During the night of the 20th of November, 700 Home Army soldiers from the district of Zoliborz (named Jolie Bord or Beautiful Embankment by the French monks who bought land here in the 18th century) attack the German-held Gdansk train station. They are repulsed by the heavy enemy fire from the fortified positions around the station. Further south, however, in the city centre, Home Army battalion “Kilinski” manages, after more than a dozen hours of heavy fighting, to take the PAST building on Zielna (Herb) Street. Thirty-six German troops are killed in the assault, 115 taken prisoner, and a large quantity of arms and ammunition falls into the insurgents’ hands. But throughout the city, hundreds of fighters and civilians are dying under the relentless German bombardment from the land and the air.
Seventy-three years later, I walk through the Warsaw Uprising Museum, located in the former tram depo in the Wola district, west of the city centre. Officially opened on the 60th anniversary of the uprising in 2004, it is now one of the must-see attractions for every tourist who is interested in history in general and in the Polish capital’s bloody past specifically. In some ways, the whole city of more than three million people is now one big museum and a monument to the defining two months of its 20th century history. Warsaw is littered with war-related monuments, and seemingly every second building sports a plaque commemorating some moment of violence, horror or glory.
The Warsaw you see today is a not the Warsaw of the Uprising. That Warsaw quite literally ceased to exist in 1944. If museums are recreations of the past, then today’s Warsaw is indeed a museum-style faithful replica on a 1:1 scale. What you have to know is that by the time the Red Army troops finally “liberated” the city in January 1945, over 90 per cent of it has been levelled to the ground. It’s what Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have looked like if they were built of brick and stone and not largely of wood and paper. What has not been destroyed during the Uprising was dynamited systematically on Hitler’s personal orders as a revenge for daring to rise and resist. Warsaw made Berlin of May 1945 look like a beautiful and thriving metropolis. The Warsaw of post-war has been painstakingly recreated brick by brick based on paintings, photographs and old plans; what you see today is an amazing labour of love – hundreds of years of architectural history faithfully recreated in only a few.
No one knows exactly how many Warsavians perished during August and September of 1944. Around 40 thousand Home Army soldiers – man, women, and often children – died in the fighting, and somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians died in bombardment or during mass massacres conducted by the dregs of the German war machine, including renegade Russian units and the Dirlewanger brigade composed of murderers and rapists released from jail in exchange for military service (the Russians’s behaviour appalled their SS superiors so much that they quietly executed their commander, Kaminski – just ponder on that for a moment, but not too long, lest your head explodes). More people died in one city over two months than all Americans did in the entire war. If you total all the Warsavians, Poles and Jews, who died during the war and occupation, around three quarters of a million of them perished from violence, hunger and disease.
I have never been to Warsaw as a child. I guess tourism wasn’t very big under communism and I didn’t have any family there, which then was the more common reason to visit another city. Twenty years ago, I saw glimpses of the capital in transit. So this year is really my first time.
And the first place that my cousin, who now lives in the capital, takes me after picking me up from the Chopin International Airport in the evening is the Warsaw Uprising Mound in the Mokotow district. It is the highest point of an otherwise pretty flat Warsaw, an artificial hill made out of the rubble of the city in 1945. It has only been made a monument at the same time as the Museum was opened. Now you can walk up the few hundred steps of the “W Hour” Alley (named after the starting hour of the Uprising) to the top, and from under a big “anchor” monument (the symbol combines the stylised letters P and W, an abbreviation for Polska Walczaca, or the Fighting Poland, the most common graffiti of the war period) look at the city itself, or what you can see of it between the trees. Hundreds of small wooden crosses flank the climb; it’s entirely possibly – almost inevitable – that the hill contains remains of some of the fighters and civilians mixed with the rubble.
In hindsight, the Uprising was bound to fail. The Home Army were too few and too poorly armed, and the Germans, even if battered on two fronts by the middle of 1944, still too many, too strong and too dangerous. It could have only succeeded with the help of the Red Army, camped only a few miles away on the east side of the Vistula. In fact, the Home Army leadership foresaw only a few days of fighting until linking up with the Soviets; there was no plan for longer term, and no resources. No one thought the fighting would go on for the bloody 63 days.
Therein lies the irony: while the Uprising was a military action against the German occupiers, it was also meant to send a political message to Stalin: the Poles have retaken their own capital and had to be taken seriously in any post-war plans; the free Poles, loyal to the London government-in-exile and not to the communist puppet government set up in Lublin, were trying to prevent the same fate as befell the Home Army throughout the “liberated” eastern Poland: mass arrests, persecutions, and forced incorporation into the Soviet-backed and led Polish Army. And yet – the Uprising’s success ultimately depended on the Red Army’s good will and speedy assistance.
None came. It true that after a few hundred kilometres’ dash across the Polish plain from the river Bug all the way to the outskirts of Warsaw the Russians were exhausted and overstretched. But it was also true that Stalin had no intention of assisting the anti-communist Home Army (who in an eerie echo of the present day fascist-antifa controversies would be later called “fascist” by the Soviets, despite having bled themselves to death against the Nazis). The Red Army did not cross the Vistula, the Soviet Air Force did not provide any assistance against the Luftwaffe bombers. Stalin refused, until too late, the use of airfields under his control for the Western allies to resupply the insurgents; the Allied planes had to fly all the way from Italy and back, shot at by the Germans and often also the Russians. It was perhaps the most cynical act of the entire Second World War, and it opened the eyes of many, like the American business magnate and diplomat Avril Harriman, to the reality of the Soviet communism then being rolled out throughout the east and central Europe. In some ways, the gunfire of the Uprising were also the opening shots of the Cold War.
The ultimate military and political failure does not, of course, detract from the heroism of the Polish soldiers and civilians – sadly, a common enough motif across the past few centuries of the Polish history. There has always been some controversy amongst the Warsavians whether the Uprising was the right way to go, seeing the untold carnage and destruction it inflicted upon the city as a result. But it’s pointless now to keep refighting the old battles and double-guessing the dead. If you are ever in Warsaw, make this short trip and give yourself a few hours to hear the stories and see the old Warsaw fighting.
(All photos copyright Arthur Chrenkoff; the main photo: the Monument of the Little Insurgent, commemorating thousands of children who died fighting or as couriers and look-outs)