By Stu Whitley
This is the third in a four-part series.
new museum dedicated to the Battle of Warsaw is a compelling place to
visit. It opened the weekend we arrived, and the queue stretched around
the block. But after being informed of Dad’s participation in the
battle, we were afforded special treatment, moving quickly to the head
of the line. Serious deference is paid to elders. People give up their
seats on trains and trams; seniors are acknowledged in the streets,
especially those who, like my father, wore the pin bearing the insignia
of the resistance, a stylized ‘P’ with curving feet. He did not wear
the Cross of Valour, awarded to him in absentia, for sustained courage
in the face of the enemy. This an honour I only learned about recently.
Two days earlier, we had walked the street across from Saski Gardens,
where dad had been dug in. It is a broad roadway now, flanked with new
buildings for the most part. At the intersection of
Marszalkoska-Krolewska boulevards, he pointed this way and that with
his cane, to mark the presence of the German Army behind what were then
trenches in the park, and where lay the heaps of rubble in which he and
his comrades hid and fought not more than a few hundred yards away. He
described the mortar that had been brought in by the enemy to smash the
resistance, which fired projectiles so massive they could be observed
as they ‘floated’ down toward them, affording sufficient time to flee
to the tunnels and cellars below. On one occasion, when one of the
shells failed to explode, it was dismantled by the intrepid defenders
so the powder within could be used for homemade grenades. Sure enough,
we found a grainy photograph of an unexploded shell from the mortar the
Germans had nicknamed ‘Karl’, surrounded by grinning, emaciated members
of the resistance, on the walls of the museum.
Some time after our trip to Poland, I asked my father why he had not
been forthcoming about the horrors of war and his part in the enduring
of them, including his woundings and his capture and transport by
cattle car to a prison camp in northern Germany.
“I was young and foolish,” he replied. “I had no real idea of the
danger, no thought other than survival. I didn’t know any better.”
It’s hard to accept simple answers to great questions. But even in the
barest of responses, one senses a powerful verity that is not always
necessary to express. Survival connotes a tooth-and-nail hiding-place
dug into the side of the abyss of death. But the survivor, as Camus
explains it in The Myth of Sisyphus, is a hero because he confronts
that feeling of absurdity brought on by the profound discrepancy
between human hopes and a reality indifferent to them.
The ascent from the hell that the Battle of Warsaw and its aftermath
must have been had to have indelibly stamped my father with a love of
life and an understanding of the nature of courage.