All of a sudden a flash – the situation changed to the opposite. From behind the ruins of the garages came an SS-man in a helmet with his submachine gun hanging over his arm. He came up to me, unfastened the German belt with cartridge pouches and the ‘Vis’ pistol in the holster, and hit me as hard as he possibly could at my face. I fell down, and the German began to kick me with his hobnailed boots. I almost fainted because of the terrible pain. At last he stopped and left me alone for a while. The Polish prisoners who found me and dragged me out of my hole gave me some water and biscuits, my first food after a week's time, as I counted then the time of my being ‘buried’. The task of the work group had been to remove dead bodies from the battlefield, as the Germans feared epidemics at the front line held by them. It was why I was found, as I was on grounds where there were many bodies of murdered Home Army fighters and civilian residents.
In a moment shelling started, coming from beyond the Vistula River. I could see my SS-man running with a prisoner carrying two boxes with ammunition. The German told him to give me both the boxes and showed with the barrel of his ‘Schmeisser’ the direction which I had to go. The boxes were horribly heavy; I could hardly carry them. The German drove me harder, as the artillery fire increased. We walked across a field towards the church at Solec Street, the location of the former bridgehead command. It was an awful journey for me. I was falling constantly, again and again, the weight of the boxes and my wounds bringing me down. The SS-man stopped and began kicking me. The pain raised me – I got up and moved on. We entered the church while an explosion of a Soviet shell covered us with earth. I left the ammunition boxes in the sacristy with a group of SS soldiers.
My ‘guardian’ led me again. We went to the German headquarters at the Wilanowska Street, located in the six-story building from which I had been shot at when I was going on patrol a week ago. In spite of pain and extreme exhaustion, I arrived there at last. The SS-man left me on the ground floor in a room near the building's main entrance and disappeared. Wehrmacht soldiers were sitting nearby eating canned meat and bread. Lying on the floor, I watched them and I could smell the food. One of them caught my glance and gave me a can with meat and a piece of bread. I started eating slowly, as I was so weak that even eating made me still weaker.
After a while two soldiers left the quarters, moving towards the main entrance. All of a sudden an explosion followed them. It got pitch black with smoke and falling plaster, and part of the wall near the door collapsed; it seemed to be the end of us. However the building still stood; the Soviet shell had exploded just in front of the entry. Moaning could be heard and high pitched broken crying, “Hilfe” (Help me). The Germans started a rescue action. They dragged the body of a killed soldier, the one who had left the room a while ago, from the entry door into the room, and then another body with horribly crushed legs, all in blood. It was he who had cried; now he lay in silence and waited for a doctor's help. Germans with stretchers came in and took him away. There must have been a lot of wounded and killed because the rescue operation took a long time.
Then Polish prisoners with pick-axes came into the room. They were to dig up the cellar which had collapsed. One of them stopped near me and said: “Listen, I'll try to bring you some civilian clothes, lots of them are here. Change this German uniform; otherwise, they will shoot you as a bandit.” He held his promise, coming after a while with a nice black overcoat with fur collar and a grey woolen suit. The suit was too big, but the overcoat fit me perfectly. I changed clothes in a moment, hiding my camouflage jacket and German uniform trousers in a garage. I was just in time for ‘my’ SS-man, accompanied by two others, to enter the room. Seeing me in changed clothes, he kicked me in rage and told the two others to escort me.
We left into the courtyard through a window, as the building's entry door was in rubble, and we went towards Solec Street. Fortunately, no more artillery fire. We got to the viaduct of the Poniatowski Bridge and to the Red Cross Hospital building, the field command headquarters of the German Vistula River defense line and the military depot. Pushing me with the barrels of their ‘Schmeisser’ guns, SS men threw me into a small cellar cell and locked up the heavy steel door, leaving me there alone in the dark. Just a small electric bulb was on.
Lying on the concrete floor, I was awaiting a decision on my fate. After a short time, three Wehrmacht soldiers came and led me to a large cellar with some German officers sitting at the table and a soldier at a typewriter. The soldiers escorting me left, and I was told to sit down. It was a court martial, as they told me. They wanted to learn from me about the hiding places of other soldiers of my detachment. I started to think frantically and came to the conclusion that if I admitted belonging to Home Army I'd be shot as a bandit. Not seeing ‘my’ SS-man among the interrogators and being already in civilian clothes, I decided to lie and deny everything. The interpreter didn't know Polish well, while I knew German perfectly, so I started my story. “Of course I had been found dressed in a German uniform, but I had taken it from a killed uprising fighter, as my own clothes were torn to pieces.” I thought that my young age of 16 years, desolate looks, and fluent German language should help me. I went on about accidental hiding, being wounded on the scene of fighting, having lost my whole family, who died under the ruins. I had been acting completely alone, on my own, and I didn't know anything about the hiding places of uprising fighters, with whom i had nothing to do. The story was short, the soldier was typing it, and the officers looked at me coldly. I wasn't beaten or made to confess by force when I finished. The officers exchanged some words with each other in low voices, and then one of them turned to me saying, “Young man, you are a bandit, as there was enough proof from the soldiers who found you. If you don't want to tell us what we are asking, you will be shot today.” The investigation was finished, and the sentence was pronounced.
I was led back to the same cellar cell and left alone again. My head was empty, without any feeling. After some time the door opened, and a Wehrmacht officer of about 50 years old came in. Seeing a civilian lying on the floor, he asked me what I was doing there and what I was waiting for. I replied that I was waiting to be executed and repeated my invented story. At that moment I thanked God that I knew the German language and I could talk to him – it was my last chance. The officer believed me, looked at me with pity and said he would try to help me within his power. As he left I went to sleep – half sleep, a kind of lethargy from which I was aroused by the slam of the cell's door and voices.
Suddenly my heart jumped as I saw three SS men in black uniforms, helmets, with ‘MP’s. “My death is coming,” I thought, and then I noticed ‘my’ Wehrmacht officer behind them. He turned to me in an informal manner. “Young man, you won't be shot; you will go with the SS soldiers to the SS Polizei Sonder Lager Camp, where you will work in special workers group removing dead bodies and barricades in the city area. The men drive a truck to the camp tonight, so wait hidden under the canvas cover there. I'm doing it without any consent of the local authorities, so they can still shoot you here. I've got a son somewhat older than you, who also is fighting at the eastern front. Perhaps my help given to you will return to my son, shown him by other people when he is in need. I wish you to survive the war luckily and all the best.” And then he reached out his hand to me. It was the first and last hand of a German officer which I have shaken.
My ‘savior’ left, and SS soldiers led me to ‘Kraft-Fahr’ Park, (Army Depot) where they pushed me under the canvas cover of a truck loaded with all kinds of boxes and barrels. It started getting gray. I was lying on a box, full of pain and resignation, when I heard some voices near the truck. “Maybe they are looking for me,” it crossed my mind. Suddenly a series of explosions shook the air – the roar of bomber plane engines over my head and next, bomb explosions. A hell of a Soviet air raid started to rage. The object of the raid was German positions in the region of Poniatowski Bridge. Anti-aircraft guns started returning heavy fire.
All of a sudden somebody jumped onto the truck. I could hear the engine starting and felt a tug. We were moving. Two SS-men climbed inside the truck, under the canvas cover. Our vehicle took speed and shook terribly over the pot-holes of the post uprising street. I almost fainted of sharp pain. We drove about 45 minutes and stopped at last in front of an unplastered red brick building. It was the SS and Polizei Camp in Wola district, not far from the Gorczewska Street, an unfinished, three-story high structure with large rooms and without dividing partition walls. Two-tier high wooden bunks for prisoners were standing there, and the whole interior had a clean and organized look. Two gendarmes with ‘Bergmann’ submachine guns were sitting at the main entrance. I saw them and thought, ‘Now I fell out of the frying pan into the fire. I'm not going to live for long in such a camp.’
The camp was only a temporary accommodation for some hundred Polish workers, who were used to dismantle street barricades and remove dead bodies, thus robbing the remainder of inhabitants' property left in cellars and apartments before the buildings were set on fire or blown up by special ‘ Sonder Gruppen’ (Demolition Units). The prisoners were, in general, relatively well treated and not badly fed by a local field kitchen because of the hard work they were performing. The camp had a big assembly ground in front of the building, surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Tanks were positioned at the four corners, instead of watch towers. My escort SS-men left, having handed me over to the gendarmes. I was led to the second floor and into a big hallway. I was given a blanket, and a bunk at the higher level was assigned to me. It was already a dark October evening. The prison mates took care of me as much as they could. I got a big slice of bread with margarine, a preserve can, a chocolate, and a cup of coffee. It was so wonderful and tasted so good. I fell asleep covered with two blankets (my neighbor on the second level bunk gave me the other one). First time I was among alive people after the solitude in the cellar at Wilanowska Street.
The rouse at the camp was at 5 o'clock in the morning. I dressed quickly and went downstairs to the assembly ground. You could get there a finger bowl of water from the well just to wash your face. There was also a field kitchen. ‘Ersatz’ (substitution) coffee was given out, bread with marmalade, and a cube of margarine. After breakfast we were divided into work groups, 15 to 20 men each, with three guards attached to every group.
My party was marching outside the camp into the street. We were marching along narrow residential streets full of bomb craters and came to the Wolska Street. It is a thoroughfare street used by the German garrison in Warsaw as a supply road, thus kept clean. At the Mlynarska Street I could see remainder of a barricade with an open black umbrella full of bullet holes stuck on it. Our boys must have left this emblem and symbol of the ‘Parasol’ battalion during fighting at Wola district, I thought. We were still marching along the Wolska Street, passing the Zelazna Street in a dead-man silence, the smell of burning and smoke and ruins of houses everywhere. This was the panorama of the city of Warsaw – the city of dead people.
We came to the building of the Haberbusch brewery at the Wolska street. We could see there a group of Ukrainians, SS soldiers from the ‘RONA’ army (collaborating German units)*. Our guards talked to the commander of the Ukrainian group, and they ordered us to go down into the cellars of the building. There were two-story high cellars with beer tuns and various brewing equipment – lots of them strewn around, sacks of barley everywhere. The smell of fermented beer went into our heads. We came to the lowest cellar level, which was partly flooded with beer and water. Our escort and the Ukrainians stopped and told us to scoop beer into prepared buckets from the partly flooded huge tuns. To reach them, we had to walk waist deep in water with beer scoops. We took the buckets, and one of our mates turned the tun tap on while we formed a live bridge, passing the buckets with beer from hand to hand to the group of Germans.
This way we worked for some hours, emptying the full tun. At last came the command to finish the work and to return upstairs. Suddenly the search lights of our escort went out, and spurts of submachine gun fire were passing close to our heads. I stopped, half submerged in beer, and thought: “Damn it, what a lousy death.” All of a sudden the lights were turned on again, and we could hear the roar of laughter of the drunken Ukrainian soldiers. They had done this ‘practical joke’ to frighten us.
We were at the ground level again. Trucks loaded with beer cans drove away while we were being escorted to other work. This time we had to carry clothing and furs from cellars of nearby tenements. The Germans were stealing with methodical pedantry up to the last moment before the final destruction of the city.
After two days of working in the camp, I got a hemorrhage while dismantling a barricade near Zelazna Street. My wound hadn't healed yet, although it had been a clean machine gun shot through the lung and the bullet went out through the back. It was a lucky coincidence; I would have been long dead if the bullet had been stuck inside my body without any medical help or any dressing, in conditions defying all hygiene. However, while lifting the heavy concrete blocks which had earlier been taken from the sidewalks to build the barricade, suddenly a stream of blood gushed from my mouth. I was lying on the ground and felt that my life was escaping from me. A German soldier from the escort came up, looked at me, and started to take his ‘MP’ submachine gun off his back. I was watching him, and I could see that my very end had finally arrived. But a strange trifle saved my life again – another German guard approached us and said that the same number of prisoners who left the camp must be brought back to the camp, and I could be shot dead later if still alive. The Germans were afraid of lung diseases, and they took the symptoms for tuberculosis.
This way I was saved for the time being, and the hemorrhage ceased by itself. Nature was saving me all the time, and my strong body itself fought for life, without any medical help. My camp mates carried me back to the camp, where I started to feel somewhat better. However, because of the condition of my health and my young age, which helped me too (16 years of age), I got a job in the kitchen. The cook – a ‘Volksdeutsch’ (German descendant) from Latvia – was glad that I spoke German. He began to like me and gave me light work to do: peeling potatoes and rutabaga.
Days passed slowly. One night we were woken up by barking dogs and loud shouting of the Germans. A whole group of them entered our room, and one of them was hitting with a stick every first and tenth prisoner on the both levels of our bunks. Immediately some others pulled a half-asleep prisoner from his bed and led him away from our room. One could only hear counting: ‘ein: zwei, drei,’ and so on. I was number drei (three), and I stayed. After some time we were taken into the assembly ground, and one of the officers addressed us with a short speech. He said that some prisoners had escaped the camp, probably bribing a driver of a German truck leaving Warsaw. It had been decided to execute a number of prisoners as a deterring example for others. In a while gun fire was opened on the group of unlucky condemned men from machine guns placed there earlier. Everything happened in an incredibly short time without a single cry. The camp was terrorized with fear of final liquidation. Rumors circulated about a transport to be sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. It was already late October.
One day the cook turned to me and, in a rather strange way, he asked me if I wanted to live. To my reply of “Yes,” he told me that I should better get ill, as it would be my only salvation. This paradoxical statement stunned me. The rumors about camp liquidation proved true. The only chance was to get ill with high fever, go to the German SS doctor, and to be sent off the camp, through the selection point at the Wola district Catholic church to the transitory camp in Pruszkow (city near Warsaw), and from there to Germany or to freedom. I took the advice; the cook gave me rotten tomatoes to eat and contaminated water to drink. I got high fever and terrible diarrhea. Having measured my temperature and looked at my condition as ‘a prisoner unable to work,’ the SS doctor waved his hand and ordered me brought to the selection point. I hadn't seen my cook anymore.
The small Wola church was a place for transporting the survivors from post-uprising Warsaw to the railway station Warsaw-West, to a Pruszkow bound train. Detachments of Ukrainians and German SS-men had there their last chance to rob, rape, and murder the rest of what remained of the Warsaw inhabitants. My guard led me into the church, reported to the local SS-men, and left. T was lying on the cold marble floor, and terrible fever and diarrhea brought me down. I have never expected that a man can physically endure so much and go on to live.
There was dusk in the church. A group of wounded people were lying next to me and nuns from an evacuated hospital. Close behind a pillar, a well fed man was sitting on two suitcases and a bundle. He looked like a looter who had come from the suburban settlements in order to rob. He was sitting and eating a big piece of a sausage. Near the altar some elderly people were praying aloud. Somewhere from behind you could hear a child crying, a woman wailing. Ukrainians and SS-men prowled over the whole church, looking at people. They clearly looked for young women, valuables, and watches. I felt terrible; time passed slowly.
Suddenly I could hear noises and shouting near me. I could see my looter wriggle under being hit with a rifle butt by an SS man. His suitcases were thrown open and his looting strewn around over the church marble floor. The German hit him mercilessly, ordered him to get up after a while, and lead him out of the church. I could hear some shots ring out, and the German rushed back inside and started searching the property of the murdered man. He looked by this occasion at me, but the inspection ended well for me and he left me alone.
After some hours of stressful waiting, hearing shots and screams of people being murdered near the church and the yelling of drunk Ukrainians, we were finally marching out. They led us to the Wolska Street. A column of sick and crippled people moved slowly towards the railway tracks in the area of the railway station Warsaw-West. People looked so fatally, that groups of German soldiers whom we passed did not even try to rob their remaining property; they only took photographs. After some two hours we came to the railway tracks where there already a train was standing, consisting of cattle cars, partly loaded with goods looted in Warsaw. They packed us into cattle cars with barred windows. The railroad cars were terribly crowded, and Germans still pushed inside more people from other groups of evacuees. Finally they slid the doors and bolted them. We could hear the whistling of the locomotive and the shouting of the escort when the train started slowly to move in the direction of Pruszkow. I still felt awful; fever, terrible weakness, diarrhea, and lice tormented me.
Now I was already indifferent to what was going to happen to us next. Somebody whispered that lead seals had been affixed to the railroad car doors because we were to be transported to Auschwitz. There was no lack of pessimists; somebody tried to argue. Prayers in low voice and sobbing could be heard from other parts of the wagon. And the train gained speed. The locomotive whistled and rolled to an unknown destination.
It was a relatively short trip. When we stopped, the doors opened and escorting soldiers led us into the loading platform. I could see Polish railway men, buildings of the railway repair shops, and the inscription: Pruszkow. My God, still not Auschwitz! My heart regained its pace and faith. I had a good chance to survive and to find a way out of the situation. We walked out of the cattle cars into the loading platform, and the escorting soldiers directed us to the big hall of the railway repair shop. I noticed two young women with Red Cross arm-bands standing somewhere aloft. So the Germans allowed it after all, which meant that the camp was not going to be exterminated, I thought, with my spirits raised.
Pruszkow was the end of my Warsaw Uprising epos. I had gone through many situations where my life had trembled in the balance, and still I had survived by a miracle. Surely the providence, my mother's prayers, or my guardian angel had done it to me – or simply it was not my time to die.
English language edition with collaboration of Marilyn Baily, John Rudnick and Arlene Rudnick.
* See [ RONA ]