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Portrait of a Soldier

Re-living the Warsaw Uprising: a film for all seasons

William Horsley

The London premiere of Portrait of a Soldier, an hour-long documentary about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising shown at the Polish Embassy in London on 14 January, transported me and others present into the gut-wrenching brutality of the German occupation of Warsaw and the tragic heroism of the biggest and bloodiest resistance action that ever took place in Nazi-occupied Europe. At least 180,000 civilians and 18,000 insurgent fighters were killed. The long post-war Soviet occupation of Poland and later political cover-ups mean that the story of the Uprising remains relatively unknown to this day.

So the raw picture that we are presented with here – about the war crimes committed, the super-human courage of the insurgents, and the enormity of the tragedy for the Polish nation – comes as a series of shocks and revelations.

The story is told through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, who in 1944 – as a football-playing 17-year-old girl – volunteered to join the fight alongside thousands of other insurgents against the overwhelming might of the heavily-armed, highly-trained and ruthless SS troops for 63 days, from 1 August until 2 October when the rebellion was crushed. Wanda – whose nom de guerre was Paczek (“doughnut”) – was awarded the Medal of Valour by the Polish Underground State for her acts of bravery as a messenger and frontline warrior. Her reputation led her comrades to film her actions at the height of the Uprising – a decision which provided invaluable footage for Marianna  Bukowski, a British-Polish film-maker, in making this Portrait more than 70 years later.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska herself, now a straight-talking 88 year-old, was present at the premiere in London. Her words – both those on the sound-track of the film, taken from 11 hours of interviews recorded between 2008 and 2011, and her responses to questions from the invited audience last Thursday evening – provided many insights into the experience of fighting, as she put it, for freedom and dignity in what Hitler intended should be a war of extermination. Here are some of her choice memories and comments: 

·            Nazi occupation: Wanda was in a building so close to the massacre of thousands of civilian hostages in the Wola district of Warsaw at the start of the Uprising that she heard every shot. The killing went on all morning and when she went out she saw the streams of blood in the street and covering the walls. The killing of so many unarmed civilians was intended to terrify the resistance fighters into giving up. Instead it convinced Wanda and many others that to live under Nazi occupation was unbearable so they must rise up and fight against overwhelming odds.

·            Scout’s honour: As a teenager Wanda was a committed member of the Scouts movement. So were many young Polish women and girls who every day ran out into raging battles with Red Cross flags to drag the wounded to safety and give them first aid under fire. Often, she said, the Germans shot them “like sitting ducks”. Yet Wanda says that they continued to live up to their Scout’s honour, which told them they must give life-saving treatment to a German soldier first if he was more urgently in need than injured Polish fighters.

·            A soldier’s duty: The battle for Warsaw was characterised by heavy German bombardments from the air, artillery and tanks but also by close-quarters battles, street by street or house by house. “We had a rule: ‘One bullet, one German’, because we were short of ammunition,” Wanda says. “It is hard to shoot to kill an enemy soldier if you are close enough to see into his eyes.” And when you and the enemy are face to face … “Usually, this ends with the death of the last person to regain the ability to fire.”

·            Betrayal: In 1944 the people of Warsaw knew, because the mighty Soviet army was already close, that the Germans would quite soon be defeated and forced to withdraw. They were deeply dismayed, Wanda says, that the western allies failed to drop significant deliveries of arms to help the insurgents in their desperate battle. Only much later did the Poles find out that the allies had signed Poland’s future over to the mercy of the Soviets, and that Stalin had overruled a half-hearted British bid to arm the insurgents from the air. When the Soviet occupation took hold, Wanda says, it was “even more painful for Poland”. 

·            Legacy: The Warsaw Uprising was crushed. But Wanda says that it later inspired the Solidarność movement in the 1980s: “we gave them the courage to fight for freedom… and at last we regained our independence without bloodshed.”

·            Honouring the dead: Wanda and the other fighters swore, when they were forced to surrender or go into hiding, to honour their fallen comrades. Wanda has devoted her life to recovering the remains of those who were buried in unmarked graves, so they can be re-buried with dignity in the Insurgents Cemetery in Wola. She wrote to each successive president of Poland in turn, asking them to have the cemetery refurbished so that they would be honoured at last in death. Bronislaw Komorowski, who was president from 2010 until 2015, finally granted her wish. Today, Wanda says, the cemetery is in good condition – “though not as good as I would like”.

·            Impunity: In the film Wanda says pointedly that the Germans who carried out atrocities in Nazi-occupied Warsaw “have never borne the consequences”. Asked to explain, Wanda said that the notorious commander of the SS forces responsible for the killing of 60,000 civilians, former SS Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth, was never prosecuted, and later became mayor of the West German town of Westerland. He died in 1979. Only on the 70th anniversary of the Uprising in 2014, she says, did the present mayor of that German town go to Poland and apologise.

Portrait of a Soldier is available on DVD and download from Journeyman Pictures