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Testimony of Maria Kapuścińska


Maria Kapuścińska                                                                                  Warsaw, May 30, 1976
born on February 11, 1931 in Warsaw.
Place of residence in August 1944: 22 Marszałkowska Street, Apt. 11

     I was thirteen years old, when the Warsaw Uprising began. When it happened we, that is my parents, grandmother and me, were living at 22 Marszałkowska Street, Apt. 11 (the building was in the neighborhood referred to as the "German Quarter"). On August 2 we were moved by the Germans from our apartment to a poorer apartment set deeper in the building, and afterward to the basements of buildings at 20 and 18 Marszałkowska Street, where in addition to us, many people were staying - people who had been on the street or at tram stops when the uprising began. There were also a few people from odd-numbered buildings on Marszałkowska Street (on the corner with Oleandrów Street), which were set on fire with the inhabitants still inside, after the participants of the uprising were removed. Only a few of the inhabitants miraculously managed to reach our side of the street, almost insane from horror.
     After twelve, horrific days, full of fearing for our lives (threatened by revolvers, burning of buildings, grenades thrown into basements full of people, etc.), we were driven out in a matter of minutes. In a large group that numbered probably a few hundred people, we were led by a military convoy with its rifles ready for fire. We were told that if we turned our heads toward the East, we would be shot. We were forced to go along Marszałkowska Street, Puławska Street, then I think Rakowiecka Street, and afterward I do not remember. 
     Finally, in the terrible heat, we reached an area enclosed by wire, with barracks. It later turned out that this was the transit camp in Okęcie. Crammed into the barracks, people were laying side by side on the floor. There was a shortage of water; it was very dirty. As food, we were given bread and black chicory coffee, and in the afternoon - some kind of soup. 
     I remember that on the other side of the wire, there was a rather small building and a yard, where German children would play - apparently they were children of the camp's employees. We stayed here for twenty-four hours, or a little longer, feeling uncertain about what would happen to us next. At one point, we were told that there would be a medical inspection, or a sanitary inspection, in which a Polish doctor would be taking part. It turned out that he knew my father, I think from before the war, or from an underground school. We managed to get released from the camp - for allegedly being sick with dysentery - along with some other people, because the Germans were very scared of epidemics.  
     When we became "free", it turned out that we did not have anywhere to go because there had been an order, which prohibited taking in people who were registered in Warsaw and threatened the death penalty as punishment for doing so. And curfew was approaching! Some of the people, who had left the camp along with us, sought shelter in a destroyed building. We were completely disoriented. Finally - while we had no idea what to do with ourselves - an unknown person stopped us and said that he would take us in. He was a shoemaker, an owner of a tiny workshop that was separated from the rest of the premises by a curtain; he put us up in the space behind the curtain. I remember that he gave us an old straw mattress, which seemed to me like a soft bed. We sat there behind that curtain for a day or two, and only my mom left, very early in the morning, with the shoemaker's wife, to get milk. I do not remember anymore, how we managed to obtain fake registration papers with an earlier date, which protected us from being sent to a camp and made it relatively easy for us to move around. Then we could leave our hiding place. Since Mom was able to keep a little bit of our jewelry (sown into the waist of stockings and hidden in hair buns), we could, although only to a certain degree, repay our host.
     Afterward, we lived for about two weeks in an attic. My father really became sick with dysentery and was staying at a makeshift hospital of the Polish Red Cross or of the Central Welfare Council.              
     Our goal was to make our way to Brwinów, to my father's nephew. We managed to pass through a German control point in a rented cart, and then by way of the Electric Suburban Railway (Elektryczna Kolej Dojazdowa, EKD) (it seemed extremely strange to me that this railway was running as if things were normal) we reached Podkowa Leśna. From there, we walked to Brwinów. And even though we found shelter with a cousin, who had a Masters in pharmacology and who was working then in the local pharmacy, it was probably one of the most difficult periods of our lives during the occupation.
     When we were bothered and persecuted by the detested enemy, which was obviously horrible, it was also in some way understandable - we knew what to expect. But when "our own Poles" treated us - we who were forced out of Warsaw - most often with distaste and even with hatred and contempt, it was very painful. I remember that in September I started attending underground classes, organized by the local school. I was a good student, which made my friends dislike and envy me, for the fact that this "vagabond from Warsaw" was doing better in school than them. What's worse, some of the teachers had similar attitudes. Only one friend - Alina - showed me a bit of kindness.
     Meanwhile, life at home was very difficult. My cousin's home filled up with other runaways, and my cousin's mother was dying (after a stroke). In this situation, my mom had to take care of the whole house and of the sick woman. The following can serve as an example of the attitude of the locals toward people from Warsaw: when in a meat shop, Mom protested that she was getting only bones, instead of meat, she heard: "Get out, go back to Warsaw and eat horse meat". (Apparently, the shop assistant guessed the client's "Warsaw" origin by her appearance.)
     The rest of the jewelry that Mom saved was used for living expenses: we were selling it for nothing - local buyers knew that we did not have a choice and they took advantage of this without scruples. This did not happen to my family alone; it was a more common phenomenon. Clearly, there were people who behaved differently, but somehow it was difficult to meet them. 
     Another source of humiliation was our clothes - after all, we had left in the summer without packing. Thus, I was walking around in someone else's fall jacket, in shoes that were too big for me - in a word, in rags. Mom made clothes from a woolen curtain for Father. And winter that year was very cold.
     If you add to all this, the constant threat of being caught, the searches (we survived one of these, and my cousin had a radio that was installed in a desk drawer!), the forced digging of trenches and the shortages in food and firewood - you can imagine how difficult it was to live.
     For these reasons also, I will remember the day of January 17, 1945, for the rest of my life. In the morning, you could hear an artillery cannonade, and then a strange humming came from the side of the road. Someone yelled that it was not the Germans anymore, that it was already the "Bolsheviks" (that is what they were called at the time). We ran out of the house; it was very cold; in the rush, I forgot gloves and my hands were freezing.
     Huge tanks were grinding along the road, literally covered in figures with thick, awkward coats and winter caps with earcoverings blowing in the wind. This was liberation, the end of the nightmare, the hope of returning to Warsaw! The soldiers were waving to us; they were yelling something - people standing along the edge of the street were offering them cigarettes or whatever they could offer. The joy was enormous!
     Then the news broke that they would be taking over apartments to use as quarters. After all it was a time of war, there was an army; you could never be sure how things would be. Indeed, a few soldiers from "starszinoj" (higher ranks) came to our place. They immediately said that they would not occupy a room, that they would only move into the kitchen, that they had their own food and they would cook for themselves. It was some kind of miracle!
     Primarily my mom spoke with the soldiers, since she knew the Russian language well because she lived in Kiev and Kharkiv from 1914 to 1918. She always remembered that period as very good; she would talk about the extremely direct friendliness of those people toward the "bieżencew iz Polszy" ("refugees from Poland") - the more painfully she experienced the welcome given by her own compatriots. For this reason also, from childhood I was familiar with the Russian language, I knew many Kryłowa fairy tales by memory, and I always enjoyed listening to the beautiful, old Russian love stories, which my mom would sing.
     The soldiers treated us kindly, they asked us about our experiences of the war, they understood, commiserated and would say: "Bił was giermaniec suk...s... nu my jewo tiepier." ("The German sons of bitches beat you; now we will beat them"). And although their words were often very crude, their promises of finishing off Hitler's beast in Berlin sounded to us like the most beautiful music.   
     They slept side by side on the floor in the kitchen, covered by their own army winter coats. On the following day, when I looked out the window, I saw how they washed themselves in the yard: one of the soldiers pumped the water and another, undressed from the waist up, splashed in the freezing stream, when the temperature was several degrees below zero! This impressed me - a teenager - no less than war victories! 
     After a day or two, they left, heading "na zapad" ("West"). 
     
Right after liberation, my parents somehow managed to reach Warsaw. It turned out that our apartment had completely burned down.
     You could cross the Vistula River on ice, to the right bank. There, Father reported to the University of Warsaw, which was being reconstituted at the time. He was entrusted with the organization of physics classes in the following departments: medicine, pharmacology, and veterinary studies. The location of his activities then was in the veterinary studies building on Grochowska Street, while the university administration was located on Boremlowska Street.
     After a while, we were allocated a room on the fourth floor, without water or access to a kitchen, but this alone was a lot. Incidentally, Professor Grzywo-Dąbrowski, a well-known specialist in forensic medicine, took up residence above us, with his wife, also in an allocated space. This was in the building at 246 Grochowska Street. Ultimately, we moved in there in the spring of 1945.
     During the school year of 1945-46, I started attending "XII Skłodowska-Curie High School" ("XII L.O. im. Skłodowskiej-Curie") on Obrońców Street. At the beginning, Father also worked in Łódź, where he gave lectures, and for the "Polish Radio" ("Polskie Radio"), which at that time was based in Praga (a neighborhood of Warsaw). His position in the radio was director of night broadcasts that were given in foreign languages for an international audience. Thanks to this, besides having an additional source of income, we also had a company radio, which was rare for those times. 
     At the beginning, it was very difficult financially - we literally had nothing! I remember how happy I was when Mom bought me a used skirt in a herring-bone pattern, from a second hand store. Allotments from the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) helped us with food and clothes.
     But the material shortages were not so horrible anymore, because after all, the war had ended; we were alive and free! A time of work and reconstruction was beginning. Today, such an expression sounds pompous - but at that time it sounded completely normal.

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  The project is implemented by the Museum of Warsaw in cooperation with the State Archives of City of Warsaw, and the Niedersachsische Gedenkstatten Foundation