The Other Side of Bravery
On December 1, 1943, members of the Bielski Resistance Camp, Revered in the Movie “Defiance,” Took Part in an NKVD Attack on a Unit of the Polish Home Army.

Editor’s note: The 2009 movie “Defiance” tells the story of the Bielski partisans and their survival in northeast Poland, now Belarus. Little is known about the Polish Home Army of that region — their many victories against the Nazis, their tragic betrayal, connection to the Bielski partisans, and their recovery and move to Kampinos forest. The following is a brief account of one of those AK men, Lieutenant Jozef Niedzwiecki, written by his son, for Polish American Journal.

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“ZGRUPOWANIE STOLPECKIE” on patrol. This branch of the Home Army was led by Adolph Pilch.

 by John Nurt

On September 1, 1939, the German Blitzkrieg struck Poland. Anchored by six armored divisions, 1.5 million personnel attacked from the north, south and west. Two weeks later, Poland was sucker-punched in the east by 500,000 Soviet Red Army troops. The besieged nation was wedged between a hammer and an anvil. In spite of the hopeless situation, the Poles fought valiantly.

My father, Jozef, was only twenty at the time. As a member of the KOP (Borderland Defense Corps), he fought in early skirmishes with the brutally-efficient Wehrmacht. By October 6, Polish forces had capitulated. Survivors numbering tens of thousands began reorganizing into resistance groups. The bulk of these clandestine units would eventually band together to form the Home Army.

My father returned to Iwieniec, in eastern Poland. The homeland he once new had ceased to exist, overrun by the opportunistic Soviets. Jozef and his brother, Jan, quietly helped organize resistance units in their region. They were soon arrested by NKVD, the maniacal Soviet secret police. The brothers were deported to prison in nearby Minsk. They would endure months of harsh beatings and interrogation.

True to form, Hitler broke Germany’s treaty with the Soviet Union. Chaos erupted as the Wehrmacht turned its war machine against the Red Army. As prisoners were marched eastward during the frantic Soviet retreat, Jozef and Jan escaped. By this time (Spring 1941), the Polish resistance had grown considerably. My father, using the pseudonym Szary (“Gray”), was tagged for leadership and helped plan the Iwieniec Uprising of June 19, 1943. It was a remarkable victory for the resistance, laying waste to a German SS garrison in a daring, well executed attack. Over one hundred enemy soldiers were eliminated and a cache of weapons captured. The attack also liberated partisan prisoners and headed off a planned roundup of the male population. Only three AK men were killed in action, sadly, my Uncle Jan was one of them.

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 The German invasion left thousands of Russians stranded behind the front. A tentative working relationship grew between Polish and Soviet partisans. Although the Soviets vastly outnumbered the Poles, major actions against the Nazis were launched almost exclusively by the Home Army. In midsummer 1943, the Germans initiated “Operation Hermann.” They deluged Naliboki Forest with sixty-thousand troops in an effort to eliminate resistance activities. Soviet partisans proved unreliable, on one occasion abandoning their position and allowing Polish troops to walk into an ambush.

Despite losses during the German operation, the Stolpce Group (“Zgrupowanie Stolpeckie”) of the Home Army continued to launch successful actions. While the Poles were busy disrupting Nazi occupation forces, the Soviets schemed to undermine and eliminate patriotic Polish units. After a period of friendly cooperation, Home Army leaders would be invited by the Soviets to discuss strategy against the Germans. The Poles were then captured, disarmed, and liquidated.

Jozef Niedzwiecki (l.) and Jan Niedzwiecki (r.) sometime before Jan’s death on June 19, 1943.

Such was the fate of the Stolpce Group on December 1, 1943. Downplaying the concerns of other resistance leaders, the newly arrived Home Army commander accepted the invitation of Soviet General “Dubov,” and sent Stolpce officers to convene with Soviet partisans. En route to the meeting, the officers were surrounded by a large contingent of armed Soviets. Moments later, the nearby Polish camps were attacked. Poles who attempted to fight or flee were summarily executed. Before being shot, some were savagely tortured by their supposed Soviet “friends.” Victims were discovered with their ears and fingers cut off. The Polish officers captured were either sent to Moscow for trial or secretly murdered in the forest.

At this time, the Bielski partisans were subservient to the Soviets, and supplied fifty men for the operation. Prior to this, the Bielskis and other partisan detachments had friendly relations with the local Polish army, sharing meals and even games of chess. This relationship was eclipsed by the larger goals of Stalin and his NKVD

My father and the rest of the cavalry narrowly avoided the Soviet dragnet. They were guarding the edge of the forest that day, mindful of the frequent German patrols. They collected a few stragglers who had been lucky enough to escape the ambush. The fate of their partisan comrades became painfully clear. Soon after, Jozef’s cavalry platoon was securing a local village when Soviet partisans appeared on horseback. The Poles withdrew from sight, allowing the enemy to approach. The Soviets were surrounded, disarmed and searched. Jozef found a shocking document in the possession of the Commissar: “Copy #7 of a secret order detailing the planned betrayal of the Home Army as directed by General Ponomarenko and General Platanow. With chilling matter-of-factness, it states that any Poles who resist “must be shot on the spot.” Indeed, my father’s discovery proved that the skirmishes and killings in the region were not isolated events. They were the culmination of Soviet policy, dictated at the highest echelons. Correspondingly, the local Home Army’s new plan for survival required total war against Soviet partisans as well as The Nazis.

The winter of 1943-44 was a desperate time for the Stolpce group. The Soviets openly targeted the families of Home Army members. Entire villages were ruthlessly erased. But the Polish partisans responded with an influx of new recruits, and their new commander, Adolph Pilch, provided courageous and wise leadership. Jozef’s young sister, Helena, also joined the partisans in the forest. After victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, the Red Army seized the initiative and surged westward towards Berlin. My father’s unit used the confusion of the German retreat to move their army to the Kampinos forest near Warsaw. They fought many actions in Kampinos while coordinating efforts as part of the Warsaw uprising. In the aftermath of the uprising, they attacked the infamous SS RONA - Kaminsky brigade on two successive evenings. The raids caused such destruction that afterward the Kaminsky brigade ceased to exist as a unit. My father led his squadron on the second night of these attacks, in the town of Marianow. The attack was swift, destructive, and overwhelming, calling to mind Jozef’s new nom de guerre. The SS men were hit by Lawina, the “Avalanche.”

Throughout the war, my father’s Home Army units fought in over two-hundred successful engagements. He was shot twice in combat, yet never faltered in his struggle for Poland.

Only after his third injury and unavoidable capture in late 1944 did my father’s tireless service come to an end. By that time the Allied victory in Europe was imminent.

After his liberation by British forces, Jozef Niedzwiecki would emigrate to America. He arrived carrying with him the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration.

The heroic struggles of Zgrupowanie Stolpeckie, the Soviet betrayal and the discovery of the “secret order” remain largely unknown, due to four decades of Communist suppression and false accounts by Soviet partisans.

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