Friday, 19 August 2016

Warsaw remembers the PAST-a building capture

The Warsaw Uprising lasted 63 days, so for the duration there are many individual commemorations. Today I attended the 72nd anniversary of the capture by AK soldiers of the PAST-a building on ul. Zielna (conveniently next door to my office). Built before the WW1 by a Swedish telephone company that was later to become known globally as Ericsson, the building was the highest in Warsaw until the Prudential building was completed in 1934. The telephone company became Polska Akcyjna Spółka Telefoniczna (PAST) in 1922, and the building was colloquially known as PAST-a, as it is to this day (ask any taxi driver).

During the German occupation of Warsaw, the PAST-a building played a vital role, as the main west-east telephone lines linking the eastern front to Berlin passed through its cellars (a cross-section through the bundle of cables, several feet in diametre, is still present). Because of its importance, it was the scene of fierce battles throughout the Uprising.

The final, successful, assault on the PAST-a building (below) began at 03:00 on 20 August 1944. Mines were set off blowing open two openings through which AK soldiers entered the building, while a fire-pump, converted into a flame-thrower, was used to set fire to the upper stories. Twelve hours later, the Germans surrendered, the Poles took 115 soldiers prisoner. Having captured the building, the heroic AK soldiers held it right to the very end of the Uprising.
The AK unit that seized PAST-a, Batalion Kilinski, was led by Henryk "Leliwa" Roycewicz. A plaque in his honour was unveiled today. By coincidence, Colonel Roycewicz was an Olympic horseman, winning a silver medal at the 1936 Berlin games. So it was apt to have a squadron of Polish cavalry from 1939 present at today's event - and what an impression they made!

Left: Ułani (uhlans), light cavalry played an important role in the September campaign.

It must be remembered that Poland held out against the Germans longer than the French, and the Polish cavalrymen did not charge German tanks - a myth invented by an Italian journalist and perpetuated to this day. They were, however, successful in harassing German artillery which was then largely horse-drawn.

Below: lances raised, the crimson colours harking back to the Napoleonic era, the cavalrymen were indeed a stirring sight, mounted on their magnificent horses.

Below: outside the PAST-a building for today's commemoration which included the unveiling of the Henryk Roycewicz plaque and laying of wreaths. There were several veterans present.

Below: the wreaths are laid. Time for photographs and to move into the courtyard.

Inside, a ten-piece band, below, dressed in period costume, played the songs of the wartime years, the occupation, the uprising, and its aftermath. Very moving, a beautiful performance.

Below: with Peter Chudy (right) is Andrzej Szacurdalski, who fought in the battle as a 17 year-old boy. He recalls this very courtyard from the Uprising, and told us several insightful anecdotes. One was that because of his time spent in the countryside, he had learned to shoot, unlike most of the boys in the battalion, who'd get knocked over by the recoil when they first fired a gun.

There was a chance to chat to several veterans, all of whom had fascinating tales to tell, each adding a bit more detail to the the overall picture; history not so much written by the victors as by the survivors. The voices of the dwindling band of fighters will be accorded more importance with the passing years.

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