Poland marking iconic 1944 revolt against Nazis

1st August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Veterans, politicians and ordinary Poles now assemble annually to honour the tens of thousands of fighters and civilians who perished during 63 days of bitter street battles and Nazi reprisals.

Warsaw -- Ageing World War II Polish resistance veterans gathered this week in the country's capital for emotional commemorations of their ill-fated 1944 Warsaw uprising against occupying Nazi Germany.

"This 65th anniversary is exceptional. Many of us won't be around for the 70th," said Zbigniew Scibor-Rylski, 92, head of an ex-combatants' association.

The number of veterans of the two-month revolt, launched on August 1, 1944, has dwindled to 3,500.

Official ceremonies have only been held since the 1989 demise of Poland's communist regime. The uprising also aimed to forestall the creation of a pro-Soviet government, making it an icon for the banned post-war opposition, a status that endures to this day.

The revolt has cult following among many young Poles.

This year, local rockers have released a CD setting wartime poems to music, Warsaw football club Polonia is running a 1944-themed hip-hop graffiti competition at its stadium, and enthusiasts have created Facebook profiles of two imagined fighters to spread the message of the anniversary.

Veterans, politicians and ordinary Poles now assemble annually to honour the tens of thousands of fighters and civilians who perished during 63 days of bitter street battles and Nazi reprisals.

"We must remember those young girls and boys who gave their lives for their country," said Scibor-Rylski, who joined the resistance in 1941 after escaping from a German prison camp.

The uprising was launched by the Home Army -- commanded by Poland's London-based government-in-exile -- which secretly deployed around 50,000 fighters in Warsaw.

It was part of a series of major Polish resistance actions behind German lines as a Soviet offensive drove back the Nazis.

"For us, the most important thing was to fight for a free, independent Poland," said Boleslaw Hozakowski, 86.

The Nazis had imposed a reign of terror in Poland since 1939. In Warsaw, they crammed hundreds of thousands of Jews into a ghetto, sent them to death camps, and destroyed a swathe of the city centre during a revolt by hundreds of Jewish fighters in April 1943.

Against overwhelming odds, the poorly-armed Home Army began preparing its revolt as early as 1940. It hoped to take the entire city in 1944 but could only seize pockets, partly because Nazi agents discovered its plans.

Around 18,000 Polish fighters died in the uprising. Nazi losses were around 17,000.

Around civilians 200,000 were massacred, or killed by crossfire and bombing, as the Nazis took Warsaw back street-by-street.

The Home Army capitulated on October 2 when Germany agreed to treat its members as prisoners of war rather than execute them as "bandits".

The Nazis expelled Warsaw's remaining 500,000 inhabitants and razed the city.

In 1939, the Nazis and Soviets had cut a deal to carve up Poland.

Their pact broke down in 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. As the Red Army rolled back the Nazis three years later, it installed communist governments across Eastern Europe.

Moscow had paved the way by severing ties with Poland's government-in-exile in 1943. In July 1944 it created a communist administration based in the freed eastern Polish city of Lublin.

The Soviets halted their offensive on the outskirts of Warsaw, east of the Vistula River. In mid-September it sent communist-led Polish units to aid the Home Army -- about 2,000 died -- but most troops watched across the water.

Britain and the United States tried to help, but Moscow barred their supply planes from landing behind Soviet lines, forcing them into perilous roundtrips from liberated Italy.

"The policy of Stalin was obvious. He wanted the Germans to destroy the Polish underground," said Polish historian Piotr Sliwowski.

Some historians back the Soviet stance that the uprising was foolhardy -- although Moscow's radio urged Poles to rebel -- and that the Red Army had to scale down for several months a major offensive that had already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of its troops.

Soviet troops moved into central Warsaw on January 17, 1945. Under the communist regime, Home Army veterans were first executed and jailed, then harassed, and later simply ignored.

"Since 1989 it has been easier to properly commemorate events from our history. We have to pass on the facts, and knowledge, to the next generation, like a relay," said Sliwowski, 37, who is based at the Warsaw Rising Museum, opened in 2004.


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