world war 2: warsaw uprising 1944

Barbara Wyrzykowska (maiden name Sienoradzka). Through Sewers to Hell.

Manuscript. Published with permission.

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The Sewers

barbara wyrzykowski photoIn the basements of the PKO Bank at Swietokrzyska Street, a medical doctor gave us check-ups and treated us, as he told us, disinfectant tablets. Much later we learned that they were actually stimulants rather than disinfectants. Next, we were taken to an apartment on Moniuszki Street where we removed outer clothing and shoes and put on work garbs: black trousers and jackets, and whatever was available for shoes. I wrapped my legs in paper, then pulled socks over them, and finished with thin leather gym shoes with straps. I attached my pigtails to the crown of my head and pulled a pilot's hat over it (which I still have as a keepsake). For our test we were taken on a passage under the Napoleon Plaza. The entry was through a manhole eight meters deep. The guide was a man using the nickname of Leonard. He led us very fast, without mercy.

sewers cross-sectionBefore entering, each of us received two sticks of different length, one for the larger sewers and one for smaller ones. The sticks served as traverses on which to rest the arms while walking in a crouching position (drawing). The sewer we were using was oval in cross-section, about 110 cm [3.6 ft.] high and 60 cm [2.0 ft.] wide. The sticks could also be used for sitting. However, we did not get a chance to rest during the first trial – after all, the object was to test our physical stamina.

We walked in total darkness and silence. Side sewers, between 20 an 40 cm [0.65–1.3 ft.] wide, located at the height of the stick were a great burden because when the stick would hit a side sewer, its end would slip and the owner would fall face down into the slimy water below.

I think it was only two days later that I found myself walking in the sewers carrying four grenades to the Old Town. The grenades were placed in four pockets sown onto a square piece of linen, which was attached to my bosom with straps tied on the back, under the shirt. I remember one girl made some silly jokes and another replied: "do not make me laugh or I will blow up". This time the guide was a woman. The sewer led under the Mazowiecka Street, Malachowski Plaza, Pilsudski Plaza, Wierzbowa Street, under the Theater Square, exiting to the Danilowiczowska Street. Our boys waited for us at the exit manhole and disarmed us right away.

My second assignment was to carry first aid dressings. The package was light but bulky, about the size of a shoe box. A telephone cable was led through the sewer, linking The City Center with the Old Town. This time my friend Wanda was the guide and I remember my fear that she might not be able to find the right sewers. However, with my feet, wrapped in thin slippers, felt the cable, I finally was able to relax. A bit later, we came to a drain channel with a fork in the sewers. We found the one with the cable. My worries increased again as the sewer started sloping downward and the water level started rising. The sewer became narrower and narrower. My head was already touching the ceiling and the water was up to my chin. I couldn't feel the cable under my feet anymore. We were lost. I could not understand why Wanda was not turning back. At some point, walking in front of me she stopped and said that we must go back. However, in order for the message to pass to the rear of the co lumn, the girls walking behind me had to come closer to hear it. The situation grew worse as our bodies created a dam blocking the sewer passage, which resulted in further increase of the water level. I bent my head backwards in order to keep my nose above water level, but the large box on my back made the turning difficult. I felt the bilious water on my lips ... (I cannot write about it anymore, because I begin to feel dizzy)...

I only remember that later we walked in fumes of an unrecognizably awful smell. In the end we did deliver the dressings to the destination. Upon leaving the sewers we noticed black spots on our skin, which could not be rubbed off.

I remember my third trip. We used the collector, which was a large sewer about 1.5 meter high to carry dressings and slightly wounded soldiers on our way back.

The Hell

Upon conquering the Old Town the Germans proceeded to liquidate the [City] Center starting on the northern side of Jerozolimskie Avenue. The troop 'K1' was moved to the southern side. All hell broke loose as continuous bombing, fires, and collapsing buildings, bombarded the people and the town. I was sent alone to carry a message to an outpost on Swietokrzyska Street by the Napoleon Plaza. Mine was the third attempt; two other couriers tried the route before me. One was shot in the neck and turned back, while the other, Dasia, a friend of mine, reached the target, but on the way back was crushed by hot bricks falling from a burning building. She died after seven days of agonizing pain. Walking there I knew that I needed incredible luck to be able to reach my destination and come back alive. I fought two strong emotions: the will to live, which wanted me to stop, and desire not to appear a coward, which drove me forward. When I was nearly at the destination, I had to cross a yard that happened to be the target of artillery guns firing from a long distance. The shells were hitting the debris of the buildings, turning it into dust. We soon discovered a pattern: three explosions were followed by a moment of silence of about 5-7 seconds, followed by the next three explosions. When we heard the third explosion we started running as fast as we could, succumbing to the adrenaline that drove us along the line of fire towards the incoming shells, praying we would not trip. We managed to reach the building across the yard. We ran on a board through a window and then through the stairs down into the basement. I delivered my message to the outpost commander and was ready to go back right away. However, a startlingly dreadful air raid made it impossible. The bombing made the earth sway and tremble under our feet. Yes, I could actually hear the earth whine as if it were a living suffering creature.

Drawing: sewers cross-section. Tymoteusz Duchowski & Juliusz Powalkiewicz, Kanaly.
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