world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Jan Nowak. Courier from Warsaw.

Reprinted with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

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  Adria Building Hit

The news of Jula's death came immediately after Greta left. While her funeral was being held, I was at my desk preparing a program for the next day. Suddenly I heard the roar of a shell falling. The six-story house shook and swayed. Then I heard the sound of breaking glass, and everything was hidden in a white cloud. One could see nothing and could hardly breathe. From all around I could hear desperate cries: "Water, water!"

Some moments later the cloud of plaster began to settle, and everybody rushed from their rooms into the hallways. We looked like well-floured millers. Through the masks of white powder one could see only eyes, clown faces. Near the stairwell there was an enormous hole which went all the way from the roof down to the ballroom in the basement. A few days earlier the Germans had positioned the heaviest guns in the world outside Warsaw, the guns they had used during the siege of Sebastopol. Buildings hit by the 24-inch shells, which weighed a ton and a half, collapsed like a house of cards, burying all the inhabitants in the rubble. It was such a shell that hit our Adria, cutting through all six floors and killing one woman on the way; when it reached the dance floor it plunged into the parquet floor and ... did not explode.

We all ran downstairs. On the part of the shell sticking out from the floor we could see a strip of brass with a gauge. "Time bomb!" somebody shouted, and put his ear against it: "It's ticking!" All of us ran to the door. "Stop!" somebody else ordered, in stentorian tones, and then put his head against the shell and listened for a long time. "Nothing is ticking," he said. One could almost hear the general sigh of relief.

The Adria building accommodated several hundred people, the whole Propaganda Department and many hangers-on. They all had to be evacuated before nightfall. True, the missile did not tick, but any further shock might set it off. Kowalik at once sent out a few patrols of two people each in search of housing. I went out with a friend. The task proved impossible: apartments, cellars, and shops were all crowded with refugees from Wola and other parts of the city occupied by the Germans or from bombed-out houses. After a long search it appeared that the only place which could hold everybody was the lobby of the Palladium Cinema. Unfortunately, it had a glass roof, which by a miracle was intact, but in a quarter perpetually exposed to shelling it was safer to sleep in the open than under a glass roof.

It was decided that my colleagues had a choice: to sleep in Adria in the company of the monster shell, which might explode at any minute, or to sleep under the glass at the Palladium. Most chose the Palladium. I remained in Adria with a few others, on the top floor, as far as possible from the creature in the cellar, although, to be realistic, if it decided to explode in the night, we would merely have had a slightly shorter trip to heaven.

In the evening Greta returned. I was happy to see her safe and well. She had flown to Moniuszko Street, certain that none of us would be alive. With the exception of Greta, we all slept very well that night, not thinking about the shell in the ballroom. Early in the morning some explosives experts woke us up. "Get going," they said. "We will empty it. It contains six hundred pounds of trotile, which will be useful for making hand grenades."

With great difficulty we found quarters in an enormous paper store nearby. Since the beginning of the Rising the one-person editorial office of the newspaper Fighting Warsaw had been there. The store was underground and quite spacious. We could stay there in relative safety. Other people took shelter in the nearby shop of Emil Wedel, famous for the best chocolate in Poland. Lightning broadcast its programs round the clock from the Polish Savings Bank.

Barely had we settled in at the paper store when the air was filled with the roar of another enormous shell. We waited for the end for a fraction of a second. Then there was a deafening crash, and the floor shook under our feet. Reams of paper began to fall off the shelves onto us. The monster of Sebastopol had hit the nearby Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall. Unfortunately, this time the shell exploded, burying a whole detachment quartered in the cellars. They were all very young people, boys and girls. I used to see them almost every day and knew them all by sight. The previous day I had seen them going to their position, jolly and carefree, singing the most popular song of the Rising, "My Heart's in a Knapsack." People began to dig them out of the rubble. Most of them were naked; the force of the blast had torn off their clothes. The corpses were placed in rows in a little square in front of the bank and covered with newspapers. In the afternoon they were buried in a common grave. I watched this ceremony as if it were my own funeral.

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