Miron Białoszewski | A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising | New York Review Books | translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine | October 2015 | 37 minutes (10,141 words)
Below is an excerpt from A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, by Miron Białoszewski, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. Originally published in Poland in 1970, in this new edition translator Madeline G. Levine has updated her 1977 English translation, and passages that were unpublishable in Communist Poland have been restored.
* * *
Tuesday, August 1, 1944, was overcast, wet, not too warm. It must have been about noon when I stepped out onto Chłodna Street (my street at the time, number 40), and I remember that there were a lot of trams, cars, and people, and that right after I reached the corner of Żelazna Street I became aware of the date—August 1—and I thought to myself, more or less in these words: “August 1—it’s Sunflower Day.”
I remember looking down Chłodna Street in the direction of Kercelak. But why the association with sunflowers? Because that’s when they’re blooming and even shedding their petals, because they’re ripening . . . And also because at that time I was more naive and sentimental, I hadn’t become cunning yet, because the times themselves were also naive, primitive, rather carefree, romantic, conspiratorial, wartime . . . So—that yellow color must have been in something—the light of the inclement weather with sunlight struggling to break through (it did) on the trams painted red as they are in Warsaw.
I shall be frank recollecting my distant self in small facts, perhaps excessively precise, but there will be only the truth. I am forty-five years old now, twenty-three years have gone by, I am lying here on my couch safe and sound, free, in good health and spirits, it is October, night, 1967, Warsaw once again has 1,300,000 inhabitants. I was seventeen years old when I went to bed one day and for the first time in my life heard artillery fire. It was the front. And that was probably September 2, 1939. I was right to be terrified. Five years later the all too familiar Germans were still walking along the streets in their uniforms.
(I am using the designation “Germans” here and elsewhere because any other usage will sound artificial. Just as at that time the Vlasovites were often assumed to be Ukrainians. We knew that the Germans weren’t the only Hitlerites. We even saw it. I remember the Latvians in 1942 after the liquidation of the little ghetto. With rifles. Entirely in black. They were standing along the length of Sienna Street. Close together. On the Aryan sidewalk. And for entire days and nights they scanned the windows on the Jewish side of Sienna. The remains of windowpanes in their frames, plugged up with quilts. Deathly goose down. Along the street—that one street—from Żelazna to Sosnowa ran not a wall but barbed wire. Along its entire length. The roadway, the cobblestones—on that side tall reeds and goosefoot were already growing—had dried out by then and turned as gray as charcoal. And yet they were crouching. That’s how they took aim. And I remember that one of them fired every so often. At those windows.)
Well, that August 1, at about two in the afternoon, Mama said that I should go get some bread from Teik’s cousin on Staszic Street; apparently, there wasn’t enough bread and they had arranged something. I went. And I remember that when I returned there were a great many people and there was already a commotion. And people were saying, “They killed two Germans on Ogrodowa Street.”
It seems to me that I didn’t go the way I should have because right away they were rounding up people, but somehow it also seems that I really did take Ogrodowa Street. My commotion in Wola may have been only local because right afterward I ran into Staszek P., the composer, and afterward Staszek laughed and said, “And my mother said that today was such a peaceful day!”
Staszek himself had seen many tigers. “Tanks as big as apartment houses.”
So they were cruising around. Someone had seen a thousand people (ours) on horseback, riding up to 11 Mazowiecka Street. Various things were happening. And it wasn’t even five o’clock, or “W” hour, yet. Staszek and I were supposed to go to 24 Chłodna Street to see Irena P., my colleague at the secret university. (Our Polonistics department was located on the corner of Świętokrzyska Street and Jasna, on the third floor; we sat on school benches; it was referred to as Tynelski’s school of commercial studies.) Well, we were supposed to be at her place by five (I had a date at seven with Halina, who was living with Zocha and my father at 32 Chmielna Street), but since it was early we walked along Chłodna from Żelazna to Waliców and back. The sexton had spread a carpet on the church steps and set out potted green trees for a formal wedding. Suddenly we see that the sexton is removing everything, rolling up the carpet, carrying in the potted trees, rushing to get it done, and this surprised us. In fact, the day before—July 31, that is—Roman Ż. had dropped in to say goodbye to us. At that moment the Soviet front could be heard distinctly, explosions and simultaneously the planes dropping their bombs on the German districts. So we went into Irena’s. It was before five. We’re talking, suddenly there’s shooting. Then, it seems, heavier weapons. We can hear cannons. And all sorts of weapons. Finally a shout, “Hurrahhh . . .”
“The uprising,” we told each other immediately, like everyone else in Warsaw.
Strange. Because no one had ever used that word before in his life. Only in history, in books. It was boring. But now, all of a sudden . . . it’s here, and the sort with “hurrahhhs” and the thundering of the crowd. Those “hurrahhhs” and the thundering were the storming of the courthouses on Ogrodowa. It was raining. We observed whatever could be seen. Irena’s window looked out onto a second courtyard with a low red wall at the end, and beyond this wall was another courtyard, which extended all the way to Ogrodowa Street and housed a sawmill, a shed, a pile of boards, and handcarts. We’re standing there watching and then someone in a German tankist’s uniform, I think, wearing a forage cap and an armband, leaps across that low red wall from the other courtyard into ours. He jumps down onto the lid of our garbage bin. From the bin onto a stool. From the stool onto the asphalt.
“The first partisan!” we shouted.
“You know what, Mironek, I could give myself to him,” Irena told me ecstatically through the curtain.
Immediately afterward people ran into that courtyard from Ogrodowa Street and began grabbing the wagons and carts to use as barricades.
Then—I remember—after Staszek cooked dumplings and we ate them, we played a game, thumbed through Rabelais’s Gargantua (my first contact with him). Then we went to sleep. Of course, it wasn’t quiet. The whole time. Only the large-caliber guns, which became so familiar later on, quieted down a little. So Irena went to sleep in her room. And Staszek and I lay down on her mother’s bed in her mother’s room, since of course she had not come home from the center. It was raining. Drizzling. It was cold. We could hear machine guns, that rat-a-tat-tat. Nearer burst, then farther off. And rocket flares. Every so often. In the sky. We fell asleep to their noise, I think.
It was 1935 when, for the first time in my life, I heard about bombardments. When the Italian fascists attacked Abyssinia. Lame Mania was visiting us, listening to the radio through earphones, and suddenly she announced, “They’re bombing Addis Ababa.”
I had a vision of Aunt Natka’s house on Wronia (I don’t know why that one precisely), the sixth floor, and that we’re there on the landing between the fifth and sixth floors. And that we start caving in along with those floors. Then right away I thought that was probably impossible. But in that case, what was it really like? . . .
What happened on the second day of August 1944? Since June the Allied offensive in the west had been moving across France, Belgium, Holland. And from Italy. The Russian front was at the Vistula. Warsaw entered the second day of the uprising. Explosions woke us. It was raining.
Organizing began. Block leaders. Duty tours. Shoring up cellars. Tunneling underground passageways. For nights on end. Barricades. At first people thought they could be made out of anything, such as the boards from the sawmill and the carts on Ogrodowa Street. (All of Ogrodowa—we looked out on it—was decked out in Polish flags—a strange holiday!) Meetings and conferences in the courtyards. Assignments: who, what. Possibly already a newssheet. Of the uprising. And in general the partisans. Showed up. In German castoffs—in whatever they could find: a helmet, boots, with anything at all in their hands, so long as it could shoot. We looked out onto Chłodna Street. And it was true: a front had been established. Throughout Warsaw. Right away. Or rather, several fronts. Which the first night established. And the day began to force back. This was reported in the newssheets. There were explosions. All sorts. From cannons. Bombs. Machine guns. Was it the front? The real one, the German-Russian front? It was moving from somewhere near Modlin toward Warsaw (our great hope). Nothing dreadful yet from Wola. But Chłodna Street was in trouble. It seemed to be ours. Already decked in flags, I think. But on the corner of Waliców and Chłodna there was a Wache—a guard post. There was a second Wache (the building with the columns) on the corner of Żelazna and Chłodna. “Wache” meant a building held by the Germans, and that meant shooting from above (from all six stories). Machine guns. Grenades. Every so often a single shot from the roof, from behind a chimney, someone wounded, someone killed. It was those concealed men who were shooting.
“Pigeon fanciers,” people called them. They were chased, hunted down, but nothing came of it. They fired from our buildings. Later they were being caught. But there were a lot of them. All the time. To the very end. It seems they would walk behind the tanks as they rode by and jump through the gates. Shells hurtled in from the German districts, from Wola, from the freight station or the tracks, from an armored train, from the Saxon Gardens. Planes flew overhead and dropped bombs. Every now and then. Frequently. Sometimes every half hour. Even more frequently. And tanks. From Hale Mirowskie. From Wola, too. They wanted to conquer, or rather, to clear the line. Chłodna Street. The first barricades, temporary, wooden, weren’t worth anything. The tanks rode right over them. Shells set them on fire in an instant. Or incendiary bombs. I remember people throwing down tables, chairs, wardrobes onto the street from the third floor of the house on the other corner of Chłodna and Żelazna opposite the Wache, and people here grabbing them for the barricades. And right away those tanks rode over them.
So people started tearing up the concrete slabs from the sidewalks, the cobblestones from the streets. There were tools for this. The tram drivers had prepared iron crowbars and pickaxes for the uprising. They handed them out to the people. And with these the cobblestones were broken into pieces, the concrete slabs were dug up, the hard ground was broken. But those two Waches interfered a lot. I know that my mother suddenly showed up at number 24, in Irena’s courtyard. Worried about me. She’d run over from beyond Żelazna Street, from 40 Chłodna. She brought something to eat. I preferred to stay here at Irena’s with Staszek. I walked Mother to the corner. The one near the Wache. We separated for the time being, going in opposite directions. Everything stealthily—at a run—under cover of the barricades. At the intersection the tram wires were torn and tangled somehow from the crossfire—anyway, someone had hung a portrait of Hitler on them and this infuriated the Germans. They were shooting at that intersection. The “pigeon fanciers” were puffing away.
* * *
I can’t distinguish exactly what happened on the second and what happened on the third of August (on Wednesday and Thursday). Both days were cloudy and drizzly. There were already fires, bombs. Both days there was racing downstairs.
“To the shelter!”—or, rather, to ordinary cellars. To the yard for discussions, duty tours, to work at digging, building barricades. We were still living upstairs, on the fourth floor. But we were already sitting in the foyer, at the most in the kitchen, within the innermost walls, because shells were pouring in. We slept on couches placed in the foyer. Once, Irena P. and I ran down without our shoes on, I think, because there was already an air raid and bombs. Staszek was in the WC at that moment. Then the bombs fell. Somehow, nothing hit us. A few minutes later Staszek came down and said, “You know, while I was sitting on the toilet the entire floor and the whole toilet with me on it caved in . . . And how . . .”
Anyway, we didn’t go out into Chłodna Street right away. Which was good. The gate, like all the others, was barricaded. We decided to hang out a flag. They blew it up through the iron grating.
“Attention!” and “Poland has not perished yet.”
The Germans began firing. At the flag. At the gate. Someone got something in his finger. Probably the lieutenant who hung out the flag. Or maybe the commandant of the Antiaircraft Defense for this house? I don’t remember. At some point there was a sudden dreadful blast. So that everything jumped. We flew downstairs.
“The Germans blew themselves up along with their Wache on the corner of Waliców!” people were shouting.
“Five apartment houses are gone!”
We ran out into Chłodna Street. The street was covered with clouds. Rust colored and dark brown. From bricks, from smoke. When it settled we saw a terrifying transformation. A reddish-gray dust was covering everything. Trees. Leaves. A centimeter thick, I think. And that devastation. One Wache less. But at what a cost. Anyway, things were already beginning to change. To anxiety. And always for the worse. Visually too. From Żelazna Brama Square, from Bank Square, from Elektoralna Street along our side of Chłodna against the wall, people were running and running—women, children, all hunched over, gray, covered with some kind of powder. I remember that the sun was setting. Fires were burning. The people ran on and on. A flood of people. From the bombed-out houses. They were fleeing to Wola.
The next day, around sunset, Staszek and I were ordered to carry concrete paving stones. To the other side of the street. Staszek grabbed a slab and carried it across. I was amazed. Suddenly, we hear shells. One hits a wooden fire barricade behind the church on Chłodna. It bursts into flames. Right afterward something hits Hale Mirowskie. It catches fire. Burns with a vivid flame. Tomato colored. The sun is setting. The weather is fair for the first time. On our side of Chłodna people are running beneath the wall to Elektoralna and beyond. Just like yesterday. The same people. They are fleeing from Wola.
“The Ukrainians are on the march from Wola and butchering people. And burning them on pyres!”
The fifth day, Saturday, August 5. A lot of prolonged roaring. I run out to the gate.
“The Wache is taken!” I race upstairs. With that joyous news. To Irena and Staszek. Chłodna was free. A minute later all decked in flags. In a moment crowds poured into the street. To make barricades. Everyone. Women. Old men. I remember. Salesladies in white aprons. And an older woman who was quickly passing me bricks with one hand because she was holding her pocketbook in the other. I passed the bricks to a salesgirl in her white apron. And so on.
People were shouting, “Faster! Faster!” The bricks were collected from the blown-up buildings on the corner of Waliców. Suddenly, we hear airplanes. We run to the steps of a Secession-style apartment house at number 20 or 22. Bombs. We run down to the cellar. It was the house of Pan Henneberg, I think, an engineer, one of the Henneberg brothers and the father of my three schoolmates and scouting friends. I used to visit there before the war. I remember that whenever I visited them in those days the house was full of people, the door to the balcony was open and there was a terrific noise from the street, as if people were actually riding through the apartment. This morning or the day before, Pan Henneberg had climbed the tram mast and cut the wires and then thrown them down so that the tanks would get all tangled up in them, and he’d cursed at the Germans, out loud. Not long ago, just this year in fact, I read in the weekly The Capital that one of the younger Henneberg brothers, one of my schoolmates, that is, had died in the uprising. The other one also perished. I remember their mother from my school days, when she was in mourning; she had very blond hair. We could hear the tanks. They were on the way already. All or nothing. We had to escape.
In the cellar in this building there was one elderly gentleman. He had come there.
“Where did you come from?” I asked him.
“From Krakowskie Przedmieście.”
He described how the Germans were arresting people and herding them in front of the tanks against the partisans, so that the partisans would shoot them.
“And the whole street has been burned down . . .”
“Which street?” I asked.
“Krakowskie Przedmieście, of course,” he said very sadly.
I remember that I was surprised then, first of all at hearing someone call Krakowskie Przedmieście a street rather than an avenue and second that the old man was so terribly upset about it. I am not surprised now.
After the bombardment we went outside. They were calling for help at the next barricade right before Żelazna Street. Men were needed. I ran over. They handed out picks and crowbars. For the cobblestones and sidewalks. Anyway, part of the trench was already dug up. I saw for the first time what a tangle of pipes and conduits there is underground. They warned us to dig carefully. On the fourth corner of Żelazna a cigarette kiosk was overturned as a barrier, the cigarettes spilling out. Some guy started picking them up.
“Hey, mister, at such a time!” And other people also began yelling at him. He was embarrassed, stopped, went on digging with us. Suddenly people are wheeling out the corpses of those Germans from the Wache. In wheelbarrows. Stripped to the waist. Barefoot. The green soles of their boots sticking out. Bare soles. And I remember the belly of one or was it two Germans protruding from the wheelbarrows. There were several of them in each wheelbarrow. They are to be buried. On the square in front of the Church of St. Boromeusz. Don’t make a cross. But start over and mark out a circle of dirt (which later, more or less at dusk, I saw they did). They take me to help out.
I am ashamed to refuse. But I wish for an air raid right at that moment, so that others will have to do it instead of me. And there is one. Quickly, ever so quickly. They fly over. And bombs! So that the men with the wheelbarrows drop the wheelbarrows, the German corpses sail into the trenches, into the excavations, strike the pipes, the cables, and remain somewhere deep down there. With the result that some people dug them out immediately, but by then it was other people. After the bombs. I fled for all I was worth two apartment houses away.
Then the return to Irena. We decided to separate. Because we really had to go back to our mothers. Irena remained here, in her own house. I was supposed to go back to my house, to 40 Chłodna. Staszek to his. To 17 Sienna Street. But people were running from that direction and screaming, “Pańska’s bombed! Prosta’s bombed!”
* * *
We say goodbye between Waliców and Żelazna. I run toward Żelazna. A lot of people, objects, destruction, changes, commotion. A crowd. Flight. The pigeon fanciers. I remember. I see: a line of what looks like Boy Scouts in green uniforms making their way from Chłodna Street to Żelazna near the arcades in those various blind alleys. They’re holding bottles of gasoline. They turn into Żelazna. The weather’s fine. Saturday. Sunny. I rush into our house. Mama’s there. And besides Mama:
“Babu Stefa!” because she really was sitting there in an armchair. In the living room. Just like that. I called her Babu Stefa because I was reading Rabindranath Tagore then, in which Panu Babu is a character. Stefa, a Jew, was our boarder until the spring of 1944. Half family. Before that she’d lived with my father’s second wife (common law, Zocha), at 32 Chmielna Street, with Zocha, my father, and Halina. I don’t know if there were some other reasons or if they simply had quarreled, but one day in 1942, after we’d gotten hold of this apartment on Chłodna Street which had belonged to Jews, because up to that time the ghetto was here, the wall of the ghetto crossed Chłodna between Wronia and Towarowa Streets, they’d constricted the ghetto slightly, they were always constricting the ghetto, so that a number of apartments were vacant, and Father arranged to get this one, 40 Chłodna, and it was not that these apartments were destroyed so much as that they had a certain peculiar appearance: in the middle of our kitchen there were dried-up feces, obviously human, and Stefa made herself at home right there in the kitchen, concealing herself behind a green half curtain as soon as someone came to see us, although she often showed herself later on because she knew several of our friends and relatives, trusted them, and anyway very little was known about her.
So I cry out, “Where did you come from?!” and we are delighted, we greet each other, shout in amazement, what a coincidence! Probably I was more excited than she. “Babu Stefa, is it possible . . . are you really here?”
The armchair in which Stefa was sitting also belonged to a Jew, not from this building but from an apartment house that I think is standing to this day, either it was never damaged or it was rebuilt, in a blind alley, literally blind, which led from Żelazna Street right into Chłodna on the left side, the side nearer the Vistula. They were holding an auction there. Of Jewish furniture. Father rushed into our house. He shouted at me to follow him. Swen happened to be there, so he rushed out to keep me company. Although I didn’t want to go. There. But it was hard to say no because of Father. The gate of this apartment house where the Jewish auction was being held was filled with a heap of junk. Rubbish. A racket. Human. Father grabbed a number of chairs, each one from a different village so that each had its own weight and size, and off they all went to 40 Chłodna Street. And so in 1942 first of all Father brought Stefa from 32 Chmielna straight to us, supposedly for one night, for two, and so she stayed on for two years. He made up documents for her in the name of Zosia Romanowska. Because Zosia Romanowska had gone to Grochów to see her sister and brother-in-law on September 8, 1939, and she’d taken along her sister-in-law Nora—only to have the door there slam closed on them so that they couldn’t work their keys to get it open, and when the planes flew over, before anything could be done, they had already fallen through to the cellar and only one person survived, Hanka (up above and under the ruins), Zosia’s other sister-inlaw who was holding by the hand her neighbor’s little daughter, already dead, and she herself was buried alive in the ruins, and when later she lived next to us on Leszno Street with Nanka (when we had already lost the apartment in Śródmieście), that is, when she was living in the room that had been Zosia’s, she was afraid, I know, to cover herself to the neck with her quilt. Because as she lost her awareness of the quilt it became confused in her mind with rubble that was up to her neck. So Stefa had identity papers in Zosia’s name; a little older than she, but in any case Stefa’s hair was bleached, not really red but sort of a ginger color, resembling a Jewish woman more or less, so it was fortunate that the Germans weren’t aware of these things and our thugs weren’t either, and even more fortunate that Stefa had great courage and a saving self-assurance; when she saw Germans on the road—for she walked along various roads from Służewiec down to Wilanów or Augustówka with her so-called petty wares, very petty, safety pins, Czech jewelry, in order to have something to live on and a bit of money to spare—well, when she saw Germans she approached them herself and asked, “Wie spät ist?” and she always came back by tram on the “Nur für Deutsche” platform; once when she met me in the city and we were going to go home together, she said, “Why don’t you ride with me; I’ll teach you a lesson.” And actually, not only did she get on at the “Nur für Deutsche” platform but she shoved her way to the front end of the car which was separated from the rest of the car and the crowd by a chain (it was empty here); I followed her, standing there rather stupidly and she sat down and began arguing with a Volksdeutscher woman, who, she said, was crowding her.
So, Father brought over the chairs after he brought over Stefa. Two Jewish matters. Which went their separate ways for a short while. And then met again.
In 1943, I think, we held one of our so-called “soirées” in the building where the chairs had been auctioned, or perhaps in the one directly across from it, at any rate, in that appendix to Żelazna—Swen, Halina, Irena, Staszek, and I. In the apartment of whoever it was who lived there. A patriotic-literary soirée, with theatrical performances; Swen performed, he was playing Nick at the time, and I, having practically the rights of an extra according to him, played the king. Out of timidity, woodenness, I sat stiffly the whole time and spoke the same way. My colleague in the secret university, Wojtek, who also perished in the uprising, in Żoliborz, said that he’d really enjoyed it. I told him why I acted that way.
“It doesn’t matter; it was very nice.”
I remember that we performed an excerpt from Wyspiański’s The Wedding there. Swen played Stańczyk, wearing the national flag, which he’d carelessly brought over either in his briefcase or in a little bundle.
In his own way, Father had the most unusual business projects. Once, he dragged a whole bushel of potatoes from Kercelak to Leszno Street, to the fourth floor, at that. Rotten. Frozen. But even so they were priceless. Nanka, Father, Mama, and Sabina remembered from the last war that you could make potato pancakes from such frozen potatoes. They made them and they were good. Another time Father bought an icebox at an auction. Mama and Stefa kept wondering why. Because it was broken. And once, he arrived at Chłodna with a whole coatful of fish, very tiny ones. Just like that. In the skirt of his coat. They were slipping out all over the place. He told Mama that she should make croquettes from them. She did. There were so many of them! Enough to line all the windowsills. And we had four windows then. Once, on Christmas Eve of ’42 or ’43, the door opened and in walked Father carrying a Christmas tree—a skinny pine. Mama was astounded. So was I. Father acted as if it were perfectly natural. We ought to begin decorating it. I got started. It was strange hanging the decorations on those pine branches. In general, a pine isn’t a tree, if you ask me. It was like decorating a pine in Otwock. It had nothing in common with a Christmas tree, or so it seemed to me then. An entirely different species. None of the fragrance. Nor the prickliness.
Among Father’s many ideas was that of profiting from the dead, one example of which I’ve already given. But there were more. We received marmalade, bread, and various other foods on the basis of ration cards in the names of about four deceased persons. Relatives, of course. But such things were done in those days. What wasn’t done then?
It’s time to explain the case of Stefa. Stefa would have lived with us until the end. But one day in the spring of 1944 I came back from the city and Mama (she sewed dresses for women so that she and I would have something to live on, or rather, she re-remade them, because these were clothes made from already remade clothing, socalled fripperies, and if a woman wanted to combine a coat with fur, she used rabbit fur; they knew it would shed like cats in springtime, but what could they do) . . . Anyway, Mama, who sewed for our custodian, too, told me at the door, “You can’t imagine how deathly frightened I was today. The janitress shows up for that rag of hers and she says to me, ‘That lady who’s your boarder, well, when she walks across the yard she twists her head like this and walks sort of sideways; oy, you can tell from a mile away that she’s a Jewess.’”
So Stefa had to move. As it turned out, the janitress hadn’t made that remark from malice, but who could tell. We had to assume the cat was out of the bag, as they say. Anyway, one warm day, in May I think, after Stefa had moved out, I woke up at six a.m. and could hear a real commotion. Downstairs. Right away, I had a funny feeling. I rushed over to the window in my nightshirt. In front of every stairwell there was a German with a rifle. And they were going through all the stairwells and checking everyone. No one knew why. In our apartment, at least, it didn’t go any further than a check of identity cards, my Ausweis, and then they left. A German and a Polish-speaking informer wearing a white coat. Maybe nothing would have happened. To Stefa. If she’d still been there. Perhaps she would have passed as Zosia Romanowska. But who knows who that guy in the white coat was.
Well, on August 5, 1944, Stefa was sitting there in that chair, the post-Jewish one, with which she had been reunited, a turban on her head, because turbans and wooden shoes were fashionable out of necessity throughout Europe, it seems, but for some reason you could recognize German women in particular by those turbans and Stefa, after all, was pretending to be German.
* * *
So, Stefa was sitting in that chair and saying, “Where haven’t I been. I’m riding in a tram. A commotion. I look at my basket. And then someone throws me an armband. A Jewish one. They stop the tram, take us to Gęsiówka. We’re there, the partisans rescue us, we run through Krasiński Gardens, across Bielańska Street, and then through the Saxon Gardens; but the Germans are there, so we double back; Żelazna Brama, people on their knees, they’re going to shoot them, I’m telling you, Miron, it’s a miracle we escaped.”
“But you made it back here?”
“Ach, what it was like . . .”
Aunt Józia was there, too, right away. Her house—49 Ogrodowa Street—adjoined ours at 40 Chłodna. Its third courtyard (the rear wall) had a hole in it and that was the passageway into our long courtyard. I was happy that there were more of us. Though, to be honest, Aunt Józia returned to her house. But Stefa stayed on; it wasn’t gloomy. And also, she’d survived. But suddenly, after various setbacks and news bulletins, such disastrous deterioration and such hell set in, that one lost interest in everything. The attack against Chłodna, against Ogrodowa, was in progress. People were shot to death, burned on pyres on Górczewska Street, on Bem, on Młynarska, on Wolska. Those who were stubbornly (I am amazed at how stubbornly) defending the lines of the Polish front kept finding the stairways, exits, everything cut off; they lay on roofs, on the fifth and sixth floors; the roofs caught fire, burned through, and the men caved in along with the roofs. An inferno, as in the ghetto during Easter of 1943.
Excavating, digging out, extinguishing fires, helping—it was difficult, although it was done, but it was made impossible by new bombs falling all the time, incendiaries. Or rather, it was hopeless. A vicious circle. At someone’s cry, “Planes!,” we rush to a cellar, a shallow basement housing a workshop for glass tubes and balls. A crush. Panic. Prayer. Explosions. The rumbling, bursting of bombs. Groans and fear. Again they fly low. An explosion, they’re probably bombing the front, we crouch down. Nearby an old neighbor beats her breast, “Sacred heart of Jesus, have mercy on us . . .”
The howling of planes, bombs.
“Sacred heart . . .”
And suddenly something rocks our house. Window frames, doors, glass panes are blown out. Explosions. The end? Still more crashes. Even more explosions. We go outside for a while. The yard is changed, it’s black, covered with dust, gone gray, the windows are empty, the panes smashed to smithereens. In front of the gate is a crater half the length of the street. We look out from our secondfloor window. At that scene. Crowds in the courtyard. Hell—nothing less—and without end. It’s bad. The crowds panic. With packages, bundles. They run. Some toward the gate. Others, away from the gate. Some through the hole toward Ogrodowa Street. Others toward us from Ogrodowa Street. Suddenly, an uproar. A horrifying scream. A kind of humming from the crowd. They’re carrying something. Someone . . .They put it down. Corpses? A scream . . .Whose?
“That’s Pani Górska. Her son was killed in the school on Leszno Street.”
They bring in the corpses. A whole school bombed. Number 100-something Leszno, 111 or 113. Where once I went to see a Christmas pageant. Long before the war, of course. During one of the acts the curtains in the left corner of the stage were torn. The wings were suddenly exposed. It was a catastrophe, because a crowd of angels, kings, and others were awaiting their turn there. With a squeal they rushed into a corner, huddled together, formed a triangle. The angels huddled together, pressed close to one another, covered their faces with their hands, and squealed. How painful it was for me now in this courtyard.
(Pani Górska, her son, and her daughter-in-law were patriots, Baptists. They came to Mother to sew for them. Both women. My mother asked them, “Would you give up your faith?” “I? Never. I was raised in this faith and I’ll die in it.”)
I decided to return to Irena’s for a while, to 24 Chłodna. I found them all in the cellar already. Depressed. But it was quieter here and there were fewer people.
Two women were sitting opposite them. One was worrying about her children because she had left them at Wedel’s in Praga. The other, somewhat younger, was with her. They sat there, slumping. In that passageway. Which, in normal times, was intended to be used occasionally for fetching potatoes or coal.
“Like owls,” Staszek said slowly and, characteristically, in an awfully audible whisper.
I remember the calm. And the relief. After my house. We passed the night here. Because I know that on the next day it was sunny, warm, the sixth of August. The owls (the older one was Heńka; the younger, what was her name?—I know she could tell fortunes from cards) said, “Today is the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Perhaps the good Lord will change something for the better.”
And suddenly the news erupted: “The uprising has failed.”
“My God,” the cellar, stairs, women, crowds jumped up, “so much effort and all for nothing, Lord? It can’t be possible.”
“And yet . . .”
“My God.” People wrung their hands, raced around the courtyards. After the first complaints there was discipline, solidarity. Because there was despair.
And suddenly people are running around shouting, with newssheets, with a retraction. That it isn’t true.
The partisans themselves, I remember, spoke about defeat and initiated the despair; but now, what joy!
But Sunday had just begun. There was fear such as had not yet been experienced. It was then that we three decided to go our separate ways. Staszek would go to Sienna Street. Irena would remain here. I would go home again. Sun, heat, smoke, fires, explosions; I raced home. It was probably that day that I found Aunt Józia. In the afternoon the Germans, with the Vlasovites pushing ahead of them, began launching the final attack on Kercelak, on Towarowa, on Okopowa. Kercelak fell. Our lines drew back. They were already close to the barricades on the corners of Wronia. And they were shooting. But on the Towarowa–Kercelak–Okopowa line more streets were still to fall, no longer in Wola but in the direction of Śródmieście. (Actually, those of us on Chłodna Street, right up to the Kercelak–Towarowa–Okopowa line, were really in Śródmieście, not just in the traditional administrative center but in the uprising’s center, at least as it had been designated by the leadership when Warsaw was divided into districts before the outbreak of the uprising.) Meanwhile, the strip between Towarowa and Kercelak–Wronia was being defended. But the attack was proceeding not only along the streets, with infantry, tanks, artillery, machine guns, grenades, flame throwers, antitank guns, but also—which was much worse—from the sky. Protected by all of these, the planes flew over in endless formations, turned and came back, and bombed apartment house after apartment house, outbuilding after outbuilding. Chłodna. Ogrodowa. Krochmalna. Leszno. Grzybowska. Łucka. And so on. They collapsed and burned.
Suddenly a shout: “Let’s dig out the buried.”
I report. We wait by the gate. We’re released.
“They’re gone already. Others.”
But right away there’s another shout: “39 Chłodna is on fire! Who’ll put it out?”
We race outside. It’s right across the way. The whole building is burning. Four stories, probably. There’s no water. No, there is water, but buckets have to be used in addition to the pump. Through the hole in the wall. There is also sand for firefighting. Women run over and help. Heat. Flames. These means of extinguishing fire are practically useless. The walls are already in flames. On the fourth floor smoke is coming from behind some of the doors. But they’re locked. We hurl ourselves against them. No use. We break them down with axes. We dash in. A wall is on fire. A bare wall. We run over with those pails. For water. We go back. We pour it on. Whatever good that does. We run downstairs.
The women are yelling, “Use sand! Use the sand!”
We dash upstairs again. Now the planes come. They scatter bombs. And bomblets. Incendiary.
“Extinguish the bombs!”
We rush over. Pour sand on the bomblets. There are about twenty of them. Maybe thirty. In a pile. At the entrance. More on the fourth floor. They’re smoldering and hissing. And the wall is already on fire from them. Sand does a wonderful job. We hope. We pour it on. Will it help? After all, they’re bursting one after another. It does help. But now the right and the left walls. Are aflame. Already. We race downstairs. Pass each other. It’s good there are several of us. And those women. They give us the buckets filled with sand (I can’t remember if we lost water all of a sudden). They pass them to us through a hole in the wall, so that we won’t have to run across unnecessarily. They carry them over to the stairs. Then we grab them. Run inside. I remember that I chased those bomblets. That I stamped on them. Because there was no alternative. They were extinguished on the run. While they were smoldering. The whole pile. Better yet: the flames on the walls were becoming fewer and fewer. Unbelievable. After someone sprinkled sand the fire curled up and disappeared. A miracle! We’ve put it out! In this hell! The action is over. We go back.
The assault is increasing. The bombardment is becoming heavier by the minute. Those who are rescued, more or less conscious, uninjured, rush into our cellars. Terrible panic. In the courtyard, too. We ourselves are panicky. We move to Aunt Józia’s. Through the hole. To 49 Ogrodowa Street. There are some women in the yard near the stoves, in the smoke, and some guys are out there fighting with axes. They chase each other. Hurl the axes. The axes sail through the air. I am not exaggerating. We go to my aunt’s apartment on the fifth floor. But we can’t remain there longer than two minutes. With Aunt Józia’s boarder (an old lady) and her brother (also gray haired) we rush downstairs to someone’s apartment on a lower floor with some of their belongings and ours. Into someone’s kitchen. We sit down. Aunt Józia’s boarder gives something to her gray haired brother: “Here, have some bread with sugar.” He takes it, eats.
“Would you like some more bread and sugar?”
He nods his head.
I couldn’t eat anything for two days.
Suddenly, such explosions, crashes, that we run downstairs.
* * *
The arrival of the bombed. Everything is gray. From the ruins. Covered with smoke. Aunt Józia, Stefa, Mama observe that the cellar is weak, the building made of boards, plaster-covered laths, and bricks. But the neighboring cellar—number 51—Klein vaulting, a new building, not yet covered with stucco. We quickly move there through holes, the underground passageways. There are crowds there. They are sitting on the concrete floor. It’s damp. In the corners are carbide lamps. Mama, Aunt Józia, and Stefa take out some bedding, spread it out on a free bit of floor. In that crowd. Chaos. Explosions, shells, bombs . . . unbearable. But the worst is that the Ukrainians are coming. And butchering. Everyone. People talk about it nonstop. People. Twenty years later—right now, in 1964 and 1965—exact figures have been offered by witnesses on both sides. Our newspapers have printed estimates of how many people were massacred in Wola just on Saturday and Sunday, August 5 and 6. Several tens of thousands. Some who were not shot to death were burned along with those who were supposed dead. They were thrown onto common pyres. From St. Stanisław Hospital on the corner of Wolska and Młynarska Streets (now the Hospital for Infectious Diseases No. 1) patients were shot to death or thrown out of the windows alive into the courtyard below. They set fire to everything as they passed. Living or not. People were buried on the spot. Just like that. In 1946 I was sent to the exhumations as a reporter. I went there with a news photographer. We entered that courtyard. Three or four rows of freshly exhumed, shapeless clumps covered with earth. I had various associations. With cutlets in rolls covered with some sauce. I definitely remember one “cutlet” with a single bone sticking out. The rest a filthy mess.
Suddenly a woman orderly rushed into our shelter. “Who will help carry a wounded man?”
And suddenly, after the uproar and despite the explosions, there was silence.
“Will no one help?”
There were several hundred women there. And probably as many men. Everyone froze.
“No one at all?”
“I’ll go.” I stood up.
No one moved. I jumped up after the orderly. Up the stairs. And out into the street. Ogrodowa.
“Over here! Over here!” I snatched up the front end of a stretcher. And onward—fast. We joined a procession of stretchers. In front of us. Behind us. Toward Żelazna Street and farther on—in the direction of the courthouse, because that’s where the hospital for the uprising was located. The whole winding procession moved on toward the courthouse, toward the center of the city. It was Sunday afternoon, four or five o’clock, there was heat, rising smoke mixed with dust, either there was a fire nearby or something was just smoldering, explosions, cobblestones underfoot (we walked rapidly, now looking down at our feet, now forward again, now backward, now at the houses and the sky), scurrying, tall apartment houses, now and then barricades across the road, cornices. Also, I want to add, pigeons. But it seems either there weren’t any pigeons by then or they were kept so that they wouldn’t fly about; or perhaps they really were there and did fly up and wheel around and it was only the cornices and the window frames which had produced that smoke and dust. But the reason I don’t trust my memory about the pigeons (undoubtedly, I didn’t know then either what was what), because at other times and in other places I seemed to see the same thing, and right after the war, when I was living on Poznańska Street and it was Easter night with an early-morning Mass of the Resurrection, those pigeons—this time real ones—took flight and whirred among the cornices after every loud sound. So we were going at a trot. The shells were also pounding against the gates—traditional gates with a driveway leading into a courtyard, with wrought-iron Saint Nicholases on the sides or in niches. Against the barricades. The walls.
Before we reached Żelazna Street we had to squeeze through a narrow passageway (there were narrow passageways everywhere between the barricades and the walls as a security measure). After we crossed Żelazna, too. It seems two of them were near each other. Because the barricades were close together. Everywhere. And soldiers were lying down near Żelazna and firing their rifles. Ordinary ones. In the direction of Kercelak. There was panic. Civilians in flight. A desperate defense. News came of those burnings, firing squads, shootings, facts came, came right at us, ever nearer. Once, twice we ran past with those stretchers. The orderly and I were carrying a woman. Covered with ashes. On her hair. And her face. In convulsions. Her dress was shredded. She’d been buried. On Chłodna Street. Right behind us—although the person’s (a man’s) hands and legs were thickly bandaged, the blood was flowing so profusely that it was pouring off the stretcher. What else was there, farther along—I no longer know. The courthouse. We rush through the gate. People are standing there inside the gate, just some people, ordinary people, one of them our neighbor from 40 Chłodna. She begins to cry at the sight of all this. I think a general convulsive sobbing began. Throughout the entire courtyard. They told me to set down the woman who had been buried. To leave her there. Because this is the hospital. I think they set down the stretchers. Ran to get the next ones. And these were already being carried inside.
I ran out in order to go home. On the way I dropped in—by the back way behind the sawmill—at 24 Chłodna, to Irena’s cellar. I found Irena there and those two owls, and Pan Malinowski, wearing an Antiaircraft Defense armband as a block leader. It was quiet here, more peaceful than anywhere else. At least in the second outbuilding. It didn’t face the front. Farther on, you could hear everything. And it was bad. But the peace in that cellar! Just an ordinary cellar. Twisting corridors, a maze of little rooms. Darkness. At most, a gray light fell inside there. It was nothing. I didn’t feel like going any farther. I told them. What I had seen. What was on the other side of Żelazna Street. Because they asked. I delayed like that. Delayed. Then it was evening. They advised me to wait. Here. For the night. Why make your way across Żelazna? Perhaps it’s even worse now than it was before, perhaps they’re already moving in? From here you can escape. It’s closer to Starówka. Almost everyone planned to go to Starówka as soon as they were ready. I talked more and more with those two owls on this theme. The elder, Heńka, her hair combed in an upsweep, was still worrying out loud about her children because they had remained in Praga at Wedel’s. The younger—Jadźka, I think—started telling our fortunes. I told them I had a friend on Rybaki Street. Swen. That actually he’d been living in Wola for the past few months, on Szlenkierów Street. That for some reason I think he’s on Rybaki now. Because his mother had remained there. Obviously, I had no proof. Intuition, at best. And what is called wishful thinking. That first Teik and Swen had broken off relations with each other over an insignificant matter, that I then broke off relations with Teik out of solidarity with Swen, and in the end I’d broken off relations with Swen and made up with Teik (let me remind you: Teik from Staszic Street) was something I paid no attention to in this situation. Another thing: I came up with the idea of swimming the Vistula. They grasped at that as an obvious plan. I said that Rybaki Street was just the same as Wybrzeże Gdańskie. Because of the apartment blocks. Also red. Poured concrete. Unfinished. Big. (Something of a “shelter for the homeless” during the war; Swen had lived there until recently although he’d been working for a long time as a social worker in the Parysów district.) So those apartment blocks faced Rybaki. The Vistula was behind them. All three of us could swim, we agreed. And from there we could steal out at night toward Żerań–Jabłonna. The Russians were already at Jabłonna. I don’t know how we imagined ourselves swimming to the other shore, which was also held by the Germans, and—even better—crossing the front. And such a front at that—a front as probably never had existed in the history of the world before this war. Probably we just assumed that since it was a question of Warsaw and Żerań everything would somehow take care of itself.
* * *
We stayed on there. Till night. The attack had ceased. There were the normal small explosions, noises. Maybe it was completely silent. Everyone came out into the yard. Discussions. Gossip. Newssheets. More tunneling. Of cellars, passageways. Pan Malinowski proposed that Irena and I should sleep in his apartment. After all, how can we go up to the fourth floor? And they have a large apartment on the ground floor, in the first courtyard. We go with him. I am given a room. My own. A bed. A quilt. I undress. I fold back the quilt in order to crawl under it, and then—what a noise from a shell hitting the corner of the house! Then a second, a third, a fourth; nothing, only shells. And flames. Everyone jumps up. Dashes into the courtyard. Waves of people pour into the courtyard from Ogrodowa Street. With suitcases, children, knapsacks. Some are leaving already. Others are gathering here. A crowd. Explosions. Discussions. Moving about from one group to another. Irena is standing there with a haversack. We consult. With Pan Malinowski. And the whole group. We are standing near the gate (wooden) onto Ogrodowa. But Irena is hesitant for some reason. And I think it’s high time. I consult the owls. They’re ready.
“I’ll just run over and take the keys to Mama, because I took them from the apartment.”
I really had taken the keys when we walked out of the house during the panic. Now they’re always jingling in my pocket. I run over to Żelazna Street. The partisans are lying down on Żelazna again, firing in the direction of Wronia, worn out, sweaty, among piles of rubbish.
“Where to, where to?”
“I’ve got to. 40 Chłodna.”
“What? You can’t.”
“But my mother. I took the keys.”
“Sir! You won’t be of any help. The keys are useless, and anyway . . .”
“But . . .”
“The Germans are already there.”
I retreated. I ran into Irena’s courtyard. Heńka and Jadźka were ready. Once again I asked Irena if she’d made up her mind. But she was still standing there near the gate, with the same people, the haversack still hanging from her arm, and what I was saying wasn’t getting through to her at all. So Heńka, Jadźka, and I—we rush out into Ogrodowa, this time to the right. At a run . . .
One of them said, “Let’s just take off our shoes so they won’t hear us.”
We take them off. We run. Barefoot. Along Ogrodowa Street. A barricade. We squeeze through. To Solna. Something’s burning. Explosions. Beams are sailing through the air. Noise. They fall into the fire. With a thud. We dash along Solna. To Elektoralna. A barricade. We squeeze through. Onward. Along Elektoralna. To Bank Square (where Dzierżyński Square is today, only smaller and triangular). Something’s burning on the right. An entire building—a single flame. We race past. Somewhere beyond Orla Street a whole building is on fire on the left. Actually, it’s being consumed by flames. There are hardly any ceilings left. Or walls. Just one huge fire about four stories high. Again the beams groan, collapse. It’s hot. That’s probably the Office of Weights and Measures. Night. It’s quieter here. Maybe the attack is letting up? We are not the only ones in flight. A whole stream of people is moving in the direction of Starówka. We run left, following a group of people. Into the courtyards—to the rear—of the club, or rather the rotunda, the former Ministry of Finance, and the Leszczyński Palace. There’s more space here. It’s less crowded. Isolated explosions can be heard from Bank Square. The cornices, again. But not as gray. Yellow. Which means in this dawn (it was barely dawn) they seemed to be covered with gold leaf. Perhaps this is where I saw the pigeons. The ones that flew up. Or just those cornices. Only these are in a different style. With little Corazzi angels. With garlands. Tympanums. The courtyard fronts on Leszno Street. Suddenly it is really dawn. We are detained at a barricade until more people arrive. There are even some Jews with their womenfolk. One of the women was holding a sack under her arm. The barricade cut across Leszno near where it now opens onto the east-west artery. But Rymarska Street was on the right side then, branching off from Bank Square. And to the left was Przejazd with a view, just as today, of the Mostowski Palace. They check the Jews’ papers. They are separated from the rest. To help with work. The Jews have bundles under their arms, something like sacks. They let us through. All of us. We race past the Leszno barricades. To Przejazd. A long stretch there. And a turn to the right. Past the barricade. Długa Street. The sound of explosions. After a gentle curve on Długa, the Palace of the Four Winds on the left. The whole building is on fire. It’s already destroyed. The flames are howling in the outbuildings, in front. The beams groan, collapse. The tympanum, with its bas-reliefs, is still standing. The twinkling medallions. The carved gates of the inner courtyard. And those Four Winds. On the pillars of the gate. They have gilded wings. They gambol, gleam. They seem to be dancing even more gaily than usual. We run on.
Starówka, at last. You can see it. At the end of Długa Street—past several barricades—a blue-green ball on the bell tower of the Church of the Dominicans is glinting. How strange. The remains of a burnt tin spire? Perhaps. So we rush on—no longer barefoot—we’d put on our shoes at the corner of Leszno and Przejazd, I think—we run along Długa, down Mostowa Street to Rybaki. It’s daytime already. And silence. Stare Miasto is quiet as can be. On a bend in Rybaki Street, beyond the Gunpowder Depot, children are playing on the grass among the cobblestones near the wall of the housing estate. The rear of the Gunpowder Depot faced the Vistula, as did the rear of every building on Rybaki Street. That wall I just mentioned was very old. It had two shell-shaped, rococo gates. An old inn. As soon as we’d passed it I said to Heńka and Jadzia, “Right here.”
14/16 Rybaki Street. A pair of three-story brick housing blocks, without stucco, on a concrete foundation, with a third block added on, which struck me as less imposing. Those two housing blocks stood crosswise between Rybaki Street and the Vistula. Between them was a large courtyard. From Rybaki all the way to Wybrzeże. We entered the courtyard through a latticework gate. And walked along the left side against the wall—because the entire center was devoted to garden plots and overgrown—to the stairwell, the one leading to Swen’s mother’s apartment (perhaps she’s there? and perhaps Swen’s there, too?—I had an anxious hope). Their stairwell was right near Wybrzeże itself, because their windows, too, looked out onto the Vistula. I look and right inside the entrance to that stairwell two guards are standing, still from the night shift, wearing armbands; one with the red armband of the Armia Ludowa, because here in Starówka there was a large contingent of the AL. And the other, someone I knew both from Swen’s home and from his office, Pan Ad. . . .
“Is he in? Swen?” I asked. “Are they at home?”
“They’re here. All of them. Swen and his fiancée. And his aunt and her son. And my wife and child.”
“Where are they?”
Pan Ad., smiling all the time, said, “In the shelter, they’re still sleeping.”
Down stairs that smelled of cement and raw bricks we descended into deep cellars with thick walls. Silence. And the odor of a stifling laundry room. It struck our ears and our noses. As for what struck our eyes—it’s a shame even to talk about it.
A dusky abyss with flickering candles on a small altar adorned with a porcelain Mother of God, as for the rest—the strangest plots, crowded, everyone sleeping, snoring, disheartening.
These plots turned out to be groups of bunks. Each group was made up of several bunks. Each bunk was made of two or four plank beds merged at their heads. Each was long, for several people lay on it. In the dim light pieces of junk seemed to be floating between the groups of bunks. And only a single main aisle from the door to the altar and around the room could be distinguished. In addition, there were cement pillars. So, the macabre aura of a chapel in the catacombs.
I sought out Swen’s family’s plot. I saw them in a row. Asleep. I leaned over Swen. And said something. I don’t remember what. Swen stretched, looked up at me, was surprised, was moved to tears, began welcoming me. Immediately the rest of them, especially Swen’s mother, stirred and started bustling about.
Aunt Uff. and Zbyszek were still asleep. I told them whom I was with. They said that was fine. They told us to find a place. They welcomed us. Gave us some food. Celinka, Aunt Uff., and Zbyszek, and Pani Ad. on the neighboring pallet with her tiny daughter woke up right after that. Other people too. They stirred. Half rose. Getting up—all the way—was just not done. What for? Just to be crowded together?
So, they stirred, stretched, dug about in their bundles without standing up. And it began: “Buzz-buzz-buzz”—what chattering! Also, I think, Matins near the altar, or rather from the altar or to the altar. The morning or first prayer. There were many other prayers in addition to that one. And chants. As it turned out, there weren’t all that many that first week. Later they became more frequent. And closer together. Until it reached the point that in all the cellars throughout Warsaw people were praying aloud in choruses and in chants, everywhere, and without interruption.
* * *