Warsaw Boy

Warsaw Boy book cover

Warsaw Boy is the remarkable true story of a sixteen-year old boy soldier in war-torn Poland. Poland suffered terribly under the Nazis. By the end of the war six million had been killed: some were innocent civilians – half of them were Jews – but the rest died as a result of a ferocious guerrilla war the Poles had waged.

On 1 August 1944 Andrew Borowiec, a fifteen-year-old volunteer in the Resistance, lobbed a grenade through the shattered window of a Warsaw apartment block onto some German soldiers running below. ‘I felt I had come of age. I was a soldier and I’d just tried to kill some of our enemies’. The Warsaw Uprising lasted for 63 days: Himmler described it as ‘the worst street fighting since Stalingrad’. Yet for the most part the insurgents were poorly equipped local men and teenagers – some of them were even younger than Andrew. Over that summer Andrew faced danger at every moment, both above and below ground as the Poles took to the city’s sewers to creep beneath the German lines during lulls in the fierce counterattacks.

Wounded in a fire fight the day after his sixteenth birthday and unable to face another visit to the sewers, he was captured as he lay in a makeshift cellar hospital wondering whether he was about to be shot or saved. Here he learned a lesson: there were decent Germans as well as bad. From one of the most harrowing episodes of the Second World War, this is an extraordinary tale of survival and defiance recounted by one of the few remaining veterans of Poland’s bravest summer.

Andrew Borowiec dedicates this book to all the Warsaw boys, ‘especially those who never grew up’. Andrew Borowiec was born at Lodz in Poland in 1928. At fifteen he joined the Home Army, the main Polish resistance during the Second World War, and fought in the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising. After the war he left Poland and attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in Cyprus with his English wife Juliet.

The following extract describes the circumstances of his training in the underground ‘Home Army’ in early 1944 at the age of 15:

By early 1944, I graduated to what we called ‘Battle Schools’. I was the youngest in a sekcja — a cell of six. Our code was MG 300. At our weekly meetings we studied the pre-war infantry manual Combat.

We learned the theory of an infantryman’s five basic tasks: to reconnoitre, advance, attack, defend and withdraw. We memorized the organization of a column with flankers and rearguard, and we studied the duties of a sentry and a patrol. From the careful examination of coloured drawings we learned all about the standard infantry rifle. Rather more satisfying was the actual feel of a captured MP40 Schmeisser sub-machine gun, which we learned to strip and reassemble in thirty seconds.

We also had an automatic pistol, Poland’s famous Vis 9 mm, to train on — though we did not appear to have any ammunition for it. On one occasion, I was entrusted to take it home for safekeeping, for twenty-four hours, before it was passed to somebody else. This was a great honour. Nothing could have pleased me more. I was an armed Polish soldier walking home through the streets of occupied Warsaw with a pistol about my person — admittedly unloaded, but perhaps it soon wouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, I could not resist showing it off to my younger half-brother, Jerzy, in the bedroom I shared with him and our mother. Jerzy, who was about six at the time, was sworn to secrecy, but he could no more resist informing on me than I could resist showing it off. I should have known better. Jerzy was unpredictable, a hyperactive, unstable child forever being reprimanded for jumping on and off furniture or suddenly shouting his head off. My mother blamed his behaviour on what people now call post-traumatic stress — in Jerzy’s case brought on by the bombardment he had endured in 1939, as a two-year-old, during the siege of Warsaw. I always thought it was something more than that, but I never said anything — and, anyway, he was a nice kid.

Sometimes it rankled a bit that no allow- ances were made for any erratic behaviour on my part resulting from my own experiences during the siege in Lwow and the nights spent with Mateczka in my uncle’s cellar; or the sight of a sliding figure gunned down on a frozen river at dusk; or the groaning gallows glimpsed from a passing train while my travelling companions crossed themselves in horror.

But my mother and I both knew we were very similar. We tended not to dwell on things we could do nothing about. Bringing the gun home did make her angry — especially if the Germans began to suspect that her food parcels from abroad were of a military provenance and decided to keep an eye on us. The discov- ery of a weapon in our apartment would, at the very least, have got all of us sent to a concentration camp. Or seen my mother and aunt joining the pool of hostages in Pawiak Prison, available for execution the next time some SS thug got what he deserved.

But being the general’s daughter she was, and on her second marriage to a regular officer, much of her fury was directed at the people who had handed me the gun in the first place. What sort of amateurs would allow me to carry an unloaded pistol on to the streets? A single German soldier or policeman could have stopped and searched me, and I wouldn’t have stood the slightest chance of shooting my way out of trouble.

And what kind of people recruited boys my age, anyway? She thought the only explanation was that I had fallen in with some Communist faction who liked nothing better than to shape young minds. The gun was not in our flat for very long, but neither was any effort made to curtail my activities. I suppose she realized it would be useless.

On the contrary, later in the year, when the weather became warmer, she prepared sandwiches for me to take on the training days that the Grey Ranks organized in the countryside. We usually went by train to Zielonka, a small town in a forested area several miles north-east of Warsaw, where the parents of one boy had a weekend villa. Flankers and rearguards would be appointed, and we would get into our column formation for what we hoped looked like an inno- cent ramble through the woods (often pretending not to notice similar parties, including contingents of girl scouts, encountered doing much the same thing).

We sometimes collected large stones for use in grenade-throwing drills, always miming the removal of the ringed cotter pin that kept the real thing safe until you were ready to throw it. We were advised never to throw them uphill or up flights of stairs. The reasons for this are obvious, but it was explained to us that in a battle people sometimes got overexcited and did silly things.

A young female medic from the Girl Scouts showed us how to make proper use of the pre-war field dressings the Polish Army used. Appar- ently, these bandages were something we had in abundance.

Probably the riskiest part of our field training was getting to and from Zielonka. In both directions it involved passing through Warsaw’s central station, which was closely monitored by several different kinds of police, including the Gestapo. Polish Blue Police mainly tried to busy themselves with black marketeers, though they were sometimes attached to Germans in an interpreting role.

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Robert Law August 25, 2014 at 10:35 pm

My uncle Alexander was killed on the eagle when she was torpedoed

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