A Futile Last Effort for Freedom

A Futile Last Effort for Freedom

by Kenneth Rayman on April 7, 2019
Before coming to Warsaw, I had found the Polish Institute of National Remembrance's video on YouTube that introduced me to the event known as the Warsaw Uprising. I'd seen the 2002 movie "The Pianist" chronicle both uprisings in Warsaw, the Jewish Ghetto uprising in April 1943 and the Home Army Uprising in August 1944; yet, with no cinematic or prior educational context, assumed the dates were there for story/war timeline purposes. The Institute's video provided an opportunity for me to bridge a knowledge gap of the Polish character through the Battle of Monte Cassino and the 303 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, two other equally unknown facets of Polish WW2 experience. I thought the 1944 Uprising would be more contextual and easily understood if I waited until I was on location. I was right both in terms of understanding it and grasping it's reality.

I spent the first full day in Warsaw touring the Old Town, the former ghettos and, visiting Uprising monuments in the Old Town and outside the Polish Supreme Court. In the Old Town, I learned of the neighborhood fighting and the deadly effects of the Wehrmacht's Goliath, a mobile mine resembling a tank, in killing insurgents, civilians and destroying buildings, as Hitler had decreed the city to be razed in response. I later learned that Hitler and Himmler wanted to "make an example" of Warsaw to other occupied cities, not only physically destroying the city but also commanding SS units to exterminate the population.

Within the Old Town there is a statue to the "Little Insurrectionist" in honor of the children who were part the Uprising often in a courier and smuggler capacity, yet rarely fighting on the front lines though some did. The Uprising was planned by the Polish Underground Home Army to coincide with the German westward retreat, to retake their own city, as they fled the advancing Soviets. Unfortunately the Soviets inexplicably halted their advance on the other side of the Vistula river at the city's border, sending only a small Polish conscript force across the river, leaving the Home Army to fend for itself. There is still debate on whether this was a deliberate action by Stalin, as he wanted to remake Warsaw in his own image rather than support a freedom fighting operation.

With the insurgency now lasting longer than the anticipated 48 or so hours, they had to make due with very little resources after the Germans eventually were reinforced. The U.S. and British would attempt several airlifts to drop supplies, however due to the scattered positioning of insurgent held areas barely any of the supplies reached the Poles themselves. Out of a total 330 tons of food, weapons, and medicine, on 70 tons fell into Polish hands. The Soviets would refuse to let British and American crews to land in Soviet held territory, meaning plane crews were in danger of never returning from the long flight from Italy or being shot down. Soviet airdrops would only happen toward the end of the Uprising and were often fruitless as they dropped supplies without parachutes.

At the Polish Supreme Court, I would be told about the sewer usage to traverse the city and keep fighting. The double monument symbolizing the effort would consist of a battle scene and of two soldiers entering a sewer while one holds a fleeing civilian back. The civilian is said to be held back to let the army through, as the Germans murdered civilians entering first thereby blocking the entrance. Acting on Himmler's order, army units entered the Wola neighborhood and killed 40,000 indiscriminately to break the fighters' will at the outset and would later use Polish civilians are human shields as they entered neighborhoods to fight.

The Museum itself, brings the experience home even more by highlighting the stories of participants, like the children, students, teachers, writers, and everyday civilians who formed the ranks or worked in the makeshift hospitals. Their stories of previous lives coupled with their efforts during the fighting showed the futile reality of the fight as well as the personal sacrifice as they fought to free themselves, in vain, from the Germans. Daily life is brought forth through anecdotes on the struggle to provide for physical needs as supplies for the over 1 million inhabitants quickly drained, even with the Allied airdrops and warehouses that were secured. With religion playing such a big part of Polish life, the spiritual needs were shown through preserved religious shrines that were set up in courtyards for soldiers to pray and hold field masses. To me, this showed that even in their darkest hours, their core cultural value could not and would not be sacrificed even in a hopeless fight.

The museum, as an overall exhibit, it set up very well though as crowds build, noise levels can interfere for those unaware of the extent of the event, learning as we go, and may struggle. It is set up to guide you through the day to day experience through collectible leaflets that state key moments of the day's battle, however though the English audioguide encourages them to be collected as souvenirs, the slips are only in Polish. The presentation of events and detail of the daily struggle for existence is very well thought out and creatively presented; at one point, you walk through a hallway made to look and feel like you're crawling through a sewer tunnel. The final exhibit shows the end of the war toll on the city, with a representation of Warsaw after the fighting stopped, representations of a plane and machines like the Goliath, along with a film about the end of the Uprising in the city.

I got more context through media after the visit that brought the guide's and museum's information to life and made comprehension even harder to fathom. The Polish movie, "Miasto '44" showed the absolute brutality of Nazi genocide, bringing back memories of the visit, making some scenes hard to watch. I found a handful of videos on YouTube as well to further make sense of this period of history from the BBC and CNN, but the experience of Warsaw in WW2 is something I don't think anyone will ever be able to fully grasp without being from there or having lived it.