Every year, August 1, as the clock strikes 5 p.m. (the ‘W’ hour, with ‘W’ standing for Warsaw) alarm sirens sound all over Poland. Everyone stops, even cars and buses freeze for one minute. In that one moment Poles are united, no matter what their political sympathies are. That is the minute of silence for the victims, survivors and heroes of the Warsaw Uprising.
At five o’clock on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising broke out. After almost five years of the Nazi German occupation Poles had their moment of hope and freedom. Hope – because the uprising was timed to coincide with the withdrawal of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance. Freedom – as it was the first time since the beginning of war when they could proudly and openly keep Polish flags on the streets.
The main objective was to liberate Warsaw and welcome the Red Army into a city freed from the occupants, presenting the Polish Home Army and the Polish Underground State as the “hosts” and powers, which could have a great political impact in the post-war world. Additionally, the commanders of the Uprising were afraid that the already-despaired inhabitants of Warsaw would spontaneously rebel against the German forces, which would lead to even greater massacre.
Initially, the Poles were able to establish control over most of central Warsaw and after the intensive fights appeared likely to succeed. However, because of the lack of the permission to use the Soviet air base five-minutes flying time away and any other external support the Polish resistance began to be crushed. It is estimated that about 16,000 members of the resistance movement were killed, and between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians died, mostly from mass executions. In the Wola massacre between 40,000 and 50,000 Poles in the Wola suburb of Poland’s capital city Warsaw were murdered. One of them, Wanda Lurie, later called ”the Polish Niobe” survived the execution while heavily pregnant, witnessing 3 children – age 11, 6 and 3 – killed. After almost three days, laying between the dead bodies, completely helpless, she felt the kick of her preborn child and miraculously found the strength to stand up and go away to give birth. The Wola massacre was ordered by Hitler, who, furious because of the Uprising, directed to kill “anything that moves”.
The Warsaw Uprising ended on October 2, 1944, after 63 days, when the Poles – out of arms, supplies, food, and water – were forced to surrender. Almost the entire remaining Warsaw population was deported, mostly to the concentration camps, in which many of them, including little children, died out of hunger, disease and extremely hard labor. Over 85% of the city became destroyed and left practically empty.
A few years ago, I was honored to interview one of very few still living members of the Polish Home Army, who played an important role in the Warsaw Uprising. “Whether to let the Uprising break out was like a Greek tragedy, every decision would be tragic. I couldn’t escape, I was a soldier” – he told me. “What would we do now?” – this question immediately crossed my mind, as I was looking at him and thinking about the decisions they had to make.
Nowadays, in Poland, we sometimes face debates whether the insurgents had the chance to succeed, we discuss ‘alternative’ versions of the history and ask questions about the impact of the Uprising on the generations to come. But the most important point of that day remains clear – to pay tribute to the heroes and victims – those who believed that freedom is worth paying the highest prize. And maybe to repeat the prayer, spoken already so many times in history: “please, let it never happen again”.