I’ve wanted to write a brief history of Warsaw Uprising and what it’s like to visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum for the past couple of weeks but it really took me a while to sit down and actually do it.
Honestly, I loved going to the Warsaw Rising Museum so much when I visited in 2016 that I don’t know how I haven’t written about it before. Though when I sat down to write this I figured it out.
It’s a lot to cover.
And I won’t cover everything – I can’t possibly cover everything. I apologize in advance for anything that I leave out.
But I know there are probably a lot of people who’ve never heard of the Warsaw Uprising. I’m Jewish and I didn’t know about it. I never learned about it in my Holocaust class in high school. I don’t think they depicted it in Schindler’s List (which I saw for the first time when I was 9). And it definitely wasn’t covered in my regular World History classes in grade school.
So, without further adieu, here’s a somewhat brief history of the Warsaw Uprising that took place in 1944.
A Brief Timeline of the Warsaw Uprising
From what I’ve gathered, the Polish people had wanted to rise up against the Germans for a while before August 1st, 1944 (I mean, obviously, they were terrorists).
The Polish Home Army knew that the Soviets were closing in from the East and even if the Soviets liberated them, they knew they’d then be considered Soviet territory. However, this was the opposite of what they wanted: they wanted to be a pro-Western capitalist Poland (if the Soviets had captured the city, they would’ve wanted them to be a pro-Soviet socialist society).
Here are some basic facts about the Warsaw Uprising, aka Operation Tempest. It started on August 1st, 1944 and ended on October 2nd, 1944. That’s 63 days that the Polish people held off the most powerful army in Europe with no training and very few weapons. That’s amazing.
When the Uprising first started, the Polish Home Army had somewhere between 20,000 and 49,000 soldiers. There were also other underground contributors, mainly the National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army, who had trained in urban guerilla warfare for years. There were even Polish Jews who had escaped from the confines and treacherous conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto helping fight.
Colonel Antoni Chruściel divided the units into 8 sections, whose names I’m not even going to begin to try to spell. There were estimated to be 15 different countries who contributed to the Uprising, too, whether by actual fighting on the streets and underground or airdropping supplies. Certain supplies, including tanks, were obtained through capturing the enemy’s. They also held workshops to make weapons during the uprising, including submachine guns, flamethrowers, grenades, mortars, and an armored car.
When the uprising began on 1 August, according to Wikipedia, the Polish Home Army’s supplies consisted of roughly 1,000 guns, 1,750 pistols, 300 submachine guns, 60 assault rifles, 7 heavy machine guns, 20 anti-tank guns, and 25,000 hand grenades. By the end of August they needed to hold back the 17,000 German troops that were now stationed in the city.
The First Night
After numerous hesitations, the Polish Home Army planned to begin the Uprising at 5pm on August 1st. It turns out that it’s hard to conceal the mobilization of thousands of men and women, so by 4:30pm on August 1st, the Germans knew what was going on and put their military on alert (they’d been expecting an uprising at some point anyways, but they had no idea how big it would be). The start of the Uprising was called, by the Polish, “The W-Hour.” Because of the inability to conceal thousands of troops, the uprising technically began before the official W-Hour (5pm).
On the first eve of the uprising, the Polish Home Army captured the main post office and power station, the Prudential Center, and a major German arsenal. After one day of fighting, the resistance fighters had successfully taken hold of the Old Town, Castle Square, and Wola districts. After the first crucial hours of the Uprising, civilians began to help the Polish Home Army with building barricades and going on the defensive against the Germans and by August 4th, the resistance fighters controlled most of Warsaw.
SS Chief Heinrich Himmler tried to spin the loss of control of Warsaw to Hitler by saying that it was a good thing because after 6 or 7 weeks, everyone in the city will have died and it will then be theirs to conquer and their last major blockade in their march eastwards will be gone.
Roadblocks for the Resistance
The resistance only had enough supplies to last a few days before the Soviets arrived, but when they never did, they were forced to keep standing their ground against the Germans which proved to be a difficult task with their limited resources.
As amazing as the resistance was it wasn’t all sunshine all the time (obviously). There were resistance fighters who tried to take Praga (on the east side of the river) and block the Germans from accessing the Vistula River and the bridges until the Soviets arrived. After a short time, though, they realized they were badly outnumbered by the Germans and with no Soviets in sight, they were forced to retreat back underground.
The Wola Massacre
The German’s plan was to wear down the Polish people’s will to fight. They thought the best way to do this would be a massacre, known as the Wola Massacre in the Wola district of Warsaw. On August 4th, 1944, Himmler gave orders to start knocking on each and every door in Wola and shoot whoever was inside, regardless of age or gender. As many as 100,000 Poles were killed in Wola. Instead of crushing the Polish Home Army’s will to keep fighting it only strengthened it. The German’s realized using so many soldiers for the massacre was weakening their ability to fight the other attacks coming from the Polish Home Army around the city, so they stopped.
Liberating the Warsaw Ghetto
The resistance captured the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as Gęsiówka concentration camp, freeing about 350 Jews in total.
City of Ruins
From August 9th -18th there was a major battle for the Old Town. The Germans hit with major artillery strikes which the Polish Home Army could not compete with and after two consecutive nights of artillery raids, the Polish people in the Old Town began to retreat through the sewers (a major means of communication and transportation during the uprising). The Germans regained control of the Old Town, or what was left of it, after that.
However, the Soviet Army did finally show up, their attacks on the 26th of August forced the German troops to retreat back across the river to Praga. After which the Soviets pushed even harder and claimed all of Praga, forcing the German’s to continue retreating.
Life in Warsaw During the Uprising
There were over a million Poles still living in Warsaw when the Uprising began and they tried to recreate their normal day to day life as best as they could. Young boys and girls risked their lives on a daily basis to move letters via the Underground Courier to the resistance, oftentimes via the sewers.
The Statue of the Little Insurrectionist for all the Children Who Helped in the Warsaw Uprising
One thing that the citizens of Warsaw had not have predicted was a lack of food. With their supplies cut off within a few days of the beginning of fighting, their food supplies were dwindling. The city lived largely on barley cooked in various ways from a brewery after the resistance successfully commandeered it.
Why the Uprising Failed
Ultimately, the uprising failed because of a lack of outside support. The Polish government in exile pleaded with their Western Allies for help, but the help came too late (the British finally sent troops in December 1944 and the Soviets immediately arrested them upon arrival). However, there were air drops with supplies continuously throughout the entire Uprising from the British and South African air forces – just not enough.
Believe it or not, that was a really high level overview of what went on during the uprising. I believe I’d read about the Uprising before I visited Warsaw in 2016, but I didn’t really know much about it. All around Warsaw today you can see numerous statues dedicated to the Polish people who assisted in the uprising.
Warsaw Uprising Museum
But I really got my education about the Warsaw Uprising when I visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum (also called the Warsaw Rising Museum) during my stay in the city. It opened in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary. I read about it when I was preparing for my trip and I was told that it was something not. to. be. missed.
I spent a couple of hours there, but if I’m being honest, I should’ve spent a lot more time there. I should’ve read every caption that was translated into English and I should’ve used the headset to guide me around the museum (because I don’t think I did). I wish I’d taken more notes, too.
The exhibits span several floors and when you walk in, you’re greeted with a huge black stone pillar with the symbol of the “Powstanie Warszawskie” (Polish for Warsaw Uprising) which is a P & a W. You’ll see the symbol in various other areas around the museum too, and even spray painted in various parts of the city of Warsaw outside the museum.
Outside the Palace of Arts & Culture
This is known as the “heart” of the museum. If you lean in closely, you’ll hear various sounds of the insurgence. It’s quite breathtaking.
The museum tells not just the history of the Warsaw Uprising (though this takes up a vast majority of the museum) but also goes into the history of the Polish Home Army from after World War II through current day. I remember reading a section about how the Polish Army helped America invade Iraq in 2002. (Ugh, so sorry to those soldiers whose time we wasted.)
They have a section where they replicate the sewers under Warsaw (minus the sewage) and show the graffiti that was written beneath the manholes to help resistance fighters navigate their way through the city underground (it would say things like “Germans, watch out!” to alert the resistance that Germans were likely to be outside that manhole cover).
In the center hangar of the museum is a full size B24-Liberator airplane. These were used extensively by the Allied Forces during World War II to drop supplies.
Around the museum are calendar pages, one for each day of the Uprising with the significant things that happened on that day.
There are numerous photographs, artifacts (including weapons, letters, etc), and video footage spread out over the floors. There’s also a print shop, an observation tower where you can climb up and see the entire city (for some reason I didn’t visit this), and a hospital made to mimic the kinds that the resistance fighters would’ve had.
There is also a replica of the Warsaw Mermaid statue stationed inside the museum. The original statue has moved around the city of Warsaw so it wasn’t destroyed in the German air raids in 1944, luckily. The original one was placed in the center of the Old Town again in 2000 and it has remained there ever since (save for being removed in 2008 for renovations).
I was struck by a photo of the Old Town in the museum that was taken from the sky right after the Germans had decimated the area in retaliation for the uprising. It was called the “City of Ruins” for a reason. It is utterly remarkable that the Old Town was rebuilt with such exact precision and we’re able to visit it today. It makes sense that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
Here’s what the Old Town looks like today:
I remember the entire museum being very dark, and having a very ominous feel to it, and that was probably the point. Or perhaps it just happened to be a gloomy day (very possible as it rained 7 of the 10 days that I was in Poland!).
If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that the Polish men, women, and children were able to hold off back one of the most powerful armies in the world with zero training and very limited supplies and money.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum was incredible and I wish I could go back and spend more time there. It is an absolute must if you’re visiting the city of Warsaw.
That being said…
I think it’s important to remember incredible events like these in history to remind people that people are really quite capable when they’re passionate. I feel like it’s especially important to recognize this during times like these in the United States when there’s so much unrest and people are desperate for a change (I mean with police brutality, not coming out of lockdown, thank you very much). People have the ability to create more change than they realize. We just need to keep going and not give up.
I have always been in favor of overthrowing tyrannical governments (the current government) or institutions (the police), so this museum spoke to me. I picked up a keychain with the symbol of the Powstanie Warszawskie on it and it’s been on my keyring ever since. (Along with my Mockingjay keyring – anyone else love The Hunger Games?)
Terrible things are happening right now all over the world, and Poland’s government is essentially Trump on steroids so I feel for the progressive Polish people who are still residing there. I hope they – the Polish people – remember their past and fight against it.
And I hope we – Americans – find the strength to keep pressing on against our authoritarian government (and police departments) and force change because it definitely won’t happen if we don’t.
Warsaw Rising Museum: https://www.1944.pl/en
Address: Grzybowska 79, Warsaw 00-844
Hours: Monday – 10.00-18.00
Tuesday – closed
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – 10.00-18.00
Saturday and Sunday – 10.00-18.00
Tickets: 25 Zloty (or it’s free on Mondays)