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Stanislaw Likiernik. By Devil's Luck: A Tale of Resistance in Wartime Warsaw.
Break out to City Center
August 29 – September 1
I may be somewhat inaccurate in my chronology, but as far as I remember the events described below happened on or around 29 August 1944.
Zbylut and I rejoined the rest of our unit defending the Koscielna Street church. Snica and Kryst, both sharp-shooters, took up position in the attic of an adjoining building. They had a good view of the gardens of the Czwartacy barracks, and put quite a few Krauts out of action. Two German soldiers tried to hide by using the back of a sofa as a shield. Two almost simultaneous gunshots and both soldiers were flat on the ground with the settee as their ready-made coffin.
At 10 p.m. on 30 August, I received the order to withdraw my men from their positions and pull back to 7 Kozla Street, our main quarters. The movement was to be executed silently, so as not to attract the enemy’s attention. This order startled me; who the hell was going to replace us? I took it up with the segment commander. “Just carry out the order,” he said. Then I understood: we were abandoning the Old Town – after thirty days of stubborn and costly resistance. And what route were we going to use? The shattered streets or the subterranean sewers?
Eventually, the former route was chosen. On 31 August we reached our starting position: the Bank Polski building on Bielanska Street. To get there we had to push through a dense crowd of people waiting for a break-out. Who could have ordered this concentration?
I was called to a briefing by Major Trzaska in the presence of Major Jan. The Old Town had been reduced to rubble and further defence of it had become impossible. To open the way out, a company of the Zoska battalion, commanded by Andrzej Morro, was to attack from the bank building and across the rubble towards Bank Square. We were to follow. The objective was to open the way from the Old Town to the capital’s centre. Once a passage had been opened through the ring of German forces, other units were to follow in a stipulated order, the medics collecting the wounded on the way. Major Jan was to stay with us. Wigry, the assault company, was to attack on our left flank along Senatorska Street, between the bank and Teatralny Square. The attack was set for midnight. The evacuation of the Old Town was to be completed between 2 and 3 a.m.
We, the remainder of ‘ Kedyw’, all twenty of us, were waiting in front of the bank among the rubble. Though the attack was to have begun at midnight, it was now 1 a.m. and nothing was happening. It was nearly 3 a.m. by the time the order reached us. Much too late.
Morro’s group was the first to run across the street. Then it was our turn. “Let’s go,” ordered Major Jan. The ground was strewn with rubble, but there was a wall still standing on our left. The German fire, tracing bullets, didn’t ease off even for a moment and covered the ground with mounds of plaster, coming off the wall.
“Let’s proceed on the left, under cover of the wall,” I suggested to Snica.
“No way,” he snapped back. “The order is to attack straight ahead, on the right.” There was no time to argue. Snica was like that. He was willing to die himself and take us all with him. Not an ounce of common sense.
Luckily, Major Jan arrived. “Let’s move on the left along the wall,” he ordered. The obvious route. He ran a little in advance and to the left of the rest of us, along Senatorska Street. The Wigry company ought to have been there, but there was no sign of them. Suddenly we heard a cry of “Hande hoch!” and Jan fell, mown down by German fire.
We ran under cover of the wall, in a kind of canyon between it and mounds of rubble. I slowed down. Two weeks in hospital and unhealed wounds were telling. I straggled in the tail, yet I hated my weakness to show. I tried again and again to keep up. I couldn’t. Suddenly, a two-metre-high wall blocked our way. The boys went over the top. It was beyond my strength. Somebody helped me over.
We joined what was left of Morro’s company in another burnt-out house across the street from St Anthony’s church. Continuous heavy machine-gun fire made the street impassable. On our side we were partly protected by the wall.
The sky was getting lighter. It was dawn.
None of the other units had followed us, and the German ring closed in behind. We were surrounded. The attempt to break out of the Old Town had failed.
We took up position in one wing of a block of flats. The Germans, confident of their superiority, ran forward and were met with grenades. There were sixty of us, surrounded by Germans. Saski Park was in front of us, the building of the Bank Polski behind. Retreat was impossible. No medics had followed us to carry out the wounded scattered along our path; they all perished, finished off by the enemy. But it didn’t matter any more. We were all destined to die. Here or there, what difference did it make?
We heard Morro calling us from the church, but machinegun fire made his words incomprehensible. He leapt forward followed by Witold, and they dashed across the street. They reached us, both lightly wounded.
An impasse. Then Morro gave an order and two impact grenades were thrown into the street. A huge explosion ... a cloud of dust – almost a smoke screen. The machinegun fire stopped. We raced across the street and into the church, losing one man at the start. Morro got a bullet through the fleshy part of his nose but did not fall back.
We were inside the church, on our own, cut off from the rest of the town. There was no chance of any support or rescue. All entrances had to be covered. With Zbylut, my doctor friend, we took position in a small yard adjoining the church, next to one of the church doors. Zbylut sat down with his back to the wall, just under a slit in the wall roughly cut by somebody to use as an embrasure. I sat in a niche of the same wall, several metres to his right. We felt secure, out of the enemy’s sight.
Suddenly, a gunshot. Zbylut fell forward. He was crawling towards me on all fours when I saw bullets hitting his head. I was about to send a round from my Thompson into the embrasure, but the weapon jammed; the dust of those three days of continuous bombardment must have got into it. Zbylut lay motionless at my feet. More shots. I felt something hitting my left side. The bullets had to be coming from the roof or the hole in the wall. They found their target in my left buttock. Only later did I realise that we had been in full view of the Ukrainian SS men on the upper floors of an adjacent house.
Within moments two nurses, Danka and her friend, ran to us with coffin carriers in place of stretchers and took us into the church. Zbylut was dying. Having placed me on my belly, the girls attended to my wound. A bullet had made a tunnel through my buttocks from left to right. To this day, the site of the wound is a source of much merriment.
“I won’t be able to walk,” I thought. Disgusted with my jammed Thompson gun, I cleaned and readied my Parabellum. The Germans or Ukrainians* were bound to finish us off any minute. I decided to blow my brains out, having first taken one or two of them with me. Better than being kicked to death-we heard the cries of one of our wounded being thus treated before we ran into the church.
Lying there face down on a coffin carrier among the church paraphernalia, I was convinced that I had at most an hour to live. Ought I pray? A Polish saying came to me: “Jak trwoga to do Boga”, or “In mortal peril one turns to God”. Didn’t they say that there were no atheists in foxholes?
Amidst the horrors of war I had lost faith a few years back. And now, in a church, next to a dying comrade, facing my own death, I decided to remain true to myself. I would not pray. Was I making a mistake? Perhaps when we did meet, God would respect my decision and congratulate me on my determination to stick to my principles. That meeting has not taken place yet, so I don’t know what His answer will be.
In the meantime, Morro and Trzaska had made their decision. At about 6 a.m. an order was passed from mouth to mouth, and in absolute silence we crossed the church garden into another burnt-out building in Albert King of the Belgians Street. I was lucky; mine was only a flesh wound, and I managed, with difficulty, to follow the others. As I learned later, our new abode was the old Zamoyski Palace. Palace or not, it was now just a shell, its walls still hot from the fire which had destroyed it and even now still smouldering here and there. It was warm outside, but here it felt like a hot furnace.
We waited and waited. What for? For how long? We hid in the corridor. I was resting on my belly, next to a lad lying on his side, nursing his arm wounds. We had to keep absolute silence, but how do you keep quiet a man with his arm in shreds?
Outside, the enemy kept patrolling the street. We saw their boots high up in the cellar windows. At first they had no idea where we had disappeared to, but at about 11 a.m. they must have heard some noise, and dropped several grenades into the cellars just in case. Explosions. Clouds of dust. Then silence. The dust and smoke were choking us. We had all taken cover in niches and behind bits of walls, still upright. There were no new casualties. Then came more explosions. A short series of machinegun fire hit the walls next to the windows. All was quiet again. Another impasse: the enemy was wary of charging the cellars. In the evening, the heat inside must have exceeded forty degrees centigrade. Rivulets of sweat ran into my eyes, my wounds hurt, the grenades dropped in regularly provided the only distraction. The scarce water was reserved for the wounded.
A whispered order reached me; we were to wait until darkness and then cross the enemy lines to join our forces on the other side of the Saski Park.
This must have been the longest day of my life.
At 9 p.m., after the last head count, we filed out very quietly through a small window into the garden. Night-flying moths would have seemed noisy compared with us. Suddenly, “Down!” The order made us cling to the ground. Three German lorries packed with military police passed just a few paces from us. Then we were up again, marching in tight formation across the Saski Park in the direction of the Polish line. We wove our way between the enemy’s positions and dug-outs. What saved us were the German camouflage jackets and helmets captured on the first day of the Rising which we wore now, with the Polish red-and-white armbands tucked away safely in our pockets.
Unchallenged, we reached Marszalkowska Street. We had to cross it. A road block barred our way. “Halt! Wo is da? Who goes there? Password!” In perfect German, Dobroslaw from the Zoska battalion asked for directions “to the positions of the Polish bandits”. We were a special detachment sent from headquarters, he said. “Password!” repeated the guard. “You, soldier,” Dobroslaw got visibly angry, “Attention! Coming from our own side? You idiot! What do you want a password for?”
The guard stood to attention, clicking his heels. “Jawohl. Go,” he opened the way. We ran into Krolewska Street.
Jumping from one heap of rubble to another shook me to the core. The new wound hurt like hell. Running towards our lines we yelled at the top of our voices: “Radoslaw! We are Poles! Don’t shoot!” There was one shot. One of our boys fell dead. But then, fortunately, they believed us. There was no more firing. We were in the city centre.
I learned much later that Socha and two other young men had been left behind in the cellar. They were guarding the other end of the cellar and the whispered order failed to reach them. Having realised that they were left on their own they followed the same route, crawling for part of it, and all three reached the Polish line. We couldn’t have had a more enthusiastic reception. I badly needed to get to a hospital, but first I had to join the others in hymn singing. Yet, exhausted after three days of fighting with practically no sleep, I wasn’t up to celebrations and as soon as I decently could, I reported wounded. The field hospital had been set up in the cellars of the PKO (Polish Savings Bank) building. The nurses there greeted me as an old friend. It was the relocated Knights of Malta Hospital, in which I had found refuge with my first wounds in early August. The girls washed me, fed me, made a detailed list of my old and new wounds and lacerations, dressed them , and practically kissed me good-night; but even so, after three sleepless nights I was too exhausted to sleep.
On 1 September, a surgeon decided to operate on me. ‘Minor surgery,’ he pronounced. He cut the skin and muscles of my left buttock, so as to lay open the tunnel the bullet had made through it. For some reason he didn’t do the same on the right side and for over a year afterwards I could sit on only one half of that part of my anatomy which is designed to work as a whole. Eventually, an abscess developed and burst. The discharge contained a piece of my trousers which had been carried deep into the wound by the bullet.
Two or three days after this minor surgery; I was able to move about and started looking for my friends. I found the remnants of our detachment having a few days’ rest in the city centre, where most houses were still, miraculously, intact. Even the windows retained their windowpanes. One could not compare it to the Old Town, an area of burnt-out shells. One day a local detachment of the Home Army invited three of us to dinner in an underground hall. They wanted to know more about our exploits in August. No sooner did we start eating than an alarm was sounded. We did not use alarm sirens in the Old Town; they would never have ceased. Here, in a twinkle of an eye the hall emptied and only the three of us, veterans, were left alone. We just put our steel helmets on and continued with the meal. Our hosts, having disappeared to a lower level, re-emerged, shamefaced, some time later to rejoin us.
Let me return for a while to the fate of my friends left behind in the Old Town. Once the gap which we had made in the tight German ring at street level was closed and the enemy line reformed, the surrounded Polish fighters had no alternative but to make their way out through the sewers. All the survivors, the unscathed and the walking wounded alike, had to descend into the stinking subterranean guts of the city. Luckily, I had been spared this loathsome experience. My old friends, among them Stasinek, blinded and led by his wife, Columbus, who was wounded in the leg, and our doctor Jerzy, managed to reach the city centre. Jerzy described their trek in some detail. They walked up to their waists in the stinking mess. In places the passage was too low to walk upright, and they had to proceed on their knees as if they were on some pilgrimage to hell. Wounded and exhausted men and women would fall and drown. In a few hopeless cases, the medics spared their suffering with lethal injections of morphine. It was a nightmarish journey, but it saved many lives. The Germans were not in the habit of taking prisoners; all insurgents were shot, even the wounded, wherever they were found. The civilian population of the Old Town was allowed out, but had to leave all their possessions behind.
I was told by Remec in 1945 about the fate of the seriously wounded left in the cellars of the Crooked Lantern hospital. He himself, with about fifteen others, had asked to be taken out of the cellars and they were left lying in the street. When the Germans arrived they shot all the wounded in the building. This murderous task accomplished, they transferred their attention to those in the street. On seeing them approach, Remec stretched out his arm in the direction of their commanding officer and made the sign of the cross. “What are you doing?” asked the German.
“I am a priest,” replied Remec. “Just before you shoot us, I wish to forgive you and bless you while I can...” This spark of genius saved the entire group. Even the Nazi officer was bowled over by the magnanimity of the Polish clergyman. In fact Remec, a handsome ladies’ man, could not have been further from a priestly vocation.
The entire group was then taken to the Wola hospital. Remec could not yet abandon his role of priest, as patients kept asking him for prayers. But he, who hadn’t said the Lord’s Prayer for years, had forgotten one passage: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The truncated paternoster was greeted with an ovation; how right the priest was, in the circumstances, to deny forgiveness to the Nazis.
The nuns who ran the hospital found a separate room for the ‘priest’. And naturally other clergymen patients gathered around him, wanting to know which parish he came from, what seminary he had attended. Eventually Remec had to own up to his deception and to relate the entire, truly miraculous story. The nuns were not amused. He was returned to the general ward. To impersonate a priest was sacrilege, even if the deception saved fifteen lives. Some things are simply not done.
Several days after my arrival in the hospital, I learned that Stasinek, Columbus and several others were in another makeshift hospital in Marszalkowska Street, the other side of Jerozolimskie Avenue, an important east-west roadway which remained under constant German fire. There was a communication trench, but because of a railway tunnel under the street the trench could not be more than fifty to seventy centimetres deep. The things one does for one’s friends ...
Whereas in the Old Town the food reserves, particularly of sugar, captured in the Stawki stores were not too bad, the city centre was practically starving. One day somebody borrowed my Parabellum and went hunting. A basset hound had apparently been seen in the area. Another day somebody brought a dead chicken, a war casualty. But, unmistakably, it had been dead for some time. Cooked and re-cooked many times over, it was eventually eaten, but my participation was only of the olfactory kind.
Roman came to see me in hospital. He had asked Jozef Rybicki whether he knew what happened to me. The other had no idea. “Stag Likiernik?” he repeated, “Who is he?”
“You do know him, you yourself christened him Maccabaeus.” “Now you're talking,” said Rybicki on hearing my nickname; it wasn’t until after the war that I learned who had been its originator. “You’ll find him in Marszalkowska Street.” Thinking that my fighting days were over, I gave Roman my Parabellum. Only for safe-keeping, I thought to myself as I crossed my fingers.
Soon after, somebody told us that fifteen of the Kedyw boys still capable of fighting had joined forces with the Zoska battalion and made their way to Czerniakow, a riverside quarter of the city. “You ought to join them,” said our visitor. “There are gardens there, allotments, plenty of fruit, vegetables. Vitamins, you know. Your wounds would have a chance to heal. Tomatoes ... ” he added, as if in a trance. As Stasinek was blind and Columbus had a nasty knee wound – his hobbling was worse than mine – I was delegated to explore the route. After much consultation and with the itinerary marked on my map, I limped out of the hospital. The tunnels in my buttocks, plus my old wounds in the back and the leg, slowed me down; at times very much so. If one followed Ksiazeca Street, Czerniakow was not that far, only two kilometres, but it seemed to be moving further and further away. Eventually, I reached the corner of Rozbrat and Szara Streets. The gardens opposite, stretching up the slope of the Vistula valley towards the Sejm (Parliament) building, were in German hands.
In Czerniakow I was received with surprise. People talked all at once. “Why the hell have you come here? The German attack on Czerniakow is imminent.”
“You should have stayed in the centre, you fool!”
On 7 September, the day of my arrival in Czerniakow, the Ksiazeca Street route from the centre to the river was cut off by the enemy. After Wola and the Old Town, it was now the turn of Czerniakow to become the heart of the Rising.