Poland marks 1944 revolt against Nazis

3rd August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Against overwhelming odds, the poorly-armed Home Army began preparing as early as 1940. It hoped to take the entire city in 1944 but could only seize pockets.

Warsaw -- Sirens wailed across the Polish capital Saturday as elderly veterans and thousands of ordinary people held emotional commemorations of an ill-fated World War II revolt against the Nazi German occupiers.

At 5:00 pm local time -- the exact time the Warsaw uprising was launched on August 1, 1944 -- traffic drew to a halt and pedestrians stopped to observe a minute's silence.

A huge crowd also flocked to Warsaw's main military cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of those who died in the 63 days of bitter street fighting, which sparked brutal Nazi reprisals.

"We live in a completely different time. The war is long gone. But when I think about those times and what they did, I'm really proud," said Tobiasz Berger, 18.

The number of veterans has dwindled to 3,500, and the elderly fighters gather without fail every year to honour the fallen.

"I was at my daughter's place in California and came back specially for the commemorations," said Halina Cichowska-Komarnicka, 85, a resistance messenger and nurse.

The 1944 uprising was led 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 Polish revolts behind German lines as a Soviet offensive drove back the Nazis.

Against overwhelming odds, the poorly-armed Home Army began preparing as early as 1940. It hoped to take the entire city in 1944 but could only seize pockets.

Around 18,000 Polish fighters died in the revolt, and some 17,000 Nazi troops. Around 200,000 civilians 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.

The uprising remains etched in veterans' minds.

"On the third day, that's when the euphoria set in. We saw the Polish flag flying," said Julian Kulski, 80, who joined the Home Army aged 13.

Kulski had lost several relatives and close friends to the Nazis.

"At that time I just wanted revenge. I was full of hate. What I saw was so inhuman. They considered us as 'non-humans', but they were the non-humans," he said.

"When I hear German today, I get goosebumps," said Kulski, who now lives in the United States.

The Nazis had imposed a reign of terror in Poland after invading in 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 during a revolt by hundreds of Jewish fighters in April 1943.

The uprising also aimed to thwart the creation of a pro-Soviet government.

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, it installed communist governments across Eastern Europe.

The Soviets halted their offensive on the outskirts of Warsaw, east of the Vistula river -- whether deliberately or because of battle-fatigue remains a subject of heated debate.

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.

Soviet troops moved into Warsaw on January 17, 1945. Under the communist regime, Home Army veterans were executed and jailed, or fled into exile.

The uprising became iconic for banned post-war opposition movements such as Solidarity, formed in the 1980s.

"The spirit and moral strength of the uprising later motivated Solidarity. In this sense the uprising achieved its final goal," said Marcin Swiecicki, 54, a former mayor of Warsaw.

Official ceremonies have only been held since communism's demise in 1989, and have grown every year since then.


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