An old owl is about to go to sleep. Its neighbors, pelicans, eagles and herons slowly wake up. From its favorite branch near the top of the cage, the owl overlooks the Vistula River. The first sunrays shine through the morning mist. On the opposite bank of the river, the ancient city rests asleep.
The daylight slowly unveils the contours of Warsaw with the Old Town, the Cathedral, King’s Palace, King Zygmunt’s Column, Saint Ann’s Church, Kierbedzia Bridge, and Danusia’s house. The current in the wide bed of the Vistula River is as serene as the city above. Only in the background of this leisurely silence a deadly sound grows. No one has ever heard such a mysterious sound around here.
As the owl is about to close its goggle eyes, something inconceivable happens. The thundering and crashing of unimaginable force cuts through the air and a fountain of water splashes and shoots high into the sky. Another fountain goes into the air before the first one reaches the water, and another one, and another one. Ferocious noise hundreds of times louder than a thunderstorm strikes the resting town.
Danusia jumps out of bed. Mama and Dad and her brother Zbyszek are already up. In the fierce stream of thunders, something crashes over their heads. The window glass quivers and trembles.
“To the basement! Run!” Dad shouts.
Still half asleep, they rush out the door and down to the basement.
“Germans! German bombers! They hit the bridge!” Someone shouts behind them.
The staircase is jammed. People run, push, scream, and shout in panic, children cry and scream. Danusia is among the first to reach the basement and the incoming crowd pushes her further to the wall. She realizes she is just in pajamas but it doesn’t matter. Others are in pajamas too. In the rumbling background of the warm morning, immense bomb blasts, explosions, and blows, one by one and several at a time, pierce the air around them. The basement of the apartment building for the employees of the Polish State Mint in the Old Town of Warsaw is full. Most of the people freeze and stare speechlessly at the ceiling. Some cry, some can’t stop wailing.
“They are going after the bridges,” a young voice resounds in the crowd. “And after the airport, I think,” someone else comments.
“Sons of a bitch!” another voice shouts with fury.
War, war… Danusia feverishly turns this strange thought over and over in her mind. Dad embraces her with his muscular arm. “Thank God we are on the first floor. It’s closer to the basement and a little safer.”
“Shh! Did you hear that distinct series of blasts?” Mr. Tolloczko yells. “That’s our anti-aircraft defense! Our boys are getting at them!”
Tolloczko oversees the security unit at the State Mint. By training, he is a professional soldier, the Captain, as they call him here. His beautiful daughter, Wanda, is Danusia’s age.
“All right! Good job!” the business manager, Falski, enthusiastically welcomes the news. “Our artillery is stationed near us at Cytadela,” Falski adds. His son, Bruno, is one of Zbyszek’s best friends. Bruno is best prepared for this emergency holding his dog under one arm and his precious collection of post stamps in the other hand.
“Alek, we need to know what’s going on.” Mr. Owczarek turns to Dad with urgency in his voice. “Is there any way you can get your radio here?”
Owczarek is the technical director and Dad’s immediate boss at the State Mint. The blasts slowly ease up. It seems as if the cannonade of bombardments is no longer over their heads. Despite Mama’s protests, Dad jumps out of the basement and with lightning speed returns with a small strange object. It’s a special emergency radio. As the blare of bombardment fades away, the basement fugitives surround Dad tightly.
“As we speak, the German Luftwaffe is attacking strategic Warsaw locations,” the radio reports. “Ok?cie Airport and Warsaw bridges have been the primary targets as of this hour. Our anti- aircraft defense forces supported by brilliant air fighters from the Warsaw Pursuit Brigade stage a formidable defense. Already several German airplanes have been brought down. Stefan Starzynski, President of Warsaw, has been appointed the Commissar for Civil Defense of the City of Warsaw. Please stay tuned. In five minutes President Starzynski will be addressing the people of Warsaw.”
Powerful and deeply treasured piano tones replace the speaker’s distant voice. Dramatic cords of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude arouse listeners’ burning fury.
“Let’s man our posts!” young Sylvek Kotecki yells. “God give us strength!” Mrs. Kotecka cries. “We’ll show them!” Bruno supports Sylvek.
“Shut up!” Captain Tolloczko silences them fiercely. “Listen now!” he orders. The powerful music slowly fades away.
This is President of Warsaw speaking. This morning German Armed Forces unleashed a vicious attack on our country, invaded our territory from the north, south and west, and dropped bombs on Warsaw. The whole nation is rising to fight! Together we shall stand to defend our country and our capital! Together we shall succeed! I call upon all the citizens of Warsaw to join me in defending our beloved town. Warsaw needs each and every one of us. Today Warsaw needs our courage, our commitment, and our sacrifice! God bless you in this yet another call for sacrifice to defend Warsaw and protect Poland!
President of Warsaw, Stefan Starzynski. Photo: Muzeum Historyczne m. st. Warszawy
The energetic, inspiring voice of President Starzynski sinks deeply into the minds and hearts of the listeners. The radio presenter comes back.
“On this station, President Starzynski will be addressing Warsawians on a regular basis. Please tune in for updates at the full hour intervals.”
As the blasts and rolls of bombardment fade away, the mood in the cellar improves. “Our armed forces are well prepared for the attack. With the mass support of the people, we will succeed,” a confident male voice proclaims.
“And the Western Allies should attack from the West any day,” someone else adds. One by one, the residents decide to leave the shelter, looking timidly around. The warm and sunny morning welcomes them as if nothing tragic ever happened. No damage in their immediate vicinity. Only the distant roar reminds them of the recent drama. The sense of urgency to organize defense of the city is omnipresent.
The State Mint employees are called for the emergency meeting. A big radio is placed on the reception desk and old Gara is charged with the task of following the news around the clock. The youth wanders around nervous and confused. In the afternoon, the radio broadcasts an appeal from the Scouts Commander. All Scouts are called upon to report to their leaders. They will be assigned special tasks in preparation for the defense of Warsaw. Appeals from Red Cross are broadcast next. They need volunteers too.
Danusia and Zbyszek are ready to report. Mama tries to stop them but in vain. All teenagers go… The day is hectic and tense. People run around, plan, organize, and pack. Gas masks are distributed. The President orders total blackout in the city for the night. After dusk, there should be not a chink of light anywhere. Blackout curtains are mandated. Some use heavy fabrics to cover windows, others construct rigid screens and bolt them onto the window frames. This method should simplify the daily routine of putting up the blackout at dusk.
Merchants are especially busy. They frantically stock up on extra supplies and try to protect their shop windows from shattering by bomb blasts. They plaster and tape the windows with paper and cover them up with sandbags.
Around noon, the radio reports that the first German airplane has been shot down at 7 AM near Olkusz. Pilot W?adys?aw Gny? from the Krakow Air Force Squadron is credited with this accomplishment. In the evening, the radio reports that according to the Polish estimates, about 100 German fighters have attacked Warsaw that day. Against them Poland effectively used 54 fighters from the Air Force Pursuit Brigade and the anti-aircraft artillery. Fourteen German planes were brought down during the morning attack on Warsaw.
Danusia comes back home with the first aid kit. Zbyszek stays outside with a group of friends. They talk late into the evening, disregarding repeated calls from the parents. Finally, Dad forces Zbyszek to come home.
“You must do what I tell you, no questions asked! You understand!”
“But Dad, I have some responsibility now. We, the Scouts, are in charge of distributing messages in case there would be any communication breakdown. I have to know all places and all locations by heart.”
“Zbys, I want you to stay home with us!” Mama cries.
“Well, I may as well be hit here at home with you or somewhere on the road. The chances are the same,” Zbyszek replies stubbornly upset.
“But at least we will be together!” Mama replies with despair in her voice.
“You know. I am afraid he may be right,” Dad appears to be frustrated. “There is no guarantee of safety by staying home. We may be easily killed here while he may be saved out there by moving around.”
“You are only partially right,” Mama argues. “Knowing Zbyszek, he will be attracted to heavy fighting and most dangerous places. He just looks for trouble!”
“But you can’t lock him up while all his friends are out there with the Scouts.”
Mama sends Dad a furious look and turns around. Swallowing tears, she affectionately hugs Zbyszek and whispers: “Zbysiu, you must be careful, I beg you to be very, very careful now.”
The next morning, loud and abrupt pounding at the door wakes them up. It’s old Gara. Running from door to door, he knocks, pounds and shouts:
“To the shelter, run to the shelter! Take shelter immediately!”
As they all run downstairs, the voice of the radio speaker from the reception desk follows them:
ATTENTION! I DECLARE ALARM FOR THE CITY OF WARSAW!
The grim voice repeats the message over and over again.
I DECLARE ALARM FOR THE CITY OF WARSAW!
A quick look at the sky. No signs of the planes yet. But the ominous deadly whir already hangs in the air. All the residents jam into the basement. The roll outside intensifies. Soon they can recognize the sinister whistling of falling bombs just before the worst explosions. These are the echoes of the closest hits. The people in the shelter pray together and cheer together every indication of the antiaircraft artillery action.
In about an hour, the thunder stops and the radio calls off the raid alert. But during the day, the alerts come back many times. With every passing raid, the people are less confused, though. They already know what to expect and quickly learn how to cope with the alerts. Without even noticing, they gradually adjust to the new way of living.
On the third day of the bombardment, the anxiously awaited news finally comes. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany! Now it’s a matter of weeks or maybe even days to finish off with the aggressors! The mood is vivacious. People on the streets shake hands, kiss and congratulate each other on the occasion. The mighty Royal Air Force (RAF), the most powerful air force in the world, will come to their rescue any moment now. Dad is ecstatic.
“We only need to hold the ground for another two weeks and this whole war business will be over,” he proclaims at the dinner table. “It shouldn’t be difficult.”
“The city is well fortified,” Zbyszek declares proudly.
“The civilian defense is also well staffed,” Dad adds. “The delay in general mobilization helps Warsaw now. Many reservists, who were sent home when mobilization was called off, now eagerly join the City Civil Defense forces.
“You see, Dad, you were upset for not being included in mobilization. It turns out that those who were supposed to report to the army didn’t go to the front anyway,” Zbyszek points out resolutely. “And now you are in the military anyhow.”
“You are right Son. Now, all the State Mint employees are under the command of Captain To??oczko.”
“I think,” Zbyszek debates with fervor, “that the British Air Force will come first and the French ground offensive will soon follow!
“I hope so, but why do they wait…?” Dad shakes his head with concern. “But Jasia! If I am not mistaken, tomorrow is the first day of school. Do you know what the radio is saying about that?”
“Not much, unfortunately,” Mama replies. “All day the radio only talks about the British declaration of war or the military action on the front. But I think they have recommended that each school make its own decision whether and when to start. And besides, we don’t know how heavy the fighting will be tomorrow.”
“Is there any shelter, basement or cellar in their schools, do you know?”
“No, but I’ll go with them to see how the whole situation looks like,” Mama replies. “The children are ready. But I think it would be prudent to postpone school if this horror is to end soon.”
That night no one gets any sleep. The air raid alerts are called on and off at regular intervals. On the staircase, tumults move back and forth all night. The attacks are fierce and frequent. In the dense darkness of the night, the roars, blasts, and explosions are much more frightening, too. They are terrifying.
“Apparently, Germans are infuriated by the action of the Western Allies,” Mr. Staniszewski concludes after one of the bigger explosions. “Not only that,” Captain To??oczko adds. “In the night, our anti-aircraft defense is less effective. I am afraid we may see more of these nightly attacks.”
“But it also means the Germans are afraid of our artillery,” one of the boys observes.
The following sunny morning brings the first day of school. Danusia is anxious to go and meet all of her friends and teachers. The morning seems quiet and safe enough to take the short trip. Danusia is so excited that she leaves Mama and Zbyszek behind and runs first.
As they pass through the streets, they are shocked by the extent of damage in the neighborhood. Several houses are ruined. The emergency vehicles and medical personnel maneuver around with difficulties. The streets are damaged too. But the private gymnasium “Wspólnota” on Miodowa Street is untouched.
Danusia reaches the school first. Not many people hang around outside. She walks into the building. A big group of students and teachers stands close together in the hallway. Some hold hands, some cry, some hug each other in grief. Quietly, she approaches the group. One of the teachers, an older lady, puts her arm around Danusia and embraces her warmly.
“What happened?” Danusia whispers.
“The school principal has been killed tonight.” The woman replies in a shaky voice. “And another teacher was killed on Saturday,” she adds.
Danusia freezes. The chill of fright rushes through her body. This is the first time she hears that someone whom she knew has been really killed. The woman rubs her shoulders.
“We won’t have any classes today. But let’s see what the assistant principal will say.”
Mama and Zbyszek join the group looking curiously at Danusia. She reaches to them in tears.
“Dear students,” a strong female voice grabs everybody’s attention. “Thank you for coming today in blank defiance of the German aggressors’ terror! Your commitment to school is your way to stand up for Poland. Always remember that education is yet another way to fight the aggressors!”
She stops, takes a deep breath, and continues in a strained voice.
“It is my sad duty to report to you that our principal, the greatest leader this school ever had and our best friend,” she chokes, “has been killed in the nightly bombardment.” The loud sobbing spreads throughout the hallway. She ponders for a moment and continues in a more commanding voice. “It is further my sad duty to inform you that in the Saturday’s air raid one of our great teachers has been killed too…”
Her voice breaks down. “But remember! We must be strong and together we shall continue their mission! We must preserve the legacy of those two remarkable women who left us so untimely and tragically… Now, I would like to ask Sister Emily to lead us into prayer for the souls of those two extraordinary leaders of our community.”
The students kneel down and the passionate prayer mixed with prolonged moments of silence rolls through the old historical building.
“In light of these tragic losses in our school,” the assistant principal says after the prayer, “and taking into consideration the latest developments, in particular the French and British declaration of war on Germany, I therefore decided to postpone the beginning of the school year. Please report to school next Monday. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless Poland!”
She rushes to finish the speech trying to hold back tears. Danusia mingles with the crowd. She desperately wants to talk more with her friends but Mama pulls her out.
“We must hurry. It’s not that safe here.” She grabs Danusia’s hand, calls on Zbyszek and rushes out.
On the way home, Danusia thinks about those teachers, this extraordinary prayer, and those bombs… They really kill! “Remember, you must always take shelter for the air raid,” Mama shouts out of the blue. The children understand. Their thoughts also wander back to these barbaric senseless killings.
At home, old Gara loudly debates with a group of boys. He tries to prove to the boys that the phone still works. He dials different numbers but each time he dials the phone is flat dead. “That’s not our fault. Our phone is working. It must be the other side that is disconnected,” he tries to convince them.
“Ok, ok, we need to contact our leader anyway,” a boy with a scout scarf around his neck and reddish sticky hair concludes. “Hey Zbyszek! Are you going with us? We need to report to the Scout Command. The phones are not working.”
“No! He can’t go now!” Mama snaps back, holding tightly Zbyszek’s hand.
During the day several raid alerts are called. People spend more time in the shelters. Anti-aircraft artillery brigades are enforced. A group of sappers delegated to the defense of the railroad bridge takes residence in the common room at the State Mint. The Scouts organize a kitchen and provide food to the soldiers. Electricity is down. Old kerosene or carbide lamps are in great demand.
To make matters worse, news from the frontline is devastating. The Polish Army lost the border battle and is in the process of withdrawing to the shorter defense line in the East behind the Vistula, Narew and San rivers. Pomorze Army in the North has been encircled and cut off. However, several divisions under the command of General Sosnkowski continue the fight, breaking through the ring that the Germans try to close in on them. In the South, Krakow Army and Karpaty Army have been split by the German fast moving motorized and armored divisions enforced by the heavy air power.
In fact, the German air power consisting of two thousand airplanes including 1640 modern bombers, dive-bombers, and transporters against about four hundred Polish planes including less than 200 fighters turns out to be the decisive factor in the German success. This “flying artillery” has been used to deliver pointed bomb attacks at the crucial stages of the offensive. Also, it has been used to effectively penetrate strategic targets behind the front line and deep into Poland, easily reaching Warsaw and other strategic locations.
So anxiously awaited allied help from the powerful British Royal Air Force totaling 3600 aircraft has not come. The British debate…
The only good news comes from Gdansk. The heroic defense of the Polish Post Office in Gdansk becomes a sacred symbol for the Poles. The Military Repository at Westerplatte on the Baltic Sea with one hundred eighty soldiers under the command of Henryk Sucharski has stages a heroic defense. Also Admiral Unruch with his small group still fights at Hell peninsula. The sole notion that Gdansk still fights heartens the Polish people.
The first week of the war ends with the rumors that the Polish Government is about to evacuate from Warsaw. On September 7, the radio announces that Marshal Rydz-Smig?y and other top officials left Warsaw and moved east toward Brze?? on the Bug River. The Polish Army is in the process of reorganizing in the southeastern part of the country. Hence, all reservists are requested to proceed east to report to the army there.
The southeastern part of Poland is covered with forests and marshes that would render German armored divisions and tanks virtually useless and give advantage to the highly maneuverable Polish forces. The defense of this territory by infantry and cavalry should be very effective. Furthermore, promised weapons from the West, including modern airplanes such as Hurricanes, are expected to arrive through Rumania any day now.
While the Polish Army regroups to the east, all Warsawians are called upon to strengthen fortifications and barricades around the city. President Starzy?ski announces that the civilians who have means to travel and do not take part in the fortification works are advised to leave the city.
Warsawians are in a panic. Marshal Rydz-Smigly has left the city, all men have been summoned to join the army in the east, and the enemy is approaching. The people don’t realize yet that their cherished anti-aircraft artillery brigade that has been so bravely and vigorously defending the city bringing down many enemy planes will soon be ordered to withdraw east, leaving the city virtually defenseless against the devastating air raids of the Luftwaffe bombers.
Many reservists decide to go east to join the regrouping army; crowds of women with children leave the city in search for shelter in the countryside. Busy roads around Warsaw are an excellent prey for bloodthirsty Luftwaffe dive-bombers and low flying fighters with machine guns. Any hopes for resuming school and normal life become more distant with every passing hour.
Danusia’s family decides to stay in Warsaw. Dad must defend the State Mint and Mama doesn’t want to go anywhere. The State Mint has one of the best bunkers in town. In the worst-case scenario, they can take shelter in the bunker. Zbyszek spends most of his time running around as a messenger. It turns out that his new profession is very profitable. He frequently brings home fresh bread or potatoes.
One day making his usual trip through the neighborhoods, he notices colorful candies scattered all over on the streets. Several small kids run around picking them up. What’s that? The candies packed in bright color paper look delicious. He picks up several and hastily puts them into his pocket. “It’s going to be my surprise treat for supper,” he thinks and rushes to his next destination.
The message he carries that day from one barricade to another is very disturbing. German 4th Armored Division advances towards Warsaw and is expected to reach the city at daybreak tomorrow. The fortifications must be ready today.
Late into the evening, Zbyszek finally reaches home. With tears Mama kisses his golden hair. In an alarming voice and grim face Dad asks:
“Did you eat any candies today?”
“As a matter of fact, not yet..,” Zbyszek replies taken by surprise. “But….”
He doesn’t finish the sentence stunned by their reaction. The parents lean towards each other loosening up and expelling tension.
“Thank God, thank God!” Mama raises her hands.
“What’s the problem?” Zbyszek finally asks.
“German planes scatter poisoned candies all over the city. You must have seen some of them. They are all over the place.”
Zbyszek turns speechless. He tries to reach to his pocket but his hands don’t move. They are simply numb from fear and anger.
“I…, I actually have these candies,” he stammers out and slowly takes out a handful of colorful candies from his pocket. “I didn’t want to eat them myself, I wanted to share them with you… as a treat for our supper tonight…”
“God must be with you, my Son!” Mama kisses him.
At the supper table that night, they listen to President Starzynski. Today German planes scatter poisoned candies around the city. Many children are dying in pain all over Warsaw. We will take
vengeance for such cruel barbaric acts! We will remember these cruel deaths of our innocent children! There is justice in this world!
Danusia swallows hard. The colorful candies are slowly burning up in the stove.
“We must fight these mad murderers! We must prevail!
Otherwise, they will destroy the human race!” President Starzy?ski finishes his speech.
“Tomorrow the German artillery will storm Warsaw,” Zbyszek says.
“Yes, we heard about it,” Dad replies. “I am afraid the bombardment will also intensify. Jasia, you and Danusia will need to take shelter in the bunker.”
The German objective was to take Warsaw by storm the first day. But Warsaw stages a heroic defense. The barricades surrounding the city enforced with heavy artillery fire manage to withstand the fierce attacks of the German Armored Division. The German dive-bombers and low-flying fighters ferociously zero in on the barricades, literally tearing them apart. In the powerful blasts, dead bodies of the Polish defenders fly high into the sky. But the remaining Polish artillery units shoot down numerous planes and devastates about eighty German tanks. Losses on both sides are heavy.
Zbyszek moves around hypnotized by the bloody scenes around. Although machine guns rattle, bullets whistle, and bombs explode around him, he doesn’t feel any fear. He watches the horrifying scenes like a movie. Everything around seems semi-real. Ignoring Dad’s order, Danusia and Mama do not take shelter. Instead, they report to the Red Cross to attend the wounded flooding the hospitals and medical shelters. In the evening, they all return home safely. But the oncoming days will be even tougher.
The German Blitzkrieg plan to capture Warsaw in the first week of the invasion fails. A new plan takes its place. The city will be encircled. President Starzy?ski talks to Warsawians on a regular basis. For all practical purposes, he takes full command of the defense of Warsaw. His passionate energy and iron determination keep Warsawians’ spirits high.
It is already mid-September. With despair, the people look into the sky for signs of British airplanes. They must come any moment now. We just need to hold the ground one more day. But with each coming hour, it is tougher and tougher to withstand the assault. The lack of electricity, lack of water, lack of medical supplies takes its toll. Soon the time will come when there will be lack of food and ammunition.
On September 17, instead of the British planes horrifying news strikes the desperate city under siege. The Soviet Army invaded Poland from the east!
“Julius!” Danusia thinks instantly. “What will happen to Julius?”
Until now she hasn’t been worrying about her handsome Polish officer from the Border Guard that much. The border troops from the East were the only units not directly engaged in the combat against Germans. She still has been hoping to get his letter soon. For sure the letter is on its way and once the bombardment stops she will get this so anxiously awaited letter.
Dad is in state of shock. “That is impossible! How could they?”
The Russian people have been his friends. He grew up with them, he played with them, and sailed with them all over the world. In harmony and friendship, they coexisted for centuries in the north-east region of Poland near Bras?aw, his hometown. And now they simply stabbed the Poles in the back, just like that, in blatant disregard of the valid bilateral treaties. That’s impossible! This must be just a rumor.
To invigorate the spirit of the fighting town, the radio broadcasts encouraging reports from the stunning battle near Bzura. Last week, a brave counter-attack of the Polish infantry divisions under the command of General Kutrzeba decisively defeated Germans. The Polish divisions crossed Bzura River and began advancing towards Warsaw. The Germans called for reinforcements and heavy fighting broke again. Parts of the Poznan and Pomorze Armies have joined forces and are on their way to give support to Warsaw. Some hope still lingers.
The residents of the State Mint are still optimistic. There has been no heavy damage to the building and no one has been lost. The men under the command of Captain To??oczo protect the building from looting and plan defensive operations. Every day in the evening Danusia’s family gathers at the supper table. Those moments of awaiting Zbyszek’s arrival are excruciating. Mama says prayers and Dad walks fiercely back and forth. When Zbyszek finally shows up, he looks like Lucifer, his cloth dirty and torn up, his face and hands full of scratches, his sweaty hair sticking up.
The evening meal becomes more problematic every day. Zbyszek brings less and less food and Mama digs deeper and deeper into her stocks of dried bread. Luckily, thanks to the old but perfectly preserved well on the premises of the State Mint, they have plenty of water. And water becomes more valuable with every passing day. To get water, people from the neighborhood stand day and night in long queue in front of the State Mint.
After the meal, Zbyszek and Dad like to chat. Quietly, they exchange the latest news. From time to time, they lower their voices to keep bad news away from Mama and Danusia. But this tactic always prompts their fierce objections and instant curiosity. Today, the big news hits the streets of Warsaw. Several thousand soldiers from the battle near Bzura river near Modlin north of Warsaw broke through the German encirclement and pushed their way through to Warsaw. But there is no news from the East.
After the initial announcement about the Soviet invasion, there is no follow-up news. And there is no news about the allies in the West either. Nothing, no planes, no counter-attacks, no news about delivery of arms, not even supportive statements, simply nothing. Is it a betrayal…?
But Warsaw continues fighting regardless and despite the worsening situation. The Polish airplane fighters from the Pursuit Brigade and the anti-aircraft forces have been withdrawn to the east a long time ago. German low-flying fighters attack defenseless civilians with impunity.
“Jesus Christ have mercy on us,” Mama cries. “The savages killed Basia’s son today,” she grieves.
“How, what happened?” Zbyszek is stunned. He knew Basia’s boy very well. His name was Eugene. He was a polite, quiet boy, and a very good student too. Sobbing heavily, Mama hides her face in her hands.
“They shot him on the street directly from the plane,” she chokes out.
“Oh, these low-flying planes with machine guns,” Zbyszek wonders. “I know; we have to watch them but you can hear them coming from the distance, you should be able to detect them early and hide.”
“But on the crowed street they were shooting defenseless people like ducks,” Mama screams in fury. “Oh God! Such a tragedy! Her only child! She couldn’t have a baby for many, many years, and finally this boy was born when she was in her late thirties. He was her whole world. Oh God! How can you watch all this cruelty!”
Over the next few days, the heroic voice of President Starzy?ski bolsters Warsawians’ spirit, alerts them to the air raids, and informs them about the bravery and numerous successes of the civil defense.
“Warsaw is fighting! Warsaw is fighting!” His charismatic strong voice is heard everywhere. Next, the mass is broadcasted from the Church of Saint Cross. Professor Kapusta delivers an inspiring, breathtaking sermon. Warsaw prays with hope.
Germans become nervous. Their plan to score fast victory has not been achieved. In their urge for success, the German media rushed to announce the defeat of Warsaw on September 9. That was the latest timetable acceptable to Hitler. But the deadline has not been met. In its fury, Luftwaffe decides to attack the heart of Warsaw, its most cherished historic and cultural monuments and national treasures.
The King’s Palace becomes their target. The scenes of the King’s Palace in flames and the destruction of the historic library with treasures of the ancient Polish collections bring down the nation’s spirit as nothing else during the entire invasion.
On September 25, Germans under the command of General Blaskowitz storm Warsaw from all directions. Hitler in person oversees the attack. Luftwaffe starts its greatest assault ever. Warsaw fights to the last bullet. By September 28, there is nothing to fight with.
Flames and fumes of the burning town, a hundred meters high, glow in the heart of Poland day and night. Over the three-day period, the city has endured 1,776 bombing sorties, 500 tons of explosives, and 72 tons of incendiaries. And there is no good news from the West but there is plenty of bad news from the East. Thousands of Polish soldiers are taken prisoners by the Soviets. President Starzy?ski as the leader of the courageous free people talks to the Warsawians for the last time.
We have done everything that is humanly possible to defend our Capital. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your heroic defense of our beloved Warsaw. Please remember–we didn’t lose! We will never lose! We will never yield in this fight for our country and for our freedom. For the time being, we only have to change tactics. Remember that! We don’t give up anything! We are only changing tactics, temporarily!
On September 29, the Germans enter Warsaw. General Blaskowitz of the victorious German 8th Army orders that the defenders of Warsaw be treated with respect.
The dead silence of the Warsaw Cathedral is interrupted from time to time by quiet sobbing or outright crying. It’s Thursday. No mass is scheduled during the day. And yet the Cathedral is full. The priests mingle with the crowd of parishioners.
Danusia on her knees hopelessly stares at the altar. “Our Father, Our Father…” She tries to pray swallowing tears. In search of God, her eyes venture high up to the sky then stop abruptly. “The balcony,” she realizes. “The familiar balcony.” Indeed high up, near the badly damaged ceiling, the small familiar balcony pverlooks the dark nave. From this balcony, she watched Marshal Pi?sudski in the open casket. It was only four years ago. She was still a child back then. But that feeling, that same awful feeling of unspeakable grief and fear…
“Oh, Great Marshal! Help us! Help us in this time of despair! Poland needs you! Now more than ever Poland needs your wisdom and your fatherly shield! Protect us and guide us through this hell on earth!” She puts her head down and with closed eyes plunges into dark abyss losing any sense of time or place.
“Danusia, my dear,” a warm caring voice wakes her up and a heavy hand affectionately touches her hair. Barely opening her eyes, she recognizes the presence of the dearest person. Dad kisses her soft hair.
“Let’s go, Danu?, let’s go.”
She gets up. Zbyszek and Mama stand in the doorway. She slowly moves towards them although deep inside she desperately wants to stay in the Cathedral. But Mama and Zbyszek are waiting. She walks into the street and the heavy cathedral door slowly closes behind her. She turns around. In the friendly twilight of the Cathedral, she left her happiness, her freedom, her sense of belonging and hope for the future. Everything good is left behind this door. Now she steps into the abyss of oppression, cruelty, and despair.
“No! No! I don’t want to go anywhere, leave me alone!” she cries hysterically.
“Danusia, darling. Remember what President Starzy?ski said. We didn’t lose! We will never lose because ultimately there is justice in the world. For now, we simply have to change the tactics. We will get our Poland back” Dad tries his best.
“Yes, but when? My life goes on and I will never again be 17,” she replies with bottomless despair.
They slowly walk home, Dad holding Danusia and Mama embracing Zbyszek as if she would try to hide him. It is not an easy walk. They have to pass through the barricades, barb wire entanglements, around bomb craters and rubbles of half ruined and ghostly burned out houses. Usually colorful and flowery yards are turned into mini cemeteries full of wooden crosses. The Church of Our Lady near the State Mint has been heavily hit and rests in ruins.
Haughtily parading through the rubbles, viciously victorious German soldiers quickly flood the city. The Polish soldiers must lay down arms. The group of sappers stationed in the State Mint must report to the Athenaeum Theater. Lieutenant Szulc in charge of the sapper detachment is devastated but, unlike his soldiers who openly cry, he must keep his countenance. Trying to put aside his emotions, he organizes the group and shouts the command. The soldiers in step leave the State Mint as the residents watch in dead silence.
The sappers not only have to lay down arms but they immediately become prisoners of war. Their fate is highly uncertain. They will be separated from each other and sent to different concentration and POW camps scattered throughout Germany. Danusia meets the departing sappers at the gate. In tears, she hugs Lieutenant Szulc.
“Good Bye,” he says.
“No,” she protests. “See you soon!” She corrects him, stressing the word “soon.” Then she looks around for another soldier, a friend of hers. She hasn’t seen him for a while but now he should be here. A quick glance through the rows of sappers. But he is not here.
“And where is Marian?” She hastily asks.
Silence. No answer. Only a sad grimace on his face, a gesture “don’t ask,” and a thump of a measured step of the departing detachment. Frozen, she follows them with her eyes, unable to cry, scream or shout.
This is a true story written by M. B. Szonert based on testimony of Danuta Karpowicz who took part in the defense of Warsaw against German blitzkrieg
in September 1939.
The youth of Warsaw digs shelters. Warsaw, September 4, 1939. Photo: Marek Skorupski /Agencja FORUM