As the Red Army marched into Poland from the east, putting the Germans on readiness for retreat everywhere, it seemed that the long agony that the country had endured since September 1939 must soon be at an end.
There were tense deliberations with the underground Home Army about how soon they should join the attack. Many were eager to begin the final battle with the Germans and demonstrate that Poland had not been completely cowed by the occupation. Others, knowing how weakly armed the Army was compared with Wehrmacht were more cautious.
It was over a year since the Jewish uprising in Warsaw had ended badly. Now it seemed that the Red Army could only be a week or more away, it was time for Poles to get their vengeance in first.
Like many others in the city Michael Zylberberg, a jewish survivor living a precarious existence in Warsaw, sensed that something was at hand:
I stepped out to find Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street in a turmoil. Crowds were milling around, all on the run. German police and soldiers were lined up in front of the government buildings, guns in hands. I did not hurry; I simply wondered where to go. Perhaps the best thing would be to go back to Mokotow and stay with my Polish police neighbour. He was afraid and so was I. We had that in common, at least.
I got as far as Krolewska Street but could get no further. I was in the front line and there was shooting on all sides. German soldiers were lying on the pavements, firing up at buildings that had been taken over by the Polish fighters. All the houses and shops were tightly shuttered and I just stood there with nowhere to hide. To walk on to Mokotow was out of the question. I had to try to get back to the Old City.
There at least I had an old friend, Ignacy Pulawski. Now I could return to him without being afraid of informers. Bent double, I ran through Pilsudzki Square, rechristened Hitler Square. It was lined with armed Germans. Apart from myself there was no other civilian to be seen. The Germans smiled at my distress.
In Senatorska Street, hard by Dr. Fischer’s residence, a motor bicycle drew up with two Germans. Suddenly, Poles appeared in all doorways and hurled grenades. The cycle and the two Germans were blown to pieces.
It was about five o’clock, zero hour according to my informant in the restaurant. I got to Nowiniarska Street, and saw columns of German cars driving along by the walls of the Warsaw ghetto. They were being shot at from various side streets but offered no return-fire.
At the corner of Franciscan and Nowiniarska Streets, I saw a small hunchback holding a sub-machine gun and firing steadily at the German file of cars. The bullets bounded off the ghetto walls. When he saw me, he held out the machine gun and said, “Citizen, you fire a salvo. It is high time you had a go.”
I wondered what he meant; did he really know who I was? I gladly fired a round of bullets, however. I felt that I had been accorded the greatest honour possible.
Standing in front of Pulawski’s shop at 88, Nowiniarska Street, I saw a young man of about twenty in civilian clothes with the Polish national emblem, an eagle, on his hat. He held a revolver. He stopped beside me and said, saluting, “Sir, the arsenal is at your disposal.” At first I was bewildered, but quickly realised that he thought I was Pulawski. The shop next door sold stationery but I had noted that it was open only one day in three.
Pulawski had told me confidentially that in the cellar below the stationer’s there was a secret arsenal. Now I understood. The young man was in a hurry to join his unit, and so was handing it over, to Pulawski as he thought. I smiled and took over the arsenal.
Joyfully I went into Pulawski’s office and told him the news.
All was gay and happy at Pulawski’s, as if it were all over. A group of Polish friends were toasting the day’s events in vodka. I thought it was premature but was afraid of showing my fears, and said nothing of what I had seen and done in the last few hours.
Pulawski welcomed me with open arms. He was delighted to see me and have me with him. We stayed together for a month, and I relived some experiences that reminded me vividly of my last days in the ghetto.
After the first night there, everyone quickly realised that the end was still a long way off. A German tank came down the street, stopped at the corner of Franciscan and Nowiniarska Streets, and proceeded to fire at all the houses. The bombardment was fierce and marked the beginning of a new battle that was to continue for over two months.
See Julian Engeniusz Kulski: Dying, we live: The personal chronicle of a young freedom fighter in Warsaw (1939-1945). For more on Julian Kulski see Warsaw Uprising.