Saturday, 1 August 2009

W-Hour, five pm

Today Warsaw, indeed the Polish nation, commemorates the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. The story should be well known by moderately educated people around the world; ahead of the advance of the Soviet Red Army, the underground Polish state launched a series of uprisings (Operation Tempest) to liberate Polish cities from the Nazi occupier. The aim was to establish Polish control of Polish territory before Stalin's troops moved in. In Wilno, Lwów and other towns and cities in eastern Poland, the Home Army (AK) mananged to wrest control from the Nazis, only to be brutally suppressed by the Soviet 'liberator' shortly afterwards.

The leaders of the AK in Warsaw judged that the time to rise up against the Germans would be on 1 August 1944 at 17:00hrs, as the Red Army approached the right banks of the Vistula river.

The rising, planned to last just a few days until the Soviets got their troops across the river and chased the Nazis west, continued over two months. Over 200,000 Poles died, and most of central Warsaw was levelled with the ground.

Historians may argue whether the Poles were right to rise up when they did - or whether the Uprising was necessary at all. It can be claimed that because of Warsaw's 63-day stand, the Red Army did not end the war on the Rhine but on the Elbe. The Uprising has been called "The first battle of the Cold War". It was a modern battle - 'asymmetric warfare' - that saw a citizen army taking on and holding off a professional, well-equipped occupant in street-fighting, without artillery or air power, or indeed even sufficient small-arms. The only actions of comparable scale were the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Paris Commune (1871).

But today's commemorations were not about the fine points of why and wherefore, but a matter of intense pride for those who survived, their children and grandchildren. Poland took its own fate in its hands; the country has every right to fight for its existence. Besides, after five years of enduring Nazi genocide, street executions, forced labour and malnutrition, Poles were just itching to get their own back at an inhuman oppressor.

Among the veterans taking part in the commemoration was my mother-in-law, Wanda Lesisz (nee Gutowska), who served as a messenger in the struggle to seize and hold Żoliborz.

Left: Babcia Wanda with Eddie and Moni, by the AK memorial outside the Polish parliament. Eddie's wearing his Polish scouts uniform with his newly-acquired scout's cross (Krzyż Harcerski).

My father also took part in the Uprising (I'd dearly love to see him in Warsaw for the 75th Anniversary!), fighting in Battalion Odwet ('Revenge') in Ochota and Śródmieście. So Eddie and Moni have a direct connection to the Uprising, with two living grandparents who can pass on the traditions of the Polish Underground State.

A point made during today's ceremony was that education - which the Aryan Nazis wanted to deprive the Slavic untermensch - continued in secret schools, where classes known as komplety, provided young people with the full schooling that the occupier would deny them.

The Home Army quarter of Warsaw's Powązki military cemetary (not to be confused with the main Powązki cemetary four bus-stops away). My father's younger brother, Józef, lies buried here.
At five o'clock in the afternoon, air-raid sirens across Warsaw sounded the all-clear (single tone, not the rising-and-falling tones announcing an impending air-raid). Quite something.

The crowds were huge, good natured, and the overwhelming emotion felt was pride.

Among the VIPs present at the ceremony by the Polish Parliament was 95-year old former insurgent, General Stefan Bałuk (right), an SOE-trained commando parachuted into Poland ahead of the Uprising. General Bałuk was also the chief initiator of the AK/Polish Underground State monument by the Sejm. I am currently helping to translate his wartime memoirs Byłem Cichociemnym (The Silent Unseen) into English.
It is good that after the decades of lies told by communists about the Uprising (still thoughtlessly repeated by many ill-informed commentators in the West), Poland can commemorate the event for what it was - a nation attempting to regain control of its own destiny, in face of overwhelming odds.
UPDATE: We should not forget the British, South African and Polish pilots who flew from Italy to Warsaw to supply the Uprising from the air. Here is the story of one such British pilot, Wing Commander Gordon Pryor, who died on 3 September 2009, aged 88.


White Horse PIlgrim said...

The courage of the Poles during the dark days of WW2 is remarkable and inspiring. When I see Poles working here in Britain, I remember how we entered the war in solidarity with Poland, and that though we failed to see the country liberated from totalitarianism in 1945, at least we can play a part in Poland's revival through offering employment and welcoming Poles here. (I don't mean this to sound patronising. From my first visit almost 25 years ago, I have had a strong sympathy for the Poles and their country.)

Back in the 1980's, I ended up in Nowy Lupkow in the Bieszczady where I ran into a military patrol. After briefly being apprehended (they thought that I might be German, and the border was close by), an officer came up and told me how "he welcomed the British because of how they dropped arms to the Warsaw uprising when no-one else helped."

Island1 said...

At the risk of sounding trite, it was a hell of a brave thing to do.

Sirens sounded in Krakow too, as they always do, and two or three people on my street put up flags making you wonder what their connection to those events might have been.