Summary: Irena Gut is a normal Polish girl in 1939. She loves her family and four sisters. And she’s pretty sure she wants to be a sister – or maybe a nurse. In fact, she’s studying to be a nurse when the Nazi bombing of Poland begins. She barely escapes with her life. But, in fact, the next 6 years of her young life, are a constant of trying to avoid brutality from both the Germans and the Russians. After being brutally abused by the Soviets, she’s locked in a Soviet hospital as a prisoner. With the help a friendly Polish doctor, she manages to escape and hide out with his aunt. Eventually, she receives the blesséd news that the Soviets are kindly letting those Polish who were separated from their families when the country was divided to be reunited. But it seems to Irena that this is just another scheme to capture and torture her again. But she manages to escape their clutches once again, only to land in the hands of the Germans. Her time working for Nazis doesn’t seem quite as bad. She works for a rather friendly German cook and, it’s during this time, that she starts hiding away Jews from the nearby ghetto. When the Nazi, Major Rügemer, asks her to keep house for him, she finds the blessing of a basement with hidden rooms. Rügemer has just provided her with the perfect place to hide away Jews. And right under the Nazis’s noses. Of course, this is hardly the end of Irena’s problems. She finds herself again and again fighting for her life and for the lives of the Jews she has promised to protect. But, she has decided, she has been called on by God to protect these people and to fight both the Germans and the Soviets for the sake of her beloved Poland.
As of September 1939, the Poles may have been occupied by two different countries, but they were not about to lay back and take it. No, like so many other countries after them, the Poles would fight back. In fact, they “organized one of the largest underground movements in Europe with more than 300 widely supported political and military groups and subgroups” (Source). In fact, Polish armies would, at the end of the war, play a large part in their own liberation – at least, from Germany. Many Poles fought alongside the Allies, never giving in to occupation, but always fighting for their own freedom.
By the spring of 1940, while the Poles had been defeated not once, but twice, they were already busy fighting for other occupied countries. That spring, some 80,000 soldiers and officers were in Norway, battling it out at Narvik. Following that, they aided the French in the Battle of France. Of course, since many Poles had found liberation in France following their own occupation, they were once again forced in flee. This time, to Britain.
Also in 1940, they set up a government-in-exile in London. From here, the I Polish Corps, the Polish Armed Forces fought alongside the Allies in France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Germany, and even Poland! See, the Polish Armed Forces trained a very special unit, known as the 316 Clandestine Unite, to be dropped back into occupied Poland.
Back home in Poland, those who remained set up a special secret state. The Government Delegation for Poland, was an underground, civilian structure made up of 15 departments:
• Domestic Affairs: Oversaw provincial & regional delegates & prepared the structure of future territorial administration.
• Press & Information: Office of Information & Propoganda – published books and other press.
• Labor & Social Welfare: Cared for political prisoners, unemployed scholars and artists, as well as Jews.
• The Department of Education & Culture: Formed a secret system of education. It saw some 100,000 students by 1944. They were also tasked with rescuing artifacts from the hands of the Nazis.
• The Civilian Resistance Office: Secret Courts & monitoring public opinion (Source).
[Below: Polish Resistance]
They also played an important role in intelligence. Without this aspect, it would have been impossible for the Polish to keep in touch with the Allies in Britain and later in the Soviet Union and America. In fact, Britain was inundated with repots from the Poles, receiving as many as 10,000 messages in 1943 alone. The number may seem dauntless, but it was the only way for the intelligence units in Britain to keep track of events in Poland.
On top of this, they formed an underground army known as the Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ) and later changed to the Home Army (AK). The main purpose of the underground army was, essentially, an uprising. But, however, because the Government-in-Exile was very much against anything overly aggressive, the army was pretty much reduced to propaganda efforts, diversion actions, sabotage operations, counter intelligence, protecting their people, as well as carrying out death sentences. In a mere four years, they carried out some 730,000 different operations. The Poles successfully destroyed “1,935 railway engines, derailed 90 trained, blew up three bridges, and set fire to 237 transport lorries” (Source). All of that from June to December 1941. Unfortunately, German response to these acts of sabotage was excessively severe. It was so extreme, that all Polish resistance was put on hold for a mere 10 months. It was not much better on the Soviet side. In fact, Germans found 4,500 Polish officers in Katyn Forest. It was proven that Stalin was behind the murders. More on that later.
They even set up underground courts, “trying collaborators and others and clandestine schools in response to the Germans’ closing of many educational institutions” (Source). In response, universities across Poland – such as in Cracow, Warsaw, and Lvov – all operated clandestinely, as well.
Part of the underground movement was a man named Jan Karski. Graduating with law and diplomatic studies at the Jan Kazimierz University in 1935, he was working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1939 when Poland was occupied. From the beginning, he took part in the underground army. He served “as both an emissary for ZWZ to Great Britain and the United States, as well as author of reports about the condition of Europe’s Jews” (Source). Then, in the fall of 1942, he was given an enormous assignment by the Government’s Delegate Cyryla Ratajskiego. Karski, was assigned to inform the Allied armies about the mass extermination of the Jews and to demand an intervention. Following this, in July of 1943, he even met with President Roosevelt. But it was until 1944 and the publication of his The Story of a Secret State, that the Jewish plight in Poland became a widely known fact.
Speaking of the Jewish plight in Poland, even the Jews and Poles living in the concentration camps were performing their own acts of underground sabotage. Even here, they did not go down without a fight. In fact, some even managed to escape into the woods, where they created their own partisan units. Within the ghettos, they forced organized networks, “including the Jewish Military Union and the Jewish Fighting Organization” (Source). The most famous act of resistance was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place from April 19-May 15, 1943 – an awful long time for a ghetto resistance movement. Here, they forced the Germans to retreat. Following this, forms of resistance broke out in other camps. For example, on August 28, 1943, some 350 prisoners escaped Treblinka. A similar attempt was made at Sobibor Camp on October 14, 1943. Additionally, on October 7th, the crematorium workers at Auschwitz managed a major rebellion.
[Below: Training course at Audley End in Essex]