We had been hearing the distant rumble of Soviet artillery for days as the front moved nearer and nearer to Warsaw. We had expected the Uprising to start any time, but had no idea of exactly when this would be. In the event, it was the tremendous din of exploding ordnance in the street outside that signaled its beginning at 5:00 p.m. on August 1.
In the underground
I was 16 at the time and had been in the conspiracy, so to say, for some time. The Germans having closed all the high schools, I participated in classes that met secretly in private homes in groups numbering less than 12. One knew one's fellow students only by their cryptonyms and one did not ask them where they lived. Being part of the secret Polish underground organization could be exciting. Thus, at night, it was my task and that of youngsters like me, to paint the Home Army's symbol – an anchor made of the letters P and W, which stood for Polska Walcząca, or 'Poland in Arms' [Fighting Poland] – on highly visible structures. It used to drive the Germans crazy. They would post sentries at monuments and such to prevent the appearance of these symbols, and yet in spite of this, we would manage to post them there under their very noses.
I was involved in transporting guns, in a mandolin ... a stringed instrument vaguely similar to a guitar. The notes it produced when played under such circumstances were atrociously off key. The conductor of the streetcar I was riding with my illicit cargo was in on the secret. When he sensed that the streetcar was about to be stopped and searched by the Germans, my dreadful playing gave him an excuse to grab me by the scruff of the neck and throw me off the vehicle. That way, while the Germans were searching the streetcar passengers for weapons and contraband, I was able to walk calmly by. Further on, there would be a street musician playing a similar mandolin. It was to him that I was to deliver the gun by somehow swapping mandolins.
Another time, I was given a sturdily made oilcloth shopping bag full of millet, ten pounds of it, and was told to deliver it to an address in an apartment house halfway across town. When I got there and located the apartment, they took the bag and asked me to wait. Three hours later, they gave me the bag back, still full of millet, and told me to take it home. I trod wearily on. Just as I approached home, a stranger walked by me and said "enjoy your meal." Hidden deep among the millet there had been a gun which was removed before I was given back the bag. The stranger was a man who had followed me all the way. there and back, ready to sound the alarm if I had been caught by the Germans.
A wretched death
The beginning of the Uprising was greeted with much euphoria. At last we would no longer allow ourselves to be slaughtered like sheep. It was high time to say "enough." Soon, we thought, the Red Army would be joining us in a Warsaw we had liberated.
Our home lay in the outlying district of Ochota. Tragically the Germans were quickly able to isolate it and direct powerful and ruthless units against it. As they secured apartment block after apartment block, they massacred all the inhabitants, at the rate of a couple of thousand an hour.
My brother, two and a half years older than I, was my superior iii the Home Army and the person to whom I was to report. He had been instructed to report at a prearranged location once the Uprising started, but had not been told when that would take place, so he was at home resting. He immediately sought to make his way though the air was thick with bullets. Just outside our house, however, a series from an automatic smashed both his knees. Though he no longer able to stand on his own, we got him to a nearby hospital. However, amputation was not possible: there was no doctor who could perform it, nor the means to do so. It was hopeless.
Later, the Germans units entered the hospital, ordered all the wounded who could walk into the courtyard and shot them, the doctors and nurses also. Then they set the building on fire. The building across the Street was still in our possession and from it we saw the remaining wounded, those who could, drag themselves to the windows. They shouted to us, imploring us to shoot them, better than to be slowly fried alive. I knew my brother was lying on that ward. The feelings of impotence and helplessness that I experienced are hard to describe. After the Uprising, my mother helped collect and inter the charred remains.
Gasoline filled bottles
The Home Army had very few rifles or other firearms. Youngsters such as I were not issued any, in fact we were instructed to turn over to older and more experienced sharpshooters any that we might manage to capture from the Germans. Instead, we were armed with gasoline-filled bottles, the so-called Molotov cocktails, and we were instructed to stand behind street corners and toss them at any German tank that approached. Such a missile, if it landed on the tank's hot engine, could set the tank on fire. But the engine was at the front of the vehicle and to toss the bottle onto it one had to expose oneself to the withering fire of the tank's machine gun. Under such circumstances the chances of success were small. Anyway, by itself, having a firearm was hardly sufficient. The problem was securing the ammunition for it. Not only was the latter in very short supply but presented an immense logistic problem. The rifles, pistols, and submachine guns that the Home Army had been able to secure were of all kinds and makes; matching a weapon with a supply of the corresponding ammunition was very difficult. I remember seeing a huge barrel ... who knows how it got there ... which contained ammunition for 150 or more different weapons.
Resistance in the Ochota district lasted 11 long days. Those of us who survived were taken by the Germans to Zieleniak. At that juncture, the Germans were summarily executing any fighters they caught and anyone who smelled of gasoline, evidence of having made or handled Molotov cocktails. The fate of the rest of us was in the hands of the Germans. Teenagers, I among them, were shipped to Auschwitz, more precisely to Birkenau, the extermination camp from which the only exit was through the crematorium's chimney. I arrived there on September 1, sent there for the simple reason that I was a Pole. A number was tattooed on my arm: I was not meant to survive. During the months I was in the camp, the rate of immolation was three per second. I did survive and that was because the Germans, as the Red Army approached, wanted to evacuate their families and possessions. These they loaded onto railway cars on the roof of which they had painted red cross signs and made them part of a train in which two of every three railway cars carried concentration camp inmates. Those two factors, they felt, would help protect their train from Allied air attacks. And thus I got to Westphalia to be eventually liberated by Free French troops.
Collected and translated by Peter and Teresa Gessner