Thursday, April 18, 2024

From the Warsaw Uprising to the death march

Helena Majkowska (Source: Helena Majkowska’s private archive)

– Our legs were bent in terror. The SS men ordered us to lie down in the street. One of the girls knew German well and conveyed to the rest that they were just planning our execution… – recalls Helena Majkowska, fighter of the Warsaw Uprising and prisoner of Stutthof Concentration Camp.

PIOTR WŁOCZYK: I see that you keep a picture of the Merciful Jesus in a place of honor in your home, which bears the date: “1944”. Does this picture really remember the times war?

HELENA MAJKOWSKA: Yes. I found it on Dworkowa Street in Warsaw, lying on the ground before the Germans announced their plans for our execution. Imagine that moment. I was a terrified 18-year-old girl from the uprising, who would be murdered in a moment. Suddenly I looked, and next to me on the cobblestones laid a picture with the image of the Lord, which is so infamous in Poland. All I had to do was reach out with my hand. I picked it up, kissed it and…. I began to make an examination of conscience. This picture was later with me in the Stutthof concentration camp. I kept it close to my heart all the time and constantly repeated: “Lord God, I trust in You, I know that I will not perish. Mother of perpetual help, help me. Make me return home.” As you can see, my pleas were heard, and despite the hell the Germans put us through, I managed to live to the age of 95 thanks to protection from Heaven.

Let’s go back to the moment when you were about to be executed.

The Germans took us out of the sewers on Dworkowa Street. The day before, on September 26th (1944), my friends and I were ordered to move from Mokotów to Śródmieście. We walked all day through the sewers. This is something unimaginable for people living today. Water up to our waist, a stench that made our heads spin, swollen corpses that we had to wade through, rats and finally grenades and gas that the Germans threw into the manholes. We walked along the walls, held on to the ropes and prayed not to get lost. It turned out that it was impossible to get out into the city center. Everywhere we tried to go, the Germans were already there. Finally, the dramatic words were spoken: you have to go back to Mokotów.

The picture of the Merciful Jesus found by Helena Majkowska in 1944 (Source: Piotr Włoczyk)

At Dworkowa Street the Germans pulled us out of the sewers, shouting “Raus, raus!”. Around the manhole stood SS men with rifles. There were 40 of us girls, almost all of them nurses and liaison officers from the Baszta Regiment. Our legs bowed in terror. The SS men ordered us to lie down on the street. One of the girls knew German well and relayed to the rest that they were just planning our execution…. The officer in charge of the Germans ordered a machine gun to be set up. We had lain like that for about two hours. Each one of us silently made an examination of conscience and asked God to forgive our sins. In the meantime, the Germans caught the guys who came out of the same manhole, rushed them a bit farther from us and executed them on the spot.

How come they didn’t do the same to you guys?

I don’t know the details. It was simply that some other German officer came in and an argument started. The result was that the machine gun that had already been set up was taken away. The Germans ordered us to get up, lined us up in fours and rushed us out. Walking away from there, I saw that a dozen other girls were still kneeling by the wall. I don’t know what happened to them – did they shoot them or not? I’m still wondering about that…

They then herded us to the camp in Pruszków. We spent the night there. At five o’clock in the morning they drove us out of the Pruszków camp to the train station. There they crammed us into one train car. They shouted that we were bandits. It turned out that our destination was to be KL Stutthof…They drove us to the camp all day. There were guards with dogs waiting on the spot. The dogs were barking at us aggressively and the guards lashed us with whips. We arrived at the camp gate around midnight. The Germans lined us up against the fence and made us wait all night until they graciously opened the camp gate. They wouldn’t let the other prisoners talk to us, because they said we were bandits. They isolated us from the rest of the people imprisoned there.

And in the end, the Germans eventually granted the status of soldiers to the Home Army fighting in the capital.

But forty of us were sent to Stutthof Concentration Camp and nothing could be done about it. One of us wrote letters to the commandant, some administrative procedure was initiated, but in the end the Germans decided not to move us to a POW camp. They decided to leave us behind the wires of Stutthof. They gave us striped uniforms with red triangles, which meant we were “political”. Despite the fact that the Germans wanted the rest of the prisoners to treat us like lepers, we received an enormous amount of sympathy. The word that they had brought girls from the Warsaw Uprising here spread around the camp very quickly. Sometimes it even happened that other prisoners organized food for us and smuggled it into our barracks.

Appeals to the commandant yielded absolutely nothing?

No. Our situation even got worse, because in December they moved us to the Jewish Camp at Stutthof Concentration Camp. They placed us in barrack 27, right next to the death block. Next to our barrack, hell on earth played out every day. Jewish women were herded into this building. No one came out of there alive. At the back lay a pile of corpses, piled up to the roof. The prisoners could not keep up with taking the bodies to the crematorium. The bodies of these unfortunate people looked like firewood waiting to be burned…In January, Soviet planes could be heard more and more often. We learned to recognize the crackling sound of their engines well back during the Warsaw Uprising.

The Germans decided to partially evacuate the camp – the “death marches” from Stutthof Concentration Camp began.

I walked out of there in a column, which they drove out of the gate on January 27. I was wearing a striped coat, some kind of derrick on top, and wooden treads on my feet. That was all my protection from the cold. We walked along dirt roads rapidly weakening from exhaustion.

Was this your worst experience of the war?

I think it was. I don’t think it was that hard even during the Uprising. There was a column of men walking in front of us. The road was marked with the corpses of tormented prisoners. Sometimes it was difficult to pass through, after all, no one wanted to step on a dead man. They gave us a piece of bread to eat once a day, and we had mostly snow to use for drink. In Kashubia, kind-hearted people threw loaves of bread in our direction, but the Germans would not let us touch them. They shot rounds in the air to scare away people who wanted to come to our aid. It was a luxury to spend the night in a church, when you could lie down on a wooden bench, rather than on the bare, frozen ground.

There was no shortage of moments when I, too, wanted to give up, as I was reaching the limits of my endurance. During the death marches, the rules were clear to everyone: if you fall down and can’t get up, a German guard will knock you out. Eventually, I also fell down. I remember vividly that the only thought that was rattling around in my head at the time was the anxiety that I would die as a person without a name, because I was, after all, only prisoner No. 101,958. I very much did not want to leave this world in this anonymous way.

How did you survive all this?

A German woman extended a helping hand to me. And very literally.

A German woman?!

Sometimes we forget that in the concentration camps the prisoners were also Germans, who for various reasons were considered a threat by the Third Reich. Incidentally, at Stutthof Concentration Camp I met the 18-year-old daughter of some high-ranking Wehrmacht officer, whom they demoted and sent to the Eastern Front. I became friends with this girl in a hospital barracks when I had typhoid fever. She was an only child. She very much wanted to see a sister in me…

The German woman who gave me a helping hand during the death march seemed to me at the time a 70-year-old old woman. She stubbornly repeated to me: “Don’t die, don’t die”. I replied that I was already all the same, but she did not stop mobilizing me, saying: “Get up quickly, get up!”. She lifted me up, took me under her arm on one side, another inmate grabbed me on the other, and so we slowly started walking. I dragged my feet, but by some miracle I reached the church, where I could rest a little. Without the help of this German woman I would surely have been one of the thousands of victims of the death marches.

Where did this murderous route end for you?

Today I can no longer say how far we got and when exactly it ended. I only know that it was somewhere in Pomerania. Eventually the Russians caught up with us. Some tanks appeared on the horizon. No one was sure what these machines were. When the guards suddenly disappeared, everything became clear. The moment we saw the Russians… I can’t describe the joy I felt. Nothing mattered anymore, the most important thing was that we no longer had to march in hunger and cold under the German whip. The Russians had us occupy the cottage after the Germans and we could finally rest.

If it hadn’t been for those Russians, I’m sure I would have died on the road a day, or at the most two days later. I was already a human wreck and this is no exaggeration. The truth is that they saved our lives, but very soon they also showed their horrifying face: the rapes began…They went from hut to hut and searched for “young girls”.

The Warsaw Uprising, Stutthof Concentration Camp, the death march, and finally still the threat of something worse than death for many women…

But, mind you, fortunately there were two much older female prisoners with us, who figured out how to keep us safe from the Russians. We were to hide together with a friend under the curtained sheets. There were old female prisoners sitting on the beds, and when the Russians entered the house, asking about the young girls, they only shook their heads and said that there was no one like that in their house, and besides, they were liberated concentration camp prisoners. And that settled the matter.

The Germans, fleeing this farm, left behind pantries full of food. However, we did not know that such an abundance of fatty food – they left sausages and bacon there, among other things – would end badly for us. This, by the way, often happened among former concentration camp prisoners, who suddenly had access to a lot of food. We all had huge stomach problems. It was only the Russian doctors who explained to us that we couldn’t take such products for the time being and should eat only porridge and drink mint. They were right, after a few days we felt better. But still Stutthof and the death march did their job. Two years after the war I was recovering. I had a hole in one lung and a large infiltration appeared on the other. I was treated by the Polish Red Cross and fortunately I had access to donations from America, where there were also medicines and nutrients. That got me back on my feet. When they took an x-ray of my lungs in Skierniewice two years after the war, they said I had to go to Warsaw, because they must have broken equipment – my damaged lungs looked like healthy ones, and the doctors thought that was impossible. However, an X-ray in Warsaw confirmed that this was indeed the case. So don’t be surprised that all my life I claim that the Lord Jesus and the Blessed Mother are watching over me.

How did you get from Skierniewice to the streets of insurgent Warsaw?

Already as a 15-year-old girl I took the oath. It happened on February 1st, 1941, when I was still living in Skierniewice. My commander was Wiktor Janiszewski a.k.a. Dębicz. I carried newspapers, sometimes weapons. When my mother died, my aunt arranged for me to live with family in Warsaw. After moving to the capital, I naturally continued my service in the underground. When the uprising broke out, I couldn’t miss being on the streets of Warsaw. I was a nurse and liaison officer in the “Baszta” Regiment.

In publications about these forty women who were sent from the sewers to Stutthof Concentration Camp, you are sometimes referred to as “Female Guns”. Why?

Perhaps because these girls were brave and defiant?

Did you fire shots during the uprising?

No, not once. But most of the time I carried a small pistol. Just in case.

So it’s all clear. At least in your case, this term fits like a glove.

There were such things happening on the streets of Warsaw that I preferred to have my little “fiver” with me. Although during the uprising I did not shoot, but it happened that I had a rifle in my hand. And even two! One day I noticed that at Pulawska Street two rifles were lying just like that on the street. Not thinking much, I grabbed them and ran to the guys. I didn’t even think that it could have been a trap after all. But how happy the guys were with this prey!

At the end of the uprising I buried my pistol in the garden near one of the houses. After the war I went back there and asked the landlady to let me in, because I had to dig up something I had buried under a rose during the uprising. She didn’t even ask me what it was, just invited me inside.

What was the most harrowing moment of the uprising like?

It was one big rush, it’s hard for me to pick one scene here. We slept very little, there was something to do all the time. But at least we all felt free. Among other things, I served as a nurse in the Elzbietanki hospital in Mokotow. The Germans threw incendiary bombs that ripped through the basements. People were burned all over. These were monstrous situations. How do you feed a man whose face was burned?

What came back particularly strongly in your memories after the war?

The death march. Would you believe that I couldn’t watch the pilgrimages for a long time? The people heading to our beloved Czestochowa reminded me of that march. This feeling was stronger than me. I simply could not look at the columns of marching people…

Helena Majkowska a.k.a. Ela (born 1926) was a nurse and liaison officer in the 5th District (Mokotow) of the Warsaw District of the Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising.

This interview was published in 2021 in Historia Do Rzeczy magazine.