Warsaw - Last Days Before The Uprising
Five years of war had branded Warsaw's face, or rather her two faces. Today Warsaw had certainly two faces and this was her Signum Temporis. We saw busy streets, undamaged houses, shops full of attractive goods, old firms, old advertisements. In the corner newsstand was the same old invalid selling 'Kurier Warszawski'.
We were walking along, remembering old times. Marushka was pointing to the house where she used to live whilst studying in Warsaw. Quite suddenly the view changed - we entered a field of ruins. A whole street block was gone. A desert of bricks and rubble, overgrown with grass. Here and there dark, empty holes; remnants from old basements looked like eye sockets of a rotting skull. Between the rubble goats were grazing, climbing nimbly over heaps of bricks. Next was a street full of people, trams and cars. Then again, on Marshalkowska Street, children were sunbaking and swimming in a tank which had been built between the ruins to fight the fires. Children were jumping into the water from the gatepost of a house which long ago lay in ruins. On the opposite side of the street once again an undamaged fragment of old Warsaw. It was like this everywhere - a city between ruins, and ruins between the city.
We also saw other, more strange faces of Warsaw. We saw barbed wire entanglements sometimes surrounding a single house, sometimes squares and also whole suburbs. We saw sandbags piled high along walls and, poking through small holes, were the ugly ends of rifles protecting the entry. A town existing between fortresses. Where was the enemy hiding in a town long ago captured? The people going through streets seemed to disregard the barbed wire. They talked animatedly and walked energetically.
On the streets of Warsaw were rickshaws drawn by push-bikes. The cabmen of the fiacre looked down on the Japanese way of commuting. Where was the enemy? One could not see him.
The next side street was blocked by barbed wire with only enough space left for a tram to pass. Soldiers were on guard - soldiers in steel helmets, their rifles at the ready, were looking full of distrust at the tram covered with people hanging on to it. They watched that none of the transit passengers could leave. People on the tram were going by 'transit' through this German 'ghetto'. It was like a dead town. Only rarely some German female with a shopping basket ventured out. The tram continued through the famous Aleja Szucha - the head offices of the infamous Gestapo. Belveder, Botanical Gardens, Aleja Ujazdowska were torn out of Warsaw. We, the Poles, were only allowed to look through a moving tram at the trees and lawns in the beautiful parks of Warsaw. On the other side of the street lived the 'Herrenvolk' (master race) in charming little palaces and villas.
At last the barbed wire finished and, at the next stop, most of the passengers left the tram, joining the busy traffic. Even the pigeons cooed happily on the place of 'Trzech Kryzy', fluttering down from the roofs of the surrounding buildings onto the steps of the church. This face of Warsaw seemed pleasant and friendly. We went to a cafe which was very crowded. Artists from the theatre were employed as waitresses and former waitresses were sitting at the tables, escorted by men in very well-tailored suits. Some men with bulging briefcases were discussing something leaning close to each other. Some women in long ago outdated hats and shabby coats were looking around carefully. They were the people of Warsaw's war years who fought for her during the September days of 1939. Today the city was being crushed by the occupants.
Soon we learned how to recognise these people who were careful and distrustful.
Those two gentlemen with bulging briefcases were certainly in possession of documents stating that they were working for the army and were indispensable but their briefcases were packed with goods like saccharine, tobacco, ladies' underwear. Black marketing was blooming in Warsaw. Everyone was trading with anything and anywhere. Employees, judges, postmen, railwaymen, doctors, solicitors, janitors and paper boys. In a cafe one could buy ladies stockings, combs, silken lingerie; in the gates of houses one could buy shoes and clothing. Food was brought to houses. For money one could purchase anything - tropical fruit, Russian caviar, a hundredweight of butter or machine guns, whole trainloads of coal from Selosia which were intended for the east. During our stay in Warsaw there appeared on the black market rice of American origin. U.N.R.R.A. had sent it from America to East Poland which was occupied by the Soviet Army, for distribution amongst the Poles. This rice in some mysterious way crossed the Front and appeared on the Warsaw black market. Ration tickets, by which the Germans tried to curb Warsaw's consumption, played only a small part.
The vigorous speculation opened the doors wide for trading. All German orders, round-ups, executions were to no avail. Trade continued to blossom. German price control offices were drowned under all their orders, announcements and records. To us, arriving from the East where we were used to ration tickets which covered everything beginning with baby nappies and finishing with a coffin, these conditions seemed exotic. Shop windows displayed tempting foods; oranges, halwas, pure cream ice-cream. We were unable to resist. Part of our financial reserves, given to us by Granny, such as golden earrings and a brooch with semiprecious stones, ended up on the very sensitive scales of a jeweller. We received a few thousand zloty and, feeling very rich, invited our friend for dinner to the restaurant 'Pod Bulkietem'. Some herring, a pork steak and a few glasses of vodka. For dessert, on a silver salver, the bill of 1,000 zloty. This shook us. (It was the equivalent of the golden earrings). Granny's earrings disappeared into the pocket of the waiter. We decided to live more frugally. Warsaw asked a high price for goods which, by some detours and lanes, carried on backs of hucksters, by railwaymen, army tourists, hidden amongst the wood in the carts of peasants, arrived in Warsaw to be sold by many middlemen. These middlemen made a fortune as they were selling the most valued goods - food. They were buying the cheapest goods: furniture, good pictures and villas. Those were the principles of war economy and her upside-down theory of prices. For a few kilos of bacon fat one could buy a valuable picture. Again the two faces of Warsaw. Nightlife with cabarets, elegant restaurants, secret gambling houses and a multitude of people always hungry looking for new queues in food stores with ration cards in their hands. People whose main diet was a watery soup supplied by cheap eating places. Their houses were bare, their furniture sold. To them war was a curse and disaster. They were waiting for the war to end but others wished war to continue.
During our first days in Warsaw the paper boys were selling sensational news. Hitler was assassinated! People were grabbing the newspapers. The price for 'Kurier Warszawski' reached 30 zloty (a price never reached before even on the black market) and the price was gladly paid for such news. Hope surged up for a short while. Hitler was war, and war was Hitler.
The Kurier wrote: "A group of stupid and ambitious officers tried to kill Adolf Hitler ... miraculously the Fuehrer was spared ... under the providence ... the nation ... The Reich is peaceful."
The people of Warsaw were reading, shaking their heads and rushing home to read the secret London bulletin that was passed from hand to hand. The newsletter came from the underground and was brought to houses in shopping baskets covered by foodstuffs. The delivery was usually made by old ladies, children and old men. In these bulletins Warsaw was seeking the truth and sometimes an elusive hope. This time the hope was delusive. The bulletin was writing about riots in Germany, about Prussian regiments marching towards Berlin, about the new government organised by the authors of the attempt. Everyone tried to read the newsletter and listen to the prohibited London radio. After a few days the disillusioned Warsawers decided that the 'New Kurier' was right - it really was a group of stupid officers! They did not dispose of Hitler but they themselves were marched against a wall and shot.
Not only the town and people had their special expression, but also the daily Press. The official papers were the 'New Kurier Warszawski', 'Warschauer Zeitung', 'Signal' and 'Krakauer Zeitung'. They were displayed in cafes, at hairdressers and in waiting rooms of doctors. They were gladly used by shopkeepers for wrapping. These papers were hanging quite legally in public toilets as proper toilet paper was not available.
The Press was flowing by the underground of the fighting Warsaw, a Press much alive and full of passion, formulating new political thoughts. London was sending its bulletins and Moscow its red armies. The front lines came slowly nearer, the time started to get ripe. More signs appeared on the walls. Written by unseen hands - "Poland will win,” "Out with Invaders,” "Long Live the Polish National Army" (Armies Krajowa - A.K.) Between all these were large dark shapes on the walls of a bent, listening man with a hat, crossed through by a yellow question mark - a sign of suspicion, distrust and anxiety. "The enemy is listening". It stood as a watchword for the enemy as well as for us.
The time of the bloody terror seemed to have passed. We did arrive in Warsaw when the regime became milder. Herr Frank (General Governor for Occupied Poland) was trying to draw the Poles on his side against the approaching Red Army coming from the east. The announcements of shot hostages disappeared from the walls. The transports to extermination camps of Auschwitz, Treblanka and Maidanek were not as numerous as before and even the round-ups in the streets were less frequent. Herr Frank was even speaking sweetly to the Polish peasant. But time was running out. Siedlce, Malkinie, Garwolin were re-taken. Refugees from the Front started arriving. Food stores were besieged and rising prices did not matter. Warsaw was buying 'just in case'. Under Zelazna Brama crowds of people buying, discussing and joking, full of good hopes. Around the stalls of the previous large market place stood German soldiers looking distrustful and gloomy at the masses of people, separated from them by barbed wire. The market halls were now being used as army garages. Next to them were the ruins of the ghetto with its narrow, empty streets. Empty and quiet, a cemetery of three hundred thousand slaughtered Jews. We looked with futile horror at this dead panorama of one of the most tragic events of war-torn Europe. I had to think back to five years ago when it was full of life here, lives of people connected by blood ties, temperaments and demands. Life was pulsating in the yards covered with playing children, in the shops, gates and stalls, bustling life was flowing into streets and halls ... and now this silence, this gloomy, eerie and majestic stillness - 300,000 dead.
"Ausrotten" (exterminate) were the words in the gospel of 'Mein Kampf'. "Ausrotten,” his disciples were calling.
The drunken followers of the Fuehrer started their war of annihilation. They battered the brains of women and old men, they crushed the children with their boots, they guzzled their vodka and continued crushing Jewish skulls. This is what the Fuehrer ordered for the good of mankind, for the good of the New Europe.
The order was obeyed. Reeking of blood and vodka, his servants left the smouldering ruins. Smoke from the dying ghetto covered with legends this bit of damned soil, rumours that there, under the ruins of the houses, were somewhere still living ghosts. The Warsaw ghetto was slowly dying away. The soil, nourished with blood, was showing signs of sprouting weed.
I tore my eyes away from the empty streets. A few steps further on streets were seething with life. The square near Zelazna Brama was crowded. The traders were Aryans - they had inherited the empty stalls from the dead.
On the way home we were stopped by an air raid. People disappeared from the streets, sheltering in basements - only empty trams were left. Far away one could hear the noise of flight squadrons and anti-air raid guns. Soviet planes circled over the city, diving towards singled-out targets like bloodthirsty hawks. Today bombs were falling on Bielany. A few small bombs ruined the library in Nowy Swiat.
Soviet air raids became more frequent. One of them bombed out many holiday houses near Otwock.
Although July was still very hot, people started to return from their holidays. They brought news from the approaching Front. They told us that on the far outskirts of Warsaw one could even hear the Soviet cannons. The places near Warsaw mentioned were Lachew, Zukow, Minsk Mazowiecki. Excitement ran high. It was remarkable that no-one was leaving Warsaw. Just the opposite - those who could were coming back under her wings.
Warsaw - she will defend us, the enemy is scheming, the unknown is coming, Warsaw will protect us.
Trains coming into Warsaw were disgorging refugees. Warsaw was swelling. The streets were ruled by crowds - crowds were more united, more talkative than ever, more sure of themselves. Crowds were proudly passing the barbed entanglements, in trams people disregarded the notices "for Germans Only". The few Germans who ventured out had to walk or stand on steps as their compartments were taken by Warsaw people. The angry Gestapo wanted to retaliate. We witnessed one of these scenes. A few Nazis with sticks in their hands boarded the first compartment on a tram (for Germans only) and started hitting to the right and left with their sticks, aiming at the heads of the Polish travellers. People started to jump out through doors and windows and the driver was ordered to go faster. The Nazis were swearing, the people were yelling, crying and moaning. The compartment became empty. On the street were lying the beaten people. In the empty tram only the Nazis were standing, wiping their brows. Behind came the Polish tram dozens of angry eyes were watching this incident. The driver continued travelling, ringing the foot-bell.
The hot July days were nearing an end when Warsaw was electrified with news: Germans are fleeing!
From the direction of the Vistula came the retreating German Army. Along Aleja Jeruzalimska came armoured cars, large trucks and private cars with suitcases. It was a continuous stream. All Warsaw turned out to have a look at this unusual parade. On crossroads military policemen with their white/red disks were now showing the direction to the west as once before they showed the way to the east. This flood was increased by cars coming from side streets as employees from German offices were joining the procession. In the cars Germans in Party uniforms were sitting on furniture, crates and suitcases. Also in cars were their friends and 'Volksdeutsche'. Most of the females hugged their fur coats. They were leaving with a rich booty taken from Jews. The rich heirs of the slain were reluctantly returning to their Fatherland. Here they had spent their fat years. Rows of onlookers were jeering and calling scathing remarks. Some girls sitting on a balcony were waving their handkerchiefs and calling sarcastically, "... bye ... bye! Never see you again!"
It was the last 'parade' in Warsaw by the German Army. The Front continued pushing: Rembertow, Radzymin. More people were looking for shelter in Warsaw. The refugees were bringing news straight from the Front. German evacuation became feverish. Buildings occupied by the Germans became empty. We saw soldiers throwing out from the windows of a fourth floor saddles, harnesses, ammunition belts, leather goods, into the trucks standing below the windows. They were all in a frantic hurry.
We were returning home for dinner. People in the streets were chatting animatedly like a crowd during holidays. Many walls had tar writings: "Kaput! Kaput!" (finished). Unexpectedly, from the corner of Wilcza and Marszalkowska came a shot, followed by a second and a third. In seconds the crowd dispersed in all directions, trams stopped and passengers rushed towards side streets or gates. Warsaw knew what might follow is round-up and Gestapo, and many innocent people could pay with their lives behind the walls of Pawiak gaol, therefore the street emptied quickly. Again a series of shots, followed by an echo along the brick walls of the street, a cry, a muted moan ... a sound of single steps. I grabbed Marushka's hand and rushed to a cafe door which was immediately closed and locked. A group of people were standing along the walls and peering through the windows. We heard a low voice saying "Someone is squaring his accounts,” “A.K. is lifting its head,” "Shortly it will get really hot" added another voice. The waitress, sighing heavily "Oh, my God, don't let them start too soon. The Germans can cut us all down. There are still plenty of soldiers in town". The waiter was trying to calm her "They are all running away. The Soviets are chasing them." Fifteen minutes passed and the Gestapo did not appear. Slowly the people started to sneak out. We rushed out and stopped in a gate of the side street. People were speaking anxiously about the event. Two Gestapo men were killed, it was repeated in whispers. We took a long detour going home, leaving this suburb behind.
We were late for dinner. My cousin, Marysia, was just ready to leave. Under her coat was a nurse's bag and in her hand a suitcase full of medicine, cotton wool and bandages. She informed us immediately that today she was again on duty. "I have barely an hour to reach my meeting point" and, turning towards me, she gave me a piece of paper. "Just in case, here is my address, but be discreet .. you understand?" She was happy and excited. Her eyes were shining proudly. She was sure of herself in her exuberant youth. "Keep well. Maybe in five days we will see each other. Bye, bye, mother,” and the door closed behind her. Standing in the hall we could hear the sound of her steps running down the stairs. She went to do her duty just like many other young girls in Warsaw, a nurse in the underground army. Downstairs the door banged and then silence. She never returned home. She was killed during the uprising.
The old grandfather clock was ticking away the hours of Warsaw.
My old aunt sat down in her old rocking chair near the window. She was the only one left at home - a mother of a family. Once it was quite a noisy nest. The last one left just now, the youngest one. The others? The others were chucked out by the war. The son, a prisoner-of-war, who knows where he might be? There was no news - her son-in-law was deported to somewhere in the far east of the Soviet Union and her daughter left the house to look after her family. Her own husband was killed by the war. She was left alone like mothers who bore children for the requirements of wars. Is it worthwhile, is there any sense in bearing children when the world still has wars? Cynical powers look on motherhood as production for cannon fodder just like the necessary production of tanks, airplanes and tinned foods.
The day seemed to drag on - nothing was happening in the home. The clock continued ticking loudly. The faded calendar in Uncle's room gave the day in large letters as the first of August, 1944. Marushka was curled up in bed reading a book. I decided to go into the city, just out of boredom.
"Please don't go. You heard the shooting - it is dangerous. Please stay" - Marushka had eyes full of tears and was nearly hysterical. I hesitated. The clock was still ticking. I grabbed my hat and slammed the door behind me. Soon I was at the tram stop of Rakowiecka. No tram was coming. Others were waiting impatiently, looking at their watches. "Maybe the trams stopped coming" someone asked, "why?"
"I heard in the city that something is going to happen at four o'clock."
"What is going to happen?"
"How should I know what; I just heard."
Minutes passed and still no tram. I started thinking about Marushka's tears. She was alone at home. I went back home and a few minutes later our friend Czeslaw arrived.
We were chatting about old times, especially about our families back there in Lithuania. Through the open window came the noise of playing children. The clock was chiming the hour as FIVE p.m. Suddenly the noise of shots. Marushka jumped to her feet. We all listened. After a second of silence the sound of machine-guns firing. First just a short blast, then a long one. "What now?" Full of anxiety, Marushka looked at us for an answer. We moved nearer the window. The nearest shots were answered by some farther ones. Somewhere a machine gun was firing without stopping, answered by an echo from a side street. Somewhere a Tommy gun was barking. The shooting intensified. Our side street was empty - the children fled home. From the opposite side of our house a door was opening slowly. Looking carefully up and down the street, three young girls entered the street. Two were carrying a stretcher. The one walking in front had a first-aid bag over her shoulder. They had Red Cross armbands on their sleeves. Turning towards Marushka, I pressed her hands and whispered, "The uprising has begun."