Mystery man leaves nearly 400 WWII Home Army IDs in envelope to Warsaw Uprising Museum
Nearly 400 identity cards of Home Army soldiers who fought in the Warsaw Uprising have found their way to the Rising Museum after an envelope with the documents was handed over by a mysterious elderly man who left without saying a word.
Museum workers were left stunned when they realised what was inside, with some of the documents signed by Auschwitz volunteer and hero Witold Pilecki.
Delivered last year, the ID cards have only now been made public, going on display at the museum in a temporary exhibition.
The haul of 383 ID cards and three insurgent passes is more than twice as many as the entire collection that the museum has built up over several decades and museum sources say the batch may be worth as much as one million złotys.
The identity of the donor, however, remains a mystery.
Museum director Jan Ołdawski said: “He left no information, his appearance made any identification impossible without using methods unavailable to us.
“Before our historians knew what we were dealing with, he had disappeared. Maybe he was a man who knew how to disappear unnoticed.”
Tens of thousands of IDs were printed during the Uprising, in several patterns and colours. The rectangular cards, usually pink (but there were also white, grey, green-grey and orange ones), contained the basic data of soldiers - rank, pseudonym, first name, often also surname - real or clandestine, date of birth, and sometimes a fingerprint.
The reverses were annotated with information on the soldier's assignments, decorations and promotions, sometimes also the weapons he possessed, the right to make arrests or having passed an exam for officer cadet during the uprising.
Ołdawski said: “This is one of the most valuable gifts we have received since the inception of our museum.
“Apart from its extremely high value, also as a collector's item, the collection of identity cards is an invaluable historical source.
“It also carries enormous sentimental value: behind each card stands the story of a Home Army soldier, a Warsaw insurgent.
“Looking at these extremely valuable documents, we have the faces of their owners before our eyes."
The museum said that the reason the documents contained the soldiers’ real names was that during the occupation, for reasons of secrecy, Home Army soldiers did not have any documents confirming their membership of the underground movement.
But just before the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising, Home Army commander General Tadeusz “Bór” Komorowski ordered that the soldiers be issued with identity cards so that they could be recognised as serving in a legitimate army and not as partisans, who the Germans gave themselves the right to execute.
The museum said: “From the beginning of the Uprising, for the Germans, having an ID meant that the owner of the document was a bandit and that he should be killed.
“However, on August 30, 1944, thanks to pressure from the governments of the USA and Great Britain, the German Army recognized the Home Army as an integral part of the Polish Armed Forces and thus the ID card became a passport to life until the end of the war.”
Museum historians have established that most of the IDs in the haul handed over belonged to soldiers fighting from the beginning to the end of the uprising in Śródmieście, in the groupings Chrobry II and Gurt, in battalions Zaremba-Piorun, Bełt, Gozdawa and Kilinski.
Two documents were signed by Witold Pilecki, who was the commander of a grouping during the Uprising.
Almost every document has the number of the POW camp 344 in Lamsdorf stamped on it.
Ołdawski said: “The insurgents who were sent to transit camps had their identity cards taken away. A German order number was put on the ID card and sent to the camp archives, and the insurgents received a metal plate instead - a badge with a camp number, which they wore on a string."
What happened to the documents after the war is not known. In March 1945, the camp was occupied by the Red Army.
Ołdawski said: “If the Germans did not evacuate the archive, it was probably taken over by one of the Soviet secret services.
“After the war, the collection could have been used to identify the participants of the Warsaw Uprising, to invigilate the members of the Home Army, which already then was treated as an enemy organisation.
“It was valuable because it contained mostly real names and surnames."
Until now, the Warsaw Rising Museum's collection of insurgent IDs has numbered around 300. They have been collected over many years, at first by the Historical Museum of Warsaw, then by the Rising Museum, which opened in 2004. The recent gift has more than doubled this collection.
The museum’s Dr Katarzyna Utracka said: “On the basis of these documents we can verify the biographies of the soldiers, establish their names.
“It often happened that we had an insurgent, we knew in which unit he fought, we knew his nom de guerre, but we did not know his surname.
“Thanks to these documents we managed to establish a number of names and reconstruct the combat trail of these soldiers.”
The documents are now part of the exhibition Insurgent Identity Cards and can be viewed in the museum’s Liberator Room.