RESISTANCE: THE FIRST STIRRINGS
The first winter of war was long and difficult. The incredible shock of defeat combined with the feeling of shame that it had taken only a few weeks to turn us from a free and proud Nation into slaves of Germany and Russia, 3 our traditional enemies. After nearly a hundred and fifty years of foreign domination, Poland had enjoyed about twenty years of independence, barely enough to raise a generation of free born citizens. And now this... There was terrible recrimination and soul searching: Why? What went wrong? Why did we not know of their war preparations, their panzer divisions, their air force, and their tactics of total war? Why were we told that we were "strong, united and ready" when we were equipped only by standards of the last war? Thousands of our soldiers and officers were herded into Prisoner of War camps in Germany. Many were wounded, most were dirty, dispirited and defeated. Some civilians who had left during the general retreat to the East were now drifting back bringing news of those killed or taken prisoners by the Russian Army. There were many new widows, orphans and, perhaps the most tragic, those who just did not know what had happened to their loved ones. There was human misery everywhere, shortages of all commodities, even hunger.
It was indeed a very difficult winter. But there was still hope. Everything was not lost. The war was not yet over. We may have lost the battle, but at the same time our western allies had gained a few months of invaluable time to prepare and learn from our experience. The German victory in Poland cost the enemy considerable losses in men and equipment. There was no doubt in our minds that come spring, the fortunes of war would change for the better and our nightmare would end. Nothing could shake our faith in our traditional allies, the French, and in the might of Great Britain. It was going to be the spring of our deliverance.
Finally... the spring of 1940 and, with
that the German conquest of Norway and.... On May 10 at dawn the Germans
simultaneously attacked Holland and Belgium in order to gain access to
France between the sea and the end of the impenetrable French Maginot Line.
By early June it was over. Belgium, Holland and France were defeated. England
managed to evacuate from the beaches of Dunkirk what was left of their
forces in France and some allied soldiers including a sizable group of
Polish pilots who had fought in Poland then in France and now were on their
way to England to fight again. There was now only England left, and
they would have to fight not only for their own survival but also for the
survival of the whole western civilization. And for that they had not much
more than the iron determination of Winston Churchill.
By then we in Poland knew that it would be a long time before our liberation, which would certainly not come without a price. Everywhere one could see arrogant faces of German soldiers drunk with their victory and French wine. Soon came the first mass arrests and executions mostly of politicians, intellectuals and religious leaders, then, overnight curfew and marshal law.
General economic deprivation of the population, especially in towns, made life extremely hard for many. The names of places of executions like Palmiry and Wawer become deeply engraved in our national consciousness. The concentration camp Oswiecim (Auschwitz) becomes a national reality. But somehow we were unimpressed with all this German "might" and "invincibility". More and more people, young and old, were secretly meeting for, what one Polish poet from the previous century called, and "long nightly talks". 4 With a history, more than a hundred years long of uprisings against German and Russian occupations of our Country, turning to conspiracy to resist came to us as naturally as if it were in our genes. Come to think of it maybe it was. Having your parents, grandparents and great grandparents involved in armed struggles for independence influences your formation. One night in June, all of a sudden, the town square near the sixteenth century parish church erupted in a pandemonium of shots and explosions. It lasted for about an hour. Our uneasy sleep that night was brutally interrupted in the early hours of the morning by the banging of rifle butts against our front door. A detachment of German gendarmerie arrested my mother. She was the only woman among about a dozen hostages picked up from more prominent citizens of town. Just what caused the wild shoot-out was never made clear. The hostages were shown a partly burned body of a man wearing something resembling a uniform. They were asked if they knew the dead man and then were told that they were to be executed because a German officer had been killed. It turned out that a homeless manwearing Polish military uniform used to stay overnight inside the southern belfry of the ancient church. Nearby were German administration offices and "Soldatenheim".* Some passing soldier must have seen the homeless beggar and taking him for an enemy, started the wild shooting. In the confusion and darkness not only the poor beggar, but also a German officer a military doctor trying to restore order, was shot by panic crazed and possibly drunk soldiers. Luckily for our hostages he was decent enough to tell his companion just before dying, that he was shot by accident by a German soldier. After extensive investigation and many indignities the hostages were released.
Before a second winter of war was upon us, the underground resistance movement in the town of Wegrow and the entire district was in full swing. At that stage the main activity was secretly listening to BBC radio broadcasts, printing and distribution of the clandestine press as well as collecting and conserving arms, explosives and electronic equipment that could be used in future warfare.5
To start with it was not a single organization. Far from it. Like any "grass roots" movement, different groups usually reflected the political colors of their members. Nevertheless, whatever the color, the underlying motivation to serve the Nation was the same. The backbone of the conspiracy,6 at least on our territory, was the existing network of municipal administration including elected townships and village headmen** that the Germans, for lack of their own personnel and with the exception of Wegrow, left mostly intact. All these people almost with no exception remained without interruption in the service of their Country. A second rich source of membership for the underground organizations was students, professors and alumni of our High School.7
Slowly the movement for unification started. One of our local underground organizations, part of a much larger group already had links with "London" and therefore the official sanction of the Polish Government in exile in England.8 One day, as if by accident, I met our scoutmaster Edmund Zarzycki whom I knew was in charge of the local chapter of this group. After the usual: "how are you, what's new" - we had been informally exchanging our underground press releases - he told me that the new military commandant of ZWZ 9 under whose authority his group now was, wanted to meet me for unification talks. We set the time and place for the afternoon of the next day near the stream called Czerwonka, which flows, on the outskirts of town and not far from my house.
I can still remember as if it was yesterday, an early spring day, windy and on the cool side. Edmund Wolski 10 (Capt. Zygmunt Maciejowski) arrived on a bicycle. He wore a gray summer jacket, the sleeves of which looked a bit too short, as if the garment was not made for him. We shook hands. He spoke briefly and to the point. There was no difficulty in convincing me about the need for unification. Like the majority of youth of my generation, grown up in Independent Poland,
I firmly believed that the first task was to free our Country and then decide how to run it. A while later in the living room of my own home I was repeating after my new commander the words of a solemn oath: "Before the Almighty God and, Blessed Mary ever Virgin, our Queen, I place my hand on this Holy Cross, sign of Suffering and Salvation, and I swear...11
In relatively short time I managed to convince
most of my colleagues from my undergroundgroup with whom I had contact
to join. More importantly, I arranged the meeting between Capt. Wolski
and my territorial commander Lt. Wladyslaw Razmowski , code name Poraj,
who then became Wolski's deputy commander. Between captain and later
major Wolski and myself there was from the first day a genuine friendship.
He and I were the last to leave when there was nothing more to be done....
** Called "wojt" for a township headman and "soltys" for a village leader.
3 On September 17, 1939 on the strength of a secret agreement with Germany, the Soviet Army attacked Poland from the east, thus administering the final blow.
4 A. Mickiewicz in "Pan Tadeusz" in reference to the 1812 Napoleonic war against Russia in which Poles, then under Russian domination, participated on the French side.
5 Under German marshal law in the occupied territories, possession of any fire arm, radio equipment or clandestine newspaper meant an automatic death penalty.
6 The word "conspiracy" has, in the English language, a rather negative meaning, and is usually associated with common criminals. However being under brutal occupation we did not have the luxury of warfare in the open. The phenomenon of conspiracy was simultaneously our national tragedy and an honorable tradition.
7 In the pre WW2 Polish system, secondary education consisted of gymnasium (grades 7-10) for a general education, and lyceum (grades 11-12 or 13) which provided more specialized direction on a college level. Graduating students sat a test for the Maturity Certificate ("Matura"), which was necessary for entrance to university, officers school et cetera. For convenience and clarity the term" High School" will be used in the text.
8 The Constitution of the Republic of Poland provided for the possibility of the Government being forced to continue outside of the Country, and therefore it did function legally during the war years first in France , then in England and was recognized by all allied governments. As such it had authority over Polish Armed Forces inside and outside the Country.
9 ZWZ (Armed Struggle Union) was the first underground organization under the direct authority of the Polish Government. Later the name was changed to Home Army (AK for Armia Krajowa).
10 "Nom de guerre" or code-name.... For rather obvious reasons in underground activity like ours the use of code-names and false documents was a must. My nom de guerre was Radek and occasionally I used the name of Andrzej Brzeski.
11 In the XVII century,
during the religious wars in Europe, when almost all of Poland was overrun
by the army of a Swedish king, only the abbey] at Czestochowa with its
famous icon of "Black Madonna" miraculously withstood the siege. This changed
the fortunes of war and in no time the Swedish forces were driven out.
As an act of thanksgiving to Virgin Mary the then king of Poland Jan Kazimierz,
in a solemn ceremony in the cathedral of Lwow proclaimed Her the Queen
of Poland. Her feast falls on May 3rd.