Many Poles realized that the imminent arrival of the Red Army would jeopardize any chance of re-establishing Poland as an independent democratic nation after liberation.
Instead of a general insurrection against the Germans, in 1944 the Home Army launched Operation Tempest, a series of assaults in support of the advancing Red Army. It was hoped that this would establish common cause with the Soviets but, at the same time, show the Polish underground to be a significant political and military force in its own right, capable of taking over the country when the war was over.
Despite military success fighting alongside the Soviet forces, the Poles gained no political advantage. On the contrary, when campaigns were finished, Home Army soldiers were disarmed and given a choice by the NKVD (the Soviet Secret Police) of either joining the Polish First Army of General Berling, or facing arrest and almost certain deportation. In some cases, Home Army soldiers were executed.
Having reached Lublin, the 1st Belorusian Front continued west and north with the aim of establishing bridgeheads on the Vistula, the river that runs the length of Poland. By the end of July, the Second Guards Tank Army, commanded by Soviet Major General Radzievsky, had reached Garwolin – 60km southeast of Warsaw – where it engaged with and routed the German 73rd Infantry Division. The right flank of the Second Guards Tank Army was meant to be protected by the Forty-seventh Army, but a series of German counteroffensives to the east and northeast of Warsaw, including a major tank battle at Wołomin, forced a Soviet withdrawal.
The Red Army was within striking distance of Warsaw, and Moscow Radio urged the city’s inhabitants to rise up against their oppressors. This posed a terrible dilemma for the Home Army: should it engage with a ruthless enemy vastly superior in arms and numbers, running the risk of defeat and great loss of life, or do nothing and wait for the Russians to arrive, with the likelihood of being branded as Nazi collaborators? The London government-in-exile approved an uprising, and at 5pm on 1 August the Home Army’s commander, General Bór-Komorowski, ordered the go-ahead.
The uprising began with an attack on the German garrison, and for the next 63 days the Home Army and other insurgents attempted to drive the occupying forces from the city. Though they met with some early success, the odds against them were overwhelming. The Germans had brought in reinforcements and began pushing back the Poles street by street, slaughtering any civilians they encountered. The district of Wola was subjected to the most brutal treatment, with an estimated 50,000 people murdered over ten days in August. Throughout the uprising the insurgents used the city’s sewer system as a way of moving from district to district, despite the narrowness of many of the tunnels, and at the end of August the sewers were used to evacuate more than five thousand people from the Old Town to the Zoliborz district.
Although close by, the Red Army failed to assist the uprising. The widely held view is that this was deliberate. Initially Stalin would not even allow American and British supply planes to land in Soviet-held Polish territory. Some Allied air-drops did take place, but they were largely ineffective as much of the material landed in German-occupied areas. Attempts by Berling’s Polish First Army to cross the Vistula proved unsuccessful.
By the end of September, the Home Army was running out of weapons and men, and on 2 October Bór-Komorowski signed the capitulation. He and his remaining troops became prisoners of war; most of the civilian population were transported either to concentration camps or as forced labour to Germany. Hitler then ordered the destruction of Warsaw. One of the most beautiful capitals in Europe was plundered of anything valuable and then systematically dynamited, building by building, by a specialist SS detachment. Three months later, 85 percent of the city had been destroyed, at which point – in January 1945 – the Red Army entered to “liberate” a vast pile of smoking rubble.
Housed in a striking new building located on the site of Warsaw’s Jewish quarter (later the ghetto), the POLIN Museum outlines the history of the Jewish presence in Poland from the early Middle Ages to the present day. Its core exhibition is made up of eight galleries displaying a wealth of artefacts and multimedia displays, including a stunning replica of the ornately painted ceiling of the 17th-century Gwoździec Synagogue, destroyed in 1941. The Holocaust has a whole gallery dedicated to it, but the museum as a whole is as much a celebration of the Jewish contribution to Polish history as it is a memorial to its passing.
Standing in front of the POLIN Museum, this monument was erected in 1948 on the fifth anniversary of the ghetto uprising. A large monolithic wall, it has sculptural reliefs on either side, one depicting a line of deportees being taken away, the other a group of ghetto insurgents with a defiant Mordechai Anielewicz clasping a grenade. The monument was constructed from stone imported by the Nazis in anticipation of refashioning Warsaw as a German city.
Beginning at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, the Path of Remembrance is a memorial route marked by sixteen granite blocks, each one commemorating a significant person or organization in the ghetto’s history. Along the way you pass the bunker of the Jewish Fighters Organization (ŻOB). The route ends at the Umschlagplatz Monument, the assembly point near the train station from where thousands of Warsaw Jews were transported in crowded cattle trucks to the extermination camp at Treblinka.
A few small sections are all that survive of the 3-metre wall built by the Nazis to enclose the Warsaw Ghetto. Two can be accessed via a courtyard at ul. Sienna 55 and ul. Złota 62. Information plaques provide details of life in the ghetto and a map shows the area it occupied.
The aim of this museum is to tell the story of the Home Army and the citizens who supported it in the largest anti-German uprising in occupied Europe. Located in a former power station, the museum contains a wide range of exhibits and experiences, including a recreation of parts of the sewers and a replica B-24 bomber, the plane that took part in the Warsaw airlift. The rooms are arranged chronologically and much of the emphasis is on the activities of ordinary citizens, in the form of audio-visual displays and personal stories. The many photographs by Eugeniusz Lokajski, a commander during the uprising, provide a vivid record of the terrible suffering that Warsaw’s population endured in the face of sustained German brutality.
Completed in 1989, this monument was a belated and controversial attempt by the communist regime to acknowledge the heroism displayed in the uprising. It’s made up of two separate bronze sculptural groups: one representing a group of armed insurgents rushing forward from slabs of a collapsing building, the other showing soldiers assisting a mother and baby descend into the sewers, as a priest prays close by.
The Wola massacre ranks as one of the most sadistic and ruthless assaults against civilians of the entire war. Beginning on 5 August, groups of German soldiers moved through the western district systematically killing its inhabitants, irrespective of age, gender or involvement in the uprising. The most notorious unit – led by the sadistic Oskar Dirlewanger – went on a spree of torture, rape and murder. It is estimated that around 50,000 people were killed. The monument to the massacre, dedicated in 2006, represents a fragment of broken wall, on one side of which are the ghostly indentations of ten human figures.
A vast, 19th-century Tsarist prison, Pawiak was used by the Gestapo for holding and torturing Polish political prisoners. Over 100,000 people spent time here during the war, of whom around 37,000 were executed within the prison grounds. The Germans dynamited the whole building before retreating in 1944 and now only part of the main gateway and a few cells remain. The museum, housed in a separate building, tells the story of Pawiak and its inmates through photographs of prisoners, their personal effects and some reconstructed cells.
The imposing Ministry of Education building was used as the Gestapo headquarters during the war and now contains a small museum tucked away in a basement (entered through a door in the courtyard). There is only one route through the claustrophobic space, which contains some of the original holding cells and the interrogation room, complete with instruments of torture. The nightmarish atmosphere is heightened by the use of striking visual and sound effects, and some will find the experience distressing. Children under 14 years are not admitted.
During the spring of 1940, in the Katyń forest near Smolensk and at other locations, more than 20,000 Poles, including 10,000 army and police officers, were executed by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) – a mass execution known collectively as the Katyń Massacre. The first bodies were discovered by the Germans in 1943, but the Russians only admitted culpability in 1990. The museum commemorating the victims has recently been relocated to the Citadel fortress, where it is housed in a newly designed exhibition space that includes a small park. The displays, which use music and a soundscape, outline the events leading up to the massacre from the Nazi-Soviet pact onwards, but it’s the many personal belongings found on the exhumed corpses that have the most powerful impact.
Mass executions of Warsaw’s Polish elites were carried out in secret by transporting prisoners to a forest near the village of Palmiry west of the city. The blindfolded prisoners were lined up in front of long ditches which they fell into as they were shot. An estimated two thousand people were murdered here, many buried in the nearby cemetery. There is now a striking museum: its austere exterior of rusted steel is punctured by symbolic bullet holes, while the interior creates a more tranquil environment with a glass wall looking out on to the forest. The display contextualizes the murders but also tells how the forest was used by Polish Resistance forces to train and to hide weapons.
Located about 100km northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka was, after Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp that saw the greatest number of killings as part of Aktion Reinhard. Around 800,000 Jews were murdered here, along with some 2000 Romani. There were two camps: Treblinka I, built in November 1941, was a forced labour camp for Poles and Jews; Treblinka II, 2km to the east, was added as an extermination centre in April 1942. Most of the Jews deported here came from the ghettos of Warsaw and Radom. In April 1943 Jewish prisoners organized a revolt and three hundred managed to escape, though most were recaptured. The Germans started dismantling Treblinka II shortly afterwards, forcing surviving inmates to exhume and burn corpses. When the Red Army arrived in July 1944, much of the camp had disappeared.
Today the emptiness and isolation of the site is powerfully affecting. A small museum near the car park has a few exhibits, including archive photos and a scale model of the camps. The large stone memorial is surrounded by a field of smaller stones marked with the names of the cities and villages from where the victims came.
Top image: Warsaw Uprising Monument © Sauleshechka/Shutterstock