Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany at the outbreak of the Second World War. Of its population of 30 million seven million had died before the war was over.
In August 1944 the people of Warsaw made one last attempt to rid themselves of their Nazi rulers. Their uprising was to coincide with the arrival of the Russians, and was intended to show the Western allies that the Polish people were united and strong, and would not be liberated from one country’s grasp only to be handed into another’s.
Their fears for their future in Russian hands was justified as the fate of their courageous uprising was to prove.
Anna Boguslawski was a member of the underground army in Warsaw. It was a miracle that she survived to tell what happened.
She has written a book, a diary of the days of the uprising because, as she says: “I wanted to remember how people behaved in this moment of strength. There was so much sacrifice and suffering, it couldn’t be covered in silence.”
After a few months of war, Poland was occupied. People thought about how to defend themselves, but we didn’t believe such a state of things could last. Our belief in the West was enormous. We never doubted that the Germans would be defeated.
The underground army was organised to defend ourselves. Hundreds and thousands were recruited. We all worked in units of five. I knew only those five names; the person in command of the units perhaps knew a few more key people, but no one knew more than they had to.
It was dangerous work too. If the Germans discovered a unit of the underground resistance, they shot or tortured everyone, or put them into concentration camps.
One day a young man came to my father’s house. He ran in and ran straight to my sick mother’s room and hid there. Then the Germans arrived, demanding to know if my father had seen a young man come in. He said no. If they had realised my father was lying they would have shot everyone in the house.
We had secret courts in the underground, that tried the people who collaborated with the Germans.
They also dealt with the Germans. If they were too cruel they were sent letters telling them they would be shot. And they were. My brother was one of the group who shot the Governor of Warsaw.
We had our own press. No one read the daily paper edited by the Germans. We had several papers secretly printed. They were small, like a magazine, and passed from hand to hand. You gave them to people you could trust.
It was always a chance to survive. If you did nothing the risk was the same. If a German was killed, 100 or 500 would be killed in retaliation. They put the Gestapo at both ends of a street and everyone in it was shot. If the people shouted out the Germans would fill their mouths with cement.
Thousands were killed in this way – relatives didn’t know what had happened. Weeks later the Germans would paste up lists of names in the streets advertising how many had died in these revenge killings. They wanted to be sure we knew what they had done.
I was expecting a baby when the war broke out. My husband was arrested and taken to a concentration camp. I never saw him again. So I was on my own.
When I was pregnant I was always hungry. It’s hard being pregnant and hungry. So I learnt all about the black market. We worked from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon. Then I visited friends who gave me small amounts of food. I’d be out selling them the next morning at five, and that way I could afford milk and eggs for my baby. The black market saved Warsaw from starvation. But it was dangerous. If the Germans found people with food they were shot.
To live was dangerous.
When Eve was one year old I started working full-time for the underground, collecting food for hospitals, transporting ammunition around. It was exciting passing the soldiers, with ammunition hidden in your bag!
Life was hard. The Germans made a law that no one could earn more than they did before the war, in spite of very high inflation. I earned enough to buy a kilo of sugar a month! But, if you could prove you were working you weren’t sent to Germany. People without jobs were sent to Germany as slaves.
Before the war I had been working in the Association of Polish Co-operatives. It organised co-operative shops and distribution, agriculture and financial help. All the profits went to the members. The co-operative movement here in Britain has decayed now. But the co-operative movement in our country then was really something very big. It is a movement about democracy, because it destroys profit, it is anti-capitalist.
Some hoped we could destroy capitalism altogether this way. But capitalism isn’t so easily destroyed.
When the Germans came they closed the co-ops and took over the lorries and the distribution network.
The uprising was organised to show that we had a right to our country. We had to show the world that the Poles were themselves chasing the Germans out of Poland. It began on 1 August 1944.
Three hundred thousand people died during those two weeks. Everything was destroyed; people, buildings, paintings, archives. There were hundreds of thousands of young people who had trained for four years to fight the Germans and it was difficult to hold them back. We knew that if we didn’t win they would destroy us.
We knew days before that the uprising was coming. My job was running a kitchen for the army, quite near to my house. When I got to work that day I was told there was going to be an inspection, that was all, but I wouldn’t stay for it, I needed to go out and look or potatoes.
I was out looking for the potatoes when the fighting began. I couldn’t get back. It was very highly organised, starting in several districts at once, at exactly the same moment.
Perhaps it was lucky that I was out. My own district was taken by the Germans within 24 hours, and almost everyone was killed.
I spent the next two months living in a house with people I had never met before. That was how it was – everyone was together. That was why the fighting lasted for so long, everyone supported our army. Those one million people in Warsaw were all together.
Only the work that had to be done gave you the strength to stand up to the terror of it. The German aeroplanes flew overhead every half hour, from eight in the morning to eight at night. At any moment you could be killed.
There were so many practical problems to deal with you had no time to think. I was head of a children’s kitchen. We fed 150 children and babies everyday. Those babies were dying without our help so I had no time to think about myself.
Instead you had to think: where to get food, how to cook it, how to feed the children during the bombardments. I got up at 6am every morning and didn’t stop until after 6 at night when the work was done.
We had civilian officers as well as those for our army, and they had to decide who needed most help with food. It was all soup and bread. But in practice we fed everyone. When a mother came from another district with a child that had not eaten for two days we gave them food.
Everyone looked for work and there was plenty to do. Besides the soldiers, there were hospitals to run, canteens to feed the people – that meant finding food for 1000 in our district.
Fighting went on everywhere. The population kept changing as people escaped from the Germans in one district.
Everything was free. We paid for nothing. Papers, hospitals, doctors, food. It was a life without money. Little boys delivered letters, and ran with the papers. We still had several even during the uprising. Boys too young for the army were liaison officers – running between the lines. They often got killed.
Fortunately I had sent Eve away from Warsaw before the uprising began. I knew children who were caught up in it who were neurotic for the rest of their lives. It was so frightening.
Then one day the canteen was bombed. The whole street was bombed. We would hide in the cellars during raids, but when buildings five stories high collapse those cellars become graves. Wherever you went it was dangerous.
The day after they bombed the canteen the Germans came into our district. I was taken to a transit camp. I left Warsaw with nothing but the clothes I stood up in – a summer dress, a linen coat and bare feet and sandals.
Anyone who could work was sent to Germany. The old and mothers with children were allowed to stay. I was lucky. I managed to persuade them I should stay.
There were thousands of us who had nothing. We had no food, no clothes. But the war showed how people were ready to help each other. All the refugees from Warsaw were given help to survive, by people who were so poor themselves.
Warsaw became a dead town. Everyone left or was taken away. Even after the uprising was over the Germans continued to dynamite the buildings. It was left in ruins.
Whether the uprising was right or not I don’t know. Perhaps only the historians can tell. But you must remember we thought the Russians were coming to our help. We could hear their guns firing they were so close. They gave the message to start the uprising, and then they didn’t come.
I saw my daughter again after two months, and two years later I escaped from Poland, this time from the Soviet police. It was a crime to be in the underground army! The Russians sent people from Poland to Siberia and the concentration camps there.
We escaped into Germany, and then to Britain, where we spent another year in a camp.
Eve kept me alive in those days. I always had to work and to think about how I was going to organise her life. That gave me energy and stopped me thinking about my future.
It was a hard time for women. They had to fend for their families as the men were either fighting, or in the camps; sometimes they escaped to the West, or perhaps they just couldn’t work. So the women had to work. They became the heads of the families, taking responsibility for everything.
My mother died during the uprising. She was ill. The people who knew her said it was her luck that she died, her life would have been hell had the Germans got her. Everyone, sick and healthy, were shipped out to the camps. So I thank god that she died and didn’t have to try and survive as we did in those terrifying days.
Anna Boguslawska interviewed by Margaret Renn