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Protests are anticipated in Seoul on August 15, the anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II.
One photograph often displayed at anti-Japanese protests in Korea captures then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, kneeling in front of a monument in Warsaw, in 1970. The messaging is clear. It demands Tokyo apologize with the same weight of sincerity Brandt displayed with his unscripted “knee-fall.”
Yet, it has been this writer’s experience that many of the young protesters who brandish the posters are unclear quite what it was that Brandt was atoning for. It is worth telling that story now, for August 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising – one of the most horrific, tragic and heroic episodes in the world’s greatest and most terrible war.
In Europe, World War II started with Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. The capital was heavily damaged in airstrikes, but worse – far, far worse – was to come.
Subsequently, under Adolf Hitler’s racist policies, Polish Jews were concentrated into “ghettos,” segregated, walled-off districts in cities across the land.
Warsaw’s ghetto was the largest. It packed about 400,000 Jews into 3.3 square kilometers and starvation and disease was soon decimating those within the walls. Then in 1942, Warsaw’s Jews started being shipped out of the city on trains for unspecified “resettlement” in the east.
Though they did not know it, the Jews’ destination was the worst place on earth.
Trains jammed with Jewish families pulled up at a “railway station” in a dense forest. Disembarking, they were greeted on the platform by a cheerful band, but might have been surprised that the station clock was immobile: its hands were painted onto its face.
They might also have been mystified by the barbed wire surrounding the “station.” It was sewn with foliage to prevent any off-track forest goers from seeing what was underway inside.
The Jews were told by uniformed “staff” to deposit their luggage on the platform. Then, men were separated from women and children, and led to different huts. Inside, they were told to strip and proceed to “showers.”
Once the victims were naked and defenseless, the brutality began.
Guards with dogs whipped the Jews through barbed wire corridors (himmel strasse – “heaven streets”) toward “shower blocks.” Once they were inside, the doors were secured. This was no cleansing facility. Trapped within, the Jews were gassed to death with engine fumes.
The bodies – trainload after trainload of bodies – were hurled into a giant pit. Subsequently, their corpses were piled by mechanical excavator onto a huge griddle made of railway tracks. On that, they were incinerated and reduced to ashes.
This was Treblinka: “The extermination camp.”
Local Poles shuddered to see trains enter the forest full and leave empty. At night, a mighty fire burned and a terrible stench settled over the countryside for miles around.
The SS – who oversaw security across the German Reich, staffed camp guard units and provided Hitler with his most fanatical, murderous troops – demolished Treblinka in 1943 to hide their crimes. But with Treblinka having eventually devoured 800,000 lives, all the evidence could not be eradicated.
Meanwhile, in the ghetto, surviving Jews decided to choose the manner of their own deaths. They would fight. Wielding smuggled weapons and petrol bombs, men, women and children rose against the Germans. Fighting raged in buildings, basements and sewers from April 19 to May 16.
It was desperate but doomed. SS units – astonished at the fortitude of a people they had considered sub-human – deployed flamethrowers to burn the ghetto and its fighters to the ground, block by block. As the net closed in, the rising’s leaders took cyanide in their last citadel, the bunker “Mila 18.”
With its inhabitants dead, the ghetto was totally liquidated. Contemporary photos show a scene resembling Hiroshima. Yet Warsaw’s agony was not over.
The devils’ playground
In the summer of 1944, following the success of the mighty Soviet summer offensive, “Operation Bagration” that had driven German troops from western Russia, Red Army forces were bearing down upon the city.
On August 1, Polish partisans loyal to their exiled government in London took a decision: They would seize the moment and take control of their destinies.
Warsaw’s underground “AK” ( “Home Army”) under General Tadeusz Bor-Komoroski rose against the Nazi occupiers. Regular German infantry, armored, air force and security units suddenly found themselves under attack in the streets of the occupied city.
In response, Berlin activated its most barbaric SS counter-insurgency units – units which had already distinguished themselves with a welter of atrocities in the Soviet Union. One brigade, led by the sadist and convicted pedophile Dr Oskar Dirlewanger, was comprised of the scum of the Reich: poachers, criminals, disgraced SS troops and even the criminally insane.
Another, led by Bronislav Kaminski, was composed of renegade Azeris, Cossacks and Ukrainians.
Warsaw was transformed into a hellscape. Massacre followed massacre. Horrified German regular soldiers witnessed Dirlewanger’s killers hurl patients from the upper stories of captured hospitals and skewer babies on bayonets. In Warsaw’s Wola district, ashes from burned bodies piled up.
Fighting raged from rooftops to sewers. German units bought massive firepower – dive bombers, explosives, tanks and specialist siege artillery, comprising some of the world’s biggest pieces – to bear, pounding the partisans’ fortified buildings and barricades. District after district was ground to brick powder.
Resistance was heroic. Poles captured German weapons and armored vehicles and turned them against their enemies. The youngest partisan was a boy of 12, the youngest paramedic, a girl of eight. She survived. He, a battlefield courier, was killed in action.
But while Warsaw battled for its life, the Red Army had stalled on the Vistula River.
German defensive maestro General Walter “The Fuhrer’s Fireman” Model, wielding the elite SS divisions “Viking” and “Deaths Head,” gave the Bagration spearheads – at the ragged end of long, long supply lines – a bloody nose in a series of mobile operations.
And the Soviets, apparently content to see the Nazis disposing of independent-minded partisans, did not prosecute aggressive operations. They did not come to the Home Army’s aid.
British Prime Minister Churchill agonized, but was powerless in the face of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s intransigence.
Death of a city
The desperation of the Home Army led to incredibly bitter combat. An impressed Heinrich Himmler – Hitler’s SS chief – told generals that the street fighting was the most intense of the war, on a par with Stalingrad for its ferocity. Yet attitudes in Berlin were shifting.
Inspired by the resistance of the Polish partisans, the Third Reich’s leadership – watching arrows on their maps representing the Allies approach Germany from both East and West – made preparations for a last-ditch civilian defense force, the Volksturm.
Partly in order not to set a precedent of such fighters being labeled partisans, partly in recognition of the Home Army’s extraordinary courage, the High Command offered the Warsaw partisans the opportunity to surrender as actual POWs, rather than guerillas.
Members of the Home Army could see, with the naked eye, Red Army soldiers regrouping across the Vistula. But they did not come. Abandoned and alone, the Home Army finally surrendered on October 2.
As the combatants were led away, the city’s last agony began. Himmler – although cognizant that Germany was losing the war – sought to ensure that the Polish nation would never again trouble Germany in the future. In an extraordinary action, the Polish capital was to be wiped off the map.
Surviving civilians – an estimated 150,000-200,000 had been killed during the Uprising – were deported. Then, the remains of the already bombed, scarred city were blown apart by military engineers with explosives and burned to the ground with incendiary weapons.
A once-proud capital was transformed into acres of rubble interspersed with the skeletal shells of buildings. Warsaw’s endurance of its series of catastrophes under Nazi occupation outweighs even the dire fates suffered by such martyred World War II cities as Stalingrad, Hamburg, Nanjing or Hiroshima.
Then and now
Despite Himmler’s worst efforts, Poland did not disappear from atlases and history books. After the war, Poles – using photos, paintings and memories – returned to the site of their capital. Brick by brick, Warsaw was lovingly rebuilt from the rubble.
Even today, in some parts of the city, bullet holes can still be seen in masonry, the blood of partisans still stains floors.
So much for the stage. What, then, of the players in this murderous drama?
Himmler committed suicide. Dirlewanger was beaten to death in captivity. Kaminski was quietly executed for his cruelty by the SS – an extraordinary fate, given the diabolical mores of that criminalized organization. Bór-Komorowski survived to become Poland’s prime minister in exile in London.
The Ghetto Rising was the largest Jewish revolt in World War II. The Warsaw Rising the biggest battle fought by any European resistance movement.
Were these acts of bloody defiance worthwhile? On the 75th anniversary of the Rising, Pole Anderzej Kurek asked his grandfather, a veteran of the Home Army, if – knowing, as we know now, how hopeless the struggle was – he would still have fought. After long consideration, the old man replied: “Yes.”
Multiple memorials stand in Warsaw today. Brandt bowed at the Ghetto Memorial. Memorials to the Warsaw Uprising were not permitted during the Warsaw Pact era, and so are more recent.
Perhaps the most moving of these more recent statues is that of the “The Little Partisan” – a grim-faced pre-teen boy, toting a sub-machine gun under a too-big helmet.
It is this whirlwind of genocide, massacre and destruction that explains Brandt’s knee-fall in Warsaw.