When the war broke out in 1939 my dad was only 16. In 1944 when the Warsaw uprising began he was barely 20.
My Mum was born in 1927. At the outbreak of war she was 12 and when the Warsaw uprising began she was not quite 17.
My Dad had been a member of the Polish underground army from the start of the war, my mother, as soon as she was able, also signed up. My Dad held no rank but was an ordinary fighting lad and my Mum worked as a nurse. .Before the uprising she had attended secret training lessons, learning first aid skills – no doctorate degrees needed then to learn how to give injections or how to suture wounds, or assist in the operating theatre!
It is difficult to know how to start to describe what they went through in a few words, but I remember those of Dickens: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Dad told me many times how being young, fighting for an honourable cause, for what they believed in; the freedom from oppression, was the finest of things. Yes, he had been terrified, scared of dying, being wounded, wondering if next time he went out he’d come back… to live to die… never knowing if the next bullet would be the end of you. And yet all the time there was camaraderie, friendship, unity of purpose. The knowledge that they were making the supreme sacrifice for the greatest good: freedom.
What my parents went through during those 63 days would fill a book, and is not for me to say, but they endured bombings, sniper shootings, hunger, dirt, thirst. Mum moving from one part of the city to another through the sewers, escaping from the Germans, watching young boys, men, die in front of her.
Dad was wounded but not so badly that he didn’t recover quickly – death, he said, brushed past him on many an occasion – he carried a bullet in his side until the day he died. Other near misses included a hit to his glasses, which were shot off by a German, leaving him briefly somewhat badly focused!
I remember him telling me that when he wounded his first German, he approached him and took away his gun and ammunition. The German thought he was going to be shot, but Dad gave him a cigarette and left him, knowing he would be picked up by his own later. He hoped that under different circumstances he would be treated the same… sadly the Germans were not so kind and murdered many combatants, showing no mercy or humanity.
No matter how bad things got there were ideals to live for, there was hope. Hope, until on the 2nd of October, when hope died. The Polish underground army surrendered to the Germans… but even in surrender, they knew that they had done their best, given their all.
They gathered together and marched in columns, surrendering what makeshift armaments they had, and then, together, they were marched again: straight out of Warsaw into German Prisoner of War Camps.
Dad went to a camp outside Bremen, Sandbostel, Stalag XB, Mum to Oberlangen the women’s camp. To wait for liberation and what lay ahead.