To Arms: In an exclusive interview Uprising veteran Alina Matuszewska recalls joining the ranks of the Home Army and her first mission
On September 1st, 1939 Alina, who was only 12 at the time, was on vacation with her family in Obrocz near Zwierzyniec in south-east Poland. During the first days of war she witnessed the movement of Polish, German and finally Russian troops, the flight of disoriented civilians and the final capitulation.
Ms. Matuszewska still remembers the sight at the Three Crosses Square that welcomed her when at last they managed to reach Warsaw by bus in mid-October:
“Back then on Three Crosses Square the buildings were still standing, not like after the [Warsaw] Uprising. The houses were standing, but the whole square was covered with graves. (…) There were lawns around the church and all of them were covered with the graves of people who died in 1939.”
After the Germans barred the Polish education system, Poles, fully aware they were risking their lives, started organising their own secret schools and lessons. Ms. Matuszewska and her younger brother attended such courses.
“From the school year 1940/41 there were clandestine lessons. (…) It worked like this, that the schools were closed, so we had classes in private apartments.
“Different teachers would come, history, mathematics and so on. And groups of pupils would go through the school material. As I remember, there was absolutely no light treatment. We had to study hard. Throughout the occupation the mood was such--after all no one told us—that we all wanted to learn. Even though we didn’t have to attend school. And the level was quite high”.
In 1942, Ms. Matuszewska joined the underground movement, first as a scout, then in the far-right Szaniec Group and finally as part of the Home Army. In 1944, she fought in the Warsaw Uprising.
In the interview, she mentions the sense of obligation and the patriotic spirit of the youth, but also a certain naivety they had, especially when it came to the political ramifications of their actions.
“The rule of conspiracy was that everyone should know as little as possible, in case of a blunder or arrest. Because you never know who is resilient to torture, right? So that we wouldn’t betray each other, there were the so-called ‘fives’.
“I knew only five people, even though it was a big organization. Among my friends everyone was in a different environment, so we didn’t know who was in which organisation.”
Ms. Matuszewska vividly remembers her first “mission”, after joining the scouts: “They wanted to test me, to see if I was suitable or not. So first I made pledge and then they told me to deliver a package to the Praga district. They told me it was a very important package, gave me the address of an apartment, told me the password and so on. I was very excited. I felt like such an important soldier.
“I had to go from the city centre to Praga over the Poniatowski bridge. When I was on the bridge, the Germans conducted a round-up. They barred both sides of the bridge and told everyone to get off the tram. I had that package and wanted very badly to die for my country.
“First I considered leaving the package under the bench. But then I thought, since Germans were using collective responsibility, if they find my package they would shoot everyone. So I took the package under my arm, got off the tram and stood in a line as the Germans told us to.
“They were asking questions and checking our documents. When they came to me, they asked what was in the package. I was playing stupid, so the German grabbed the package, ripped the paper off and inside there was a brick. He cursed badly and let me go.
“I was very upset, after all here I was ready to fight for my country and they gave me a brick. I reached the apartment in Praga. A nice old lady opened the door and angrily I told her off, and said I wanted nothing to do with the scouts”.
But the rocky start to her clandestine career didn’t stop Ms. Matuszewska. Before the Warsaw Uprising’s started she served in the Żoliborz district intelligence, not as an agent, but carrying information, and by August 1944, she was a courier for the Home Army.