In February 1943, two months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Russians defeated the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad.
The Battle of Stalingrad; still from the Soviet film The Story of Stalingrad showing rocket missiles being fired at German positions. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 90999)
With this, the tide of the war slowly but steadily turned against the German forces. By the summer of 1944, the Red Army was quickly advancing across Eastern Europe, pushing the Germans into retreat. The Eastern Front drew close and closer to Warsaw. The sounds of battle could be heard in the streets. The Poles hoped that these sounds meant that the German occupiers would soon be defeated and forced into retreat. This hope grew into an enthusiasm so strong that the city hovered on the edge of open rebellion.
For the Coordinating Committee, this introduced a new set of logistical challenges. Those Jews hidden in the suburbs had to return to the perceived safety of the city. As open battle was likely to sever contact between the Coordinating Committee and the underground Jews across Warsaw who depended on them, couriers worked overtime, distributing money and rations.
On the personal level, Benjamin and Vladka decided that it was best to move in together, rather than risk separation in the chaos of battle. “‘We must not be separated now,’ he had declared. It was good to know that he was always close, that we shared the same deep feelings for each other. This knowledge sustained us as we rushed from task to task, keeping in touch with associates, digging trenches in the streets” in preparation for the defense of civilian areas.
Some hoped, or assumed, that as the branches of Polish underground parties rose up against the Germans, the Red Army would march into the city and reinforce their lines. The Armja Krajowa and the Polish government-in-exile, however, hoped to rise against the Germans and liberate the city before the Red Army could march in.1 This was part of Operation Tempest, a series of operations organized between the Polish-government-in-exile and the Armja Krajowa to seize control of Occupied Poland before the Red Army could march in. If the Operation was successful, the Poles would be able to meet the Red Army as equals, not as grateful, liberated civilians. In short, Operation Tempest existed to defend Poland from both the Germans and the Soviets.2
The Polish government-in-exile authorized the Armja Krajowa to begin the fight to liberate Warsaw on July 25, 1944. Eight days later, on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. Factory sirens, gunfire, and shouts of “Na Szwaba! Na Szwaba!”—Attack the damned Germans!—filled the air. People—Vladka and Benjamin among them—poured out of every doorway into
the streets and began to erect barricades to block German tanks.
Soldiers of the No. 2 Platoon, 4th Company of the Polish Home Army in the courtyard of the captured Police Headquarters on 1 Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw, 23 August 1944. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 31075)
While the Armja Krajowa was the largest Polish underground military with the most resources and the greatest access to the government-in-exile, they were not the only
Polish Underground organization to play an active role in the Warsaw Uprising. Other Polish underground military organizations which fought in the Warsaw Uprising include the Democratic Socialist P.A.L. (Polska Armja Ludowa, or, the Polish People’s Army), and the Communist Armja Ludowa (People’s Army). Jews fought in all of these units, the majority of them with either the P.A.L, or the Armja Ludowa—these organizations had far fewer anti-Semitic elements in their ranks than the Armja Krajowa. Jews fought in every phase of the Warsaw Uprising, serving as soldiers, officers, doctors, and nurses.
As Jews and Poles alike fought with the resistance forces and toiled in the streets, Vladka mused to herself, “How strange that these sweat-drenched young Poles laboring…shoulder to shoulder with us in the common cause of liberation were the same callous and sometimes vicious Poles who had caused us so much pain and sorrow! But this was no time to think—there was work to be done.”
The resistance forces fought with confidence, positive that the Red Army was on its way to relieve and liberate the city. Though they had a clear advantage in weaponry, the Germans lacked the manpower to immediately suppress the uprising. Himmler dispatched additional troops to Warsaw on August 3, and again on August 5, ordering the troops to kill all of the inhabitants of the city.
Meanwhile, the rapidly approaching Soviet offensive halted twelve miles outside of Praga—a suburb about two miles away from the Old City district of Warsaw. It would not resume its westward march until September 11.
When the German reinforcements arrived, they mounted daily bombing campaigns. By August 17, parts of the city lay in ruins. While terrifying and devastating for Polish civilians, this posed perhaps the most danger to the Jews in hiding around the city.
A Polish civilian woman leaves the building through the hole knocked in the wall. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 105729)
As the German bombs destroyed residential buildings, formerly hidden Jews were exposed to the still hostile
outside world, some of them for the first time in years. As these terrified Jews ran for new hideouts, clustering in the buildings where Coordinating Committee personnel were known to live, surprised Gentiles remarked, “there are Jews here!…Where does this pestilence come from? They were supposed to have been finished long ago.”
In the ranks of the Armja Krajowa, commanders assigned Jews to the most dangerous tasks, while their gentile “comrades” would often shoot them in the back for their troubles. AK guards accused Jews found hiding of being German spies. On some occasions, the AK guards would take a breather from their battle against the Nazis to beat these underground Jews, proclaiming that there would be no place for Jews in a liberated Poland—it was to be judenrein.
By August 24, 37,500 were dead. The Red Army resumed its march on September 11. The Polish Underground State briefly gained control over most of Warsaw on September 14. The Germans retreated as Praga fell to the Red Army, but continued their bombardment of the city. The Poles lost ground as the fighting intensified, and the Soviets—actively encouraging the Polish
underground to stage an uprising in Warsaw since beginning their westward march—did nothing.3
The Germans regained control over most of Warsaw on September 24, eventually reducing the Polish perimeter to little more than a few blocks. On October 2, Warsaw surrendered, with AK command broadcasting to the city that they were capitulating. At this time, approximately 12,000 Jews remained alive in the city, while more than 180,000 people—Jews, Poles, fighters, and civilians—perished in the Uprising.
The Poles defeated, Himmler ordered his troops to destroy what remained of Warsaw, even though, by then, it was clear that Germany had lost the war.
Warsaw In ruins, January 1945. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 31081)
The statue of Christ in front of the ruins of the Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, Warsaw. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 105734)
German troops were still destroying the city a few hours before the Red Army marched in on January 17, 1945.
In those three months between the October suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, and the January entrance of the Red Army, Warsaw’s surviving Jews were in crisis, every day struggling to stay alive. Vladka and Benjamin were hiding in a bunker he had dug out in the cellars of ruined buildings. Some Jews did their best to disappear into the columns of soldiers and civilians fleeing the city, while others fled to join the ranks of the Red Army, and others still hid in cellars, surrounded by Jewish and Polish corpses.
Wounded soldiers of the Home Army help each other through the ruins of Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender, October 1944. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 105728)
The Coordinating Committee was still in operation. Even in these most desperate of circumstances, Mikolai and Henryk continued to distribute American dollars to those in need. Yet, they had little help to offer to their remaining operatives, and most of the couriers had already fled the city.
Vladka and Benjamin agonized over the decision for days, knowing that they had little hope of eluding the Nazis outside of Warsaw without an organizational framework behind them. But, ultimately, they chose to flee. They turned their bunker over to a group of friends and comrades who planned to remain in the city.
It was raining on the day Vladka and Benjamin left Warsaw. Civilians pushing carts and lugging bundles on their backs hurried past. Their friends met them at the bunker. They looked at each other in silence, until someone said, quietly, “You had better hurry along.” Another friend, Clara Falk told them, “When you come back, don’t forget to get us out of the bunker—dead or alive.”
Choking back tears, Vladka struggled to find the right words. Finally, an old expression from the days of the ghetto came to mind. Forcing past the lump in her throat Vladka turned to the group. “Hang on kid,” she told them, harkening back to those old days, “hang on.’”
1 If you’ll recall, the Polish government-in-exile operated out of London.
2 However, the plan assumed that the retreating Germans would be too weak to defend their Polish holdings, and that the Red Army would acknowledge the Poles’ right to the land if they defeated the Germans before Soviet arrival. Neither of these assumptions were based in reality, especially as Stalin refused to recognize the Polish government-in-exile or any party acting on its behalf.
3 In Stalin’s eyes, an Uprising orchestrated by the Polish Home Army would kill both Germans, and those Poles willing to risk their lives for a free Poland; both a potential threat to Soviet designs on the future of “liberated” Poland.