A group of Montrealers, veterans of the Polish underground resistance during the Second World War, gather today to mark the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of Warsaw Rising, a 63-day battle against Nazi Germany's occupation forces that culminated in a quarter of a million lives lost and the deliberate destruction of the city.
Sixty years ago, most of these men and women were teenagers, most of them Boy Scouts and Girl Guides who worked as couriers for underground leaders or as distributors for the clandestine press.
They carried out acts of sabotage, ranging from such small acts of rebellion as defacing Nazi posters to blowing up warehouses and trains, and they secretly trained for the day they would take up arms against the hated occupation forces.
They had to attend secret schools, a dangerous act of defiance that resulted in many arrests. Indeed, one transport to the Stutthof concentration camp included more than 600 students who had been caught attending their clandestine classes.
According to Joseph Rothschild of Columbia University, Poles were able to draw on a "a traditional familiarity with conspiracy" that dated to the original partitions of Poland.
“Polish society,” he wrote, ”managed to develop a highly effective underground army and state apparatus."
By the summer of 1944, the time seemed right for an overt battle against the Germans. The Allies had liberated Italy and were already in France. Polish forces had captured Monte Cassino and, fighting with the Canadians, were about to close the Falaise Gap in France and go on to liberate Holland.
In the east, the Red Army had pushed the Germans out of the Soviet Union and was now in Poland, almost on the outskirts of Warsaw. But while the American liberation of Paris was being planned so that the Free French could at least symbolically liberate their own capital, what could the Poles expect from the Soviets?
Their bitter experience offered scant hope. For the first two years of the war, the Soviet Union was Germany's ally, having signed a treaty agreeing to attack and partition Poland.
The Soviets had murdered almost 20,000 Polish officers that they had held as prisoners-of-war and, in their occupation zone, they had arrested, murdered and deported about 1.5 million Polish citizens to the Gulag.
Five years later, Stalin seemed determined to achieve, as an "ally," what he had originally set out to do in partnership with Hitler. As the Red Army entered Poland, they arrested the Polish resistance fighters, disarmed the ranks, and executed the officers.
Then, as the troops approached Warsaw, Stalin ordered a halt. Within sight of the burning city, the huge Soviet army waited not only until the Poles capitulated but even stayed immobile for three months after, watching as the Germans systematically destroyed the Polish capital. During this time, the Soviet Union even refused to grant landing rights to Allied airmen so that they could deliver aid to the beleaguered Poles.
It was a bitter irony for the Poles. Their armies had fought at Tobruk and Monte Cassino, the Battle of Britain and in France, indeed on virtually every front, and yet at no time were they able to go to the aid of their own countrymen.
Nor did anyone else.
These are the memories of the former soldiers: nurses and couriers who will gather in Montreal and anywhere else they find themselves today. They all paid dearly for Allied duplicity. Many were sent into permanent exile, and many of those who remained in Poland were condemned to long years in Communist prisons.
But they know that the spirit of the rising lived on to inspire Solidarity. It took a long time, but they ultimately liberated their country. Will they remember the letter the Polish Boy Scouts and Girl Guides sent to their counterparts in the West?
"To All British and American Boy Scouts and Girl Guides: "The Polish Scouts express their great anxiety about ... the danger of an imminent crisis – the loss of confidence in the Anglo-Saxon world. The youth of the subjugated countries in East-Central Europe, and especially in Poland, builds all its hopes on Great Britain and the United States of America.
"We were fully convinced in the truth and sincerity of ideals proclaimed by the Western democracies. In particular we believed that the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms of President Roosevelt, though general in character, were the guiding principles in shaping the' true goals of this war.
"Poles have been fighting with you side by side in defence of Christian Democratic values in national and international life, in defence of the human rights of all nations according to the rules of world justice.
"The latest examples of shamelessly opportunistic attitudes on the part of the great powers fill our youth with tremendous anxiety for the future. You have, to understand that our young people are ready to undergo painful sacrifices, even to face death, but they resent to die in vain. If the future of the world is to be decided by force and violence, our generation might well be the last one that is ready to fight and die in the defence of principles which form the basis of the Scout movement.
"Do not talk and think about us, please, as 'poor Poland.' We need neither pity nor charity. Being on the front lines we do not suffer from any inferiority complex. We do not desire to be admired or pitied. Our only request is that our hardships, toil and struggle for the common cause be properly understood and not wasted."
[Photo: Krystyna Czajkowska was a girl guide when she participated in the Warsaw Uprising. She finished the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. She and her husband, Leszek Missala, also a participant in the uprising, live in Montreal. Courtesy of Leszek and Krystyna Missala.]