WHAT THEIR HANDS AND EYES EXPERIENCED
Ten years ago, in the beginning of July 2003, the president of Warsaw at that time Lech Kaczyński signed a decision about building the Museum of Warsaw Uprising. A small group of enthusiasts were engaged in its realization. Generations of insurgents’ grandchildren, who were threatened with a quick defeat
Today the museum is the most popular exhibition object in the country. It was visited by over 4 million people. It has over 30 thousand exhibits. But, apart from material collections, one of the most valuable ‘exhibits’ of the Museum of Warsaw Uprising are reports of over 2 thousand participants of the uprising. It consists of a several dozen hours of extremely dramatic stories of history witnesses.
Witnesses are saying
From the beginning, one of the most important places of the Museum of Warsaw Uprising is the Room of a Combatant. This is the place to which soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising come. Also civilians living in the capital city during the uprising. Families which are looking for information about their relatives, both about insurgents and civilians who were in Warsaw during the Nazis occupation. The Room of a Combatant is a place of gathering information but also sharing knowledge about participants of the Warsaw Uprising. Those who come here, often want to complement their knowledge about family members. About those who were killed during the war or were missing, about whom not nothing or very little is known till today. For example, they are looking for a sign of memory of their relatives. About their mothers, fathers and siblings, because only after their death they found out that they had fought in the uprising. There are also insurgents, inhabitants of Warsaw at that time, who live somewhere on the borders of Poland or the world, so far-distanced like Australia, Argentina or the Republic of South Africa. They are looking for colleagues from the uprising or complement stories about others in the fight on the barricades, about their stay in camps and prisons. Whether at the time of the German occupation or later the Soviet occupation. They come with their own stories. And each of the stories is unique because their fates are unique. The room is visited not only by those who were supporting the Warsaw Uprising, but also its fervent opponents till today. Having those arguments from years ago and from today. They did not take part in the uprising, as if looking for their excuse. The room is also a kind of a searching office. Thanks to the knowledge collected for years on the Warsaw Uprising and its participants, a 7-year-old Jewish girl at that time found a participant of the uprising after 67 years, whom she had hidden. Similarly as a teenager ‘Kizia’, lost in the turmoil of fights, found her 17-year-old babysitter.
A way of folding a sheet of paper
Agnieszka Pawelec, a museologist, history graduate, has been engaged in organizing the Room of a Combatant and has been running this department till today. She is assisted by two volunteers – insurgents: Andrzej Gładkowski and Mieczysław Rybicki and a dozen of others not related to the uprising, but from the uprising generation, and also their grandchildren. The task which Agnieszka Pawelec had to do in the beginning, was collecting a tele-address list, in order to be able to send invitations for the opening of the Museum of Warsaw Uprising. Today, finding out about insurgents is a very important element of the personal life of Agnieszka Pawelec.- In fact, nearly at once, our idea was building the data base about all participants of the Warsaw Uprising – says Agnieszka Pawelec. – We were collecting this all what we can see in our website today. Now, it is the biggest informative base about insurgents. It is placed both in paper version in thousands of folders and in electronic version. It concerns both the killed or deceased insurgent after the war. Also an insurgent alive today. People bring their souvenirs. It is incredible. Like a journey in time...For example, when one gets a small calendar filled in with tiny letters. With a pencil. Page by page. Day by day. What happened in the place where there was only this person. At that time, on this day of the uprising. We would like to elaborate these diaries in the electronic form, so that other generations would have an access to it. So that people could see the lively museum object. Because nothing reflects emotions more than a sheet of paper written with an insurgent’s hand. Not only the content of this sheet of paper, but also a way of cutting or folding it. How much place it took. What colour it was written in…
Combatants, their children and grandchildren
The Room of a Combatant was changing its image with the passing years. First it was a place where only combatants used to come, later their children and now grandchildren. They bring souvenirs to them. And they want to learn something more about their grandparents. – In addition we collect information about civilians. We hear more reports of civilians supporting insurgents – Jan Ankiersztejn says, who has been dealing with the contribution of Warsaw inhabitant in the uprising for a year. Civilian inhabitants who had the most victims, because nearly 200 thousand. – We are studying the history of people who cooked meals for insurgents. They were sharing their products, clothes with them. They were engaged in building barricades or work at the background of the armed fight. It must be registered. Also information which is sometimes brought by people that this or that person, this or that family were murdered by the Germans. Also this must be registered. Somebody has told us recently that one of families of several persons living in a tenement house at Sowiński park had been murdered by the Germans in that park. It is important because we have surnames of many families, with which what happened is not known. We want to describe their fates, so that the memory about them would last forever. After all, these are victims of the German crime. We want to pass this information in electronic form, so that it would be accessible for everybody in the world.
– After all, at that time, various people arrived in Warsaw, both those participating in the uprising and the civilians- says Andrzej Gładkowski, who was a fourteen-year-old boy during the Warsaw Uprising, a mediator of the colonel dr. Stefan Tarnawski, a chief of sanitary service in the Old City.
– Within the Action ‘Storm’, people arrived who had been in Warsaw for the first time. There were also those who had lived here for years. Some of them knew about the outburst of the uprising and were preparing for the ‘W’ Hour. Others did not have any idea about it. Especially civilians. The Warsaw Uprising was initially only one of the parts of the Action ‘Storm’, the action which comprised the whole area of Poland. So, we are dealing with the former soldiers with military experiences, and people who do not have this experience. And it is very important to describe the knowledge on the uprising and emotions of its participants. Thanks to our registry in the Room of a Combatant, we know about the uprising and insurgents more and more every year.
A room of confessions
But the Room of a Combatant is also a place of confessions, stories often told by participants of the uprising for the first time. People come who not only tell about their experiences with conspiracy, about how they graduated from their cadet schools or military courses, preparations for many months during classes for nurses. – We are also visited by people who want to tell us about one event of the uprising, which is extremely traumatic – says Agnieszka Pawelec. Sometimes one question is asked and an answer can include a whole story. In many cases, however, a conversation is very difficult, because we break a kind of a taboo or shyness. The fear which has been in these people since the uprising or Stalinism. Sometimes they are also afraid that their report might be treated as trivial, because their stories were sometimes treated so in their families. And this is strongly inscribed in the consciousness of many insurgents. Also people come here who want to challenge their history…They need such a person who will assure that their memories will be suitably used. And this respect for their stories, for their history is the most important factor. Especially when they find out that it is necessary for the national memory. That we are not afraid of the term patriotism. We will not mock them.
Insurgents often tell about events of their extremely delicate, even intimate life. For the first time most often. Women about how they were raped by occupiers during the uprising. Men about death of their greatest youthful beloved persons. Or about how miraculously somebody was saved from the death execution. Being crushed by corpses, badly wounded, he escaped death by the last impulse, coming out from a dump of bodies. – At one moment, somebody comes with a dilemma with which he lived his all life: why was it only me who survived in the division of a few dozen victims, not others? – says Agnieszka Pawelec. – Please, imagine, that a soldier of the Warsaw Uprising is coming to you, who is an elderly man and is bringing a photo of a young girl.
We have been talking for some time, and he is taking out his beloved woman’s lock of hair which was cut off at the moment after she had been killed. And he lived with this trauma for his whole life. People come here, open their drawers and they also open themselves up. Sometimes they open their consciences. They tell about acts they did during the Nazis occupation. They tell not only about what their eyes experienced but also their hands. About what is very difficult to understand by a person who has not been in such dramatic situations, which took place during fights of the Warsaw Uprising. What really happened – beyond spontaneity, euphoria and hope for freedom.