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Memories of September 1939

Article Index
Memories of September 1939
Part II
Part III
All Pages

Part I

On the first of September of 1939, the sky above Warsaw was unexpectedly filled with hostile military aircraft. Without declaring war, Germany crossed the border into Poland. Units of the German Air force, fighters and light bombers were prowling about Poland, nearing the capital.

I was returning by bus that day from Swider, a summer vacation spot. Going by Anin, I saw by the road a bombed out house and a dead white horse. That horse was the first casualty of the war that I was to see.

A crowd had gathered at a streetcar station In Warsaw. An airplane appeared in the sky.

"That's probably one of ours." Someone said. All of a sudden the deafening sound of exploding bombs was heard. Our anti aircraft artillery answered back.

No titleMy father was waiting for me at home. In a little while we heard the roar of an engine and ran downstairs. A light bomber was roaming around the factory grounds. He dropped a few bombs, but didn't do too much damage. He just rearranged a pile of scrap iron.

After dinner I went to Uncle Zygmunt's house on Wegierska street. He was a major in the corps of engineers, so of course we talked about the war. He said that France and England probably will not engage in war that readily, and Germany is bound to be in Warsaw within a week. A chill went up and down my spine. Uncle Zygmunt got orders to go to eastern Poland; he got his family together and left.

Starting low , and building to a frenzied hysteria, the air raid alarm screamed out as if terror stricken. They Are Coming!

I was at the outskirts of the city. Everybody was trying to find a reasonably safe place. Frightened people abandoned streetcars. I followed the people who were running behind the fence of a one story house. There I saw a so called "shelter" which was a ditch, as deep as one and one half person, covered with a metal roof, and camouflaged with a thin layer of dirt and some branches. Despite this miserable excuse for a shelter I felt a little safer. Inside were gathered quite a few people, mostly women and children, and a few passersby like me. I noticed that two of the children had small pillows tied to their heads.

"Janusz, come here. Do you have your suitcase? Janusz, why are you yawning? Don't you know that whoever yawns is inviting death?" Some of the younger children were amusing themselves by digging holes in the sides of the shelter with their fingers. "They are so lucky; they have no idea what is going on," someone remarked.

A couple of youngsters are running gleefully on the roof of the shelter and making dirt fall on the heads of those who are inside. "What has come over them? Get down from there you little wretches before the pilots see you" shouted a heavy set woman.

Indeed, in about a minute we heard the roar of airplanes from afar and the dull, far away thundering of falling bombs. I was embarrassed to admit even to myself that I felt a relief that the hits were falling on another part of town. The detonations died down, but the all clear signal had not come yet.

"And where are you going to hide from these bombs?" , someone asked, "In a ditch?"

"Where I live in the Wlochy section, nobody got killed in the house, but in the shelter - they were all corpses." said a girl with horror in her eyes. "Who will be hit, will be hit. It's God's will."

"How long is this going to last?"

"Maybe a year..."

"Oh Jesus, is that how long we're going to have to endure this?"

CrucifictionThe Mayor of Warsaw Stefan Starzynski made speeches on the radio calling Hitler a barbarian. The Polish Autumn allied itself with the enemy, creating ideal conditions for the offensive. We got up in the morning cursing the beautiful blue sky:

"Tfu! What dreadful weather!"

I went with my father to Wegierska Street, to see what was happening with Uncle Zygmunt's apartment. We spent the night there. About one a.m. someone pounded on the door with his fist.

"All men to gather for the making of barricades."

I was at the outskirts of the city. Everybody was trying to find a reasonably safe place. Frightened people abandoned streetcars. I followed the people who were running behind the fence of a one story house. There I saw a so called "shelter" which was a ditch, as deep as one and one half person, I jumped out of bed, shaking as if a fever had come upon me. The worst imaginings had come true: the enemy was approaching the capitol. I went with my father to Narutowicz Place. The moon shone in all its fullness, surrounded by a halo. A hundred men had gathered, young and old. The leaders divided us into groups and led us to the designated posts. My father and I started digging a barricade on Gorecka Street. All of us worked intently and quickly. We ripped up the pavement, dug ditches perpendicular to the street, and reinforced the embankment with various materials. We raided a nearby storehouse of its old metal, straining under the weight.

The cold luster of the moon lit up the barricade bristling with rails, scrap metal, and cobblestones ripped right out of the street. A deep pit was left behind the barricade.

"It has to be two meters deep and wide so that when a tank enters it will not be able to get out" explained the leader. A narrow opening was left on the side of the barricade.

All of a sudden I noticed that people are filing in and pushing through this gap. The wave of refugees is getting bigger and bigger. On foot, by bicycle, in cars, pulling behind them cows and dogs on a leash. All are moving along, bent under the weight of their sacks, exhausted, having only one goal before them: to get to Warsaw!

Amid this wave of refugees one notices groups of soldiers. Sometimes an ambulance would pass through.

BattleThe wave of the retreat from the western front had finally reached Warsaw which was absorbing the foot-weary multitudes. In the meantime, under the cover of darkness, the capitol was making ready to defend itself. The throng was still pouring into Warsaw from the west. I saw horse drawn wagons on which sat soldiers right along with women and children, their bloodied feet dangling over the side. Some were trudging by foot, their boots very worn, their rifles slung over their shoulders, unshaven, emaciated. One of the soldiers, pedaling along on a bike had two loaves of dry dark bread in his knapsack.

All delusions vanished in the next few days: a massive enemy army was thrusting forward, breaking all defenses.

The people were seized with panic. Colonel Umiastowski announced on the radio that all men who were able to bear arms were to start heading toward the west. I did not heed this call, feeling that I could be more useful right where I was.

Thinking that the Germans were going to bomb the factories, all of us, the whole family and the dog, went to the center of town to Uncle Adam's on Szpitalna Street. Aunt Sophie greeted us with the following words:

"When I see the barricades on Marszalkowska Street, then my arms go limp. Can you imagine? Barricades on Marszalkowska Street!"The approaching evening brought no rest; anxiety reigned. Night was falling quickly, enveloping the whole city with darkness. A red glow of fire spread over the western horizon, the inseparable companion of war. The enemy was getting closer to the capitol.

Warsaw was settling down to sleep, not knowing what the next day would bring.



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