67 years ago the Warsaw Uprising ended.
Poles were the largest group at Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women, followed by Germans, Jews and Russians. The four national groups combined made for 3/4 of all the inmates. The remainder were women of over 15 nationalities, including Belgians, French, Italians, Czech, and even two Americans among others.
Jack Gaylord Morrison described the Flying University organized there in his book Ravensbrück: everyday life in a women’s concentration camp, 1939-45. However, he doesn’t seem to be aware that this kind of education provided there by Polish women was a part of a larger system. He also happens to think that the large number of Polish female teachers in the camp was a coincidence rather than a regular demographic pattern of the Polish resistance movement. In other words, he describes what he learnt about the particular courses there without knowing the larger background. Still, it’s a good example of the Flying University in action:
“The eagerness with which women prisoners pursued culture and learning seems to have been almost as intense as their zeal to discuss food. Examples abound: Belgian prisoners had their own chorus, readings of literature, and even organized language courses. Almost all the other national groups acted similarly, frequently having readings or discussions of important works in their own language. As a group, the Communists do not seem to have been as culturally active as some others, but they had different priorities. They had discussions of Marxist theory, and for a time they held readings of War and Peace in their barracks.
“The learning of languages was pursued relentlessly. In nearly every barracks there was instruction in the German language, although this no doubt had as much to do with the survival instinct as with a love of learning. There was quite a lot of English instruction as well. In the elite blocks, where conditions were more conducive to learning, Gemma Gluck taught both a basic English course and an advanced conversation class. Rita Sprengel, who already knew English, French, and German and worked as an interpreter in the camp, took advantage of the opportunity and learned a fourth language, Russian. Textbooks and little dictionaries, all of them handwritten and small enough to be easily hidden during work, were passed around and copied hundreds of times. Eugenia Kocwa, who gave English lessons, wrote her own textbook on 80 sheets of toilet paper.
“In none of the blocks was education and learning pursued with more vigor than in the Polish blocks. Isa Vermehren, mercilessly objective when it came to discussing nationalities, including her fellow Germans (whom she mostly despised), judged that the Poles had an intellectual level unmatched by any other group in the camp. The fact that the earliest transports from Poland were composed of many teachers undoubtedly contributed to this. They set a tone and a standard which were never relinquished or surpassed.
“What distinguished the Polish educational effort from that of the other national groups was not only its scope and breadth, but also the fact that it was a system, not just a random offering of talks. Systems need organization and leadership, and this was provided early on by Helena Salska, an experienced educator, a Master (Magister) in history. Salska taught, but more important, she gave the program a sense of direction.
“Lists are generally boring, but take a quick look at the list of subject areas taught (and the wide range of instructors) in the Polish underground educational system:
“The people who taught in these areas were well qualified, in many cases experienced teachers. In the winter of 1942, every morning between roll call and work call, a group of women met for half an hour in a corner of Block 15. There Urszula Wińska, a trained specialist in Polish studies, offered a course in Polish literature. At first, there were six participants, later twenty. Irena Panenkowa’s lecture on Socrates was so well received that she was asked to repeat it, and ended up giving it on five different occasions.
“Polish teachers conducted lessons from memory, sometimes using sticks and dirt in place of chalk and blackboards. They held discussions and study sessions. They granted no diplomas or degrees, but after the war Stanisława Czajkowska was given credit for her second, third, and fourth classes in the Gymnasium (college preparatory high school) for the academic work she did at Ravensbrück. More significantly, these programs helped to give the Polish women a feeling of camaraderie, a sense of purpose, and an awareness of their self-worth that was vital to their survival.”
I’ll add that it’s a very good book that everyone interested in Gender Studies and/or the history of Holocaust and WWII should read. Morrison describes women’s hell and the various ways in which they coped with it. While touching upon difficult subjects it’s nonetheless uplifting thanks to the detailed discussion of women’s activities. They were brave and resourceful.
From the start of WWII (and even earlier in the case of the Soviets) both the Nazis and Communists had a joint objective: to murder the Polish intelligentsia. Due to Poland’s troubled history only educated people felt Poles. It means that a peasant living near Białystok didn’t necessarily have any national identity. Such people were seen as fair game by both the Soviets and the Nazis to either enslave or brainwash (and both regimes wanted to steal the peasants’ land and use them as cheap source of work). However, a Polish intelligent posed the threat of “infecting” the peasant and his family with “Polish ideas” which could cause all kinds of troubles, like building up a strong resistance movement. Therefore, the intelligentsia had to die, and it was the first priority of both regimes.
Naturally, I know that Jews were the greatest victims of the Nazis, but it’s what we know because we know the history. From 1939 to 1941 the Nazis weren’t yet decided about the fate of Jews. They knew though, that they didn’t want the Polish intelligentsia around. In a short time thousands of teachers and university professors were either killed or thrown to concentration camps. Measures were taken to prevent people from learning. One could die for carrying Polish textbooks. In the Soviet Union, the “Polish action” began yet in 1937 on the territories with a significant Polish minority. The Soviets killed about 200 thousand of Poles yet before WWII had began.
In the meantime, the remnants of the Polish intelligentsia who evaded deportation did exactly what the regimes feared: educated another generation of Poles. All the kids who fought in the Warsaw Rising 1944 were students of the Flying University.
The idea of the Flying University goes back to the 19th century when Poland was partitioned. Back then the university provided the only forum for scholarly exchange of ideas that were banned under the official regime of the tsarist Russia. It was also the only place where women could study (thousands of them graduated from the Flying University). When WWII broke out the Flying University returned, clandestinely educating tens of thousands of young people.
Come back on Thursday for a post about the Government in Exile.
Poland made the fourth largest contribution to WWII in Europe, after the US, UK and USSR. Greater than the much larger France for example. And yet Poland was only a 35 million nation. That is to say, the number of Polish soldiers, just like the number of Poles, was limited. Only ca 65% of Polish citizens considered themselves Poles, and some of them, like the large (15%) Ukrainian and (5%) German minorities, were more likely to join the Nazis than the Poles. Jews (10%) were cut off early in the war when the Nazis closed them in the ghettoes, and they were killed in the Holocaust by the time of the uprising (although there were Jews in the Polish Army, and those Jews who hid on the “Aryan” side in Warsaw joined the uprising). The ethnic division already shrinks the number of Poles to 23 million or so.
After the ill fated September Campaign 1939 the Polish Army fought all over the world, but not in Poland. When the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland in 1939 both took POWs, but also both took as many civilians at the fighting age as they could. The Nazis organized łapanki (street roundups) targeted first of all (though not exclusively) at males aged 16-40 who were sent to the concentration camps or the slave labour in the Reich. And the Soviets targeted soldiers’ families. A great number of Poles living in the Eastern Poland were soldiers to begin with. They received land as a form of payment for their fighting in the Polish-Bolshevik War 1920 (the newly created Polish State was too poor to pay them salary). Now, Soviets arrested their families as the most likely to put resistance. They sent them to Gulags, the concentration camps in Siberia.
In other words, from the beginning of the war, Soviets and Nazis joined their forces to exile or kill millions of Poles in the fighting age. If you were 15 in 1939 (too young to be taken seriously by the Nazis) you were the eldest boy in your neighbourhood. By 1944 you were 20, old enough to become a Home Army officer.
Early in the war the Polish Government in Exile sent 300 well trained and trusted soldiers to organize resistance. Those were the adults.
The Warsaw Uprising generation were kids of the war. The youngest of them hardly remembered what the world before the war looked like. They wanted to fight. Like all kids all over the world they wanted to become free and make a difference.
The young age of the soldiers is one of the reasons why the uprising remains a hotly disputed event in Poland. It’s difficult to compromise the need to put resistance with the evil of sending children (boys and girls) to death.
Come back on Monday to read about the Flying University in WWII.