On the 12th the Red Army began its final offensive to push the Germans out of Poland and pursue them into Germany itself. German intelligence had been warning about an impending assault but Hitlers response had been ‘the Eastern front will have to make do with what it has got’. There were no reserves left to divert there. When the final assault began the Soviets made dramatic breakthroughs that created panic evacuations amongst the occupying Germans in the rear.
After over five years of Nazi occupation the sight of the Germans in retreat was scarcely believable for those who had survived. Francisco Grunberg had led a precarious existence, as a Jew living in Warsaw undercover, then her family were evicted from Warsaw along with the rest of the population. Since October she had been living in a filthy hovel in rural Poland, living off little more than half-rotten potatoes, living in fear that one day they might be discovered as Jews:
It was 14 January 1945, I think, when we saw some German soldiers driving wagons loaded down with suitcases and bags. Trudging behind the wagons came the German officers – dirty, without their belts, with drooping heads and downcast eyes, which they would only lift now and then to see what lay ahead. We didn’t know what it meant; we thought some German unit was intending to put up here.
We were worried; the idea of having Germans right under our noses was no cause for joy. All of a sudden there was a knock at the door. I opened and two officers stepped in, as dirty as the others, with no weapons or any insignia. They sat down and asked for some coffee. Katarzyna lit a fire. They asked me if I was from Warsaw. I nodded my head.
They offered me a little roll of candy drops. The idea of taking anything from them disgusted me, so I placed the candy on the stove behind the pots, and there it sat until it melted into a smoking red magma that seemed to me a kind of symbol for the bloody martyrdom of the jewish nation.
I looked those two representatives of German culture right in the eye; I studied them closely and could not fathom how these people, who were created in the likeness of other people on earth, could commit the kind of bestial deeds we all knew so well, of which the mere recollection causes us to shudder.
One of them was a real chatterbox. He started to tell me he had walked all the way from Stalingrad, where the Germans had disgraced themselves by losing the battle. Now he was probably going to continue escaping on foot all the way to Berlin, because Ivan (the Soviet army) was already in Nowe Miasto.
That bit of news took me completely aback. I stared at him so wide-eyed I must have looked half crazed, because he tugged his comrade by the sleeve and said, “Look at the impression my bit of news has made on this woman, Is she scared or what?”
Impression? Who knows how it feels to be condemned to death and placed in front of the firing squad when suddenly a messenger comes racing up at the last moment carrying a pardon? Truly the Germans words were like a pardon for those of us who had been condemned to die. Now I no longer cared about him. I understood what the wagons loaded with suitcases meant: They were running away, they had been beaten. For us this meant the first spark of freedom.
Freedom! The word had lost all meaning for me. I turned away from the German and joined my husband and son in the corner. Their faces, too, showed unbounded astonishment and joy that the long-awaited moment had finally arrived – and calmly with no more slaughter or battles or similar horrors.
The Germans left. I was overcome by a nervous trembling; I was shivering as with fever. Maybe the moment wasn’t so close after all. Maybe something unexpected would happen. Maybe tragic moments were still in store for us.
Should we go to Nowe Miasto? Or were the Germans killing people on the road? Maybe they’re going to burn down the village without letting anybody out. What should we do? How should we proceed? It was too much for me to handle, I just kept going in circles doing nothing.
Meanwhile my son and husband were laughing, and saying that the Germans wouldn’t hurt us; they just wanted to get away as quickly as possible. We were crazy, utterly intoxicated with the news, to the point of being delirious. Nobody gave a thought to peat or potatoes, although we didn’t have anything; we just stood by the window and watched the fleeing Germans.
German newsreel from 25th January purporting to show determined resistance by the German armed forces to the Soviet attack: