September ’39: My mother’s first experience of war — but not her last

By Andrzej Ładak

building-barricades-39By most accounts, Friday, September 1, 1939, began as a beautiful late-summer day across most of Poland. True, in the preceding days, as summer ambled its way toward autumn, while children steeled themselves for the new school year and farmers prepared for the fall harvest, many people were troubled by thoughts of war with Germany. Things were happening in Europe that boded ill, events perceived by many as possible precursors of war. Still, for most Poles, especially those living in the towns and villages far from Warsaw and other cities where ominous radio reports and newspaper headlines kept residents glancing nervously at the blue skies, that first day of September dawned like any other day. Very few people, in the cities or the countryside, really expected war to break out that morning.

But, of course, it did. Early that morning German air, ground and naval forces attacked Polish military and civilian objectives at many points — along Poland’s western border, on its Baltic coast and at numerous points inland. Warsaw, the capital, was among the Luftwaffe’s first targets, and the greatest, most devastating war the world has ever seen, before or since, had begun.

On that first day of September my mother, Irena Talach, who had turned sixteen less than a month earlier, was in Sucha, the small village where she had been born, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Warsaw. She and her younger brother and sister were with relatives, enjoying their last days of vacation while their parents were in Warsaw. Soon they too would be returning to the city and to school. I don’t know if there were any telephones in the village — perhaps not — but as my mother tells it, a few of the more affluent households had radios, and my mother herself had a simple home-built crystal set of the kind popular in the early days of broadcasting among hobbyists and teenagers. Somehow, however, whether by radio or via messenger from a nearby town, news of the German attacks reached Sucha by late morning on that first day of war.

But Sucha was far from Warsaw and other cities under attack, and although the outbreak of war was surely a subject of excited talk and great concern that morning, life in the community, at least in the first days, went on much as always. Soon, though, the residents learned that trains running between Warsaw and the nearest station, about 10 kilometers away (a two-hour ride by horse-drawn wagon), had been halted. In any case, my mother’s return to Warsaw, by then under relentless bombardment, was indefinitely postponed.

As the days passed, increasingly disturbing news of the fighting filtered through, but communication with Warsaw remained sporadic. Finally, about a week after the war began, my mother’s father, Jan, arrived in Sucha. Having set out from Warsaw several days earlier, he managed to ride a train part of the way but had to make the rest of the journey on foot, occasionally hitching a ride in a farmer’s wagon. Today, of course, 80 kilometers is a 45-minute drive by highway in most countries, but in the 1930s such a trip was a major undertaking in parts of Europe — especially in a poor country like Poland, which had regained its independence barely 20 years earlier, after more than 100 years of repressive occupation by Austria, Prussia and Russia. Even before the German invasion a journey between Warsaw and Sucha, usually by a combination of train and horse-drawn wagon, took the better part of a day, sometimes longer. That September, with train traffic disrupted, no intercity buses and few, if any, private cars on the roads (bad ones, at that), a normal one-day trip became a difficult journey sometimes lasting several days.

When he finally reached Sucha, Jan, who worked for the Polish post office in Warsaw, related an encounter he’d had with a marauding German airplane. In his postal uniform, he apparently drew the attention of a low-flying plane, which circled back, swooped low over the road and let loose a burst of machine-gun fire. Having missed his target, the pilot made a second pass. In the meantime, Jan ran into the field and hid behind a hay stack. The hay wouldn’t stop any bullets, but at least it offered concealment from the plane, which made a couple more passes as Jan played hide-and-seek around the hay stack. Finally the German flew off, having either run out of ammunition or, more likely, having had enough fun for that day. Some readers might think it odd that a pilot would waste time and ammunition to strafe a solitary figure, but the September campaign brought many accounts of German aircrews attacking civilian targets, in conspicuous disregard of international laws of war. Such attacks were a deliberate tactic intended to terrorize and demoralize Poland’s population.

Eventually, my mother and her siblings returned with their father to Warsaw, which had by then suffered extensive bombing damage and was still under daily attack. Fortunately, the family’s building, where my grandmother had stayed the whole time, was intact, but my mother tells of passing through neighborhoods that had been bombed, seeing burned-out ruins and, most distressing, countless makeshift graves along the torn-up sidewalks. Not long afterward, the Germans, having fought their way to Warsaw’s outskirts, began shelling the city with artillery. The city’s water and electricity had been effectively cut off, and food was getting scarce. Polish troops prepared for a last-ditch defense of the city, and thousands of civilians — men, women, teenagers and even children — responded to calls by the army and impassioned, unrealistically hopeful, radio messages from the city’s heroic president (equivalent to the mayor of an American city) by pitching in to build barricades and defensive positions within the city itself. They tore up streets and sidewalks, blocked intersections with street cars and heavy furniture hauled from destroyed buildings, dug trenches and did whatever else they could to help resist the inevitable attack by the German army.

Looking at photographs from that time and place, I am always amazed by the seemingly carefree mood they convey. In the face of a shocking new war, under steady bombardment, surrounded by unimagined destruction and hastily dug graves, knowing that they were about to face enemy soldiers and tanks, many of the civilians working on the barricades are, nonetheless, grinning at the camera. Rolled-up sleeves, cigarettes dangling from the men’s lips, young women pausing to smile and strike an attractive pose even as they wipe sweat and grime from their face, children grinning as they lug bricks or buckets of water for the toiling workers — the images are a curious yet incredibly inspiring testament to the human spirit and to the fact, that, whatever their normal flaws and weaknesses, many ordinary folks, when forced by circumstances or by threats to the people and places they love, will rise to the occasion and do what must be done, at almost any cost.

Seeing these pictures decades later, I could almost think that, but for the smoke, the visible ruins and the occasional Polish soldiers in the background, the citizens of Warsaw were merely spending a summer day working on some sort of large community project. In a way, I suppose, they were — but a community project that involved their lives and the fate of their city. Sadly, I also realize that those smiling, patriotic Varsovians, men and women and children, could not possibly foresee the tragedy and horrors about to descend on them, their beautiful city, and their beloved country. They could not begin to imagine what we, today, know: that many of them wouldn’t live to see 1940, much less the end of the war.
Among the horrors awaiting an unsuspecting Warsaw was the unimaginably brutal and doomed uprising which, five years later, would culminate with the death or cruel deportation of nearly all of the city’s remaining residents and the final, utter destruction of Warsaw.
In 1939, during that blazing September, my mother had no idea that she, too, would fight in the Warsaw Uprising.

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As my mother and her family faced the first days of war in Sucha and Warsaw, my father, Marian Ładak, was fighting south of Radom as a young infantry officer, and my wife’s parents were experiencing war elsewhere in Poland… but those are stories for another day.

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