August 1, 1944
The entire Warsaw underground force was put on full alert. The general rising was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. on 1 August 1944. We received our orders on 31 July and Home Army detachments assembled at their designated points. The first objective of Kedyw were the German Army stores in Stawki. These, we knew, contained food and uniforms but no weapons. We, in Kedyw, were relatively well armed with captured weapons and a few Thompson guns from parachute drops. We were also battle-hardened. According to the plan, having secured the stores, we were to march to the PKO building in the city centre and place ourselves at the disposal of General ‘Monter’, the commander of the Rising. The battle order stipulated that once the capital had been liberated we were to return to our jump-off points, secure all weapons in arms caches and remain prepared for possible further clandestine activity under Soviet occupation.
I wasn’t too excited about this last part of the plan. In my mind’s eye I saw a victory parade, with weapons, in full glory. I was only twenty-one, and after years of nerve-racking clandestine work I hoped for some recognition. We were owed acknowledgement, we were overdue for celebrations, and were full of hope that our equally patriotic girls would recognise our valour and succumb to the charms of the uniform. But how different reality turned out to be!
On 1 August, on leaving our base, I saw my old friend Olek Tyrawski at the head of his platoon. There was no time to talk and we just waved to one another. Several minutes later, about 3 p.m., as they were crossing Mickiewicz Street, a German tank opened fire and Olek was hit in the forehead. He died instantly. He may have been the first casualty of the insurrection. I only learned about his death ten days later.
In a covered lorry driven by Columbus, our Zoliborz detachment of Kedyw reached our jump-off point in the grounds of a school bordering on the Stawki stores. There we joined forces with the Mokotow and Wola detachments of the Warsaw Kedyw. The operation has since been commemorated by a bronze plaque on the wall of the school; the Umschlagplatz monument has been erected next to it.
We seized the school at 3.30 p.m. Columbus and I went to move our lorry to a safer location. We travelled maybe ten metres when an artillery shell exploded at the very place we had just vacated. Our first artillery shell had fortunately missed us.
Our attack on the German stores evolved according to plan. At exactly 5 p.m. we jumped over the fence at the back of the large area, at least a hectare, occupied by the stores. The main building was guarded by a small SS unit. We shot dead several of the men and took the stores very quickly. The two Krauts who tried to escape into the ruins of the ghetto on the other side of the stores area were also killed. Suddenly, inside the stores, a group of about fifty men ran towards us. They wore the striped garb of concentration camp prisoners. They called out to us, but we couldn’t understand a single word. They were Greek Jews from Salonika who had been put to work in the stores. With difficulty, we explained to them what was happening and that they were now free. This act of liberation of foreigner prisoners is also commemorated on the bronze plaque.
A young SS officer who survived our initial assault had built a barricade of packing cases in the big hall on the first floor. He must have amassed a large amount of ammunition, as he kept the main door under almost constant fire. Columbus was wounded in the hand. But just next to the officer’s hideout we spied another door and decided to blow it up. Antek did it with an impact grenade. In his hate-fired eagerness, he did not take cover in time and his legs stopped a number of fragments. After Columbus, he was our second casualty.
As I learned after the war, the inhabitants of the Old Town later managed to remove tons of provisions from the stores: flour, sugar, cereals etc. They carried the bags and boxes on their backs. These supplies helped them to survive the next three weeks of savage fighting, when the Old Town was completely cut off from the outside world.
We spent the night in the stores. We found a large stock of ‘ panterki’, camouflage jackets used by German paratroopers, and, naturally, we put them on. As many of us had joined the Rising in civvies, it was only now that we began to look like a military unit. I was wearing a pair of smart high boots and a Polish officer tunic given to me by Janusz’s mother. The newly acquired camouflage jacket went over my tunic; I was very proud of my uniform.
A month later these captured jackets came in very handy; they probably saved our lives.
As the east-west route was cut off by the Germans protecting the bridge over the Vistula, we were not able to report to General Monter in the city centre. Instead, Colonel Radoslaw, the area commander, ordered us to Wola. Antek, who couldn’t walk, and Columbus, with his wounded hand, became our joint drivers and took charge of our lorry. Antek, wounded in both legs, operated the driving wheel and the gears, while Columbus had his feet on the pedals. They drove first along Okopowa Street. Then I saw them turning right. Suddenly, they were reversing back towards us at great speed. They had found the street barred by a German tank some 300 metres ahead. It was only their presence of mind and well coordinated driving that saved them; they managed to back out of the street before the Germans opened fire. Later, together with a unit of the Zoska battalion, we captured that tank. Repaired by Columbus, it served us for several days.
On our march to Wola we passed the Pfeiffer tannery, where I had worked for a year in 1943. The tanners were prevented from leaving the building by the sudden outbreak of fighting. They greeted us, their re-born Army, with enthusiasm. Our detachment of about a hundred, all dressed in the captured camouflage jackets, must have been a heart-warming sight. Stasinek headed the unit and I marched next to him, a Thompson gun under my arm. My former workmates recognised me and hails and hurras, shouts of “Stach, Bravo!”, followed us for a while. I was feeling proud and happy, for the first and only time in the two months of the Rising.
On arriving in Wola, we found a suitable garden and marked an area for parachute drops with white sheets. We were full of hope, aid was bound to arrive any time now: weapons, ammunition, all that was required for the conduct of war. But in vain did we search the sky. It rained a little that day, the only time that the sky over Warsaw was overcast during those two momentous months. Later in the day, Colonel Radoslaw sent me on patrol. I was to reconnoitre the German police barracks in St Zofia’s Hospital and the surrounding area. I went with two men. My report to Radoslaw on our return was laconic: the building was still in German hands. This was my only contact with Radoslaw during the Rising; I still remember how impressed I was by his uniform of a cloak and helmet. In the evening, General Bor-Komorowski, the CO of the Home Army, arrived in Wola for an inspection.
The next day, Radoslaw ordered Stasinek to take the German police barracks. Once more we followed him through the streets of Wola. The local people greeted us with enthusiasm. Their cheers followed us all the way. Men and women ran into the streets with bread, sweetmeats, whatever they could lay their hands on - it was very moving. Especially with hindsight: several days later the same people were slaughtered en masse by the Germans.
On 4 August Stasinek, Jerzy Kaczynski, our doctor, and I climbed to the third floor of the house adjoining the hospital building to assess the situation and in particular to have a good look at the yard we would have to cross on the way to the hospital. Stasinek, as usual brave to a fault, looked out of the window. Hardly had I finished saying: “Take care. Don’t stick your head out,” when I heard a dull gunshot report and Stasinek fell back with blood covering his face. “I can’t see, I can’t see!” he cried. The wound was light, but it affected his good eye. Stasinek had sight in one eye only, having lost the other in a childhood accident. Now his good eye was gone. He had to be evacuated and joined Antek in the Karolkowa Street hospital. Janek took over command.
The hospital building was surrounded by a brick wall. We decided to attack from Zelazna Street: The distance from the wall to the hospital entrance was some twenty to thirty metres. First we tried to set fire to the building next door, hoping that it would spread to the barracks. I threw a petrol bottle at the ground floor, but the fire did not spread to the remaining levels. About 7 p.m. it was beginning to get dark and it was time to attack. We blew up part of the wall and dashed through the breach. Just at that moment somebody in the crowd of enthusiastic onlookers started playing a lively tune on an accordion. Full of ardour we advanced: at last a straight fight, face-to-face. The huge entrance door wouldn’t yield. As we were forcing it, there was a loud explosion and something like a club hit me in the back. I felt no real pain. “What was that?” I asked the man next to me. “Something thumped me.”
He looked. “You are bleeding,” he said. “They dropped a grenade from the top window. Off with you to the dressing station.” Leaving him my sub-machine gun and my Parabellum, I ran back across the yard to our nurses. I was dizzy. A loud noise reverberated inside my head. Was it the explosion? The girls put me on a stretcher and examined me. There were grenade splinters embedded at the top and in the middle of my back, in my right arm and right thigh. I couldn’t walk any more. I had to go to hospital, where I hoped to join Antek and Stasinek.
What I didn’t know was that the Karolkowa Street hospital had already fallen to the Ukrainian SS volunteers, German auxiliaries, and that they had already shot the wounded, including Antek, in cold blood, in their beds. Stasinek only escaped this fate as his wife, one of the nurses, got him out in the nick of time and both of them managed to get away.
I was taken to another makeshift hospital in the Appeal Court building in Leszno Street. I was left on the stretcher for an hour waiting for a surgeon. I shall never forget what followed. First, he started pulling out the shrapnel. Without anaesthetic. These fragments were well embedded, like fish hooks, in my back, arm and thigh. By then they had almost become part of me. Suddenly, he had a flash of inspiration: he soaked a strip of gauze in alcohol and pushed it right through the flesh of my thigh, from one side to the other; an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody. And it was not the best use for alcohol. I swore abominably – it helped to a degree. But in between the curses, I did apologise to the lovely nurses whose job it was to hold me down. To tell the truth, perhaps not all the nurses were the beauties I now imagine them to have been. But during the two months of the Rising I was treated in a grand total of seven hospitals, where the nurses were such angels that even now they still wear the halo of my gratitude and remembrance.
My smart uniform and high boots had disappeared, lost irretrievably. I found myself in bed practically naked. One of the volunteer nurses recognised me - we had met once before at the house of some mutual friends. That chance encounter almost certainly saved my life.
The hospital was packed with wounded, most of them civilians. In the bed next to mine a young man was dying of tetanus, his body distorted by terrible spasms. He must have suffered agonies. His cries were difficult to bear, even though I was semiconscious, in a kind of fog, my head humming like an engine. Next morning my nurse-acquaintance suddenly materialised by my bed, accompanied by another girl. Carrying me on a stretcher they ran into the street. My head seemed to clear a little. “What’s happening?” I asked. “The Krauts are coming,” said my would-be friend. “They are sure to finish off the wounded.”
They got me out just in time. The streets were full of rubble. Every few hundred yards they were blocked by uprooted trees, pavement stones, pieces of furniture, thrown on top of one another helter-skelter by civilians attempting to make barricades. But though they obstructed our progress, they weren’t nearly sturdy enough to stop, or even delay, the tanks. To this day, I don’t understand how those two girls, both slight and both under twenty, managed to carry an adult man weighing some sixty kilograms two or three kilometres from one hospital to another, while the barricaded streets were one long obstacle course.
The Hospital of the Knights of Malta was a real hospital run by nuns, properly trained nurses, helped by the young women volunteers of the Underground. To the best of my recollection I stayed there for about four days from 6 August. As soon as I realised that Grzybowska Street, where I rented a flat in the name of Wichowski, was not far from the hospital, I asked a stranger, a lady who happened to be there, to bring me some clothes: a pair of trousers, a shirt, a pair of shoes. She promised to do it and left, but she never came back. Maybe she didn’t go. Perhaps she was killed. In any case, I did not get my clothes.
After three days I started to hobble, my right leg still far from good. But I wanted to leave the hospital, the sooner the better. I feared that the Germans were only too likely to take it. I was right, though I didn’t learn the whole story until very much later. The Germans did take the hospital, but for a change they didn’t murder the patients. Twenty of the latter were wounded German prisoners and as the Polish staff had treated them on a par with us, their testimony worked a miracle: the entire hospital staff and the wounded were given safe passage to the city centre, which was in Polish hands.
I left before that happened, but in order to do so I needed some clothing. All I had on me was an unashamedly short shirt and a hospital blanket. Using the blanket as a kind of cloak, I went in search of help. The first nun I came across seemed like a good soul. "Sister,” I pleaded with her, “Would you find me a pair of trousers, a jacket and some shoes? Please . . .”
“I don’t have any,” she cut me off curtly. But my mind was made up. God forgive me, but I couldn’t think of any other way. I spread my arms wide, thus giving the nun a full frontal view of my near-nakedness. “What are you doing?” she cried out loud, covering her eyes. But within five minutes I was dressed, perhaps not smartly, but completely, from top to bottom. I crossed the hospital garden, found a hole in the wall and was on my way to the Old Town.
On the corner of Dluga and Kilinski Streets a big office block had been converted into another makeshift hospital. With great difficulty I hobbled into it. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic, under-employed nurses; as yet they’d had only a few casualties. The gaggle of girls included Halinka, a pretty girl of seventeen whom I had known in the old days in Konstancin. Within minutes all my wounds were re-dressed by several girls competing for the privilege. They were beginners and their ministrations were rather amateurish, but I was a willing victim. In the evening they even put on a kind of a theatrical performance for patients.
But this was the calm between two storms.