Chapter VI

Warsaw Front

I was the first American to crawl into dugouts and crouch in trenches directly facing German fire on the eastern front. For three years the foreign correspondents in Moscow, including many young men war correspondents, tried vainly to reach front line positions of the eastern front. In the end it was I, a woman, who reached it through the hospitality of the Poles.

When I told my Lublin friends that I wanted to go to Warsaw – more specifically to Praga, that eastern part of the capital already in Polish hands – they began to discourage me. Though Warsaw was only a hundred miles away the communication was poor and rumors were many, even in the government dining room. The Germans were dropping V-2s, the terrible rocket! The people were fleeing in panic! The city administration under Colonel Spychalski had withdrawn a dozen miles south to the town of Otwodsk! The last auto truck out of Praga had barely escaped by a wide detour east! When I finally reached the city by jeep, chaperoned by a young Polish lieutenant – I learned the facts behind the rumors. We detoured into town, since the main highway was under artillery fire. The city administration was where it had been on Otwodsk Street in the heart of Praga. Two rocket bombs had fallen and one of them had demolished an apartment house, but not even the most uninformed civilian thought that they were the terrible V-2s. Meanwhile the population was returning to Praga; it had reached one hundred and twenty thousand.

The battle front cut through the city of Warsaw. The Red Army, and with it the Polish First, fought their way into the eastern part of the city in September 1944. Here the Vistula water barrier checked the advance. The retreating Germans blew up the four fine bridges connecting the two parts of the Polish capital. The western bank of the river – four fifths of Warsaw was still in their hands. Praga, the industrial section on the eastern bank, was held by the Red Army, its river-front positions being entrusted to the Poles.

In this battered hulk of a city one felt the pride of a national capital much more than in Lublin, which was after all a provincial town. One felt the undying spirit of Poland which has seen and survived the wars of centuries. Warsaw had fought three bitter battles already in the present war and was awaiting a fourth. Its heroic defense in 1939 under Mayor Starzynski after the Polish Government had fled the country won admiration from the world. The battle of the doomed Jews of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 opened a new page in the history of international Jewry, stimulating revolts in many cities. Of General Bor's ill-fated uprising in August of 1944 I shall speak in the following chapter. At this same time the Red Army and the Polish First were battling for Praga, hammering their way through the strongest German fortifications in Poland. They were now entrenched, awaiting the decisive battle which should give Warsaw and all Poland into their hands.

Behind the first-line river positions, civilian Praga was part of the fighting front. People lived here under daily enemy fire, bought and sold bread in market places from which they could all but see the .German guns. Nearly every day some apartment house, school, or public building was demolished, often with many human casualties. The people seemed less worried by this spasmodic shelling than by the lack of water and electric lights.

The grimness of civilian life in Praga smote me in the very first hour. The efficient woman in military uniform who looked after visitors at the City Hall – her first name was Stephanie and her last name I never even tried to pronounce – rushed me off to the Wedel candy factory.

“You will just have time. Our factories close at three so that people can be off the streets by dark. Some of them have to walk a long way and there are no streetcars yet. The Germans brought them to the barns and blew them all up at once. Our streetcar workers are digging out the pieces and putting them together again.”

We drove through the once great industrial region. Gigantic heaps of fantastically twisted iron and shattered brick marked places where factories had stood. The Germans had also blown up most of Wedel, the world-known candy concern which formerly sold confections in Paris and exhibited at the World's Fair in New York. They had overlooked two small shops. Some two hundred women – prewar Wedel employed ten thousand – had begun to make candies and cookies again. They made as yet very little and none of their candy was on general sale. It was bought up by the government and by social organizations for celebrations, such as the children's Christmas Party that I attended at the Lublin PPS.

I found that the factory was unexpectedly closing at two-thirty so that the workers could organize their trade-union before going home. In the simple brief meeting the speakers often raised their voices to be heard over the boom of exploding shells. The women paid little attention to this apparently routine artillery exchange. If their attention wandered at all from the speaker's prosaic explanation of trade-unions – that membership was voluntary, that the union protected their interests, "not like the Nazi labor front" – it was to the battered chair where I sat as an American guest. They were plainly curious about my presence there.

When they asked me to speak to them I posed a question: "In America we think that the worst of war is the shooting, but it seems that shelling doesn't matter here. What is the worst thing that war means in Warsaw?" I thought they would say it was the hunger, or perhaps the cold.

Then a shabby, thin-faced woman rose: "The worst is that the Germans took away our menfolk and we don't know whether they are dead or slaves in Germany and there is no one to help us with the children." Others were nodding assent.

I asked how many of them had lost their men. Nine tenths raised their hands. I feared that a storm of weeping would shake the meeting, so I changed the subject quickly and everyone began to breathe again. Later I repeated the question elsewhere, and found that it was true that 90 per cent of the men of Praga had been forcibly taken away.

This was the heavy burden under which Praga labored. All Warsaw had been caught unaware by General Bor's uprising, which began in midafternoon when most of the men were away at work. Some living in Praga were working across the river and never got back. Others living across the river were caught in Praga and never reached their families. Using the uprising as pretext, the Germans systematically surrounded city block after city block, searched all the houses and took out the able-bodied men. They shot some out of hand to terrorize the others. They took the rest to a concentration camp at Pruszkow from which those who survived the hunger and epidemics there were forwarded to Germany. No news had come back of their fate. The people of Praga could look across the river and see, from the explosions and the smoke, that the Germans were blowing up and burning the houses there. They knew that the people over there were also being driven to death camps or as slaves to Germany.

At the emergency city hall, a former high school, Stephanie explained the Nazi strategy behind this seemingly useless cruelty. “They intend to destroy Poland's future. They blow up our factories, they take the machines and equipment. All this we might rebuild. To reproduce a skilled working class takes much longer. And that's what the Germans destroyed.”

Many of the Poles in Lublin feared at this time that Warsaw could not serve as a capital for at least a decade. But this broken Praga – this fifth of Warsaw – felt and acted as a national capital. When I gave the candy workers the chance to ask questions about America, they did not ask, as had most people in Lublin, when UNRRA or the American Red Cross would send help; they asked: "When will America recognize us? What do the Poles in America think of those London Poles?"

Next on my program was a proud event. The “New Warsaw Symphony Orchestra,” gathered together from musicians scattered by five years of war, was holding its first concert at four o'clock at the city hall in honor of the visit of Vincente Rzmowski, chief of the "culture resort." Forty musicians sat on the stage in the assembly hall, middle-aged men and younger women wearing overcoats or sheepskins against the penetrating cold. Four rough gray telephone poles crisscrossed above them prevented the bomb-weakened walls from collapsing. Daylight was failing and the electric light was not working that evening. The audience was small, chiefly municipal employees and a few special guests, for at this hour most citizens were hurrying home or preparing in semidarkness the last meal of the day.

Never have I heard Chopin's "Polonaise" played as I heard it there. I never really knew the meaning of that word "Polonaise" before. Then as dark came on, until we couldn't see faces any more but only blurred forms against the pale windows, that old Polish greeting “Sto lat! Sto lat” –  may you live a hundred years and again and again a hundred – thundered out toward the stooped-shouldered, white-haired man with the baton who for the moment symbolized Polish national culture. Only afterwards did I learn that the score of the "Polonaise" and of the selections from the Polish national opera Halka had been written from memory by the director-conductor. There was no sheet music to be found in Poland.

“I did my best,” the fanatically devoted man told me, "but I can't remember every note. Some of the accompaniment is probably my own composition." He added incidentally that he had had to change the program just five minutes before starting because an important instrument was in a house shelled that afternoon.

Still later, and still more incidentally, I learned that Colonel Marion Spychalski, mayor of Warsaw-Praga, who had promised me an interview after the concert, had left the hall during the performance to organize the rescue of the people buried under the ruined house. He personally lifted timbers and helped pull out a man's dead body, four women uninjured except for shock, and a baby in perfect condition. When I met him two hours later at the banquet given by the Warsaw branch of the Democratic Party, neither his well-brushed uniform nor his lively manner betrayed his recent activities.

We sat in a tastefully appointed room adorned by beautiful paintings, the home of a member of the Democratic Party put at the organization's disposal to honor Vincente Rzmowski, also one of the members of that party. We enjoyed an exquisite repast, every course of which was chosen with sophistication. We toasted everybody in Poland and in the United Nations and gave to all Sto lat! Sto lat! – a hundred, hundred years. With especial warmth the guests gave three different toasts to America: to President Roosevelt, to "one of the world's oldest democracies," and to me personally as the first American who had come.

A young woman, leaning towards me, challenged: "You'll never be able to tell of our life in Poland! When you write it, it's not the same. I read an article about our underground and thought: 'It didn't really seem like that.' The risks and tragedy that the article told were real enough. But it couldn't tell how gay we were in defiance, what a kick we got from outwitting those Nazi beasts."

It was eleven o'clock when Spychalski finally led Stephanie and me to the cellar room in the City Hall which he shared with his adjutant, and said with resignation: “Now start that interview.” I took down a few words about how when the Red Army came in the people came out of the cellars and began to look for food, and how they cleaned old artesian wells and made emergency electric-power connections, because these utilities normally came from the other side of the river. The interview stopped right there because the Lord Mayor was dozing off in his chair while four worthy citizens waited in a corner to give him some more work.

So I asked Stephanie – it was the first time all day there had been time for it – where I was to sleep that night. The room to which she led me was in the same cellar but not nearly as snug as Spychalski's. His had been somewhat warmed by a stove and a succession of visitors, but my room offered only a newly washed cement floor, still damp, and cold, stiff sheets on an iron cot. I shivered in this underground cell. Stephanie invited me to her second-floor quarters to warm up before going to bed; when I saw her tiny room with its cot, table, and two chairs, I shamelessly coveted the Holland stove whose cooling tiles still slightly warmed the air.

"Can't we move my bed up here?" I ventured. Stephanie seemed pleased by my choice, but felt it her duty to explain that cellar rooms were safer for honored visitors in view of the almost nightly shelling,

“Rheumatism is certain in that cellar,” I rejoined, "while German shells are only a chance." A slim chance at that, I judged, since Stephanie had survived three months on the second floor with the loss of only one windowpane. We brought up my bed, which just filled the remaining space. Stephanie remarked – I filed it for reference – "Whenever you come to Warsaw, this is your bed."

So it was Stephanie who told me how the Polish First fought its way to Praga and how the ruined city came to life. We talked through the night by the light of a single candle on the table between us, waiting for the German shells to fall. Stephanie had come with the army all the way. She had taken part in two river crossings, the forcing of the Bug into Poland, and the still more dramatic forcing of the Vistula at Pulawy.

"There are different ways of forcing a river – by artillery or by surprise. We forced the Bug by artillery; my detachment came afterwards with little fighting to do. At Pulawy we threw troops over secretly at night. The enemy saw us at dawn and the battle for the Vistula began. We had primitive rafts of all kinds – barn doors with barrels under them. Enemy machine-gunning is bad when you're on water, just standing on a board with no place to go.

"I was on the east shore sending boats over and receiving them back. All the artillery hit square at us there. We dug in about six yards from the shore; for a time we could move neither forward nor back. Men fell all around me and it was impossible to send the wounded away. So I rolled up my uniform sleeves and began to look after them. We held and extended the bridgehead. But we lost many men in those five days."

The Dombrowski Division, in which Stephanie fought, was then withdrawn from Pulawy and sent into Praga. "We did not fight in the taking of Praga; we came in as second line on the fourth day. All the way we could see the signs of the fierce fighting. I saw ten Red Army tanks piled up around a single enemy pillbox. You know what those pillboxes were – practically all underground. To the tank driver it seems that only a single soldier opposes him. But underground is a whole fort supplied with food and an artesian well and plenty of munitions and antitank guns turning on a swivel. Those things were all over the approaches to Warsaw. They were murderous.

"The uprising was still going on across the river. We threw men over to help. But Bor's Home Army wouldn't even tell us where they were. They withdrew from contact. We lost many men in futile battles." When I pressed for details she referred me to General Korczyk. "He knows; he was sending them over. I myself was transferred at that time to civilian work under Spychalski."

Stephanie, I learned, was a Warsaw patriot. When she came into Praga, she threw herself at once into the mass meetings that the army's political workers were holding for the citizens. "We held them all over the city. I went to forty-five meetings in the first ten days. People came by thousands, assembling even under fire.

"The enemy was still close on the north, and the shooting was very much worse than now. Even to cross a main street you had to wait for a lull. But if you sent two soldiers to any part of town and announced a meeting, the people came even with children to hear. For five years they had known nothing of what went on in the world. They had only confused underground propaganda; they heard contradictory things about the Red Army and our new Polish Army. They came to hear what our Polish Army was fighting for. Then all over the city was one great weeping and singing the national anthem.

"My job in those meetings was to set up citizens' committees."

"How? By election?" I asked.

Stephanie laughed. "How can you elect when shooting goes on and houses fall and people flee from block to block? You dodge across streets and you hunt up active citizens and the ones that are willing to work. You get them to clearing streets and pulling folks from under fallen houses and cleaning wells. You start with half a dozen members and then you get a chairman and a vice-chairman. Then more people join and you begin to divide into sections: sanitation, provisioning, water, schools, relief. Then food comes from Lublin for you to distribute and so your citizens' committees have power! Later the City Hall appoints food distributors, and your citizens' committees have a new function; they criticize and report.

“For instance, in one ward the bread wasn't tasty. The committee went to learn why. They found that the baker was sifting the flour and selling the finest part on the black market, keeping the coarser part for the rationed bread. They raised a row, and the city food administration got another baker.”

She was telling how community life grows out of chaos. So I pressed her to go on. "Well, the ward committees find that they can't keep track of everything, of the houses that fall, and the people that arrive, and the refugees to be fed. So they start house committees and block committees. Now at last we have time to elect. The house and block committees are elected by the tenants. Life is settling into form.

"The biggest single job of our house committees was getting in the winter potato supply. Our central authorities in Lublin gave Praga the right to collect a certain amount of potatoes as part of the general food levy. The peasants were willing to give but not to transport; they said they had no horses. We called on our house committees to dig up the best go-getters in town. We sent out fifty – the kind that would walk fifteen miles on the chance of finding a horse. When they got the potatoes to depots, Spychalski had army trucks bring them in."

So Stephanie came to her job as right-hand woman for Warsaw's mayor. Her admiration for Spychalski dates back to prewar days when he was an architect-engineer in the city-planning department, and she was a factory worker, active in civic- affairs. "Spychalski also helped plan Poznan," she told me, "but Warsaw is his own home town. He knows and loves every stone and corner. It stabs him almost physically to see across the river how the Germans blow those fine buildings up."

It was clear that she was growing sleepy. Under my prodding she produced a few last facts. The house committees had drawn up the draft lists for army mobilization. They hunted up buildings for schools. At the moment they had launched a "Christmas gifts for soldiers" campaign, visiting every tenant. "If they can't give big things like scarves or mittens, maybe they can give paper for soldiers to write letters home."... Yes, it was really a community growing from chaos.

Stephanie sensed something of what I felt for she said drowsily, half asleep as the candle guttered out: "All these sections and committees grew up in a month. We have two thousand house committees now in Praga. When you are fighting over them you don't think you are getting anywhere, but when you sum it up like this, you see how much it is. Maybe it's a good thing you came to Praga to make me list what we have done."

It was after two when we went to sleep, but Stephanie aroused me before it was light. Praga lived from seven in the morning till three in the afternoon. Frost had fallen in the night; there was thick ice in the yard. By the time we had finished bread and coffee – my powdered Washington flavoring my hostess's ersatz – the City Hall was crowded with shivering, shabby, but determined citizens. The municipal officials were receiving them at plain deal tables, a dozen such "bureaus" in each large room.

A windowpane fell into a room as we entered, shaken loose by the shelling of that house the day before. The city auditor moved his chair from the draft, shivered, and continued work. The woman in charge of kindergartens investigated the chances of pasting over the hole. Two women at the food-rationing table, stacking up food cards in four colors, looked at the broken window and bragged: “We got all the potatoes for school lunches and teachers' rations distributed yesterday before the frost.”

Across the yard I visited a fifth grade school class assembled in the teacher's own room. Her bed had been shoved into a corner to accommodate two rows of desks with sixteen children. Behind the teacher were the blackboard, the Polish eagle, two crossed national flags, and a "Jesus of the Sacred Heart" More than half the children had seen their fathers taken away by the Germans; one child's mother had been taken, too. They were all thrilled to know that I was from America, but since no geography had been taught under the Germans, they had little idea where America was, though one boy knew it as a "big land over the sea." They knew that America was an "ally"; one girl guessed "Churchill" as its president, but a boy said firmly "Roosevelt," which won the support of the class. They knew that Russia lay to the east, for the Red Army came from there.

A few blocks down, I called at the ward headquarters of a citizens' committee and recognized the chairman as a man I had met at the festive supper the previous evening. Vincente Cudny was no postwar upstart. A steady citizen, living for forty years in the same street in Praga, he had headed the "citizens' guard of the fourteenth ward" in the first World War under the Russian Tsar. He was the natural neighborhood choice for chairman of a committee which included an engineer, a doctor, a professor, four industrial workers, and several women among its ten members.

Cudny's committee ran a food kitchen supplying three thousand meals daily; it had distributed tens of thousands of pounds of dry products. "Our hardest job is finding rooms for bombed-out families," sighed Cudny. "We've done fairly well. We rehoused thirteen hundred families in this ward in two months." He climbed into an open jeep and set off for Lublin in zero weather on business connected with Praga's food supply.

My own jeep zigzagged down Washington Allée towards the Poniatowski Bridge, turning up one side street and down the next. I was bound for the Polish Army's front-line positions, in the ruined houses on the riverbank. “We don't stay on the main boulevard any longer than we can help,” explained the young captain who was taking me around. “It points straight towards the enemy positions.”

Turning to the left we parked not far from the river in the shelter of some battered houses. People of wealth and culture had lived here for the river view; this was evident from the beautiful yellow tiles scattered on the pavement and across the frost-killed garden through which we gingerly picked our way towards the shore, and from the grand piano that had toppled from a second floor into the street. Behind broken walls and shattered windows were still some livable rooms, for artillery fire is hit or miss.

Two old women came from one of the houses. The captain gave them a casual glance. "Civilians were ordered to leave the river front last September but what can you do when they stay? We aren't Germans. We chased out the young folks and the families, but these old people can't work and have no place to go. They'd rather die at home than move. When shelling is bad, they hide in cellars."

At one place we had to walk a block in the open, sheltered only by a thin mist of leafless bushes. The captain threw his khaki-colored raincoat over my dark blue overcoat, remarking: "We're under enemy observation here. They're quiet lately and not likely to waste ammunition on stray soldiers, but your coat might make a sniper take you for a high-up officer." A couple of rifle shots ricocheted down the street in a desultory way just as we left it.

The artillery observation post was on the roof of a four-story villa. We bent low lest the enemy spot us over the shoulder-high parapet. Through a hole in the wall I looked with field glasses over the river. Except for the smoke of destruction it was hard to detect any activity. The artillery observer pointed out some debris between the first two bridge piers on the opposite shore – the bridge was gone but its end supports remained.

"That's a double machine-gun nest. Shall we send them one?"

“Sure,” said I, returning the field glasses.

So we sent not one but four, and every shot was plainly visible to the naked eye. I was looking through a broken gap between bricks. The observer was looking through field glasses marked with little black lines of a scale. He made corrections into a telephone, saying words like: "Right, zero, zero, two." After he spoke we heard the rumble of a mortar far behind us – they said it was a couple of miles off – and then the faint psh-psh in the air high above us and then the explosion over the river as the bomb struck. The fourth shot hit smack on the target. A cloud of fragments rose between the piers.

"Come down now," said the captain, "for the enemy will answer." He took me downstairs, but the observer stayed in his fourth-floor room because he disdained cellar air. He'd been lucky so far, though I saw that his doors and windows were patched over a score of bullet holes.

While the “enemy answered” with a rain of mortar bombs and a popping of rifles along the river, I visited dugouts and tunnels. The big earthen levee, built in peaceful days to restrain the Vistula floods, made a wartime place for machine-gun emplacements and underground quarters for the crews. Crouching low, I crept by tunnel clear through the levee to its outer face above the river, where a machine gun pointed through a small aperture at the enemy. There was nothing between me and the Germans now but the Vistula and air.

"We don't fire this in daytime lest the enemy spot it."

When the enemy fire died down we dodged our way out again, more carefully now because the Germans were alert and sent several shots more or less in our direction. In one house the captain took me upstairs on a personally conducted mountain climb over debris in the halls and smashed fixtures of a once lovely bathroom to get the best view of the full length of the famous Poniatowski Bridge. Its entire middle, blown up by the Germans the previous September, lay, a tangled mass of iron scrap, in the river bed. Great sections jutted out from either shore. From the highest, farthest, jagged girders on our side of the river – to which it seemed only an expert structural ironworker could raise them under the calmest of conditions – floated two challenging white-red flags.

"Two of our boys went out with them the night before November 11th, our Independence Day. It was a tough job, for there's a lot of loose iron that rattles at a touch. Dawn showed them flying. The Germans have fired at them ever since, but can't bring them down."

The detachment headquarters were a few blocks back from the river in a couple of rooms whose broken windows were made weather-tight by boards. Four large gaudy oil paintings of an absent owner looked down on miscellaneous war trappings while I chatted over tea with a dozen young officers of the battalion. They were gay daredevils, indulging in pranks against the enemy while awaiting the next serious offensive.

"The Germans worry a lot about the coming offensive," one said. "They're always expecting us to start across the river. One night we made a lot of barges of straw and set them drifting towards Warsaw. The Germans sank them with fierce fire. Probably they didn't know till morning on what they had wasted their ammunition."

The funniest story was about the Miaow-101. The Germans had threatened – both sides had radio megaphones through which they shouted – that they would send their V-1 (pronounced Fow-1) and knock Praga off the map. The Poles replied: "Wait till you see ours!" That night they took four cats, tied bags of dried peas to their tails, and chased them over the "Poniatowski Bridge" – that is, its iron wreckage in the river. The cats and peas rattled bravely on the loose iron; the enemy shot wildly. Two cats were killed, the others got over. Then the Poles roared over the megaphone: "That's our Miaow-101!"

The oldest officer present, a colonel, had been soldiering twenty-five years. “I've fought five major wars: the first World War, the China War, the Spanish War, the Finnish War, and this one. This is my first chance to fight for my own country, Poland.”

The youngest soldier present was Edmund Kopij, a kid of thirteen, whose mother was killed by a bomb and whose father enlisted, bringing his son.

"What do you do in the army?"

"Shoot," he said with pride.

"He's a messenger," explained the captain, "and a very brave one, carrying out all orders even under fire. He's a spunky imp. He hiked the whole way from the Bug to the Vistula and never once asked for a lift." He added that many such youngsters came to the army trying to join and, when there was no one else to look after them, the army took them and put them in an army school.

With dry, unwinking eyes this youngster told me his aim in life was to kill Germans to avenge his mother. He had no idea that he was a tragic figure robbed of childhood. When I asked what he intended to be when the war was over, he replied in a shrill, childish treble just one word, "Officer!"

I had assumed that the front was stabilized, that the broad Vistula was a complete barrier to any activity except exchange of shells. A young lieutenant surprised me. "Too bad you weren't here last night. A bunch went over the river to capture a 'tongue' – an enemy seized for information."

How could men cross to the other side when searchlights flared at the slightest sound? He explained that their guide was an old fisherman with lifelong experience in noiseless night boating. The officer in charge was a Pole who had served in the German Army under compulsion and had deserted to the Poles with his German uniform and his knowledge of German routine. They crossed without incident and went stealthily along the shore until they met a German sentry. Without awaiting his challenge, the Polish officer himself barked: "Halt, wer geht?" Caught off guard, the sentry hesitated, giving them time to seize him and gag him with a first-aid package, which admirably fits in the mouth. On the way back to the boat they met two more Germans and had to shoot their way out. This started the searchlights playing but they managed a speedy getaway.

"Was it worth it? Did he talk?"

"Sure did! Not only to us but to the whole German Army. He told his pals over our megaphone that they were fools to keep on fighting. We sent him to the rear later."

The boys swung the talk to America. The captain would willingly have discussed modern American literature. He knew the works of Dreiser, of Upton Sinclair, as well as more classic writers. He flattered me by recalling my own books on China. He was a well-read modernist; but the younger fellows wanted to guy me about America.

"Don't they teach geography in America? Don't Americans know where Poland is? Poland is not over there in that London fog! Poland is here, fighting on the freezing Vistula."

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