world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Krystyna Fundalinska (nee Zawadka) 'Wrzos'. You will Be Lame, but You Won't Die.

Courtesy of the Polish Academic Information Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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  At the time the Uprising started, I was 23 years old, and had been working at the Jarnuszkiewicz factory on Grzybowska Street in Warsaw for a couple of years. The factory made metallic hospital equipment: operating tables, beds etc. I was the only woman on the production line. I got the job because the production manager realized that without it I was in danger, as an unemployed able bodied person, of being deported to Germany as a slave laborer.

The factory had organized some of its workers into a volunteer fire brigade and I was to be the brigade's nurse. I was sent to the Ujazdowski Hospital to take a first aid course. After that I had to remain overnight at the factory two or three times a week so as to be on call in the event of some emergency. This resulted in my receiving an additional weekly allotment of food, additional, that is, to that which I received as a factory worker. This was important because my mother had died in 1940 and I had to care for my siblings, the youngest of whom was five years old.

Some of the men on the night shift secretly made parts for the Home Army's light machine guns. Removing these parts from the premises presented a problem because each worker, as he left the factory, was searched by the German guard. However, the German didn't search me, the only woman on the shift. So, I was approached and asked to take a package out of the factory. I was to go to a particular tram stop where a man holding a flower would seemingly be waiting for another tram, and simply hand the package to him. I did as requested. This was the first of many such trips. Thus without having formally joined the Home Army, I became involved in the Underground struggle!

August 1, 1944

For me the most memorable day of the Uprising was the day it started. I had gone to work as usual. After work I had to see to some matters on Marszałkowska Street, one of Warsaw's main thoroughfares. As I was walking along, I suddenly heard some shooting in the distance. That by itself that was not unusual and, at first, no one paid much attention to it. The shooting did not cease, but got nearer. People started running and seeking shelter in the portals and the courtyards of the apartment blocks that lined the street and so did I. Everyone was asking what was going on but no one knew. Then a group of young men ran in. They were wearing white and red armbands, the Polish national colors. One of them spoke in a loud voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Uprising has started." There was a moment of silence and then pandemonium broke out. Everyone started running, who knows where. But I stood still. I could not move, it was as if my feet had grown roots. "Oh my God, an uprising," I kept repeating to myself, "an uprising, THE Uprising."

A patriotic heritage

I had grown up imbued with the spirit of patriotism: My great grandfather had taken part in the January Uprising of 1863, had been captured by the Russians and deported to Siberia. There he perished. As the family of an insurgent, his wife, son and daughter were also to be deported. To avoid being deported they fled from Warsaw and hid in the Podolian countryside but the Russian police got on their trail. Hence, at the age of 16, my grandfather fled to the United States, from whence he returned only years later. My mother, as a young woman, had run clandestine classes teaching the Polish language to children. That was a criminal activity because the Russians, in an effort to russify Poland, had made speaking Polish illegal. And when the Bolsheviks in 1920 invaded Poland and got within 20 miles of Warsaw, my father was among those who fought to stem that tide. Given that heritage, I had at various times imagined how it would be to take part in an uprising. And now it had become a reality. Finally, I thought, after four long years we will no longer be like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery.

The shooting was getting more and more intense. I could not remain where I was. I had to move, had to go, but where to and how? I lived in a far suburb; going home was out of the question. I decided to go back to the factory on Grzybowska Street where I worked. In the deserted street the trams stood empty and abandoned. With the streets full of shooting, I had to make my way laboriously from courtyard to courtyard along Marszałkowska and then Grzybowska Street. The factory was not really far but it took me three hours to get there. Its courtyard was full of people milling around. I rushed to the room in which I worked and from a drawer I took my nurse's armband, white with a red cross prominently on it. I put it on my left arm and walked downstairs. I felt strangely calm, but my heart was beating very fast.

It was beginning to get dark. We heard knocking on the factory's doors. When we opened the doors, a detachment of young men walked into the courtyard. They were led by an individual, who, I later found out, was a captain bearing the cryptonym 'Lech Grzybowski.' His real name was Waclaw Zagorski [ zagorski ], but that was revealed only after the war. He told us, "This will be my battalion's headquarters."

A Polish flag

As the Captain started issuing orders to his troops, the sister of the factory's director came up to me and said, "Come, we have to give some thought to the feeding of all these people, and most important, we have to sew a Polish flag." I got hold of some of the women who were on the cleaning staff and gave them instructions how to make some soup for everyone. Then, I went up with the factory director's sister to her apartment and she took me to a small room with a sewing machine where she gave me two lengths of cloth, one white, the other red. In a matter of minutes, the flag was ready. I went downstairs and the young men grabbed it and soon it was unfurled over the factory's tower. This was the first Polish flag to fly over Warsaw in over four years. Everyone followed the example of Captain Lech Grzybowski as he stood at attention and saluted the flag.

We were on Polish soil under a Polish flag and it felt incredibly good! But, Oh my God, how distant true liberty remained.

In the early days of the Uprising I worked in the hospital that was set up in the factory. The operations had to be performed without any anesthetic. At the first one where I was to assist, I fainted.

After a while the hospital was moved because the factory came under heavy attack, and after that I mostly accompanied the soldiers as a nurse during their armed actions. I also served as courier, carrying orders and reports, or I would cook the soup on which we all subsisted. Sometimes I would even sew when needed, so the nights became very short for us and we worked all the time.

Late one evening a couple of women and I were walking to our assigned positions along a wall. As we did so we could hear voices on the other side of it. The conversation kept pace with us, roughly, as we moved along the wall. Since we knew that some soldiers from our company were following in our footsteps, we thought that they had decided to play a joke onus in some way by going on the other side of the wall. But we got to where the wall ended before them. It was only then that we realized they were not our boys, but rather three Germans, each carrying a rifle. As quick as lightning, Wanda, who was quite tall, whipped out a small pistol and shouted at them something like "Arms up" in German. The Germans, perhaps because it was rather dark and they might not have known how many of us there were, or that we were all women, raised their hands in the air. Using belts we tied their hands behind their backs. Our own soldiers were in fact following us and, when they hear the commotion, they quickly came to our aid and led the Germans off into captivity.

There was a great shortage of firearms and, as nurses, we possessed none. The small pistol Wanda had brandished was non-functional, for it had jammed and could not be fixed, which is why someone had given it to her, but those Germans did not know that.


Then one day, while carrying a bucket of soup, a grenade exploded near me and I was wounded. I fell over, though without spilling any of the soup. My leg hurt terribly and I thought it had been all but severed. I rolled back the trousers and saw that all I had was this small wound directly into my knee. I thought, "My God, here people have such terrible wounds and I am making a fuss over such a small one," so I got up quickly and fell over again, for I could not stand on my leg. When the doctor came by, I felt ashamed, but he said "Look, this is no joke. You have a piece of shrapnel right in your knee." He cleaned the wound but could not get the shrapnel out for it was in very deep. "You will be lame," he said, "but you will not die." So, after a couple of days I began to walk, but not well, and to the end of the Uprising I was given light duties. I got better and eventually the piece of shrapnel was removed, here in Buffalo, because somehow it had worked itself loose and started hurting again.

At the end of the Uprising on October 2nd, an order was given for the women to accompany the men into captivity, but of the 15 women in my company I was the only one who did so. I knew that my father and family had been removed to a camp and so I was alone, there was no point in trying to stay behind. Eventually, I ended up as a prisoner of war near the Dutch border. The Polish First Corps under General Maczek was nearby. Hearing of our camp with women from the Polish Home Army nearby, they came and liberated us.

The Aftermath

After the war had ended, I sought out and found my brother who had fought in the northern Zoliborz suburb of Warsaw, had been decorated for bravery, and had ended up in a POW camp near Hanover. He wanted to return to Poland. So did I, but by then I had gotten married and my husband, did not. After my brother returned to Poland, he was called up and served for a couple of months in the Polish Communist Army. Demobilized, he found a job and started to work. He was invited to join the Communist Party but he decided not to. Thereupon he lost his job and was made to report to the authorities on a daily basis. One morning, he left the house as usual, never to be seen again. That same day, the Police surrounded the house, entered his lodgings and stayed there for the next couple of weeks. Later, we learned that the day he disappeared, he was followed by three men and when he came to the Bielanski woods, they shot him. Afterwards I tried very hard to find out where they buried the body but I was unsuccessful. His was not an isolated case and I know of others who had been in the Home Army during the war who disappeared in a similar fashion during the early days of the Communists regime.

Collected and translated by Peter and Teresa Gessner

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