Here's What You Need to Know: The Uprising had lasted 63 days.
“This mission is suicidal,” thought Bogdan Mieczkowski. In the autumn of 1944, the 19-year-old Polish resistance fighter battled in the Warsaw Uprising. Poles, although outnumbered and outgunned, rebelled against Nazi Germans who overran western Poland and seized the capital city. Mieczkowski’s unit now mounted an offensive to allow trapped comrades to escape from Warsaw’s Old Town section, where a Nazi counteroffensive pinned them down. With just eight soldiers and armed only with hand grenades, Mieczkowski thought they risked slaughter.
Two Polish engineers placed dynamite next to a wall separating them from the Germans and then ran across the street. An explosion blasted a hole in the wall, emitting an enormous dust cloud, and Mieczkowski and the others scurried through the opening. As they ran, a German machine gun opened fire. Mieczkowski felt his right arm jerk violently, and brick shards struck his upper thigh as bullets ripped out pieces of the wall, turning them into projectiles. “I hit the ground and looked at my hand. Instead of my right thumb, a flap of skin was hanging in its place,” Mieczkowski said. He had to continue fighting—only now he was bleeding profusely, his right thumb sliced off and leg pierced by shrapnel. World War II, which had devastated his family and the life he knew, was becoming deadlier every minute.
War Begins in Poland
Before the war began, Mieczkowski was enjoying his teenage years in Bydgoszcz, a city of 150,000 in northwestern Poland. He had older and younger brothers, Zbigniew and Janusz, and their mother Aniela was a devout Catholic who read voraciously and loved to play the family’s grand piano. The family patriarch, Tadeusz, had gone to America to study engineering at Chicago’s Armour Institute. After earning his degree in 1915, Tadeusz returned to Poland and parlayed his U.S. education into business success, co-owning a thriving construction company that had two brick-making plants in Bydgoszcz, plus other factories and storage depots nearby.
Tadeusz’s success as an industrialist allowed the family to live in comfort. They owned a large, five-bedroom house, employed a cook and domestic servant, and had two cars, including an American-built Willys Overland. The family vacationed along the Baltic Sea during summers and took winter retreats in the Carpathian Mountains, where Tadeusz owned a small hotel.
On September 1, 1939, distant explosions signaled an end to this idyllic lifestyle. On that day, Bogdan was at his dentist’s office. From far away came rumbling, like thunder. Although he didn’t know it, those sounds marked the start of World War II. Also unaware of what the booms meant, the dentist arranged another appointment with Mieczkowski. Neither of them would keep it. (Mieczkowski later learned that the Gestapo arrested and tortured his dentist, releasing him to die within just two weeks.)
The significance of those sounds soon became clear. Just nine days earlier, on August 23, 1939, Germany and Russia had signed a nonaggression pact. The treaty removed German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s worry about a conflict with the Soviet Union and allowed the two nations to forge a secret agreement to divide Poland. On September 1, Germany smashed through the country, and two days later, Britain declared war on Germany. Because larger, hostile countries traditionally bordered Poland, invasions and annexations so bedeviled its past that one aphorism said that Poland “had no history, just neighbors.” As if to prove that adage true, on September 17 the Soviet Union invaded and occupied the country’s eastern half. This new aggression doomed Poland, which was attacked by Germany to the West and the USSR to the East; in effect, the country had been stabbed both front and back.
For millions of Poles, World War II meant injury, death, and destruction of the lives they once knew. So it was for the Mieczkowskis. The Nazis overran Bydgoszcz, killing especially upper-class citizens, and Tadeusz was a prominent target. For safety, the family fled the city in their Willys Overland, abandoning everything else they owned. The threat of German strafing was everywhere, and as they traveled they saw burning houses, dead livestock, and soon, bodies. The family reached Kobryn, where Tadeusz’s sister lived, a city that seemed peaceful, giving the sense that there was no war. But the illusion soon ended. After two days, county officials decided to evacuate families on a bus. With gasoline now scarce, the Mieczkowskis left their car and joined the exodus.
At a roadblock, a civilian dressed in black and wearing a red armband boarded the bus. He told the driver to proceed to Brest, where the bus stopped at a jailhouse. Two Soviet tanks stood in front—a brutal reminder that they were now in the Soviet-occupied zone of Poland. Once inside the jail, Mieczkowski and his family saw more black-clad civilians, all wearing red armbands. They were processing a long line of Polish policemen, whom the Soviets singled out for harsh treatment—likely, forced labor in the Gulag—because they represented Polish authority, which they were abolishing. On the second floor, the Mieczkowskis joined other civilians and spent the night, sleeping on the bare floor. In the morning, Bogdan could hear the cries of men being tortured, and he saw a police officer’s wife hastily shredding his uniform to protect his identity and prevent him from being beaten; her husband hid under a blanket, fearing discovery.
The Mieczkowski family got lucky. Taduesz and Aniela were middle-aged parents with three teenage boys, and their captors released them. The next step was to keep moving. The family feared deportation to Siberia if they stayed in Brest and, moreover, conditions there were intolerable: food was in short supply, people were displaced (many sleeping in the railroad station), and more arrests were taking place. They decided to brave German and Soviet border guards and go to Warsaw, a metropolis where they could seek refuge with one of Aniela’s relatives and blend with its more than million residents. Arriving in late November 1939, Bogdan and his family began a transient existence.
Living Under German Occupation
Amid tumultuous change, Mieczkowski had to refocus his priorities and adapt. Whereas most teenagers worry about school, he lost the 1939-1940 academic year and still had two years of junior high plus all of high school to complete. The Germans wanted to prevent Poles from studying beyond the elementary level, but Polish teachers convinced them that an educated Polish work force would redound to the Third Reich’s glory. In this way, trade schools stayed open, and Mieczkowski completed junior high. High school was trickier. Warsaw Poles devised an underground educational system in which small groups of students and teachers—numbering just a half dozen so as not to arouse suspicion—met furtively, usually at the apartment of a teacher or student. This secret schooling allowed Mieczkowski to finish his secondary education, earning no diploma but gleaning enough knowledge that he hoped to enter a university when the war ended.
Earning money was even more important. Stripped of his construction empire, Tadeusz pawned family watches and jewelry and became a partner in a second-hand store. He used an alias to remain incognito, and to disguise his appearance, he grew a beard and used different glasses. Bogdan worked in a delivery business, shoe-making plant, toy manufacturing facility, and agricultural seed factory, and he rolled cigarettes for pay. The earnings brought only subsistence living, and the family ate meat just once or twice a year. Like his father, Bogdan learned to blend into the environment to avoid attracting attention. He recalled, “I did not wear any signs that might inspire curiosity—no rings, no military-style cavalry boots, no prewar high school uniform, nothing to indicate that I was anything but a poor, undernourished boy.”
Joining the Resistance
He also joined the resistance movement, helping to distribute an underground newspaper, wholesaled by a married couple who owned a small Warsaw grocery store. This was dangerous: had the Germans caught him carrying the newspaper, the result would have been torture and death. Two months after Mieczkowski began courier work, he was walking to the store to pick up his load of contraband papers when he noticed the place was shuttered, marked with a piece of paper carrying a German eagle and swastika. He briskly walked past the storefront, pretending to be oblivious but surmising that the couple had been caught and executed.
Although it offered hope and tested the Poles’ will to survive, resistance carried perils—as did everyday life. The brutality of the German occupation helped to explain why Poland had the highest casualty rate of any European country during World War II. The Germans viewed Poles as one of mankind’s lowest groups, a subhuman race like Gypsies and Jews, and they held Polish life in dim regard. “To be a Pole was almost—but not quite—the most unfortunate thing a person could be in World War II,” historian James Stokesbury has commented. In Warsaw, Nazi snipers picked off men, women, and children, and Germans also snatched Poles from the streets, torturing and killing them or sending them to concentration camps. Aniela hosted a couple from Bydgoszcz who also sought shelter in Warsaw, and one evening the husband decided to stroll outside just before the night curfew began. He never returned. In this way, the Nazis instilled fear among the Poles, patrolling the city and abducting residents. Once, a German patrol stopped Bogdan on a street. An officer frisked him and removed a wad of papers. Luckily, they were letters he was delivering to a German agricultural office, and the officer let him go.