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Warsaw Uprising and the Women and Children of Poland

by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab

This is a four part series regarding the Warsaw Uprising in Poland during World War II
and the suffering of Polish women and children in the aftermath.

 

Part I: The Uprising

Part II: The Transit Camp at Pruszków

Part III: After the Warsaw Uprising: The Camp for Women and Children at Sępolno

Part IV: Last Days of the War

 

Part I: the Uprising

On August 1, 1944, Poland’s Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) began the Warsaw Uprising, a heroic 63 day struggle to liberate Warsaw from Nazi occupation. It has been called the greatest and most tragic uprising in European history.

The Polish attack was planned as a two to three day revolt until the Russians could arrive with additional support. The Russian support never materialized and the short coup turned into a brutal and bloody two month struggle for the Home Army. The Germans used tanks, aerial bombardment and long range artillery on the insurgents. They began rounding up people from the houses in the districts which they still controlled and shot them — women, children and the elderly were not spared. They executed at least 30,000 citizens in what is now referred to as the Wola massacre. The genocide was intended to crush the Poles spirit for the fight. It didn't work. The people of Warsaw wanted their city, their country back in their own control and endured incredible hardships and sacrifices including lack of water, power, food, ammunition, death and destruction. The battle raged on.

The "P" symbol or "P" badge was introduced on 8 March 1940 by the Nazi German government with relation to the requirement that Polish workers (Zivilarbeiter) used p_sophie_letter_Pduring World War II as forced laborers in Germany (following the German invasion and occupation of Poland) display a visible symbol marking their ethnic origin. The symbol was introduced with the intent to be used as a cloth patch, which indeed was the most common form, but also reproduced on documents (through stamps) and posters. The badge was humiliating,and like the similar Jewish symbol, can be seen as a badge of shame. Source: Wikipedia

Unable to compete with the reinforced German troops, the insurgents were forced into hiding, often into the sewers, from where they continued to organize and coordinate attacks. The people of Warsaw were dying at a rate of 2,000 a day. After a valiant fight, the Home Army was forced to capitulate and negotiated a surrender on October 2nd, 63 days after the Uprising began.

Polish historians believe that 18,000 military personnel died and another 25,000 were injured. As the Germans gained footing they went from house to house, clearing out and evicting entire neighborhoods. Military personnel were summarily shot on the spot. Civilian losses ranged into the hundreds of thousands. At the conclusion of the Uprising, the Germans and the paramilitary groups assisting them, systematically blew up the city, block by block. The inhabitants of Warsaw that survived, chiefly women and children, were rounded up and marched through the streets under arrest.

The part of Warsaw called Ochota was one of the first sections to be taken by the Germans.

    “By August 6th, Ukrainian soldiers burst into the houses and removed all the inhabitants” writes Wanda M., who was 17 years old at the time. “They marched us along the street...We had to stop periodically because there were executions, without reason. Some they told to raise their hands, others they told to turn around. These were individual units of the SS taking part in the confusion of the Uprising. In Ochota, Woli and Old Town, the soldiers acted especially barbaric. A few times I stood on the edge of the street to be shot — I'll either kill you or rape you — these were the alternatives. My aunt had taken a dressing case with her best jewelry...she gave (it) to these people as the price for our lives.”

The people were gathered together in temporary holding sites until all people had been forced from their hiding places and gathered together and taken to a transit camp where their fate would be decided.

 

Part II: The Transit Camp at Pruszków

Pruszków, located on the western edge of Warsaw became the site of a temporary transit camp for the Poles taken into custody by the Germans after the Warsaw Uprising ... The Germans called it Durchgangslager 121.

Established on a 123 acre site of what had formerly been rail car repair shops, it became a holding center for civilians who were evacuated from their homes during and after the Warsaw Uprising. The emptied factory was surrounded by a tall cement wall, had watchtowers and was completely unsuitable for human habitation, filled with odd pieces of iron, wood, rags, standing water, oil slicks and rubbish.

From the 6th of August to the 30th of September, 1944 over 650,000 people from Warsaw and its surrounding regions passed through its door. (Pilichowski, Czesław. Obozy Hitlerowskie na Ziemiach Polskich. Informator Encyklopedyczny. Państwowy Wydawnictwo Naukowe. Warszawa. 1979. p.406) In the first days of its existence everyone who came to the camp was automatically sent to Germany but in later transports various selections were made. The selection was done by the Gestapo, the police, a medical board and the Labor Office.

Alina Makulska decribes the defining moment for her:

    “The selection process begins. Masses of people, shoved and arranged into a column by armed guards, moves slowly in the direction of the selectors. Step by step we move forward and we approach them...our turn. They pushed my father to the left. The German looks me over and I think he's going to separate me from my mother, but no - to the right. I look for my father, he makes a step in our direction to say goodbye but the furious German hollers, tells him to return. That was our last goodbye. Taken to a camp, he never returned.” (Kołodziejczyk, Edward. Tryptyk Warszawski. Wypędzenie Dulag 121 Tułaczka. Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej Warszawa 1984 p.92)

Those deemed unfit for work — the sick, the crippled, those too old to work — stayed in the Government General. Anyone who was of no use for work in Germany was released. Women in the advanced stage of pregnancy and women who had been raped were released as was anyone who suffered from TB, dysentery and typhus. Anyone suspected of participating in the Uprising were interrogated by the Gestapo and subsequently shot in a nearby alley or sent to concentration camps in Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, Gross Rosen. On August 12, twelve hundred Polish women were sent to the concentration camp in Germany called Ravensbrück. (Ibid Kołodziejczyk). Thousands of other Polish women were sent for forced labor in Germany. Among them was Julia Gawryłkiewicz- Kodelska, who at great risk managed to keep a diary her experience. She writes of the train transport to Germany:

    “The wagons are shunted to a siding and the doors bolted shut. There is a huge cry of distress. We are left without water, light or toilets. Stuffy, lack of air, suffering from hunger and thirst. The quiet cries of children.

    The train moves forward and stands for a long time at some unknown station. We hear talk in German. I sit squatted down with my knees at my chin...in the stuffy air a woman has fainted, we try to revive her. Someone has a little bit of water in a bottle, someone else has drops for the heart. Artificial respiration. After a few minutes we hear her breathing. We try and make her comfortable in this tremendous squeeze.

    Before Breslau the train stops. Today is August 10, 1944 about 5 a.m. All around there are meadows. The guards open all the wagons. We are allowed to exit. Not a bush, not a tree that could hide the embarrassment of taking care of your physical needs. Guards with guns over their arms watch that none of those in the ludicrous pose try to escape... (Dyliński, Ryszard, ed. Z Litera “P” Polacy na Robotach przymusowych w hitlerowskiej Rzeszy 1939-1945. Wspomnienie. Wydawnictwo Poznańskie. Poznań. 1976 p.195)

    The transports often lasted for days. In the winter the occupants froze. In the stifling summer heat, they gasped for air. The transports were often shunted off main railways for German troop trains to pass or stood still at some town or city while another car loaded with Polish workers was attached to the train. Other than provisions they had brought along themselves or some basic provisions handed out at the beginning of the transport, the occupants rarely received any additional food or anything to drink until their final arrival in German territory. Thirst forced them to secretly steal dirty snow off freight cars during stops. Lack of bread and water was a constant companion the entire trip. On occasion they were allowed to leave the train.”

Julia continues:

    August 11-12, 1944 ... Bietzen ... the train stops...they start unloading us — dirty, collapsed cheeks and parched lips. Everybody is throwing their meager luggage (I have only a small hand carry-all) and immediately fall on the grass along the side of the tracks to at least stretch their legs that were cramped during the journey. After a few moments the narrow foothills brook is gray from the dirt of thousands of people falling into the water to refresh themselves and to try and wash up even a little bit.” (Ibid.Dyliński, Ryszard, ed.)

     

    Part III: After the Warsaw Uprising:
    The Camp for Women and Children at Sępolno

After the Warsaw Uprising, thousands of Polish women were sent to concentration camps and for forced labor in Germany. Many were sent to Breslau, what is now Wrocław in western Poland, which during the war was a major center for the German electrical engineering industry. “We rode for four days with meager food rations in a cattle car and always under guard,” remembered Barabara Bruder. On arrival many women were sent to work in various factories including Linke -Hofmann, and FAMO-werk (Fahrzeug-und Motorenwerk) producers of motors, transformers, and electrical appliances most of which was associated with the German armament industry.

Wiktoria Centowski remembers:

    “They unloaded us at FAMO which was a subcamp of the concentration camp Gross Rosen (Breslau I and Breslau II). Here we were interrogated, medically examined and selections were made. The conditions in the barracks were beyond describing. Filth and fleas and lice - everything swarming like an anthill.” (Bartosz, Julian. Ludzie ze Znakiem P. Wrocław: Zaklad Narodowy im Ossolińskich, 1969)

Also used to house Poles was a large multi-storied school on Krajewska Street in the district known as Sępolno. Four hundred women and children were placed in the school gymnasium.

Mieczysława Zórawska offered these details:

    “After bringing us from Warsaw to Breslau the women with children were placed in the gym of a school in Sępolno. Conditions were horrible. We slept on the floor that was strewn with old straw. Immediately we all had lice.” (Ibid)

During this particular time from fall of 1944 to through the winter of 1945, provisions were at a dramatic low with Germans cutting food portions to Polish forced laborers.

    “The adults received ½ a liter of some kind of disgusting soup and two thin pieces of bread with margarine. Children up to two years of age received a ¼ of a liter of milk and the same amount of semolina for the entire day. There were epidemics of diarrhea, dysentery and other disorders among the children. And amidst all this, there were infants being born ... In the schoolyard we made an open fire using bricks. Using old cans (which were not easy to obtain) we melted ice and cooked pumpkins which you could obtain without ration cards. It was terribly unfortunate that the camp commander destroyed our attempts at cooking with one good kick and none of us had the nerve to admit to starting the open fire.” (Ibid)

Taken from Warsaw in August, most of the women and children only had light clothing which quickly became tattered.

    “We wore wooden clogs, the children were barefoot...there were sixteen toilets on the grounds of our camp that were cleaned by the children aged 8 to 12. The older ones went to work with the adults.”

    The older ones? This means that Polish children of thirteen were required to work 10 to 12 hours a day as adults. At a time when their bodies required additional food and nutrients, they received half a bowl of soup and two thin slices of bread for the entire day. They were, in the full sense of the word, starving.

 

Part IV- Last Days of the War

Julia Gawryłkiewicz-Kodelska was one of thousands of women sent for forced labor to Germany after the Warsaw Uprising. Sent to work for Heliowatt- Werke Elektrizitӓts in Schweinnitz, not far from Breslau, she felt the approaching front while it was still winter. Her diary entries of those last days:

    February 8, 1945. Work in the factory stops and everyone, the German foreman as well, are sent out to dig trenches.

    February 14, 1945. Work in the factory continues but each day it appears pointless. The foremen are not here, the German women evacuated...it is 10a.m. All the camps in Schwiennitz are to be evacuated...we pack our backpacks, load them into hand carts and after a moment, march out. It is freezing cold and a snow storm. With Stefa and Genia Chudzinski we sewed ourselves hoods from blankets but even so, we are very cold. We march out...

    February 15, 1945. We march in the direction of Waldenburg with the road always uphill. The road is very slippery...it starts to snow and rain. Nagging cold. I'm feeling more and more insistent pain from the heart...we are falling behind. Our group of nine is being passed by everyone. But two soldiers stubbornly stick with us keeping watch on the entire caravan..we stop for the night at the nearest village. In the attic of a small house there is a pile of lumber. We slept on it.

    February 16, 1945. Colder all the time-we continue to climb up hill. The metal wheels of the cart are freezing to the pavement...a brickyard...we decide to stay here for as long as we can- maybe the front will pass us by.

    February 17, 1945. Unfortunately it didn't work out. The German gendarmes showed up at 6 at the brick works and told us to move on...we work our way to Waldenburg. We spend the night in a porcelain factory...stinking, dirty, the floor covered with feathers and crumpled straw mixed in the mud.

    February 20, 1945. Further wanderings...amidst hundreds of people. Almost throughout the entire journey we dodge carts, cows, sheep and entire flocks which the Germans are trying to evacuate...tomorrow we are to go further...the night in a barn. Freezing and sleep is arranged on bundles of flax. On these bundles is born the thought of separating myself from this transport. (Dyliński, Ryszard, ed. Z Litera “P” Polacy na Robotach przymusowych w hitlerowskiej Rzeszy 1939-1945. Wspomnienie. Wydawnictwo Poznańskie. Poznań. 1976)

Julia lived through her ordeal and was able to recount the details her experiences after the war through her diary. Julia was only one of half a million Polish women who were sent for forced labor in Germany. They suffered extreme hardships, humiliations, starvation, illness and the loss of their children. Their story is explained in my book: Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945 released by Hippocrene Books in December 2016. The book is available through the bookstore of the Polish American Journal.

 


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