Sunday, January 25, 2015

Warsaw Uprising

It was my last day in Poland and I set it aside for the Warsaw Uprising Museum. It's not really close to the other places I visited and the guides ensured me there was enough to fill at least half a day. I took a bus and a tram and walked to get there. I can't recall exactly, but maybe I spent three hours looking around. And the guides were right, I left not seeing everything, but I do think I got the big highlights. 

I had no idea what the Warsaw Uprising was prior to this visit. I saw it all over the materials I read in preparation for visiting Warsaw but not really having a clue about it. Let me share what I learned. If you already knew about this, you can skip to the pictures or just finish here :). 

It's wrapped up in WWII. I may have mentioned earlier, WWII began September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. September 3rd France and Great Britain declare war on Germany in alliance with Poland. However, no military support is yet provided. By September 7th, the Germans reach Warsaw.  

As the Germans take over, the Soviets logically argue "if there is no government in Poland anymore, there is no non-aggression pact either".  They proceed to invade Poland from the east. 

The last troops of the Polish Army surrender on October 5, 1939. 
Courtesy of someone else's blog (

Based on an agreement reached between the two occupiers (Germany and the Soviet Union), Poland is split in half, Warsaw and Kraków being in the German half. The Soviets incorporate their portion into existing territories, what we know today as Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Slovakia. All parties begin to exterminate Polish leaders. Property is requisitioned for common use. Food supply chains are disrupted. The first camp is established in what's left of 1939 (Stutthof; Auschwitz-Birkenau is second in 1940). Polish education is disrupted - either replaced with new curriculum or taken away completely. In the German sector, Jews begin to be segregated as well into ghettos. In the Soviet sector, the nationalities are set against each other. 

This continues and worsens over the next 4+ years. ***Side track for a moment. Over four years under the occupation of horrible neighbors. What were you doing in the fall of 2010? Can you imagine someone occupying your state/country from then until today? In my and your lifetimes, there has not been a war waged on the continental US soil (I'm not counting drug wars and terrorist activities). I hope there never is. But I think it gives us a different perspective of war than people who have lived through it, are living through it now or grow up with a parent or grandparent that lived through it with physical scars still visible on the land and buildings where you live. We have soldiers and veterans but we haven't lived through it as a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country. How do you come back from something like this? On either side of the war zone. Side track over.***

Although formally surrendered, Poland has fighters who form an underground army and government/leadership. In 1944, they actually begin to coordinate or fight along side the Soviets, the Red Army, to take back some of the towns under German occupation. However with each success, the Red Army disarms the Polish Home Army and in many cases arrests the local leaders of the Home Army. You liberate yourselves from one captor only to be immediately occupied by another.  The activity moves westward until it nears Warsaw in July of 1944. 

The Red Army is to the east of Warsaw and supports the Polish fighting of the Germans. There are some German evacuations but the Germans prepare to defend the city. On August 1, 1944 at 5pm, the uprising begins. In the first few days, the Home Army is able to take control of various areas of the city, including the power station. 
Taken from the Home Army Museum website (

However the Germans maintain control of strategically important objects and over the next few days retake portions of the city. On August 11, the Germans descend on Old Town (area from my last post) where heavy artillery and air missiles are used. The historic district is rubble. Support from other Home Army units tries to come but cannot reach them. On September 1st and 2nd, the soldiers pass through the sewers from Old Town to join the remainder of the Home Army. 

The fighting continues through September with the Soviets not offering much support and the Germans regaining territory. The Home Army and civilians still in Warsaw suffer from famine and increased lack of hope as no progression is made against German forces. The Allies try to help, but the distance is so long from Italian airbases and Stalin refused the use of Soviet airspace. The first airdrop from Allies (Americans) arrives September 18th, too far into the uprising to offer much assistance. 

The Germans defeat the final strongholds of the Home Army and a capitulation agreement is signed October 2, 1944. Meanwhile the Red Army has been sitting just across the river on the east side of Warsaw this whole time. Just waiting. 

The capitulation requires soldiers to lay down their weapons and leave the city along with civilians. Soldiers are sent to POW camps, mistreated along the way and water withheld from them. Civilians undergo selection and are sent to work camps in Germany or camps in Poland. Some remained in hiding in the rubble until the Soviets finally arrived on January 17, 1945. 

Losses during the Uprising included over 18,000 Home Army soldiers and 180,000 civilians.

Contrary to the signed capitulation agreement, Germans proceed to destroy Warsaw. Of 987 historical buildings, 923 were damaged or destroyed, including monuments, schools, churches, libraries, archives and works of art. The museum includes a 3-D movie where you fly over Warsaw as it was at the end of the Uprising. It reminded me of a town where an F5 tornado or the like had just ripped through and left nothing standing. It looked like ruins I've seen in Rome and Greece where there are only walls left and from above you can only see the outlines where walls stand. 

At the end of the movie, I was shocked by the following information about the population of Warsaw (roughly):
Before the war - 1,300,000
Before the uprising - 900,000
After the uprising - 10,000
Almost everyone was displaced or killed. 

Even though the Germans are eventually defeated, the Poles have no chance at independence and now become part of the Soviet Union. 

A monument to the children or "little insurgents" who fought with the Home Army. 

The museum was quite good and is relatively new. In addition to the 3-D film, was a black and white film put together from footage taken during the two months of fighting in Warsaw. There's a replica of the Allied plane used to drop supplies along with videos of interviews with some of the men in those planes. There is a replica sewer for you to walk through and imagine. There are many, many first hand accounts from soldiers, wives, children, etc. you see what life was like and how they managed under occupation. Everything was in English and Polish.

After leaving the museum, I headed to the hotel, airport and back to Geneva for Thanksgiving. 

Note: My memory, not always being so clear two months after the fact, was aided by pamphlets taken from the Warsaw Uprising Museum and used to summarize the actions and commentary above. Pictures of the destruction were taken from the museum website, 

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