A Child’s View of the Warsaw Uprising

As part of the European Union program, „Europe for Citizens”, the Museum of the City of Warsaw has published an anthology of writings in Polish, English, and German. Below is an abbreviated version of the story of an eleven-year-old girl.
Our family was intact at the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising (my parents must have known when it was about to begin). The first of August, at 5 pm. The sirens began, and the city began to come to life. Through the open window of our apartment on the first floor of 5 Grzybowska Street, the sounds of war came bursting in, growing louder. The residents began building a barricade at the beginning of the street, near the gate of the building. In several hours the barricade had grown high and wide and the soldiers of the Home Army felt safe behind it. Finally, Warsaw, tortured by the occupation, was attacking its enemy.

The first of the wounded was a man, about fifty years old. Carried away with the fighting, he had grabbed a rifle and jumped on the barricade. Both of his hands were shot. This was the first blood and my first moment of horror. We made bandages from sheets, as first aid to stop the excessive bleeding.

We spent the first evening and night in the basement. It was big enough, having served earlier as a locksmith’s workshop. There was enough space for a few dozen of us, residents from one part of the apartment building. I didn’t know we would be spending all of the next days and nights underground. Actually, only the days; there were all kinds of contacts at night. Under the cover of darkness we retrieved water, some food, and also some news about the progress of the uprising. During the day the courtyard and street were under fire from the tall PASTA building (the telephone exchange building on Zielna Street), where the Germans were stationed for a short time. The resistance fighters took this building from the lower floors, chasing the occupiers to the upper floors. We heard the cries of the cornered Germans, calling for help. This lasted for several days, until they gave in.

It’s hard for me to say on which day of the Uprising the great tragedy occurred. A group of sixteen Home Army soldiers tried to reach the Saski Garden, to attack the Germans by surprise. The attack on the barricade did not succeed. They were all killed by grenades, at a distance of several meters from the barricade.

The conditions to reach it were not favorable. At night floodlights lit this area and one could be seen clearly here during the day. After more than ten days, their bodies were pulled out from the tunnel under the barricade with long hooks. Actually, only shreds of clothing on massacred corpses. The bodies were   arranged by the gate to the house. I don’t know if these boys were identified. Sixteen graves with hastily made crosses sprang up quickly in the flowerbed of the courtyard.

Not long after came the shocking news that Ukrainians were plundering homes and committing murder, without using guns, but using bayonets or swords. Our apartment building, the first on the street,  was especially exposed to attacks.
All of the residents moved underground to other homes in the area of Złota, Sienna, and Śliska Streets. The basements provided routes of communication. Openings in the walls of neighboring buildings were created, making it possible for people to go great distances without going outside.

The fighting continued. The German artillery attacks and bombing created an incessant threat to life and great fear. I didn’t leave my mother. I constantly held her hand, curled up into her body. I didn’t want to die, and I feared for her, too. I saw the crumbling homes as the greatest danger and death under the rubble as the greatest threat. I chose a place in the basement where the wall was thickest and close to a window or other entry.

Thirty, then forty, days passed. My sister and I tried to hear the sounds of the approaching Soviet front. We pressed our ears to the ground, listening in this way for the approaching Soviet offensive. Our ears disappointed us; the Soviets stayed in place. They had no intention of aiding a fighting Warsaw.

Heavy artillery, which we called „Berta”, ruined homes and caused tremendous havoc. They flew through the air with a characteristic echo. Many didn’t explode. We began to wish that they would not reach their goal and explode and started counting the number of these „Bertas”.

Just before the abandonment of Warsaw (the Śródmieście district, or city center, was evacuated from October 2-10), already after the suspension of arms, we returned for several hours to Grzybowa. We gathered a few necessities and clothing. There was not much time for this. My parents carried their belongings to the basement and secured them in the wall. Perhaps something remains? I hid my dolls in my pillow. Somebody told me that shells and shrapnel lose their strength when they fall on feathers. I was protecting them from being destroyed, those poor wartime companions of mine, Emilia and Joanna.

The evacuation of the city took place along the streets of the Śródmieście and Wola districts. The mournful procession took place in the middle of the street; the homes on both sides were in flames. The high temperature from the flames was oppressive.

The first break and stop of several hours was the church of Saint Wojciech on Wolska Street. The Germans were always present. They were directing us to the Warsaw Zachodnia train station. The fear of separation at the moment when people would be sorted out led to an idea: My mother took care of my sister, and my father held my hand. My leg was bandaged from the foot to the knee, which suggested that I was wounded.

We went through all the selections together; this was especially necessary in the camp in Pruszków – Dulag 121 (women and men from sixteen to sixty were meant to be sent to the Reich to work). All of resettled Warsaw, about 650,000 people, went through the Pruszków camp. The conditions in the Dulag camp were unusually difficult. A factory for heavy mechanical equipment had been changed temporarily into one giant hall, cold and damp with concrete floors. Once a day soup and a piece of bread were distributed by the Central Welfare Council (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza). The great concentration of exhausted and malnourished individuals raised the real fear of the outbreak of an epidemic.

We were called for the transport, going off into the unknown. We were loaded into cargo wagons without roofs. In the late October cold the crowded train went from station to station for several days. Someone jumped from the train, and the German transport escort shot him.

The wagons were finally opened at the Włoszczów station. The cry „Raus!” told us that we had to get out. We were free, left to our own fates. We went along the road, and a wagon driver passed us and stopped for us. The driver took us to Nieznanowice. Here there was a group of 100 people from Warsaw, crowded into just a few rooms. On bunk beds made from planks with straw for our beds we spent the next seven months.

In Nieznanowice we waited for liberation by the Red Army. There was no fight. The Germans left in the evening, the Russians came in the next day.

We returned to Warsaw at the end of May 1945. Our home was destroyed and our basement pillaged. We began our lives from zero. My childhood was over. I no longer had my dolls. I left behind my faithful Emilia and Joasia, who perished in the Warsaw Uprising in the home at 5 Grzybowska Street.

Elzbieta Uczynska, now Ulanowska
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 7-8/2009