Chapter XI

Warsaw – the Capital

The great offensive began like a symphony with a single movement. On Friday, January 12th, when the ice finally held on the wide swamps along the Vistula, Marshal Konev's First Ukrainian Army struck from Sandomir in Southern Poland, broke enemy entrenchments, and advanced twenty-five miles in two days. Thereafter he swept west with accelerating speed.

On Sunday two new movements were woven into the battle symphony. Two other great armies drove west. Marshal Zhukov's First White Russian Army – including divisions of the First Polish – struck from bridgeheads west of the Vistula in Central Poland and took the city of Radom and thirteen hundred other populated places in two days. Simultaneously Marshal Rokossovsky's Second White Russian Army swung into action in the north, driving across the frozen swamps where the Narew joins the Vistula.

A Polish officer told me of the staggering concentration of fire power that breached nine successive fortified lines. There were five hundred big artillery pieces to the kilometer where he was stationed – one every seven feet. After the break-through the armored spearheads drove rapidly forward; in one place Zhukov's forces advanced seventy miles in a single spectacular day. Infantry followed day and night by every kind of conveyance. Engineers rapidly repaired any railways and bridges that the Germans had destroyed. The unbroken plentiful flow of shells and gasoline to the front astonished the military experts of the world.

Even a civilian like myself, charting it on a map, could not miss the superbly daring maneuvers of these great armies in their complex harmony. Each developed a dozen themes which suddenly interwove with some theme of the others. One army would drive deep into enemy territory, leaving both flanks apparently exposed to enemy fortress towns. Just as the Germans turned to snap the reckless spearheads, a supporting army would strike across vast distances to encircle the German thrust and smash it finally.

The typical strategy in taking a city was to bypass it with great speed, as if to another destination, and then swing in a wide arc to cut the German communications behind the city and take it from an unexpected side. Red Army troops entering Radom from the west found the German Army staff seated in their offices writing orders. Zhukov's army took Warsaw by storm from the north, west, and south simultaneously – a triple blow from every direction except the expected east. On the same day Konev's army reached clear across South Poland, swung around Czenstochowa, that "holy" fortress city facing on the German border, and entered it from the direction of Berlin. Even the ghetto factories were still working here with eight thousand Jews, the largest group saved in Poland. One prong of Konev's forces then made a backward thrust into historic Cracow, taking it so unaware and so undamaged that it looks today like a city that has never seen the war.

Similarly Zhukov smashed on Lodz from the "wrong" direction, taking it intact at a single blow. Then one great sector of his army drove northwest apparently on Torun. Just outside this city it diverged left toward Bydgoszcz at such speed that the Germans there had no time for effective defense. Rokossovsky attended to Torun a few days later by a sideswipe from East Prussia, gaining an additional springboard for the drive on Danzig. Maneuvers in Pomerania then became so surprising and so fast that the joke arose about Zhukov and Rokossovsky as "experts at encircling each other."

By February 1st, the Red Army was pounding at the German fortress cities of the central Oder, had crossed the river in the south, and was threatening its mouth in the north at Stettin. Zhukov's army had advanced three hundred and forty-two miles in less than three weeks. Except for a small bit of seacoast at the mouth of the Vistula, where Danzig was under attack from three sides, all of Poland had been freed. Most of the western cities had been taken undamaged by the swift advance. Nearly two million tons of coal that the Germans had not had time to take away lay on the surface of the ground in Silesia.

The assignments given to the Polish Army in this offensive were especially inspiring to Polish patriots. Theirs were the troops who actually entered Warsaw. Russian forces encircled the capital twenty-five miles out, cutting the German communications while the Polish First crossed the Vistula from its forty-mile front at Praga and stormed into the city from the north and the south. Poles also formed the spearhead that broke the famous Pomorzk Wall into Pomerania, swept to the Baltic between Stettin and Kolberg and, spreading along the coast, took the latter naval base, where some of the German pocket battleships were made. These victories had for Poles a special meaning; battles for that seacoast have been waged between Poles and Germans for a thousand years.

Polish armored forces together with Red Army infantry took Gdynia and Danzig. "Ours took the city center at Danzig," General Zymierski told me some time later, "and ran up the Polish flag over the Town Hall."

While the seasoned First Polish distinguished itself in battle, the Second Polish Army moved from its training camps and took over garrison duty in the large Polish cities. The garrisoning of such places as Lodz, Kutno, Poznán, Cracow, and Katowice was suitably entrusted to the Poles. Two months later the Second Polish went into its first battle, forcing the Niessa, under Marshal Konev, for the final drive on Berlin. Mobilized and trained in nine months, they fought with a particular Polish dash and nonchalant gallantry.

"Our boys of the First went over the Oder and our boys of the Second went over the Niessa under heavy fire," said General Zymierski. "But they went as if on triumphal march, toasting victory in the river water as if in champagne. They stuck up little flags on the riverbanks and signs marked 'Here is the Polish frontier!' " Later Poles were among the first of Zhukov's forces entering Berlin.

As soon as Warsaw was liberated people began to return on foot or by cart from all directions. They sought for their homes and found them gone; there were only broken walls and heaps of rubble. They dug into cellars to pull out their pitiful possessions – broken tables, torn pillows, mattresses stained with blood. They stood in the streets stricken with grief. They wandered about seeking old familiar places. Nothing was left. Warsaw as a city existed no more. The Germans had spent four months very efficiently blowing it up.

What had once been one of the liveliest capitals of Europe was an almost uncanny desolation, worse than the lost Pompeii or an Assyrian excavation, because the human bits remaining were so recent. One could not go far in any street; all ways were blocked by barricades and fallen buildings. The Central Railway station had sunk into its blown-up tunnels; in places it was below the level o the street. The Town Hall and Opera House were fragments of wall against the sky. The fine cathedrals, palaces, and historical monuments – the castle of old Polish kings, the memorials of King Zigmund, Copernicus, and Chopin – were only scrap and memory. Great factories once throbbing with a quarter of all Poland's industry were a useless tangle of twisted iron and broken brick. There was no water, no electricity, no gas. Even the sewers were clogged. Under the snow and deep in the debris-filled cellars were tens of thousands of corpses, many of which would rot to skeletons before they could be taken out.

On January 19th, two days after the freeing of the city, a parade of the Polish Army was held in the midst of the ruins. Infantry, artillery, and tanks passed before the hastily erected tribune and were reviewed by President Bierut, Prime Minister Osubka-Morawski, and Commander in Chief Rola-Zymierski. Several thousand people had already returned to Warsaw. They crowded around the tribune to cheer. Even flowers had been found in the midst of winter to adorn the occasion. A girl presented a bouquet to General Zymierski amid applause.

The government then inspected the ruins. In the court of the apartment house where Morawski had formerly lived were many graves marked with crosses, including a child's grave. Bierut's former apartment still stood, looted of its contents; it had been in the part of town that the Germans occupied toward the end. A pile of underground literature hidden in the apartment had not been discovered by the Gestapo. After announcing the intention of moving the government to Warsaw as soon as possible, Bierut and Morawski left for a fortnight's inspection tour of the newly liberated land. Other leaders were sent to various cities to organize municipal governments. In most cases they returned to their home towns or to places in which they had long lived, but from which they had been forced by the German occupation.

I went to Warsaw with a group of Anglo-American correspondents early in February. It was the most difficult and uncomfortable trip I made at any time in Poland. The needs of the front had drained the country of transport; President Bierut told me that they had only five hundred autos and trucks in all Poland for civilian needs. Hundreds of thousands of people were moving by foot, bicycle, horse, or any possible vehicle back to the farms and the cities from which they had been driven. This moving of population crowded all living space to suffocation.

We reached Warsaw at five in the morning after an all-night winter ride in an open truck. Chilled and exhausted, we found no one expecting us and no available beds. Rooms had been reserved the previous evening but everyone assumed that we had stayed in Lublin; lack of civilian phone service had not permitted us to send word in advance. So our rooms had been given to President Bierut and Prime Minister Morawski who had returned from their tour of the newly liberated western areas and who were probably more exhausted than we. I found them both with their two secretaries in one small unheated room in the emergency government hotel.

Bierut warned me: "We can guarantee you neither facilities nor transport. If you land in any Polish city you may have to remain several days or even weeks. We ourselves are trying to get transport to Lublin and are not certain when it can be arranged."

I looked up "my bed" in Stephanie's room but she had a strange officer temporarily quartered on her. She gave me her own bed for four hours, after which I moved to the government hotel, occupying a room with five correspondents, men and women mixed. It was so cold that when I tried to sleep in my sweater and padded overcoat under heavy hotel quilts I woke two hours later shivering, since the frost-damp quilts chilled even through the overcoat. There was no running water anywhere in the building and practically no sanitary arrangements functioned. An army electric power unit supplied one electric bulb per room – a concession to time-pressed officials working late into the night.

I felt my health oozing out after two days' tour of ruined Warsaw from this exhausting base. Millions of Poles were enduring even worse conditions, but it would help nobody for me to get pneumonia in a place without conveniences, with everybody occupied by the needs of the front. It was in the nick of time that we pulled out for Lodz, one of those cities that the Red Army had taken practically intact. How startling to find the Grand Hotel well-heated, with hot and cold running water and a complete staff of servants, just as when I had stayed there for the American Friends' Service twenty-four years earlier, after the first World War. Opening my wardrobe I came upon the suitcase and literature of a certain Dr. Apfelbaum. One of the German economic rulers had left in too great a hurry to collect his things! Lodz hotels had catered to Germans such a short time before we arrived.

During three weeks in the Grand Hotel I daily saw cabinet ministers arriving from Warsaw, apparently to acquire offices and suites of rooms for their staff. They also had been to Warsaw and found it more than they could endure. They spoke of Warsaw as headquarters but not convincingly. I felt at the time that it could be a capital only symbolically. Warsaw was a heap of rubble where nobody could live and work. Lodz was convenient and comfortable.

After the first few days, though, Lodz was pretty hungry going. The German High Command, anticipating the retreat, had left the city with practically no food. Citizens were subsisting on their winter stores of potatoes, without meat, butter, milk, or even bread. Under the direction of Casimir Witaszewski, who had returned to his home town as emergency mayor, they were rounding up food from the countryside. But the rural areas were also in chaos. This part of Poland had been incorporated in the Reich, and Polish lands had been given to German colonists who had cleared off Polish homes and combined several Polish farms to make an "adequate German farmstead." Now these Germans were fleeing and Poles were hiking back to farms whose livestock was scattered and where even the houses were often gone. Meanwhile the last three milk trucks of Lodz had gone to the front.

The birth-pangs of civil government behind a great front were dramatized by my friend Frank's story of his auto hunt in Torun. This young engineer – Okecki's assistant in the diplomatic car by which I first came to Lublin – was now chief of civil auto transport, desperately seeking trucks. At the risk of his life he went with nine armed men and a Russian liaison officer, hunting abandoned German autos in the immediate rear of the Red Army. For three days he found himself in No Man's Land, in a suburb of Torun by-passed by Zhukov and not yet taken by Rokossovsky. German forces were near but their position was unknown. Frank, with nine armed men, seized the suburb, organized a Polish militia from its inhabitants, located important warehouses, and posted guards. He found and requisitioned thirty auto trucks, but had to return to Lodz for the gasoline to bring them away.

Just as Frank finished his tale of triumph his Russian liaison officer burst into the room. After the first welcome he broke the news that the new military commandant of Torun had finally got round to his suburb, commended the excellent militia guarding the military supplies and then relieved him, keeping twenty-eight of the trucks!

Frank's shoulders sagged for a moment but he gamely recovered. Slapping the captain on the back he said: "That's swell! Official commendation from the Red Army! That's more than they got in Lodz or plenty of big cities!" It was no secret that the first militia of Lodz had contained many gangsters and had to have a clean-up.

"And your thirty trucks?" I asked regretfully.

He disdained sympathy. "My twenty-eight trucks have gone to take Berlin! After Berlin we'll have trucks by the thousand."

While Frank accepted the loss of the trucks for the greater needs of the front and went right on working, making the most of his inadequate transport, one of his assistants was using the situation for his personal profit. Frank sent him to Lodz to organize transport in the first week of liberation. Coming by government truck, he used his sojourn to buy stockings from abandoned German stocks at a couple of zlote a pair. Selling them in Lublin where they rated a thousand zlote in the open market, he made a cool fortune in a week.

"I'll have him jailed when I get to Lublin," declared the outraged Frank.

"On what charge?" I queried. "Profit-making isn't forbidden in Poland. Maybe you can get him for improper use of your truck."

War offers golden chances for profiteers. Over a brief space there were two currencies, one of which – the German mark – was rapidly losing all worth. There were two widely varying scales of prices, not to mention variations within each scale. Petty speculators found it profitable to beat their way from Lublin to Lodz, even if it took a couple of days, just to exchange a few pounds of butter from Eastern Poland for several pair of stockings from the west. They were pushing into the few freight cars as these began to travel on the repaired railroads. They were crowding out peasant refugees who were trying to go home to their farms. Such individualists were tearing apart the fabric of community life that others were painfully weaving. They were also the first to grumble at every act of government.

War also brings out patriotism. The Lodz electric light plant shut down the morning after the Germans left. The High Command had seen to it that there should be no coal. Lodz workers carried coal on their backs from their own apartment houses to get the city lights going again. Railway workers hastily repaired lines to Silesia to secure a steady supply. In Silesia the miners and transport workers went hungry for days, but they kept on mining coal and transporting it. Everywhere in liberated Poland were teachers, librarians, civil servants, and citizen-volunteers working all hours on enthusiasm instead of food, hiking long distances across the countryside to do some public work.

As these everyday patriots, these hard-working and undemanding citizens, toiled to rebuild the shattered life of their communities and of their nation, it became more and more clear to everyone that the little group of leaders, cemented by six months' joint work in Lublin and forming now the Provisional Government, was holding together all those thousands who were holding together the land.

Soon I saw that all those officials who like myself seemed to have run away to Lodz or other comfortable cities were being pulled back to Warsaw remorselessly and irrevocably as the days went by. Some of them parked their families and some of the office staff in other cities where there was housing space, and where they themselves could sometimes come for a good night's rest and a bath. But Warsaw was their center. Warsaw was the capital not in a symbolic but in an actual sense. So I returned to Warsaw to find out why.

I returned in Witaszewski's auto – grabbing a seat in somebody's auto at fifteen minutes' notice was the only way one could travel in those days. He also was abandoning the comfort of a mayor's job in Lodz to set up headquarters for Poland's trade-unions in Warsaw. We followed a zigzag route through the ruined capital where streets had been cleared and marked by arrows. We crossed the Vistula just at dusk by the first new permanent bridge into Praga.

Never have I seen such an appalling mass of humanity as milled along that newly finished bridge, carrying babies, rucksacks, doorframes, windows, kitchen utensils, chairs – the salvage from a hundred thousand ravaged homes. It was a nightmare of perpetual plodding in an eternal human traffic jam.

This great mass of misery moved weary but persistent, flooding eastward into overcrowded Praga. These were Warsaw citizens driven from their homes during the four months when the Germans were systematically destroying the city, exploding it, and burning it house by house. Coming home now they found the main city on the western bank destroyed; so they crossed the river to the Praga suburb to camp in cellars or to sleep on friends' floors. Every morning they went to the beloved ruins to dig and to salvage. Every night they came back to Praga to survive.

Why didn't the government settle in Lodz, in Cracow, in Katowice – all fine, big cities with office buildings, apartment houses, and hotels? I knew the answer now. Here and now in Warsaw was the ultimate battle for the unity of Poland's life. Hitler had determined to obliterate forever this central citadel of Polish history and culture. Hitler had destroyed physical Warsaw. But Warsaw wasn't dead. These wretched refugees were Warsaw. Warsaw was wounded but living as long as they returned to dig; but if they should scatter and take root in more comfortable cities, then Warsaw would really die. Never again could there be such will to rebuild as here and now. But nothing could make these hundreds of thousands stick to the hell they lived in unless the Polish nation supported them as the heart of the nation's life.

Government came to Warsaw because the continuity of national life was more important than comfort, efficiency, or health. It came to defy and defeat the Nazi intent of destruction. It came because Warsaw was the center around which all Poland would rally. Already the citizens of Lodz and of Cracow were sending tribute gifts to Warsaw from their own hunger and need.

Warsaw was a government camped on a construction site in the midst of all the houseless refugees. Officials slept on springless cots, on tables, and on floors, ate once a day from some public kitchen and carried a chunk of bread around for the other meals. They took each day's necessary work in brief cases from one bare office to another. They were constantly repairing and constantly on the move.

At the moment the government headquarters was on Sneczia – Snow Street – in a gaunt four-story building set in seas of melting snow and mud. A couple of Polish soldiers at the entrance sent me splashing through slush to a wooden shack where I got a permit to enter the larger building. Rough wooden stairs led to crowded rooms where cabinet ministers and lesser civil servants sat on wooden stools at unpainted splintery tables. In a small kitchen on the second floor the motherly woman who had kept me supplied with milk at the dining room in Lublin now prepared, with the aid of three helpers, a daily meal of soup, meat, potatoes, and rye bread. Government employees in the building managed to get to the kitchen sometime between twelve and three, and carried their own dinner on a plate to the tables where they worked.

I sought Acting Foreign Minister Berman. He had sent me word in Lodz that it was "time to come to Warsaw," thereby assuming some responsibility for finding me a bed. With a distraught look he said that the Polish Socialist Party was holding a week-end congress and had all the beds in the government hotel and most of the tables in the offices. I reassured him airily, stating that Stephanie had that extra cot for me and that probably the officer quartered on her had long since gone.

"I'm afraid you can't count on Stephanie," said Berman, with an embarrassed smile. "My wife and I are occupying that cot of yours and Stephanie has discovered her ten-year-old daughter, who is sharing her mother's cot." It was the first I knew of Stephanie's lost daughter; she had kept her troubles to herself. In the end I landed a comfortable berth at Democratic Party Headquarters – that house where we had had the banquet. Only eight or nine people stayed there in two fair-sized rooms.

Three times in two days I had occasion to call on Berman. Each time I found him in a different office. The third time I was delighted to see that he had a separate room with a real desk, two upholstered chairs for visitors, and a small table where somebody had just had tea.

"I see you keep one room for diplomats," I chaffed.

"This is President Bierut's office," said Berman, smiling. "He's ill, so I'm using it today."

Many of my old friends were in this building at Sneczia; others were scattered widely across Poland. Jan Wende and Dr. Skrzeszewski were off in Cracow, General Zawadzki was organizing Silesia, that lovable Okecki was in Danzig and Gdynia, building a great united port. I knew with a pang that I would never again meet all in one spot those friends I had learned to know in Lublin. The life that had been so close in the tiny dining room and the single Committee Building had gone out to the ends of the land. It would never all come together again.

I knew also that I myself had no further right to that crowded living-space in Warsaw, except briefly to learn of future plans. So I met with four architects and engineers of the city-planning board and they told me the stages the city's reconstruction must pass through.

The first need had been thoroughfares to bring in provisions. The first bridges over the Vistula had been built by the Red Army with the help of volunteer "Warsaw Rebuilder" brigades. On January 27th, ten days after the city's liberation, a railway bridge three fifths of a mile long already carried supplies to the front. Four days later when our group of correspondents first reached Warsaw, we found three temporary bridges for pedestrians and autos, laid on pontoons and on ice. When the ice broke in mid-February, the first permanent high-water bridge was ready for general traffic. It was the one by which I had crossed with Casimir. At the same time, the "Warsaw Rebuilder" brigades, now on regular municipal pay roll, cleared a way through the Warsaw streets, which for months had been blocked by barricades and fallen buildings. The zigzag route our auto had followed was being changed daily, as more streets were cleared.

"This makes it possible for people camping in the ruins to walk to water and food. There are already fifty thousand registered as living on the western bank, besides those who daily cross to Praga."

I visited a typical family of thirteen people living in a broken bit of basement. They had stuck up an iron stove with makeshift stovepipe of different diameters. For light they had wedged one windowpane into a shattered wall. They had no hope of water or electric light for a long time to come.

"We cannot put in utilities for such scattered ruins," explained the architects. "We shall pipe water to central points from which they can carry it home. We must concentrate our first effort on the area where some decent living space can quickly be secured." Such an area lay south of the Allée Jerusalimska and about a mile from the river. Here were several streets of houses in relatively good shape where Germans had lived until their retreat. It was planned to reclaim here quickly a "government town" where forty thousand people – civil servants, their families, and the tradesmen serving their needs – could live comfortably and work efficiently. One grisly detail involved clearing a sewer that was still clogged with a thousand corpses. Insurgents and civilians had been gassed by the Germans as they tried to escape from Mokotow to the river by the "sewer route."

"It will take two years' work by one hundred thousand men merely to clear away the ruins preparatory to building the new 'Greater Warsaw.' We expect German reparation labor for this. We are preparing a thousand portable barracks, each for one hundred laborers."

Staggered at the immensity of the clearance, I asked: "Wouldn't it be easier to build an entirely new city?"

They gave a negative reply, Warsaw's location is very desirable. Human beings have dwelt here since the days of neolithic man because of the satisfactory location – the best crossing of the Vistula, with dry approach from both sides, without swamps or other natural barriers. Today a network of railways and highways converges here; it is built already. This is no city site to discard.

"Then, too, the greatest cost of a city lies underground in sewers, water and gas mains, building foundations. These are little damaged and their value more than balances the cost of surface clearance. The ruins themselves contain much building material, right on the spot without transport, which is one of our limiting factors today. Moreover, our Russian friends, who have offered to bear half the technical work and material cost, have developed many new techniques in Stalingrad and other destroyed cities for using partly broken walls that engineers formerly had to tear down. Already their estimates in many areas have doubled the number of walls that can be used again."

So they talked in their practical engineering phrases about reclaiming this great heap of devastation – perhaps the greatest single ruin on our planet – under which a hundred thousand corpses still lie. Calmly and thoroughly by the electric light of army field units in crowded basement offices, they planned over the dead of the past their future capital.

"It will be much better than before," they prophesied. "Prewar Warsaw expanded industrially in the nineteenth century when Poland was not an independent state. Factories, dwellings, and public buildings were mixed together; no provision was made for a really fine government center. We shall have both government and big industry in Warsaw, but in different sections: a great government center on the river, industrial regions further west along the railroads, residential areas north and south connecting with both government and industry across green park belts. The very completeness of the destruction makes our planning easier.

"Two years hence the future contour of Warsaw should be visible from an airplane, with ruins cleared and with green nursling trees marking boulevards and parks. Beyond that we cannot say how long it will take to build it. This depends on many things; not only on Poland but on all of our postwar world."

"We have forty-eight street lamps on the western bank in Warsaw," Ambassador Modzilewski boasted to me in the Polish Embassy in Moscow in May. "People can find their way at night through the ruins now."

After appropriate comment on the forty-eight lights, our talk turned to the international situation. Berlin had fallen. Polish troops together with the Red Army had set their standard in the enemy capital. The United Nations were meeting in San Francisco, where Poland's absence made her bitterly present in the discussions. In London the various groups of Poles in exile were going through successive government crises and party splits.

"Our problems in Poland are rather different. Not all of our cities are yet adequately supplied with bread. We have railroads to repair. We must get industry going. Transport is still a bottleneck. Last month our chief problem was to get the seed into the ground, to give the peasants land and thus incentive, to supply implements so that they could plow. We have sown successfully the greater part of our farm lands; with a fair harvest yield we shall get by. My own principal concern as ambassador – between all these diplomatic visits and operas that protocol demands – is the repatriation of some two million Poles from the USSR, chiefly from Western Ukraine and White Russia, but also refugees from as far away as Central Asia and Siberia.

"We have serious need for Polish unity and for many, many more efficient workers. We have no need for people who renew old quarrels with the Russians or bring up the landlord question again. We must settle down to work."

"All Europe must settle down to work," I supplemented.

"Yes, Europe – and the world. But Europe cannot settle down unless Poland settles down. We are in the center of Europe. For long centuries any instability in Poland has disturbed stability in Europe. The greed of the Polish feudal lords for land and their shifting allegiances did more than disorient Poland; they provoked unrest throughout Europe. The prewar pro-fascist policies of Joseph Beck gave the green light to the second World War. Poles who still support such policies are a chief threat to Allied harmony today. A stable, democratic Poland, friendly both to the USSR and to the Western Democracies, is vital not only to Poles but to world peace."

"A bridge between East and West," I ventured.

"No, no, not a bridge," he contradicted. "Say rather a comfortable home near the crossroads, hospitable to neighbors and to friendly visitors."

His simile was better. For a bridge is built to be trampled from both directions, but a home is an abiding place of kin.

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