Warsaw's 1944 revolt is etched in veteran's memory

1st August 2009, Comments 0 comments

The bloody 63-day battle which began on August 1, 1944, was a watershed in the life of Zaremba, setting her on the road to a medical career that later had her saving lives in Africa and India.

Warsaw -- Almost seven decades since the ill-fated World War II Warsaw uprising against Nazi Germany, the heroic revolt remains etched in the memory of Eleonora Zaremba, then a 16-year-old Polish resistance member.

The bloody 63-day battle which began on August 1, 1944, was a watershed in the life of Zaremba, setting her on the road to a medical career that later had her saving lives in Africa and India.

The young Zaremba had been itching for revenge since the invasion of Poland in 1939.

"My father, who was a professional officer, went underground when the Germans invaded in 1939. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and put into Pawiak prison where he died three months later," she said, referring to a Warsaw jail with a chilling reputation.

The Home Army -- a poorly-armed underground force commanded by the London-based Polish government-in-exile -- had since 1940 painstakingly prepared a revolt against the powerful Nazi occupation forces.

"All the young people were desperately looking forward to the insurrection. At that time, remember that nobody could be sure of being alive the next day and we all preferred to fight rather than just to die," said Zaremba.

"I was ordered to join a barricade across a street, which had been thrown up by local inhabitants with whatever materials came to hand including furniture and all kinds of stuff," she recalled.

"At the beginning there was a wonderful atmosphere, we felt free and independent," she said with a smile.

"In the first few days we gained some ground and people were very happy. Then the battles in the city centre started getting closer and closer."

The Nazis took back the city street-by-street, in the face of desperate resistance, and sowed terror by massacring civilians as they advanced.

"We were reduced to two or three streets surrounded by the enemy. We were inside some houses and the Germans were in the ones next door, you went in or out through holes at street level," said Zaremba, who was wounded by a grenade blast.

After a moment of silence, she shared a moving memory from those dark days.

"A boy came over with a hand which had been shattered by a grenade. Blood was pouring from the wound. He implored me: 'Amputate my arm, I beg you!' But I said I couldn't do it... There was no doctor. I thought to myself: 'It must be so simple but I just don't now how!' The boy went away and died," she said.

The experience so profoundly marked her that she decided to study medicine after the war so she could save the lives of others. Her career took her as far away as the West African state of Guinea and to India.

As the Nazis closed in, Zaremba's unit was ordered on September 23 to escape across the Vistula River to Soviet-held territory.

"The night was as clear as day because of the fires blazing and rockets fired by the Germans. I know I was in the last boat. We were under fire continuously from rockets, machine guns and shells. Soon after the boat became full of holes and we had to throw ourselves in the water. Luckily the river was very shallow at that point with the water just coming up to chest level," she said.

She bristled when asked if she had been terrified the boat might sink.

"No! Not that. What was terrifying was when a comrade fell dead next to you. What was terrifying was the realisation that the uprising was over and had been a failure," she said.

AFP/Expatica

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