Soldier's Day in Warsaw on August 15, 1944 began as a beautiful day. But it was not at all like we remembered Soldier's Day of pre-war Poland, with its ceremonious parades, speeches, and commemorations of Poland's victory over the Russians in 1920.
Today, we are in a deadly struggle. After five dreadful years of German occupation we now are fighting openly for the right to live freely on our own soil and to celebrate again our holiday traditions. I, Zdzislaw Jarkiewicz (code name, 'Longin') am a member of Grazyna Company, Harnas Battalion, of the Army Krajowa (AK) – the Polish underground Home Army.
For five years the AK fought the Germans from under cover at every turn: by blowing up their facilities, smuggling intelligence to the Allies, rescuing Jews, printing newspapers, maintaining an underground government, conducting schools for our children – taking every opportunity to resist the occupation at great cost of Polish life and limb. On the first of August 1944 our underground forces, amassed in Warsaw, though vastly outnumbered rose up against the German Army in open conflict. We had high hopes that with promised Allied support we would rid our capitol and our country of the hated Nazis oppressor. On the second day of the Uprising this hope was bolstered when, with tears in our eyes, we watched at daybreak the appearance of two Polish flags on top of the Prudential Tower, the tallest building in Napoleon Square in central Warsaw. The despised Nazis flag with its swastika was gone! Shortly, however, the Germans managed to knock down one of the flags with a rapid fire gun. But the other proudly waved gracefully in the wind, defying the invaders.
Here we are now, on Soldier's Day, guarding the barricade at the crossing of Swietokrzyska and Czackiego Streets in central Warsaw; me and Gienek Lendzion, my fellow soldier. We are armed with rifles and grenades taken from the Germans on the second day of the Uprising when we stormed the Main Post Office. Our barricade is solidly built, sheltering us from the German fire and providing slim passageways for pedestrians.
Despite our circumstances, we're told that there is going to be a modest commemoration of Soldier's Day in the evening. It is to take place in Count Potocki Coffee Shop at Mazowiecka Street 4, the headquarters of our company. Word has it that a supply of cigarettes, liquor, and other treats (taken from the ‘Jerries’ at the main post office) has been accumulated for the event. This will be icing on the cake, so to speak. For us, young men in the AK, the fact of our uprising against the mighty German Army after years of enslavement and oppression will make this Soldier's Day one that we shall not forget, ever!
In the meantime, we are engaged intently in guard and observation duties. A few moments ago we checked the identification papers of a man who ran across Marszalkowska Street under fire. A bullet fired by a German sniper in the PASTA building hit him but, luckily, it passed through the side pocket of his jacket sliding off his German-issued Kennkarte ID card, not even grazing his body. Such are the fortunes of war. After a brief conversation, he went on his way
In the next instance we heard the frightful bellow of a German six-barrel rocket thrower or ‘Nebelwerfer’ fired in nearby Saski Park. We called them ‘Krowy’, the Polish word for cow, because of their characteristic loud lowing sound. They launched both explosive and incendiary missiles. Shortly, there was a thunderous explosion as the rocket struck the building in which our company quarters were located. I watched the building fall apart. Then another one hit the upper floors of the skyscraper, igniting a conflagration. I turned around seeking my buddy, who approached me slowly, pale from fright and unable to speak. Trying to hide my own terror, I smiled nonchalantly at him asking “What's with you, control yourself and give me a candy." Which he did.
I barely had time to put the candy into my mouth when again we heard the frightful sound of the rocket thrower. Scared, I managed to squeeze into a gap between the barricade and the building. Just then, a deafening explosion of a direct hit on our location tore through the air turning me into a lit torch. Instinctively, I rolled on the ground to put out the flames and ripped off my shirt. The scorched remnants of my uniform fell to the ground. Half naked and mad with pain I ran stumblingly to the first aid station at Czacki Street. As I ran into the aid room the doctor and nurses tending a stretcher-borne wounded soldier took one look and quickly jumped to save me. Some applied gauze soaked in flax oil to my burned back while another put a cup of some substance to my scorched lips.
I felt pain, terrible pain. I glanced at my jelly-like arms. I caught my image in the wall mirror and froze, not recognizing myself. Burned face. No hair. Swollen eyes. The frame of my glasses twisted from the heat-but amazingly, they had saved my eyesight. I looked horrible. But I was alive!
After the regimen of first aid I was taken to the cellar, which served as a field hospital. The pain had become excruciating. I ran around the ward howling and raving. An orderly tried to help me lie on my stomach in bed, but the pain was so great, I could not. Even so, I was conscious of the sounds of more and more wounded being brought in. Their cries and moaning filled the air. Above the din a woman's voice pleaded constantly: "Save me, Save me!" – countered by a different voice with: "Finish me off, finish me off." As for me, I was still running in circles while the other wounded watched helplessly. Eventually I became exhausted and a medic helped me to lie face down on a bench. My head hung over the edge to spare my face and my arms were stretched onto pillows placed on stools. I lay there kicking my feet and groaning until a merciful injection made me drowsy then put me to sleep.
When I awoke, I couldn't tell if I had slept a few hours or several days. I now was lying in a bed, but I could see nothing, since the swelling had progressed to close my eyes. I felt okay though, with a peculiar sense of inner peace The fear was gone and I was indifferent to what was to become of me. I was worried, however, whether or not the fire in the skyscraper had been put out. After all, it was the tallest building in the city and an important defense position. I promptly asked the first person who approached me about the fire and I was told that every thing was alright. Thus reassured, I started to doze off when I was startled awake by the trembling of the building. Panic and shouting broke out in the ward and I sensed that everyone ran out, including the young girl volunteer who had been watching over me. But shortly, all returned to normal and she was back reassuring me in a quiet voice that all was well again. The young girls who, with little training, served as nurses and caregivers were very compassionate and worked extremely hard. We viewed them as "guardian angels." In truth, they were!
In the haze of again falling asleep, I thought I heard the voice of my platoon commander, code name ‘Kocio’. I lacked the will power to ask my "Guardian Angel" to confirm this. Later I did ask and she told me that he died – his eyes were burned completely. After the war he was buried in the military cemetery, Powazki, next to our battalion commander, ‘Harnas’.
Eventually, I learned the fate of our company. After the first Nebelwerfer salvo the company was being instructed on how to put out the raging fires when a second salvo hit, taking a terrible toll. I was told about the death of two brothers. One, who relied on a cane because of an earlier injury, was literally cut in half by the explosion. The other, enflamed, jumped into a water cistern and died from his burns there. Also, one of our liaison girls was burnt alive. Our company lost 16 soldiers. Some died within a few minutes, others suffered several days before passing away fighting for the freedom of their nation.
Such was Soldier's Day 1944 for Grazyna Company. When the 15th of August passed, the company was back in position and continued to fight for the rest of the sixty-three days of the Warsaw Uprising. All the while, hoping for the promised Allied help that never came.
In the end the company retreated through Holy Cross Church in Krakowskie Przedmiescie, which it had earlier taken part in liberating from the Germans. It covered for the retreating forces and was the last unit to leave the church. The church is the repository of many memorials to heroes of Poland and also to an urn containing the heart of Chopin. There also a side altar bears the inscription translated as follows:
THE SOLDIERS OF GRAZYNA COMPANY, HARNAS BATTALION TOOK PART IN LIBERATING THIS PLACE OF WORSHIP WITH OTHER UNITS OF THE ARMY KRAJOWA. AFTER A STRUGGLE LASTING FOURTEEN DAYS, THESE UNITS RETREATED THROUGH THIS CHAPEL, WITH GRAZYNA COMPANY BEING THE LAST TO LEAVE.
This commemorative plaque was installed hereon the fourth anniversary of the struggle to honor the fallen soldiers of Armia Krajowa. AD 1948.
Give them, oh Lord
Under the ruins of buildings
In the cemeteries, in the streets
And in the squares
Buried alive in the cellars
Wherever they fell
If you are ever in Warsaw, please stop by the Holy Cross Church.
After the Uprising, Zdzislaw was captured by the Germans, but on the way to the POW camp he escaped. A short time later he was re-captured and taken to a labor camp in Berlin. Again he got free, and made his way to Czechoslovakia. There he was arrested and sent to the custody of the German Labor Department in Vienna. For the third time he slipped through the hands of his captors, this time managing his way to Italy where he joined the Polish Army, under British Command.
Subsequently, he went to England and helped in the settlement of displaced persons. In 1952, he emigrated to the United States, where he graduated from Northeastern University, and met and married the lovely Alina Michalk Presently, he is Post Commander of the Polish Home Army AK Veterans Association, San Francisco Branch – a post he once held in San Diego. He and Alina reside in Walnut Creek, California.