Warsaw Uprising Remembered- Was It Worth It?

Necropolis- Death of A City

Warsaw After the Uprising

And so we come upon yet another sad anniversary in the history of Poland.  In a couple of days Poland will commemorate the 66th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.  A sad chapter in Poland’s recent history.  Well most were sad chapters in the past 200+ years, but this one stands out above most.  A whole city was destroyed, hundreds of thousands people were killed.  The lives lost were especially tragic too.  Warsaw’s best and brightest went to the barricades and perished under the rubble and the hail of bullets.  Civilian casualties numbered around 200,000.  That is on top of the military casualties of 20,000+ killed and wounded and the loss of hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews (and those from near Warsaw who were forced into the Ghetto).  By the time the Germans were done with the city there was hardly a building standing, hardly a live person left.

In 1939 Warsaw’s population was over 1.3 million.  Several thousand lost their lives during the September Campaign and during 5 years of brutal Nazi occupation.  Germans then collected many Jews from around Warsaw and crammed them into an already overcrowded Ghetto.  Most of those were murdered, whether in the gas chambers or through disease that came from starvation and overcrowding.  But it was murder all the same.  Still, on August 1, 1944 Warsaw had about 1 million people.  When the Soviets finally decided to “liberate” the city in January of 1945 there was hardly anyone left.  Most of the population was buried under the ruins or were forcibly driven out.

Girl praying at a makeshift grave next to a bloc of flats in one of many makeshift cementaries during the Rising.

And what ruins they were.  By this time 85% of the city was rubble.  Systematically destroyed by Hitler’s order.  Poland’s capitol, one of the biggest cities in the middle of Europe, simply ceased to exist.  The death was not instantaneous.  Warsaw was dying for well over 5 years.  A good part of the city was destroyed when Warsaw defended itself from the initial Nazi onslaught in 1939.  The Germans bombed the city indiscriminately right from the beginning of the war.  When they approached Warsaw with their armies the aerial bombing was combined with artillery fire.  On Hitler’s orders nothing was rebuilt, except for what Poles did themselves in order to live.

Then came the Ghetto.  Several buildings were destroyed when the Germans isolated the Jewish population from the rest of the city.  A wall was erected surrounding the Jews from the rest.  In 1943 came the first Warsaw Uprising.  Some 60,000 Jews were left in the Ghetto by then, from what was over half a million at the peak of overcrowding.  Almost half a million perished in Treblinka or died inside the Ghetto.  Hitler ordered the final clean up of the Ghetto, except this time the Jews fought back.  Numbering around a thousand, the Jewish fighters said no more.  They were not going to go to their deaths peacefully.  They wished to die on their own terms.  They wanted to show an uncaring world that they are human and they will not go quietly into the night.  And fight they did.  With hardly any weapons, they used what they had heroically.  The brilliant and tragic fight of the Warsaw Jews infuriated Hitler.  Once the Ghetto was cleared it was turned into rubble.

Remains of the Ghetto

During the Warsaw Uprising itself a further 25% of the city was destroyed.  The Germans once again indiscriminately bombed the city.  They even used their famed, but by then outdated Stuka dive bombers due to the Poles not having any anti aircraft weapons, and the Soviets were hardly going to send fighters to protect Warsaw.  Hospitals and churches were even targeted by the Luftwaffe.  Heavy artillery weapons were employed.

In October of 1944 when the Rising ended the Germans, after they stole what they could, systematically turned what was left of Warsaw into rubble.  More than 35% of what was left of the Polish capitol was destroyed.  85% of the whole city.  A lot of what stood was on the right bank of the Vistula River which the Red Army occupied since September of 1944.  Warsaw was no more.  Hitler achieved his dream.  The destruction was so bad that there was a debate about rebuilding Warsaw at all and about moving the capitol elsewhere.  To their credit, the Soviet run Polish Commies decided to rebuild Warsaw.  But they being red bastards could not do even that the right way.  In a hurry, and for the glory of Communist Poland the commies rebuild Warsaw at the expense of other Polish cities.  No, not by not rebuilding them.  But by actually taking apart perfectly good, centuries old buildings.  The shortage of materials “forced” the commies to demolish many a historical and beautiful Old Town.  Mainly these were “materials”  taken from ex-German cities (but belonging to Poland now, though they were underpopulated at the time).  But the short sighted attitude of the new communist regime was shocking.  Stalin’s motto about breaking eggs to make omelets was never so true.

Tempest and Battle for History

Polish Held Warsaw During the Rising, August 4, 1944

The Warsaw Uprising did not come out of nowhere.  It was part of a bigger battle.  Operation Tempest (Burza) was an Armia Krajowa (AK, Home Army) nationwide operation that aimed to disrupt German defences in Polish territory when the Red Army approached.  From the moment the Red Army entered the pre-war 1939 borders of Poland the AK fought behind the lines, or in cooperation with the Red Army itself to make the Red Army’s job easier.  This came on top of the Soviet partisan operations and those of the Soviet controlled Polish Armia Ludowa (AL, People’s Army, formerly Gwardia Ludowa, People’s Guards, though their numbers in the grand scheme of things were insignificant).   Almost all of the forces who were not controlled by Moscow fought under orders of AK.  From some very right wing small organizations to left wing ones like Bataliony Chlopskie (BCh, Peasant Battalions).

Armia Krajowa resembled the government in London.  Most of the pre-war political factions united themselves under the orders of the unity govt in exile.  When the Germans occupied Poland several different resistance groups immediately came into being.  What became Armia Krajowa was the result of reorganization and consolidation of many different factions.  By 1944 only the small extreme right wing groups were not formerly incorporated under the AK, nor were the communists, but they had a different master, one in Moscow.   However to their credit, both the right and the communists did fight under the orders of AK during the Uprising.  Their numbers were insignificant, but their heroism was as great as the rest.  Several different groups and individual Polish Jews also joined the Rising.  Estimated range from 20,000 to almost 50,000 of AK fighters (estimates are wide due to the fact that some include forces in the Warsaw district and many of those only participated in the fighting in Warsaw itself for a very short time before withdrawing to the surrounding forests, or not at all).  With up to 4,000 that came from other groups.

By the time of the Warsaw Uprising “Tempest” was in full force.  The Polish partisans liberated several cities and towns by themselves even before the Red Army arrived in what was Eastern Poland before the war.  On many occasions the cooperation between the AK and the Red Army was quite satisfactory.  However behind the Red Army the NKVD (internal police forces, later known as the KGB) units followed, whole divisions of them.  Most of the AK formations were disarmed, their soldiers were forcibly incorporated into the Communist led Polish People’s Army which fought alongside the Red Army on the Easter Front.  Most officers and many AK  soldiers were imprisoned by the NKVD.  Sent to Soviet gulags, shot, or kept in prison on trumped up charges, or without being charged at all.  Reports of these incidents reached Warsaw by the time of the Rising.  With time as the knowledge spread, Polish partisans were more reluctant to fight alongside the Soviets or to even make themselves known.

The Decision

Barricade in Warsaw

Still the government in exile (without consulting the CiC of Polish Forces General Sosnkowski) gave General Komorowski “Bor” permission to make the decision in country along with the government’s civilian representative.  By late July the Germans were reeling.  Just days before an attempt was made on Hitler’s life by his own soldiers.  The Wehrmacht was retreating on all fronts and the Red Army was approaching the Vistula Line and Warsaw itself.  Time was up.  It was now or never.  A decision had to be made.  Warsaw’s numerous fighters were eager to free their own city.  Soviet controlled Polish Radio, on Stalin’s orders, called on all Poles to rise up and fight the Nazi menace.  And so, on the last day of July of 1944 General Komorowski made his decision.  W Hour was to come the next day 17:00.

The hour of the start of the Rising is peculiar.  5 PM in August in Poland is not the ideal time to begin military operations.  It would be light for several more hours.  And while night would hinder coordination of the Rising, the defenders would have problems seeing the attackers.  But Warsaw was under martial law.  No one was allowed to be on the streets at night without special permission, so thousands of mostly young men gathering in certain areas would get attention in late evening.  The afternoon “rush hour” gave them a decent cover.  In any case the secret was out soon and the Germans were quite prepared for something, though the scale of the Rising did surprise them.

Even before the fighting was over the Armia Krajowa command was criticised for giving the order to fight.  Accusations flew from left and right.  A dangerous adventure, criminal action, reckless, responsible for the destruction of Warsaw and hundreds of thousands dead, were just a few of the descriptions.  The people who encouraged Warsaw to rise up immediately accused the AK command claiming that the Rising was aimed against the Soviet Union as much as it was against Germany.  By the middle of August Stalin was calling the fighters a “gang of criminals.”

The Rising turned out to be a tragic event.  A city was destroyed, over 200,000 dead, unspeakable suffering, the Home Army as a fighting force pretty much ceased to exist.  Questions come up to this day.  Due to not being able to have an open nationwide debate about this till 1989 Poland is still dealing with the issue of the Rising.  For 45 years lies and accusations were spread by the official Communist “historians.”  Armia Krajowa was accused of being fascist, of cooperating with the Nazis, the importance AK and its  actions were minimized, instead all glory went to the tiny in comparison, band of Communists who called themselves Armia Ludowa.  At first the Communists accused the AK of not being aggressive enough in their struggle against the Germans.  Then they were called reckless.  The Communists of course were just heroic.  Armia Krajowa had a policy to not engage the Germans if it meant that the general population would suffer disproportionately, after all, they were fighting to free those people from Nazi oppression, there was no point to this whole exercise if no one was left to enjoy the hard won freedom.  The AL had no such problems.  Their struggle was for world revolution and their efforts were aimed at helping the Red Army in their fight against the Nazis.  Chaos behind the German lines accomplished that, by any means.  If any civilians suffered, so much the better, an angry population is likely to turn against the occupiers.

Till communism fell in Poland there were no monuments commemorating the AK.  But several were erected to remember the struggle and sacrifices of the communists.  For the communists it was best when the AK was totally ignored, when they could not ignore it they made sure to paint the AK command and officers as reactionary at best, fascist and Nazi sympathizers who were more obsessed in trying to destroy the Polish communists than fighting the Germans at worst.  Home Army soldiers were murdered, imprisoned, branded as traitors by the communists after the war.  The fight by the remnants of the AK and others against the communist regime after the war ended just gave them ammunition.  Any trouble was blamed on the reactionary fascists whether they had anything to do with it or not.  In a short time the Home Army went from being the biggest anti Nazi organization to Nazi sympathisers and the West lapped it up as it gave them an excuse to do nothing about Poland’s new occupation.  Slowly the Home Army and the Polish struggle is getting its deserved recognition.  But still a debate goes on.

Life Among Chaos. A Wedding Takes Place During the Rising

Edit:  Brilliant.  I was just watching a Polish newsreel from 1990.  And unbelievably saw a video from the wedding pictured above, followed by an elderly couple reminiscing about their wedding.  Both survived.  His Uniform was borrowed, as was her blouse, the flowers they found in some vase.  The doctor who saved his arm wanted to lend them his and his wife’s wedding rings, but they declined.  Instead they used metal rings that held up some curtain on a rod.  They had them till 1990 at least.  I hope they had many happy anniversaries.

Military reasons for the rising seem simple enough.  The aim was to wrest control of Warsaw and the bridges on the Vistula to give the Red Army an easy way to cross the river and establish themselves on the left bank.  While a major city is not an ideal springboard for further offensive the Warsaw bridgehead could have been easily defended and would draw German forces from other areas of the front to defend against further Soviet advance.  With the help of the AK and with the full support of the civilian population the Red Army’s job would have been made easier if they had pressed on into Warsaw.  They didn’t of course.

Political reasons seem not so simple.  After the disarming and arrest of several AK units earlier in Eastern Poland the Poles did not trust the Soviets very much.  There was also the inclination to show that the London supporting AK was a force to be reckoned with.  As the representatives of the legal government the Poles wanted to welcome the Soviets into a free Warsaw as hosts.  This is especially important in light of the 22 July announcement of the formation of PKWN in Lublin (Polish Committee of national Liberation).  A group of nobodies who were formed to govern post-war Poland, and who took their orders from Moscow.  They were the red alternative to the Polish government in London.  The fighting went on for 63 days, but the Uprising was meant to last no more than a couple of weeks.  Neither the AK nor the people of Warsaw were prepared for such long and ferocious fighting.  So.  Was it worth it?

In hindsight we can judge them quite harshly.  The Warsaw Uprising was a military disaster.  It achieved none of its objectives.  It led to the complete destruction of the city and countless deaths.  But to judge the Rising in such a way does not give the fighters, and the people responsible for it justice.  We can of course separate the fighting man from the decision maker and put all blame on the latter while honouring the former.  And that is the tactic of the leftist debaters who still believe that it was at best reckless, at worst, criminal.  But as I mentioned, the fighters themselves wanted to fight, they have been preparing for this for almost 5 years.  If they did not fight then what was the point?  They of course would be called cowards and Nazi sympathizers by the same people who now accuse them of recklessness.  The debate, despite radical geopolitical changes, did not change much.  Damned if their did, damned if they did not.

A very young nurse of the rising.

WWSD? – What Would Stalin Do?

One hardly hears that any more.  Now religious Christians just ask themselves “what would Jesus do?”  But the communists had their own god and saviour.  And make no mistake, that is not an exaggeration.  His word was holy to them.  Everything he did and said was adhered to.  So of course the people who now so eagerly accuse the AK command forget one thing.  They forget, or make excuses for the Soviets.  Now of course revisionism is not communist invention, but they sure were good at it.  They conveniently omit the actions of the Soviet leaders and its army.  Just days before the Soviets were calling on the whole Polish nation to rise against the Germans.  When they did they got no help.  In fact Stalin did everything to make Hitler’s job easier in fighting the Warsaw Uprising.  Suddenly supplies stopped being given out to frontline units so they could not advance any more.  The scale of the fighting was diminished by Soviet propaganda.  “A Band of Criminals.”  Yes up to 50,000 criminals fighting to free their city from Nazi yoke.  Simple fact is that the destruction of the AK and its leadership saved Stalin a headache later.  Why kill them after the war when Hitler can do the job for you.

Any efforts to help the fighters in Warsaw were thwarted.  RAF and Polish (among them also brave South African pilots) supply flights were first not allowed then hindered.  Most of the casualties these brave pilots suffered were actually at the hands of the Soviets who shot them down any chance they got (by mistake of course), as the Germans had very weak air defences in the area.  The help was minimized still by Stalin’s refusal to let the flights land on Soviet air bases.  This meant lighter payloads as they journeyed from Britain and Italy.  The Americans for their part were quite willing to go along with everything Stalin did and said for fear of antagonizing him before Yalta.  When the Red Army finally did reach the Vistula at Warsaw in mid-September it hardly did a thing to help Warsaw.  A weakly supported landing of a couple of battalions of Polish People’s Army troops was not enough.  They suffered heavy casualties and their bridgehead was isolated.  Only a few returned to the right bank of the river when the fighting was ending.  General Berling, the commander of the Polish First Army was soon dismissed from his post.  He showed too much initiative in trying to help his countrymen.

The defenders of the Great Stalin will of course point out that the Red Army couldn’t help the Rising even if it wanted to.  Well that’s an admission that they did not want to help, but communists and their defenders never bothered themselves much with moral issues.  So could they have?  Of course they could.  Fact is they did not even try and they did everything possible to make sure it failed.  It is possible that even if they did try they would have failed.  But that is no excuse.  Yes the great 1944 offensive was reaching its end.  And the STAVKA (Soviet Command) was moving the point of new attack north and south of Warsaw.  But this was a local action.  The units the Germans had in the area were not first rate nor were there a lot of them.  Hitler threw 2 Panzer Corps to north and south of Warsaw to defend the Vistula line (the last natural barrier before Germany).  But they would not send their best troop into urban combat.  Stalingrad was not that long ago.  Facing the Soviets were weak Wehrmacht infantry divisions which lacked heave weapons and air support.  The units in Warsaw were having a tough time dealing with under armed partisan forces.  Properly supported a corps could have reached the banks of Vistula crushing any German resistance, while another corps could have made the crossing and taken Warsaw along with the AK.  The Soviets did not even need to lift a finger fighting on the left bank, the Poles would have gladly gone.  All they needed was supplies, and air and artillery support to cover the crossing and the fighting later.  The Germans had no reserves to speak of in the area, or anywhere for that matter.  Any forces sent to Warsaw would mean weakening an already weak line.

Did Any of Them Survive?

But the Stalin forbade it.  Instead the world watched as Warsaw died.  And with Warsaw went the AK command, its fighters and its citizens.  They faced unspeakable horror, for this was not your normal urban combat.  The brave Wehrmacht was tasked with squashing the Uprising.  And so special units were called in, under the command of SS General von dem Bach-Zalewski (one of the worst war criminals tasked with anti-partizan operations through out the war, never tried for his crimes in the East because he agreed to testify against his masters at Nuremberg).  Von dem Bach was supposed to be an expert at this.  The main force fighting the Poles became known as Kampfgruppe Reinefarth named after its commander, another war criminal who was protected by the Western Allies and never tried, he even became a small town mayor in Germany after the war and lived of his general’s pension.  A special group of fighters this was.  It included what was known as the  Dirlewanger Brigade.  A motley penal SS unit composed of criminals and deserters.  Full of rapists and murderers they distinguished themselves by looting and murdering civilians.  Von dem Bach also had the Kaminski Brigade.  A unit of Russians loyal to the Nazis.  And while they were not officially a criminal unit they gave Dirlewanger’s men a run for their money.  By August 8 they managed to massacre tens of thousands of civilians in Wola and Ochota alone (two boroughs of Warsaw).  Kaminski’s men were so bad that he was later executed by the SS.  Now of course the honourable Germans were not shocked at the murders, his crime was stealing material belonging to the Reich.  His sin was not sharing what he looted.

EDITFun Fact.  I forgot to include the post war life of Oskar Dirlewanger.  Under the authority of the French Occupation Forces, who used Polish troops for the occasion, he was captured and brought to prison where he was tortured for several days and basically beaten to death.  🙂  Now I am against revenge and even the death penalty, but this brought a smile to my face.  And a silly Wiki article on the murdering bastard call his death a “murder.”  How?  At worst it was justifiable homicide and the Polish troops certainly did much better than the Western Allies who dealt with and protected many a very guilty Nazi after the war.

Sabaton’s “Uprising” a Swedish group that sings mainly about military history.  Most of the footage in the video is from the Uprising.  “Warszawo Walcz!” means “Warsaw, Fight on!”

But Germans used anyone they could to fight the Poles.  A unit from the 5th SS Panzer Division “Wiking” was used.  Police, Wehrmacht, SS, garrison troops, anyone who could be spared was thrown into Warsaw. Tens of thousands of Nazis fought in the Uprising.  All in all the Germans lost around 17,000 in killed and missing, with a further 9,000 wounded and as high as 5,000 taken prisoner.  Of course the Germans did not take prisoners in the beginning.  Any Polish fighter captured, whether man, woman, or child was summarily executed.  After all these were just bandits and untermenschen to boot.  Only later did the Germans begin to treat the Polish fighters as POWs.

Warsaw Fights On

The Poles themselves fought first to free Warsaw and later to win honourable terms after it became apparent that the Rising was doomed and no help was coming.  Terms they did gain, but Germans being Germans stuck to them only when it was convenient for them.  As I said, the fighting was to last no more than a couple of weeks.  The fighting begun even before the official start hour as German units came across Polish fighters in their areas of concentration.  The element of surprise was gone.  Only some objectives were taken.  The Poles never did manage to consolidate their gains enough to control the whole city.  And what they did control was a patchwork of areas (as the map above shows).  The Nazis defended their lines of communication across the river to the front fiercely.  When they lost them they fought hard to gain them back.  Even though they were under constant fire for several days the Poles never did manage to cut off Warsaw from the front.  The all important bridges remained in enemy hands.  As the battle drew on the Polish forces were squeezed and surrounded.  Isolated areas held on as long and whenever they could.  When they could not they either tried to break the ring and fight through to other Polish controlled areas, or withdrew through Warsaw’s sewers.

The Warsaw sewer system was used trough out the occupation as means of escape and communication with the Ghetto.  Now it became means of communications between different districts and areas of operations.  Young runners, girls and boys, when not dodging bullets above ground, went through the sewers to bring orders and supplies whenever possible and to evacuate the wounded to safer areas.  Many a brave Pole found his death in those tunnels (those who have not seen it I would suggest watching Andrew Wajda’s “Kanal,” Canal).  Wells were improvised as water became scarce due to destruction of pipes or because the Germans turned it off.  Food shortages came.  Along with destruction Warsaw had to worry about feeding itself.

A Polish built improvised armoured vehicle used during the Rising, nicknamed Kubus (a cute name in Polish, we call Winnie the Pooh, Kubus Puchatek)

The Poles did manage to control most of Warsaw for a time.  They even captured some fighting vehicles.  A few armoured personnel carriers and even a couple of SS “Wiking” Panther tanks that they repaired and used against the Germans.  Barricades were erected.  The city became a bastion.  The civilians, though somewhat afraid, welcomed the Uprising.  Field kitchens were operated by civilians, mechanics, builders, anyone who was useful helped.  Men, women, young and old, all helped.  The whole city fought the hated Nazis.  But it was the civilians who paid the ultimate price and who suffered the most.  The official figures do not include the thousands who were sent to forced labour or death camps after the fighting ended.  The figures don’t speak of the rapes and murders.  They don’t tell anything about how these people lost everything they had.  Their homes in ruins, their possessions destroyed or looted.  Whole families uprooted.

And what of the fighters themselves?  Most were kids really.  Some as young as 12.  Child soldiers.  All volunteers.  All brave and idealistic.  Many were students completing their education in underground schools and universities as the Germans allowed only for the most basic education of Poles, nothing above a few grades.  They were poets, painters, engineers, or manual labourers, many still just students.  They were everyone.  From all walks of life.  The Polish Boy Scouts deserve a mention here.  The organization was forbidden in Poland under the German occupation.  But it did not die, it met and organized in secret.  It kept the spirit of Poland alive.  These young men and women (the girls of the Rising were as brave as any heroes of WWII) fought side by side with their elders for their city, for Poland.  The famous Battalion Zoska (a female name, pseudonym of an AK commander who was killed in action earlier ) fought gallantly in the Rising.  It was a Scout (Szare Szeregi, Grey Ranks, Underground Scout Units) unit under the AK.  They freed a concentration camp in the middle of what was left of the Warsaw Ghetto.  All able bodied freed prisoners (most of them Jews kept alive to work for the Germans, just under 400 in number) joined the battalion and fought alongside their saviours.  Or “Parasol” (Umbrella), another famed unit of the AK Scouts.  Along with many famous actions throughout the occupation “Parasol” fought on gallantly all through out the Uprising.  Among its ranks was a famous Polish poet, Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski, he was killed at his post on August 4 by a German sniper, he was just 23,  His wife, Barbara, 22, was killed less than a month later.  No happy endings here.

In memory of the youngest fighters

The fight did not end for some with the end of the Rising or even the war.  Persecuted some went underground and kept fighting the commies.  Many were persecuted even though they did not fight the communists.  By virtue of association brave heroes were imprisoned by the communists.  All the surviving members of the “Zoska” battalion were imprisoned after the war after fighting for the very freedom the commies enjoyed.  For those who survived the end did not really come till 1989.  It was only then when they could come out of the shadows and be officially remembered.  It was not till then that they could be honoured.  Most though did not live to see those days.  While their oppressors, both Nazi and Communist, were free to enjoy their pensions and peaceful life.  Unlike Hollywood films, most of Polish war films do not end on a happy note.

In the end the Rising was doomed to fail.  And fail it did.  But was it worth all the blood and ruins?  Objectively speaking no.  It was not.  Nothing is worth that much suffering.  But in that case nothing is worth fighting for, nothing is worth the sacrifice.  So we can’t be objective here.  And its not as if they had a choice.  They had to fight.  The brutal occupation had to be ended.  The sooner the better.  They had every right to expect outside help.  Especially from the east in the form of the Red Army.  It was not their fault that Stalin was willing to let his mate Hitler deal with the Poles.  Blaming the AK commanders for what was a straight forward military operation aimed at freeing the capitol of Poland, with Soviet help, is absurd.  That means those who do blame General Komorowski blame him for all the suffering and not the Germans or the Soviets.  Its not as if he could have predicted the Soviets will happily watch while Warsaw bled.  Or that the Western Allies would hardly lift a finger to help in any way.  General Komorowski and the Polish leadership are not responsible for the destruction of Warsaw.  Hitler and Stalin are.

So those willing to tarnish the memory of those brave men and women would do well to remember that.  I for one, rather remember them, their bravery and sacrifice.  As long as we remember them they have not died in vain.

Finally Remembered. Warsaw Uprising Monument

Author’s Note:  Thank you for taking the time to read this.  These brave men and women deserve to be remembered.  Feel free to post comments, especially if you have issues with this post.  But do remember it is by no means meant to be complete history of the Rising or even a partial one.  I just wanted to commemorate their sacrifice in my own way and to argue a bit with those who in my opinion tarnish their memory by placing blame where it should not go.  And sadly the debate still goes on.  Its hard to reverse over 40 years of lies and propaganda.

There are a lot of good works written about the Rising.  First and foremost a comprehensive study by Norman Davies titled: Rising ’44.  There are also several good works by Polish historian translated into English and witness accounts from those who fought in the Rising.  As well as quite a few good films and TV programs.  Not all is in English, but quite a lot is, and some of those are very good on their own, the subject matter only makes them better and more important.

For quicker sources there is a lot of stuff on the web, all you need to do is google.  Wikipedia has pretty good articles on the whole and several different aspects of the Rising.  I encourage anyone interested to look, there are fascinating stories of bravery, sacrifice, idealism and tragedy that can make anyone tear up.

Anyone visiting Warsaw please visit the new Warsaw Uprising Museum.  It had to wait till communism fell, and sadly for some years after, but finally under the mayor Lech Kaczynski (later president of Poland, he died in a plane crash this past April along with 95 others) Poland built its heroes a proper place of remembrance.

A fascinating digital reconstruction project done by the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

Thank you again.  We shall never forget.


Man on a Barrel-Beginning of the Holocaust

Man on a Barrel



In one of Hanna Krall’s books Marek Edelman recalls a scene he witnessed.  It’s a story of a man on a barrel.  It’s straightforward, not particularly shocking, considering what happened later, on the surface it would seem almost humorous and not note worthy.  But it wasn’t.

Marek Edelman recalls a scene on the streets of German occupied Warsaw.  It was not long after the conquest of Poland.  The Warsaw Ghetto did not exist yet.  A crowd (mainly Jewish) gathered around a barrel on Żelazna Street.  A normal wooden barrel.  On this barrel there was a short old Jew who had a long beard.  Two German officers (Dr. Edelman does not specify whether they were SS or Wehrmacht, or police, not that it mattered really), using big tailoring scissors were cutting off his beard.  They were laughing, as was a large part of the crowd, the rest simply looked on.  Objectively speaking, according to Dr. Edelman the scene was comical, like a movie gag.  There was nothing really frightening happening.  An old, funny looking man had his beard cut off.  There was no Ghetto then, no starvation, no Treblinka, no Holocaust, just one old man who was losing his beard.  No big deal.

It was then that Marek Edelman decided to never let himself “be put on a barrel” by anyone, anytime.  It is also thanks to that barrel that Treblinka became possible.  It was one of the first steps in perpetrating on of the biggest crimes in human history.  And it started with a man on a barrel, or a sign in a shop window, a speech, a law, a wall, a gate, a train, a sealed car.  Great crimes against humanity do not start with a Treblinka or an Auschwitz, or a death march, or Srebrenica.  They start with little things.

Yes, the Holocaust was a result of something.  It did not just happen.  It had its genesis, it was a “logical” conclusion to a deliberate policy of dehumanization of a certain people.  In this case it was the Jews.  And in that the Holocaust is both unique and common at the same time.  It is unique because an innocent people were condemned to senseless slaughter for no logical reason, just hatred, and murdered with industrial German efficiency.  It is also common because while the Jews were victims of the Holocaust, there were other nations who suffered similar tragic fate.  Do not misunderstand, I am not trying to belittle the tragedy and importance of the Shoah.  I have studied the Holocaust for sometime and I grieve for the victims as if they were my own family, but this could happen to any people.  In fact it did, not on the same scale, but that was not through lack of effort.  And that is what makes the Holocaust even more tragic.  If it was only a one time occurrence then we could all grieve, learn and move on to better things.  But it was not.  We grieved, we moved on, but we never learned.

And that is one of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust.  “Never Again” turned out to be just an empty slogan, and as slogans go, this one was even more meaningless than most.  We have learned nothing.  And we let other peoples suffer genocide, and we watched.  We did not even have the pathetic (and false) excuse of not knowing.  We watched and let it happen.  Great evil happens not when bad people commit evil acts, but when good people let them.  Most watched idly, some because there was nothing they could do, but cry for the victims.  Most however did not even shed a tear.  Some were relieved that it was not them or their people suffering.  Some others who could do something, did nothing.  Most of the world did not want to fight for Danzig, and they sure as hell were not going to die for the Jews.  Allied propaganda purposefully kept quiet about what it knew of the Shoah.  And they did know.  Reports of the Jews’ suffering reached the Allies as early as 1940.  They were regular and detailed.  Jan Karski, a Polish Armia Krajowa (Home Army) courier even went to Belzec Death Camp dressed as a guard so he could give a personal testimony of what he saw.  Before his last trip to the West he received a report from inside the Warsaw Ghetto and spoke with anyone who listened in London and in America.  Everyone knew.  No one did a damned thing.  They used to old excuse that by winning the war they would stop the Holocaust.  Meanwhile 6 million people got slaughtered.

Six million, such an artificial number.  Its almost unimaginable.  And it does not convey the true meaning and pain of the Holocaust.  Its easier to think about such a huge number than about the individuals.  Yes six million sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers.  How do you fit six million in your head.  Well, you don’t.  It becomes arbitrary, a statistic, hardly ever leaving the plain of mathematics.   Just like Eichmann we stop seeing the people, instead we see numbers.  Its not real.  Can we grieve for six million people?  How many tears are enough?  How many nightmares does it take to understand?  We see historians arguing over the exact number killed, 5.8 million, 5.9 million, 6, more than 6.  Each number looks like a math problem.  But they were not math problems, or statistics, they were people.  People who laughed, who cried, some were great people, some were undoubtedly pretty shitty individuals.  Some were happy, some sad.  Some loved and were loved by others.  Some were lonely.  Some were good looking.  Some ugly as sin.  Some were brilliant, others could hardly read or write.  How do you think about the Shoah?

Most of us don’t think about it at all, and worst of all, don’t care at all.  Just as when it was happening, we look away.  I heard many times a complaint that “we get it already!!!  We know, now shut up and lets move on, enough with this Holocaust!!!”  Do we?  Do we really get it when we talk and think like that?  When we are tired of “constantly” being reminded of the Holocaust.  Actually we don’t get it at all.  We did not want to watch about Srebrenica or Rwanda either.  Its not very pleasant to watch it on TV while we’re eating.  So we switch the channel to a game show, an action movie, a comedy show, anything, as long as we don’t have to watch the unpleasant pictures.  And we don’t want to learn about the Holocaust.  We are all experts, we know the number 6 million.  We know the names of Hitler, Eichmann, Auschwitz.  We know, shut up already.  It happened a long time ago, in some far away place most of us couldn’t find on a map.  Every once in a while a movie comes out, some more inspiring than others.  Some good, some not so good.  And we see it as a movie.  Hell, we watched movies about the end of the world, nuclear destruction, zombies even.  Some story about some people dying wont move us at all.  We marvel at the powerful scenes in some of those movies.  Sometimes we cry.  But then again, we cried when Bambi’s mother was shot.  A fucking cartoon got as many tears as 6 million people!!!

Yes, a cartoon of a cute, well drawn animal made us cry.  Did that old Jew make any of you cry?  Probable not.  After all he was only getting his beard cut off.  He looked silly anyway.  What we don’t think about is what happened to him after he finally got off that barrel.  He might have been shot right after.  Or he was let go.  Later he was forced to live in an overcrowded Ghetto.  Probably surviving on 200 calories per day.  Until he, if he was lucky, got sick and died of typhoid fever.  If he was not so lucky he went to Umschlagplatz.  There he waited for the train to arrive.  He might have been beaten, or not.  Maybe he was with his family.  Or maybe his family had already perished.  Then he was herded onto the train.  Inside a cattle car, stuffed, with not even a room to sit.  He might have suffocated in that train car.  A body standing until his co-victims were let out onto a ramp, which led into a camp, which lead into a changing room.  He might have survived all those long hours on the train.  And he was led into that room.  There he was told to strip.  And with hundreds of others he was led into a “delousing room.”  The doors were shut.  And gas came in.  He was not the first to die, he heard screaming, prayers, scratching.  Maybe he prayed himself, to his unmerciful god.  A god that wouldn’t let him be shot, or die of Typhoid, or suffocate inside a train car.  A god that let him hear the screams.  His own scream was the loudest.  Or maybe he was quiet, dignified.  He just went away into the night.

One of the aforementioned possibilities had an over 90% chance of happening.  Just imagine.  Out of over 3 million Polish Jews, over 90% ended up like that old man.  Just think about that.  Take the 10 closest members of your family, or 10 of your closest  friends, and imagine 9 of them dead!  Yes, nine.  Nine out of ten.  Your grandparents (lets assume you have all 4), both your parents, two of your uncles, one sister.  All dead.  Only you survived.  You have no family any more.  That is the scale of suffering.  Not some arbitrary number we can not even begin to imagine.  But a person.  Each had his own story.  Each suffered a fate none of us would wish upon our worst enemies.  And that is how it started, with a barrel.  It ended on a death bed, or a street, or a train car, or in a forest, or a gas chamber.  Each story is unique.  Did you hear about a doctor administering poison to her patients?  It was an act of mercy.  No, they were not terminally ill.  Or were they?  Their illness was that they were Jews, condemned to die in a horrific way.  Instead, the few lucky ones died peacefully in a hospital.  Did you hear of the beautiful 19 year old girl who went willingly because she saw her mother on her way to the Umschlagplatz?  She left her boyfriend standing there on the corner, and just went.  She did not want her mother to go through that alone.  Did you hear about the head doctors and managers of shop forced to give “life tickets” (as it turned out most were temporary anyway) to some of their workers while condemning those who did not get them to certain death?  How would you like to be the one who decides who lives and who dies?  Did you hear of Dr. Korczak and a few teachers and nurses who went willingly and knowingly to the gas chambers with the group of children in their care.  They sung songs with them as they were marching to their death.  Just so the children would not be afraid.  Is that sadder than Bambi?  Or do we not want to hear about this any more?

Does it make them too human?  Can you imagine yourself walking with those children, singing, knowing that you will die a horrible death?  Can you imagine not eating for 3 or 5 days?  Can you imagine real hunger?  Can you imagine being afraid all day, every day?  Once, in an interview Marek Edelman went off (he never was too shy to say what he felt) on a couple of reporters who asked him why these people went willingly to Umschlagplatz just on a promise of a couple of loaves of bread.  Yes in the beginning the Germans wanted the Jews to have an illusion.  That illusion was they they were being moved to a work camp.  And who in their right mind would waste bread if they were going to kill them.  So they went with the illusion.  Would you go, willingly?  What if you were offered bread?  Imagine real hunger.  No, not I missed breakfast and will be having a late lunch hunger.  But I have been surviving on 200 calories for months and have not eaten at all for 3 days hunger.  Well to be honest we can’t.  Hardly any of us know what real hunger is.  So we can’t relate.  But we can empathize.  What about the Ghetto policeman, or a Kapo in a camp?  Or a Sonderkomando?  You know those guys who on a promise of being kept alive pulled all those bodies out of the gas chambers and carried them onto carts, then pushed the carts to the crematoria, and threw them into the ovens.  Those guys?  Could we understand them?  Or the Ghetto Policemen, armed with truncheons, they would go out, each given the task of bringing 5 people to Umschlagplatz.  Can we judge them?  Can we say they did wrong?  They were complicit?  Are we capable of judgement over these people?  In the United States a person is judged by a jury of his peers.  Are we really their peers if we can not understand them.  Or care enough to listen about them?  Or even want to?

We hardly think of them as humans.  They are just some stories and numbers.  They don’t have names or faces.  Just as the others who senselessly perished.  Millions of us went to see Transformers.  Not many saw Hotel Rwanda.  Millions buy Dan Brown’s tripe.  Not many read stories, of real people.  And in doing that we become complicit.  Our indifference made the Holocaust possible.  Indifference is worst than the hatred people feel for one another.  They at least have some reason, irrational or not, that’s immaterial.  But they have some “justification” for their feelings.  We on the other hand do not.  We don’t hate.  And as good people that most of us are, we see the Holocaust as an evil thing.  So the question is, why the hell was it allowed to happen?  How the hell could good people allow this to happen?  How could good people just watch, with indifference as others died?  How could we then just say “enough of this already?”  And then we watch as others die?  We get mad when others attack us.  We want to fight.  We go off to Afghanistan and fight.  Great.  But what if we were not strong enough to fight back?  What if others came and started killing us for no reason?  What if others just watched as we got slaughtered?  What if someone put you on a barrel?  While others laughed, or just watched?  You think it can’t happen to you?  Can’t it?  Whatever you are, white, red, yellow or black, it can.  Short, tall, skinny or fat, it can.  Blond, or dark haired.  Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Atheist, it can.  Conservative, or liberal, it can.  Because I guarantee you, whatever the hell you are, there is someone out there who hates you for no reason.  He too does not think of you as a human.  You’re just an object of hate to him.  Not a real person.  He read some book or watched a movie, or heard a story that you are his enemy.  And one day, if he is strong enough, and gets a chance, he will put you on that barrel.  And no one will care.  And no one will cry.

Auschwitz Sign Stolen- “Arbeit Macht Frei”

A disturbing piece of news.  This morning, between the hours of 3 to 5 AM the infamous sign over the Auschwitz gate that said “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work shall set you free) was stolen.  Who would do such a sick thing?  If its a prank then its one very sick prank.  If its political, then we know what kind of idiots would do such a thing.  The lack of respect for the suffering of millions of people is staggering.  Shocking even.  For the life of me I can not imagine how one could come up with such a sick and idiotic idea.  Not that racists, fascists, Nazis, or anti-Semites could ever be accused of intelligence, but still.  Even for them it was over the top.  A sick joke or some kind of hateful statement, it does not matter.  Lets all hope they are apprehended quickly, and punished with a hate crime.  For now a replica sign, made when the original was being restored years ago, was hung in its place.  Sick bastard are alive and well.

News Update:  Polish Police have recovered the sign (cut into three pieces) and have apprehended 5 men.  Apparently the theft was financially motivated, though at this time its unclear if it was ordered by someone else, or if they were just going to try to sell it.  Sick bastards.  But Well done to the Polish cops for finding it so quickly.

Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 9:34 am  Comments (3)  
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Marek Edelman Remembered- “Wont You Shed a Tear?”

Marek Edelman

Marek Edelman

“Living proof,” “The Guard,” “Fighter,” “Hero.”

Just a few of the unofficial titles he was called.  I called him my hero.  Never met the man.  But for years he was an inspiration.  As a human being and a native Pole I consider him one of the greatest men of the 20th Century.  Certainly one of the greatest Poles of the last 100 years.  A social activist, a fighter, a doctor, a patriot, and man who wouldn’t take shit from anyone.  That was Marek Edelman.  My hero.

As I write this tears force themselves into my eyes.  Poland through the force of circumstance had some great men in the past 100 years, Karol Wojtyla known better as John Paul II, Jozef Pilsudski, Lech Walesa, Wladyslaw Sikorski.  In my opinion Marek Edelman is right among those distinguished men.  He died in Warsaw on Friday night, surrounded by friends .  At least his death was peaceful.  Because for most of his life Marek fought.  He fought the right wing gangs on the streets of pre-war Warsaw, he fought the Nazis, he fought death in the hospitals as a doctor, he fought the communists.  Marek never shied away from a fight.

Marek Edelman was born in 1922 in Homel (now in Belarus).  He was born into a Jewish socialist family.  When he was only a few years old he lost his father.  In the late 20’s his family moved to Warsaw.  There was a bit of controversy about his place of birth, as Marek Edelman for years kept insisting he was born in Warsaw.  There was a simple reason for that.  He was afraid of being forced to move to the Soviet Union as the Soviets considered anyone born in former territories (that USSR annexed after WWII) as a Soviet citizen.  At 12 young Marek also lost his mother, from then on he supported himself.

The Second World War game, and a brutal German occupation.  Warsaw Jews were forced to by the Germans into the Ghetto, where over a half a million people were crammed in inhumane conditions, dying daily of sickness and starvation.  The the Germans made their decision of what to do with Europe’s Jews.  Systematically the Ghetto was cleared out during 1942, the Jews were sent to death camps and there they were murdered.  At just 20 Marek Edelman was one of the founders of Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB, Jewish Fighters Organization).  Those young Jews decided not to die quietly, but to fight and take a few Nazis with them.  They had no chance, numbering just over a thousand against the German military might, they were short of weapons, they were hardly trained.  But they fought.  When the Germans decided to empty out the Warsaw Ghetto, fight they did.  And they fought gallantly, the Germans losses were in the hundreds.  But they were bombed and burned out of their positions, house after house.  After Mordehai Amielewicz and his group of fighter committed suicide when they lost hope, the 21 year old Marek Edelman became the leader of the uprising.  Saved by Polish resistance he hid for over a year (“drinking vodka and making love” as he recalled it) in Warsaw, because with his looks he couldn’t go outside.  Finally on August 1st, 1944 the second Warsaw Rising took place.

Polish fighters, Warsaw 1944

Polish fighters, Warsaw 1944

When the Red Army approached Warsaw the Polish Armia Krajowa decided, as part of its overall nationwide plan, to rise up against the Germans in the capitol.  On August 1st Warsaw rose.  Marek Edelman immediately went out and joined the fight.  And for 2 months he fought heroically among other young kids to free Warsaw from the Nazi yoke.  He survived the Rising, and again hid till the Soviets came.

In 1946 he moved to Lodz, studied and became one of Poland’s leading cardiologists.  He married and had children.  He pioneered many methods in treating patients, and was able to save countless lives.  Unfortunately during 1968 there was an anti-Israeli movement in Communist Poland.  That quickly translated to an antisemitic movement.  Marek Edelman was fired from his job at a military hospital, as was his wife.  He was “encouraged” to leave Poland.  His wife and kids did, moving to France.  But Marek Edelman stayed, because “no one is going to tell me what I am supposed to do and where I should go.”  Pure Marek Edelman, always defiant, never taking shit from anyone, no matter the odds.

With backing from a party official he got another job.  In the 70’s he joined the Polish anti-communist resistance KOR.  Then joined the Solidarity movement.  Was arrested when the Jaruzelski regime introduced Martial Law in Poland in 1981.  He stayed in Solidarity in secret, till finally communism fell.  It was only then that he became properly recognized and respected, he received many honours from Polish and foreign governments.  But Marek Edelman’s fighting did not stop there.  In 1993 he was part of a humanitarian convoy trying to bring aid to Sarajevo.  That’s right, a 71 year old man left his comfy Poland and went to help needy Sarajevo.  He was an outspoken critic of any abusive regimes and fought for human rights all his life.

The smoking doctor

The smoking doctor

Marek Edelman is a rather controversial figure.  A socialist who hated communists.  A Jew who was anti-Zionist.  A Pole who was not always accepted by his country.  Never was one to shy away from controversy, always spoke his mind.  Never asked for pity, and always called things how he saw them.  When asked why he stayed after the war when most were either dead or were leaving he said:  “Someone had to stay with all these dead.”  He never shied away from calling people “idiots’ to their face.  And I loved him for it.  He never tried to make himself to seem more important.  He just was, how he was, who he was.  And in that he was perfect.

He said once when asked what is most important in life.

“Life itself is most important.  And when there is life, freedom is most important.  And then one gives up life for freedom and we don’t know what’s most important.”

That was Marek Edelman, my hero.

For a proper obituary do not be shy to search the internet as he should not be forgotten.

Also Hanna Krall’s books were translated from Polish, through them you will too get to know Marek a bit more.

May he rest in peace.

A great doctor, a great fighter, a great Jew, a great Pole, a great human being.

I will miss you.