Thursday, 4 August 2016

My father revisits his battleground

On this, the last full day of his visit to Warsaw, my father revisited the places in which he fought during the Uprising. We begin at the house on ul. Filtrowa 7, which at the time was the last house at the western end of the street on which he lived before and during the war. It was here, on the first floor, that my father and 19 other comrades awaited W-Hour - 17:00 on Tuesday 1 August.

They were poorly armed; my father had no more than two Molotov cocktail bombs - petrol-filled bottles. These are effective anti-tank weapons in defensive street fighting, but no use in assaulting the SS barracks in Kolonia Staszica across ul. Wawelska. So my father's unit waited here - 20 men in one room in total silence - for weapons and orders to arrive, as a German guard patrolled this corner.

The weapons and the order to attack the barracks never came - the first wave was repulsed by heavy automatic fire, my father's unit, held in reserve, was not called into action.

While they were waiting, sleeping in the streets and courtyards in the warm August nights, the notorious SS Sturmbrigade RONA, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, turned up, tasked by the Germans to murder Poles - citizens and combatants alike - en masse. My father and his colleagues had come into contact with soldiers from RONA; by some miracle, they escaped. Below: 56 others were not so lucky - a plaque commemorates the victims of RONA massacred here, on 7 August 1944 on the corner of ul. Wawelska and Al. Niepodległości.

At last, a courier reached my father's stranded unit to lead them across Pole Mokotowskie fields, which before the war divided the eastern end of ul. Filtrowa and the Politechnika (Technical University) buildings. Today's walk proved useful to me, as I'd misunderstood the geography of the Uprising in this part of Warsaw. Because Pole Mokotowskie stretched much further north than they do today, my father's crossing of the fields was in a west-to-east, and not a south-to-north direction. They undertook the crossing at night, the fields were covered with cabbages that crunched noisily when stepped on, unleashing machine-gun fire with tracer bullets from the Germans.

They made it across safely. My father made it to the Architecture Department building of the Politechnika, on the corner of ul. Lwowska and ul. Koszykowa. He'd studied here from 1942-43 (the Technical High School of Road-Building). At the same time he was doing 'komplety' privately - the underground courses given by the Polish underground state, to complete the knowledge that lessons that the Germans didn't allow the Poles to learn - such as Polish history. It was here while at the Architecture Department that my father contracted a stomach infection and was laid low with a 40-degree fever, spending a few days in the sick bay on the first floor of the south wing of this building. Meanwhile, the Germans were bombing it. It was here, in this courtyard, on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that famous singer Mieczysław Fogg entertained the Polish soldiers.

Below: my father surveys a list of fallen soldiers from his unit, 2nd Assault Battalion 'Odwet', who had joined with the local unit, 'Golski', and other units, to defend the Politechnika region. All had died here.

Left: On 18 August my father was well enough to make it to the front line. He was posted to ul. Noakowskiego 18. This street was part of a barricade that held out to the very end. A plaque stands here bearing the words, which I'll translate into English: "Politechnika Region: A Warsaw Uprising stronghold from 1 August to 2 October 1944. Unbreached line of barricades defended by soldiers of the 'Golski' 3rd Armoured Battalion, 6th Śródmieście Grouping, Home Army. It survived every ferocious attack by the enemy."

My father points out that unlike 'Odwet', 'Golski' was well armed from the outset and in the first days of the Uprising gave the Germans a good hiding, especially when they attacked the narrow street with armour. Fearful that they were up against a well-equipped and determined foe, the Germans did not mount any serious attacks in this part of Warsaw.
Right: outside ul. Noakowskiego 18. My father was on the second floor, manning a room with sandbags in the windows, with embrasures through which he'd be keeping watch across the road, checking that the Germans were not preparing an assault against the Home Army positions. It did not come. He was armed with an elderly rifle with a broken stock, which had been replaced by a bent piece of metal. He had only three bullets. Fortunately the Germans across the way were content to keep a low profile and not attempt to force the Home Army's barricade.

My father remained here until the very end of the Warsaw Uprising, when the order to capitulate was received. The Home Army soldiers were treated by the Germans as PoWs, and marched to Pruszków, west of Warsaw, for transports to PoW camps in Germany. My father was sent to Stalag X B in Sandbostel, north-west Germany, which was liberated by British troops.

Left: my father in 1946. This photo was taken in Germany for his UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilita- tion Admin- istration) ID card. He sent this particu- lar print home to Warsaw, where it entered his cousin Alina's photo album.

The photograph was taken for the newly created UNRRA University in Munich, which offered multilingual courses in basic German and English.

After six intensive days, my father's first visit to Warsaw in 40 years approaches its end.

This time two years ago:
Over the hill at Harrow

This time three years ago:
Behold and See - the Miracle of Lublin - Pt 1.

This time five years ago:
Quiet afternoon in the bazaar

This time six years ago:
The politics of the symbol

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