Our continuing adventures in old Warszawa dovetailed with our continuing education on and understanding of the political and human experience of the region, and of Poland specifically.
Jan Pieklo, PAUCI
We met for drinks with Jan Pieklo, Director of an organization named PAUCI (Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation). Jan is a friend and colleague of my MBA / Vanderbilt classmate Tom Wood, and Jan is an expert on the political situations of both nations. Jan was gracious enough to spend some time with us discussing his work and his perspective on the developing situation between Russia and Ukraine. It was sobering to have Jan relate his firsthand experience with the mortal danger that continues to be experienced by journalists and intellectuals in the ongoing Russian “sphere of influence”. I would have loved to speak with Jan for longer, but he was called away to provide commentary on the swearing-in of new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. As he was leaving our table, he literally took a mobile phone call to participate as a commentator in a live radio program on the Polish equivalent of NPR.
We were introduced to Jan by e-mail by my friend Tom; amusingly, when Jan first laid eyes on us, he said “I can always tell Americans from the fronts of their shirts”. That cracked me up: it’s true. I have been wearing a small (in quantity, not shirt size), absurd collection of rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts every day for two months now. I’m sure I have American Tourist written all over me.
The Story of the Warsaw Uprising
The next day we visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Frequent readers of this blog, please brace for more tales of Nazi and Soviet shittiness. I’ll try to keep the unhappy stuff at a minimum, and focus on the positives.
First of all, the basics. As certainly almost everyone is aware, Poland was Ground 0 for the armed conflict that became World War II. That began in September 1939 with the armed invasion of Poland by Germany and later by the Soviet Union. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany as a result of this invasion, although they did little to assist Poland directly with its resistance of German aggression. Once the Soviets joined the battle a couple of weeks later, it was over for the Poles; they could not simultaneously defend all of the fronts at which they were facing attack. The success of these invasions effectively ended the second Polish Republic in October 1939, although Poland never formally surrendered. Germany and the Soviet Union annexed Poland and Danzig. Warsaw became part of the German-controlled territory.
German military resources were vastly superior to what the Poles could bring to bear on land, on sea, and in the air. And, of course, Poland was quickly disarmed following her conquest. The Poles are fighters though, and an underground resistance was formed. The resistance was throughout its existence a poorly-armed but fiercely pissed-off guerilla fighting force.
The Warsaw Uprising was a planned, coordinated effort that resulted from years of planning, and which initiated in Warsaw on August 1, 1944. The rebellion was timed to coincide with the Soviet Union’s Red Army (the Soviets had flipped to the Allied side by this point…sorta) approaching the city, and was hastened by the fear of imminent reprisals against the civilian population of Warsaw, who openly ignored a directive by the Germans to assist in fortifying the city against the approaching Soviets. Unfortunately, the Soviet military stopped short, and his allowed the Germans, stunned by the initial Polish resistance attack, to regroup. Fighting in Warsaw between the Polish Home Army and the Nazis lasted for 63 days. The Warsaw Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II. Unfortunately, the Soviets and other Allied Forces did little to support and assist the Polish freedom fighters.
The Uprising itself was a beautifully coordinated and initially effective operation. The operation attempted both to drive the Nazi occupiers from Warsaw and to establish Polish sovereignty in the area prior to the arrival of the Soviets. The Uprising began on August 1 at precisely 1700. The Poles initially established control of most of Warsaw. The Soviets ignored repeated attempts at radio contact from the Polish Home Army forces, and the Soviets unexpectedly did not advance into the city. It is likely that Joseph Stalin intentionally halted Soviet forces to let the Uprising operation fail. The Soviets also interfered with other Allied attempts to assist, although Winston Churchill ignored Soviet directives and without clearance sent over 200 low-level supply drops intended to reinforce Polish resistance troops.
Regarding the lack of Allied involvement in the Warsaw fighting, George Orwell famously, bitterly wrote “Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.” [side note: awesome quote; re-read Animal Farm]
Superior German numbers and resources, and a lack of Allied assistance, led to the eventual defeat of the Polish resistance in Warsaw. The soldiers who survived were so respected by their adversary that they were allowed to march through the city, in formation and with arms, before surrendering their weapons and being taken into custody by German forces. About 16,000 Polish fighters and about 200,000 Polish civilians were killed during the Uprising. Most of the civilians were killed in mass executions by gunshot, hanging, or being clubbed to death with the butt ends of rifles. More soldiers and civilians were of course wounded. During the urban combat, approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed.
Following the Polish surrender, and in contradiction of the provisions of the surrender, Germans systematically destroyed another 35% of Warsaw’s buildings, including hospitals, schools, libraries, and churches. This was done in a systematic, efficient German fashion. The city was leveled block by block. The cumulative destructive effects of all of the fighting that had occurred in Warsaw during 5 years of war and occupation, as well as this intentional, punitive eradication, destroyed approximately 85% of the city relative to it’s pre-war state. In the end, the city’s inhabitants numbered approximately 1000 souls.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum
This museum is a tribute to the Uprising and the people that participated in it. Inside, they refer to it as The Rising, which is an awesome name. The museum itself is very rich, containing lots of documentation describing the Uprising, as well as its precursors and its aftermath; video interviews with a number of surviving participants; restored newsreels that were produced by the freedom fighters during the conflict…these are incredible, by the way; tons of artifacts, including uniforms and all shapes and sizes of weapons; paintings and drawings by artist Jan Chrzan, a resident of Warsaw and survivor of the Uprising; a short 3D film showing what a flyover of the city would have looked like immediately following it’s punitive destruction; and even a full-sized replica of a B-24 bomber that was shot down while supplying the city.
I have been in a lot of museums, including a ton of them during the last two months. This is almost certainly the best museum I have ever visited. The density of the content, the quality of the content, the excellence of the presentation, and the extremely emotional and moving source material made it so. We were there for 4 hours and I think I could have been there comfortably for another 2. Alas, they closed before I got my fill.
In no particular order, here are a few of the things I thought were super-cool.
There is a huge weapons exhibit that contains pistols, rifles, light and heavy machine guns, anti-tank guns, grenades, and rocket launchers. These are all battle-used weapons that were possessed by resistance fighters. Some of them were found recently in weapons caches that remained hidden since 1944. The Polish fighters amassed a hodgepodge of armaments, including arms gathered from the pre-war Polish military, hunting weapons owned by Warsaw citizens, arms and ammunition captured from Germans, and weapons that were air-dropped by British and US forces. They even used a number of homemade machine guns and quite a few homemade hand grenades.
The Germans manufactured a smallish, mobile, remote controlled mine. The design for this weapon was originated by the French, and was nicked and improved upon by the Nazis. Officially the Sdkfz. 302, this little beast was nicknamed Goliath. Goliath could transport 60 kg of explosives. It was guided and detonated remotely. The control and detonation system was connected by 650 meters of cable that trailed the device and connected to a handheld controller. This thing was used to come after and blow up concealed troops or defended targets. The Poles devised a way to defeat these nasty little foes; small walls of mortar or brick were laid out on the battlefield to prevent the passage of Goliaths. These barriers were known as Davids.
Art by Polish painter Jan Chrzan was on display. He lived through the Uprising, and sketched things that he saw while the Uprising was going on. Later, he painted many of these scenes. There are lots of pictures of civilians getting the living shit bombed out of themselves.
Some discussion of the impact of the Yalta Conference was present. The Yalta Conference was held in 1943 and its primary participants were Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. The general objective of this conference was to make decisions about the post war state of things in Europe and Asia. Stalin entered this meeting in a position of relative power, due to the Red Army’s battle successes and the point to which they have advanced and pushed back the Nazis in Europe. At this meeting, Poland’s post-war fate as a Soviet satellite was effectively established, although the decisions made at this meeting were state secrets of the three nations involved and were thus not known to the rest of the world until much later.
The museum takes a somewhat reserved and nuanced stance on this issue. It is clear from what is written that there is an understanding that the Yalta Conference was a key step that enabled Soviet Russia to assert influence / control over Poland for 40 miserable years following the conclusion of World War II. Decisions made at Yalta are almost certainly related to the Soviets withholding their forces during the Warsaw Uprising. The museum stops short of condemning Western powers for their role in this, although they document the decisions and certainly indicate a distaste for the Soviet lack of participation in the Uprising.
The Museum shows in their entirety three fully restored newsreels that were shot and produced by Polish resistance fighters during the resistance. These newsreels were actually shown in Polish-controlled theaters in Warsaw during the Uprising. These are fascinating pieces, as they contain tons of actual battle footage, as well as clear depictions about the civilian experience during this event. Many non-combatants were involved in supporting roles such as medical care, constructing fortifications, or food preparation. Boys that were too young to fight worked as battlefield couriers. It is interesting that even during the rigor and stress of combat, the resistance felt it important to document these activities for news, public relations, and morale-boosting purposes.
The Uprising Museum contains a replica of Warsaw’s underground sewer system, which was used for transit by soldiers and communications personnel. You can walk through a bit of it. I did!
The most intense thing that I saw was a video interview of a man who had been a young German soldier stationed in Warsaw during the time of the Warsaw Uprising. According to his story, this fellow had been a Belgian teen who was impressed into service by the Germans at age 17. Within a year, he found himself a part of the Wehrmacht, stationed in Warsaw. He told intense, shocking, emotional stories about his experiences in Warsaw. He told a story about warning hospital nurses to leave a hospital prior to the arrival of SS troops (“I knew what was coming”). He told a story about intervening to assist a priest who was being harrassed by SS soldiers (“they took his crucifix, and held it out like this, and pissed on it”.) He said that he and a buddy hustled that guy away. He told a story about killing a Polish resistance fighter with a hatchet in hand-to-hand combat (“In hand-to-hand combat, only one lives; I was just a second quicker. He was the most beautiful person I have ever seen.”). It was good to have this chance to put a human face on the average German soldier. Like most soldiers in most wars, he was there because he had to be.
As I said, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is a fantastic museum and is an absolute must for anyone anywhere with an interest is World War II or in heroic struggles. Its among the best things I’ve ever seen. This places tells a powerful story about people who refused to accept oppression. They paid for their desire for freedom with their lives and with their city. They rebuilt that city, and suffered through 40 years of Communist control. Somehow, though, the story doesn’t feel like the story of a loss; it feels like a story about the victory for the human spirit and the desire to be free. Live free or die.
I think this will be the last post for a while about such weighty topics. Before we leave the subject, it seems appropriate to summarize. The legacy of World War II looms heavily still over all of Europe, and most especially Eastern Europe. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Poland have only recently regained the identities that they enjoyed prior to World War II. They and other nations suffered greatly during the war, and continued to suffer under oppressive Communist rule for 45 years after it. I hope that they can continue to enjoy the freedom that they have only recently won back. All people should be allowed to live free.
The “Kotwica” (Polish for “anchor”) is a symbol developed in 1942 and used to represent the Polish Secret State and the Polish Home Army.
“The Little Insurgent” is meant to commemorate all of the children who fought and died in the Warsaw Uprising. It is reputed to be of a fighter who went by the pseudonym of Antek, who was killed August 8, 1944 at the age of 13.
So glad you got to meet Jan! Great report. I haven’t been to Warsaw since this museum opened — it will be high on my list whenever I visit again.