There is a young man standing near me in shorts, sandals, cool shades and a very stylish haircut. I am in the market square with the crowds that are waiting for this event to start at 5.00 pm. We are all standing near a statue that is an established meeting place. The statue is called “Adam”. It is a very hot day but the people stand in the sun out on the stone pavers. The young man stands with two fresh roses in his hand. They are tied with a red ribbon. I watch him as he stands with solemnity and anticipation.
It is August 1, 2018. The crowds are waiting for 5.00 pm, the time and date when the Warsaw Uprising was launched 74 years ago. The Warsaw Uprising was a heroic 63-day struggle to liberate Warsaw from Nazi occupation in 1945. It was a tragic, blistering battle led by the Home Army (AK). It was fought on the city streets. The citizens of Warsaw, including women and children, joined in the fight.
World War II had been raging in Poland for almost 5 years in 1945. The Allied troops were breaking through at Normandy. The Red Army was waiting at the banks of the Vistula River. The Home Army of Warsaw – about 40,000 it is said – had 2,500 weapons against the 15,000 German troops already in the city. The Nazis had the tanks, planes and heavy weaponry. Thirty thousand more German soldiers waited a few kilometers away. The citizens had their guile, wit and were stubborn with courage. At the end, historians estimate that 150,000 Poles died in the uprising; the Nazis lost 26,000.
The cheekiness of the starving, war-weary Poles to take on the megalamaniac dictator, Adolf Hitler! Hitler was incensed over their insurrection. He ranted and yelled in fury. He had a fit and then ordered that the city of Warsaw be bombed to dust in retaliation. And it was. The underdog against the mighty empire. After 63 days, the survivors surrendered and were marched out of the razed city and into German prison camps. Today and every year, the bravery of those citizens is honored and remembered in every city in Poland with a silent event at precisely 5.00 pm.
In 2018, folks gather in the old market square in Kraków like they do every year. At exactly 5, everything stops, the trams, the buses, the pedestrian traffic. All of the regular city routine stops and waits. A city-wide siren, like the siren played for air attacks, blares for a minute across the town. The gathered crowd around the steps of the meeting place called ‘Adam’, stand-up and ignite dozens of red flares. The smoke pours upwards until ‘Adam’ disappears in the grey/white fog. Folks are holding red and white Polish flags. There are women and children dressed in red and white. Everyone is quiet and reverential. The tourists are meandering through and asking: “What is this?” I am weepy as always at ceremonies that mark that war in Poland. My father fought in Italy for Poland, my mother was deported by Stalin and the families of many of the silent citizens waiting ‘near Adam’ today also fought, died and were deported. I have lived most of my life in the U.S. but I know I am a Pole at heart as I stand here teary-eyed.
After a minute of smoke and silence, the people sing the national anthem, the title of which states “And yet Poland has not vanished”. I listen to the woman behind me sing all five stanzas, clearly and without an error. Then there is a unified shout-out that I understand as something like; All Hail the Citizens.
I watch the young man, his posture has relaxed, the roses are still in his hand, he turns and walks away into the crowd.
“Why Poland?” is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2018.