Rudolf Krzok saw more suffering than most during his teenage years, witnessing mass murder in his village, fighting for his country’s freedom and enduring capture and imprisonment before staging a heroic escape, all before his 20th birthday. Having moved to Britain “to find peace” he married, set up shop as a mechanic and lived a happy life in Yorkshire before finally passing away, aged 88, on 7th February 2015. Read his inspiring story here: http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/nostalgia/tributes-paid-to-teenage-war-hero-turned-south-yorkshire-mechanic-1-7108615.
Many were not as lucky as Krzok, but died in the Polish towns and ghettos during the brutal years of the German occupation in World War Two. Of all the countries in Europe Poland was the first to fall in the war, being forcibly taken over in September 1939, so had the longest time under German rule (not to mention Russian rule, while that country was still part of the Axis alliance). They were years that brought hunger, misery, sickness, fear and death to the people of Poland.
At first Poland’s story was the one common to all German occupied territories at that time… the gradual harassment and intimidation of Jews, followed by formal identification (the Jewish people of Poland did not have the yellow star, but a white Star of David on a blue armband) and the passing of laws removing the bulk of their property and rights. Then things started to get worse. According to ‘Witness to World War II’ by Karen Farrington, in Easter 1940 there were riots in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw as paid thugs destroyed property and attacked residents. Next, in November, all the country’s 300,000 Jews were herded into Warsaw, parts of which were designated as a Jewish ghetto; other Poles who lived in there were forbidden to return to their homes. Hunger spread, as it was impossible to find work that paid well and little food was allowed across the boundary anyway; soon bodies started to litter the streets. Finally, in July 1942, mass deportation began.
All the people of the ghetto knew was that, each day, carts drew up and rounded up 6,000 residents from a particular arbitrarily chosen district. According to The Reader’s Digest’s ‘The World at Arms’, they first found out where those unfortunate individuals were going after a youth named Abraham Krzepicki managed to escape and warn his countrymen. The transports were going to Treblinka extermination camp. This fact was announced in the underground newspaper distributed throughout the ghetto, and electrified all the residents. If they placidly awaited their turn to be rounded up, they realised, they would certainly be killed. Better to mount what was likely to be a fatal rebellion against their captors and die on their own terms than to be snuffed out like vermin. Quietly and quickly, with the help of the Polish Resistance outside the fence, they began to amass any available weapons and dig underground tunnels, ready to fight.
The match was put to the gun powder when the decision was made on 19th April 1943 to liquidate the city. The German plan was to send in 2,000 heavily armed soldiers, under the command of General Jurgen Stroop, to raze the buildings and kill anyone who got in their way. They had tanks and flamethrowers, where the residents had mainly archaic arms left over from past wars. It was far from a fair fight, but the desperation of the people spurred them to levels of strength and bravery far beyond what the Germans had expected to encounter. It took 6 weeks to subdue them, and that only after the people had taken to the sewers when their attempts to protect the city failed. Finally, though, on 16th May, the survivors were finally forced to surrender. They had inflicted 1,200 casualties among the Germans.
‘Witness to World War II’ testifies that 7,000 Jewish residents were immediately slaughtered, 7,000 more sent to Treblinka to be gassed, and 15,000 more to Majdanek concentration and extermination camp. It is believed that, after the deportations and the mass casualties, only 26,000 residents remained of the original 300,000. Just a few hundred, meanwhile, managed to escape the ghetto while the battle raged.
Despite their agonies, the people of Poland still refused to lie down at the feet of the German aggressors. In August 1944 another revolution broke out, this time instigated by the Polish Home Army outside the ghetto walls, who had heard Russian guns firing not far off and hoped an army of rescuers was on the way. The attack was led by General Bór-Komorowski, and since the Germans were taken completely by surprise, made rapid progress. They took back much of the city, and managed to fly the Polish flag for the first time since the occupation. The battle raged for 2 months, with the Home Army holed up in the old city, but eventually fatigue and hunger got the better of the fighters. They were forced to surrender again, though they did so in the knowledge that they had given the now thinly-spread German Army a great deal of trouble, and successfully drawn its attention away from other quarters.
The Red Army never came, having halted short of Warsaw. It has often been suggested that Stalin hoped to rule Poland himself, and deliberately halted his force in the hopes that all Polish leaders who had the potential to oppose him would be crushed. The truth of the matter may never be known. Regardless of why, Poland still had a long way to go in the war. The country would not in fact be liberated by the Red Army until mid-January 1945, and had much suffering still to endure.