Interview with Jan Kurdwanowski The interview was conducted in 2007 via e-mail correspondence.
Jan Kurdwanowski was born on 7 October 1924 in Warsaw. He attended Stefan Batory Gymnasium and passed his "matura" exam in 1942 in the underground education. He started medical studies at the Vocational Public School for Assistant Sanitary Staff founded by associate professor Jan Zaorski.
During the Warsaw Uprising he fought in the ranks of Chrobry I Battalion in Wola and Old Town in Warsaw, in the famous redoubt of the Simons' Passage. He was one of few soldiers of the Battalion who survived the bombardment of the Passage on 31 August 1944. Having evacuated via the canal to Śródmieście, he got through to Czerniaków and took part in the fights over the house located at 2 Okrąg Street.
After the fall of Czerniaków, he was moved to a transfer camp in Pruszków, from which he managed to escape. When the war ended, he participated in the actions organized by the anticommunist underground, serving in the division commanded by Jan Kempiński "Błysk".
Having obtained a diploma of a medical doctor, he worked as a pediatrician. In 1957 he left the country and settled in New York in 1960, where he has been working as a psychiatrist until today.
Jan Kurdwanowski contained his memoirs from the Warsaw Uprising in the book entitled "Mrówka na szachownicy - 1944 Batalion Chrobry I Wspomnienia Żołnierza Powstania Warszawskiego" ["An Ant on the Chessboard - 1944 Chrobry I Battalion, The Memoirs of the Soldier of the Warsaw Uprising"], which was published for the first time in 1983 in New York. There were also three editions of this book brought out in Poland, recently for the needs of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The book is also available on the Internet under the following address: www.kurdwanowski.pl
Jan Kurdwanowski in 1946
The interview was conducted in 2007 via e-mail correspondence.
Jan Kurdwanowski was born on 7 October 1924 in Warsaw. He attended Stefan Batory Gymnasium and passed his "matura" exam in 1942 in the underground education. He started medical studies at the Vocational Public School for Assistant Sanitary Staff founded by associate professor Jan Zaorski.
1. W.W.: Can you tell us why for so long - as many as 30 years - you have postponed writing down your memoirs from the Warsaw Uprising? Was it because of lack of time, family or professional obligations, or maybe because of other, less prosaic reasons?
J.K.: Of course, the main obstacle was a lack of time. I had to learn a new language and nostrificate my diploma. America has always fascinated me; this unlimited freedom; I traveled the length and breadth of this country, sometimes sleeping in the car, sometimes under canvas. I also visited Mexico and Canada. But it was New York that particularly fascinated me - for me, it had something of a jungle. Until my departure from Poland in 1957, not much had appeared in print about the Warsaw Uprising. Bartoszewski published a chronicle of the Uprising in "Gazeta Ludowa", Podlewski brought out "Przemarsz przez piekło" ["March Through Hell"] about Starówka based on the accounts of insurgents, and something about Mokotów. And when it comes to Dobraczyński's "W Rozwalonym Domu" ["Inside a Demolished House"], it fell short of my expectations as it contradicted my experiences from the Warsaw Uprising.
I had had no practice in writing, apart from a few articles for "Pediatria Polska" ["The Polish Pediatrics"]. In this case, thanks to prof. Brokman, I learned how to express more using fewer words.
When I was 50 years old, I wondered what thing had been the most important in my life. This is how I decided to write about the Uprising. Not many front line soldiers were able to describe what they had experienced. Some of them died, and those who survived usually were not able to describe what they saw.
Kurt Vonnegut, an American writer of German origin, who has died recently, was captured by Germans during the German offensive in the Ardennes in 1944. Soon he was moved to a prison camp in Dresden. The most shocking event in his life had been the bombardment of Dresden by the British forces. For many years he intended to write about it but could not find an appropriate tone, instead having believed old veterans that you should keep quiet about the war experiences, because - firstly - they cannot be expressed in words, and - secondly - nobody from "the outside" would comprehend them. It is difficult to describe the terror of inevitable death or the wild excitement in the fight in such a way that the reader can feel it himself. It is said that front experiences change the personality of the man forever; they must have changed mine too. I have asked my friends among insurgents: would you rather the Uprising was not part of your life (all of them were wounded, one became an invalid)? No one answered - yes.
An English colonel named Hoare, the commander of the white condottieri in Africa, has published his own memoirs. There were a few hundred of them fighting against the thousands. Similarly, a German lieutenant, heavily wounded in East Prussia, who later became a condottieri, has brought out his life story. According to them, true soldiers can experience "life to the full" and the sense of self-esteem only in danger. This sense of self-esteem (I cannot come up with a better term) can diminish in time, and so to regain it you need a new danger. "The great warrior" Mussolini claimed that war is to men what maternity is to women.
Much has been written about the influence that war has on the man, and especially on the front line soldier.
For example Kapuściński thought that something died inside of him in the terror of warfare, but at the same time he was attracted to the place where blood was spilled. It is not easy to write the truth about the soldiers who fought in war.
This topic is very interesting, but still constitutes terra incognita - the knowledge about it is still limited mainly to "Shellshock".
2. W.W.: One of the bestsellers among the books written by former soldiers fighting during World War II that were published in the West was the novel by Guy Sajer, the French who fought on the Eastern Front in the ranks of Wehrmacht. This is the story about being totally lost, about fear and helplessness towards threats and death (not only at the hands of the enemy but also the military police that spread terror at those times). Reading your memoirs I had the impression that, all in all, your situation was better than that of this "forgotten soldier", because in your case there was sometimes the margin for "private initiative".
J.K.: The difference between me and Sajer is that he was a cog in a well-organized system while I was a cog in a poor one. That gave me more freedom of action.
I was surprised that he did not know who to use a hand-grenade - a Wehrmacht soldier in warfare! And what surprised me further was the fact that we, insurgents, had food of better quality than the Germans on the Eastern Front.
3. W.W.: Some readers think of your book as similar in its spirit to the novel "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Haska. Personally I do not agree with this view, even though one can notice in your initial attitude certain naivety and soldier incompetence. In time, however, you gain experience and volunteer for the most dangerous actions and sallies, becoming a veteran with the baggage of experience so great that it almost paralyzed your ability to fight. Since a certain moment you began to employ your soldier's trade, so to say, for your own use in the survival of the fittest. What was the cause of this?
J.K.: Svejk was very popular in Poland just after World War II - people laughed heartily at his adventures. I had a Polish translation of this book; now I have the English one, and it sounds to me as less funny and not as good as the Polish translation, or maybe it is just a matter of time, and not of language. These characters, like Svejk and his comrades, managed even to outshine such heroes of the Polish literature as Skrzetuski, Longinus Podbipięta or Wołodyjowski for a while.
I did not have to volunteer for risky actions or sallies, because, due to our poor armament, almost every action was highly dangerous.
When the order came, we went into action in a unit, platoon or company.
Of course, you could always try to wriggle out of it, feigning sicker than you really were. You could make use of a "light" wound and return your weapon or just "vanish into thin air".
My war experience that I had gained in Wola and Old Town allowed me to notice the hopelessness of further resistance and helped me to survive in Czerniaków. When I lost all my friends, I realized the totality of our failure. Without my unit, but still feeling a soldier, I'd rather be among insurgents, with whom I could share my military experience, than among civilians. Before the heavy fights for Czerniaków, I had played the role of an instructor of "colts" and the bard of the battle for the Old Town. Later, I fought in defense of Area 2 for three days.
4. W.W.: In "Mrówka na szachownicy" you wrote that after tragic experiences in the Simons' Passage and in the Arsenal you intended to "keep a proper distance to warfare". Therefore, with a bit of surprise I read your memoirs embracing the post-war period ("Jak wybrałem wolność na Zachodzie" - "Why I Chose Freedom in the West"), which suggested that you had engaged in the guerilla warfare against the communist regime. What were the reasons for this engagement?
J.K.: I found myself in the division commanded by Jan Kempiński "Błysk", although, you could say, in reality I was afraid to return, or felt disgust at returning, from the turmoil of war to ordinary, mundane life.
This situation is similar to that of somebody who once had to put all his eggs in one basket and now has to count pennies.
Statistics confirm that this return to civilian life is not an easy one.
In the USA war veterans are eight time more prone to committing suicide than the rest of the population.
Cpt. "Zdan", the commander of battalion Chrobry I, in which I served (he lost his leg in the Uprising in the Old Town), threw himself under a train.
Lt. "Lis", who was in command of my company and who was twice wounded, took his life away, according to the relation of the commander of my platoon, Cadet Corporal "Kobuz".
But let's return to "Błysk". From my friend messengers from the National Armed Forces I learnt about the arrival of a messenger from Italy sent by General Anders. This messenger was to meet with "Błysk". I really counted on meeting him as I hoped that he would enable me to escape through the Czech Republic to the West.
"Błysk" offered that I should stay at his parents' home in the countryside. I accepted his invitation as I did not have a place to stay. Before the messenger's departure, "Błysk" asked me a favor: whether I would like to take part in the action against the mayor of Ostrów Wielkopolski. Remembering his hospitality, I could not refuse. And so it all started.
In 1946 "Błysk" was arrested and executed.
Many more former partisans became "derelicts" due to the years spent "in the forest". Soon after the war, while on train I began a discussion with a man a bit older than me. He told me about the years spent in the guerilla warfare. When the Gestapo started looking for him, he had to escape "to the forest". He remembered how terrifying was the first time when he had to kill the man. But in time he got used to it, and now he even missed "the forest".
Even the war criminals realized the following:
When Himmler visited von dem Bach for inspection, he wanted to watch an execution. As a demonstration, 100 prisoners were then executed. It is said that Bach told Himmler the following words: "Look in the eyes of these commando soldiers, look how shocked they are. These people will be derelicts for the rest of their lives. What will happen to them? They will either turn into neurotics or become savage.
Bach himself broke down and was treated in the mental hospital.
5. W.W.: In one of more interesting parts of your book you describe the differences in the mentality of various insurgent district-enclaves, and also give the description of the competition or even animosity that took place between the brotherly detachments. In "Mrówka" you cite sarcastic opinions of Chrobry I soldiers about "Parasol" battalion. On the other hand, I read the notes written down by a Parasol soldier (Tadeusz Fopp) during warfare. Several times your neighbor accuses your battalion of incompetence and cowardice.
J.K.: We from Chrobry I were very jealous of Parasol's popularity among the population of Starówka. They were the most popular battalion. There was a black umbrella hanging over the entrance to their headquarters in the Krasiński Palace. Now I think it was not very clever and safe to show off your presence in such a way.
People are inclined to pass responsibility for their own failures on others.
And soldiers are no exceptions. We from Chrobry I battalion and "Lis" company were of the opinion that Major "Sosna", the commander of the battalion and later of the grouping, valued our company the most. We accused the brotherly detachments of Konar and Klim of losing the Arsenal.
But in reality, the Arsenal was cut off when the Academic Legion had to withdraw (we called it: "scoot off") from Tłomacki Street and from the odd side of Długa Street behind Bielańska Street.
When the Uprising started, Parasol was a well-organized unit, already skilled in warfare and in possession of quite good weapons. Surely they were better soldiers than us, especially in the first two weeks of the Uprising. We from Chrobry I learnt the art of war directly in the action and under fire (so called on the job training). In my opinion, it was after the fights for the Arsenal that we became well-skilled front soldiers. The so called "pride in craft" was noticeable in us. There is a good German expression for this kind of feeling that I do not remember.
6. W.W.: In your book you describe in a beautiful manner the process of growing up of the next generations of soldiers - initially timid "children" becoming soldiers. This was to some extent a natural evolution, exemplified by one of the soldiers called "Wis", depicted in your book. Can we venture to conclude that almost everyone can be a good soldier?
J.K.: I doubt it. The insurgents were volunteers and not enlisted soldiers, so this was already some kind of selection. Nevertheless, not all of them became good soldiers. These "children", once they familiarized themselves with the exchange of fire, often volunteered for particularly dangerous missions to be accepted into the circle of veterans.
"Wis" may serve as an example. A sixteen-year-old, a scout, by all appearances shy, was assigned to operate an LMG. The insurgents assumed then that the average life expectancy of an LMG gunner was three days. "Wis" was injured in the right forearm in Nalewki and I had not seen him since the bombardment of the Simons' Passage. I assumed he was buried alive. But three weeks later, i.e. on 20 September, I met him at 5 Wilanowska Street, the cartridge belt wound around his body. He was raking the attacking infantry with LMG gunfire, and was very successful in doing so.
A few years later, on the train from Warsaw to Łódź, I began a conversation with an old man, a university professor. We talked about the Uprising. The man thought that his son, Maurycy Skupieński "Wis", had died in the Old Town, buried under the debris of the Simons' Passage.
7. W.W.: And when did you become a soldier? Maybe at the moment when you recalled your astonishment that the Germans not only began to take you seriously but even started to fear you?
J.K.: At the night of 5 and 6 August, on Chłodna Street, in the struggle with infantry and tanks I underwent a transformation from a timid civilian into still lousy, but already a soldier.
8. W.W.: In your description of Chrobry I battalion you highlight its volunteer origin and the fact that there was some sort of democracy, especially when it comes to obeying orders. You even write that the orders coming from one of the commanders were never respected, while those of other commanders were almost always obeyed. According to you, what are the advantages and disadvantages of volunteer troops?
J.K.: The insurgent army was not only voluntary, but the majority of it was formed in a heavy, unequal fight. It was formed and rearmed thanks to its enemy; together with their enemy the soldiers learnt how to operate a weapon and shoot; they learnt it the hard way how to fight in the city, in a built-up area.
The privates among insurgents, similarly to the officers, did not receive any formal training or did not have any experience of fighting in the city. It was the officers who assigned lower ranks the positions to occupy, present plans of actions and made inevitable mistakes, for which unnecessary blood was spilled. Several times I witnessed the situations in which, as soon as the officer went away, privates changed their positions if they thought that the order was "foolish" and would senselessly expose them to death. They were not cowards. I was also a witness to soldiers becoming involved in discussions or openly criticizing a plan presented by an officer.
In the fights in the city, where many unexpected situations might take place, a soldier-volunteer can manage to fight better than an enlisted soldier.
In my battalion the discipline was, I would say, voluntary. But this discipline was far from blind obedience of a soldier trained in the barracks.
I remember only one moment, in which Lt. Marian, the company's commander, told (but not ordered) an insurgent to take a particularly dangerous position near the Simons' Passage. The soldier answered: "Will I get a posthumous medal for that?"
On the other hand, I blamed my own stupidity for not obeying the order from the commander of my squad to withdraw when a goliath was approaching. As a result, I lost consciousness and sustained a serious contusion - a long-term hearing impairment.
9. W.W.: Why do you think your description of the Uprising, which you contained in your book, raised so many controversies, and sometimes even elicited hostility? This is very interesting especially in view of the fact that your book was very positively assessed by Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Jan Karski, Wacław Jędrzejewicz, Jan Kazimierz Zawodny, Sławomir Mrożek Maybe the most provocative is your attitude at the end of the Uprising, in Czerniaków ambush, where only survival of the fittest counted most. Can this attitude be called egoism, or maybe you just reached at that time the limits of your patriotic obligations? All in all, you had gained rich insurgent experience by that time.
J.K.: Those among my critics who were insurgents surrendered too, when there was no way out.
I myself and 12 civilians went over to the German side from Solec 53 in the morning of 21 September.
The soldiers from Zośka battalion in Solec surrendered on 23 September in the morning, Mokotów - 4 days later, Żoliborz - 3 days after Mokotów, Śródmieście - 2 days after Żoliborz. They surrendered for the same reason as I did - to survive. Apparently they did not intend to fight to the last bullet or to the last drop of blood. Those insurgents who had laid down the weapon were not accused of a lack of patriotism.
In the morning of 22 September three priests came over from the German side and said that if we surrendered, we would be treated according to the rights of the Geneva Convention. However, Cpt. "Jerzy", the commander of what was left of Zośka battalion in Czerniaków, stated that he would execute anyone mentioning the surrender. It all ended in a one-hour ceasefire to enable the civil population to go over to the German side. Many insurgents grasped this opportunity; many others stayed or were too afraid to move. In other cases the message about the ceasefire did not reach the crowded cellars on time.
In the morning of 22 September, the beachhead was limited to the following houses: at 1 Wilanowska Street, at 53 and 51 Solec Street, and other adjoining hovels along Solec and the Vistula ship "Bajka".
By the fall of night, the majority of insurgents were killed or injured. On this same day, at 1 Wilanowska Street, my friend Lt. "Jerzyk" (Weil) from Zośka battalion also lost his life.
At night, Cpt. "Jerzy" with the group of a few dozen insurgents and Berling's soldiers attempted to break through to Śródmieście, but only five of them succeeded.
About 20 soldiers from "Radosław" battalion surrendered in the morning of 23 September and saved their lives. Had Cpt. Jerzy agreed to capitulate on 22 September morning, how many more soldiers would have survived?
This reminds me of the episode, when Piłsudski's Legions refused to take the oath of loyalty to the German Emperor. The Germans surrounded the legionaries. Naturally, the Poles wanted to fight, but Piłsudski ordered them to lay down the weapon - "I will need you alive after the war" - he said allegedly.
The generations of Poles have been deriving their knowledge about war from Sienkiewicz's Trilogy, and apparently they expect that every Polish soldier will be a replica of an ideal knight.
An answer to the question of what is the boundary of soldier's patriotic obligations is not an easy one. Nobody accused the Polish soldiers of 1939, who were in German captivity, of a lack of patriotism. It is the duty of the government and the supreme command to secure proper weaponry and training to a soldier so that he can fight effectively; and before that, they should work out a proper strategy.
I have encountered two contradictory pieces of advice of how to live. In the photo from World War I on the wall of a ruined house there was an inscription: e meglio vivere un giorno da leone, que cent'anni da pecora (it is better to live a day like a lion then a hundred years like a sheep). Józef Maria Bocheński wrote in his book "Podręcznik Mądrości tego Świata" ("The Book of the Wisdom of this World"): "Act in such a way as to live long and do well".
10. W.W.: But not all of those who had surrendered on Wilanowska Street survived the war. Part of them was murdered.
J.K.: On 23 September morning, there was no official capitulation declared on the ruins of Czerniaków, i.e. at 1 Wilanowska Street and at 53 and 51 Solec Street. Simply, the resistance ceased to exist. The Germans searched for the wounded insurgents and survivors among the debris and it was up to individual soldiers or officers whether to kill or not to kill. The soldiers gathered on "Bajka" met the same fate: the Germans shelled her and took her over on 24 September. If you surrender with your hands up after firing the last bullet, your enemy gains no benefit and may take revenge for his losses.
In a hopeless situation it is better to surrender when you can still fight.
11. W.W.: In your book, Mrówka na Szachownicy, despite criticizing the decision to start the Uprising, you pay homage to the insurgents. One of the examples is your opinion about the soldiers from Zośka battalion - "it was easier to kill them than to break them". During the Uprising you met a lot of insurgents. Did those from Zośka battalion really make such an impression on you, or did they have any competitors?
J.K.: I met Zośka soldiers a few times. Firstly, when we stayed for a while in the Simons' Passage after withdrawing from Wola to the Old City. Later, at the beginning of September, in Śródmieście Południe I spent with them and with Parasol battalion two days; at night, we moved together to Czerniaków. The last time I met them was in Okrąg 2 and on Wilanowska Street, already in the fight.
The soldiers from Zośka and Parasol had practically no "competitors", due to the fact that I met almost no insurgents from other battalions, although I heard and read about them in the insurgent press, e.g. about the defenders of the Bank of Poland, the City Hall, the Polish Security Printing Works and the Station Post.
12. W.W.: I wonder what motivations you had when the Uprising began - after all, you joined the Uprising with great enthusiasm. Was this enthusiasm justified by patriotic motives or a desire to experience a great, youthful adventure?
J.K.: Of course the Uprising, when it started and when I heard the first shots, promised a great adventure. The German chaotic withdrawal from the Berezina River to the Vistula River, the assassination attempt against Hitler, the invasion of Normandy - we thought that we would chase the defeated Germans to the very gates of Berlin.
When it comes to patriotism and the 1944 Uprising, there are different opinions.
A year after the Uprising, Stefan Kisielewski wrote the following words:
"... A really brave nation never fights to the last drop of blood. This is what patriotism consists in - the patriotism blessed with an instinct of life that suggests patience, caution, restraint, tactical subtlety in pursuing the main goal. However, we yearn for grandness and for fighting so much " (Tygodnik Powszechny [General Weekly], 24 Sept. 1945).
When it comes to Bór-Komorowski, however, in his interview with Janusz Zawodny 20 years after the Uprising he expressed the issue in another way:
"Janusz Zawodny: - What is your General's opinion about the Warsaw Uprising from the twenty-one years' perspective?
Bór-Komorowski: - In my opinion, it is too early to assess whether the Uprising's outcome was positive or harmful for the Polish case. It is up to the future generations to decide about it. Despite our failure, such a moral and physical effort becomes engraved in the memory of society. From this memory stem strength and cultural and moral values, which could not be mustered otherwise by passive society. We cannot judge at this very moment how great was the influence that the Home Army's fights had on shaping the spirit and positive values of the Polish nation. Such is my personal opinion, if you ask me." (Janusz Zawodny - Uczestnicy i świadkowie Powstania Warszawskiego, Wywiady [Participants and witnesses in the Warsaw Uprising, The Interviews] Warsaw 2004, p. 134).
13. W.W.: You belong to those who criticized the decision to begin the Warsaw Uprising. You are not alone having such an opinion, as a certain group of former insurgents holds similar views on this matter. It seems, however, that many people believe that the Uprising was a success. Why is that?
J.K.: Somebody said about the Uprising that we would have to wait several dozens of years until not only the insurgents, but also their children and grandchildren passed away, before we could discuss this subject calmly.
When I was in school before the war, the November and January Uprising were treated as sacredness, while officer cadets, who on their way from Belweder to Arsenal stabbed four Polish generals to death with their bayonets (this incident was never mentioned in textbooks), were presented as heroes.
I would not be writing this letter to you now if I had not acted in an "inglorious" way in Czerniaków - at least according to the definition by some of my critics.
It is difficult for those who lost their families, friends, their own health or who emigrated as a result of the Warsaw Uprising to admit to themselves and others that it all went down the drain, that the Uprising was a mistake. That is why they are searching desperately for any positive outcomes: that the Uprising saved Europe from the Soviet occupation, that Warsaw would have been destroyed anyway and its inhabitants murdered, so at least we proved that we, Poles, could fight heroically; that if it had not been for the Uprising, Poland would have become the seventeenth Soviet republic and there would not be any Solidarność. "Had it not been for the Warsaw Uprising, we would have a hangover to this day" - wrote one of historians.
Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl, an Auschwitz prisoner who lost his family there, wrote a book based on his memoirs, entitled "Man's Search for Meaning". The book concentrates on the subject of people who can endure their sufferings better if these sufferings have brought about something positive. He created a new form of psychotherapy called "logotherapy".
Władysław Pobóg-Malinowski from Piłsudski's Legions, an officer-historian, until 1939 the head of the historic and scientific department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote the following words 15 years after the Uprising:
"... The balance of the Uprising? So far nobody has estimated the number of victims; probably, it would be never possible. There were about 18,000 of insurgents who were either killed or missing. About 5,000 of them found their place in hospitals, wounded. Around 16,000 were taken captive...
The number of victims outside the Army: most probably not fewer than 200,000 of those executed, murdered, killed in artillery fire and bombardments, buried and crushed under the debris, those who died from wounds, emaciation and diseases. Apart from casualties, there were also material losses - the destruction of the city together with its edifices, historic buildings, monuments, museums, book collections, archives..." (Najnowsza Historia Polityczna Polski [The Newest Political History of Poland], Gdańsk 1990, p. 331).
14. W.W.: You have spent the majority of your life in the United States. Could you tell us something about the emotions you felt at the moment of the WTC attack on 11 September 2001? Did you feel as an observer or an actor in the tragic events, similarly as in Warsaw of 1944?
J.K.: I watched the burning towers from a distance of a few miles. My two friends who worked near the World Trade Center saw people fall off the buildings. I learnt that a group of people gathered on roof top, waiting for the promised helicopter. Then I began to think what I would do myself if I were alone on this building... and the helicopter was not coming whether to jump from the 100th floor or wait for the blaze.
15. W.W.: Your memoirs distinguished themselves as containing such an amount of details that is unparalleled to other relations of this sort. I wonder whether it is possible to remember such a great number of them. You report not only objective events, but also your inner dialogue that never left you, not even for a while. Even at the moments where nothing happened in the "external story", "the internal story", that is the thoughts running in your head, never stopped developing. Could you unveil the secret of your literary technique and explain to us how much of this introspection is the real trace of things retained in your memory, and how much of it is a reconstruction of its kind?
J.K.: After the Warsaw Uprising I told about my experiences and observations a lot of times. This probably helped me to retain the details in my memory. It is said that people who have experienced tragic moments in their lives either cannot remember them at all or they cannot forget them.
When it comes to the "external story", there must have been different thoughts running in many heads, possibly even similar to my own thoughts. Take for instance Jasio Flaszenberg, my neighbor in the Hall of Machine Tools (our mattresses were next to each other) - just before the bombardment of the Simons' Passage I gave him my rifle, helmet and ammunition for safekeeping for a few minutes; I never saw him again. This Jasio, when nobody was eavesdropping on us, confided in me about his fears (he had bothered his head about it)... where to hide when the Germans came. This was the same thing that bothered me, although I did not admit it to anybody.
It is now difficult for me to answer the question whether this introspection really constitutes the trace of my memoirs or is some kind of a reconstruction. I wrote my memoirs 30 years ago; I would think that this introspection is both.
Recently I have told somebody about how I managed to escape from the transfer camp (Durschganglager) in Pruszków. Unexpectedly, I started to be afraid of being recognized as an insurgent... and being executed; it is similar to when I remember "Błysk". Those fears never fade away entirely: they are dormant as though being frozen...
16. W.W.: The last part of your book contains in my opinion an outstanding description of existential experience of impending death. German philosopher Schopenhauer claimed that all such notions as homeland, freedom etc. only served as death embellishments.
In the Old Town you met death many a time, you almost literally looked death in the eyes; nevertheless, you called it colloquially as "czapa" [literally "cap"]. In the final phase of the Czerniaków beachhead's defense you were confronted with lonesome death without any support.
Has this experience had any impact on your further life, or maybe such events fade away in everyday life so that after some time life returns to normal?
J.K.: In the Old Town I still had friends and commanders who thought about us and on behalf of us. We still had a glimmer of hope that the Soviet Army would march in and the Allies would help us, that our commanders would find the way out.
But at the Czerniaków beachhead - we had nothing.
If there had been any choice there, it would have concerned the method of dying.
I think that I grew up during the Uprising, especially in Czerniaków in its last phase. For certain this experience has had an impact on my further life, but to what extend - that I do not know.
Does life return to normal? But what is the "norm"?
Looking back on history - isn't war the norm?
17. W.W.: Thank you for the interview.
Jan Kurdwanowski - contemporary photo
interview conducted by Wojciech Włodarczyk
compiled by: Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz
translated by Beata Murzyn
interview conducted by Wojciech Włodarczyk
Copyright © 2010 SPPW1944. All rights reserved.