Zygmunt Kujawski (nom-de-guerre Brom; 1916–1996). Began his medical education in 1934, enrolling at Centrum Wyszkolenia Sanitarnego (a sanitary training college). Commanding officer of a sanitary train during the defence campaign of September 1939, and later in the war worked as a doctor in Ujazdów Hospital (Warsaw) in occupied Poland, while also studying Medicine at the secret undergraduate courses organised by the University of Warsaw. During the Warsaw Uprising organised medical and sanitary units in the districts of Wola, Czerniaków, Mokotów, the Old Town, and the City Centre. Sources: www.1944.pl; www.lekarzepowstania.pl.
In early October 1944, Number 15 on the Śniadeckich, once the Stanisław Staszic grammar school, housed an insurgents’ hospital with about 200 casualties and patients.1 Col. Tarnawski,2 the hospital’s chief physician and commanding officer, was away practically all the time at Sanitary Command briefings, so he delegated the management of all the medical and administrative matters to Dr Kaczyński3 and myself. Under the conditions for the surrender, all the hospitals in Warsaw were to be divided into civilian hospitals and military hospitals. This made many of the sick and wounded move from one type of hospital to the other type. Some combatants thought it would be safer for them to evacuate with the civilians, while injured civilians hoped there would be better conditions in the military hospitals. A rumour went around that the military hospitals would be evacuated to Krynica and Zakopane.4 Rumours, confusion, and people on the move.
Given such conditions, all we could do was to operate the less serious casualties, or apply plaster casts for the purpose of camouflage. We removed the concentration camp numbers tattooed on the forearms of several Jews who had managed to survive the Gęsiówka prison5 and put them in plaster. Our cook Karol was one of those who had this treatment done.
The quartermaster issued a Home Army6 combatant ID to everyone, regardless of which organisation they belonged to. Meanwhile, the people of Warsaw were leaving their city. Groups headed for the dismantled barricade in the forecourt of the University of Technology, where there was a squad of Germans handling the evacuation and instructing people to make their way to the Warsaw West railway station. Carrying their bags and cases, or pushing their belongings on hand-carts, the evacuees were leaving Warsaw for an unknown destination and an unpredictable destiny, clenching fists, muttering curses, and some of them weeping.
In the hospital’s yard a complete unit of insurgents who had defended this part of the city was getting ready to leave and go into captivity. The chaplain was saying an outdoor Mass, and when it was over the congregation sang the Rota.7 We all sang the anthem. Many were weeping. Finally the unit marched away in silence. When they reached the University of Technology, they handed in their weapons, throwing them down on a heap that was getting larger and larger. Many again with tears in their eyes. We were watching it, heartbroken.
Warsaw was gradually being depopulated. We visited neighbouring hospitals. In the yard of the house on the corner of the Marszałkowska and Koszykowa we spotted a huge pile of dog hides reaching up to the first floor. You could see there had been a slaughter-house here. So that’s what the people of Warsaw had to eat? Then we saw Brandkommando8 units using flamethrowers and phosphorus incendiary devices to set fire to houses that had survived the bombing raids. Again there was smoke lingering in the neighbourhood. Again there were fires breaking out. We collected mattresses, linen, clothing, medicine, dressings, and medical instruments, and brought them into the hospital, preparing to evacuate. Dr Kaczyński and I decided that our wives9 would go with us. Both of them were pregnant. At least we would be able to look after them and provide them with medical assistance.
Finally, around 10 October, German lorries rolled up in front of the hospital. We got the wounded on board and loaded up all our equipment and belongings.10 They took us down empty streets, past burning houses, to the freight station on ul. Towarowa. A sanitary train marked with Red Cross emblems was waiting there. German soldiers carried the injured on board. They behaved in the correct way and served us a meal—a tasty soup, meat, fruit compote—and distributed cigarettes. The carriages were fitted out with multi-storey beds, coal-fired heaters, and benches. Col. Dr Leon Strehl11 and Col. Dr Bętkowski12 travelled with us. We saw many familiar faces, doctors and nurses, on the train. There were about a thousand of us. We took our hospital equipment, medications, and dressings on board. We did not know where they were taking us to.
We became lethargic. The delicious and filling lunch we had been given, the fairly comfortable beds, and the fact that the Germans had behaved in the correct way—it all left us stunned and stupefied.
There were white-and-red13 flags up in some of the carriages. The young German lieutenant who was the commander of the train was embarrassed when he asked us to take them down, explaining that he would be in trouble with his superiors. In the evening the train set off.
We were heading west. During the night we passed a blacked out Łódź.14 In the early morning we stopped in Ostrów Wielkopolski for an engine change. Local railwaymen gave us some crates of fruit, beer, and tomatoes. Evidently there were still plenty of Polish people here.15 Later we had another fairly long stopover at Głogów station. As we were strolling along the platform, an elderly couple came up to us and started moaning and complaining that they thought they would be going to Zakopane, and what a disappointment it was! They wanted to go back. They were completely unaware of what was going on.
A while later we saw a woman walking her dog with a Red Cross armband for its collar. I told her to take it off immediately, but Her Ladyship went to great lengths trying to persuade me that it was a sanitary dog. So I pulled off the armband myself.
We set off, again on a westward course. In the morning the train stopped on a siding, in the middle of woodland. There were English POWs working on the tracks. I learned from them that we were near Stalag IV—Zeithain, an international POW hospital. Shortly afterwards we disembarked. They made us stand in a column and escorted us through a guarded gateway into a large yard. The wounded were carried on stretchers or on carts pulled by their mates. We put out bags and suitcases down. They split us up into large groups and sent us to a bath-house which was attended by French and Soviet POWs. We exchanged information with them and listened to their advice and instructions. Then we were taken to the camp and put up in twenty-odd barracks vacated by Soviet POWs who had been moved to quarters in another part of the camp. The barracks were dirty and had multi-storey bunks with very worn straw mattresses. Each of them could accommodate 80 to 100 sick and wounded men. It took all day to settle down, throwing out and burning the mattresses, and cleaning the beds with boiling water. We converted some of the rooms into dispensaries or operating theatres, and we set up our X-ray room and pharmacy. Each barrack except for those set aside as residential quarters for the medical staff was to serve as a separate ward. I was allocated Barrack 4, with less serious injuries and convalescents.
Col. Dr Leon Strehl was the Polish commanding officer of our part of the camp, and Col. Dr Bętkowski was chief physician. The Germans took down our personal data and supervised the allocation of quarters. We were in the middle of a huge cluster of barracks arranged in sectors fenced off from one another with a dense mesh of barbed wire. All around there were barbed wire fences and watchtowers with Germans observing us. There were Italians in the next sector, and Yugoslavs, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Canadians, Polish POWs captured in 1939, and finally Russians further along. All in all, there were over 10 thousand of us.
The arrival of our womenfolk caused a lot of commotion in this huge crowd. On the third day there was another sensation. Another transport of wounded POWs arrived from Warsaw. They had left the city a day before us but had a lot of trouble in Łódź, where the local Gestapo stopped them and wanted to send them to Radogoszcz.16 There was a long spell of haggling between the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht, but in the end the Wehrmacht won and the train was allowed to continue on its journey.
We welcomed our friends and acquaintances. Our two trains brought nearly 60 doctors (with their families), about 200 nurses, male orderlies, ancillary staff, and patients. A total of about 2 thousand.17 Men and women, children and old folks. The Germans took down their personal data and were in for a lot of surprises. There was a boy of thirteen who told them he was a corporal. The Germans couldn’t believe it. He showed them his ID card and said he had set fire and burned an enemy tank on the Szpitalna, and was promoted to the rank of corporal for it. So they nodded and registered him as a corporal.
The food was meagre—125 grams (4 oz.) of bread, 20 grams of margarine, and watery ersatz coffee for breakfast. Lunch was soup made of swedes or spinach leaves, and four or five unpeeled potatoes. Supper was just a cup of ersatz coffee. We still had a little food we had brought with us, which we used to supplement these rations. At night we were plagued by bedbugs. It was no use washing the bunks with boiling water, or putting a coat of paraffin or turps on them. Whole brigades of “paratroopers” jumped off the ceilings and landed on us. We squashed them and had them smeared all over our faces and hands. In the morning we looked as if we had streaks of blood all over us. And the rats. They were big, with tall rear legs and long tails, and looked like a cross between a rat and a Siberian musk deer, scampering over the roof beams, squeaking under the floorboards and not particularly scared of humans. Their biggest concentration was in the latrines. At first, we found them repulsive and were scared of them, but later we got used to them.
We set up and organised our operating theatres and X-ray room. Dr Michał Grobelski18 was put in charge of bone surgery, the most demanding ward, and his assistants were Dr Mirosław Vitali19 and myself. We performed redo amputations and tenotomies, removed sequestra, and adjusted stumps for fitting out with artificial limbs. On top of that, we had our own wards to look after. The nurses and orderlies scrubbed the floors, cleaned the doors and windows, washed and groomed the patients, and did the laundry. After a week our barracks were spick and span, and even quite cosy.
At first we did not pay attention to the barbed wire and tried not to look at the fields and forests beyond the fence. We slept well, without worrying, as we had done for a long time, that during the night the Gestapo would come, or a bomb would drop on our heads. In our spare time we washed our underwear or cleaned our clothes. We played bridge and held discussions. One day an elderly nurse asked me if the pet dog she had smuggled into the camp could stay in my barrack. Her nephew was a patient in my ward and could look after him. She was very fond of her doggie, having brought him all the way from Lwów20 and had him in Warsaw during the Uprising, so now she wanted to keep him. I’m a dog lover myself, so I agreed.
Two days later, a group of my convalescents came up to me with a funny look on their faces and asked me for some spirits. They had caught a rabbit, they said, and wanted to treat me to a piece. And indeed, that evening they served me a tasty rabbit leg. Hunger and a drop of alcohol made the roast taste even better. It was delicious. Next day, the lady who owned the dog came to me in tears and said her pet had vanished. I put two and two together and figured out I had had my first taste of dog meat. Originally there were 14 dogs of various breeds and kinds in the camp. They all disappeared in the stomachs of our patients, except for one. The sole survivor was Dr Bętkowski’s setter, presumably out of respect for its master. Col. Bętkowski, a well-known and admired surgeon, had a sharp tongue and addressed his patients in a fairly rude manner. One day during the morning round, he turned to a woman who had had her right thigh amputated and said, “How are you, yer old cow?” “Fine, yer old bull,” the patient replied calmly. After that, he was politer to her.
There were many students in the group of orderlies in medical assistance. One of them was Wacław Sitkowski,21 now a senior Warsaw thoracic surgeon; another was Iwankowicz,22 now practising as a physician in Wrocław; as well as Sołtyński,23 now a doctor working in Warsaw; and others. They worked hard, carrying food, huge pails of water and excrement, scrubbing floors and keeping the camp premises tidy.
The nurses were fully dedicated to their duties. The sick and wounded had to be washed, groomed, and looked after. We got a head lice infestation, something likely to happen if you have wounded and bedridden patients in plaster.
In spite of all the effort put in by our doctors and nurses, there were deaths due to phlegmons and general infections. We suffered from a shortage of sulphonamides, and we hadn’t even heard of antibiotics. The funerals of these soldiers were very modest, in makeshift coffins of wooden planks on a cart pulled by mates of the deceased; there would be a small group of mourners, the chaplain would conduct the funeral service; and there would be one more grave in alien, hostile country. At night we would observe distant streaks of light, and hear the muffled rumble of Allied air squadrons and bombs exploding. Judging by the direction from which they came, we figured out that it must have been air raids on Leipzig, Halle, or Dresden. There was a strict rule that all the windows had to be blacked out as soon as dusk fell. One night in November, the blackout on a window in the women’s barrack was not properly done, and the sentry on the watchtower fired at the streak of light coming from the window and shot a girl sitting on a bunk. We had another funeral and again we were furious with the inflexible Germans, but again there was nothing we could do about it. The behaviour of the German NCOs differed from man to man. Some were docile and gave us warnings on the quiet, fearfully looking around to see if their superiors were watching. Others, the younger ones, were still cocky, still zealously doing their duty and seeming not to know or worry about what was in store for them.
News from the front reached us via the official German papers, but above all we listened secretly to radio broadcasts. The camp kitchen was a place where people from the diverse sectors met, so it was a venue for the exchange of information, the nursery for rumour, and the source for speculation about prospective developments in the course of the war.
We set up a theatre company in our sector, with the actor Mieczysław Milewski24 and Dr Zdzisław Sutorowski25 as its mainspring. Despite the rigid censorship, they managed to smuggle serious and meaningful patriotic performances into their repertoire, alongside the folkloric and comic sketches and the one-act plays. For us, each of their performances was a profound experience.
We were visited by a committee of International Red Cross inspectors from Geneva. There was a lot of avid discussion about the event, and different people drew different conclusions from it. At last in late November the first letters and parcels started to arrive from home, doing a world of good for our mood and establishing some sort of link with our nearest and dearest in faraway Poland. A medical commission examined patients who had recovered, and the fittest were sent to Stalag IV in Mühlberg. The first twenty to leave were sad to part company with us. The rest of us gave them a fond farewell.
My wife and three other women were pregnant. She lived in a special part of Barrack VI, the women’s quarters, separated off from the rest of the barrack. I did all I could to help her. We made nappies out of the sheets we had brought from Warsaw. I obtained a basket from the laundry, in exchange for a packet of cigarettes. It was to serve as a baby bed. I waited anxiously for my wife’s delivery. At last, on 6 December, she gave birth to a boy. The baby was healthy and well-developed, despite the hard conditions in the camp. The German commandant visited the makeshift maternity ward and said that “a new German citizen” had come into the world, born on German soil.
“A chick hatched in a pigsty need not necessarily be a pig,” I retorted in German. His face went red and he left, slamming the door. I expected repercussions, but there were no serious consequences. He even gave the baby a daily allowance of half a litre of milk. The following day, I learned during the camp orders that there was a new POW—my son. He was given a POW number and granted an ordinary POW food ration. Things were better for us now. The birth of a baby in a POW camp was an unprecedented event. Everyone was curious and asked how their new “fellow-inmate” was doing. Gifts started to arrive from the neighbouring sectors—powdered milk, chocolate, condensed milk, porridge oats, in a word—priceless treasures. I proudly took my little one round the camp and showed him off. The first delivery of food parcels from the International Red Cross in Geneva arrived about this time. The Germans delayed for ten days with dispensing them, but in the end they distributed them. The parcels contained margarine, chocolate, powdered milk, Nescafé instant coffee, sugar, cigarettes, biscuits, and tinned meat. We could fortify ourselves and add a little variety to our modest diet. My son was a POW, so he got a parcel, too. The cigarettes were the currency for barter, you could exchange them for bread and other delicacies, even fresh eggs.
At this time, the Eastern Front shifted a considerable distance to the west. There were no more letters and parcels from home. So we sent messages to relatives and friends in the West. I dispatched a message to the Swedish Red Cross and received a magnificent food parcel from them for my son. Hitler’s propaganda machine plugged a monstrously inflated image of the new German offensive in the Ardennes. But we knew they were on their last legs, so we were full of optimism and quietly waited for the war to finish.
Our son was baptised, and on New Year’s Eve we held a rumbustious christening party, with drinks and plenty of open sandwiches. There was singing in a pleasant atmosphere; we all felt we would soon be free. In January, another parcel delivery arrived from Geneva. We were told by the soldiers in the administrative unit that the parcels were big and lightweight, so we speculated that they might contain cigarettes or tea. But it turned out it was women’s sanitary pads!
More and more Allied aircraft were flying overhead, there were more and more bombing raids, and they got heavier and heavier. There were hardly any German planes in sight. Day by day, the Germans were becoming more and more docile. When they escorted us to the bath-house, they would beg for cigarettes and tell us that the war would soon come to an end. That cheered us up.
Meanwhile, more children were born. Now there were four of them. Cradled in laundry baskets, the babies looked magnificent and were doing well. At night we took turns to look after them. We had to wash and dry nappies, bring water, and “organise” briquettes, as the official allowance was not enough, and it was cold in the barrack. We could do it at 2 a.m., when there was a change of guard. We sneaked up to the kitchen along the passageways between the barracks and carried back a heavy bucketful of briquettes. The mothers were on night duty with their babies, clustering round the stove and warding off the rats, which scampered cheekily round the barrack, squeaking and trying to warm themselves next to the stove.
Time passed for us on ordinary doctor’s duties—performing operations, being on call, applying dressings. Our X-ray unit offered a service for POWs from other sectors as well. We had emaciated, sick Soviet POWs coming for X-rays.
Easter came. It was warm and joyful, since we knew for sure it would be our last Easter in captivity. The fronts were closing in on us both from the east and west. The air raids were getting more and more frequent. The last one on the railway station near the camp damaged the watchtowers and some of the barracks near the station. Luckily, none of the POWs were hurt.
We celebrated Easter in the traditional way. We had śmigus-dyngus,26 splashing each other with buckets full of water. Afterwards, the womenfolk had a lot of work, cleaning and drying the floors! And of course, we also had Gaiczek zielony, pięknie przystrojony27 and other folk songs. The Germans watched it curiously, and the Italians came up to the barbed wire separating us and stood there as if glued to it.
The Scales. Marian Kolodziej. Photo by Piotr Markowski. Click to enlarge.
One day in April, I was on call in the camp. One of my duties was visiting the camp prison and treating the arrestees. This jail was situated in the middle of the camp, adjoining the Yugoslav sector. I went there with the orderly, Dr Rysia Vitali,28 the wife of Dr Mirosław Vitali. We were escorted by Hans, a Landsturm29 veteran. People in the camp said you could buy old Hans with his boots if you greased his palm with a cigarette. When we got to the jail, we could not find the provost,30 an NCO everyone hated, so I opened the bolts to the cells, handed over the letters and cigarettes to the boys, and quickly changed two dressings. As I was leaving, I bumped into the provost. He was furious and started insulting me, calling me a Polish bandit, and was about to hit me. I lost my temper, gave him a punch in the face and yelled at him in German, calling him a Lausbub.31
He staggered, put his hand on his holster, and was about to draw his pistol out, but Hans stood in front of me with his gun. The Yugoslavian POWs who were watching shouted their heads off. In the end I was taken to the camp’s headquarters to stand trial.
I cooled down, took a calm appraisal of my situation, and realised I was in serious trouble. Dr Vitali, who had accompanied me, was released straightaway. Now I was attended by two German soldiers with bayonets on their guns, waiting outside the commandant’s office. All I could see through the window was that there was a lot of commotion in the whole camp, with crowds of catcalling POWs. Finally, I was led into the commandant’s office. There were five officers sitting behind the table, with the commandant in the middle. The provost I had buffeted had already made his statement. I called for an interpreter, claiming that I didn’t speak German. The NCO protested, saying that I had a good knowledge of German, as I had insulted him in German. Nonetheless, they had an interpreter brought in.
Standing at attention, I took my time to calmly relate the incident, and said, “I am an officer and a physician, and in the course of carrying out my duty I was insulted by a German soldier. A person still has his honour, no matter whether he is a free man or being held in captivity. I am convinced that if you had been in my situation you would have behaved in the same way.”
I saw that my line of defence had made a big impression on the court. The commandant responded in a fairly restrained way, and said, “We appreciate the fact that this soldier behaved badly and you were offended, but what would happen if all of you started to take justice into your own hands?”
At this, I thought to myself that my situation was not so bad, especially when I saw that outside trustees representing all the different sectors were running up to the HQ building along the radially arranged drives leading up to it. Evidently, they were coming to voice their support for me. I was asked to wait in the corridor for the verdict. Again, I was under military escort, with bayonets pointing at me. I noticed that the Germans were uneasy, which made me feel slightly better. I could hear my judges raising their voices on the other side of the door. The trustees were waiting in the adjacent room, and from time to time one of them would pop his head out and gesture to me to keep my spirits up. After an hour I was led in again to face the judges. For the time being I was to be acquitted, and I would learn what my punishment would be during the commandant’s orders on the following day. That was the verdict. I heaved a sigh of relief. I was carried by the trustees back to our sector. I was given a warm welcome and congratulated, but some people had sinister forebodings what my punishment would be. Perhaps they might shoot me? But for the time being, I was glad to be alive and tried to persuade myself that it would be unthinkable for them to commit such an abominable deed on the eve of being vanquished. On the next day, I learned that I had been given a suspended sentence of three weeks’ imprisonment, and the period of suspension was two months. I heaved a sigh of relief. My friends congratulated me, and my wife was overjoyed. It had been a bad night for her.
Meanwhile, the front was getting nearer and nearer. Searchlights lit up the night sky and you could hear the rumble of distant gunfire. We looked out through the barbed wire, hoping to spot our liberators. Finally, at dawn on 24 April,32 the first mounted units of the Red Army appeared. They were riding small horses. We were very happy to see them. Tanks and Katyushas33 followed them along the road near the camp. Then there was an exchange of fire with Germans who were still putting up a defence along the River Elbe, which was 7 km away from the camp.
For three days we had been watching long columns of Germans fleeing with their belongings. The roads were overcrowded, and some of them spilled over into the fields, as they headed west in a cross-country style, with their children, their belongings, and their livestock. Now there was turmoil, they were all dead scared and running for the ferry over the Elbe. They were being paid back for September 1939,34 for our bitterness over the occupation of Poland and the Uprising. Soviet command was still reckoning with a potential counter-offensive. Many POWs left the camp and headed east. We had to stay behind to look after the sick and wounded. I covered the baby with a mattress and the three of us went down into the anti-aircraft tunnel. Another few rounds from the Katyushas, the whistling and roaring thud of a few more German shells from the direction of the Elbe and suddenly—there was silence ringing in our ears. The last German defence on this stretch of the front had been broken. Now we knew that for us the war was over. Columns of German POWs were marching past the camp. We watched them without rancour or fear. The camp’s German personnel was rounded up and assembled on the premises. Major Leontiev took command of the camp on behalf of the Soviet authorities and called a meeting of all the doctors. He asked us in a friendly and straightforward way what we needed and promised to help with supplies. We admitted about a dozen wounded Soviet soldiers to the hospital and operated them.
Next day we went to the Soviet sector of the camp. The bodies of POWs who had died of exhaustion and emaciation lay in the midst of those who had survived but were debilitated and seriously ill. It was a shocking sight. Although we had been separated off from them by barbed wire, we knew that they were suffering from indigence and deprivation, yet we never expected it to be this bad. We carried them to the barracks vacated by healthy POWs of other nationalities who had left the camp.
The last days of April were marked by the mass evacuation of POWs of diverse nationalities. They took various directions. American troops were stationed on the other side of the river, 12 km away from the camp. Italians, Frenchmen, Belgians, Norwegians, Americans, and Britons headed west. The Poles and the Russians took an eastward course. After three days of this exodus, there were still over 2 thousand sick and wounded left in the camp, most of them Polish or Russian. There were a few Italians and Serbs, but they all needed further treatment and care. There were about 30 of us doctors. During the day, after hours of hard work, we went round the local countryside on bikes to find Polish survivors of concentration camps who were sick and extremely exhausted, and needed to be taken into hospital. So, new patients were put in the beds vacated by those who had left, and we still had just as much work as before. For the time being, we enjoyed being able to go out beyond the barbed wire. The weather was fine that spring. We had plenty of food, fresh milk, tins of condensed cream from the well-stocked SS stores, and large quantities of meat. We got a whole block of margarine per head, so we bartered it for vegetables and early cherries. The girls made themselves pretty chequered skirts out of bed linen found in the German stores. We were all making plans for the future, glad that the war was over.
On the day before 1 May35 the commanding officers held a gala meeting. We watched the latest newsreels of the war, which we knew was still going on in the suburbs of Berlin, although for us it had finished.
There was a May Day reception. We were wined and dined in the company of Soviet officers. They treated us to vodka which they usually kept in petrol canisters. It was awful, but we had to drink it down because of the toasts. Afterwards we were sick—too bad.
Every day we listened to news broadcasts on the latest fighting, but finally the Germans surrendered and the war was really over.
Around 15 May a large group, about 500-strong, left the camp for Poland. They took food supplies for the journey, travelled on carts, and were allowed by Soviet command to be escorted by their own unit of armed bodyguards. We bade them a friendly farewell, envying them somewhat. We still had to stay behind to look after those who could not travel. There were still 16 doctors and about a hundred nurses left. We were looking forward to the prospect of returning home, so we did not mind all the hard work. I was put in charge of the nursing mothers’ barrack. By this time there were six babies. All of them had prams, which had come from the neighbouring towns or had been found in the environs of the camp. The Germans had used them to transport their belongings and then abandoned them. Every day, I used to take the mothers and babies out of the camp for a stroll. I felt like a gander in charge of a gaggle of geese. The babies were in good health and there was plenty of milk for them. A loading dose of vitamin D we acquired in the town of Riesa stopped the development of rickets, which we had noticed in some of the children.
Our only worry was for our nearest and dearest in Poland. Were they alive, and where had they landed up in the aftermath of wartime turmoil? We had very good relations with the Soviet commanding officers36 in charge of the camp. Maj. Leontiev, himself a doctor, took a keen interest in the sick and wounded, offering consolation and a prospect of a brighter future in a free Poland. One day in mid-June he came to my barrack and said on the quiet there was a chance for us to return home. He was sending a bus to Bolesławiec,37 and if we wanted, we could take it. We had a short discussion and decided we’d go. Next morning, five mothers and babies, as well as our NCO from the administrative unit, were ready. We put the babies and our modest belongings on the bus. Those who were left in the camp said goodbye, and we were off on our way home.
I have a dreamlike memory of the ruined, depopulated German towns we passed, the wrecked vehicles, tanks, and guns, and the piles of broken and smashed equipment. The two Soviet bus drivers were friendly and helped us fetch water and get milk for the children. Finally, we reached the bridge over the Neisse and arrived in Zgorzelec. We saw Polish border posts and Polish soldiers. We were deeply moved—this was Poland! We had a short chat with them, asking lots of questions. What was going on in Poland, what were things like? We were happy and deeply moved. Soon we were in Bolesławiec. The town was full of ruins, but the railway station had come out of it relatively unharmed. There were crowds of refugees in it, all waiting for a lift to take them east. Our documents and a special letter of reference from Maj. Leontiev helped us get a place on a goods train that was waiting on the platform. We boarded and were off for Legnica. After a few hours, the train stopped at a small station in the middle of nowhere. We had to get off, because it was needed to transport freight. It started to rain. To get the babies out of the rain, we took cover in a half-dilapidated railway cabin that was full of litter. There was nothing the station manager could do to help us. No trains were scheduled to stop there within the next 24 hours. In the morning it stopped raining, the sun came out and it was warm. The prospects for the future looked brighter. In the afternoon, a long goods train carrying “war trophies” stopped at the station.
I had a talk with Maj. Przepiórkowski, the officer in charge of the train. He was a Russian, but of Polish descent. His ancestors were Poles who had been deported to Siberia.38 He was sorry for the children and let us board a carriage carrying machinery and metal pipes. So, we could continue our journey. With plenty of adventures on the way, we travelled via Legnica, Rawicz, Krotoszyn, Herby, and Częstochowa, where we parted ways with the rest of the group. Finally, after ten days of travel, my wife, the baby and I reached our family in Kielce.
Our POW odyssey was over.
Translated from original article: Zygmunt Kujawski, “Z powstania warszawskiego do obozu w Zeithain.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1971.
- The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (1 August-3 October). Not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.
- Stefan Tarnawski (nom-de-guerre Tarło, 1898–2001). Graduated in Medicine from Warsaw University in 1926. Head of the sanitary unit of the Light Cavalry Regiment in the Mazovian Cavalry Brigade (Pułk Szwoleżerów w Mazowieckiej Brygadzie Kawalerii) during the Polish defence campaign against the German invasion in September 1939. One of the commanding officers of the medical service in the Home Army’s High Command, 1944. Head of the sanitary service in Grupa Północ (the Northern Group) during the 1944 Uprising. Following evacuation via the underground sewerage network to the City Centre, as of 5 October 1944 served as commanding officer of the field hospital at No. 17 on ul. Śniadeckich. The field hospitals at Nos. 13 and 17 on ul. Lwowska were also under his authority. Left Warsaw for Kraków with the sick and wounded from the hospital at No. 17, and was appointed head of Ujazdów Hospital, which was evacuated to Kraków. Sources: Mariusz Jędrzejko, Mariusz Lesław Krogulski, and Marek Paszkowski, Generałowie i admirałowie III Rzeczypospolitej: 1989–2002, Warsaw: Von Borowiecky, 2002; www.1944.pl.
- Jerzy Kaczyński (nom-de-guerre Bogdan, 1916–2011). Graduate of Centrum Wyszkolenia Sanitarnego (a sanitary training college); graduated in Medicine in 1940. Served in the sanitary unit of the Radosław Group as of 2 August 1944. On transferring to the Old Town, served as a doctor in the insurgents' hospital at No. 25, ul. Podwale. On transferring to the Czerniaków district, served as head of the hospital at No. 2, ul. Okręg. Source: Archiwum Historii Mówionej Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego. www.1944.pl, www.spp1944.org.
- Krynica and Zakopane—holiday resorts in the mountains of southern Poland.
- The Gęsiówka—colloquial name for a prison set up in 1941 in the army barracks at the street junction of the Gęsia and Zamenhofa in the part of Warsaw the Germans segregated off for the Jewish ghetto. They used it to confine Jewish detainees and destroyed it in 1943 when they crushed the Ghetto Uprising. Source: Władysław Bartoszewski, Warszawski pierścień śmierci 1939–1944, Warsaw: Zachodnia Agencja Prasowa, 1967 (first edition). English translation: Warsaw Death Ring 1939-1944; transl. by Edward Rothert, Warsaw: Interpress, 1968.
- The Home Army (Polish Armia Krajowa, the AK)—the largest armed resistance organisation in occupied Poland (and occupied Europe) during World War 2, with a peak membership of about 390 thousand. The AK was the main combatant force in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against occupying German forces.
- Rota (“The Pledge”)—a Polish anthem with a double set of words: originally a patriotic, anti-German poem by Maria Konopnicka, but also with an alternative religious version, sung in Polish churches during important Roman Catholic ceremonies. The author does not specify which version he means.
- Das Brandkommando (German “the fire-lighters’ unit”). After crushing the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the Germans started looting the city and set about its destruction. Once they had cleared its residential and public buildings, and its industrial premises of everything they considered useful, they sent in the Brandkommando to burn all the buildings down, house by house. The arsonists were followed by the Sprengkommando, a unit of military engineers, to blow up specially selected sites.
- Krystyna Zofia Kujawska (nom-de-guerre Magda)—during the Uprising served as an orderly in the Kiliński batallion and in the field hospital run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament on Rynek Nowego Miasta. On 6 December 1944 she was delivered of a son, Michał, in Zeithain POW camp. Anna Kaczyńska (nom-de-guerre Anula; 1918–2005)—served as a nurse in Centralny Szpital Chirurgiczny nr 1 (No. 1 Central Surgical Hospital) at No 7 on ul. Długa. Source: www.1944.pl.
- The medical evacuees took all their hospital equipment with them to the POW camp. This included the resources of the operating theatre, X-ray room, dental surgery, analytics lab, medical workshop, kitchen, laundry, medications and dressings. Source: Stanisław Bayer, Służba zdrowia Warszawy w walce z okupantem 1939–1945, Warsaw: MON, 1985.
- Leon Strehl (nom-de-guerre Feliks; 1891-1960)—obtained a PhD in Medicine from the University of Warsaw in 1923. Appointed head of the sanitary service for Armia Warszawa, 7 September 1939. In April 1940 Ujazdów Military Hospital (Polski Wojskowy Okręgowy Szpital nr 5—Szpital Ujazdowski w Warszawie) was granted the status of a Warsaw municipal hospital, and Strehl became its head. Appointed head of the sanitary service of AK High Command in March 1944. During the Uprising organised the evacuation of the Maltese Hospital from ul. Senatorska. Took part in the surrender negotiations, trying to secure the best possible conditions for the evacuation of the wounded. Left Warsaw on the second transport for Stalag IVB/Z Zeithain in Saxony, taking all the equipment of the hospital’s operating theatre and reserve medical resources. Sources: Andrzej K. Kunert, Słownik biograficzny konspiracji warszawskiej 1939–1945, Warsaw: Pax, 1987, Vol. 2, 167–168; www.1944.pl.
- Tadeusz Józef Bętkowski (nom-de-guerre Tata; 1889–1966), obtained a PhD in Medicine from Charles University, Prague, in 1915. Under wartime occupation appointed chief surgeon of Ujazdów Hospital. Gave university classes and lectures for the Polish clandestine educational system. Served during the Warsaw Uprising as commanding officer and chief surgeon of the field hospital at No. 17, ul. Wspólna. Sources: Czesław Jeśmian, “Tadeusz Bętkowski.” In Józef Bogusz and Witold Rudowski (eds.), Sylwetki chirurgów polskich. Warsaw: PAN Ossolineum; 1982. www.1944.pl.
- The white-and-red flag—the national colours of the Republic of Poland.
- Łódź, a large industrial city in central Poland, about 140 km (88 miles) south-west of Warsaw.
- When the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, they split the country up and incorporated its western territories in the German Reich, implementing a policy of total Germanisation by “resettling” (i.e. evicting its ethnic Polish and Jewish population) to the eastern part of the Polish territories under German occupation, which they called the Generalgouvernement, and installing German settlers in the depopulated areas.
- Radogoszcz—during the war a suburb, and now a district of Łódź. In 1940 the Germans set up a prison, Erweitertes Polizeigefängnis, Radegast, on the premises of a local cotton mill.
- According to Iwankiewicz, 1,572 wounded patients and medical staff were sent to Zeithain, including 63 doctors, 183 nurses and orderlies, pharmacologists, 60 ancillary staff, and 237 families with children. Source: Stanisław Iwankiewicz, “Polski Szpital Wojskowy w Zeithain.” Pamiętnik Towarzystwa Lekarskiego Warszawskiego. 2003(1): 137. See also Felicjan Majorkiewicz, Lata chmurne, lata dumne, Warsawa: Pax; 1983.
- Michał Grobelski (nom-de-guerre Doktor Zygmunt; 1889–1971) graduated from Poznań University in 1923. During the Warsaw Uprising served as commanding officer of the first aid station at No. 12 on ul. Krucza. Worked in the field hospital at No. 27, ul. Wspólna, and later at No. 17, ul. Śniadeckich. Source: www.1944.pl
- Mirosław Vitali (nom-de-guerre Jerzy; 1914–1992). Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Warsaw in 1939. During the Warsaw Uprising he and his wife Maria ran a field hospital in the basement of a stationer’s shop at No. 11, ul. Moniuszki; and later the Architektura hospital at No. 31, ul. Koszykowa. After his liberation from Zeithain, Dr Vitali joined Gen. Anders’ Polish Second Corps and later settled in England, where he worked in Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, and was a consultant to Westminster Hospital and honorary adviser to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital. Sources: www.szpitale1944.pl; http://biega.com/vitali.html.
- Prior to the war of 1939–1945, the city of Lwów was on the territory of the Republic of Poland, in the eastern part of the country. During the war it was occupied first by the Soviets and later by the Germans. In the post-war settlement negotiated at Potsdam and Yalta it was ceded to the Soviet Union. It now belongs to Ukraine and is generally known by its Ukrainian name, Lviv.
- Wacław Sitkowski (nom-de-guerre Wacek; 1924-2010). Started his medical education on a clandestine course in Zaorski’s School in 1942. Worked as an X-ray technician in the Warsaw Railway Hospital on ul. Brzeska, 1940–1944. Source: www.1944.pl.
- The text misspells the actual name of Stanisław Iwankiewicz (nom-de-guerre Jacek; 1920–2010). Started his national service in August 1939 in the Warsaw school for sanitary ensigns (Szkoła Podchorążych Sanitarnych w Warszawie). Served as an orderly in the 104th Field Hospital in the defensive campaign of September 1939. Served in the Warsaw Uprising in the liaison platoon of the Krybar and Sławbor—Śródmieście Południe Groups. After the surrender, appointed head of the secretariat of the Polish Military Hospital at Zeithain. Completed his medical studies and graduated from the Wrocław Medical Academy in 1950. Source: www.1944.pl.
- Andrzej Sołtyński (nom-de-guerre Andrzejewski; 1913–2012), during the war a student of the Warsaw University of Technology, attending clandestine undergraduate classes. During the Warsaw Uprising served in the Warsaw Motorised Division (Dywizjon Motorowy Obszaru Warszawa). Source: Archiwum Historii Mówionej Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego.
- Mieczysław Loretz-Milewski (1907–1988), actor. Warsaw Uprising combatant, in the Dzik company and the Iwo and Ostoja batallions. Source: www.1944.pl.
- Zdzisław Sutorowski (nom-de-guerre Inżynier; 1908–1996)—deputy head of the sanitary service of the City Centre— South sub-area (Podobwód Śródmieście Południowe). Source: www.1944.pl.
- Śmigus-dyngus—a Polish folk custom that takes place on Easter Monday and consists of splashing each other with water, sometimes by the bucketful.
- “Gaiczek zielony, pięknie przystrojony”—“Little green coppice, with pretty decorations”—a Polish folk song sung by a group of youngsters during a springtime tradition of walking round the village like the Christmas tradition of carol-singing from house to house.
- Rysia Vitali—Maria “Rysia” Vitali (1914-1992), dentist. During the Warsaw Uprising she and her husband worked in the field hospitals at ul. Moniuszki 11 and ul. Koszykowa 31. Source: www.1944.pl.
- Landsturm (German)–militia of inferior quality in terms of battle-worthiness; this term suggests Hans was a First World War veteran.
- Provost—a military police NCO in charge of a prison.
- Lausbub—German for “rascal,” a mildly offensive term, literally “lousy fellow.”
- The German commanding officers and sentries left Zeithain POW camp on 21 April, and the Red Army entered on 23 April 1945.
- Katyusha—a Soviet rocket launcher.
- In the early hours of 1 September 1939 German troops invaded Poland. For over a month Polish forces fought to defend their country. On 17 September Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east.
- 1 May—May Day, International Labour Day, was celebrated as a national holiday in the Soviet Union and later in all the countries of the Soviet Bloc.
- When the Uprising broke out in left-bank Warsaw, Red Army units were stationing on the right bank, but did nothing good to help the insurgents, which obviously gave rise to a great deal of bitterness. Dr Kujawski could not mention this in his account, owing to the censorship imposed by the Communist authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland. Perhaps what he really meant by writing of “very good relations with the Soviet commanding officers” was that he was surprised; maybe he was not expecting relations to be “very good.”
- Bolesławiec—a town in the south-western corner of present-day Poland, 55 km (34 miles) from the country’s border with Germany.
- From 1795 to 1918, when Poland was deprived of its independence and its territories were partitioned between 3 neighbouring states (Russia, Prussia, and Austria), thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia in reprisals for the uprisings Polish patriots made against the Russian Partitioning Power. As a result of the deportations, and also due to free migration, a fairly large Polish ethnic minority grew up in Russia.
Notes courtesy of Anna Marek, Expert Consultant on the history of medicine for the Medical Review Auschwitz project.
A publication funded in 2020–2021 within the DIALOG Program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.