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A Brief History of the Polish Resistance

When I first went to live in Poland in 1994, I didn’t know anything about the Polish resistance during the war. I first learned of it in one of the barrack displays at Auschwitz, but I thought then that the … Read More

By / September 25, 2009


When I first went to live in Poland in 1994, I didn’t know anything about the Polish resistance during the war. I first learned of it in one of the barrack displays at Auschwitz, but I thought then that the word "resistance" referred strictly to the military operation at the beginning of the war, when after 27 days, the major cities were decimated and the Polish army was finally overpowered.

Through extensive research for the World War II thread of my novel, I later found that these 27 days were only the opening salvo of the intricate underground resistance that the Poles orchestrated throughout the five years of Nazi occupation. This network stretched to involve the vast majority of Poles, either in active roles or as sympathetic to the cause. The government-in-exile, located in London from 1939 to 1989, primarily raised funds and tried to convince especially the British and American governments to become more involved in Poland’s and the Polish Jews’ plight. The partisan fighters spearheaded the efforts inside the country.

The two main umbrella armies for most of the war were the AK (The Home Army) and the AL (The People’s Army). At its height, the Home Army alone numbered 350,000 fighters, usually clustered into cells of 3-5 men, only one of whom was in contact with the leaders. Thoughout the war, they were engaged in sabotage (bombing thousands of Nazi trains, train tracks, military vehicles and supply routes) as well as intelligence, setting up networks of messengers, newsletters and radio stations that would broadcast information to the West from the middle of the Polish woods for very short periods of time. There were even a few partisans who were voluntarily interred in labor and death camps so they could help to smuggle information to the outside world about what exactly was occurring there.

Another key mission of the partisans was to deter collaboration with the Nazis. A special detachment of the Home Army was dedicated especially to "revenge"–carrying out the sentences of the underground court system, which actively tried and convicted those Poles who had provided information or other assistance to Nazi soldiers. These collaborators were known as szmalcowniks, so nicknamed after the Polish word for "grease".

But the partisans would not have been able to operate so effectively without the continuous support of the rest of the population. Like the characters of "Pigeon" (most partisans took on animal names as their nom-de-guerre) and W?adys?aw Jagie??o in my novel, many of the partisans spent the entire war effectively homeless, living either in bunkers in the woods or by staying in the barns of sympathetic farmers. Priests and other trusted members of communities kept lists of people who would provide food, shelter and other assistance to the partisans.

There were many Jewish resistance fighters as well, who chose to embed themselves in these cells rather than join the Jewish underground. One of the only first-person partisan accounts I found is a memoir called Fire Without Smoke by Florian Mayevski, a Jewish Pole who fought with the Home Army. In my novel, I wanted to represent these often overlooked Jews, who actively went into combat against the Nazis. After one gruesome visit by the Nazi soldiers in the area, Berek, the son of the Jewish family who lives in the cellar in Half-Village, grows sick of hiding and joins up with the People’s Army.

Besides the partisans, there were numerous other underground efforts devoted to education, culture and civil disobedience. The detachment in charge of civil disobedience regularly issued missives to the general population about how to best resist the Nazis through passive means. This was not difficult to convince the average Pole to hold their occupiers in contempt. Catholic Poles were not considered Aryan by the Nazis, but were racially defined as "Untermenschen," or "subhuman." Since early in the war, the Nazis had closed and prohibited Polish schools, universities, publishers, theaters and cultural institutions, executing or sending to the camps many teachers, professors, priests and intellectuals. Poles were not allowed to own radios, sing Polish folk songs or keep books or other Polish "cultural relics," which had been replaced by everything German. Underground schools, universities, theaters, and self-published books and newspapers proliferated across the country.

Of course, one of the underground organizations most frequently written about is the one that was in charge of providing direct assistance to the Jews. It was called ?egota, named after an imaginary man named Konrad ?egota. ?egota often partnered with the Jewish underground resistance to forge papers, smuggle people, especially children, out of the ghetto, and provide supplies and weapons. Many of the 6,000+ Righteous Polish Gentiles assisted Jews through this unified effort. One who has been in the news recently is Irena Sendler, who smuggled an estimated 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and placed them with Polish Catholic families, or in convents or orphanages, burying their true identities in jars so their families could be located after the war. ?egota was also actively engaged in converting Poles who, though rabidly anti-Nazi, were not sympathetic to the plight of the Jews. One famous leaflet, distributed widely in 1942 at the beginning of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, described the atrocities committed against the Jews in great detail, condemned the worldwide silence in the face of these atrocities, and concluded that anyone who did not protest against the "bloody spectacle taking place on Polish soil…is neither a Catholic nor a Pole."

 I couldn’t have said it better.

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