Monday 29 September 2014

Women of the Warsaw Uprising

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Warsaw Uprising. By the summer of 1944 the tide of the Second World War had turned. The Soviets, now Allies, had reversed the German advance, and France was fighting towards liberation. Sensing change, the Polish government-in-exile authorized their highly organised resistance ‘Home Army’ to rise up against the extremely brutal Nazi forces occupying their capital.

On the 1st August thousands of Polish men, women and children launched a coordinated attack. The Poles had faced invasion on two fronts at the start of the war, and were well aware of the dual threat to their independence. Their aim now was to liberate Warsaw from the Nazis so that they could welcome the advancing Soviet Army as free, or at least fighting, citizens. Moscow radio had appealed to the Poles to take action, but the Red Army then deliberately waited within hearing distance for the ensuing conflict to decimate the Polish resistance before making their own entry. The Warsaw Uprising is remembered as one of the most courageous resistance actions of the Second World War, but also one of the most tragic.

Gravestone of a female resistance fighter,
Powąnski Cemetery, Warsaw.
(Copyright Clare Mulley)
A couple of years ago I travelled to Warsaw to research my last book, The Spy Who Loved, a biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born Countess who became Britain’s first female special agent of the war. While there I visited the famous Powąski cemetery where many of Krystyna’s family are buried, along with (parts of) Chopin and other famous Poles. Walking around I was very struck by several memorials like the one above, which shows how a Polish woman who died in 1999 chose to be remembered – fighting for the freedom of her country fifty-five years earlier.

To her despair, Krystyna Skarbek, then stationed in Italy, was not able to join her compatriots during the Warsaw Uprising. However I was honoured to meet one of the female veterans of the conflict at an event at the Polish Embassy earlier this year. A few months later I had the pleasure of meeting her again at her north London home, where she generously shared her memories of the uprising with me over a cup of strong coffee and some delicious Polish pastries.

Hanna and me at the Polish Embassy earlier this year.
(Copyright Clare Mulley)
Hanna Koscia, as she is now, was just sixteen when she was attached to a Home Army first aid team in the centre of Warsaw. Her role included nursing, and fetching supplies and the injured, sometimes while under fire. On one occasion her life was saved when the wounded female fighter she was carrying took the full force of the fire directed at them. The soldier died an hour later, a moment Hanna will never forget. Another time she was sent out alone to collect some glass bottles of methylated spirits from the city Polytechnic, to serve as basic antiseptic. Climbing back through the ruins she was caught in a bombing raid. Flying debris smashed one bottle, and Hanna felt the meths soak her shirt. A moment later incendiaries started to fall. ‘At that point I realized I was going to die’ Hanna told me, adding quietly, ‘I was a bit afraid, but not much’. Incredibly, Hanna survived the conflict, becoming one of the first female POWs detained in a camp in Germany. To her delight, she was finally liberated by Polish soldiers in May 1945. 

Polish Home Army white and red armband,
courtesy of The Warsaw Rising Museum
Despite the heroism of the Warsaw Uprising, it is a conflict still not well known outside Poland. So I am thrilled that Hanna’s story has been published in full in this month’s issue of History Today magazine. Furthermore there are some wonderful new resources being launched to mark the 70th anniversary of the conflict. Two films in particular stand out:

- Powstanie Warszawskie (Warsaw Uprising) is the world's first feature film to be made entirely from authentic newsreels. The Home Army had commissioned reporters and cameramen to record the conflict during August 1944. It is this footage that has now been colourised and assembled to retell the story of the uprising. You can watch a trailer for this powerful film here:

- Portret Żołnierza (Portrait of a Soldier) is an independent documentary directed and produced by Marianna Bukowski. Marianna spent many hours interviewing her friend Wanda Traczyk-Stawska who, as a 16-year-old girl, fought as a Home Army soldier. While watching some of the original footage from the uprising, Marianna was deeply moved to see Wanda firing her ‘Lightning’ gun during the conflict. Her intimate and very personal film explores Wanda’s story, asking what makes a teenage girl choose to become a soldier. Although currently still in post-production, more information can be read here.

- I am also looking forward to reading a new book on the conflict, Warsaw 44 by Alexandra Richie, a critically acclaimed author whose father-in-law is a veteran of the Uprising.

The Warsaw Rising was fought over 63 days between 1st August and 2nd October 1944. An estimated 18,000 Polish insurgents lost their lives, as well as between 180-200,000 civilians – many during the mass executions conducted by the Nazi German troops in reprisals. On a private visit to Krystyna Skarbek’s grave earlier this year, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski emphasized to me that the Home Army commanders were counting on the rapid advance of the Soviet army into the city when they took their decision to rise up. For Wanda Traczyk-Stawska and Hanna Koscia however, the fight was more personal than strategic. ‘We were children of the occupation – we wanted to be free and it was for this freedom that we fought so fiercely’, Wanda told Marianna Bukowski. Hanna was equally clear about her own motivations, telling me, ‘you have to understand how many people had already been killed, what the view was ahead of us… the reality of the situation was that you can’t give up when there is no good alternative for yourself or for others… We just simply had to fight’.

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