Lucjan Wisniewski is an unsung hero of one of the last great World War Two battles lost by the Allies – the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
He fought to liberate his country from Nazi rule, but unlike his Western peers, he was prosecuted for doing so afterwards.
To this day he keeps one of his battalion's most treasured possessions – its ragged, blood-stained banner – rolled up at home.
He will finally hand the banner to a museum on Sunday exactly 60 years after Poles took up arms in an attempt to drive the Nazis from Warsaw and save themselves from another totalitarian regime, Stalinist communism.
World leaders, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell, will also pay tribute to the doomed Uprising, long played down by historians and neglected by politicians in Poland and abroad.
"After six decades of waiting and agony, our banner will find its rightful place," said Wisniewski, referring to the Warsaw Uprising Museum to be opened on the August 1 anniversary.
Poland's Western allies placed little pressure on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to aid the Uprising, which many Poles felt was a meagre reward for their war efforts, in engagements like the Battle of Britain and the fight for Italy's Monte Cassino.
Outgunned, outnumbered and ignored by Soviet forces, who stopped their advance on the outskirts of Warsaw, the Uprising collapsed after 63 days, leaving the city in ruins and more than 160,000 dead.
The remnants of the underground Home Army who survived the Uprising were interrogated, detained and sometimes executed by Moscow-trained communists determined to impose their rule."A museum commemorating the Uprising was unthinkable for years, and this may be the last anniversary many veterans will attend," said Marcin Roszkowski, one of the museum's organisers.
Played Down Catastrophe
The Uprising was mentioned only in passing by communist-era history books and is little known in the West, often leading to confusion with the similarly tragic 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The West has a guilty conscience when it comes to Poland, says British historian Norman Davies in a new book about the Uprising, because it agreed to give Stalin control over its wartime ally in the wake of the Third Reich's defeat.
Sixty years on, with Poland safely inside the European Union and the NATO military alliance and communism a fading memory, Poles want their allies to see the Uprising as a symbol of their yearning for freedom and their sacrifice."The communists caused this silence and, on the other side, the British and the Americans had the idea that they won the war," Davies told Reuters "They didn't want to hear about a catastrophe. The complete destruction of an ally's capital."
In the first days of fighting – similar to anti-Nazi uprisings which freed Rome and Paris before the allies arrived – the 40,000-strong Home Army managed to occupy Warsaw city centre and some suburbs, but failed to take valuable positions like the airport.
The Red Army stood idle across the Wisla river, at one point several hundred metres (yards) from heavy fighting, and did not allow Western allies to use its airfields for airlifts – limiting help to often inaccurate airdrops of arms.
Safe for the time being from Soviet soldiers, the Germans regrouped and sent in elite SS troops, bombed the city from the air, pounded it with heavy artillery and used civilians as human shields during incursions into "liberated" territory.
Civilians were routinely executed – 150,000 died, 165,000 were sent to labour camps and a further 350,000 displaced. "At first we were shocked that locals were walking out onto a street where we were exchanging fire, then we realised they were a cover for approaching tanks," recalled Wisniewski, who was 19 when the uprising took place. "We could not shoot our own."
The uprising infuriated Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who ordered the destruction of the remaining buildings in Warsaw before his troops fled, allowing the Red Army to march in.
Schroeder's attendance on August 1, following his visit to Normandy on the 60th anniversary of D-Day landings last month, gives momentum to the idea that Germans were liberated by their own defeat.
It also marks a rekindling of German-Polish reconciliation, developed throughout the 1990s but cooled in recent years.
Germany was a leading advocate of Poland's EU accession, which took place in May 2004 – 15 years after communism fell.
But ties have been hampered by Warsaw's support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq and controversial demands for recognition by millions of Germans forced to flee from eastern Europe at the end of the war.
[Additional reporting by Natalia Reiter]