Love on the barricades

Weddings were so common, especially among the insurgents, that special orders had to be issued by the Home Army general staff on how they should be organised in the extreme conditions of battle. PAP

Never knowing when they might be killed, many Polish resistance fighters during the Warsaw Uprising decided to get married.

Bolesław Biega and Alicja Treutler did so on the 13th day of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 at an altar made of paper bales in a shop above a field hospital. 

Curtain rings stood in for wedding bands and the bride was even kitted out with a bunch of flowers, close to a miracle given the circumstances. The wedding feast was the peak of wartime luxury wartime luxury – sardines, biscuits and a bottle of French wine seized from German stores. 

They spent their wedding night hunkered down on the cold floor of the Main Post Office, which the groom’s unit was defending. For their honeymoon, they were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp. 

Surprisingly, the Biegas’ wedding was one of 256 that took place during the uprising, which works out at four weddings a day during the 63 days of the fighting. In fact, weddings were so common, especially among the insurgents, that special orders had to be issued by the Home Army general staff on how they should be organised in the extreme conditions of the battle. 

Priests also modified the wedding mass so that it could be conducted sometimes in less than 10 minutes.

The reasons were simple, if not depressing. On a practical level, the insurgents believed that if they were married then they wouldn’t be separated if the uprising failed. Meanwhile, they were very young and many doubted whether they would survive the battle. 

They were fighting for the highest values of freedom and honour, and receiving the Catholic communion of marriage ennobled the spirits not just of the newly-weds but of the everyone around them.

Home Army liaison officer and uprising bride Grażyna Pilszak told the Warsaw Rising Museum’s spoken history archive: “We wanted to be close to each other. We didn’t know if we would live or die. It was a terrible time […] we were doomed to death. If feelings had already blossomed, we wanted to finalise them, after all we were so young.”  

It’s no surprise then that most spontaneous weddings during the uprising involved insurgents, while civilians, cowering in basements and eking out meagre supplies of water and food, were more concerned with surviving for another day.   

As bizarre at it seems now, love blossomed on the barricades. Warsaw historian Adrian Sobieszczański explains that boys from Radosław, the Home Army’s special forces group, enjoyed most success among the girls “not because they were more handsome, but because they were better armed […] a Thomson, a pre-war VIS, a Błyskawica or a captured German MP 40 acted on girls like magnets. The girls wanted to be noticed and the boys wanted to impress.”

The ability of weddings to bolster the spirits of the civilian population was not lost on the Home Army Office of Information and Propaganda. When the famous uprising photographer Eugeniusz Lokajski got wind of the Biega and Treutler wedding, he raced across the street with a crew to film it and the ceremony was screened at the Palladium cinema later to wide approval.

Many of the grooms got married in SS tunics seized from the captured German depot on Stawki street at the beginning of the battle. It was tough for the women to find something nice to wear and they often took their vows in the same torn and dirty dress that they were wearing when the battle started on August 1st. Wedding presents were modest and practical, such as soap or socks. Bullets were always gratefully received. 

One of the most notable weddings took place on August 7th, 1944, between Jan Nowak-Jeziorańśki and his bride Jadwiga. The chapel was overflowing with well-wishers who clamoured to see the wedding of the famous Courier from Warsaw, who crossed occupied Europe several times to deliver secret messages to London.  

Jeziorański (he added the name Nowak, one of his wartime aliases, after the war) procured the wedding ring for a tin of conserved meat and improvised a bouquet of flowers from an overgrown balcony. Instead of Mendelssohn’s wedding march, a series of Nebelwerfer rockets screamed overheard.

Jan and Jadwiga’s married lasted 55 years until Jadwiga died in 1999 in the United States. Meanwhile, Bolesław and Alicja Biega, who also moved to the US after the war, will be celebrating their 74th wedding anniversary on August 13th this year.