The Warsaw Uprising (Polish: Powstanie Warszawskie) was a major World War II operation, yet it is little-known in the United Kingdom. The Museum Guide Aleksandra Duda revels her great enthusiasm for the historic subject.
The Warsaw Uprising began in the Summer of 1944 and was orchestrated by the Polish underground resistance and led by the Polish resistance Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa or AK). Its main goal was to liberate Warsaw from German occupation.
After days of hesitation, at 17:00 on 31 July, the Polish headquarters of AK scheduled “W-hour” (from the Polish wybuch, “explosion”), the moment of the start of the Uprising. The Uprising therefore began on the 1 August 1944 at 17.00.
The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance. While approaching the eastern suburbs of the city, the Red Army temporarily halted combat operations, enabling the Germans to regroup and defeat the Polish resistance and to destroy the city in retaliation. The Uprising was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II.
Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it is estimated that about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 gravely wounded. In addition, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. German casualties totalled over 2,000 to 17,000 soldiers killed and missing. During the urban combat, approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block.
Until the 1990s, historical analysis of the events remained superficial because of official censorship and lack of academic interest. Research into the Warsaw Uprising was boosted by the revolutions of 1989, due to the abolition of censorship and increased access to state archives. As of 2004, however, access to some material in British, Polish and ex-Soviet archives was still restricted. Further complicating the matter is the British claim that the records of the Polish government-in-exile were destroyed, and material not transferred to British authorities after the war was burnt by the Poles in London in July 1945.
In Poland, 1 August is now a highly celebrated anniversary.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum (named Warsaw Rising Museum, in Polish: Muzeum Powstania
Warszawskiego) is in the Wola -a district of Warsaw. It is fully dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The Museum which website is https://www.1944.pl/en recently opened new channels of communications on social media in English language. These channels are aimed at popularizing knowledge about the Warsaw Uprising and Warsaw itself – a city of tragic wartime history. The channels should be now easily obtainable to the Polish community abroad as well as the whole World.
I had pleasure to talk to the Guide and Expert of the Museum, Ms Alexandra Duda. In my short interview with Aleksandra, I was trying to understand more about the Warsaw Rising and its significance today. I was also enquiring about the Museum’s goals and plans.
And here it is.
Iwona Golinska: We know that the institution of the Museum was established in 1983, but no construction work took place for many years. What were the beginnings of the Museum – how was it established and why?
Aleksandra Duda, Warsaw Rising Museum: The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened in 2004 for the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Rising. For many years after the War memory about the Rising lived only in the hearts of its participants and their families. Communist authorities who ruled Poland after 1945 till 1989 were not interested in glorifying the Rising which was the ultimate operation of Polish resistance against the Occupation of their beloved country.
IG: In Poland, there are different views of the Warsaw Uprising, some people glorify it, some condemn it. In 1974 Jan. M. Ciechanowski, the historian and participant of the Warsaw uprising saw the Uprising as a manifestation of a long-standing historical tradition of Poland in the form of anti-Russian discourse. From this point of view, the Warsaw uprising was most directed against Russia-USSR and was designed to create a confrontation between the United States-Britain and the USSR, the Home Army was defending the independence of Poland threatened by the Russians. In 2011 a certain prominent Politician and critic of the Rising in Poland, Radoslaw Sikorski, wrote on Twitter that Uprising was a national catastrophe. Is there a breakthrough today in understanding what the Warsaw Uprising was?
AD: There have always been opponents of the Rising who may claim still today that the Rising led to useless death of so many Poles who supposedly would have been able to build ‘New Poland’. The problem with this argument is that the ‘New Poland’ was ruled by Communists and Soviets who killed 50,000 Poles in a supposedly ‘peaceful’ 1944-1953 period.
The Museum brought memory to forgotten Heroes. Every year the official commemorations in August gather thousands of Poles in the country and abroad. These are incredibly special and moving days when both the young and the old generations have tears in their eyes looking back to the Insurgents and Inhabitants of Warsaw who paid with their lives and suffering for Freedom of Poland.
IG: Concepts are often confused by the West – the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising – why?
AD: After the War, Poland remained behind the Iron Curtain till 1989. Remembering the Holocaust became the key topic among the historians in the 60’s with the Warsaw Rising non-exiting in the public interest at all. Even today there are many tourists visiting the Museum who discover that there were indeed two uprisings in occupied Warsaw during WWII.
IG: What should the British know about the Uprising?
AD: Poles did not wait for freedom, but they fought for it, not only in the theatre of the Battle of Britain but in all the battlefields of Europe during WWII, as Witold Urbanowicz said.
Poland had thirty-five million of citizens in 1939 and lost six million during the War. Three million were Polish Christians and three million were Polish Jews. The country was totally devastated, and wounds are still open. It is difficult to move on if millions of Poles were either deported to Siberia, sent to forced labour camps in the Third Reich or killed in Nazi German concentration or death camps. We, the Poles, simply do not have graves of this ‘lost’ generation. Warsaw was ready to face the German Evil therefore such eminent role it played as for the Polish Underground State structures. Sadly, Warsaw lost more than 60% of its people during the Second War.
The Warsaw Rising lasted for 63 days and the people of Warsaw expected that the Allies would do something about its fate. The Western Allies organised airlift missions, but they were too limited to play any significant role. Nonetheless, we hold dear in our memory the sacrifice of 147 RAF, SAAF and PAF airmen who were killed in these hair-raising operations.
Unfortunately, Warsaw was already within the Soviet sphere of influences as Winston Churchill conceded to such a Stalin’s proposal at the Conference in Teheran already in December 1943.
Material losses (Warsaw only) amount to $45,3 billion. Now when you walk along the streets of Warsaw you still walk on the bones of those who were not fortunate to survive.
Knowing all this, the powerful message of the Rising is that human hatred may destroy anything what is material, but it cannot destroy what lies in human hearts.
IG: As Britain’s ‘First Ally’, Poland played a role in most aspects of allied military strategy, not least in relation to underground resistance movements. Hence, Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executives), including Sue Ryder who is a Patron of my organisation Polish Sue, was involved with the Polish Underground from 1940 onwards; and SOE’s ‘Polish Section’ was actively engaged in operations designed to strengthen the Home Army and to maintain its links with the western powers. One of the groups of SOE agents, or Silent Unseen (in Polish Cichociemni) was flown into German-occupied Poland on 31 July 1944, reaching Warsaw on 1 August.
Was there any more involvement of the British allies in the Uprising, any help from them?
AD: The British would operate 10-hour airlift missions over German occupied territory from Brindisi (Italy). Lord Slessor who was responsible on behalf of RAF for these operations declared that these had been the 6 most difficult weeks in his entire life.
The RAF and SAAF would fly at low level and many aircraft fell victim to German enemy fire. Many were chased by Luftwaffe fighters. Interviews with the RAF and SAAF airmen will be posted soon on the Museum’s FB account. Do not miss them!
There is a monument dedicated to the airlift next to the Warsaw Rising Museum.
IG: There are nearly 1 million Poles in the United Kingdom today. Can you name the top 3 reasons why they should visit the Museum – especially the young Poles, already born in the UK?
AD: Firstly, the Warsaw Rising Museum is a moving and sobering experience whatever your age.
Secondly, exploring the extreme suffering of the Polish nation through documents, pictures and videos, one asks countless questions why we managed to survive at all.
Thirdly, by visiting the Exposition one may try to find answer to questions what is so important in our lives.
IG: Who visits the Warsaw Rising museum most often?
AD: Museum is visited by 600,000 visitors each year. Before the pandemic, these were mainly school groups and individual visitors from Poland and abroad.
IG: Thank you for this comprehensive introduction to the Warsaw Rising Museum Aleksandra! I will be delighted to recommend the visit.
Author: Iwona Golinska
About the Author: Iwona Golinska, MBA is a founder of Polish Sue – an organisation in Memory of Sue Ryder
Pictures: Iwona Golinska and Michał Szlaga, Warsaw Rising Museum, British Poles
The Museum’s stated goals include the creation of an archive of historical information on the Uprising and the recording of the stories and memories of living participants. The Museum is a member organisation of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. It also sponsors research into the history of the Uprising, and the history and possessions of the Polish Underground State. It collects and maintains hundreds of artifacts — ranging from weapons used by the insurgents to love letters — to present a full picture of the people involved. The Museum has planned several interesting events in 2021 such as:
- story of a Hero – presenting the profiles of the Warsaw Insurgents, with particular emphasis on the insurgents who lived outside the country after the war
- infographics showing statistics on the Warsaw Uprising
- quotes describing the tragedy of the insurgent struggles, causes and consequences of the
Uprising, as well as the wide spectrum of events of the Second World War
- presentations of exceptional events influencing the history of the Uprising
- video materials with statements by event participants
- iconographic materials with historical descriptions
- fragments of film materials showing the suffering and bravery of people facing the horror of war.
The guided visits in English are available for smaller groups and individual tourists (currently subject to COVID-19 regulations) and can be booked at the Warsaw Rising Museum which has also dedicated pages in English on Facebook and Twitter.