Scars of War Linger on People, Land : Poland 50 Years Later: Enduring Sense of Loss

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Times Staff Writer

The marker stands, like a gravestone, on the corner of a grimy back street lined with auto repair yards and machine shops. Its inscription says that on this spot, in August, 1944, 150 Poles were killed fighting “soldiers of Hitler’s army.” The marker is half hidden by the drooping limbs of a maple tree, and weeds tangle along the sidewalk in either direction. It is easy to walk by without noticing.

But lying at the foot of the monument are sprays of cut flowers, one so fresh that it could only have been left this morning. The others can’t be more than a day or two old. They are left by those who cannot and will not forget.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 7, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 7, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Poland’s air force: An article about the legacy of World War II in Poland, published Aug. 30, incorrectly gave the number of airplanes that the Poles had at the start of the war as 20. The correct number was about 400.

There are hundreds of such memorials in Warsaw, and thousands more all over Poland. These are not the grand monuments of heroic scale, which are themselves abundant, but simple, modest markers. And to every one of them, virtually every day, someone comes with flowers.


World War II, in Poland, is a palpable presence, an active memory. In Germany, it may be spoken of with pain, if at all. In England, films now give it the golden glow of nostalgia. The French console themselves with bequeathing a role in the Resistance to half the population of the period. But in Poland, World War II is chewed into the living brick of city and village. Warsaw (along with East Berlin) may be the last of Europe’s capitals in which, 50 years after the war began, ordinary houses on ordinary streets still bear its unrepaired shrapnel scars.

The English poet W. H. Auden, writing 50 years ago on the outbreak of war on Sept. 1, 1939, marked the death of the “clever hopes” of the era of appeasement--a “low and dishonest decade”--and lamented that:

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

It still clings here, the odor and the deception.

Last week, the Communist Party, viewed by most Poles as the ongoing embodiment of that deception--and perhaps the war’s greatest consequence--finally came out with a clear condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the secret deal cut between dictators Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin on Aug. 23, 1939, to carve up Poland between them, an agreement to wipe Poland off the face of the map.

And this week, farmers living on the edges of the Suwalki forests in northeastern Poland are out with shovels among the tall pines. It is 45 years after the war’s end, and they are still looking for the hidden graves of 400 of their relatives who disappeared. They refuse to forget.


Looking back from the perspective of half a century, many Poles recall that the buildup to the war seemed to have had a curiously remote and distant feeling.

One of Liveliest Capitals

“We thought we had an idea of what it might be like from World War I,” recalls Zofia Borzym, who was 20 years old then and remembers a Warsaw that was one of Europe’s liveliest capitals. “In World War I, the battles were fought in the fields and the forests, not in the cities.”

On Aug. 31, 1939, the eve of the war, the movies playing in Warsaw theaters were “It’s a Wonderful World,” starring James Stewart and Claudette Colbert; “Honolulu,” with Robert Young and Eleanor Powell, and “Ice Follies,” with Joan Crawford, James Stewart and Lew Ayres.

“We lived close to a railway station in Warsaw. There was a sidetrack, and the rail cars were packed with people heading eastward. I was 14. . . . I remember the announcer on the radio repeatedly saying that the planes were coming and that people should find shelter. I was going to go to the convent school. . . . At that moment, my father burst into the flat and said that the planes would be bombing the railroad tracks and we must move quickly into the center of the city.”

-- Leonarda Wiankowska, 64, a Warsaw schoolgirl in 1939.

On a map, the German lines of attack resembled talons, with Warsaw at the center.

On the night of Aug. 31, there was a bizarre, staged border incident, with German prisoners from the Oranienburg concentration camp dressed in Polish uniforms massacred in a faked attack on a German radio station--meant to provide Hitler’s excuse for invasion.

At 4:45 a.m., the German armies struck at a score of points all along the Polish border. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, on a “courtesy visit” to the free port of Danzig, began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. Storm troopers attacked the Danzig Post Office at Hevelius Platz, where the 51 postal workers barricaded themselves inside until the Germans blasted the building open. When the Poles retreated to the basement, the Germans soaked the building with gasoline and set it afire.


Waves of German planes bombed Czestochowa, Lodz, Krakow, Poznan and Warsaw. They strafed roads clogged with fleeing civilians and bogged down military units.

German armies advanced from the northwest, through Pomerania and the Mazurian lake region. From the southwest, they came from occupied Czech and Slovak lands. The most concentrated attack came through Silesia, with the 8th, 10th and 14th armies driving across the Vistula plains toward Warsaw. Another German army moved southward from East Prussia. They moved with a speed that astonished even themselves.

The German attack included between 1.5 million and 1.8 million men, 2,800 tanks, 10,000 field artillery guns and 2,085 airplanes.

The Polish army consisted of 1 million men (70% of full mobilization strength), about 4,000 cannon, 800 tanks--and 20 aircraft.

Cavalry Charges

There was also the Polish cavalry--the stuff of legend now, and not always positive. The image, retailed by Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering as anti-Polish propaganda and by the Allies as a symbol of Polish courage, was of Polish cavalry, swords drawn, charging in futility against Nazi tanks. An almost random selection of Polish veterans turns up many who experienced the reality.

Jan Nowak, 73, was a junior lieutenant in one of the most famous cavalry charges, in the defense of Chojnice, which was in the line of the Nazi thrust through Pomerania on the first day of the war.


“It was toward evening on the first day. I can still see the battlefield--a huge clearing surrounded by forest,” said Nowak, telling the story recently in a long afternoon of recollection at his home near Plock, northwest of Warsaw. “The squadrons spread out in a long line, the platoons in ‘skirmish’ alignment, in a loose formation so as to limit losses, galloping madly forward.

“Every other instant, I can see a horse and rider falling down, and riderless horses running along. In front of us there is the wall of the forest and a battalion of German infantry camping along its edge. . . . The panicking Germans start running for cover in the woods, and the personnel carriers hidden among the trees open a violent fire. . . .

“The fire of the enemy machine guns is getting more intense. . . . Tracer bullets cross the sky and whiz past our faces. With a sign of my saber and a motion of my horse, I try to change the direction of the charge, to the right and beyond a hill, to escape the machine-gun fire. We must get into the woods.

“I make it! All of us, the whole division, turn right behind the hill and begin to reassemble our platoons.”

“We were taken to the border, and we saw the tanks and we had to withdraw. We had 1,000 horses, and there was no situation for us to attack. They had cannon, and we had only rifles--swords and rifles. They gave us 10 pieces of ammunition and said we should make them last for two days.”

-- Stanislaw Dabrowski, 75, a cavalry veteran.

Some veterans of that September fighting insist that, in head-to-head battles with the Germans, the Poles were mostly victorious. No one has ever doubted Polish courage in battle. But while a battalion of Polish infantry might have held the line against a brigade of Germans for a day, or half a day, in the end, superior speed and numbers allowed the Germans simply to outflank Polish positions.


Unit after unit of the Polish army was outflanked in this way--surrounded, cut off and forced to surrender. Nine days after launching the attack, the German divisions were approaching Warsaw.

Dabrowski, in a broken unit of about 200 men, was captured on Sept. 14 somewhere north of Katowice. Two full Polish armies attempted to stand off 18 German divisions in the Bzuria region west of Warsaw. On Sept. 20, surrounded, out of ammunition and food, backed up against the Vistula and blocked by Germans waiting on the river’s east bank, Polish commanders found further resistance impossible. Only a few units, leaving heavy equipment behind, escaped through the Kampinos forest to Warsaw, where the worst was just beginning. The bombs kept falling. Homes, hospitals, the Royal Castle were hit.

On Sept. 17, the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east. The Polish government and general staff fled across the border to Romania and were interned. Warsaw, aflame, fell Sept. 27. On Sept. 30, the following notice appeared in those newspapers still publishing, over the signature of Stefan Starzynski, mayor of Warsaw:

“Citizens: Read and obey my decree issued yesterday in connection with the treaty between the Polish and German headquarters.

“Do not go out unnecessarily even during the day.

“At night from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., going out brings the danger of death. All gates and doors must be locked. For robbery and shooting, the penalty is death.

“Citizens, give me your help.”

Soon after, Starzynski disappeared into a Nazi concentration camp.

France and England, which had a treaty to help defend Poland and declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, had not fired a shot.


What then began to unfold in Poland marked the darkest epoch of the century, perhaps of any century.

“Finally, (the Germans) announced that they would distribute bread. That everybody who volunteered for hard labor would get three kilograms of bread and jam.

“Listen, my dear. Do you have any idea what bread meant at that time in the Ghetto? Because if you don’t, you will never understand how thousands of people could voluntarily come for the bread and go on with this bread to the camp at Treblinka. . . . It was required that they send two trains a day to Treblinka--and still, there was not enough space for all those who were willing to go.”

-- Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, from “Keeping the Flame,” by Hanna Krall.

The Nazis established nine concentration camps in Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Stutthof, Gross-Rosen, Plaszow, Chelmo, Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor.

They built a crematory at Auschwitz, and its first shipment of Poles arrived in June, 1940. The estimate of Auschwitz victims ranges between 3.5 and 4 million. Out of 415,000 inmates who were registered and tattooed with serial numbers, 300,000 died in the camps. At least 3.2 million, most of them Jews from Poland and the rest of Europe, were never entered on the camp’s records but were herded straight from a railroad siding to the gas chambers.


The capacity of Birkenau’s gas chambers was 60,000 people per day. Since its crematories could handle only about 10,000 corpses in a 24-hour period, the “surplus” bodies were burned in pits next to the ovens.

“The removal of foreign races from the incorporated eastern territories is one of the most essential goals to be accomplished in the German east,” wrote Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s SS chief.

The Nazis laid down a racial classification system, with Jews at the bottom. Jewish ghettos were established in the towns, and those of Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw enlarged to accommodate Jews brought in from the countryside and the surrounding countries.

At Treblinka, about 60 miles northeast of Warsaw, the Germans built an attractive-looking phony railway station to receive the trainloads of Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Greece and the Warsaw Ghetto. There, they killed 10,000 to 12,000 every day.

Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, described the arrival of a trainload of Jews at a concentration camp in his short story entitled, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman”:

“I see a pair of human beings who have fallen to the ground locked in a last desperate embrace. He has dug his fingers into the woman’s flesh and has caught her clothing with his teeth. She screams hysterically, swears, cries, until at last a large boot comes down over her throat and she is silent. They are pulled apart and dragged like cattle to the truck.


” . . . Several other men are carrying a girl with only one leg. They hold her by the arms and the one leg. Tears are running down her face, and she whispers faintly: ‘Sir, it hurts, it hurts. . . . ‘ They throw her on the truck on top of the corpses. She will burn alive along with them.”

Poland was the charnel house of Europe. The enormity of what was happening defies any summary.

Question: “I would like you to tell the tribunal what the Germans called the street to the gas chambers.”

Witness: “It was called Himmelfahrt Street.”

Question: “That is to say, the ‘Street to Heaven?’ ”

Witness: “Yes.”

-- Testimony about Treblinka at the Nuremberg trials, 1946.

At the end, with about 60,000 Jews out of 400,000 left in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish Combat Organization--Marek Edelman and 220 others--decided to die fighting. When Germans entered the Ghetto on April 19, 1943, they were met with gunfire.

“After all,” Edelman told author Hanna Krall, “humanity had agreed that dying with arms was more beautiful than dying without arms. . . . In the Jewish Combat Organization, there were only 220 of us left. Can you even call that an uprising? All it was about, finally, was that we not just let them slaughter us when our turn came.

“It was only a choice as to the manner of dying.”

The battle lasted three weeks. When it was finished, the Ghetto was rubble. Seven thousand Jewish fighters were killed; 56,000 of the Ghetto’s last holdouts were transported to Treblinka.


Other Uprisings

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was followed by one in Bialystok in May, 1943, and mutinies in Treblinka in August and Sobibor in October, each one costing thousands of lives. The rebellions were aided, with arms and support, by the underground Polish resistance, the Home Army and the leftist Polish Workers Party.

While some Poles undoubtedly collaborated with the German persecution of the Jews, and some blackmailed Jews hiding outside the ghettos, others risked their own and their families’ lives to save thousands of Jews from annihilation, hiding them and smuggling them out of the country. The Council of Assistance to Jews, set up in the underground in Krakow in 1942, came to encompass the entire country, and it provided fugitive Jews with forged papers, money, food and medical assistance. Authorities believe it saved the lives of 100,000 to 120,000 Jews.

This number was, of course, a mere fraction of the 3 million Polish Jews who perished in the death camps. The Holocaust wiped out a community and culture that had seemed inextricably bound to Poland. A century earlier, fully 80% of the world’s Jewry lived within the area of the old Polish commonwealth. At the outbreak of the war, the 3 million Jews in Poland represented the largest concentration of Jews in the world.

It is an outgrowth of the war that Polish youth, 50 years after its end, commonly evidence an intense curiousity about Jews and Jewish culture, a reflection of the postwar Communist system of education, which teaches students next to nothing about the deep Jewish connection to Polish history.

Added to the “complications,” as Poles commonly say, must be the role of Jews in the immediate establishment of Communist authority after the war, especially in the secret police apparatus, and the subsequent Communist purges of Jews from government and education, first in 1956 and again in 1968.

In his recent book on Poland, “Mad Dreams and Saving Graces,” New York Times reporter Michael Kaufman quotes Edelman as saying that “this great Jewish culture has vanished, and it will not return.”


“Of course, he is right,” Kaufman writes. “They are not a force that has to be dealt with politically or economically. But they lived in Poland so long, and their deaths were so awesome, that they remain a profound historical presence in a country that lives through its history. They remain to prick consciences and validate policies and claims to honor. They torment and they need to be appeased. They are unavoidable. Like ghosts.”

“You cannot envision it if you did not see it. Children fought tanks with bottles of gasoline. This tragedy had no proper words. Well, can you imagine? Scenes of German tanks pushing women and children in front of them? And the Russian army waited across the river while the Germans destroyed the city.”

-- Jan Haze, 79, a retired engineer and Home Army veteran.

It was the final battle, designed to prevent the Soviets from liberating Warsaw, and it failed. It began on Aug. 1, 1944, and lasted 63 days. The Germans, before withdrawing, systematically blew up the city’s buildings. Ninety-three percent of Warsaw’s dwellings were destroyed.

Years of Fear

By then the Soviets had established at Lublin the Polish Committee of National Liberation, and invested it with governmental powers. The deal was done, though it would take years of fear, rigged elections, secret trials and executions to consolidate it. However they might lament what was to follow, the Allied leaders at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945--British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the British and President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the United States--chose not to argue with the facts that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had established on the ground. Europe was divided.

Poland, a nation that had always looked to the West, was harnessed to a version of history that it has struggled for 45 years to put right and an ideology it has fought with 45 years of steady and occasionally explosive resistance. As Stalin himself said, “Communism fits Poland like a saddle on a cow.”

Poland lost 6 million citizens out of 30 million--on a percentage basis, more than any country involved in the war.


Its people fought, to the very end, on their own soil. Then thousands of men who got out before the German vise closed fought on with the Allies in North Africa, France and Italy. They landed at Normandy, parachuted into Arnhem, and Gen. George S. Patton called them “the best-looking troops” he had ever seen.

Code Broken

Polish squadrons in Britain’s Royal Air Force had the best kill ratio in the war. It was a Pole who recognized the German code machine “Enigma” in a German factory, then fashioned a model of it from memory, and it was a team of Polish agents who stole a copy of the machine, thus enabling Allied intelligence to decipher Hitler’s orders to his generals.

But for most Poles, although they were on the “winning” side in the war, the sense of loss is enduring and incalculable--the century’s great, unerasable fact.

“I inherited my mother’s fate,” said Warsaw resident Maria Bogumil, who sat in her garden telling her story, a pan of spotted pears in her lap. “I was left with two children, my husband dead, 38 years old and in his prime. Perhaps God gave us some grace that we lived through such times with no food, no water, such horror. I don’t know how we got through it. I only say, ‘Please God, no more war. Anything, but no more war.’ ”