The Warsaw Rising Museum is a Second World War Museum in Poland’s capital city, dedicated to the insurgency of the Polish population against its Nazi German occupiers. It is particularly focused on the Warsaw Uprising, an operation carried out by Polish freedom fighters in August 1944.
The Warsaw Uprising should not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, where Jewish Poles mounted an attack against the German army in an attempt to prevent the Jewish population being sent to concentration camps.
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was a two month battle carried out by Polish freedom fighters to liberate their country from the Nazis. In an operation codenamed ‘Tempest’, this people’s army began its assault at exactly 17:00 on 1 August 1944, known as W-hour.
The battle was ferocious and bloody, resulting in over 20,000 civilian deaths and the almost complete destruction of the city. The Polish fighters expected help from other Allied nations and, with none forthcoming, the operation failed.
The Warsaw Rising Museum explores the events of the uprising and its aftermath as well as placing it in the larger context of the Second World War. Exhibiting everything from detailed timelines to the armbands worn by the insurgents and the W Hour clock, still set to 17:00, the Warsaw Rising Museum’s exhibit is poignant and detailed.
The Warsaw Rising Museum immerses the visitor in the events of the 1944 battle with films of original newsreels and even a recreation of the sewer systems which the Poles used as a means of travelling through the city. There is also a children’s exhibition called “the Little Insurgents Room”. The Warsaw Rising Museum offers guided tours in a number of languages including French, English, Russian, German, Italian and Czech.
Warsaw Rising: Hope and Betrayal
O n an unseasonably wet and chilly summer afternoon in 1944, Warsaw was in a state of nervous readiness. For days, young men and women carrying mysterious packages had been seen on the streets. “Tram-cars were occupied with young boys, who unconcernedly occupied even the front platform, reserved ‘Nur Für Deutsche,’ without the Germans present doing anything about it,” eyewitness Stefan Korbonski recalled. “I noticed that one of the boys carried a rucksack from which protruded something resembling a walking stick, wrapped in newspaper and tied with a piece of string. Anyone could see it was the end of a rifle.”
For Warsaw, the scene was extraordinary. Home to a million and a half people before the war, Poland and its capital had been battered by years of occupation after Germany invaded the country in September 1939. Yet far from cowing the nation, German atrocities inspired one of the most dedicated and complex underground resistance movements in Europe. A network of 400,000 men and women known as the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, blew up train lines, ambushed enemy patrols and convoys, and freed prisoners from SS jails. Most of all, they prepared—in tight secrecy—for the moment when a coordinated strike against the Germans would liberate the city and its people.
The Home Army hoped August 1, 1944, would be that moment. Beginning in late July, the rumble of artillery could be heard in the distance for the first time since the city was seized five years earlier. And this time, it was the Germans who trembled: the guns belonged to the Red Army, whose tanks were probing the city’s easternmost defenses. All across the city, the Home Army’s irregular units, wearing improvised uniforms with red-and-white armbands marking them as members of the underground military, began moving into preassigned positions. The Poles—who had had already lost hundreds of thousands of people to the 1939 invasion, to the Holocaust, and to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a year earlier—aimed to oust their Nazi oppressors, with tacit Soviet help.
The two months of bitter urban combat that followed would become one of the war’s most courageous, disastrous, and ultimately misunderstood episodes. In their desperation to reclaim their freedom, the Poles failed to fully grasp the weakness of their geopolitical situation theirs was a country with few friends. The Soviets preparing to supplant the Germans in Warsaw had scant regard for Poland or its independence, while Britain and the United States were caught up in an alliance with the Soviet regime in an effort to defeat the Nazis and not in a strong position to help. As a result, Warsaw was left hanging, the Rising turned ruinous, and Poland was dropped by one totalitarian neighbor into the hands of another—an outcome that shaped the perception of the battle for decades after the war.
T his wasn’t the first time Poland had been the odd man out in the cynical world of bilateral alliances. The Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact, signed in secret in August 1939, included a provision to divide Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany—and that’s what happened following Germany’s invasion of Poland. Two years later, Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union led to the wartime alliance between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt, which could have benefitted Poland. But politicians and diplomats in London and Washington were reluctant to jeopardize their relationship with Moscow by sticking up too forcefully for a pawn in the strategic chess game.
The Poles, however, were determined to fight. More than 200,000 Polish soldiers escaped to the West after the German invasion, to fight with the Allies everywhere from the Battle of Britain to Monte Cassino. At the same time, a massive underground army was organized in occupied Poland. The Home Army was the third largest armed force on the continent until D-Day. When Polish Jews inside the Warsaw Ghetto rebelled against their SS jailors in January 1943, the Home Army supplied the fighters with weapons. But the army also held back, not willing to commit to a general uprising while the German army was still the dominant force on the continent.
As the tide of war turned against Berlin, Poles saw reasons for hope. Throughout the winter and spring of 1944, the Red Army moved steadily west, pushing the Wehrmacht relentlessly in front of them. By summer, Soviet artillery could be heard just over the horizon, hammering German defenses in the forests on the Vistula River’s eastern bank. The leaders of the Home Army, and the Polish government in exile, saw an opportunity: if they could take advantage of German disarray to gain control of their capital before the arrival of the Red Army, a major symbolic victory would be achieved—one that might give the Poles leverage in any postwar negotiations over their country’s future.
But they also knew that the underground was ill-equipped for a protracted struggle with the German army. Only a quarter of the 50,000 underground soldiers in the city had real weapons, and food and ammunition were in desperately short supply. That made their timing critical: move too early and German troops could focus all their might on crushing the resistance, but waiting until the Soviets had pushed the Wehrmacht across the Vistula would be equally ruinous. As Home Army commander Tadeusz Komorowski—who went by the pseudonym General Bór—wrote in his memoirs, “The city would become a battlefield between the Germans and Russians, and would be reduced to ruins.”
Komorowski knew one of his enemies intimately. The underground general had served in the Austrian army during World War I and spoke perfect German. Forty-nine years old, he was a former Olympic equestrian and led a cavalry regiment before the war. He had commanded the Home Army for more than a year, operating in plainclothes and sneaking from safe house to safe house around the capital.
On the evening of July 31, in an apartment in the center of the city, Komorowski assembled the Home Army’s leadership. That month, Soviet radio broadcasts had encouraged Poles to resist the German occupation. Soviet tanks had been sighted on the eastern edge of the city underground observers said that German troops were abandoning their positions. A failed bomb plot against Hitler the week before suggested that support for the Nazis was crumbling in Germany, as well. Weighing the limited information against the risk of delay, Komorowski gave the order to attack preassigned targets at 5 p.m. on August 1, 1944. Twenty-two runners set off in all directions to spread the news. In less than 24 hours, Warsaw would rise.
I nevitably, scattered fighting broke out before 5 p.m. Still, the occupying forces were caught unprepared if not entirely by surprise. Within hours, the Home Army had captured a host of strategic spots, from the main post office and power station to the city’s tallest building and several key German arsenals and supply dumps. Units of young men armed with pistols and homemade bombs took on—and took out—German tanks, and even captured a few. They used one of the captured tanks to liberate a small concentration camp on the site of the razed Warsaw Ghetto.
It quickly became apparent, however, that the military effort would be hard to sustain. In the first day of fighting, almost 2,000 Poles had been killed compared to roughly 500 Germans. Huddled in a former furniture factory, Komorowski and the rest of the Polish high command got reports that key objectives, like the airport and the two main bridges across the Vistula, were still in German hands.
Still, in wide stretches of the city, Poles owned the streets for the first time in five years. On August 2, one young soldier marched through the liberated city. “The distance of one or two kilometers was free of Germans, and thousands of people lined the streets, throwing flowers and crying,” he recalled. “It was a very moving scene.”
In Berlin, the mood was far different. News of the Rising had reached the German high command within the first half hour. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, informed Hitler personally—and with a certain degree of satisfaction. “The action of the Poles is a blessing,” he told the führer. “Warsaw will be liquidated, and this city, which is the capital of a sixteen- to seventeen-million-strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years…will have ceased to exist.”
O n August 3, Himmler issued orders to wipe Warsaw from the map. Every inhabitant was to be killed, every house to be blown up and burned. In the Nazi mindset of racial cleansing and Lebensraum, military defeats were mere temporary setbacks the elimination of Poland would be forever.
To bolster the beleaguered German garrison in Warsaw, Himmler threw together a motley collection of units, including some of the most notorious in the SS. Cossacks, Azerbaijanis, and antipartisan SS units recruited from the Belarusian and Ukrainian countryside entered Warsaw five days after the Rising began. Militarily, their involvement was near meaningless. Their job was merely to kill—indiscriminately.
“For two days they concentrated on massacring every man, woman, and child in sight,” historian Norman Davies wrote in his sweeping history Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in just a few days in neighborhoods on the western edge of the city. John Ward, a British lieutenant who found himself in Warsaw after being liberated from a POW camp, began sending radio dispatches back to London on behalf of the Home Army. “The German forces make no difference between civilians and troops of the Home Army,” he reported. “Ruthless destruction of property goes on unhindered by any scruples. There are thousands of civilian wounded men, women, and children suffering from the most horrible burns and in some cases from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”
Elsewhere, the Wehrmacht deployed its full arsenal against the Home Army. Sixty-eight-ton Tiger II tanks rumbled toward makeshift barricades made of torn-up flagstones manned by boys with rifles and homemade grenades. On rail lines around the city, armored trains equipped with heavy artillery rolled back and forth, seeking out the best angles of attack. Several massive “Karl” siege mortars capable of launching two-ton shells for miles trundled around the city, followed by dedicated cranes and ammunition carriers.
The most effective weapons were far more modest. Civilians were tied to tanks or forced to walk in front of advancing German infantry as human shields. To deal with barricaded streets and dug-in defenders, the Wehrmacht deployed tracked mines called Goliaths. Like remote-controlled minitanks, the Goliaths packed 200 pounds of explosives. Using a joystick, operators guided them up to a target and detonated the payload, all from a safe distance. (Polish soldiers soon learned to cut the minitanks’ long guidance cables.)
Across much of the city, the Poles fought the German army to a near standstill. The Home Army units took shelter in cellars, knocking down walls to create tunnels leading from building to building. They moved through the city’s sewers and from rooftop to rooftop, eluding and evading German patrols. Women served as nurses, stretcher-bearers, and messengers. Polish Boy and Girl Scouts created a postal service for the resistance, running letters through the war zone.
To conserve ammunition, commanders instituted a “one bullet, one German” rule and fighters were to fire only when a kill was guaranteed. As a result, more Germans were killed than wounded. Home Army platoons with too few rifles passed weapons off between watches. “They showed themselves far superior in the arts of entrapment and surprise, frequently nullifying or reversing laborious German offensives that were highly predictable,” Davies wrote. “After the first week…, Warsaw became the scene of a long, relentless battle of attrition.”
U nbeknownst to the beleaguered Home Army, the diplomatic front was seeing some fierce fighting as well. Komorowski had badly misjudged the Soviet Union’s desire for control over Eastern Europe. Stalin had no interest in an independent Poland, and recognized an opportunity to let the Germans do his dirty work for him. In telegrams to Churchill and Roosevelt, the canny Soviet leader referred to the Home Army as a poorly led “gang of criminals who embarked on the Warsaw adventure to seize power,” and who had “exploited the good faith of the citizens of Warsaw, throwing many almost unarmed people against the German guns, tanks, and aircraft.”
Even worse, Soviet generals halted their troops within a few miles of the city and held their positions for most of August—a suspicious move that caught Churchill’s eye. “It is certainly very curious that at the moment the Underground Army has revolted, the Russians should have halted that offensive against Warsaw and withdrawn some distance,” the prime minister told one of his aides. “For them to send in all the quantities of machine-guns and ammunition required by the Poles for their heroic fight would involve a flight of only 100 miles.”
Stalin’s antipathy went still further. He also declined British and American requests to allow planes flying in ammunition and supplies for the Home Army to land and refuel in Poland’s Soviet zone. On August 18, after weeks of diplomatic wrangling, the Soviets made their position plain. The American ambassador in Moscow reported that “the Soviet Government cannot of course object to English or American aircraft dropping arms in the region of Warsaw. But they decidedly object to British or American aircraft…landing on Soviet territory, since the Soviet Government do not wish to associate themselves either directly or indirectly with the adventure in Warsaw.” This meant Allied planes had to fly from and return to Brindisi, Italy—a round trip of more than 1,600 miles, crossing not only the Alps but much of Germany and Austria. In the skies over Warsaw, they faced antiaircraft fire from the Germans—and, quite possibly, from their Soviet allies as well.
Despite these difficulties, 306 bombers loaded with supplies and ammunition made the supply runs, many flown by Polish pilots seconded to the RAF. Hundreds of antitank weapons, 1,000 Sten guns, and nearly two million rounds of ammunition got to the Polish fighters. But roughly one bomber was shot down for every ton of supplies delivered—an unacceptable loss rate—and the supply flights were halted on September 18.
As long as the Luftwaffe stayed on the west side of the Vistula River, the Soviets were content to cede the airspace over Warsaw to the Germans. In his memoirs, one Home Army fighter recalled the same four German bombers dropping incendiary charges on the city every 45 minutes, pausing just long enough to land at the airport on the outskirts of town to reload. “They had the sky to themselves the Red Army was stationed just across the Vistula, but not a single Soviet fighter challenged them.”
As the battle progressed, the Home Army gave ground to the German forces, neighborhood by neighborhood. The first sector to fall was Old Town, the historic heart of the city. In late August, after nearly a month of fighting in the rubble of centuries-old buildings, Komorowski ordered it abandoned. The primary escape route was the city’s sewers, requiring exhausted fighters to crawl on all fours for nearly four miles through stagnant water. German soldiers dropped grenades through manhole covers and pumped in poison gas. “I spent the most horrendous day of my life down there,” one young soldier wrote later. “People could not cope psychologically they were constantly stepping on corpses.” Still, 5,000 managed to make it out and went to reinforce the areas to the north and south.
As the fighting stretched into September, conditions in the stricken city deteriorated. Civilians trapped in their houses began to starve, and cases of typhus rose. Germans burned field hospitals filled with wounded soldiers to the ground on the edge of Old Town, hundreds were buried alive when the church basement in which they were sheltered was bombed.
Some flickers of hope remained. But after a month and a half of fighting, they blinked out, one by one. Aside from the Home Army, which answered to Poland’s London-based government in exile, there was a small force of Polish troops under the Red Army’s command. In mid-September, with Soviet troops in control of the east bank of the Vistula, the so-called People’s Army managed to take the river’s opposite bank. But Soviet commanders withdrew them when their initial attempt to seize the bridges over the river—with halfhearted support from their Soviet allies, a no-lose proposition for Stalin—failed. A few days later, British and American bombers, in what would turn out to be one of the final supply runs of the battle, dropped 1,800 containers of materiel. But the planes had veered off course, and nearly all of the supplies were picked up by Germans or destroyed. The final blow came when British commanders ordered the England-based Polish Parachute Brigade, a unit created in 1941 specifically to support a national uprising, to the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden instead of to Warsaw.
Home Army commanders realized further fighting was of no use. On October 2, 1944, they capitulated. The negotiated surrender included an agreement to treat the surviving Home Army forces—11,668 men and women—as prisoners of war. In return, Warsaw was to be completely evacuated. More than half a million civilians were forced to leave the city. Many were sent to Germany as slave laborers. Others found refuge in the countryside or were held in camps until the war ended.
Warsaw’s underground army had held out for 64 days, winning a kind of grudging respect from their foes. “In truth they fought better than we did,” a Wehrmacht lieutenant wrote to his family after watching the battered, tired Home Army soldiers march by, four abreast. “In spite of everything, the most heroic fighting, given the conditions, was done by the bandits themselves. And if London, which ruled on everything down to the last detail, had not ordered the capitulation…, much more blood would have flowed.”
As it was, an estimated 200,000 civilians died during the two-month struggle. More than half of the Home Army fighters in Warsaw at the beginning of the battle were killed. The city itself was shattered, with 93 percent of its buildings destroyed—a systematic, building-by-building annihilation far worse than Dresden or Hamburg that continued even after the Home Army’s capitulation.
A few people, mostly Jews who knew that surrender meant certain death, stayed hidden in the city’s ruins. They included the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose wartime experiences were chronicled in the 2002 film The Pianist. Warsaw “now consisted of the chimneys of burnt-out buildings pointing to the sky, and whatever walls the bombing had spared,” Szpilman wrote in his memoirs. “A city of rubble and ashes under which the centuries-old culture of my people and the bodies of hundreds of thousands of murdered victims lay buried, rotting in the warmth of those late autumn days and filling the air with a dreadful stench.”
E ven before the Rising was over, Polish and British politicians were debating whether it was a heroic gesture or simply a colossal mistake. Some postwar historians—influenced by Communist propaganda that turned the story inside-out—condemned the Rising leaders for the slaughter of 1944, charging that they needlessly sacrificed a generation of young heroes.
More recently, blame for the Rising’s failure has fallen squarely at the feet of the Soviets. Stalin was playing a double game that wasn’t apparent to the Americans at the time, in part because President Franklin D. Roosevelt tended to believe Stalin. The Poles were deceived as well Komorowski and his fellow commanders made their decision to fight based on what seemed to be safe assumptions at the time. “Ever since the outbreak of the Rising, the people of Warsaw had been living by listening, listening to hear the Soviet guns,” underground commander Stefan Korbonski, who spent months in Soviet captivity before escaping to the West, wrote in his postwar memoirs. “It never even occurred to anyone that the Soviets might deliberately stop their offensive, so as to enable the Germans to destroy the City of Warsaw.”
Soviet troops didn’t enter Warsaw proper until January 17, 1945. Even then, members of the Home Army were imprisoned or executed by Communist officials. (Komorowski spent the remainder of the war in the notorious Colditz officer’s prison, and escaped to England after the German surrender.) For Poles, the Allied victory over Nazi Germany was bittersweet. As Pawel Ukielski, the deputy director of a new museum in Warsaw devoted to the Rising, explains: “One occupation was just exchanged for another.”
Despite the dramatic fighting and the tremendous losses, the Warsaw Rising is one of the lesser-known conflicts of the war. The reason is simple: publicizing the events of August and September 1944 was in nobody’s interest during the Communist era. For the ruling regime in Poland, it was a direct attack on their legitimacy. The struggle has been largely forgotten outside Poland as well. The Rising was an uncomfortable reminder that Poland and the nations of central Europe had been cynically abandoned to Stalin during and after the war. None of the German officers responsible for the brutal reprisals against civilians in the city were tried at Nuremberg. In fact, the events of August and September 1944 were barely mentioned, for fear of roiling the tense relationship with Moscow.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Rising has become a powerful symbol of pride for Poles. Even though the battle was a military failure, Ukielski says, “it shows that Poles never surrendered, that they were fighting from the very beginning to the very end. We’re not celebrating a defeat, but rather the heroism and will of independence.” He adds, “In a metaphysical sense, after 1989 the Warsaw Rising was finally won.”
Today, the new Warsaw Rising Museum attracts crowds of schoolchildren and grownups—and the occasional emotional veteran of the conflict. Outside it, Communist-era concrete buildings erected after the war mingle with gleaming skyscrapers built in the last decade—reminders of the capital’s bleak wartime experience merging with the promise of its future.
Photographs from the Warsaw Rising
This exhibition presents photographs taken by Press War Correspondents of the Home Army Head Quarters (PSW) during the Warsaw Rising. PSWs were photojournalists who were secretly trained during the occupation by organs of the Polish Underground State. We get to know some of them: Stanisław Bala (code name “Giza”), photographer and insurgent cameraman his sister Małgorzata Balówna (code name “Małgorzatka”), photojournalist and courier Eugeniusz Lokajski (code name “Brok”), Olympic champion and photojournalist Sylwester Braun (code name “Kris”), photographer who documented Warsaw from the beginning of the war and Władysław Chrzanowski (code name “Wiesław”), though not formally a PSW, nonetheless a soldier who recorded the activities of his unit. They all met in Warsaw in August and September 1944 during the Rising, as did fifty other insurgent photographers. It is thanks to them that we are able to see these events today. They have left behind a great archive that recreates the atmosphere of those days. The life of each photographer is fascinating and multifaceted, and as laudable and dramatic as the Rising itself – one of the largest urban battles of World War II. It was also tragic, because despite two months of heavy fighting – with insufficient support from either the West or the Soviet allies, the latter having already stood on the banks of the Vistula – the Rising ended in the city’s capitulation. The fates of the photographers were similar to those of hundreds of thousands of Warsaw residents, whose lives marked the tragedy of their city. “Brok” died, like thousands of others, under the ruins of Warsaw while the others were sent to POW camps. “Kris” escaped deportation and returned to Warsaw, but emigrated soon after. “Giza” and “Małgorzatka” emigrated to England and then to the United States. “Wiesław” returned to Poland, but only disclosed his photographs after 1956. “Kris” came back to Poland in 1983 and held a large exhibition.
The end of the war did not bring liberation to Warsaw and Poland, but marked a new occupation. Even though honouring the heroism of the insurgents was forbidden, the memory of the Rising survived. Finally, 2004 saw the opening of the new Warsaw Rising Museum, which until today has welcomed nearly three million people.
These photos have been selected in order to paint as realistic and representative a picture as possible of the Warsaw Rising.
Sylwester Braun (“Kris”) was born on 1 January 1909 in Warsaw. A surveyor by profession, he has worked in the Office for Town Planning on Future of Warsaw projects. As soon as the war starts, he begins documenting the destruction of Warsaw and manifestations of Nazi terror. He joins the underground in 1940. In the Rising he is a photojournalist for the Information and Propaganda Bureau of Home Army HQ. As a Press War Correspondent (code name “Kris”), he makes photographs with a Leica camera. After capitulation of Warsaw, he leaves the capital with civilians and escapes transportation to Germany. In 1945 he returns to Warsaw and finds his negatives. About half of the approx. 3 000 uprising photographs have survived. He emigrates to Sweden and then to the United States. In the 1980s he returns to Poland. He is the author of the Polish-language Reports from the Warsaw Rising. Braun died on 9 February 1996 in Warsaw.
2nd Lt Stanisław Bala (“Giza”) was born on 10 November 1922 in Starowiskitki near Warsaw. In 1940–42, he studies at the Wawelberg Higher School of Machine Construction where he obtains a technician’s diploma. In February 1940 he joins the underground Section VI of the Information and Propaganda Bureau of Home Army HQ. He completes a course in photojournalism as well as one for cameramen. His Home Army identity card number is 120026. During the Warsaw Rising, with his 16mm camera, he documents the struggle for Wola and the capture of both the Holy Cross Church and the Police Headquarters. After the end of the Rising, imprisoned in German POW camps: Lamsdorf, Gross-Born, Sandbostel, and finally Lübeck. His prisoner number is 101779. After the war he remains abroad, living in France and Great Britain, where he pursues technical studies. In the early 1950s he settles in the United States and lives in San Rafael until his death on 19 September 2013.
Platoon Comd. Halina Bala-Rueger was born on 13 May 1921 in Starowiskitki near Warsaw. The Bala family was Polish-Hungarian. Halina Bala, possessing a Hungarian passport, is able to travel on German trains. In 1940-41, after receiving Polish Red Cross training, she works as a nurse. As a courier for the Home Army HQ Information and Propaganda Bureau, she distributes underground press. Together with her brothers, Władysław and Stanisław, she completes a clandestine course in photojournalism. During the Rising she serves as liaison (code name “Małgosia”) to reporters and filmmakers as well as a photojournalist. She makes photographs with a Leica camera from Allied air drops. In 1944 she is appointed to the rank of platoon commander and awarded the Silver Cross of Merit with Swords. After the capitulation of Warsaw she is held captive in the German camps of Lamsdorf, Mülhberg and Altenburg. Bala later joins the Women's Army Auxiliary Service in France. After the war she emigrates to Great Britain and then to the United States. She married Press War Correspondent, Leszek Rueger, and settles in California.
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INFORMATION FOR ORGANIZED GROUPS
Please make advance on-line reservations and confirm your visit to the Museum by fax at: +48 22 539 79 37.
We inform that audioguides in the following languages are available at the Warsaw Rising Museum:
The exhibition depicts fighting and everyday life during the Rising, keeping occupation terror in the background. Complexity of the international situation at the time of the Rising is portrayed, including the post-war years of the Communist regime and the fate of Insurgents in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL). With the total area of more than 3000 m2, 800 exhibition items, approximately 1500 photographs, films and sound recordings, history of the days preceding the Rising is told. Visitors are guided through the subsequent stages of the Rising until the time when the Insurgents left Warsaw. Their further fate is also portrayed.
The second part of the permanent exhibition, opened in May of 2006 in Hall B, presents the story of Allied airdrops. Its highlight is a replica of a Liberator B-24J bomber. Much of the exhibition has been devoted to the Germans and their allies, showing their actions in Warsaw as documented in official texts from the time of the Rising and in private notes. The stories of eye witnesses of the August and September 1944 events are played in Hall B. These recordings came from the audiovisual Spoken History Archive at the Warsaw Rising Museum. A movie theatre shows films about the Rising on a panoramic screen. At the mezzanine gallery various temporary exhibition are displayed. The Museum tower is a special attraction with a view of the Freedom Park and the city of Warsaw.
The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened on the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of fighting in Warsaw. The Museum is Warsaw residents’ tribute to those who fought and died for independent Poland and its free capital. It is located in a former tram power station, a 20th-century landmark of industrial architecture located by Przyokopowa and Grzybowska streets.
For the five years of its activity, the Museum received almost 2 700 000 visitors, more than 100 000 students from all school profiles took part in museum workshops. The Museum gathered over 30 000 exhibits, of which nearly 1000 are presented on the exhibition area of 3000 km2. The Museum Library's collection consists of over 11 000 volumes. Over 2000 interviews with the Insurgents were carried out and recorded as a part of the Oral History Archive.
The Little Insurgent’s Room is a place where the youngest visitors can make their first steps in learning history. Parents visiting the exhibition may leave their children here under the care of tutors. This is where the museum lessons and workshops for the youngest visitors take place. Classes are conducted in a children-friendly atmosphere and surrounding, with toys, games and puzzles relating to the war time events and objects styled or reproduced to evoke the interwar years. The children visiting our Museum have a chance to enrich our collection with their own work. The majority of toys, replica and board games used in the Little Insurgent’s Room are available at the Museum Shop.
The Warsaw Rising Museum hosts interesting meetings for school and university students, as well as for anyone interested in the history of the Second World War and of Warsaw. The meetings are organized as part of the activities of the Stefan Starzyński Institute and the Department of Exhibition. Until present the Museum has hosted e.g. History Lectures conducted by Warsaw Rising Museum guides, as well as film screenings accompanied with discussions on Warsaw in the history of cinema entitled „Meet Warsaw Through Film”.
The Museum invites to the Reading Room. It offers 12 500 volumes: publications on the Second Warsaw War and the Warsaw Rising, varsaviana. Internet access and aid in gaining access to archive materials. Anyone who is interested is free to use the Museum Reading Room collection. We extend our special invitation to lower secondary and secondary school students and students of the humanities. Before the first visit a special free ticket should be collected at the cashier’s desk or at the Museum cloaks counter. The librarian at the Reading Room will then issue your library card based on your identity or student card. The card enables a free use of the Reading Room. A ticket to the Reading Room and the library card do not entitle you to tour the Museum. The Reading Room is located in the Warsaw Rising Museum, between the 1st floor and the mezzanine.
OPENING HOURS OF READING ROOM:
Monday, Wednesday, Friday 9.00 - 16.30
Thursday 11.30 - 19.00
Closed on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday
Magical 'now and then’ photos of Warsaw reveal beauty of a city that once wasThe photos taken from the Royal Castle’s clock tower are thought to be only the second 360 degree panorama ever taken of the city. Warsaw Rising Museum
A striking set of “then and now” photographs of Warsaw based upon a series of ten images first shot in 1873 offering a beautiful portrayal of the city that once was, have been made publicly available by the Warsaw Rising Museum.
Surfacing courtesy of a mystery benefactor, the pictures were first taken by Konrad Brandel, a prolific photographer, camera maker and inventor.
Recognized as one of the city’s first true photographers, Brandel took advantage of repairs to the Royal Castle’s clock tower to scale the scaffolding and shoot what is thought to be only the second 360 degree panorama ever taken of the city.
Warsaw Rising Museum
Warsaw Rising Museum
Known to have been taken on August 26th, 1873, the photos were shot between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. from the very top of the clock tower. Warsaw Rising Museum
Representing the museum’s Iconography Department, Ryszard Mączewski told TFN that the anonymous donation was nothing short of “a miracle”: “It was pure luck that we received these in the first place,” he said, “and a miracle that these photographs survived not just the war, but everything that happened on either side. They are truly unique.”
Despite falling outside the museum’s usual wartime remit, such is the historical value attached to them that it was never in doubt that they would be utilized in one way or another.
Warsaw Rising Museum
Unsurprisingly, the images have quickly gone viral. Warsaw Rising Museum
“Obviously photographs from the war have been traditionally our focus,” says Mączewski, “but we do also place an importance on collecting images from the pre-war and post-war periods as they allow for a wider look at the city.”
Known to have been taken on August 26th, 1873, the photos were shot between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. from the very top of the clock tower.
“Two things make this collection incredibly special,” says Mączewski. “First, we know he took ten photos, so to have the full set authenticated by Brandel’s dry seal is great. Secondly, they’re all in incredibly good condition.”
Warsaw Rising Museum
Surfacing courtesy of a mystery benefactor, the pictures first taken by Konrad Brandel, a prolific photographer, camera maker and inventor, have now been made public by the Warsaw Rising Museum. Warsaw Rising Museum
Staggering in their clarity, the level of detail is made all the more spectacular given the rudimentary methods Brandel would have employed.
“We presume he was working with glass negatives and having to process each photograph immediately after taking it, something we think would have taken him around 15 minutes,” says Mączewski.
“With so little time, we’re assuming he would have had help but we don’t know how many assistants he may have had.”
More noticeable, the simplicity of Brandel’s technical apparatus has bestowed the series with one surreal feature: an almost total lack of pedestrians.
“It’s not like today where you click a button and instantly have an image,” says Mączewski. “Brandel was using a long exposure process that would have taken around a minute. That meant that moving people wouldn’t have appeared.”
Though ghost-like in its emptiness, Brandel’s Warsaw is not completely bereft of people, and keen-eyed spotters will find six individuals standing on the roof of the Stanisławowska Library, a vendor in the shadows of St. John’s Cathedral and two indistinct figures on the corner of the Old Town Square and ul. Zapiecek.
Warsaw Rising Museum
Though ghost-like in its emptiness, Brandel’s Warsaw is not completely bereft of people, and keen-eyed spotters will find six individuals standing on the roof of the Stanisławowska Library, a vendor in the shadows of St. John’s Cathedral and two indistinct figures on the corner of the Old Town Square and ul. Zapiecek. Warsaw Rising Museum
“One of the brilliant things about these images is being able to hunt for sentient things like people and horses,” says Mączewski.
Compelling as this is, even more intriguing is identifying and comparing the city’s landmarks and copious changes.
Aiding this experience, and allowing for direct comparisons, the museum has set Brandel’s pictures against those taken in the present in the form of both standalone pictures and so-called ‘sliders’.
Warsaw Rising Museum
Warsaw Rising Museum
Staggering in their clarity, the level of detail is made all the more spectacular given the rudimentary methods Brandel would have employed. Warsaw Rising Museum
“It took us about an hour to get the images from ‘now’,” says Mączewski. “We had a drone operator working alongside a cameraman and it was great fun trying to ensure that the angles were as accurate as possible.”
Using these pictures from the present day as a reference point, the changes that Warsaw has undergone become all the more striking.
“For example, St. John’s Cathedral has a totally different façade,” says Mączewski. “You can also see three houses standing where today Miodowa connects with Krakowskie Przedmieście notice, too, things like the old Kierbedzia Bridge or the Synagogue on the corner of what was then Petersburska and Szeroka streets (now Jagiellońska and Kłopotowskiego).”
Allowing for direct comparisons, the museum has set Brandel’s pictures against those taken in the present in the form of both standalone pictures and so-called ‘sliders’. Warsaw Rising Museum
Unsurprisingly, the images have quickly gone viral.
“I think that’s because there’s a real magic in seeing this city that no longer exists,” says Mączewski. “It’s almost as if you are stepping inside the past.”
Warsaw Rising Museum
- Grzybowska 79, 00-844 Warszawa, Pologne
- +48 225397905 [email protected]
Opened in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the eponymous event, Warsaw Rising Museum is the first narrative museum to be opened in Poland. The aim of the museum is to celebrate the heroism of the soldiers of the Home Army, and to tell the story of the Warsaw Uprising, this decisive moment in the history of the city.
Warsaw Rising Museum tells the story of the largest anti-German uprising in occupied Europe. On 1 August 1944 nearly 20.000 members of the Polish Home Army attacked the German garrison in an attempt to liberate the Polish capital before the arrival of the Soviet Red Army. The museum presents the story of the brutal German occupation of Poland and of the creation of the Home Army, the largest underground military force in occupied Europe. The history of the uprising was falsified during the Communist era. Only after the fall of Communism in 1989 it became possible to erect a memorial dedicated to the uprising. The Museum was opened in 2004, on the 60th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, in the presence of numerous surviving veterans of the Home Army.
The interactive, narrative exhibition not only tells the story of Poland during the German occupation, but also illustrates the wide background of the uprising. The brutality of the German occupation, incarceration and next extermination of Polish elites and Polish jews strengthened the will of the population to resist. Moreover there was uncertainty of what would happen to Poland after the war, with the coming of the Red Army. This helps the visitor to understand why ill-armed resistance fighters rose to fight the mighty German Wehrmacht, with little or no help from outside. The brutal suppression during 63 days of fighting, despite countless acts of heroism and sacrifice on the part of the Home Army, is perhaps the most moving message of the museum.
Apart from the exhibition, the museum houses a research library, an archive preserving testimonies and records pertaining to the rising, and specialized educational facilities.
Interview with Dr. Alexandra Richie, Author of "Warsaw 1944"
To commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Capture of Warsaw by Soviet forces, we reached out to Alexandra Richie, D.Phil, to shed light on this event.
On January 17, 1945 Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, was captured by Soviet forces after more than 5 years of German occupation. I conducted an online interview with Alexandra Richie, D.Phil, to shed more light on this event and what led up to it.
Richie is a historian of Germany and Central and Eastern Europe, with a specialization in defense and security issues. She is also the author of Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, which was named one of the top ten books of the year by American Publisher’s Weekly, and Warsaw 1944, which won the Newsweek Teresa Torańska Prize for best non-fiction book of 2014 and the Kazimierz Moczarski Prize for Best History Book 2015.
She has contributed to many articles, documentaries, radio, and television programs, and is the Convener of the Presidential Counselors at The National WWII Museum. She is also a member of the Senate at the Collegium Civitas University in Warsaw, Poland, and the Władysław Bartoszewski co-chair of History and International Studies at the Collegium Civitas.
Q: Warsaw had been occupied by German forces since September 1939. The segregation of the local Jewish population into a ghetto is well known, but how was the occupation for Warsaw as a whole?
A: When Hitler was planning for the invasion of Poland he made it clear that this was going to be a completely new kind of war. According to Nazi ideology, the Poles and Jews living in the east were racially inferior beings who had taken over and defiled territories which rightfully belonged to the Germans. War against them was not to just be a war of conquest, it was also to be a war of racial annihilation to be carried out, as Hitler put it, with the 'greatest brutality and without mercy.' This would have terrible consequences for the people of Poland, and the citizens of Warsaw.
On 1 September 1939 two million German soldiers attacked Poland. With them came two thousand members of the new Einsatzgruppen and twenty one Order Police Battalions. Hitler had put Reinhard Heydrich in charge of Operation Tannenburg—the task of arresting and killing Poles whom the Security Police classified as 'anti-German elements.' His preliminary list contained the names of 61,000 people.
The Poles fought valiantly but there was little hope of holding out against the joint Soviet-German invasion and a force bent on the obliteration of the enemy. In the first large-scale terror bombing of the war Major Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen targeted Warsaw destroying over ten percent of buildings and killing 20,000 people. The Poles were shocked by the violence meted out against civilians as they learned of the obliteration of villages, attacks against Red Cross aid stations and the strafing of columns of refugees. The Germans had already executed 16,000 civilians by the time of Hitler's victory parade through Warsaw on 6 October. It was clear that the attack against Poland also heralded a fundamental shift in the way in which Germans were to wage war in the east.
Warsaw was seen as the head and heart of Poland and as such it had to be crushed. The occupation was extremely brutal. Groups of innocent civilians were simply arrested and executed in Pawiak Prison or in the garden of the Sejm—the Polish Parliament—in order to spread terror amongst the population. Between December 1939 and July 1941 over 1,700 Poles and Jews from Warsaw were taken to the nearby forest at Palmiry and shot pictures show women being led to their deaths still in their dressing gowns. In the spring of 1940 Warsaw was hit by another wave of arrests and murders in the so-called AB Aktion—this time it was the turn of over 6,500 pre-war politicians, attorneys, school headmasters and intellectuals to be executed. On 15 August 1940 the first group of Warsawians was rounded up and sent to a new German camp called Auschwitz.
According to the Generalplan Ost the city of Warsaw was eventually to be downgraded to rank of a small German provincial town. Its pre-war population of 1.3 million people was to be eliminated with only a few thousand to remain to serve the new German masters. The Nazis quickly took control over every aspect of life. Schools, colleges and other institutions were closed to Poles newspapers and businesses and banks were taken over, swastika flags and propaganda posters were everywhere and fifty modern loudspeakers were installed at intersections so that orders could be barked out to the inhabitants.
For the Poles the Nazis years were ones of violence, deprivation and fear. For the German occupiers, however, life in Warsaw was grand. 60,000 came in from the Reich joining the 15,000 ethnic Germans, or 'Volksdeutsche' already in the city. The majority were single men in their 20s or 30s looking to make a career in the new German 'Ost' although some 15 percent came with their wives and families. There was a regular influx of employees who worked for the post office and the Reichsbahn there were also over 8,000 members of the SS. The Germans lived in their own districts with almost no contact with the Poles. All kinds of goods were available beyond the official rationed supplies and they simply helped themselves to any food, liquor and valuables which caught their eye. Liberties were taken which would not have been tolerated in Berlin and the venality of the occupiers was legendary. The new elite seized goods and property, moving into houses and offices and furnishing them with items consisting mostly of confiscated Jewish property. Once set up the Germans would write home proudly boasting of their glamorous modern lifestyles and trucks and train cars of stolen goods were sent back to families in the Reich.
Social life was good too. The Germans founded clubs and cinemas and cafes they had German fashion stores and restaurants and Kasinos. Streets were renamed to reflect the new order—local girls were forced to waitress for the soldiers stationed on Adolf Hitler Platz while Jerusalem Avenue was renamed 'Bahnhof Strasse.' Buildings of Polish national importance were given new identities—the Bruhl Palace became the Official Residence of the Distrikt Governor Ludwig Fischer while landmarks like the Sejm, the National Museum and the Academy of Sciences became headquarters of the murderous police battalions. The German Chamber of Commerce and Industry oversaw the takeover of Polish and Polish-Jewish businesses. Institutions like the Polish Industrial Bank and the URSUS factory were Germanized while German firms like Siemens and Junkers and Organisation Todt moved in. Slave labor was used in the Warsaw Ghetto by entrepreneurs like Walter C. Toebbens and Fritz Schultz both of whom made personal fortunes during the war. Waldemar Schoen was in charge of ghettoization and it was he who decided Jews were to receive no more than 253 calories a day. More than 70,000 people died in the Ghetto before the deportations to Treblinka began in the summer of 1942.
Everything that the Nazis did in Warsaw was underpinned by violence. Between 1942 and '43 alone 6,000 Warsawians were killed in random street round-ups. Wilm Hosenfeld, who would later save the 'pianist' Wladyslaw Szpilman, recalled watching a Gestapo man simply shooting into a crowd of people gathered in a doorway. The violence in the Ghetto was simply horrific. An air raid warden described how Jewish employees in his factory 'were dragged away from the machines and mown down with machine guns'. The SS and Police were particularly brutal. Police Battalion 61 used the beer hall on Krochmalne Street as their private club. After getting drunk they would regularly hunt Jews for sport, putting a chalk mark on the wall of the tavern for each victim and proudly boasting of their '4,000th kill.' The Germans in Warsaw knew about the mass deportations of Jews in August and September 1942 but most were relieved that the 'swamp' was being 'cleared out.' During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 German ladies would take their coffee and stand on the roofs straining to get a glimpse of the action against the Jews. This colonial German paradise collapsed in the summer of 1944 but for over four years, the Nazis had lived the good life while overseeing a reign of violence, terror, and murder.
Q: The Warsaw Uprising, which began in August 1944, is one of the most honorable and tragic of World War II. You have written THE book on the subject, so please tell us, what made the Polish resistance of Warsaw decide to act then?
A: The Warsaw Uprising began on 1 August 1944, and the reasons for this are complex. The Poles had always planned to rise up against the Germans but Warsaw had deliberately been excluded from these plans in March 1944 as General Bor-Komorowski, commander of the Polish Underground, feared the damage it would do to the city and its inhabitants. However the summer of 1944 had seen dramatic changes on the eastern front and the Armia Krajowa began to rethink its earlier plans.
The decision to reverse the order excluding Warsaw from the fight was made by Bor in the second half of July. There were three crucial elements which led to this fateful decision. The first was the success of the Soviet summer offensive Operation Bagration. The second was the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, and the third was Walter Model's counter-offensive against the Red Army at the end of July 1944.
Bagration was the single greatest Nazi defeat of World War II and the AK watched as the Red Army swept through Byelorussia towards Poland. Bor sent AK soldiers to help the Soviets take cities like Vilnius and Lvov and relations were cordial until the NKVD arrived and began arresting the Poles. At the same time Stalin made moves to create a new Communist government in Lublin. It was clear to the AK that Stalin was fighting a political as well as a military war. The Poles would never be strong enough to stand up to Stalin, but perhaps some grand gesture would at least prove to the world that the Poles deserved a free independent state after the war?
The second even was the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. This attempt on Hitler's life bolstered the Polish view that the Germans were finished. Thanks to Bagration Warsaw had been filled with bedraggled German soldiers trudging back to the west. The AK leadership deluded itself that it would not be difficult to defeat this beaten army in Warsaw and welcome the Red Army as equals.
The final factor was Walter Model's counter-offensive just outside Warsaw in July 1944. Model was one of Hitler's ablest generals and had been appointed head of Army Group Centre on 28 June when even Hitler had begun to realize the sheer scale of Stalin's Bagration. Model had amassed an impressive collection of troops and smashed into the unsuspecting Red Army at Razymin and Wolomin just to the east of Warsaw on 31 July 1944.
Now largely forgotten, these were titanic clashes—the Battle of Wolomin was the largest tank battle fought on Polish soil during the war. The Poles waiting in Warsaw mistook the distant sounds of battle for the triumph of the Red Army. With no direct contact with the Soviets they could only guess at what was happening and they miscalculated this was not helped when the AK's Warsaw commander Colonel Monter rushed into the final meeting before the uprising on 31 July with the incorrect information that the Soviets were in the Warsaw district of Praga. Bor did not wait for verification and gave the order to begin the uprising at 5 pm on 1 August.
Thanks to Model there was no way that the Red Army could have reached Warsaw in the first week of August, and although this was only a temporary setback for the Red Army Stalin used to justify not going to the aid of the beleaguered Poles. The Germans were not challenged by the Soviets, and took murderous revenge on the Polish capital.
Q: What role did the uprising play in the Germans decision to not put up a fight against the Soviets in January 1945?
A: The Uprising was not a major factor in the German reaction to the Vistula-Oder Offensive on the contrary the Germans didn't put up a fight because they were simply overwhelmed. The Soviets had a 5:1 superiority of forces and when the Vistula-Oder offensive began at the Baranow bridgehead in the morning of 12 January the German 4th army was in utter disarray. This was also true of the Magnuszew and Pulawy Bridgeheads by Warsaw. Konev began his attack against the 9th Army at 8:30 am with a massive bombardment. The Germans fought back but simply could not hold off the massive strength of the Red Army. The XXXVI Panzer Corps of the 9th Army was forced back over the Vistula and the Soviets captured Warsaw on 17 January. Hitler had wanted his troops to fight on until the death for his 'Fortress City' and sacked 9th Army commander General Smilo Frieherr von Luttwitz and XXXVI Panzer Corps commander Walter Fries, but the reality was the Germans simply could not stand up to the sheer might of the Soviets who raced over 300 miles from the Vistula River to the Oder River in less than a month.
Q: Tell us about those Poles who remained in the ruined city after the uprising and before the arrival of the Soviets?
A: Some of the most remarkable people in the history of WWII Warsaw were the so-called 'Robinsons' named after Robinson Crusoe, who despite the enormous risks managed to hide from the Germans in the ruins of the city. They fell into two main groups—the first were around 17,000 Jews who hid from the Germans after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. The other group, primarily Jews but also Polish Home Army soldiers and others, hid in the ruins between the end of the Warsaw Uprising on 2 October 1944 until the arrival of the Soviets on 17 January 1945.
When the Poles capitulated at the end of the Warsaw Uprising Hitler ordered that the city be emptied of all its inhabitants and be 'glattraziert'—blown up block by block until there was literally nothing left. Warsawians were forced from their homes to the transit camp at Pruszkow from which many were sent as slave labor into the Reich or were transported to camps including Auschwitz and Ravensbruck.
Some decided it would be better to hide rather than risk capture by the Germans. This was an extremely dangerous decision as the Germans moved through the city burning and blasting away their hiding places, discovering many people in the process. Even so some few hundred managed to survive. Some had prepared elaborate bunkers with supplies of food and water others were actually buried by friends in underground caves and existed without light or heat for months. Danuta Slazak of the Home Army hid in the basement of a hospital with patients she had saved they used the bodies of the dead to cover the entrance to the hiding place. I had the great honor to know Marek Edelmann, last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who was hiding in the district of Zoliborz. He described how Germans would come and loot the houses in the district. He hid under the floorboards of the entrance hall and could feel the boards press down on his chest as the Germans walked over him. He and his group were miraculously saved by a Home Army rescue squad who got them out dressed as medical personnel.
A number of 'Robinsons' wrote memoirs after the war. The best known is Wladyslaw Szpilman of The Pianist fame, but others include The Bunker by Chaim Goldstein, and I Hid in Warsaw by Stefan Chaskielewicz. Others include books by Jews who were in hiding before the Warsaw Uprising and survived the war such as The Island on Bird Street by Uri Orlev. All of them share the sense of terror and fear of discovery by Germans who showed absolutely no mercy to anyone found in the ruins of Warsaw.
Q: How did the survivors feel about this “liberation?”
A: For Poles who had fought in the Warsaw Uprising and were now in exile from their city the arrival of the Soviets was greeted with much bitterness. Poles had watched helplessly as the Soviets had waited on the eastern bank of the Vistula River while the Nazis crushed and destroyed Warsaw. Stalin had even forbidden American and British planes to land behind Soviet lines, hindering western attempts to help Warsawians. Poles were largely anti-Communist and resented Stalin's imposition of a Soviet puppet government in Lublin on 22 July 1944 and they were also angry at the NKVD arrests of Polish Home Army soldiers and the terror imposed on Poland in the wake of the Soviet victory. Most Poles therefore awaited Soviet 'liberation' with fear and trepidation.
However, for the 'Robinsons' hiding in the ruins of Warsaw the Soviets truly were liberators. By the time they arrived on 17 January only a few thousand people had managed to evade the Germans and were still hiding in the ruins. The Soviet soldiers who had seen much destruction were nevertheless appalled by the sheer devastation of the city. The journalist Vasily Grossman documented his first glimpse of the shattered Polish city, meeting some of the 'Robinsons' as they crawled from the ruins, describing cellars with Jews 'emerging from under the ground'. One was a stocking maker who was carrying a small wicker basket filled with the ashes of his family. After so many months in hiding Wladyslaw Szpilman was disoriented by his new found freedom. "Tomorrow I must begin a new life," he said. "How could I do it, with nothing but death behind me?" For the 'Robinsons' of Warsaw, like those liberated from Auschwitz and other camps, the Soviets brought nothing less than the chance for survival.
Q: You lead many of the Museum’s tours through Warsaw. Can you tell us how Warsaw is today and what is the overall memory of World War II there?
A: When the war ended over 85 percent of the buildings in the city lay in ruins and most of the population had been killed or forced into exile. Warsaw was so badly damaged that the Soviets toyed with the idea of moving the capital to nearby Lodz. To their surprise, however, hundreds of thousands of Warsawians began to make their way back as soon as they could, determined to resurrect their beloved city. My mother-in-law lived in a room with tarpaulins for two of the walls as she studied to become a pediatrician others lived in cellars or makeshift shelters. Stalin made the decision to rebuild Warsaw as a gesture of Soviet 'brotherhood,' now calling Warsaw the city which 'embodies the heroic traditions of the Polish Nation'. He also realized that restoring it would help give his regime some legitimacy.
Despite the Soviet slogan 'The entire nation builds its capital' the city was largely rebuilt by Warsawians themselves using bricks from the rubble and also from former German cities like Gdansk and Wroclaw. In the Old Town fragments of buildings were preserved and a series of twenty-two paintings by Bellotto were used to accurately reconstruct the district. Most of the historic centre was finished by 1951 although the symbolic Royal Castle was only opened to visitors in 1984. This was reconstruction on a unique scale and the Warsaw Old Town is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The spirit of that post-war regeneration is very much alive in the 'Phoenix city' and it seems no matter what is done here Warsaw keeps bouncing back. Despite having been fought over in World War I, battered in the 1920's Polish Soviet war, devastated in World War II and enduring decades of Soviet rule, Warsaw has emerged as one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in Europe. It is constantly surprising and defies type casting—it is the 7th top vegan friendly city in the world while the Guardian calls it the 2nd best city in the world for international students and a 2017 European Union survey found it the 4th most business friendly city in Europe. New office buildings and trendy apartment blocks are springing up like mushrooms and there is a general atmosphere of optimism—surveys say that over 90 percent of Warsawians are happy.
Despite its youthful energy, Warsawians have a very deep connection to their past and there is open, often heated debate about the history of World War II. New museums from the Warsaw Rising Museum to POLIN Museum of the history of Polish Jews join extraordinary institutions including the fabled Ringelblum Archive—the underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. On every 1 August at 5 pm the entire city stops for one minute to commemorate the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and there are institutions such as Dom Spotkan a Historia—the History Meeting House—a municipal initiative where people meet to hear authors, watch and discuss films and debate WWII history in an apolitical atmosphere. The entire city is infused with history and there is so much to discover and learn. It is a must see for anyone interested in the history of World War II.
Honouring the combatants
Annual celebrations on August 1 span the entire city, as battalions are saluted in their respective districts. Candles and flowers heap up on pavements under commemorative plaques.
“My battalion had over 1,500 men during the uprising. Only three of us are still living. When there were still several more of us … we would lay flowers in places where the largest numbers of our friends had perished. That is how we used to honour the dead,” said Zukowski.
Every year, there is an official ceremony outside parliament, followed by a ceremony for insurgents and their families at the main Military Cemetery. In the evening a bonfire is lit on the Warsaw Uprising Mound, which burns for 63 days, marking the length of the struggle.
Over the years, former fighters have been eager to share their experiences.
“Marking the day is a reminder for the younger generations that freedom has to be fought for,” said Zukowski.
Yet still-living fighters are now over 90 years old.
“The 75th anniversary is probably the last one when they can still participate in the commemorative events.”
To Ukielski, this is one of the last moments when “they can pass on their values as part of a generational relay.”
As the next generation picks up the baton, commemorative events are evolving.
For the sixth year running, 750 people raced to the top of the “PAST” building, a key vantage point which was captured by fighters during the uprising.
On August 1, a flotilla of decorated vessels will sail down the Vistula river through central Warsaw.
In the evening, an estimated 30,000 Poles will gather at Pilsudski Square to sing upbeat patriotic anthems forbidden during the German occupation, which have regained nostalgic sparkle.
People should be made aware of the fact that a city of almost one million people was nearly obliterated from the face of the earth.
Andreas Nachama, director of the Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin
The military scale, casualties and destruction following the Warsaw Uprising still come to some as a shock.
Former mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, said that when Boris Johnson, then-mayor of London, attended the 2014 commemorations, he mistook “50,000 casualties in the Wola district” as a glitch in translation. He assumed the interpreter had meant 5,000.
On July 25, an exhibition about the Warsaw Uprising was opened at the Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin.
According to Andreas Nachama, director of the museum, it speaks to the horrors of World War II.
“People should be made aware of the fact that a city of almost one million people was nearly obliterated from the face of the earth.”A German soldier (right) guarding captured members of the Polish resistance after their capitulation at the end of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi German occupation of the Polish capital, October 1944. The terms of the capitulation agreement guaranteed prisoner of war status for the fighters [Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]
Warsaw Rising Museum - History
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Warsaw Uprising. By the summer of 1944 the tide of the Second World War had turned. The Soviets, now Allies, had reversed the German advance, and France was fighting towards liberation. Sensing change, the Polish government-in-exile authorized their highly organised resistance ‘Home Army’ to rise up against the extremely brutal Nazi forces occupying their capital.
On the 1st August thousands of Polish men, women and children launched a coordinated attack. The Poles had faced invasion on two fronts at the start of the war, and were well aware of the dual threat to their independence. Their aim now was to liberate Warsaw from the Nazis so that they could welcome the advancing Soviet Army as free, or at least fighting, citizens. Moscow radio had appealed to the Poles to take action, but the Red Army then deliberately waited within hearing distance for the ensuing conflict to decimate the Polish resistance before making their own entry. The Warsaw Uprising is remembered as one of the most courageous resistance actions of the Second World War, but also one of the most tragic.
A couple of years ago I travelled to Warsaw to research my last book, The Spy Who Loved, a biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born Countess who became Britain’s first female special agent of the war. While there I visited the famous Powąski cemetery where many of Krystyna’s family are buried, along with (parts of) Chopin and other famous Poles. Walking around I was very struck by several memorials like the one above, which shows how a Polish woman who died in 1999 chose to be remembered – fighting for the freedom of her country fifty-five years earlier.
To her despair, Krystyna Skarbek, then stationed in Italy, was not able to join her compatriots during the Warsaw Uprising. However I was honoured to meet one of the female veterans of the conflict at an event at the Polish Embassy earlier this year. A few months later I had the pleasure of meeting her again at her north London home, where she generously shared her memories of the uprising with me over a cup of strong coffee and some delicious Polish pastries.
|Polish Home Army white and red armband, |
courtesy of The Warsaw Rising Museum
Despite the heroism of the Warsaw Uprising, it is a conflict still not well known outside Poland. So I am thrilled that Hanna’s story has been published in full in this month’s issue of History Today magazine. Furthermore there are some wonderful new resources being launched to mark the 70th anniversary of the conflict. Two films in particular stand out:
- Powstanie Warszawskie (Warsaw Uprising) is the world's first feature film to be made entirely from authentic newsreels. The Home Army had commissioned reporters and cameramen to record the conflict during August 1944. It is this footage that has now been colourised and assembled to retell the story of the uprising. You can watch a trailer for this powerful film here:
- Portret Żołnierza (Portrait of a Soldier) is an independent documentary directed and produced by Marianna Bukowski. Marianna spent many hours interviewing her friend Wanda Traczyk-Stawska who, as a 16-year-old girl, fought as a Home Army soldier. While watching some of the original footage from the uprising, Marianna was deeply moved to see Wanda firing her ‘Lightning’ gun during the conflict. Her intimate and very personal film explores Wanda’s story, asking what makes a teenage girl choose to become a soldier. Although currently still in post-production, more information can be read here.
- I am also looking forward to reading a new book on the conflict, Warsaw 44 by Alexandra Richie, a critically acclaimed author whose father-in-law is a veteran of the Uprising.
The Warsaw Rising was fought over 63 days between 1st August and 2nd October 1944. An estimated 18,000 Polish insurgents lost their lives, as well as between 180-200,000 civilians – many during the mass executions conducted by the Nazi German troops in reprisals. On a private visit to Krystyna Skarbek’s grave earlier this year, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski emphasized to me that the Home Army commanders were counting on the rapid advance of the Soviet army into the city when they took their decision to rise up. For Wanda Traczyk-Stawska and Hanna Koscia however, the fight was more personal than strategic. ‘We were children of the occupation – we wanted to be free and it was for this freedom that we fought so fiercely’, Wanda told Marianna Bukowski. Hanna was equally clear about her own motivations, telling me, ‘you have to understand how many people had already been killed, what the view was ahead of us… the reality of the situation was that you can’t give up when there is no good alternative for yourself or for others… We just simply had to fight’.