Harrowing story of the Warsaw ‘Robinson Crusoes’ who after the Warsaw Uprising, defied the Germans and stayed in the capital
When the Warsaw Uprising ended after 63 days of relentless fighting, all those who remained alive were expelled to make way for the Germans to systematically loot then destroy the city building by building.
However, despite the death penalty for doing so, one small desperate group decided to remain.
Known as the Warsaw Robinson Crusoes, but called rats by the Germans, they believed they would need to hide for just a few days before the Red Army would march into the city. In fact, their epic struggle to remain alive in what one of the survivors called the Republic of Rubble continued for over three months as the Red Army would only enter Warsaw on 17 January 1945.
The castaways numbered from 500 up to possibly 2,000 people, but only a few hundred made it to the end. To survive, they formed themselves into small groups, pooling skills and dividing tasks. For the months ahead they hunkered in their shelters, each an island in the ocean of ruins.
Getting food and even water was a constant struggle. Meeting a German meant certain death, usually in a hail of bullets moments after discovery by German police units tasked to hunt them down.
When the Soviets finally advanced into the shattered city, they emerged from their hideouts like the living dead, hungry, gaunt and dressed in rags.
The unimaginable ordeal that the men and women, and even children endured was one of the most dramatic episodes not only of the Warsaw Uprising, but of the entire German occupation.
The months spent in hiding were a real test of their determination and will to survive, and often also their humanity. They were forced into small claustrophobic spaces, often with people who were complete strangers.
Initially, they suffered from extremely high temperatures, which were the result of fires raging in the city. Later, it was the extreme cold of a particularly harsh winter that became a torment.
Amid a lack of food and water and the constant worry of falling into the hands of the Germans, they had to simultaneously fight disease, vermin, depression and grief as many had lost close family members in the Uprising.
The Warsaw Uprising, which erupted on 1 August 1944, officially ended 63 days later on 3 October 1944. After long negotiations with the Germans, the Poles signed a capitulation agreement with Waffen-SS General Erich von dem Bach.
The deal recognised the Home Army as a legitimate combatant, thereby giving its soldiers protection from German reprisals. However, it also called for the exodus of all civilians from Warsaw. The Germans sent the beleaguered population to the Dulag 121 transit camp in nearby Pruszków.
On the spot selections took place. Many were sent to concentration camps, while those able to work were deported to the Reich. The remaining sick, the old and women with children were put on trains and dumped in the middle of nowhere in the General Government.
It is estimated that over 600,000 people were sent to the camp in Pruszków. Very few decided to take fate into their own hands and disobey the German orders.
Those that did had a range of motivations. Some did not want to leave homes that may have miraculously survived the Uprising. They hoped that the Red Army would enter any day and life would quickly return to normal.
Some did not believe the German assurances that prisoners of war would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
They had seen enough of German crimes – roundups, public executions – both during the occupation and during the Uprising, and they preferred to take fate into their own hands rather than exile from the city and humiliation in a camp.
Some of them were Jews who, even before the fall of the uprising, had built hiding places in order to wait out the danger. Revealing themselves to the Germans was obviously out of the question.
Others were Red Army soldiers who had escaped from the Germans and had no intention of joining the exodus when their own army was just a few kilometres away.
Dangers lurked everywhere for the castaways. They had to go to great lengths to keep their presence in the ruins secret, which was particularly difficult as footprints could be easily tracked in the winter snow.
In order to survive in such extreme conditions, they drew up strict rules, which had to be closely observed in order not to endanger others.
One group of four Poles hiding in a tenement house on Marszałkowska street established the following rules: “Absolute silence must be maintained, no loud talking, coughing, sneezing, etc., conversations may be held only in whispers; no aimless wandering is allowed; zones have been established which must absolutely be avoided; those not on duty have to prepare food; if one of them were to be seriously wounded or ill, the others are required to shorten his suffering by killing him before he betrays his hiding place by moaning or screaming.”
One extreme example of the strict discipline was the case of Jakub Wiśnia, a Jew hiding in a bunker on Twarda Street. When he became thirsty and started to drink water from a precious supply in a bathtub, he was sentenced to death by his Jewish companions. They decided to delay execution of the sentence. Fortunately for him, the incident was forgotten when they gained their freedom.
The biggest challenge was getting food and water. The most common food to be found was tinned food, leftover bread, peas and beans.
Water was sourced from broken water pipes, bathtubs, and rainwater. In a few cases, teams managed to dig wells.
Lack of water and food was the primary reason to leave a hiding place.
Henryk Kowalewski was hiding with his father, who one night went out to search for food. He came back with just some moulding marmalade and coffee. The next night he went out again but never returned.
Kowalewski recalled after the war: “I was left alone. I ate the rest of the potatoes and made soup out of the peelings, adding coffee. For the last few days I didn't know what was happening to me. At times I lost consciousness from hunger. One day in January I crawled out onto the street. Warsaw had been free for two days”.
One castaway, Wacław Gluth-Nowowiejski, wrote the best-known book on the subject – Nigdy umieraj do jutra (Don’t Die Until Tomorrow). He was wounded during the fighting in Marymont and miraculously survived a massacre carried out by the Germans in an insurgent hospital.
He then hid in the basement of one of the nearby houses, where he remained until mid-November 1944.
“What saved me was the fact that there were two buckets of water and potatoes lying around. (...) All I can say is that I was not alone.
There were bugs. The bugs were all over me. They ate me alive,’ he recalled.
In the book, he recounts the experiences of Czesław Lubaszka, a baker and founder of today’s popular bakery chain Galeria Wypieków Lubaszka.
His three-man team started by looking for a hiding place. It had to be safe and fairly well equipped. They chose a cellar at 40 Twarda Street. They gathered a whole arsenal of weapons, and camouflaged the entrance. From the neighbouring houses they brought quilts, blankets and pots.
They also searched for food, of which just after the end of the uprising there was quite a lot, but then it became increasingly difficult to find.
However, Lubaszka managed to find 150 kg of flour. He remembered that there was an oven in the cellar of one of the nearby houses. He checked if it worked and under the cover of night, he baked a dozen or so loaves of bread.
On one of his nightly escapades to the oven, he stumbled across a group of seven starving Jews. The bread that he gave them saved their lives. In return one of the women in the group, Marysia, became his baking assistant.
Making any kind of loud noise was strictly forbidden as it would attract the attention of German soldiers. Therefore, when Władysława Lewandowska, who hiding with a group of people on Ogrodowa Street, gave birth to a girl on 1 December 1944, it caused consternation among the people hiding with her as the crying baby could reveal their location
Jozef Dudzinski described the dramatic situation: "A meeting was held immediately and it ruled briefly: the cry of the child must be eliminated. Although no one explicitly said so, the decision was tantamount to a death sentence on the newborn, and the person who had to eliminate the scream could only be one person: the life-giver – the mother."
Władysława sobbed: “I can't do it, I can't. Do what you want, but I won't do it.”
Fortunately, the group came up with a different method. The baby was put in a metal bathtub and a guard sat by her side, whose task was to smother it with a pillow when it started to cry. After three days, the baby knew it could not cry.
The most famous castaway was the pianist Władysław Szpilman, who featured in Roman Polański’s film The Pianist.
Before the outbreak of the uprising, he had been in hiding for many months after escaping from the ghetto. His hiding place was in the ruins of a burnt-out house at 223 Niepodległości avenue, where he was discovered by Wilm Hosenfeld, a captain in the Wehrmacht, who helped him by giving him food.
Szpilman did not learn the identity of his saviour until 1950, but was unable to save him. Hosenfeld remained in Soviet captivity and died in a prison camp near Stalingrad in 1952.
Units of the Soviet 47th Army and General Zygmunt Berling's 1st Army of the Polish Army crossed the Vistula and entered Warsaw on 17 January.
Few of the castaways had survived. Some died of hunger and thirst, others were discovered and shot by the Germans. Many broke down and committed suicide.
Those who survived, emaciated, with long unkempt beards, covered in dirt and rags, aroused horror and astonishment among the soldiers and among Poles who started to drift back to the city in the days that followed.