world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Roman Wyrzykowski. Out of Luck.

Manuscript. Published with permission.

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  Roman Wyrzykowski 'Krasicki' (1922-2001), a corporal in the 'Kilinski' battalion, company 'Wigry'. After the war, he became a renowned physicist specializing in theoretical acoustics. He was a Professor at Rzeszow WSP University in Poland.

These memoirs will probably differ from the accounts of my colleagues, because they are the memoirs of a wounded one...

roman wyrzykowski photoI had luck on my side during all my years in the resistance movement, from the first winter of the German occupation until the Warsaw Uprising. Time after time I would come out from various actions without a scratch, sometimes so incredibly lucky that telling the younger generation about it might raise their suspicion that I am coloring the past a bit. The luck ended when the Uprising started.

After weeks of false alarms the last call to arms was announced in the morning on August 1 and the fighting started at 17:00 hours. Our first action of taking over the Central Post Office building, then located at the Napoleon Square (now The Uprising Square) was not going well. Lieutenant ‘Jozef’, our commanding officer, asked for two volunteers to shoot at the Germans from the roof of a building next door. I went with a colleague who, as we shall see soon, saved my life, and whose nickname, unfortunately, I cannot recall anymore. Our action was supposed to last no more than a few hours.

Though I did not look at my watch, I can reconstruct the history of the events. We went on to the roof about 6 p.m. We were to reach the selected position no later than half an hour later. The Germans saw us and started shooting, so we took cover behind a chimney. We thought that were shooting at us from the Prudential high rise [...] but 30 years later my colleagues claimed that the shooting must have been done by a sniper. I do not know who was right – I think the shooting was a bit too heavy for a sniper.

kilinskiI felt my leg going numb, but I ignored it initially. It was only when I felt the warmth of something sticky that made me look at my leg and I noticed blood pouring out the right leg of my trousers. The bleeding was heavy and I started to feel weak. I told my colleague: "I am shot, do not leave me". He told me angrily: "What are you thinking – that I could leave you here seriously wounded without help?" According to our training, he made a tourniquet from my belt around my right thigh and started pulling me along the roof to a safer place. This was not easy, because the Germans continued to shoot at us. Only many years later I recalled that I had grenades and Molotov cocktails packed on me, just in case. If a bullet would hit my cargo rather than me, not just the two of us but also probably many residents of the building would be gone as well. However, at the time I wasn't thinking about it and doubtless my colleague wasn't thinking about it either. We were preoccupied with moving along the roof without exposing ourselves to the gunfire.

The end of this journey reminds me of a comedy thriller I once saw. When the Germans noticed that the roof hatch was being opened for us they started shooting at us again. My buddy then caught me by the waist and shouting "catch him down there" threw me into the opening head down. My belt-less trousers caught on a hook – and I will remember this scene to the end of my days – I ended up hanging on this hook with my head down and hearing another round of the fire...

A nurse dressed my leg, which was shot downwards through the calf; the bullet went in under the knee and exited near the ankle. This geometry was obvious given the shooting position of my body on the nearly flat roof and the shots coming from above. After lying in someone's apartment for about a quarter of an hour, I was taken on a stretcher to the nearby medical station. It was already dark – so it had to be at least 9 p.m.

The entry to the building was crowded with our people, so the medical station appeared completely safe. I could hear shouts of the people bringing in wounded soldiers. Someone threw flowers onto my stretcher and somebody else placed a bottle of wine under my arm.

A doctor was dressing the slight wound of lieutenant 'Jozef', who sternly demanded a rush job because he had to go back into action while the doctor tried to talk him out of it. When the dressing was finished, the doctor called for three glasses, and poured the wine from my bottle to the lieutenant, himself and me. Standing at attention he saluted 'Viva Polonia' and we answered together: 'Semper'. I turned my head – I could see Polish flags gently moving in the wind, illuminated with the light of some distant fire. I vaguely remember receiving an injection of morphine, and a nurse 'Basia' sitting at my bed throughout the entire night.

In the morning I was taken to a temporary hospital set up at Chmielna Street right near the hotel, where doctor Koenig would later set up his well-known field hospital. Our small hospital was set up in a large private apartment provided for this purpose by the mother of my high school friend1. This friend also served in the Uprising, in another unit. The apartment comprised of one large room and a few smaller ones. I was laid in a small room together with ‘Stasiek’ with paralyzed legs. He supposedly destroyed a tank with a grenade and then became badly wounded by his own grenades which exploded after another tank fired at them.

And so my hospital life started in relatively luxurious conditions. However, soon the number of incoming wounded started increasing and we run out of water and food. The friends from our unit took good care of us bringing us various trophies, including expensive wines from the German officer canteen, supposedly set up in the famous Adria café. So, we did not have any water but we did have alcohol.

The fighting continued and our side kept losing. The Post Office fell, and so did the Prudential high rise and both Pasta buildings. Polish troops conquered the police headquarters where some Polish policemen fought alongside the Germans – today I understand they just had no choice. At the end of the Uprising, just before the capitulation, the Germans killed all of them with poisoned spirits. More and more often we heard the heavy, deadly sound of a big railway gun and the screams of the so-called 'cow'2 artillery.

The wounded were brought in increasing numbers and so were the news about killed friends whose many faces I can still see in my mind. 'Sep', Irczyk Jerzy Krzyzanowski who served as my immediate leader in the Underground Army before the Uprising and other caring and kind friends visited me almost daily. Whenever possible, they tried to bring presents: cigarettes, wine, even shaving stuff. In the hospital we followed 'the perfect communist system' of sharing everything, even when at the end of August it meant only one biscuit per person.

In the Uprising press we read about our successes and defeats, about the districts taken over by the enemy, and about the atrocities committed by the Germans, which were terrible even before the Uprising. This was difficult for us to take. To ease the stress, we sipped a bit of alcohol that a lightly wounded colleague smuggled into the hospital. The booze allowed us to forget about the pain of our families in those difficult times. Yet, the worst was still ahead of me.

Our doctor completely broke down. He was constantly drunk and only applied a mild disinfectant [...] to the dressings on all wounds. This was not enough to treat my leg, which soon swelled up and I developed fever. The friends from my unit then demanded another doctor, and our doctor would not agree to that. An ugly scene followed with the threat of using guns and removing me under force. In the end doctor Koenig was brought over to look at my leg. He stated that this is the last chance to open the entire leg and clean the wound. I was put on a stretcher and taken out to the street. Marszalkowska Street was held by our troops. They sung various Uprising songs, and the solders in the hospital whistled to the tune. Somebody started singing ‘Boze cos Polske’ (God Save Poland). Everyone, both civilians and soldiers, cried.

Ultimately I reached the operating room and was put under anesthesia. Somebody forced my leg to straighten. The last conscious thought was of an enormous pain, and then darkness. When I woke up doctor Koenig said, "if you are given proper care, and the dressing is changed on the fourth day, you may get up in a week. But please remember that you have a big post-operation wound. Neglect it, and I will not be responsible for either your leg or your life."

On my third day in the hospital, the Old Town capitulated and a large number of the wounded were brought in and placed between our beds. The entire enemy artillery, the 'cow' guns and aircrafts fire were now aimed at the city Center, including our location. On the fourth day instead of a change of the dressing we received direct shots by the 'cow' guns to the side of the hospital building. The windows flew out of the frames and white dust covered our beds. Only Stasiek benefited from the shock – it apparently 'unblocked' his paralyzed legs. In addition to female nurses, the son in law of our host took care of us in the hospital. Despite the fact that he was not tall, and I am about 187 cm tall, he grabbed me in his arms as if I were a child and carried me down to the basement, where he put me on three chairs so that my head was resting on one of them, the middle body on the middle chair and my legs on the third one. I was grasping the chairs tightly with one hand trying not to fall off as my leg was giving me a lot of pain. In the other hand I held a bottle of vodka, which I managed to take with me. All this time our building was being bombed and shot at. A shell hit the yard filled with people crowding to get into the basement. A woman hit into the stomach by shell fragments was brought in and placed on the floor right next to me. She moaned terribly. When I tried to turn on my chairs I realized that a large part of my blanket is under the woman. She did not last long, dying within a few minutes. Afraid of losing consciousness and then falling off the chairs, I asked some people to put me on the floor. The dead woman was taken away and I was laid in that spot. It was strangely wet and sticky. I moved my hand around me and felt a puddle of blood.

I lay there until late evening, when my friends led by Irczyk found me. They put me on a stretcher and after a brief deliberation decided to take me to Kopernika Street in the nearby Powisle district, to the building where 'Marysia', Irczyk's fiance Maria Wlodek, who later became his wife, lived. She was to take care of me. Powisle was still relatively quiet. The trip from Chmielna to Kopernika Street took a few hours. As I was carried I saw numerous buildings on fire, and there was plenty of debris all around. I looked at the Prudential building; it was so damaged by artillery fire that it looked like ominous and surrealistic rock formations. As we slowly approached Nowy Swiat Street, the passage between the ruins became narrower, and more and more exposed to enemy fire. My friends decided to carry me through building basements. In the early days of the Uprising, residents cut holes in the walls of adjacent building basements to make effective tiny underground streets. Nowy Swiat Street had to be crossed through the excavation between two barricades. Towards the end we had to pass through a mined area. Night guards indicated the safe paths.

Finally, we reached the destination: a normal apartment, a bed, and white linen. My friends left back for their units. Marysia washed and fed me, and I immediately fell asleep. The next day, the fifth day after my operation, a doctor was supposed to come over and see me and I thought that a one-day delay in changing the dressing would not do much harm. As we waited for another day, I remember noticing beautiful weather, as it was for the duration of the Uprising. On that day planes started to fly over our district. This was the end of the quiet in the Riverside district, and no doctor showed up. We realized that my wound cannot wait much longer, so Marysia gathered some people to take me to the medical point in the basement of a large building across the Kopernika Street3 – I think this was number 10. The basement was filled with wounded. Nurses and one doctor were seeing patients around the room. When we told him about my wound he told me to lay on my stomach, took the dressing off and started to take out the puss drains. At that moment we heard the scream of a diving plane. People bent their heads and the doctor managed to say: "Take it easy, nothing will happen to us, we have eight stories above us", when something exploded and I think I must have lost consciousness, because when I woke up the basement was empty. I saw the fallen ceiling beams jammed just above me, which saved me from being crushed. I lay alone in the debris of the house, my neck felt crushed against a single brick, which probably fell on my head. I turned on my back and then through the mist of white dust I heard Marysia's voice: "Roman, where are you? Can you hear me?" I answered her and she crawled to me through the debris. With superhuman strength she pulled me onto a stretcher and out of the basement entirely on her own, to what used to be the entrance to the building and currently was a mangled hill of bricks and lumber. It seemed that any further explosion would surely kill us. Between two waves of the air raids I told Marysia to run away because both of us are not going to survive it anyway. She replied that she would not leave me. She just crouched by the stretcher when new explosions started.

The air raids ended. The street was not the same anymore, but Marysia's house was still standing. She called some people, who helped her take me to another basement, rather than back to the apartment, because the next air raids could down this building too. This basement was crowded with people. Irczyk came over, I think with another man from our unit. A discussion started that I could not be left there in the middle of the basement alone. They feared the possibility that the people escaping from another air raid through the connected basements might trample me. Someone noticed a six-foot high old catafalque at the far end of the cellar, covered with empty wine bottles. It appeared that this cellar was used as a funeral home. My stretcher was placed on this catafalque. The threat of being crashed by a mob disappeared. In the evening a doctor came and cleaned my wound in the candle light- or rather tried to do what was possible without any water, dressing or medicines. He dressed my leg again and immobilized it on a makeshift wire rail.

Marysia and Irczyk brought food and something to drink to my catafalque and left to continue the fights. Someone gave me a pack of good cigarettes. The night was quiet, but in the morning all hell broke loose again: the Riverside district was the aim of the next wave of air bombing. In addition, I began to imagine the many horrific paths my destiny could cross: There was a direct open path from my location to the large yard. I thought, what if an artillery shell or a shrapnel came flying through this opening – and here I am laying down among a pile of bottles, which, when hit, could hurt me with broken glass and splinters. There might not be anybody to take me out because at this time the indifference and even depression among the civilian population was severe. Civilians tended to blame the solders: "Why did you have to start this Uprising! You are the reason for all our misfortunes". The Germans distributed leaflets calling for the surrender and promising to take care of the wounded, but the calls remained unanswered. Only later did I learn about the atrocities that the Germans committed while liquidating the children's hospital at Kopernika Street, where many wounded Uprising soldiers were hospitalized.

In my condition I could not remember exactly how long I spent on this catafalque. It may have been 2-3 days, when one night Marysia and Irczyk came over very agitated: the order came to evacuate the street within two hours without taking the wounded. They both had to leave immediately because Germans were expected to arrive by 5 a.m. I answered them calmly: "Go, there is nothing you can do. But first take me to any apartment – but, not too high". I knew that the Germans usually threw grenades into the basement before entering a building, even when they knew that people were present.

The sunrise found me on a nice wooden bed. Our fighting units were gone. As through the fog I remember that some people in the apartment were packing in a hurry, trying to leave before the Germans. The civilians were busy with their own things and did not pay any attention to me. I saw half a cup of coffee and a leftover roll on the nightstand. I felt so starving, ravenous, that I quickly devoured the leftovers disregarding the fact that the owner might return to finish them. Soon the Germans entered the yard and started shouting for civilians to leave the building. I thought that the civilians would take me with them, but they preferred their own suitcases, and I was left alone in the building again. I did not even have time to think what to do next, when the Germans started to set up flamethrowers in the yard getting ready to set the building on fire. There was no way I could leave the building on my own. I did not have any crutches or even a stick.

I managed to crawl to the window and started shouting in German that a wounded man is here. In a minute, two Germans ran into the room, a doctor and a young SS man. The doctor ordered that I be taken down, saying that they cannot burn the building with a living man inside. The SS man was mad at him, saying that I was a bandit, one of those who shot his colleague in the stomach. I do not know what pushed me at the time to do it – but I started a conversation with the Germans – fortunately I was good at German in school and the years of occupation helped me to master the use of this language. Knowing the mentality of the super-men I was speaking harshly, nearly raising my voice, about the promises they made in their leaflets to care for the wounded, and was lying right in their faces that I could have evacuated with the Polish soldiers, but I stayed counting on their better medical care, and now I am supposed to be burnt alive? This may have touched the SS man, because in the end two soldiers were called over, put me on a stretcher and took me outside to the entrance of the demolished building, where many wounded were already gathered near a doctor in white uniform wearing a Red Cross badge who tended to them. I had to control myself not to shout in joy when I recognized that he was Tadeusz Garbinski, my friend from the Zamoyski high school and a buddy from our Boy Scout troop. At the time he was a student of the secret medical university. I know that later he served for about a dozen years as a Professor and President of the Medical Academy in Wroclaw. I think he died in a car accident.

Lying in these ruins I witnessed the sordid hilarity proving how much the Germans were afraid of us. A piece of debris suddenly fell down from the beams of one of the upper floors. The nearby guard shouting hysterically started shooting his machine gun aiming at the location. Instead of a dangerous insurgent, only a dead cat fell down.

Soldiers carried those of us on stretchers in a long line through Kopernika Street. We crossed Tamka Street. On our left side a building was still standing, housing small shops. Some people stood at the entrance looking at us with scared eyes. The upper floors were destroyed, so they gathered on the ground floor. Now, each time I pass this building I can still see these people in my imagination.

The file walked by the Polish Theatre and we entered the University campus from the back. Here hundreds or maybe even thousands of stretchers were laying in the big yard. Our nurses and doctors were asking the Germans for medical assistance. I remember it as if it was yesterday, when a German officer, perfectly dressed, answered with the cynical smile: "The only assistance you can get is religious support – you have a church nearby". A priest came over from the Wizytki church and said: "Boys – you are forgiven your sins in articulo mortis. Prey for your sins, which I forgive all of you together. Later I will give you the communion and it do not worry if you were drinking or eating something, even if it was a minute ago."

This was a touching moment. Later a German commission walked around calling for everyone who could walk to leave. Everyone thought that the rest would be killed, so even the severely wounded who under normal circumstances would not be allowed by any physician to even lift their head started getting up. Unfortunately I couldn't. About 1,200 people remained in the yard. The Germans took away the ones who managed to get up. I was told later that they were taken to a prisoner camp in Pruszkow 20 km from Warsaw. The Germans assumed that we, the remaining group of the wounded ones were civilians. Of course, no one was rushing to tell them the truth. Slowly and methodically German soldiers carried us by into the burnt and heavily damaged University buildings, placing the stretchers on whatever surfaces were available: bits of the remaining floors, or stair landings.

I do not know how long I stayed there. Later, reconciling the dates, I realized that the Germans conquered Kopernika Street on September 2 and transported us out of Warsaw on September 8, so it must have been a week. I was swollen from hunger. The Germans did not give us anything to eat or drink. Once or twice an old woman managed to get through and gave everyone a slice of bread and a tomato.

I will never forget September 8, the day the Germans evacuated us. German soldiers took us outside again and placed us in the yard. Trucks came and the Germans started to load us on the trucks stretcher-by-stretcher, side-by-side. When they finished with the first layer they started to put another layer of stretchers with wounded people on top of the first layer. A few stretchers were even put into the third layer so that just three trucks were enough to take all of us. I was in the top layer. And so we went. The first bumps on the damaged roads demolished the delicate construction of the stretcher layers. The screams of the crushed wounded were heard everywhere. I was hit on the head, but under me a man with the freshly amputated arm was wailing in pain. And during this journey I thought that what Dante described as hell was a joke compared to the indescribable gore and mercilessness of this situation. Finally, we reached the Warsaw West rail station. We were put on the platform, where we stayed until the next morning in the pouring rain. No guards were present throughout the duration there. In the morning we were loaded onto the commuter train. Starting from the Wlochy station, a dozen or so stretchers were unloaded on the platforms at each station.

The sixth station was Brwinow where my wife's family had a house. I was hoping that the house would become a meeting place for all the relatives who survived the war and the Uprising. I asked to be unloaded at this station. And so it happened. I met most of the relatives on that day. My father was missing from this joyful reunion, I learned later that on August 13 on a street in the Old Town district the Germans executed him together with other residents of his building. Months later, when I was able to walk on crutches I went there climbing through the ruins, to pay my last respect to my Dad. Only a small plaque remains there now.

During the Uprising, I forgot what the green leaves on trees and houses which weren't burnt look like. To gaze upon these majestic colors in Brwinow was a sight of divine providence. I was finally given a chance to care for my wound. But was too late. My leg turned out to be completely rotten – the gangrene was allowed to fester for too long. After a few desperate attempts of saving the leg by partial surgeries the doctor's decision was to take me to Podkowa Lesna, to have my entire right leg amputated.

* * *

1I think her last name was Lefeld, but I cannot recall the first name

2 Heavy mortar rockets (Nebelwerfer 40/41) filled with either explosives or an incendiary agent similar to napalm. Because of their characteristic cranking sound, Poles called them 'cows'. [ed.]

3This was the only building on the street, which after the war was rebuilt exactly in the original place and shape. [...]
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