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Testimony of Bohdan Lewandowski

Bogdan Lewandowski was 8 years-old during the Warsaw Rising. When the capitulation occurred 63 days later, we thought that the worst was already over. Our apartment building and our apartment had so far escaped the effects of war. It turned out that there were food supplies still hidden somewhere. We got a bit of flour, oil and honey. I will never forget the taste of those fresh pancakes with honey.

         In the meantime, we were ordered to evacuate and we had to leave everything behind. We could not wrap our minds around the fact that we were being forced to leave our home, even the city. We were expecting a quick return, so we hid our small but valuable objects and our documents in the basement, bricked up. Delaying our departure, we headed into the unknown on the third day of the armistice with small bundles. I carried a leather school satchel, which contained my underwear and clothes. My sister Basia and my mother were also prepared in this way, in case we would be separated.
We passed the barricade and in loose groups, walked westwards down Koszykowa Street.

We saw terrible ruins and burnt down houses. Sometimes you could see graves on the lawns, marked out with makeshift crosses. At Narutowicz Square, several burnt, charred bodies lay on the stairs of the St. Jacob Church.  I'll never forget the sight of these bodies. After the square were were handed over to the German army.  Lined up in columns, we were led to Dworzec Zachodni (rail station). Late in the evening we were crammed into cattle cars and closed from the outside.  It was so tight that everyone had to stand the entire time, leaning on each other. The train started and stopped repeatedly.  It was unimaginably stuffy in the day. A hole dug out in the floor of the rail car served as a toilet. We spent nearly two days in such conditions.

            On the third day at dawn, we entered the grounds of the rail stock repair yards in Pruszków, where the Germans set up a concentration camp for expelled Warsaw residents. Selection took place upon leaving the railcars. Young people were separated from the crowds, and those remaining were sent to a large building. Some civilians gave us a piece of bread and can of milk. We walked next to a provisional washroom. There were several taps above a sheet metal trough. A few managed to drink some water.

All the expelled persons were driven to a huge hall, in which there were deep repair pits between the rail tracks. It was terribly dirty everywhere, and the pits were full of trash. The crowd was so huge that it was difficult to sit down. The body of a dead woman next to us was carried to the pit, to have extra space. We spent the night in the crowd. In the morning, we saw lice in our clothing and hair.

We were driven to the train again. We left Pruszków, in an uncovered railcar, a dirty coal car. Some cars were equipped with a shack for freight train personnel, called brake. German soldiers guarding us travelled in them. We went west. In Grodzisk Mazowiecki the train stopped at a rail crossing. Local residents showed up, who threw food to the railcars. In exchange, they got wads of banknotes. I remembered this minor incident, because soon thereafter we lived several dozen metres from this place.

            The next time, the train stopped at a place where the tracks run on a high embankment, before Piotrków Trybunalski. My mother's schoolmate lived in this city. A sudden decision - we'll flee. We jumped off the railcar, actually we fell to the stones of the trackbed. I ran away from the embankment, while mum and Basia lagged behind near the railcar. Then shots sounded. Two Germans with rifles came running. They ordered mum and Basia to return to the train, but this was impossible since the corner of the railcar was too high. Crying, Basia said something in German. Suddenly a steam locomotive whistled. The Germans had to get in the brake.  They fired a few warning shots and jumped on the moving train. We ran down the slope. Some people pulled us outside the concrete fencing along the tracks. We were free.

The friend was affluent and charitable. A large flat over a store on a busy street, it was already full of runaways from Warsaw.  The friendly owners were keen to feed everyone.  More than a dozen people gobbled down dinner at a large table.  I ran around the outskirts of Piotrków for several days with the host's son, my peer, where the garden plots were still full of fall fruits. 

We didn't want to abuse the hospitality, yet we had to think up something to do. During this time the Nazis fled the approaching front, looting whatever they could.  Transport was reinforced. All means of transport headed west were loaded, and empty headed back. The regular controls stopped. You could take the risk and head towards Warsaw in an empty truck or train.  Taking advantage of this situation, mother and I went by train to Grodzisk Mazowiecki, while Basia remained in Piotrków.

Mum knew someone in Grodzisk. She counted on help and luck for a speedy return to the vacant home in Warsaw.

You couldn't squeeze in a finger into Grodzisk. In the twenty thousand strong town, suddenly there were one hundred thousand Warsaw residents. We found lodging at a notary's office. We spent several nights there, on chairs, in a terribly cold room. Later, some older woman helped is in an unusual manner, taking us in to her tiny, one room flat, in a small house on 8 Kolejowa Street. At first we slept on the floor, on a paper pallet, holding on to our legs under the bed of our benefactor, who left for her daughter several days later in fear of the approaching front. She entrusted her flat and all its possessions to us. It was a small, single room with a balcony, on the first floor, over the gate, with an entrance from the stairwell. It was very modestly furnished. A metal bed, wardrobe, small table with chairs and a chest. Heat came from a coal-fired, cast iron stove with a sheet metal chimney.

Given the expected war activity, the house was not in a good location.  The small yard was directly adjacent to the branched tracks and rail bridge over the Mrowna river. There was a chemical plant across the tracks, and at the end of the street an abrasives factory. Opposite the house, on the other side the street, military trenches had been made on an empty lot. In addition, The hugecannon named "Big Berta" was stationed on the siding, right next to the yard, along with another railcar. An enticing view for a Russian pilot.

For the moment the Russians were on the other side of the Wisła, that is 30 km away and since July they had been waiting for the Germans to crush Warsaw.

In October and November 1944, German soldiers systematically set fire to the remaining houses in abandoned Warsaw. Despite terrible experiences, no one expected the Germans would destroy our property after the Rising with such premeditation. In horror and disbelief, we watched the glow over the burnt Warsaw, visible from Grodzisk, 30 kilometres away. Several months later, we saw the ruins and charred remains of our home up close.

At the beginning of November 1944, we went by truck that was headed to Piotrków, in order to pick-up Basia, returning with her to Grodzisk in just the same way.

It was relatively quiet for several days. We got to know the new surroundings and people there. Mother sought out means to make money. A store owner gave her work.  We sold candles, shoe polish and soap on the street out of a small cardboard suitcase. The income was marginal. It was difficult to sell anything. We received a small amount of food in compensation.

In mid-November I started attending school again. The third class lessons were held in a private flat. Given the awful sanitary conditions, children were constantly getting infected with scabies, which was treated with a reeking and burning sulphur ointment.  Hair and clothing were carefully checked everyday for lice.

There were very few Germans in the city, they weren't to be seen in the streets. They were sent to the front or to specific military posts. This gave people from Warsaw a certain sense of freedom. Taking advantage of this, we marched off to Milanówek in search of persons I didn't know.

In the adjacent town of Turczynek, in two small palaces currently occupied by a hospital, the Slovakian army, allied with the Germans, was stationed.  A berthed airship sailed nearby. The soldiers dressed in light, olive green uniforms, didn't pay attention the Poles passing by.

On the day before Christmas Eve, late in the evening, the Russians bombed Grodzisk, this time in the day. For several minutes the aeroplanes dropped bombs in random places. Several homes were ruined, fires spread. In an extremely crowded town, many people were killed and injured.

In the beginning of January 1945, Russian plans again attacked Grodzisk, this time during the day. The Russians fired and bombed the city centre, filled with thousands of Varsovians.  People were killed in droves.  In the market, torn up bodies were mixed with remains of stalls. Those injured in the streets lay dying for hours, deprived of assistance. The next day, more than fifty unidentified bodies were laid on the pavement next to the cemetery, and a crowd walked by trying to find family members or friends.

On the winter night we headed outside the city to find a place for the night, even in a barn. On the distant outskirts, a man walking on the street, whom we met in the dark, took in a woman with two children that he didn't know. This coincidental act of mercy would determine our later fate.

We were not the only guests. There were several other refugees from Warsaw in the house. Relatives of the host and friends.

The next morning, that is 16 January 1945, we were woken by artillery fire and the rumbling of tanks on the move. A fierce fire broke out on the opposite side of the street, in wooden buildings of the neighbours. When the shooting stopped, soldiers showed up. They were Russians, who renewed the war activity, encircling the now deserted Warsaw. They didn't encounter a strong defence in Grodzisk. We were liberated from the German occupation.

            The Russians arrived in wagons, horse drawn, and a few trucks. Several dozen soldiers spent the night in the shed, and two officers in the home. The owner talked with them, who spoke Russian fluently. The contact with the Russians was short, they quickly moved on. Only unpleasant traces remained of them, because their hungry, half-wild horses, terribly chewed off the bark of the trees.

Several days later, we tried to make it to Warsaw with other people. The trains were inoperative. The EKD line was also out of service. We had just made it past Milanówek by foot, when sudden shooting broke out. We lay in the snow, hiding in a road ditch. It turned out that it was Soviet soldiers fighting among themselves for loot taken from the Germans. You could see numerous traces of war activity all around. There were bodies of German soldiers, broken and discarded equipment, even guns with ammunition. We had to turn back.


         In March, we headed towards Warsaw again, without Basia, on foot, along the railway tracks. When we reached Włochy, I could not go on anymore and mother had to leave me with strangers. She went on by herself.

                   After she returned she described how it was to reach our home on Piusa Street. The apartment building was burned down and partially demolished. The entrance to the basement was accessible, but the walls were still so hot that it was impossible to stay near them for long, and any candle in hand would bend from the heat. The bricked up hiding place had been opened and robbed. Scathed photo albums and small, worthless objects lay on the floor of our basement unit, in the ashes.


Later, I looked several times at the ruins of our home, burnt after the Rising.

In My 1945, the end of the war was announced. We waited in fervour for the symbolic, announced signal of the factory sirens.

Persons living with us gradually left the home. The owner, an elderly widow, allowed us to live in the empty room. He was waiting for his two sons to return after the war. The older one, a seaman, was in England, and the younger, taken to forced labour in Germany, emigrated to Canada.

Our new residence seemed idyllic, but here too, the war left its trace. On the adjacent lot the occupying forces executed a dozen or so Poles, later buried in two shallow earthen graves. In order to cover the bodies showing through the sand, neighbouring residents built small mounds on which wooden crosses were placed.

After putting the EKD system into service, mother obtained work as a cashier, on a night shift, at the Kazimierówka stop. The tiny ticket shack stood in the middle of nowhere, and people showed up only when the train arrived. Pay was issued in kind, several kilos of coal for heating, sometimes a few potatoes or onions. Soup was the main form of pay, which was distributed in cauldrons, in passenger cars of the electric train line. This gave rise to plebeian songs, which I heard many years later  "...soup for the EKD rail workers."

Soon the ticket agent work was standardised, and several months later, mother was transferred to the EKD office in Leśna Podkowa, where she was issued official uniforms and received a small salary.

We still lived in Grodzisk. I finished primary school there. My sister passed her finishing exams, and later studies at the faculty of art history at Lublin University. She settled permanently in Wrocław.

I don't remember these years very pleasantly, deprived of everything, we lived in great want.

In 1949 I started at the middle school for electrical studies in Żyrardów. At this time, the regime established by the Soviets had disclosed is true nature. Even in the first class, our geography teacher disappeared without a trace, since he talked about areas lost to Poland in the east. All the children quickly learned that the words Lwów, Wilno, Wołyń, Piłsudski, Anders should be avoided. The worst was Katyń. This word could not be used in any context.

In the second class, two boys from my class, slightly older than me, stopped coming to school. Their parents couldn't find them. A month later, it turned out a month that they'd been arrested. Several months later, unexpectedly, I met my classmates at the train station in Grodzisk, in prison clothing and wooden soled shoes. Armed policemen, with a dog, led them from the Grodzisk prison to the train going to Warsaw. Many months later the boys were released from prison, but they didn't return to school.

During vacation we had mandatory, monthly occupational traineeships, In 1950 I attended my first training session at a Power Plant on the Regained Territories. We worked repairing the network and installations in the village of Rzeczycz near Głogów, resided in by settlers from the east. The people we worked with couldn't feed us according to the training contract. There was a shortage of food across Poland.

We lived in a school, next to a large manor house vacated by Germans, actually  a small palace. Adjacent thereto, in the grange, several dozen German POWs worked, supervised by soviet soldiers.

The beautiful rooms of the palace, not long ago still in use, were completely cleaned out. Only the wonderful majolica tiled stoves remained, showing hunting scenes. The artistic parquets and broken off doors were used by soldiers for fuel.

The year after I had training at the truck factor in Starachowice. The huge factory built before the war made an imposing impression. The final assembly of the STAR-20 trucks was on an assembly line.

In 1952, we had training at the Warsaw Enterprise for Agricultural Electrification. Together with students of the School of Engineering, working to bring electricity to villages around Warsaw.

During vacation in 1953, I started regular work, even though I wasn't sixteen yet. We lived in such poverty that the marginal earnings seemed like a dream come true, and further studies unnecessary. Unfortunately, the meagreness of the income soon became apparent, and work proceeded not without problems.

The entire time I worked in Warsaw, travelling from Grodzisk by train.

I passed my class A exams after a dozen or so years and completed studies at the Warsaw School of Engineering. I didn't manage to return to my city, to Warsaw, until 1980.

The horror of the occupation and the burden of the post war years, weighs heavily in my conscience. Despite the passage of so much time, I never got rid of the severe memory of those events.




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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