WARSAW LIBERATION DAY
International Herald Tribune:
MOSCOW - Warsaw fell today [Jan. 17] before the Russian hurricane which shattered the German line in Poland and pushed to within 15 miles of the Reich border. The order of the day, issued by Marshal Josef Stalin, testified to the utter defeat of the Wehrmacht on the Polish frontier. It proclaimed the liberation of Warsaw after more than five years of Nazi domination. Fourteen European capitals have now been freed from German occupation.
"Liberated" and "freed" are still the commonly used verbs for this landmark in the war. Here is what liberation looked like:
The photo is by Leonard Sempolinski, a Polish photographer riding with the Russians. His pictures of Warsaw after its destruction are unforgettable. For some reason this was the only one I could find online. Some other photos of the ruins are here, but they were taken later. In mid-January a heavy snow was falling, and it drifted thickly and finished the picture of the dead city as a miles-long cemetery, white on the blackness of "crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns."
The pianist Władysław Szpilman, who returned to the city after its liberation, described one small bit of it in his memoirs:
I was walking down a broad main road, once busy and full of traffic, its whole length now deserted. There was not a single intact building as far as the eye could see. I kept having to walk round mounds of rubble, and was sometimes obliged to climb over them as if they were scree slopes. My feet became entangled in a confused mess of ripped telephone wires and tramlines, and scraps of fabric that had once decorated flats or clothed human beings now long since dead.
The Soviets had paused outside Warsaw, on the banks of the Vistula, all winter while the Nazis and the AK battled to the death within. It was not the Soviet strategy to batter their heads against a city, and they had reached Warsaw after a dramatic advance that had perhaps outrun supplies. But the decision to let the slaughter of patriotic Poles go on in the city certainly was to Stalin's political advantage.
A human skeleton lay by the wall of a building, under a rebel barricade. It was not large, and the bone structure was delicate. It must be the skeleton of a girl, since long blond hair could be seen on the skull. Hair resists decay longer than any other part of the body. Beside the skeleton lay a rusty carbine, and there were remnants of clothing around the bones of the right arm, with a red and white armband where the letters AK [Home Army] had been shot away.
There are not even such remains left of my sisters, beautiful Regina and youthful, serious Halina, and I shall never find a grave where I could go to pray for their souls.
On January 17, Warsaw's war was over. Or was it? It is easy to talk of VE day and VJ day in the United States. The further you get from us, the less clear those things become. When did Warsaw's war end? The war in Europe began when Germany attacked Poland, followed soon, by agreement, by a Soviet stab in the back. In 1945, one of the two conquerors pushed the other out of Poland and settled down to own it. Was it over then? Or in 1989?
On January 17, 1945, word spread in Auschwitz that the camp was to be evacuated. The next day, the Nazis began moving people out.
Those in the sick ward figured they'd be shot when the rest departed, and a few of them who could do so thus got up and rejoined the general population, after bidding farewell to their comrades. Some 20,000 or so then marched out under guard. As it turned out, only a handful of them survived the ensuing death marches up and down central Europe.
The British and Americans would find the pitiful remnant, and the corpses of the last of the dead, when they overran Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald later in the spring. Those were not death camps, but it was where the death trail ended, and the sight and smell of it so infuriated the liberators that Americans in some cases killed disarmed German guards who had surrendered. War crime?
When the Russians got to Auschwitz they said nothing about it in public until after the end of the Third Reich. The few inmates left behind by the SS, including the sick ward, were abandoned, not shot. But the Russians then moved them into other camps. One of the January 17 sickroom patients did not get home until October. His name was Primo Levi.
In between, between the German departure and the Russian arrival, he lived through a chapter from Dante. Twelve of them remained in the tiny sickroom. The heat was off and temperatures fell below zero. Broken men staggered outside -- living corpses the Nazis had neither herded off in the death marches nor dispatched with a merciful bullet. Rotted with dysentery, they crawled through the filth of the grounds or feebly brawled with each other over putrid potatoes, "cursing in Yiddish between their frozen lips." Sporadic shellfire rained down, and when it did the zombies clawed at the sickroom walls for shelter, but the inmates barricaded themselves within.
Death was within, too. Two of the 12 died, including a Hungarian chemist who spent his last hours in delirium, repeating only the slave's obedient "Jawohl! Jawohl!" over and over till in the middle of the frozen night he toppled from his bunk to the floor, dead. On January 27, Levi and a Frenchman decided to carry the Hungarian corpse outside. As weakened as they were, they lifted the dead man easily -- he weighed so little. As they tossed his body in the snow, the Russians arrived.
When did Levi's war end? Did his war ever end? He was found dead in 1987 on the floor of the interior landing of his third-story apartment in Turin. The coroner called it suicide. Elie Wiesel said, "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier."
On January 17, 1945, the Germans, besieged in Budapest by the Red Army, withdrew from the western half of the city, across the Danube, to concentrate on defense of the east half. Traffic clogged the five beautiful old bridges over the river, and the next day, once it was over, the Germans blew up all five. As the Soviets liberated the evacuated western half of the Hungarian capital on January 17, they arrested Raoul Wallenberg, first secretary of the Swedish legation in Budapest.
Wallenberg is said to have saved more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews by initiating an unorthodox plan to give Swedish passes to Jews to protect them against deportation. In some cases, he was said to have climbed aboard trains waiting to leave for the death camps and pushed bundles of Swedish passes to the Jews within, then harangued officials on the train until they honored the passes.
The Soviets may have suspected he was working for the Americans. Perhaps he was. In 1957, under international pressure, they released a document they claimed to have found in their archives stating that "the prisoner Wallenberg, who is known to you, died last night in his cell." The document was dated July 17, 1947, and was signed by Col. Aleksandr L. Smoltsov, then head of the Lubyanka prison infirmary. The note was addressed to Viktor Abakumov, the Soviet minister of state security. Rumors persisted, however, that he was still alive even at that date.
When did his war end?
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