Friday, September 2, 2011

On September 1st

Let's get serious for a minute.

For most people around the world, the word 'Poland' means only one thing. World War Two.  Though one of the goals of this blog is to peel that drab label off of the country, that particular period should neither be ignored, nor forgotten. Awesomeness also comes from standing up to an adverse situation, and for the most part, Poland represents.

Yesterday was September 1st, a date globally considered to be the First Day of World War Two. Seventy two years ago on September 1st, two attacks on Poland happened.

The timelines are disputed, but I side with the following. On September 1st 1939, at 4:45 am, without warning or prior declaration of war, the Luftwaffe bombed Wieluń- a small town with no military structures or units stationed, utterly insignificant in strategic terms, but as good a start as any for a ruthless demonstration of power. Soon after, shots were fired from the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, in an attack on a Polish Military Transit Depot on the Westerplatte Peninsula.

Westerplatte is in Gdańsk, on the coast, but Wieluń is about 100 km from Łódź, the city I live in. I am tempted to say that Łódź did not suffer much during the war- compared to little Wieluń, three quarters of which were blasted to ruins, or Warsaw, razed to the ground so thoroughly that she was never fully rebuilt, it seems to have fared well. But what it did not lose in brick and mortar, it lost in flesh and blood.

Wieluń after the bombing, and Warsaw at the end of the War. If you've seen the Pianist, my dad tells me it was exactly
like that, with one difference- everything was red from the shattered brick. Movies usually show the ruins as grey.

Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a place in Poland that remained untouched. The wounds of the War in Łódź may not be as apparent as they are in Warsaw, but they certainly exist.

One such wound gapes open in the ruins of the Radogoszcz Prison, now a Monument and Mausoleum. Once a textile factory built by Jewish businessman Samuel Abbe, in Nazi hands it became a grim holding facility.

The remains of the prison, now a memorial and mausoleum. You can still see it has the shape of a factory.

It is supposed that some 40,000 people passed through the gates of Radogoszcz Prison. How many were killed, how many deported and how many sent to labour camps, it is difficult to tell. Its first 'residents' were chiefly Polish and Jewish intelligentsia, citizens of renown, taken in accordance with the Nazi repressive strategies which aimed to eliminate the intellectual elite and leave behind malleable masses fit for slave labour, yet uncapable of rising against the oppressor. About 1500 people, intellectuals, office workers, clergy and military veterans were murdered in the Lodz region alone.

The prison also served as a transit point for labour camps, death camps, and mass execution sites, often the end fate of those who committed crimes against the Reich (breaking any of the special laws that applied to the 'subhuman'), or were simply taken randomly from the street.

Never again to fascism
"Never again to fascism"

But on the night of January 17th 1945, the prison saw its first mass execution. The Eastern front was approaching, and orders to retreat were dispatched by the SS command- orders which stated that all prisoners must be exterminated before the troops move out.

A wave of mass murders swept over Poland. In the Radogoszcz prison, about 1500 people were still being held. At midnight, the German soldiers began the massacre, using firearms, bayonets, and finally a machine gun which fired bursts at prisoners being chased out of the building. When the soldiers reached the third floor, they met with resistance from the prisoners, who fought back by throwing bricks and debris.

Thus confronted, the Germans decided to burn the prison down. Bullets awaited those trying to escape the flames. Only twenty five prisoners survived.

Five of them did so by submerging themselves in the prison's water tank. It was housed at the top of the building, and filled using small steam-powered pumps. A similar tank, taken from a different building with the same gravitational water distribution system, is now on display in the old prison yard.

The tank
A water tank used for gravitational water distribution.

The plaque explaining the event has the following quote from Bolesław Popławski, a survivor:

"(…) We submerged ourselves in the water, then surfaced again for a moment after. Our heads were covered with wet blankets. A half hour later or so the roof collapsed, giving us more fresh air. We climbed out of the tank and hid in the corner, between the tank and the wall, by the sandbox. We watched what was happening. We couldn't climb down, because the Germans spent all day in the yard, guarding the prison.

(…) Once it started to get dark (that is, on Thursday evening) we climbed downstairs, to the ground floor, over dead bodies, because we had to warm up. We were freezing cold. We sat behind the chimney and heard the Germans finally leave Radogoszcz. At around nine or ten at night, a car drove by and took the rest of the Germans. In the night, two prisoners who had hidden on the roof joined us, then seven more from the roof.

We sat there all night, and at around five in the morning we took a ladder from the storage room. In the kitchen we saw the body of the cook dressed in a leather jacket. We climbed out of the window into the yard and crawled along the ground. In this manner, we made it to the outer wall, which we climbed using the ladder. We leapt over the barbed wire onto Zgierska street, and ran into the fields. I was the seventh one to climb over the wall."

Here we lie

For over a month, citizens of Łódź tried to find and identify the bodies of their close ones among the burnt-out ruins. The found remains were buried in February 1945; in 1961,  a memorial sarcophagus was unveiled in the prison yard. The inscription on it states:

Here we lie
on the eve of freedom
Our names and bodies were taken by the fire
We live on only in your memory.
May a death so inhuman
Never again repeat.

Meta info:

Warsaw and Wieluń photos:

Radogoszcz Mausoleum and Memory Museum official site:

1 comment:

  1. On September 1st one attack on Poland happened. The second one was on September 17th when the USSR onslaughted on Poland. I like your blog :)