March 1st was a memorial day of sorts in Poland. On that day, Poles remember the soldiers – or the fighters, depending on your point of view – of the Armia Krajowa (arm-ee-ah krai-oh-vah), or the Home Army.
First things first: you have to understand what the Armia Krajowa, or AK, is. During World War II, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany. The Nazis successfully took the country, but the Poles, having that hallmark Polish stubbornness, refused to give up so easily. Instead of capitulating, the government moved to London, where it attempted to make political moves to restore Poland’s independence. There, the government was called the Polish Government-in-Exile, and there was an underground movement in Poland that recognized this government as the rightful authority in Poland. This group of people included politicians, artists, students, those who were simply devoted to their homeland, and, of course, soldiers.
The AK was this group of soldiers, who acknowledged orders from the Government-in-Exile. These soldiers ended up causing a fair bit of trouble for the occupying Nazis and, later, the occupying Russians. One of their greatest feats came about in 1944 in the form of the Warsaw Rising.
Now, if you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of the Warsaw Rising. That’s because by 1944, the United States had entered the war and most American history classes focus on the Western Front and the Pacific Theater from there on out. However, there was still a war being fought on the Eastern Front.
The Warsaw Rising was the manifestation of Akcja “Burza” (ak-sya boo-zha), or Operation “Tempest,” which sought to liberate Warsaw, the Polish capital, from Nazi control before the Soviet Army reached it and took over. After months of preparation, the orders came on August 1st, 1944 to start the fight to retake Warsaw. Immediately, vicious street warfare broke out, with everyone in the city suddenly becoming a draftee of one side or the other. Buildings were pulled down, barricades were thrown up, students and soldiers alike hid in windows with illicit weapons, and tanks rolled down main avenues.
Ultimately, the Rising was unsuccessful; by the end of September 1944, the leaders of the Rising were forced to admit to the Government-in-Exile that the “struggle [was] dying out.” Not only were the resistance fighters short on weaponry and ammunition, but civilians were getting caught in the crossfire and there was no food to be found in the city. On October 2nd, a ceasefire was signed, and the Nazis regained control of Warsaw. In retribution and a symbol of power, the Nazis razed the city to prevent any further street warfare (this is why the historical center of Warsaw is a reconstruction today).
Even after the orders came to lay down arms, some soldiers of the AK continued to heckle occupying forces. The Soviets had a heck of a time trying to weed them out, especially since, for the most part, they were groups of rogue soldiers engaging in guerrilla warfare in the forests of Poland. Eventually, though, the Soviets gained complete control of Poland and established a communist regime after the war.
Even though the Rising failed, it’s remembered with great respect by the Polish people. Every year on August 1st, the city stops for an entire minute in a moment of silence for the people who died in the Rising. Recently, a museum has gone up in Warsaw telling the story of the Rising, called the Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego (moo-zeh-um pov-stahn-ee-ah var-shav-skee-eh-go), or the Warsaw Rising Museum.
When I was in Warsaw, I visited the museum, simply because I knew nothing about it. I caught the tram going to the museum (several tram lines stop right across the street from the museum) and took a gander inside.
Little did I know, Sundays were free admission days, and I went on a Sunday. Naturally, it was a madhouse, as these things are when they’re free. That being said, it was a very interesting museum. It has a hands-on quality to it, and attempts to drop you in the middle of the action.
The exhibit moves in chronological order, starting in 1939 when Poland was invaded. It moves on to tell the history of the Government-in-Exile and the creation of the AK, as well as some of the AK’s endeavors before the Rising itself. Using actual letters, telegrams, journal entries, and recordings from the period, the exhibit shows how the decision was made to stage a revolt and how it was executed. One of the highlights inside the museum is video footage shot by AK soldiers during the fighting, which was spliced together for the purpose of informing the Polish public about what had happened in Warsaw. In several of the rooms, they have rebuilt the apartment that housed the resistance radio station, based on photographs and letters describing it. There are also pictures of the people who registered and fought with the resistance, along with short descriptions of who they were, what their code names were, and what they did for the effort. One of the most moving displays is a case showing the resistance armbands of those who participated in the effort, donated by surviving family members upon the creation of the exhibit.
Somewhere around 18,000 fighters and 180,000 civilians died during the fighting. Many of the people who were left in the city after the Rising were deported to labor camps around the Reich. The city was destroyed and centuries of history were lost. Even so, it was an effort of which the Polish people could be proud. They’d stood their ground and defended their home with all of their ability. Perhaps most importantly, a stubborn group of patriots made sure that the Polish people remembered that they had a home worth fighting for.