rats or Robinsons?

Witam from Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw was so badly damaged during World War 2 that the new government briefly considered not rebuilding the city. But it happened, and the transformation has been impressive by anyone’s standards. There’s another human story emanating from Warsaw that’s worth retelling.

Little known outside Poland is the fact that the Nazis were held at bay in Warsaw for five years by what has become known as The Warsaw Uprising. When the occupying Nazis faced armed resistance from a group known as the Home Army, they eventually retreated in 1945. As they departed the city the Nazis systematically destroyed the city, including the electricity infrastructure and almost all buildings. They apparently didn’t want the Jewish population to regroup but of course the Jews were a minority in Warsaw before, during and after the war.

The Home Army were a guerrilla insurgency operating outside the allied forces. They were ultimately successful but were not recognised as a valid anti-Nazi fighting army until many years after the war had concluded.

Heinrich Himmler was confident of defeating the Home Army in Warsaw. He is reported to have said this in a conversation with Hitler in September 1944: “We will defeat them within five or six weeks. By then, Warsaw – the capital city, the brains, the intelligence of this erstwhile nation of 16 or 17 million; this nation that for the last 700 years has blocked our road east – will be wiped from the map”.

The German army occupied Warsaw from late 1939. In the Spring of 1940 they executed several thousands. Over the following five years, they held 100 000 Poles in Pawiak, a Gestapo prison, on impounded property. 37 000 died there during the war.

The Nazis were determined to destroy the culture. They liquidated secondary and tertiary education. They confiscated artworks. They removed Chopin’s statue from Lazienki Park. They murdered members of the intelligentsia. They also confined all of the city’s Jews behind a brick wall where most of them had lived in prosperous suburbs before the invasion. The area behind the wall became known as The Ghetto. Most of those Jews were destined to be shipped off to the death camps at Birkenau, Daccau and Auschwitz.

The insurgents operated as a private resistance to the occupying force. They ran like an army with hierarchies and strict rules of engagement but they lacked weapons. In total, they had 45 000 soldiers and proved to be a very effective resistance force. After being literally underground for much of the five years – in sewers – they surfaced in 1945, at last triumphant. The German capitulation in Warsaw owed much more to the Home Army than to the Soviet army’s advances.

The occupying German forces had been constantly frustrated by the insurgency from the sewers. They had names for the concealed insurgents: Rats and Robinsons. In both cases, they were determined. As Johnny Clegg says in “Warsaw 1941”, “the underground puts iron in the heart of any boy”.

Heinz Reinefarth was commander at Warsaw for the Nazis. He was responsible for the Wola Massacre in which 150 000 were killed. One telephone report in August 1944 illustrates the callous disregard for normal rules of engagement: “What should I do with the civilians? I have more prisoners than I have ammunition.”

Once in retreat, the Germans systematically destroyed the infrastructure, burnt archives and razed schools, churches, libraries and power generation facilities. They were clearly violating the terms of surrender.

The rebuilding of Warsaw – funded principally by COMECON not by the Marshall Plan – has been spectacular. Today, it’s a great modern city. Public transport is superb. Parks abound throughout. Cycle ways are common and busy. Life is relaxed. It’s a good thing the insurgents won the battle but also the argument over rebuilding the city.

Do widzenia from Warsaw


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