Thursday, 22 January 2015

Love in the Ruins of Warsaw

     "Most of us had some sort of psychological problem at the time. I used to suffer blackouts. Both of my brothers were in the Resistance. I remember walking along a street in Warsaw when a van drove up with blood leaking from it. Some stranger hustled me away into a side street. I was only fifteen."
     That story was told to me just over forty years ago by a Polish lady whose daughter I was dating. You don't know how lucky you are. By the end of the war, 85% of the city had been destroyed. Bloody were those days, and unholy their secrets.
      I could tell you about how an R.A.F. Halifax with a Polish crew was forced to turn back their flight to Poland half-way through because of icing. Unfortunately, they were completely unable to contact those members of the Resistance waiting for them in an open field, where the temperature was forty degrees below zero. The latter were found the next morning, frozen to death, their bodies arranged in V-formation in one last great act of defiance.
     Instead, I shall relate the story of a love affair forged in the crucible of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of the previous year, this was staged by the Polish Home Army while the approach of the Red Army was imminent. For the two terrible months of August and September they held out. But one thing Stalin did not want was an independent, patriotic ie non-Communist administration in the capital. He deliberately held back the Red Army until the rebellion was crushed, and ever after that the Communists excoriated their memory.
     The result was, when the Poles finally threw off the Soviet yoke after four and a half decades, one of the first things they did was erect this monument to the Uprising, depicting the patriots emerging from the sewers which they use as egress into the city.
     And just before the Uprising began, who should be parachuted into the outskirts of the city but Lieutenant Jan Novak, who threw himself into the fray with a bravery and resourcefulness which served as an inspiration for them all? In no time at all he found himself fighting side by side with a pretty, dark-eyed girl in her late teens called Liet Jadwiga. It is a proven fact that adrenalin is a powerful aphrodisiac when shared by two people of the opposite sex with similar personalities. For the rest, I cannot summarise the sequel better than by quoting directly from my source.
     It was during the last days of Warsaw's agony that Jan asked Liet to marry him. Theirs was no "quiet wedding." They were married in a chapel in the front line on which German artillery fire was concentrated. Standing before the riven altar, they plighted their troth to the scream and crunch of shells and the sound of falling masonry. Over the murmurings of the priest rose the moans of the wounded and the dying and their wedding march thundered from the barrels of guns. There was no reception, no wedding breakfast. A quick embrace and man and wife were back in the front line. As the German barrage increased in intensity, the patriots were driven more and more deeply into the rubble of their city. Warsaw was doomed.
     A last meeting of the underground leaders was summoned. Jan Novak was chosen to leave at once for London with papers of vital importance. He had been wounded in the arm and the secret documents were hidden under the bandages. For his journey, he was given forged papers which stated that he was a skilled, security-screened Polish worker employed by the Germans. He had been wounded in the battle and had orders to proceed to a hospital in the Reich for treatment.
     Together he and Liet set out. Their escape route was by way of the only exit from Warsaw - the sewers. Wading hand-in-hand through foul water and slime and filth that often rose shoulder high, they accomplished the first part of their journey and came out in the clean air outside the stricken city. They got two third class seats in a German train trundling to the West. The train had two functions. It carried its passengers from Poland to Berlin. But it also served as a mobile theatre, stopping to schedule so that the occupants could watch the terrible pantomime of the execution of Polish patriots. With fiercely woven hands, Jan and Liet watched in silence and in prayer.
     Some miles outside Berlin, the couple left the train.With only a tiny pocket compass to guide them, they started walking in the direction of the advancing Allied armies. They avoided all towns, making their way stealthily and by night. Time and time again, they were halted, questioned and grudgingly allowed to go on. In all, they covered a distance of more than five hundred miles before they ran into an Allied patrol. From then on, their journey was swift. The bandages, filthy and blood-caked, were taken off Jan's arm in London and the papers, still intact, were handed over. Then, like a gramophone needle stuck in the groove of a familiar record, came the reiterated plea: "Please, we are wishing to be going again to Poland."
Reference: Jerrard Tickell (1956), Moon Squadron, Allan Wingate (pp 105-6 of the 1960 Hodder and Stoughton paperback. The reference to the V-formation was from p 88. This book is about the R.A.F. squadron which flew spies, saboteurs, and the like into occupied Europe.)

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