Haunting memories 70 years after Warsaw Uprising

On Friday, a group of insurgents will be honored in state ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of
In this photo taken Tuesday, July 8, 2014, Kazimierz Mikos, 84, shows an area, now a pavement, that served as burial ground for fighters and civilians killed in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in Warsaw, Poland.
In this photo taken Tuesday, July 8, 2014, Kazimierz Mikos, 84, shows an area, now a pavement, that served as burial ground for fighters and civilians killed in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in Warsaw, Poland.

WARSAW, Poland — Kazimierz Mikos ran down a Warsaw street, zig-zagging to avoid the bullets that whizzed past him. As the 14-year-old ran for his life, he was struck with terror at the sight of a dead body in the street. Even after the scrape with death, the teen volunteered for a heroic Polish struggle against the Nazis — becoming a messenger and a guard.

On Friday, Mikos will be among a shrinking group of insurgents to be honored in state ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. In this uneven struggle, poorly armed young city residents rose up against the German forces that had brutally occupied Poland for five years, battling them in the streets of the capital for over two months.

Mikos, now 84, still vividly recalls the white-and-red Polish flags that appeared in windows on the day the revolt began, a patriotic sign of support for the fighters that inspired him to join them.

“People waited for this moment for five long years,” Mikos said, tears welling as he shared his story with The Associated Press. “They believed they would be free now, they were enthusiastic.”

The hopes ended tragically.

The insurgents were no match for the Nazis, who turned their professional army and superior weaponry on the Poles, killing 200,000 fighters and civilians and razing the city in revenge. The revolt also failed in its goal of reversing Allied political calculations that put Poland under Soviet domination for decades after World War II.

Today the uprising is remembered by Poles as one of the most important moments in a long history of independence struggles, often against Russia. The courage of the fighters remains a defining memory in the Polish image of itself as a nation willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. It is also a reminder of Poland’s sense of a precarious security, sandwiched between Germany and Russia — a vulnerability revived now by the armed conflict nearby in Ukraine.

Warsaw’s revolt began Aug.1, 1944, by the clandestine Home Army, which acted on orders from Poland’s government-in-exile in London.

The aim was to free the capital from German occupiers and take control of the country ahead of the advancing Soviet army. Moscow, intending to rule postwar Poland, withheld help and kept its Red Army positioned on the other side of the Vistula River as the capital bled and burned.

Thousands of poorly armed insurgents, mostly with little military training, held on for 63 days in the cut-off city, inflicting heavy losses on the well-armed and trained German troops before being forced to surrender.

The Nazis expelled the survivors from Warsaw and set the remaining buildings ablaze.

For over four decades, communist authorities discredited Warsaw’s struggle, mainly because of its anti-Soviet motivation. The communists jailed many of the fighters and sentenced their commanders to death on fabricated charges, dumping their bodies unceremoniously in unmarked mass graves. Only now are some of these bodies finally being recovered.

Mikos feels lucky he avoided that fate. But like most young people who fought in the revolt, he encountered obstacles in his studies. He had to settle for a career as a high school math teacher in Warsaw, his higher ambitions blocked by the authorities.

Until the fall of communism in 1989 there was also censorship surrounding the subject, which led the Poles to mythologize it more. But 25 years into democracy some people are now questioning the wisdom of the revolt. Ahead of the 2011 anniversary, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called it a “national catastrophe,” an unusual public statement that angered many, including former insurgents.

Mikos said he sometimes also thinks that Warsaw’s ruin was an excessive price to pay. He remembers the suffering of the people and he bemoans the ruin of a city of classical beauty, with Parisian-styled buildings and charming star-shaped squares. After the war, the city was rebuilt in a heavy, communist architectural style, with recent additions of Western-style glass-and-metal skyscrapers.

“No, it was not worth it,” he said. “Warsaw was the jewel of the North. It was a city with character, with style. It was an exceptional place. Today, it is just like any other city in the world.”

Still, he feels the rebellion was unavoidable. The people of Warsaw were ready for sacrifice after years of brutal subjugation and mass killings. Hitler wanted Warsaw destroyed anyway, he says. The city would have eventually suffered in battles between the Germans and the Soviets.

Mikos recently walked with an AP reporter down Sienna Street, in the city center where insurgents had their headquarters and where some of the gray buildings survived the war. He pointed to gateways where he stood guard and took cover during bombings, and to an iron-barred balcony where a caged parrot once shrieked “Alarm, Alarm,” giving a scare to everyone in the street.

He believes his level-headedness saved some lives. On one occasion, a younger boy reached out to take Mikos’ hand grenade. In the scuffle, the securing pin came loose and fell. Everyone panicked, but Mikos said: “Find the pin, I’m holding the lever.” The pin was put back in place, preventing an explosion.

The worst part was that there was no water, which the Germans had cut off. Wells were dug and the fighters had priority of access. But regular hygiene was impossible.

The insurgents mainly ate soup made of beans or barley found in German storage, won in house-to-house battles. The residents soon stopped offering the fighters their own supplies, too hungry themselves to spare anything.

The brutality and the devastating power of that struggle, he said, “surpassed the imagination of … anyone who knows about armies and fighting.”

“It was decided that the city must be defended. It was unavoidable.”

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