world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Jan Nowak. Courier from Warsaw.

Reprinted with permission of the Wayne State University Press.

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September 5–7, 1944

By the time we joined the crowd waiting for a chance to make the perilous crossing of Jerozolimskie Avenue, it was already dark. The broad street, which divided the north and south parts of the city, was under constant enemy fire. There was only one way to cross: a narrow trench, protected by a wall of sandbags. The crowd was mixed, soldiers and civilians, old people and children. Home Army men from the Old Town were easily identified by the stench of their clothing, acquired in their trip through the sewers. A pall of fear hung over the silent crowd, a feeling of impending doom. A German flare rent the darkness of the night. Usually, this preceded a barrage of fire, but no one moved or said a word. A single grenade could trigger a panic and turn the place into a slaughterhouse. But it was still dark. The German planes would not come over until daybreak.

We crossed to ‘the other side’ with the first light of day, and only with the help of a friend, an army doctor. It was a miracle that our old mother managed to make her way through that trench, over a maze of pipes and ducts of all kinds. Robak, left to fend for himself, followed close on our heels. It was almost five in the morning when we finally arrived at Pius XI Street.

When I returned to the Ericsson building everyone was asleep but Greta. "You know," I told her, "this has to be the end. Powisle fell today, and I don't think that the Germans can be held along the line of Nowy Swiat. Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, those pockets of resistance that are still miraculously holding out will probably all collapse." She listened in silence to my account of last night's events.

"Let's get married now," I said finally. "Let's get married while there are still some churches and some priests left in the city." "Why now?" she asked.

When her sister Jula was killed some days before, we promised each other that we would get married immediately after the Rising. We had no rings, so we exchanged wristwatches. I gave her my Omega, and she gave me the small watch that had belonged to Jula, since she had none of her own.

"The end is drawing near," I said. "Let's face it as husband and wife."

We were married on September 7, late in the afternoon, at a chapel not far from the quarters occupied by the Home Army chaplains. They were busy with funerals and last rites, though there were a few weddings. We talked to a skeptical young priest who took a dim view of marriages contracted spontaneously in the stress of battle. It helped when I told him that I was returned from London and showed him the narrow strip of paper Greta had sewn into my hatband as I was leaving for Great Britain, on which she had written that she would be waiting.

Greta managed to trade a tin of meat for a pair of copper wedding rings. On a balcony of a house on Wilcza Street I spied a window box of petunias in bloom. The apartment was locked, and its tenant was hiding in the cellar with the other residents. When I found him and asked whether I could have the flowers, he looked at me as if I were out of my mind, but then shrugged and let me have the keys to cut the flowers. Thanks to him, the bride had a bouquet.

The news of the wedding of a parachutist and a Home Army liaison girl traveled fast, and the chapel was full. With the Germans three hundred yards away, we crunched up to the altar on broken glass – not one stained glass window in the chapel was unbroken. Our young priest was in a hurry. He had a funeral service scheduled next. The wedding ceremony took not more than seven minutes. Two young soldiers offered Greta a bunch of gladioli which they had picked in the garden of the school for deaf-mutes and the blind. Our RAF friend John Ward was also there, with a wedding gift: a beautiful picture of the Black Madonna. Directly after the ceremony, we went to Jula's grave and Greta placed her flowers on it. A surprise party awaited us at our quarters. Wasyl, whose young wife was the daughter of the owners of Warsaw's most famous delicatessen and grocery store, beamed proudly as he miraculously produced a bottle of wine, a tin of meat, and two tins of sardines.

On the thirty-seventh day of the Rising, this was indeed a wedding feast to remember. It was also the last time we ate any meat, with the exception of two pigeons killed a few days later by the air draft from a bomb which brought down the building on our corner. So many hands reached out for the poor birds that I barely managed to get them away to Ericsson. Later, when we were even more hungry, word spread that there were large stores of barley at the Haberbusch Brewery. I went over with a convoy and returned with a seventy-pound bag of barley on my back.

There were rumors in the air about surrender when suddenly, after long weeks of silence, the powerful roar of artillery burst out. The battle for Praga, a suburb separated from the center of the city by the Vistula River, which is wide at that point, was fought out literally before our eyes. When that suburb was occupied by the Red Army and General Berling's Army, we could see, through field glasses, troops moving in the streets and the Soviet motorized columns and tanks not more than a mile and a half away as the crow flies. The Germans were now concentrating all their efforts on the destruction and conquest of the Czerniakow bridgehead, on our side of the Vistula, which we still held, as it could be used by Soviet troops as a crossing in a surprise raid. Czerniakow was soon separated from the rest of the city.

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