Kenneth KOSKODAN: “Can you imagine”?  The AK and the Polish Underground in World War II

“Can you imagine”?  The AK and the Polish Underground in World War II

Photo of Kenneth KOSKODAN


Author of "No Greater Ally. The Untold Story of Poland's Forces in World War Two".

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The question “can you imagine?” is so simple and yet so profound. It is difficult to truly imagine what she lived through; the fear, the suffering, the devastation, the loss endured and the heroism, selflessness and sacrifice given by those who never imagined they could until they had to.

.During the Warsaw Uprising in the Autumn of 1944, Halina Konwiak was part of the Polish Underground and a member of the AK.  She was recounting a time during the fighting when she was serving as an aid to a surgeon reattaching the shoulder of a wounded Home Army soldier. The electricity had been knocked out and make shift aid stations and hospitals had been set up in cellars throughout the city. The fighting could be heard outside and in the dark another young girl fainted, unable to help.  Halina stepped in and held a torch so the surgeon could continue to operate. While telling this story, she paused and looked at me in amazement; “Can you imagine”? she asked. It was almost as if she was asking herself that question. “I was just a seventeen year old girl. Can you imagine”?Although she lived it, she was almost in disbelief herself. It was difficult even for her to understand how, when forced by the worst of circumstances, the best of humanity can rise up and endure the unthinkable.

The question “can you imagine?” is so simple and yet so profound.  It is difficult to truly imagine what she lived through; the fear, the suffering, the devastation, the loss endured and the heroism, selflessness and sacrifice given by those who never imagined they could until they had to.

The reality is, sadly, it was hard for most of the world to imagine during the war, and maybe harder now for the world to imagine and understand just how much was given by the AK and the Polish Underground.

Largely misunderstood by history, Poland as a Nation never surrendered during World War II.  Although occupied by two hostile enemies set on eliminating Poland entirely and with a government exiled to France then England, the Polish people organized an underground resistance that would become more complex and larger than those of all other nations in occupied Europe combined.

The story of the Polish Underground began even before the fighting in September and October of 1939 ceased.  Soldiers unwilling to surrender, hid weapons, took on false identities and slipped back into the civilian population.

Soon groups formed throughout both Nazi occupied Western Poland and the Soviet occupied east to continue the struggle for Polish independence.  While some groups remained independent based on their political affiliations, those aligned with official Polish government exiled abroad would merge to form the primary resistance in Poland. 

The complexity and organization of the Polish underground was unrivaled among its counterparts throughout  Europe.  As both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union tried to erase the nation from history, Poland’s underground operated fully functioning legislature, judicial and educational system and military.  As the war continued and the brutality of both occupations escalated in an effort to crush the resistance, the ranks of the Polish underground grew. By the time of the Warsaw Uprising in August of 1944, estimates put the number of active Home Army soldiers at over 400,000. 

The number of Polish citizens who may not have officially been members but aided the resistance cannot be estimated.  Nor can the impact the Polish Underground had on the overall war effort.  Throughout the war Polish underground forces engaged the enemy in small skirmishes and occasionally sizeable battles occupying divisions of enemy troops preventing them from fighting on other fronts.  They disrupted supply lines and communications destroying railways, bridges and supply trains.  In factories throughout the country slave laborers, rather than accept their fate fought back by sabotaging the manufacturing of weapons and ammunition.  Underground factories produced weapons and ammunition to help supply the resistance effort.  Printing presses hidden away in cellars and forests churned out anti Soviet and Nazi newspapers and leaflets.  Teachers taught students in secret.  Judges and juries put Nazi war criminals on trial and with approval from the government in London, carried out sentences on some 8,000 Nazi’s including SS General and Warsaw regional Chief of Police Franz Kustchera, who was convicted of mass murder and executed by the Polish Underground in February 1944.  In the humble words of Jerzy Zagrodzki, “It was nothing special, you know. Everybody was doing something. During the occupation, it was a normal way of life”.

All activities of the underground were punishable by imprisonment or death, even those as simple as attending school. But reprisals for an act as audacious as killing a Nazi were particularly swift and brutal.  Tens or dozens Polish citizens, whether underground members or not, were rounded up and publicly executed for each Nazi killed.  Those executed were in some ways the lucky ones.  If an underground operative were captured and arrested, man or women, they would face inhuman torture in an attempt to gain information regarding their network and names of other operatives.  The complexity of the underground offered some protection as operative used only pseudonyms and generally knew only two or three other members, which offered some level of protection for the network.  Still, they might die a horrible painful and slow death while the only information they could reveal might be one or two fake names. 

Today, it is often forgotten that the Soviet Union was not an ally against Germany early in the war.  Poles in the East faced much the same fate, as those in the Nazi occupied west.  Hundreds of thousand of citizens faced arrest, torture, murder and deportation to the Soviet Union for slave labor.

The Polish underground was in regular communication with the government in London and the Western Allies throughout the war.   Radio communication was difficult from that distance during the war.  Couriers were most often used to bring information to London reporting on the underground activity as well as reporting intelligence both strategic military and political information about the plight faced by the people of Poland.  The Jewish holocaust, while the most infamous example  of the Nazi’s depravity, was sadly only one of many.  Countless Polish teachers, professors, politicians, police officers and clergy along with hundreds of thousands of “average” citizens were arrested, murdered, forced into slave labor and herded into concentration camps to be worked and starved to death.  All were reported on by Polish courier to the west.

Polish officials relayed information to the Western Allies, primarily the British.  Sadly, all to often much of the intelligence was viewed as unreliable and exaggerated.  Only as the allies pushed through Europe was the reliability and accuracy of the reports fully appreciated.

As the war raged, the Polish resistance grew.  When the Germans launched operation Barbarossa it served to help unify Polish underground operations in the west with those in the east.  When the Soviets pushed the Germans back and reentered Poland, the Polish underground was tasked with putting aside the arrests, murders and deportations they faced by the Soviets and aid their efforts against Nazi Germany.  After fighting alongside them many Home Army soldiers, particularly officers were arrested or executed by the Soviets.

As the western allies pushed further east, the Polish underground escalated their sabotage and made preparations for what they hoped would be the culmination of five years of torment; the liberation of Warsaw. With the Soviet Army nearing the eastern banks of the Wistula river, the Home Army launched a surprise attack against the German occupiers.  Though poorly equipped the attack came with such surprise and ferocity the early days of the uprising were surprisingly successful.  However, the Soviets inexplicably halted their advance and left the understrength and under equipped citizens of Warsaw alone to fight the superior forces of the Wermarcht and the SS. German artillery, armour, infantry and SS units killed indiscriminately.  Soldiers, men, women and children alike were bombed, shot, in some cases locked in buildings and burned alive. Over 19,000 AK soldiers and 180,000 civilians died during the fight for Warsaw.

.At wars end, though they were part of the Western Alliance that won the war, Poland was lost.  There was no place for former underground operatives and Home Army soldiers in Communist Soviet occupied Poland.  Those who could, fled to the west and those who could not, at best, faced yet another hostile brutal occupation that lasted until the 1980’s.  At worst, many once again were arrested, imprisoned, sent to forced labor camps and gulags. Can you imagine?

Kenneth Koskodan

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 10/02/2022