved to be invaluable. I traded them for two loaves of wholewheat bread and some potatoes.
         After a few days, we walked to Warsaw. We visited everyone we knew there. Unfortunately, every apartment that we saw was either totally destroyed or desolated to such an extent that it would be impossible to live there. The apartment on Filtrowa Street was the least ruined one. On our way back, we visited my dearest friend who was also my son's godmother. She lived on Madalinski Street. Her mother and her had just reopened their kindergarten. We were so happy to see each other. We moved there the next day. Not only did we have a roof over our heads but also comfortable air temperature and, most importantly, we weren't starving.
         I began to obtain tobacco and cigarette paper and started to roll cigarettes again in order to earn my living. At the beginning of March, we went to Pustelnik to find the rest of our family. Pustelnik was our meeting point. Sadly, I didn't find anyone there except for the caretaker. The mansion was destroyed. We stopped there for a day to catch our breath and then set off again.
         I decided to go to Radosc where a relative of mine lived with her family. Indeed, I found them there but they became a shadow of their former selves. We enjoyed our company for some time and then went to bed. I slept for 36 hours straight and my son - 24 hours. We were so exhausted from all this walking from Warsaw to Pustelnik and from there to Radosc. There wasn't any transportation to use, only a barge through the Vistula River. This is how my exile from Warsaw ended.
         We lived on Madalinski Street until April. Finally, on the 3rd of April 1945, we moved to 70 Filtrowa Street, to an apartment which my sister used to live in before the war. We put the place in order with our own bare hands. It was sooted and extremely filthy from the Russians who stayed there for a couple of days. We were lucky, though, as the bomb that was used to knock down the building, hit the roof on the other side of the staircase. All the apartments in this 7-floor house that were on that side were completely ruined. On our side, on the other hand, all the accommodations from the first floor all the way up to the fifth, were in good condition. The windows were broken and most of the things were stolen. They did leave some of the furniture behind so the situation wasn't too tragic for those times.
         So, we began life after the war…My sister and I still spent our days hand making the cigarettes. I would walk to Mokotow every other day to sell the cigarettes and candles. Once the summer started, I began to look for a stable job.

Maria Szczepankowska

Bogdan Szczepankowski's supplement

         The report that my mother, Maria Szczepankowska, has written is an excerpt from the chronicle of Lanckoronski, Imszennik-Kondratowicz, Szczepankowski and Zielinski family. She finished writing it in 1984.
         My mother and I shared the fate of several hundred residents of Warsaw: the trauma of the occupation and the uprising, the exile drama, kilometers worth of a nightmare of wandering around for months and a difficult return to a devastated city. But her story is a testimony for yet another atrocity of war.
         I was 5 years and 3 months old when the Warsaw Uprising broke out. What can such a young child remember? Unclear images that cannot be put into context. The traumatic events that evoke emotions but do not fit into a logical order. Strong as they were, they will stay with me forever.
         My memories go back to the 7th of August 1944 when my mother escaped from the Germans, leaving the apartment on Elektoralna Street and moving to Inflancka Street.
         I remember us walking through the dark streets in the evening (as I had learned later, our route was as follows: Bankowy Square, Dluga Street, Krasinskich Square, Franciszkanska Street, Stawki towards the bus depot). I saw houses engulfed in flames, burning balks thrown out of the top floors, dead horses on the streets and dead bodies covered with fabrics. My mother told me not to look at that but such traumatic and gruesome sights draw a young child's attention like a moth to a flame.
         I remember going through at least two barricades. We had to go through winding passages next to the walls of the houses. We finally arrived at Inflancka Street. There were more of our relatives there too so the place got very cramped really quickly. There was very little space to sleep. We got a kitchen table to sleep on.
         My cousin, Krysia, was 16 at the time. She was a runner in the uprising but she would come back home during the night. I remember her because she wore a "panterka" (a black and gingery spot jacket that allowed the insurgents to blend in with the bricks of the ruined buildings) with white and red band. The apartment was located on the first floor. The alarm sounds and air raids made us hide in the basement a lot. Fortunately, no bomb had ever hit that building.
         This is what the first week of what I remember looked like. On the 14th of August (as my mother told me), the car barn side of the building was destroyed by the Germans' Nebelwerfer arms. The apartments were on fire. A lot of people (including children) died in the apartments and the basement.
         Soon after that attack, the Germans burst into the building (my mother suspected that they were in fact the Galicia SS Ukrainian soldiers). They ordered us to gather in the yard. We weren't allowed to bring anything with us so my mother only managed to grab a little silver tea spoon (which survived the war and is the only keepsake that we have from the uprising).
         Once everybody was out in the yard, we were ordered to go through a demolished fence to the car barn. We were watched by a few (maybe a dozen) of armed soldiers. My grandfather's cousin had trouble with walking. He couldn't comply with the Germans' orders. They made him sit on the stool. Again, mother told me not to look. This time, though, I did listen to her. He was shot at the back of the head.
         They made us stand against the wall with our hands up. After a while, they told us to keep walking. We walked through the ruins of the ghetto on Nalewki Street to some building. They ordered the man to lie down with their faces to the ground. The women and small children (including me and my mother) were led to the other side of the building. We waited there for several hours. The men were executed at night. We were still waiting.
         In the morning of the 15th of August, we had to walk through Wola to Zieleniak. Later, we reached the West Train Station. The only thing I remember from this walk was: dead horses, overturned trams and moments of terror when they made us stand against the wall and pointed the guns at us. When reminiscing, my mom said that every time they stopped us, she was sure that it would have been our end. However, we did manage to get to the train station which took us to the camp in Pruszkow.
         We were in a room no. 3. From my perspective it seemed so big and inside were these huge, wooden chests of different sizes. They were casings of the machines as I later learned. The best spots were by the smaller chests and such a spot we found. I remember that when I was sitting on top of "our" chest I was facing my mother so it had to be about one meter tall. Its upper part was as large as a ping-pong table. We also slept on "our" part of that chest.
         Mother managed to avoid being sent to a labour camp in Germany because she pretended to suffer from tuberculosis (she was very skinny at that time and had her father's death certificate stating he had died of tuberculosis the previous year).
         Thanks to some Polish nurse or an interpreter in the evening of the 19th of August (I remember it was already dark), we bribed a bahnschutz with a ring. He took us to a freight train. We had to go through the train tracks underneath several other sets of carriages in order to reach our train. I recall being frightened that one of those trains would move while we were underneath. Later, my mother admitted that she was also terrified. What she was scared of, though, was that we would be spotted and shot. They never gave any warnings when shooting at the civilians running through the tracks. A bahnschutz let us in one of the carriages and closed the door (there were only us and some boxes there). He said that the train will depart in the morning. We just didn't know where to.
         The train departed in the morning as the man had said. We must have been going for about three hours because once we stopped and mother decided to go out, we found ourselves in the fields near Skierniewice. The Central Welfare Council in Skierniewice sent us to Reczyce (25 km away from Skierniewice and 3 km away from Lyszkowice) to stay with a local village family. I would assist my mother with taking the cows out to graze. I was so scared of those cows! Sadly, they told us to move out after a few weeks. We walked to Lyszkowice and it was in Lyszkowice (and a little bit in Skierniewice) where we survived the winter. All I remember from that period is constant cold and walking.
         In February 1945, we returned to Warsaw which was totally destroyed. We stayed there for the rest of our lives. My mother died suddenly on the 4th of December 1987. She was 84 years old. We buried her in a family grave at Powazki Cemetery.

editing: Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz

translation: Emilia Wisniewska

Copyright © 2020 Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz. Wszelkie prawa zastrze¿one.