Poles walk along the historic cobblestoned boulevards, swept immaculately and lined with the most exquisite Hanseatic architecture. Copper covered conical spires, now green with tarnish but still quite beautiful, examples of Northern Germanic Gothic churches poke out above brick frieze work and stonewalls. Roman arches evident inside buildings forty times older than the retail establishments they rent to are swarmed with well-dressed shoppers, and professionals on break. Outside they are surrounded by street vending carts festooned with fruits and vegetables, baskets of eggs, and snaking around old narrow streets one finds modern stores replete with all the fine goods and produce you might find in Berlin, or Moscow.
A woman stops at a bridge, a Byzantine masterpiece now appointed with fresh flowers for anyone to enjoy. The Pole pulls out a pack of cigarettes, Chesterfields, an American brand that made its way to a black market in jazz clubs that found lucrative small time smuggling of American smokes, among other things, from supply ships in the western beachheads. She flicks her lighter, takes a drag and watches the smoke wind its way up in lazy circles. The sun is about to set and it seems as if, perhaps at least for the short term, that some culture is returning to Warsaw. The Warsaw uprising caught the Germans by surprise and many areas of town have been recaptured from the Germans. The telephone exchange was back in Polish hands. Live jazz was heard from sidewalk cafes. Fresh eggs reappeared in the market. The throaty baritone roar of German tank fire had grown silent. Recently, a couple spread a blanket out in the park and shared a sandwich, an act that seems unremarkable, but for the circumstances it was indeed.
Warsaw has always been a rat caught between two cats, Germany and Russia. And of course no Pole really believed that the miniscule surprise success of the uprising would be permanent. Himmler, unbeknownst to the brave Polish resistance, was about to commit a massive counter strike on the hapless citizens of Warsaw, a magnificent city that will never be the same. Just thirty years earlier in 1914, the Poles had successfully shed themselves of the Tsars. Now, again, this magnificent city had to defend itself against a massive army. It would turn out to be an unstoppable massacre that the Russians did little to stop and the US and Britain could do little to stop.
The Spring of 1944 saw the Warsaw uprising (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising). The Poles were no idiots. They looked East and saw an ever increasing stream of German troops headed back to Germany. Warsaw citizens began seeing tanks covered with wounded men in bloody wrappings, the machines themselves appeared worn down to their last kilometer, emitting fricative back fires, some pouring columns of smoke into the air, all piled onto the thorough fares that Nazi’s once pranced down disdainfully. The lines of battle were no longer heading away, they were returning, and this gave the Poles hope that perhaps someone would finally drive them out of their country. Of the over a million residents who lived in Warsaw’s central region at the outset of the war, now there were only about 75,000 left. The uprising would rest on their soldiers. Frankly they wanted to do something to help themselves. With almost no help, they held off SS troops for ten weeks.
What was left of the actual government of Poland after the German invasion on September 1st 1939 had moved to London. When England fell it was re-established in Paris. The Polish government was highly respected by the Allies and especially the British. Over 120 Polish fighters flew missions against the Germans in the Battle of Britain. They were awesome pilots and they helped defeat the Germans. So the Polish leaders impotently issued statements and pleas and demands from a new city. At the end of the day, the Allies were too far away to really help the Poles.
Prior to the war a third of the population of Warsaw was Jewish. Perhaps this is why Hitler was merciless when attacking the city. When the Russians took back Lublin, Stalin set up a government there, of course with a Communist leader. “Jews, Poles and Bolsheviks,” Hitler would remark to his senior staff often. Now Warsaw had all three. That said, the Germans put all the Jews into a tiny ghetto that was about 2% of the size of Warsaw. A total of 400,000 Jews were sent there, 100,000 died of disease and starvation or random acts of violence and cruelty; and 254,000 Jews were sent to Treblinka where they were murdered. During the day, Jewish children went into the Aryan areas and Polish citizens loaded them up with food or other things they needed. A thin 8 year old with a look of determination heads into the streets, a cap covering his eyes, and a coat full of bread and cigarettes ducks into a small grocery store, shelves almost bare, the owner smoking a cigarette gives him a nod. The boy ducks behind the cooler and through a curtain and emerges into the ghetto streets. “Gut gut,” says his father, distributing the bread onto shelves. Now he can sell the cigarettes and perhaps buy medicine. On April 19th, 1943. The Nazi’s covered most of the Jewish Ghetto and kept news reporters away with guards and minatory machine gun emplacements, cloaking the slow hell of starvation and misery – and they watched it happen with a sort of distant finality of a Spartan watching the wounded die after a battle. But the Jews resisted in every way they could. On April the 19th, 1943, Nazi troopers surrounded the ghetto like Orcs following Mordor. They even used their giant mortar, Thor, that fired a 600mm shell from a mile and a half away and it lobbed a 4000 pound bomb at that. This bomb was also later used to destroy the rest of Warsaw itself. Once the reprisals started, 60,000 Jews died within about 24 hours, many on the spot.
The Spring uprising in 1944 surprised the Germans but reprisals killed 40,000 Poles within the first few weeks. Dead lay everywhere, corpses were ignored or turned face down to hide their rictus, and covered up to confer some dignity for the dead. The Germans thought the sophisticated Poles would be pusillanimous defenders. Not so. Heinz Guderian remarked that the street fighting in Warsaw was far more vicious than even fighting in Stalingrad. The fact of the matter is that the Poles were hopelessly under-armed, they were hopelessly out numbered, yet with what few supplies they had, they resisted. Every shop worker who had a lathe or a drill became an arms manufacturer. Plumbers took pipe and turned it into mortar tubes. Tins cans were emptied of food and filled with explosives and shrapnel. Anyone with an antique hunting rifle became a sniper. “A German with every bullet,” became the call of the resistance when ammunition was rare. A woman peering out of her apartment window reported on German movements to resistance fighters.
Resistance was fierce, but ultimately futile. Britain was too far away from this theatre of operation to make a difference. The US sent 110 B-17s in to drop supplies into the ghetto at the end of the Summer of 1944, but 90% of the supplies fell into German hands. What did get in, improved morale. That Summer, the Poles took back some real estate, the post office and the police station.
By August, 100,000 civilians within the city itself were boxed into a small corner of the city. The Germans were relentless coming after them. Any Pole caught would be shot on the spot, and groups would be shot or sent to concentration camps. The situation on the ground was desperate. Fighting and shelling were constant things. The sound of gunfire went on all day and night. The air was filled with cordite and the stink of rotting flesh. There was no water and food was scarce. The news carried nothing but bad news for the beleaguered Poles. In August the Germans began using Stuka dive-bombers on citizens, it’s loud screaming siren added to the fear and confusion that preceded the slaughter of innocents.
Those not already driven insane by the death and destruction were worn down to starved nubs of humanity, weak already from disease and the constant terror of warfare. At the end of September, after being constantly hounded by Churchill, and the legitimate Polish government in exile, the Russians made a perfunctory effort of helping. The did manage to push the Germans back to the Vistula.
Alas, on the 29th of September in 1944, the Germans made one last thrust into Warsaw. On the 4th of October, 9000 Poles surrendered. Not to be confused with the duration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the city uprising took 63 days. 25,000 Poles outside the ghetto were dead and the Germans followed the operation with a building by building destruction of the rest of the city.