August 1, at W-hour

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.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in Europe, history. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to August 1, at W-hour

  1. Inge says:

    This was horrendous and tragic. I’m glad they remember it.

    There is still so much to learn about it, indeed. Just a few weeks ago i learned that only one train in Europe was stopped while on the way to Auschwitz. Resistance was only able to open one wagon before all had to run. It’s another story i never knew about. (http://michelvanderburg.com/2012/06/13/trailer-film-transport-xx-to-auschwitz/#more-136)

  2. Sandie says:

    This is an appalling part of human history. For yet another view we rarely heard or read, some of your readers might like Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book, The Zookeepers Wife: A War Story, which recalls more about the Polish resistance in l944. After German bombers ravished Warsaw and destroyed the acclaimed zoo, killing most of the animals and forcing Jews into the Warsaw ghetto, Antonina Zabinski’s recollections describe unique ways she and Jan, the zoo director, with help from other objectors, sheltered and saved over 300 Polish resistors and Jews from the ghetto. People were hidden in former animal cages and compounds, sheds and a secret part of their villa along with some surviving animals. She bore a son during this unimaginable time of suffering and chaos. Though painfully heartbreaking at times, some relief is provided by vivid descriptions of life among humans and animals—some finding creative ways to learn from and adapt to each other. Ackerman, a prize-winning author and naturalist, used material taken from Antonina’s journals and personal interviews.

  3. Ana_ñ says:

    Well-deserved tribute to Poles!
    (Hi, M., if you are reading this)

    I’m remembering a powerful sequence in the film The Pianist by Polanski that shows the complete devastation of Warsaw in a disturbing moment of calm just after the Germans left the city. Horrific.

  4. M. says:

    I wasn’t around to comment earlier, but I dare to do it now 🙂

    Thank you very much for this entry. It is really a nice feeling when people outside Poland know some of our history. Especially about such painful times.

    I’ve read this entry with a great interest, comparing the information with a knowledge of a “insider” – me. There is not much to add, maybe only that a censorship of the Home Army name during post-war period was not very successfull – maybe officially, but how can you make people forget when there was a Home Army soldier in almost every family? Many minor soldiers of the Home Army avoided repercusions by making themselves invisible thanks to another event probably not taught during history lessons – migration of millions of people due to borders change after WWII.

    In 80’s I was taught at school about the Warsaw Uprising as a very heroic thing. AFAIR ironically negative opinions came later, in 90’s. Because the greatest loss was not only in numbers – but also in who died there. The Warsaw Uprising soldiers were core of our intelligentsia, upper class of well educated, young people – the ones that Nazis did not kill yet. Many people have an opinion that with such important group disappearing, our society lost it’s balance and never really gained it again.

    BTW “The Zookeepers Wife: A War Story” – I did not read the book, but I know the story. Jan Żabiński not only saved Jews, he was also a soldier during the Warsaw Uprising. He survived WWII and took a great part in saving European bison. His sister, Hanna Petrynowska, is one of the Warsaw Uprising heroes. She was a doctor, during the Uprising taking care of wounded. She was making a surgery while Nazis took over the place. She was told to stop what she was doing, refused and was shot, and then Nazis shot all wounded and nurses. There are hundred stories like this one.
    Among people who helped Jews during WWII probably the most awesome was Irena Sendler
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irena_Sendler . I think everybody should know that such person existed.

    The next one-minute pause in our life will be 1st of September – the anniversary of Nazis attack on Poland in 1939. Such dates are very important to remember, this way humanity maybe won’t make such horrible mistake again.

    (And Hi, Ana_ñ, I am reading)

    • oregon expat says:

      M., I was hoping you were out there reading! Thank you for the “insider” input. The issue of losing Warsaw’s intelligentsia makes sense, because the same thing happened at Katyn and other massacre sites, didn’t it? The only difference was who did the shooting — the Soviets rather than the Nazis. Poland truly was caught between two terrible enemies.

      I did know about Irena Sendler, a hero in every sense of the word. She needs her own “Shindler’s List”-type movie.

  5. Sandie says:

    M., Thanks for the additional information. I read the Wiki link and found it most interesting.

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