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30 May 2011
When I visited Ms. Hanna Lawrynowicz née Lubecka in her Warsaw neighborhood home this May, she was about to turn 90. She brewed us cups of strong coffee, fed me fresh strawberries and homemade cake, showed me around her elegant home, and did something she rarely does: spoke about the Uprising.
The role of women in the Uprising is fascinating, because they were such a crucial part of it: As battlefield nurses and couriers, they were in the thick of fighting. They exhibited extraordinary courage, and paid an extraordinary price: their mortality rates were exceedingly high because they were so often in risky situations. Many survived – a living legacy of our past. But these women were also very human – and civilians. Ordinary people in a sense, whose everyday lives were turned upside down with the war, and who decided to take action.
I ask what it was like – what did the Uprising mean, back then?
Her face lights up: “Enormous solidarity. The youth rose up!” She explains: “We’d lived through a difficult German occupation. Everyone dreamed of getting out from underneath the German boot.”
In 1944, Poland had been under occupation for five years. There were mass arrests, deportations, shootings.
“The occupation was awful,” she says. “And the shootings. So many people killed.”
She doesn’t have friends from her childhood or youth: “I had so many,” she says. “They’re all gone.”
Two friends who visited her one evening didn’t make it back home before the curfew imposed by the Gestapo. They were arrested on their doorstep and taken away.
“The next day I saw their names on a sign: shot to death,” she says quietly.
She’d wanted to be a doctor since she was a little girl, but the Medical Academy closed when the war broke out. Many of the Academy’s professors went to teach at the nursing academy, so she went there instead. She has her diploma to this day, and it’s those skills that she put to use during the Uprising – and afterward.
She describes the day the Uprising began: August 1, 1944.
Everyone knew that it was the day. The Uprising leadership had marked 5 p.m. as the time the Uprising would officially begin, and gave it the cryptonym “Godzina W” – “W Hour.”
In the morning, Mrs. L. went to the city center via tram. But midway through the return trip, the tram conductor told everyone to exit. Because fighting had already begun where she lived, the Żoliborz district, a few hours before the W Hour.
She began walking.
“I had new shoes on,” she says. People yelled to her from windows: “Where are you going? You’re going to get killed! Come up here!” But she wanted to get home. So she took off her shoes (“they had French heels,” she adds); and eventually made it home, half-running, half-hiding, where her mother met her at the door: “Haniu, why are you here? Why aren’t you on the barricades?” Because that’s how “matki-Polki” (Polish mothers) were, she says. And that’s how the times were.
Mrs. L. did go to the barricades, serving as a nurse. Her sister, younger by five years, also took part in the Uprising.
“She came over a couple of days before the Uprising,” Mrs. L. says. “She walks in with a backpack, with a rolled-up blanket, and says, ‘I’m going to a meeting!’ Nobody took her seriously; we thought she was going to meet friends. But that was the last time we saw her for the remainder of the war.”
Her sister did go to a meeting – a meeting of her Uprising group. She survived the Uprising; their mother found her in Krakow after the war. “But she stepped out, just like that – to a meeting.”
As for the days of fighting, she says that there was such joy each time the insurgents managed to capture a building, a street. But the insurgents were counting on Russian help; Russia was, at that time, an “Ally.” Instead, Russian armies stayed on the other side of the Wisła River until the Uprising was put down by German armies.
She was captured after the Uprising, taken to Bergen-Belsen German Nazi Concentration Camp in Germany, then transferred to Blankheim, a POW women’s camp. She was liberated in 1945 from there by Gen. Patton’s Third Army, then worked as an Allied Civilian Nurse at a U.S. military hospital in Augsburg. In 1947, she returned to Poland, where on behalf of the U.S. Ambassador she started a small hospital for diplomats in Warsaw – mainly Americans.
As we wind up our interview, she says that she hopes that future generations remain interested in the Uprising, and pass that legacy on to others.
Mrs. L. tells me that she doesn’t like watching films or footage from the Uprising; she doesn’t speak about it with most people – even her contemporaries. But she was interviewed by the Warsaw Uprising Museum for their Oral Histories series. And when she visited the Museum, she discovered a photo of herself in one of the exhibits.
“Look!” she told her son, who had accompanied her. “That’s me!”
It’s this photo, and it was taken as she was being transported from one work camp to another.
There’s a note that comes with the photo from her son: “She said that she smiled for the photo because she always wanted to look nice.”
~Justine Jablonska is the Embassy’s Press Advisor.
The poster is located in the rose garden of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising Museum in Poland. On it, four women with Home Army armbands stand amid lightning bolts and rubble, the words, “Też walczyłyśmy” – “We Also Fought” above their heads.
This interview was published in the Embassy's August 2011 newsletter.
Watch our video interview with Ms. Lawrynowicz: