November 16, 2018

Warsaw’s other uprising

For most Jewish readers, I suspect, the phrase “Warsaw uprising” refers to the stirring last stand of the Jewish ghetto fighters in 1943.  But there was quite another upwelling of armed resistance in Warsaw a year later, and that’s the focus of “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising” by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40.00), an account of the doomed effort at self-liberation launched by the Polish Home Army against the Nazis even as the Red Army sat and watched on the far side of the Vistula.

Richie’s book is only the latest in a small but important trend in publishing that calls our attention to the richness, complexity and tragedy of events on the ground in Poland during the Second World War. Timothy Snyder’s groundbreaking book, “Bloodlands,” is one example, and so is Louise Steinman’s newly-published memoir, “The Crooked Mirror.” All of these books are worthy efforts to rescue one of the most consequential nations in European history from the realm of “Polish jokes” and to open our eyes to its heroic if also tragic saga.

“My Poles will not revolt” is what Hans Frank, the man in charge of occupied Poland, told the Fuehrer when the first reports of skirmishing in Warsaw reached Hitler’s headquarters. He was wrong, as it turned out, but Heinrich Himmler, the architect and operator of Germany’s machinery of terror, looked on the bright side:  “It would give them the excuse to do what they had wanted to do for years — erase Warsaw from the map,” Richie explains.

Richie, who lives and writes in Warsaw, brings a mastery of Polish history and politics to her book, and she allows the reader to see how the Warsaw uprising is linked to the other and more famous events in the history of World War II. Above all, she reveals the crucial motive of the Polish resistance in taking on the Nazis before the Red Army entered Warsaw and installed a Communist regime in place of the Polish government-in-exile that had taken refuge in London during the war.

“They fought in order to see the restoration of a free, liberal, democratic state,” Riche writes. “With the Red Army moving inexorably towards Warsaw, the decision was made to take a stand in the capital city, for the Poles to push the Germans out themselves, and to greet the Soviets as equals. Surely then the rest of the world would heed their call for independence, and put pressure on Stalin.”

Richie’s narrative of these events is rooted in scholarship but expressed with color, clarity and impact. She has an eye for the telling detail: “Despite his vegetarianism,” she pauses to tell us, “Hitler had long had a strange admiration for poachers, and decide that with their particular skills of tracking and killing they might be useful in the fight against the partisans.” The Red Army was assisted in its victorious counter-attacks against the Wehrmacht by the riches of the Lend-lease program: “American Jeeps whizzed around Byelorussia, and Studebaker US6 trucks were used to launch Katusha rockets; at the same time Russian soldiers feasted on Hershey’s chocolate and wieners stamped ‘Oscar Meyer – Chicago.’” At the same, time she paints on a vast canvas that sprawls across 738 pages and depicts events and personalities both great and small.

The dominant note in “Warsaw 1944,” of course, is horror.  The Germans were no kinder or gentler when it came to the Poles than they were with any of the their other victims, and Richie finds herself compelled to describe atrocities that will break the hearts of readers who already know what the Germans were capable of doing in Auschwitz and at Babi Yar.  And the heroic resistance of the Poles in the Warsaw uprising of 1944 was no more successful than the efforts of the ghetto-fighters had been in 1943.

“The general mood in the units of my group is pessimistic and bitter because of the lack of weapons for the past eight days,” wrote one despairing Polish fighter. “We fight alone with no help from our quartermaster nor from the Allies.”

The death toll of the battle for Warsaw was modest when compared to the number of Polish Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Some 18,000 soldiers in the Home Army died in battle, and another 150,000 civilians were casualties of the fighting. The political goal, of course, was not achieved, and Poland passed from Nazi occupation to Soviet domination for another half-century. Indeed, the whole episode has been mostly overlooked. “The destruction of Warsaw was one of the great tragedies of the Second World War,” the author insists. “And yet, after 1945, the Polish capital’s terrible ordeal virtually disappeared from history.”  

Richie, to her credit, has restored that ordeal to the place of honor in the pages of history that it richly deserves.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).