Yesterday I watched a video lasting one minute and 32 seconds. It sent me scurrying to various research sites, where I learned an amazing and appalling story that was never taught to me in my history classes. The video is at the end of this post. But first, a brief (very brief!) outline of the story.
At 17:00 on 1 August 1944—designated “W-hour”—the Polish Underground Home Army launched an insurrection against the German forces occupying the city of Warsaw. With the Russian forces advancing on Warsaw’s eastern suburbs and the Germans in full retreat, the insurgents thought their fight would last perhaps a week, mostly involving mopping up and disarming the remaining occupiers, so that they could liberate their city before the Red Army entered.
W came from wybuch, meaning “outbreak” in Polish: a quick, sudden flurry of fighting.
But the Germans decided to make a stand in Warsaw, and the Red Army stopped its advance and pulled its planes from the skies over the city, leaving the Home Army to fight an overwhelming enemy without support.
One week turned into 63 days. It became known as the Warsaw Uprising, and the losses were horrific:
15,200 insurgents killed and missing, 5,000 wounded, 15,000 sent to POW camps. Among civilians 200,000 were dead, and approximately 700,000 expelled from the city. [OEx: this was every remaining occupant of the city at the time of surrender.] Approximately 55,000 civilians were sent to concentration camps, including 13,000 to Auschwitz.
Sixty percent of the city’s left bank buildings were leveled—25% during the Uprising, and the other 35% in German retaliation after the insurgents surrendered. (This was on top of the damage incurred during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the fighting during September 1939, bringing the total destruction to 85 percent.) They included
10,455 buildings, 923 historical buildings (94 percent), 25 churches, 14 libraries including the National Library, 81 elementary schools, 64 high schools, Warsaw University and Polytechnic buildings, and most of the monuments. Almost a million inhabitants lost all of their possessions [both during the fighting and the systematic looting of the city afterward, when the entire city population had been expelled].
The end of the war did not end the nightmare for the former Home Army fighters. Poland was now in the Soviet sphere, and Joseph Stalin had no tolerance for the previous government or its supporters. They were persecuted and erased from history:
In the immediate post-war period, the very name of the Home Army was censored, and most films and novels covering the 1944 Uprising were either banned or modified so that the name of the Home Army did not appear. From the 1950s on, Polish propaganda depicted the soldiers of the Uprising as brave, but the officers as treacherous, reactionary and characterized by disregard of the losses. The first publications on the topic taken seriously in the West were not issued until the late 1980s. […] Until the 1990s, historical analysis of the events remained superficial because of official censorship and lack of academic interest. Research into the Warsaw Uprising was boosted by the fall of communism in 1989, due to the abolition of censorship and increased access to state archives.
In 1989 I was most of the way through my bachelor’s degree. My history classes spoke briefly of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but not of the Warsaw Uprising.
The Poles, of course, have never forgotten. Every year, at W-hour on 1 August, Warsaw’s residents pause wherever they are for one minute and remember.
Here is that minute.