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Chapter 5: The Uprising

The liberation of Warsaw was nearing. The question as to who would be the liberator  became a matter of great political importance and prestige. Armia Krajowa, loyal to the Polish government in exile,  made extensive preparations for an uprising against the Germans. This was planned to take place when the Soviet Army reached Warsaw. Armia Krajowa  assumed that the rapid progress of the Soviets would bring prompt relief to the struggling insurgents. This assumption, however, was not backed by any agreement or coordination. On the contrary, as the Soviet Army approached Poland, relationships  between  the Polish government in exile and Stalin deteriorated. The break was complete on July 22nd, 1944, when the Soviets created a communist Polish government in the first major Polish city  they liberated  - Lublin. On July 30, when the Soviet Army reached the eastern  outskirts of Warsaw, this section of the front line came to a standstill.

Tuesday, August 1, 1944. At 41 Marszalkowska Street we were alone. The Bajers had gone to the country,  leaving us enough food  for a few days.
We were not particularly surprised to hear the first shots and explosions. In occupied Warsaw there was nothing unusual about them.   As the sounds of  battle continued,  we  falsely assumed that the front line had just  began to  cross the  city, and that we were in the middle of  the liberation  process. This assumption was an expression of our wishful thinking, but was not realistic.  The River Vistula divides Warsaw  into two  parts:  the much  larger western part where we  lived,  and the  eastern borough of Praga. Two days earlier, the Soviets had still been at the  eastern approaches of Praga; they had not entered the city, and obviously,  could not yet have crossed the Vistula. In fact, the explosions we heard were the sounds of the Uprising against the Germans.  The street loudspeakers ceased to function, and with the Bajers away in the country, we had no information about what was going on.

For the past several months, Stella and her children had been living in Praga, and her visits had become less frequent. While battle raged in the streets, we certainly did not expect her to come. Nor did we see Jozek. He was now totally occupied with the Armia Krajowa, serving both as a surgeon and as the Deputy Commanding Officer of the No. 1 Field Hospital "Blaszanka".  The hospital opened in an old factory in the Powisle Czerniakowskie section of Warsaw. On August 22, the Commanding Officer of "Blaszanka", Dr. Piotr Załęski, was wounded and Jozek ("Dr. Przyzycki") took over his duties. Jozek spoke fluent German. On September 17, when the  hospital was captured by the Germans, he  conducted negotiations with their authorities,  and managed  to convince them that all the insurgents had left,  and the remaining patients were civilians and wounded German  soldiers. As a result, continuous operation of the hospital was  permitted until its evacuation on September 26. At that time, one of the nurses informed the Germans that Dr. Przyzycki was a Jew, and on September 27 he was murdered ("executed") in  the  back yard  of  the  students' dormitory  at Narutowicz Square.  While  all this was  happening,  we did  not know anything about  his whereabouts  or about  his involvement with the Armia Krajowa, because he had never told us anything about it.  An exhaustive  description  of  his  activities both  as Jozef Klinger (his  real name) and  as Jozef Przyzycki (his pseudonym) can be found in the rich documentary literature about the Warsaw Uprising. 4, 5, 6
The war raged in the streets. Everybody who was not fighting, went to  hide in  basement shelters.  We  remained on the second floor.  We did  not even  consider leaving the apartment without positive knowledge  that Warsaw  had indeed  been liberated  and that the  Germans had gone.  The Nazis would surely have killed us.  We took  our chances  with the  bombs and the bullets, and decided  to remain in hiding  until the fighting was over.  Our food  should suffice  for 3 or 4 days,  so we thought there would  be no  problem.  But as  the days  passed,  the cacophony of  war did not abate.  The shelling and street fighting increased  daily.  We began  to feel  the first  pangs of hunger.
We also began to feel more direct effects of the war. The bombardment intensified  and damage was  heavy and widespread. Our house suffered several hits. The roof was blown off. A gap was blown  in one of our walls,  and whenever rain fell,  we got wet. Our window-panes were all broken. Shrapnel and bullets hit our room.  On  one occasion  a bullet  pierced the wallet in the pocket  of  my  pants,  perforating  all  my  documents  and photographs, but, luckily, I was not injured. On another occasion, after a  night of  heavy shelling,  many pieces of shrapnel were found on the floor and imbedded in the wall opposite the window. One large piece landed neatly on my pillow, milimeters away from my head (Fig. 29). Yet strangely enough, none of this scared us. It seemed that we would be a little safer sleeping on the floor, close to the wall under the window, rather than in our beds.  So we put the mattresses on the floor, and slept near the wall. We did it for safety, by cold  calculation and without  any fear.  We  were afraid only  of being discovered and captured by the Nazis.  The flying bullets  were our  friends;  they brought  us the hope of liberation. And they did not injure any of us.

Fig 29
Fig. 29:  Shrapnel that hit my pillow, barely missing my head

God's personal interference? I am not religious. I believe in mathematical  equations,  chemical  formulas,  and  the  laws of physics and biology, not in metaphysical forces of any kind. But of one  million residents  of Warsaw,  most of them in shelters, 200,000 perished  during  the two  months of  the Uprising.  One fifth  of  the  population! Houses  around  us  were  hit  and destroyed,  some burned to the ground.  At the same time we were hiding  on  the second  floor of  an old  building,  exposed and being shelled from three sides. Shrapnel, scores of bullets and shreds of grenades  penetrated our  room and  caused a  lot of material damage.  Yet  none  of  us  suffered  any  injury.  Can this  be scientifically explained? (Fig. 30).

Fig 30
Fig. 30:  The front of our house faced the Savior's square, the left side Marszalkowska Street, the right side 6th of August Street. Shelling came from these three sides. Photograph taken 50 years later

Worse by far than the fear of shrapnel, was our hunger. Our food was supposed  to last for four days.  It lasted six.  Since we were confident that the street fighting would end shortly, we did not try to  save what little we had.  When we had finished all our food, we made  a thorough  search of  the kitchen cupboards.  We found some sugar,  some  saccharine pills  (for saving sugar,  not for diet - this was half a century ago!), some poppy-seeds,  a pound of peas,  and a bottle of vinegar.  We were not a very demanding group.  The simple  mixture of  dry poppy-seeds  and sugar would have made  us an excellent dessert,  had there been some dish to precede it.  But  there was nothing else,  so we ate that as the main dish. Tosia made a large amount of soup from the peas. This was supposed to last us for several days. Unfortunately, she did not  take  into  account  the  heat  of  mid-August. There were no electric refrigerators in Poland in 1944. Two days after it was made,  the  soup had  a very  unpleasant smell,  but we were hungry,  and ate it anyway.  The next day we all had diarrhea; mine was particularly severe and bloody. The following day, an incredible stench filled the kitchen,  and the remainder of the soup had to be thrown  out.  Thinking constantly  of food,  we  recalled the paper bags  filled with leftover bread which little Hania had not finished for lack of appetite, and which Mrs. Bajer refused to throw out  - the famous  "gifts of  God".  Those  leftovers, moldy and covered with dust, now became real gifts of God.  They were dry,  but  much  tastier  than  the  stinking  pea-soup,  and we consumed them  to the  last crumb.  It  is amazing to recall how tasty  they  were! Eventually,  there was  nothing edible  left.
As the days passed, we developed a kind of mental block. We were unable to talk or  think about anything other than food. I thought of eating while awake, dreamed of it while asleep. A particularly favorite  topic of  my dreams  concerned the dry salami sandwiches which  I had  eaten  in the  shelter in  June, 1941, when the Germans were  bombarding and approaching  Lwow.  I would have given years of  my life  for a slice of that salami.  In order to feel something  in  my  mouth,  I  began  to  suck the  corner of  my bedsheet, while imagining salami. But neither the sheet nor the dreams could provide calories.
Bowel movements became very irregular. My excrement consisted mostly of blood and mucus. Weakness began to overpower us all. Rising from a chair became a major effort. When I stood, I avoided sitting down,  realizing that after a while there would be a need  to rise again,  and this was so difficult...  Even more difficult was  rising from  lying position.  Therefore,  it  was better to  sit than to lie.  Looking in the mirror was scary:  I saw a  skeleton covered with pale skin,  and long,  unevenly cut hair - Gabriel's imperfect job as a barber.  My efforts with his hair were not much better.  We did not have scales,  therefore I can only  guess that my weight must have been at the most around 28 or 30 kg (60-65 lbs).
In the second half of September the exhaustion was almost beyond comprehension.  We all  lay in  bed,  disregarding the bullets, shrapnel and  explosions,  thinking obsessively about food.  The only thing left that could be put into our mouths and swallowed was the vinenegar and saccharin pills, which we had not yet consumed.  Tosia  put  the  saccharine  pills  into  the vinegar, stirred, and divided the potion into four small bottles. There were about 100 ml (a little over 3 ounces) in each bottle, and we each got our own "last supper".  Lying in bed and trying to raise the small  bottle  to  the  mouth demanded  an incredible  amount of effort. I had to use both my hands, in order not to drop it.  It was the  end of  September.  Our ordeal of starvation had lasted a full eight weeks.
The fighting continued with no end in sight. We did not even have a vague idea about the situation among the battling sides, or how much longer it might last.  It suddenly became clear that none  of us could survive another week.  We were  dying from starvation. We realized this simultaneously, and started talking about it.  Is  it really better to starve to death,  rather than risk being shot by the Nazis? Why continue to suffer?

September 30, 1944. While lying exhausted in bed, we deliberated about the possibility of disclosing ourselves to the neighbors, letting them know about our existence and starvation. Perhaps they would feed us, if they knew that we had not eaten a thing  in two months? Perhaps the Nazis would not  get us after all? And if they did, so what? We were dying anyway. The vote was unanimous. Everybody,  including me,  the youngest member of the assembly, not yet 15, voted for disclosure. Tosia,  the only one still able to walk, went on the diplomatic mission of making our presence known to the local residents.  How she was able to walk down three floors  to the basement,  and then back up again,  I will never understand. She had a heart illness from which she died a short  time after the war ended. But on that last day of September, she was the strongest of us all. She returned a few minutes later with three men of the "House Committee".
Looking at the pale skeletons we were,     unable even to rise from bed,  and seeing the degree of our emaciation,  they appeared to be in  shock.  They looked  at the bullet holes in the walls and expressed their  amazement at  our staying  in this second floor apartment,  without  any  protection,  without  any  food.  They assured us  that we were in "independent Poland", not under Nazi rule. The  apparent head of the group let us know that the Uprising was  near collapse,  and that the independence might not last much  longer,  but for  the moment  we had  nothing to fear. He seemed to have some knowledge and understanding of medicine, and explained to us the importance of sufficient fluid intake. He spoke about digestion,  and about the damage probably done to our gastrointestinal tracts. He was very kind, and had a calm, reassuring influence upon us. I never knew his name.  They left.
15 minutes later, the same man, head of the House Committee, returned alone and brought us a pound of flour, a pound of sugar and one small uncooked potato.  He apologized for the meagerness of the  food he brought and explained that the entire population of Warsaw  was starving.  This  was all he could give us for the moment.  However,  from now on we would participate with all the other house tenants in the regular distribution of food, however scarce.
Tosia, still the strongest of us all, started cooking. She sliced the potato and "fried" it in a pan on water, because no fat,  not even  a drop,  was  available.  Each of us got two slices.  Thin ones.  These were the tastiest potato slices I have eaten in my whole life - better even than the salami of my dreams. From the flour  and  water  Tosia  baked flat  bread, similar  to "pita",  which we  ate fresh.  For the next two days we received the same  starvation rations  as everybody else in the building. We were still hungry, very hungry, but we were no longer facing imminent death.

On October 2, 1944, after 63 days of heroic struggle, Armia Krajowa  surrendered  to the  Germans.  Under the  conditions of surrender, the whole population of Warsaw had to be evacuated. A transfer camp was established in Pruszkow, a few kilometers west of Warsaw. We were evacuated on October 4.

*     *    * 

In 1989, after four decades of absence, I came to Poland to attend a major Surgery Congress. I arrived in Warsaw in the last week  of  August.  I  took  a  taxicab  from  the  airport to  a prearranged private apartment at 10 Pulawska Street. This was 15 minutes walking distance away from the Savior's Square. From the windows of  my room  I could  see the two spike-shaped towers of the Savior's  Church.  I wanted  to see whatever remained of the places in  Warsaw still  fresh in  my memory,  but  it was  late evening,  I was  tired after the flight from Israel,  and I fell asleep instantly.  In  the morning  I went  toward the  Savior's Square, to the house at 41 Marszalkowska Street.  A new roof had been  built,  and  the  holes  and gaps  in the  walls had  been repaired,  but otherwise  the appearance of the building had not changed (Fig. 30). I stood there and thought about our “quartet” with whom I had spent almost two years. Tosia died from a heart disease  in  the 1940s.  Uncle  Gabriel died  from a  myocardial infarction in 1956. I knew nothing about Leszek.
I entered the building, walked up to the second floor and knocked  on the door of "our" apartment. An elderly lady, accompanied by her teenage granddaughter, opened the door. After introducing myself, I told her briefly the story of our hideaway in 1943-44. She let me see the apartment and our room. There was a novelty:  a modern bathroom with a tub.  In the living room I entered the  balcony, which had been so strictly forbidden 45 years earlier. Looking at the Savior's Church, for the first time from the forbidden balcony, with open space around me,  I felt chills going down my spine.
The lady did not know the Bajers, but she had heard about them. They were not alive. In the 1950s, Mr. Bajer had been riding on a crowded tram. He stood on the step,  holding firmly to a handle, as many  people in crowded trams do.  A passing car hit him,  he fell, and was killed. Mrs. Bajer died some years later. While we drank coffee,  the  lady suggested  that I  go down to the first floor,  to see  Doctor Mroczek.  "He is still living here",  she said. I explained that I never knew Dr. Mroczek; I lived in this house "illegally",  never met any neighbors,  and they never met me.  But the  lady insisted:  "You  should see  Dr.  Mroczek; he certainly remembers the Bajers with whom you lived.".  Well,  why not? I thanked  her for  letting me  see the apartment so deeply engraved in  my memory,  the  place for  which I  retained great sentiment.

On the first floor I noted a sign on the door:
Dr. Edmund Mroczek
After a short hesitation I knocked, and a young lady opened the door. I introduced myself, and she led me "to the granddad".  An aged, venerable man  was resting  on the  bed.  He insisted  on rising from  bed and meeting me at the table,  to which I helped him.  I told  him the story of our group hiding with the Bajers, our experiences during the Uprising and our starvation.  He told me about  some of  his experiences during the war and the German occupation. As we talked, it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen this man before. He was not a complete stranger. I do not know whether it was his voice,  or something in his eyes.  The more we conversed,  the more I heard his voice,  the stronger my impression became, until in a sudden flash of insight I realized that this was the man who had brought us the potato, sugar and flour while we were starving! There  was  no  doubt  in my  mind.  Returning to  the subject  of  the Uprising,  I  tried to  remind him  our "potato episode". He did not remember it, but he confirmed my impression that it  was he who had regulated food distribution and other house affairs during the Uprising.  It was a very emotional moment.  I felt  very  grateful to  the woman  from the  second floor,  who had convinced me, not without some difficulty, to meet Dr. Mroczek. I could have missed him so easily!

My first trip to Poland was extremely rewarding. I met old friends whom I had not seen for 40 years. I visited many places highly significant  to  me.  I  attended an  excellent clinical congress,  established  important  connections  with  the leaders of surgery in  Poland,  many of  whom became  my friends,  and much more. But just meeting Dr. Mroczek,  this humble,  yet venerable man, would have made my entire trip worthwhile.
During the following years I became a frequent visitor to Poland.  In the course of each visit I go on a pilgrimage to the house at 41 Marszalkowska Street.  I do not enter any apartment; there is no need to bother the lady on the second floor,  or Dr. Mroczek. I only want to see the staircase, the entrance door to "our" apartment, and Dr. Mroczek's sign. In April, 1993, I noted that the  sign had disappeared from the door.  I rang the bell,  and another one  of the  Doctor's granddaughters (he had two,  both living in  his apartment) opened the door.  She told me that her grandfather  died in November, 1992, 87 years old. The conversation was very short - after all,  I had come uninvited. But she gave me the telephone number of her father, Dr. Mroczek's son. In the evening I visited him at his home. The son, Dr. Janusz Mroczek, is a surgeon, and serves as head of the Department of Surgery in the Wolomin Hospital near Warsaw. He is 10 years  my  junior; when I  was 14, he  was 4 years  old.  For nearly two  years we had lived in the same building,  one flight of stairs apart,  but we had never met,  and never even knew about each other's existence. He gave me his father's photograph (Fig. 31) and  told  me  about  his parents.  Dr.  Edmund Mroczek  had been wounded during  the Warsaw Uprising.  At the time he met us,  he had already  recovered from  his wounds  and subsequent surgery, and had  taken over  the functions  of the house committee.  His wife,  Janusz's mother,  also  participated  in  the  Uprising. Captured by the Nazis, she was murdered ("executed") by them. She was 29 years old. As an oto-laryngologist Dr. Mroczek accomplished a  great deal.  He  educated a  whole generation of laryngologists  and  developed  the  branch  of  pediatric laryngology,  becoming the  father of  pediatric laryngology  in Poland.

Fig 31
Fig. 31:  Dr. Edmund Mroczek,  the man who fed us when we were dying from starvation

*     *      *

October 4, 1944. We walked slowly toward the transfer point. The four of us behaved as strangers, keeping a safe distance between us and not looking at each other. This way, if any one of us  became "unmasked" as a Jew, the others would  not be endangered. After a while we lost all contact.
The transfer point was marked by a barrier placed across the street.  One  side,  guarded  by  the  Armia Krajowa  (Home Army insurgents) was decorated  with the Polish flag, the other side with the German flag. "The border of independent Poland", I thought sadly, "now back to the Germans".
At the transfer point, everybody received half a loaf of bread, and every  child  was  given  in  addition a can (about 300 ml) of condensed,  very  fatty  milk - a  gift of  the International  Red Cross. Very hungry, I immediately consumed the bread and milk. I knew that it was bad for my intestines,  but the power of hunger was overwhelming, and I could not restrain myself.
We were loaded onto flatbed trucks which brought us to the transition camp in Pruszkow.  We were still on the trucks,  with no toilets  available,  when my bowels reacted to the fatty milk and fresh bread. I was overpowered by  acute diarrhea and lost all control of my sphincters. All my excretions mixed with blood went straight into my pants. I had no change of clothing. I was alone,  with no  one to  talk to,  no one to complain to. Total loneliness.  The entire  trip probably lasted half an hour,  but to me it seemed to last for ages. Finally, we reached the camp.

The makeshift transition camp was established in the hangars of a  former airplane factory. Upon admission and registration, everybody was  allotted a place on a cement floor.  Food rations were issued two or three times a day, with long lines forming to the distribution  points.  A woman  standing in line said that I reminded her  of her son who had been taken to Germany for compulsory labor, and on several occasions she let me step in front of her, to the head of the line. We did not receive eating utensils, but the woman gave  me a  spoon,  and I found an empty can of preserves, which I used as a plate.
My diarrhea slowed down considerably, and became exacerbated only after every meal. There were a few water taps and primitive toilets,  but no other hygienic facilities.  After all,  we were supposed to stay there for only a few days.
The main role of the transition camp was to select young, able- bodied people of both sexes, for compulsory work in industry and on farms in Germany. The elderly, the children, and the ill were transferred to provincial towns and villages in occupied Poland. Still very ill, I went to the local clinic to see a doctor. A woman physician examined me. Her name was Dr. Balicka (in Polish, Balicka is  the feminine  version of  Balicki - both  are the same name).  When  she  discovered  that  my  name  (Jozef  Balicki, according  to  my Aryan  documents) was the  same as  hers,  she instantly inquired about my origins and a possible family relationship.  Such a  relationship,  even if  unproven,  may have  been helpful,  but I  was afraid  of too  much inquiry into my family origins. Dr. Balicka was  from Torun in western Poland,  which helped  me  to  find  an easy  way out:  according  to my  birth certificate, I was born in Brody, which was a far-away place, near the Soviet border, so the search for common roots did not go too  far. At the end of our conversation,  she  gave me  a certificate,  stating that because of a heart illness, I was unable to work.  It was certainly true that I was ill and emaciated, and could not work.  I looked like a skeleton over which pale human skin was stretched. After a couple of days I was  assigned to  an infirm group,  to be sent to Czestochowa. While in the transition camp I did not see my three companions from the Savior's Square.

The train to Czestochowa consisted of open cattle-cars. There were no seats, of course. One could sit on the floor, but the cars were  very crowded,  with  not enough room for everybody to sit. Some people stood,  exchanging places with others from time to time. I probably ate too much before boarding the train,  and I  paid  for  it  dearly  with  another  severe  bout of  bloody diarrhea. It was similar to my experience on the way from Warsaw to  Pruszkow,  but  this was  much worse,  because  the trip  to Czestochowa lasted  all night,  and most of the time I could not sit.  My buttocks  and thighs  burned from  feces,  my legs were weak, and I was close to collapse.
Upon arrival in Czestochowa I felt half-dead. We were transferred from the train to motor trucks, which would bring us to the camp for Warsaw refugees.  I do not remember who arranged for my hospitalization and how,  but before reaching the refugee camp, the truck stopped in front of a hospital, to unload me and several others. If my memory does not fail me, it was the Infant Jesus Hospital  at  Virgin Mary  Avenue,  the main street in Czestochowa.  When the  truck stopped,  people asked us where we came from, and we answered proudly: "from independent Poland!".

4  T. Grigo: Na Gornym Czerniakowie (In the Upper Czerniakow),M.O.N., Warsaw, 1979.
5  T. Grigo: Powisle Czerniakowskie 1944, M.O.N., Warsaw, 1989.
6  M. Wisniewska and M. Sikorska:  Szpitale Powstanczej Warszawy (Hospitals of the Insurgent Warsaw), Rytm-Polczek, Warsaw, 1991).

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