Extracts of Warsaw Boy
(From Chapter 17 The Grey Ranks)
‘I pledge to you that I shall serve with the Grey Ranks, safeguard its secrets, obey orders and, if necessary, not hesitate to sacrifice my life.’
In the late summer of 1943, shortly before my fifteenth birthday, I joined the Conspiracy. Or, to be more specific, I became a junior member of the Szare Szeregi – the same Grey Ranks that had staged the rescue at the Arsenal.
I was invited to ‘meet some interesting people’ by Tadeusz Stopczyński, the son of schoolteachers and a couple of years older than myself, who had met me at one of my clandestine classes. Tadeusz told me he thought I was ‘the right material’. I could have walked on air.
I suppose the war was what we had instead of sports days and happy childhoods. Our concentration was rarely what it should have been, though I well remember a particular Latin lesson.
‘Utrum Bucephalus, equus Alexandri Magni, habuit rationem sufficientem?’ our teacher inquired of me.
I found it hard to focus and address his question. I couldn’t care less whether Alexander the Great’s horse was a rational creature. Eventually, I translated it correctly but our teacher seized the opportunity to admonish all of us.
‘Put your hands on the table. I know exactly what goes on here. Your parents are paying for these courses, and money is hard to come by these days. Do your conspiratorial work later, if you please.’
And the lesson continued.
‘Ut homines mortem vel optare incipiant, vel certe timere desistant . . .’
The text was well chosen. Were we afraid of death? Was our conspiracy a game at which we would fail once the danger became direct, real and murderous…
The insignia for the Home Army was an anchor – in Polish, kotwica. It was formed by the merging of two letters: P and W. The P grew out of the central prong of the W, and the loop of the P could be taken as the anchor’s eyelet for its rope. Originally the letters stood for ‘Pomścimy Wawer’ - ‘We will avenge Wawer’ – and commemorated the 107 Poles murdered there during our first Christmas of occupation, hauled bleary-eyed from their beds to be told they were going to die for the killing of two Germans in a tavern. It had been one of the first indications of what kind of people we were dealing with. And just in case we had any doubts, the 108th victim was the innkeeper himself, photographed hanging in the threshold of his own doorway. But the events at Wawer had since been eclipsed by so many other atrocities that the letters were increasingly understood to stand for ‘Polska Walcząca’ (‘Fighting Poland’) or simply ‘Wojsko Polskie’ (‘Polish Army’).
Not long before his capture Grot decreed that the kotwica should be considered the emblem of the spirit of Polish resistance, akin to the ‘V’ signs appearing all over the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe, and we painted our anchors with a will.
It was not entirely without risk. ‘Careful, there’s a German patrol about,’ passers-by would murmur as they saw me approaching, paint and brush in hand. After a while I could almost feel the mood of a street, notice the underlying tensions when people began to move a little faster, melt away indoors. I knew when I should find some small hiding place for my equipment and walk on. I painted our sign anywhere. Any blank wall where it could be easily seen would do. Sometimes I painted it on the pavement. The kotwica was an easy design - it could almost be done in two strokes - and I could paint a good one in less than a minute…
By the autumn of 1943 - my first in Warsaw - violent death had become an inseparable part of our lives. Anyone who travelled anywhere in Warsaw in the crowded tramcars was bound to see it sooner or later. There was a young man who was shot near one of the city’s leaf-strewn parks. He was running away when, from the back platform of the tramcar, I saw the German soldier aim and fire a burst from his sub-machine gun. The young man’s legs, in those highly polished boots worn by officers before the war, bent in a strange fashion before he collapsed backwards.
Another day, en route to one of my secret classrooms, I noticed that people were pointing to the balcony of the massive pre-war courthouse building. I looked and saw that several hanged corpses were dangling from it, their feet just touching the large inscription beneath: ‘Justice is the Foundation of the Republic.’
Other public executions involved the police rounding up as many people as possible to watch and be warned. The ratio of Poles killed per dead German varied but was rarely less than ten. The condemned were always referred to as ‘bandits’ and ‘terrorists’. They came from a pool of prisoners who had often been arrested for no better reason other than to provide hostages. They were usually lined up in front of a wall, their mouths sealed with tape to prevent them from shouting patriotic slogans or screaming obscenities at their executioners before they were shot.
But the underground refused to be deterred. It continued to assassinate German agents and individual SS and Gestapo officers who had been condemned by our clandestine courts, regardless of the consequences. A few said it wasn’t worth it, but most people kept their mouths shut. Not fighting back hadn’t helped the Jews.
On 7 September it was the turn of SS-Oberscharführer Franz Bürkl, the deputy commander of Pawiak Prison where Rudy Bytnar had been tortured until he was near to death. Bürkl, who kept a German shepherd dog he called Kastor that had been trained to terrorize prisoners of both sexes, was a monster. In both Pawiak and in the ghetto Bürkl had been known to shoot people at whim. He died, along with Kastor and several of his colleagues, close to the Gestapo headquarters in Szucha Avenue, gunned down by an ambush party of five insurgents using parachuted Sten guns and our home-made Filipinka grenades. Their leader was Jerzy Zoborowski, a studious-looking 21-year-old who wore large, round-framed spectacles and was an unlikely-looking assassin. Perhaps that was why he was good.
Late that afternoon, returning home from a lesson and riding on the back platform of a ramshackle tramcar, I felt that something unusual was happening. I watched a man jump from the car, expertly leaning backwards. Then the tram started braking. I saw helmets, rifles and waiting trucks.
An officer with a pistol in his hand walked up and down as the passengers disembarked. Women with children were released immediately, followed by older passengers. All the others, including myself, were herded into one of the covered trucks that the citizens of Warsaw had nicknamed buda (meaning ‘kennel’). Other trucks joined our convoy, each with its cargo of terrified men and three or four young women.
My heart was beating fast. I felt numb. But I remembered with some comfort that I had nothing incriminating on me.
‘They didn’t even search us or ask for our papers.’ The statement was made by one of the men in my truck.
‘In that case it’s serious,’ someone else said.
I asked why in a trembling voice.
‘That means this is no ordinary round-up. They’re probably taking us straight to Szucha.’
The Gestapo headquarters at 25 Szucha Avenue was in an area we called ‘the police district’, secured by barbed wire and machine-gun bunkers. To escape from there was virtually impossible. Soon the doors of the truck were swung open, and SS men with the silver skull and bones emblem on their peaked caps appeared. They had their Schmeisser sub-machine guns at the ready.
We were led through a series of corridors to a long basement room. In its centre was a double bench arranged so that those sitting on it were lined up back to back. The bench was too small for all of us.
‘The women will sit first,’ one of the Gestapo said in fluent Polish.
The remaining seats were taken by men. I was too late and the Gestapo man told me to stand, facing the wall. Next to me was a dark-haired, smallish man who was visibly trembling. His terror was so great that he seemed about to collapse.
Of course, the Germans noticed it too. A tall SS man with a horsewhip in his hand approached and examined the man’s profile by gently raising his chin with the butt of the whip.
‘Jude!’ he shouted and slashed the man’s face with the whip.
Jews who had somehow escaped the ghetto were hiding out all over the city.
Blood oozed from the man’s wound. Then the SS man kicked him and he fell on me, staining my coat with blood.
‘Sorry, sorry,’ he murmured. Sorry for bleeding.