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Voices of Memory – transcripts

Transcripts for the audio-visual installation Voices of Memory by Krzysztof Wodiczko.


My childhood, spent in a tenement house at 73 Leszno Street, is this part of my life that, to this day, I keep re-living again and again in my dreams. Probably because that is when I lost what was most precious in my life—my Father and my toys, which were very pretty.

I believe it was the day when the Uprising broke out, but I’m not sure, it might have been the day after. We had to abandon my paradise; we were thrown out of our home and had to cross to the adjacent street through a hole in the wall of the neighbouring courtyard. One could not use the gateway anymore, due to the risk of being shot dead. I remember it so clearly—squeezing through this hole in the wall at the neighbouring courtyard. I wanted to see it years later—for a long time, there was a mark left by the hole in this wall. From then on, we roamed the streets, shelters, basements. And what I described in my diary written when I got older, what made such an impression on me—I saw half of a tenement, a cross-section of a tenement building, and all the apartments were in a condition as if they had been abandoned at the very last moment by people fleeing into basements. If I were to go into details—I saw there a kid’s bike, my greatest dream. I didn’t have a bike like that so it caught my attention. But I also saw a kitchen with a pastry board, so, clearly, people had simply been taken by surprise by what had happened.


Like I said, Father left on 9 August, the night between 9 and 10 August, together with insurgents, but he never made it to the Chojnów Forest. On the way, the insurgents were caught in several skirmishes and father was killed in one of them. We didn’t know, anyway—those who reached the Forest and who could provide any information after the Uprising saw Father falling down, but everyone was falling to escape the gunfire, only when they gathered after the skirmish, Father didn’t show up. I have no grave of my Father. All I have is his name on the Wall of Remembrance at the Museum of Warsaw Rising. We waited all night with my mum and, more or less, practically until the morning—as one could pass through basements to adjacent buildings—we had some information: they are already at number 9 on Sękocińska. True, we could hear the gunshots and yelling. They are at number 7, right, they are at number 5. A moment later, lots of screaming at our place, and: Vykhodit! – followed by cursing. The soldiers of the Kaminski Brigade still wore Russian uniforms and used Russian weapons. They forced us out of the basement and searched us. A lot of tugging, poking, and a command to stand against the wall. Machine gun opposite us. They’ll finish us off. No. A change of order. They continue to search us, and take what they please—everyone coming out of the basement had some sort of a bundle of belongings.


My grandma perished on 24 September 1944 in the district of Mokotów, Warsaw, on her way to get milk for her one-year-old daughter. She was very engaged in the activities related to the Uprising. She was close to “Baszta” Home Army Regiment—her brother was one of its commanders. She wanted to be more involved, but she had a baby, so she was torn. Every time she went out to get milk, she would stop at the headquarters, trying to help as much as she could. And on that particular day, 24 September, she was killed when a bomb exploded in the street, at the corner of Kazimierzowska and Krasickiego, not far from where the Polish National Television building stands today. It so happened that on that day the “Baszta” Regiment unit of her brother, Maciej Rembowski, received an order to retreat from Mokotów. And the uncle saw his sister’s—and my grandma’s—body and the bodies of other victims of the explosion next to the bomb crater. Alas, he could not bury my grandma, nor could he stop by her corpse for a while—he was given an order to retreat as quickly as possible from the location where they had been stationed. I don’t think he ever came to terms with this dramatic experience, with the emotional toll of leaving his sister’s body there. After the war, the uncle took part in the exhumations of civilians in Warsaw. He identified his sister’s body and her remains were buried in a mass grave at the Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw.


My father was in a hospital at the time, right there on Długa Street, and the tank—people say “tank” even though in fact it was a transporter of explosives, really, the kind used to knock through barricades. The tank exploded precisely on Kilińskiego Street. Father was in the part of the building close to the explosion, in this room. It was one of a few stories he shared at a time when I was still in high school. He must have plucked up the courage, or perhaps he got emotional—normally, he wouldn’t say a word about the Uprising, and now, all of a sudden, he talked about human remains and blood dripping down the doorframe of the room he was in, after this explosion.


People must know the truth about the Uprising—the Uprising broke out not because an order had been given, but because the civilians came to the conclusion they must rescue their children. Right before the outbreak, on 27 and 28 July, the Germans issued a decree calling for 100,000 Varsovians to show up to build fortifications. That is when all of Warsaw realised that the Germans were going to fight for Warsaw with the Soviets and that the city would be razed to the ground.


I shall quote General Polko, who once said: “The Germans had been prepping the Varsovians for the Uprising for five years.” And I am prone to agree with that, cause when you look at what was going on in Warsaw during the occupation—the killings, the Pawiak Prison, Szucha Avenue, Skaryszewska Street, public executions—I do understand that there was a fierce opposition to all that among young people. Father always used to say that the Uprising was pointless on one hand, as there was too much bloodshed, but he would add: “There was a time when we would all have gone to fight anyway.”


German gendarmes began to select people out of this group. A German approached me and pointed at me to move. A group was formed there already—young people, men and women. This woman caught the German by the hand. She told him that this was my baby, and she handed the baby to me. He pushed her away, but she came back, and that’s when he tore my dress—I had a dress made of a veil, as it were, and so he grabbed me by the neckline and pulled hard. He tore the dress all the way down to my waist. He pulled my breast out of my bra, to put it bluntly, and kept pressing to check if it was indeed my baby. There was no milk, of course, since it wasn’t my baby, that’s understood. That is when this woman, Ms Niezgoda to be precise, knelt down and began to kiss this German. She kissed his boots. He pushed her away, and then waved his hand to let me know I could stay with them, in the group they had brought from Leszno Street.


I joined the Gray Ranks [Szare Szeregi]—my mum signed me up, she had to grant her permission as I was too young. I don’t think an 11-year old was normally accepted to join the Scouts, but mum managed to sign me up somehow—she went there to vouch for me, she asked them to let me join the Scouting Association, the Gray Ranks, in the first days of the Uprising. Older girl scouts ran what I called the ‘lodgings’. I didn’t sleep with my family any more, and we were given tasks, orders, letters. We distributed these letters while we toured the basements, crossing under buildings—practically the entire civilian population was there, underground. And I kept asking which building it is, which street, to get to know where I was. We also delivered papers. So, this bag was supposed to be full almost all the time, because people also gave us their correspondence. And it turned out that aside from this correspondence, aside from exchanging newspapers to letters, people must have been grateful for what we did, because I was getting quite a lot of food as a gift. And that is how I turned into a provider for my siblings, for my nanny.


Granny and her neighbours were driven out of their apartments to a square where the executions were taking place. Granny begged them to let her go. She gave them all her gold…. Gold watch, gold jewellery she was wearing, all that hoping she’d be… that she wouldn’t be shot dead, that she’d be set free. Alas, the jewellery was confiscated. First, three children were shot dead. Granny held one child with one hand, and the remaining two with the other hand. Next, they shot at her. She was hit several times and she collapsed, and then other people kept falling over on top of her. Just like that, she was lying under a pile of corpses. After some time, at dusk, she felt movement in her tummy, and realised the baby was alive. She managed to crawl out from under the bodies and she hid somewhere in the area. There, she bumped into her neighbour who had survived, too. Alas, yet again Germans captured those who had survived and chased them to St Adalbert Church, which was the place where they held all the survivors. Grandma was lying there, in front of the altar, bleeding. Then, she was led on foot from St Adalbert Church to the Dulag 121 transit camp in Pruszków.


I still remember that. And it’s a tad annoying—so many years have passed, and yet you remember it as if it had happened yesterday. It’s a miracle I remained sane.


There are many things I remember—the white staircase, for example, we used to run down this staircase at night to reach the shelter. I kept dreaming about this staircase until I turned 16. Basically, before I turned 16, I dreamt about the war all the time, without a break.


On 5 August, when the units reached the area of Radomska Street, people sitting in the basement heard banging on the gate, loud pounding. Nobody wanted to move, everyone was scared. And so, my Father and the janitor of this building, a certain Mr Dedek, decided to go there. Father went. Next, they heard a bang, a gunshot, more gunshots. Then they barged in—I think these were Russian units in German service—and began to rob hand watches and, in the end, they gave an order to leave the basement. And when people came out of the basement and reached the gate, my cousin saw my Father and the janitor lying on the ground. She stopped, she wanted to do something, but they pushed her away. That’s what happened, that was it. We didn’t know what happened with Father’s body. In 1945, my mum got a message about a planned exhumation of those who had perished in Ochota. All the bodies of the fallen were buried in a huge pit next to St Jacob Church, close to Narutowicza Square.


I was ordered to throw hand grenades—the Germans, running down Foksal Street, ran right under our windows and continued to Chmielna Street. We were not allowed to hit the target directly, or to lean out of the window, because we risked being shot. We were to throw the grenades onto the pavement, through the window, so that a German running close to the wall in order to hide was sure to get hit. It was a slaughterhouse—the German commander must have been a moron as he told them to run in groups. And we would… my grenades… well, we killed them, and a short while later another group was coming. And another order, another attack, and the same situation all over again. I decided to take a peek out of the window, to make sure that I threw the grenades the right way, that I was efficient. And so I leaned out of the window, and I started to cry, because I saw terrible suffering of those who were torn apart by my grenades but still alive. It was the first time when I saw Germans as human beings and I realised what an atrocious thing a war is, what people are capable of doing to one another.


I entered St Lawrence Church. It was wide open, easy to get in. There are some traces—a priest was murdered in the church, so I see it all. The nave—this is truly gruesome, but if you want the truth, then let it be— I saw, probably in the sacristy, a fragment of human skull with hair. It was smashed, clearly, and stuck, as if someone glued it on. It was enough to make me feel queasy. But I kept walking, albeit lingering, as if I wanted to push away the moment I reached this place. A little bit longer. I was afraid it would all turn out to be true. I entered. The ditch was rather long. I didn’t have to walk all the way, as I remembered where this group had been standing, my parents and me. Right at this spot. I looked into the pitch. There was a book from the Health Fund, it was black on one side, but it was there, in the ditch, from the summer of 1944 until spring 1945. Nobody took it, nobody touched it, nobody saw it, or perhaps someone did see it. There were even photos of my parents. But the book was wet through and through, and when it dried out, the photos fell apart. As if it was a post-mortem cremation. I reached for the book and picked it up. And there it is, there it is. A trajectory of the bullet that went not only through that Health Fund book, but also through my father’s chest.


The recollection of aunt Marysia—Maria Goetzen ‘Maja’—is very sad. For her, the Uprising equals the tragedy of death, wounds, suffering, and, above all, the sewers. First of all, the sewer through which the young girl fled the Old Town—it was such a traumatic experience for her, the girl from the recollection. It came as a surprise to me that the experience of walking in a sewer could change the perception of the entire Uprising, of what she had remembered from it. The whole recollection is full of despair. It still hurts today. She left the sewer on Warecka Street. Right in front of her house. It was lucky for her—she could take a bath straight away, she had access to water. But the experience was so deep that it left its mark in her psyche until the very end


We found out about my Father’s death, my Mum and I, when we were sitting in front of the house on an April day. It was then that my uncle, who was a witness to what had happened to Father, decided to share it with Mum. Once he said what he had to say, there was a moment when my mum got numb, she could not believe it. Sometime later, she started crying. She spoke: “He was such a decent human being.” There was not much I could do, but I tried to be a support for her, somehow. I hugged her and we wept together.


My dad wasn’t even 16 when he joined the insurgents. He had been through rather tough experiences during the occupation. Then, the Uprising—Wola, Starówka, Czerniaków. He was wounded twice, stuck under the rubble once. He swam across the Vistula to the other side. But he told us about it all literally half a year before his passing. He avoided the subject. Even while talking to the uncles or cousins who also took active part in the Uprising as soldiers in the “Zośka” battalion, he tried not to touch upon the subject with his family. He avoided it, pure and simple. As if it was a huge trauma for him, a great tragedy he didn’t want to re-live ever again. Dad didn’t speak about the Uprising. He wanted to protect us. Perhaps he wanted to shield us from potential consequences—in the 1970s, or early 1980s, the memory of the Uprising, the Home Army, and the insurgents was not something to shout about. Even while talking to elderly people, he would lower his voice whenever they raised these subjects. I think it was a hard time for him, these were traumatic experiences he didn’t want to recall. He simply wanted to forget about it. He wanted not to think about it. He used to say that no one from his unit had survived. When he bumped into a friend in Koszalin, he reacted: “It’s a miracle that yet another one of us is still alive.” Like I said, he covered the toughest combat trail—Wola, Starówka, Śródmieście, Czerniaków. He was wounded twice, he was buried under the rubble once, he swam across the Vistula with the help of the collapsed spans from the Poniatowski Bridge. Half a year before his passing he said that if it weren’t for the cables hanging from the collapsed bridge, he wouldn’t have made it to the other side, he wouldn’t save his life.


Then the impression I shall never forget, after the Germans had driven us out of the basement, and they shot at us, shot us in the legs as we were resurfacing onto the ground level. In a crowd of people, in the dark, I spotted a man—I wanted to save myself and so I said to him: “Please take us with you.” I can still see him in front of my eyes, even today tears well up in my eyes when I talk about it. He knelt next to me and said that he used to have a son, just like me, and that the Germans shot his son dead, and that he doesn’t have a home either, that he has nowhere to go.


It’s difficult to comprehend what it was like, it’s difficult to imagine. No way. Somebody asks: “Did your mother look back while you were fleeing?”. I say: “God, who’d pay attention to that?” This was a matter of seconds—I turn back, I see a path to the embankment behind me, so I run. I can see it all, but I can’t hear a thing. As if my ears stopped working, while my eyes were working still. I’m on top of the embankment already, I take a few steps, and that’s when a bullet hits me. It wasn’t a machine gun, just a regular gun—I was hit when I was on the top already. The impact was so strong that anyone would fall over. I collapsed and rolled down to the other side, where I was no longer visible from the street. They must have been convinced Wiesio was dead. I’m not sure when I regained consciousness. I start battling through barbed wire—now, there is a concrete fence there, but back then there were some wooden poles and a barbed wire. The wire was a bit overexerted, that is why I managed to break through it. It was easy to get stuck when passing through barbed wire, my jacket got stuck. I am running, and running—I don’t say I was walking anymore, I’m running. As if I wanted to get as far away as possible, or perhaps I realised they’d look for me, they’d go and check if I was lying there. I think about it now, when I’m cool and composed, but I have no idea what I was thinking back then. I acted like a well-trained dog, guided by instinct.


My childhood, as I remember it, was full of vivid accounts from this war. I remember, for example, from my childhood, that I felt resentment towards contemporary Germans, to such an extent that I’d spit on German cars. When I saw a Trabant with German registration plates and a DDR sticker, I would spit on its windshield as a sign of utter contempt for the enemy. Today I know it was silly, but back then I registered this message, having heared all the wartime stories, and having watched movies about WW2. The war felt very close to me. Now I feel different about the Germans living today and I can’t possibly blame them for what their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had done. What is important though, is that they should remember about the past, too.


What I have noticed about my family—while telling us about the wartime, they never incited hatred towards Germans in my generation, in my cousins and myself. They talked about Hitler. They talked about the crimes of the Nazis, but they never spoke ill of the Germans living today. I find it very curious, but I believe this is the only way not to endow the future generations with hatred—despite the most gruesome experiences, one may still build a future together with the worst enemy from the past.


My Father said loud and clear that the Uprising had to break out. There was no other way—the war front was close and everybody was getting ready for an uprising throughout the occupation. No order could have stopped that. And the joy of the first days, hanging out the banners, white-and-red flags—that was something that spurred Father on until the end of his life. It must have been such a joyous experience for him, despite all the atrocities that followed.


It was an illusion, nothing more than a wishful thinking; it wasn’t real, it was just a hope. And I, as a 10-year-old citizen of Poland and resident of Warsaw, realised what were the chances of success of the Uprising which was about to break out. It was an illusion, an unspeakable naivety—the Home Army, spurred on by officers and by the propaganda, had this dream of armed struggle, at last, for the past five years fuelled a desire for revenge. The Uprising was to feed into all those dreams, the yearning for reaching an inner peace, at the very least—we fulfilled our duty, we did attack, we shall win. In reality, it was doomed from the very start.


The underground passages had been marked out before the Uprising. Our flat—we lived at 31 Marszałkowska Street—was close to the Church of the Holiest Saviour, and on the third day of the Uprising we descended into the basement. We were connected to Mokotowska Steet—there were blocks of apartments there, too, so one could pass through there. We were the first ones to go out in the street, and so we stayed, waiting for dusk, for darkness, so that it is calmer and safer to move around, but it was still daylight so it would take too long. A German officer came and told us to walk back from this, let’s call it third or fourth courtyard, via the passages, all the way back to Marszałkowska, opposite today’s Luna Cinema. We enter the street through a gate, and the very same officer is there, in the gateway, the one who told us to go from the spot where we had waited to resurface on Mokotowska Street. There was a selection—men to one side, they were held there. We were told to cross to the other side of Marszałkowska, in front of the Luna Cinema, and then walk towards Litewska Street, and then Szucha Avenue. Anyway, while the insurgent combat was in full swing there, the women and children formed a separate group. The German stood on some box and announced that tanks would arrive any minute now, and that women were to stand between the tanks, on top of the tanks, to sit on the tanks, and then five tanks would enter Piusa Street. “We’re going there, the tanks’ task is to recapture the Germans held captive by the insurgents from a small PAST unit. If the action succeeds, you will be reunited with your husbands and brothers.” The Germans with rifles were walking around, helmets on their heads, tearing kerchiefs off women’s heads and putting them on. Some of the women were on the tanks already. There were a lot of Germans between the tanks. As we know, the operation failed. The insurgents had a huge dilemma. A lot of women were set on fire, burned on the tanks because, actually, the insurgents didn’t know what to do—the only weapons at their disposal were bottles of petrol, and there were women on the tanks.


You will never come across this sort of courage or love that the Varsovians demonstrated [during the Uprising]. I don’t even mention how they looked after us, how they all made efforts, as if we were all their own children. Women would bring all the necessary things, above all water, as our girls could not cope with it all. We—that is, it must be said, Polish women, Warsaw girls. To me, I am no hero, because I had a gun, but all these liaisons, nurses, they had no weapons, and they had to go out there, they had to take a huge risk cause if they’d been caught, they’d not only be murdered, they’d be raped, they’d be toys in the hands of the perpetrators. After all, it was Reinefarth, the entire unit made up of ruthless murderers.


The diary, anonymous at first, was hidden in a cigarette case, folded up in four, partially soaked with water. We found out who the author was—Zbigniew Wroński, platoon sergeant, cadet Zbigniew Wroński, alias ‘Kret’ [a mole]. A soldier in the “Grenade” Artillery Group. The diary entry goes like this: “We entered Belgijska Street. We saw piles of burnt bodies of women and children.” On one of the following pages of the diary, this young boy, probably aged 19 at the time, writes: “We no longer took them captive.”


I remember the stories of my aunt, Janka Szafrańska, sister-in-law of my other grandma—she was a nurse in Czerniaków, but before she got to Czerniaków, in the first days of the Uprising, she had been a nurse in a hospital at 55 Mokotowska Street in Śródmieście Południowe district. It was the largest hospital there. I remember one dramatic story she used to tell, about an 18-year-old boy, an insurgent, badly wounded, on his deathbed really. The aunt asked him for his last wish, and he said “I wish for free Poland.”


At some point, I joined the underground Scouting Association, the so-called Gray Ranks. I was convinced by my friends, so I became a member, a Scout. And I was an active member. One of my friends, when he heard I’d joined the Gray Ranks, said he wanted to join, too. He must have told his parents about it, for his father called me and asked me for a meeting. He said: “Tadziu, I beg of you, don’t let Krzyś join the Gray Ranks. One of you two must survive. Someone has to rebuild this country, rebuild Poland after the war, so perhaps you shouldn’t let Krzyś join.” And so I told Krzyś that I don’t agree to him joining the Gray Ranks.


I’ve just read, not long ago, a recollection of my grandma’s brother, of the one who perished, the brother from the „Baszta” Regiment unit who stumbled across his sister’s body. He was the unit’s commander, and they were retreating from Mokotów, and he found his sister’s body, but since he was the head of this unit, and they were in the middle of an operation, he couldn’t bury her, nor make a sign of a cross on her forehead. He couldn’t come to terms with this fact for the rest of his life. Anyway, there is a very curious sentence in his recollections—he writes about the Uprising as something that could not have been stopped, but he leaves the assessment of it to future generations. I think my uncle was simply aware that the aftermath of the Uprising, the death of 200,000 people could only be assessed years later.


When they killed my grandpa, grandpa fell over and so did my 11-year-old sister. I was 5 at the time. I realised they were dead, but I wasn’t sure if they were asleep or not. I hid underneath them—grandpa lying on his back, my sister on her side. That’s how I hid. There was light—I used to tell my mum it was sunshine, but it was the moon, huge on that very night. It was a moon-lit night. I felt suddenly I was starving, and the woman who had a house with a gate there—we were on the pavement—saw there was a child there. She didn’t know what child, she just knew there was a child. I couldn’t get up—she asked me not to get up, as Germans were firing machine guns from the opposite side. There was a post office there, and they captured it. She told me not to get up, only to pick up what she was throwing at me. And she would throw down at me sugar cubes, on this pavement, on the road.


We were chased towards Białobrzeska Street, and then down Białobrzeska towards Opaczewska. Everything was aflame. There were corpses lying around. We walked down the burning street. On the way, yet another stop, another search, jerking, beating. To “Zieleniak”, the market place on Grójecka Street. Today, it’s Grójecka and Banacha Streets, that’s right. In front of the building which survived, opposite the entrance to “Zieleniak”, the market place, the building which had not burnt down, there was a pile of bodies. We were chased to “Zieleniak”. It was full of residents of Warsaw who had been brought there before us. It was almost noon, on a hot day, and not a drop of water. In the crowd lying on the ground there, because there was only bare soil at that place after all, there were the Kamiński Brigade men—drunk, of course. They picked the women they liked and pulled them to the school building nearby. That’s where they raped and murdered the women.


Our mothers, our fathers, this whole defenceless civilian population—it was thanks to them that the Uprising lasted 63 days. We would have surrendered on day one, as we did not capture even one building. The first day was a complete disaster, we were scattered, we didn’t have enough weapons, no munition, we didn’t have anything to stop the Germans, to inflict any losses on their part. They didn’t suffer any losses. It was thanks to the civilians who dressed our wounds all night, fed us, showed us which way to go.


It is a crime of sorts—the decision to start the Uprising. We proclaim it a crime, this decision. It is very easy to justify that—the number of victims, the estimated 200,000 and the city in ruins. No one can object this argumentation, as these are the tragic facts. However, drawing conclusions from these facts is not altogether easy in a society that feeds itself on the tradition of the defeated. As the song goes: “Today is a day of blood and glory, may it be a day of resurrection. A white eagle, thrilled by this hope, is calling to us from up high: Rise up, Poland. Throw off the chains. Today is your triumph or your demise!” Clearly, they did consider the option it would end in demise.


It hurts me when people say the Uprising was uncalled for. That is was a bad decision.


They led us down Młynarska Street to Wolska Street. A guy in German uniform stuck to me, a guy with a rifle—they were leading the procession—he simply stuck to me. Of course, he immediately pulled out my Father’s watch chain and his watch from my bag, and then he noticed a wedding ring on my finger. My hands were swollen, the ring was stuck on my finger, but he wouldn’t let go—off with it. I couldn’t pull it off for the world. An elderly woman—I had never seen her before—pulled out a bottle of water from her bag. She poured some on my hand, because she must have felt he was really ready to kill me to get this ring.


The door closed and the train moved. We didn’t know where, or what for. Nobody informed us. We were treated like cattle. The train was heading somewhere. We travelled all day and all night. The next day, in the evening (it was the night of 11/12 August) the train reached the ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The door opened. And the yelling, again: “Get off, quick!” and then the families were separated. Men to one side, women to the other. Screaming, wailing, cries to high heaven—like I said, families were being separated. Older kids, older boys like myself, don’t want to go, right, they don’t… Me too, I squatted a little, during the selection, and I followed my mum, I wanted to be with mum, right. I had no idea where I was. The first glance I caught when the door of the carriage opened, before I was pushed out, I saw a line of SS-men with dogs. Right next to us, people were being separated, women from men. The roofs of the barracks were dimly lit, as it was dark, but the camp was always lit, not well-lit, but lit still. Two massive chimneys on the side, and a flame coming out of them, several-metres high. There was smoke and stench, terrible stench, it was hard to breathe. Then I was already pushed down. I went to the women’s camp in a crown of women and children.


Marysia Cyrańska, sister of my sister-in-law, Władek’s wife. Marysia is dead now, even though she was more or less my age. She was 10 or 11 years old. She never married, never had children, because she was scarred. She testified in court, soon after the war had ended; she gave a testimony—how she was lying, wounded, and pretended to be dead. An ‘expert’ was walking round, and if someone was still breathing, he finished them off. She held her breath, and he stamped on her back in his big boots, and she later testified that she saw that someone was breathing and he finished them off. And I wrote down something like that: “Perhaps it was my father, wounded, still alive, breathing, only unconscious. Who knows?” And she, with this experience, this trauma, never wanted to have children, never wanted to marry. And now she’s dead.


These corpses, I walked on these corpses, grandpa walked on these corpses with me. This is me, aged 10, 12—my mum couldn’t leave me alone at home because I saw corpses everywhere. I had such trauma. My psyche was programmed that way—whenever I stayed alone in the flat, even in bright daylight, I saw corpses everywhere. This fear, the fear of corpses, has left me only after my mum passed away. I was twenty-something at the time, mum was 54. My mum walked with me everywhere—to the basement, upstairs. I was afraid to go anywhere, even at twenty years old.


After the war, we would go to the Military Cemetery to commemorate the insurgents buried there—hundreds, thousands of people. We were in a state of mental confusion about the Uprising back then. It was all hush-hush. We didn’t know about many things. The entire effort of commemorating the insurgents was focused on the Military Cemetery, the Wola Massacre was something marginal, barely spoken of. Many years later people began to write about it, talk about it, record it, and it became part of public awareness in Warsaw.


To me, it is shocking that young people who go to school, learn history, watch movies, [don’t know?] how horrible a war is, what Hitler had done, and how abhorrent the idea of fascism is. Also, a very important thing—that patriotism is not about waving a flag and shouting: “Death to enemies!”. Patriotism is about making sure there is no war, about looking after the compatriots, fellow citizens. It is about being the first one, providing that you are strong enough, to help those who fall.

Wartime stories and experiences in conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko were shared by:

Bohdan Bartnikowski, Helena Bułgarska, Elżbieta Gutowska-Niedziałek, Tomasz Karasiński, Wiesław Kępiński, Elżbieta Leszczyńska, Monika Lurie, Stanisław Maliszewski, Stefan Niesłuchowski, Tadeusz Rolke, Łucjan Sokołowski, Jadwiga Szczęścik-Parucka, Krzysztof Szlifirski, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska.