‘I survived but am haunted by the memories’: Warsaw Uprising survivor talks exclusively to TFN
Today’s 75th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Uprising, the 63-day battle that showed the world that Poland will always fight for its freedom, but which ended with the tragic death of up to 200,000 Poles and the destruction of the country’s capital, is important not just because it is a round anniversary.
As each year passes, the sad inevitability becomes apparent that fewer and fewer of the heroes who took part in the battle remain alive. Soon there will be none.
Thus, the task of giving first-hand accounts of those apocalyptic events is being passed to the generation who were just children at the time.
One such witness is Bogusław Górakowski, who as a 6-year-old boy suffered the hell of the bombardment of the Old Town, cheated death more than once, saw with his own eyes the murderous cruelty of the Germans and endured the misery of expulsion from the city and the horror of the transit camps.
Now, with incredible clarity and recall, the 81-year-old tells his story for the first time to TFN.
The start of the Uprising found the young Bogusław in the city centre at his father’s firewood shop with his mother and six-month-old sister.
“My father told me that there were some disturbances in Warsaw. Something was happening. He wanted to stay in the centre, but my mother said she had a baby and she had to wash her nappies. So we went back to our rooms at Kościelna 10 in the New Town.
“In the evening on the corner of Kościelna and Przyrynek, I saw people tearing up paving stones to make a barricade near the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” he recalls.
Bogusław’s father had got separated from the family and spent the Uprising in Śródmieście, so Bogusław, his sister and his mother were by themselves.
As news spread through the city that the Germans with their Ukrainian helpers were murdering everyone, building by building, street by street, in the Wola district, the family’s anxiety rose, as their district was next in the path of the German counterattack.
Górakowski describes the predicament his family were in: “The bombardment of the Old Town had started. Once the Germans finally seized the Citadel after it had changed hands several times, they had us in a pincer. So, we hunkered down in the basement.
“Around the 15th of August, our neighbour, who was an insurgent, wanted to take us away from the Old Town through the sewer network. He wanted to take us to Śródmieście.
“But we needed a pass from the Home Army to get into the sewer. My mother said everything was sorted out, but we heard that the Germans were throwing grenades into the sewers killing a lot of people.”
Bogusław and family had to remain where they were and hid in the basement to endure the siege of the Old Town.
The main attack on the district started on August 19. The Germans threw into battle 7,000 soldiers, mortars, cannons, rocket launchers, an armoured train, dive bombers and even cannon barges floating on the Vistula river. The fall of the Old Town on 2 September was the beginning of the end of the Uprising.
The events that followed are seared on Górakowski’s mind 75 years later: “The bombardment carried on the whole time. Buildings were destroyed and on fire. The whole Old Town was lit up like a torch.
“We were attacked from the sky, from the river and by German Nebelwerfer rockets that we called Cows because of the mooing sound the missiles made when they came crashing down on us.
“Although we were hiding in the basement, there was a moment when we came up to our flat on the ground floor to use the kitchen. Our flat didn’t have its own toilet; there was a room on the corridor.
“So, I was sitting on the toilet and suddenly I heard the mooing sound of these Cows. There was a huge explosion, so I ran out into the yard.
“Our building had been struck by a direct hit. When I reached the yard, I found myself under a rain of rubble and dust falling from the sky.
“My mother rushed out to find out what happened to me and took me back down to the basement.”
The 6-year-old did not have to wait long to stare death in the face again.
“There was a shaft than ran down to the basement that was used to store coal for the building. We were in the basement and we heard a big crash, but we were too scared to take a look. It turned out that a missile had flown straight into the coal shaft but didn’t explode,” he remembers.
When the building at the rear of Kościelna 10 was hit and destroyed, Bogusław’s boyhood friend was killed under the crush of rubble. A German sniper took up position and terrorised those who were living in his building, forcing everyone into the basement until nightfall.
Summarising that period, Górakowski is in no doubt who his protector was: “It must have been divine providence – there is no other way to explain how we managed to survive.”
The Old Town finally fell on 2 September. The Home Army left the district through the sewers and the civilian population were at the mercy of the Germans.
A short ceasefire in the city lasting just two hours between 12.00 and 14.00 saw German guns stop and several thousand civilians ordered to leave the city, initiating the next stage in the family’s wartime road of trials.
“We were ordered out of our building. We were led along Kościelna street and a man in German uniform reached out with his hand in which was a piece of dry bread. He said something in his language, which I understood as an invitation take it. So I took it,” Bogusław says.
He continues: “We were taken to the Security Printing Works. On the way I remember I fell on the rubble and hurt me knees. When we got to the building, my knees were dressed by some soldiers. I don’t remember if they were Germans or Ukrainians, my mother told me they were Ukrainians but I am not sure.”
Divine providence must have been present once again, as a meeting with a Ukrainian in a German uniform spelt certain death for thousands of people, including young children, during the Uprising.
In the midst of the blood and rubble, a bizarre scene unfolded: “In the courtyard of the building, I remember there were piles of 500 zloty banknotes lying around. It was like walking on a blanket of banknotes.”
One tragic scene had been hidden in Górakowski’s mind for decades, until a recent walk unlocked it.
“I saw a pile of corpses of Poles who were shot in the grounds of the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 29 August. I only remembered about it last year when I saw the remembrance plaque there. They were murdered there when we were hiding in the basement just a few yards away. As an old man, to have that kind of recollection was really shocking,” he confesses.
The family were taken to St. Adalbert’s Church in Wola, which was used as a collection point for Warsaw civilians, before being taken to the main transit camp in Pruszków.
“When we arrived at the church it was full. There was no way to get in. I remember I slept on cobble stones next to the church wall and my sister slept on my mother’s knees.
“I found out later that during that time, Germans were raping women behind the sacristy. My mother was certainly in shock and her fear was so great that her heart was in her mouth the whole time,” he said.
The family was sent to the transit camp in Pruszków, but Górakowski has no memory of how they got there.
“I do remember though that we were in this huge railway workshop building. I remember that it was full of people. There was a platform and there was a huge kettle from which people were ladling out soup. I had a water bottle with me so I had it filled up so we would have something to eat. I have no idea how I managed to find my mother again in that crowd.”
From there, they were transported in an open goods wagon and dumped in a village near Częstochowa and left to their own devices.
Returning to his father, Górakowski says, “He was in the centre during the fighting and saw from the top of the BGK building how the Old Town was being bombarded. What he saw so bad that he assumed that we were dead and he fell into despair.
“He was also in the camp in Pruszków at a later date. He wrote a note and wrapped it to a stone and threw it over the fence, hoping it would find its way to my aunt, who lived in Pruszków. It did and he learned that we were alive, which gave him the will to live.
“He did everything he could not be sent to a camp in Germany. When the train he was on stopped, him and some others pulled up the floor of the wagon and with divine providence escaped.”
Miraculously, the family were reunited after their tribulations when they all made their way back to Warsaw after the war.
Typical for his generation, Górakowski delivers his testimony with great composure and dignity, careful to avoid histrionics.
After many years of silence, he is now acutely aware that the number of people who can tell the world what happened in 1944 is dwindling rapidly and he believes that it is his mission to give his testimony.
“Those who were born in my year are probably the last people who can say what happened. The older ones are almost all dead now and the younger ones won’t be able to remember what we lived through,” he concludes.