In World War II Jerzy Krzyzanowski resisted the Nazi occupation, only to be arrested by the Soviets.
Germany invaded and quickly defeated Poland in 1939, but Polish units—including the clandestine or Home Army—continued to fight until Armija Krajowa (AK), Germany’s defeat in 1945. While the service of Polish units in the Battle of Britain and the campaigns for Africa, Italy and Western Europe has been covered in various histories, little has been published in English on the struggles of Poland’s Home Army outside of its role in the Warsaw uprising of 1944. At the end of the war, Poland’s absorption into the Soviet Union, as well as the Cold War, obscured the Home Army’s achievements. Its contributions to the Allied cause should be remembered because the Home Army tied down German units that would have been used elsewhere, disrupted German supply lines and provided the Allies with vital intelligence. Jerzy Krzyzanowski, born in 1922 in Lublin, fought as a volunteer in 1939 and later became a member of Poland’s Home Army, receiving the Polish Cross of Valor. He was interviewed in 2005 for Military History by Ed McCaul.
Military History: Where were you when the war started?
Krzyzanowski: I was 16 years old, had graduated from high school and still in Lublin. I was in the Boy Scouts and volunteered to defend the city.
MH: Did all of the Boy Scouts volunteer? Were you trained to fight?
Krzyzanowski: Not everyone volunteered, but we had been given some military training in high school. So we knew how to shoot and to live in the field. Many people moved out of Lublin to the east because they feared the Germans. The fight for the city only lasted two days, September 16 and 17.
MH: What type of unit were you assigned to?
Krzyzanowski: There was a mixed battalion defending Lublin. It consisted of some regular army units that had retreated to Lublin and some volunteers from the city. All of the volunteers were kept together, but we were commanded by regular army officers. It was an on-the-spot organization, and most of us hardly knew one another. I was with a young man from another school. I knew him by sight but not by name.
MH: What type of weaponry did you have?
Krzyzanowski: I was armed with an old French bolt-action rifle and only had five cartridges for it. Some of the regular soldiers had hand grenades, but none of the volunteers did. We were able to stop the initial German attack at the outskirts of the city. I did some shooting, but I do not know if I hit anyone. After we stopped the Germans, they brought in heavy artillery and bombers. When the bombardment started, we were ordered to march out of the city. We were no match for the German army with their heavy armor, artillery and bombers. Our losses were not very heavy. We were in the city, and the Germans were in the open. However, some of my schoolmates were either killed or wounded, and some of the regular officers who were leading us were killed.
MH: What happened after the battle?
Krzyzanowski: Most of the men moved to the east without knowing that it was the same day that the Soviets invaded Poland. Many of them ended up in Soviet captivity. I decided to stay, as I thought that it was foolish to go who knew where.
MH: What happened after the Germans occupied the city?
Krzyzanowski: The first thing they did was close the schools. The Germans felt that the Poles did not need any education. With the schools closed, I did not know what to do with myself. Since I was interested in mechanics, I started working in a large garage that had about 60 to 70 people working in it. It was a very interesting job because very soon the German army took control of the garage, and after that it only serviced German cars. It became a perfect spot to gather intelligence on the movements of the German army.
MH: How did you become part of the Home Army?
Krzyzanowski: Through my Boy Scout connections. I was approached by my troop leader, who asked me if I was interested in gathering information, and I agreed. It was mostly information about what units were moving through Lublin, what their strength was and the type of equipment they had.
MH: Did you do any sabotage?
Krzyzanowski: No, because it would be too easy for the Germans to discover who had done it. We tried to maintain a low profile, pretend that everything was all right and that we were good, obedient citizens. The intelligence we were gathering was more important than any sabotage we could do.
MH: Where did you live during this time period?
Krzyzanowski: I lived with my mother and sisters. My father was in Warsaw. My father was a university professor before the war, and during the war he was in an underground university teaching Polish literature. During the Warsaw uprising he was wounded twice, but he survived the war.
MH: Did you know much about what was going on outside of Lublin?
Krzyzanowski: Not initially, as the Germans confiscated most of the radios, but the Home Army started publishing a clandestine newspaper, and it provided us with some information. The people who cooperated with the Germans were allowed to keep their radios. I happened to live in an apartment across the hallway from a Polish policeman, and he had a radio. Every night at 9 I would go and put my ear on his door, as he would listen to the BBC and I would be able to hear the broadcast. Later the clandestine newspaper became more regular, and we were able to keep up with what was going on.
MH: Who did you pass your information on to?
Krzyzanowski: I would pass it on to my group leader. I was not the only member of the Home Army working in the garage, but the only person I passed information to was my group leader. I would write the information down and pass it on to him. We would meet in a café or a restaurant, and I would give him my notes. Sometimes my information was very important, as every so often the Germans would be careless and leave all sorts of notes and papers in their cars. Since I had learned German in school, I was able to read what was on the notes and papers quite easily. I did not know at the time where the information went, but later I learned that all of it was going to the Polish government in exile in London.
MH: What was the most important information that you passed on while working in the garage?
Krzyzanowski: Probably the movement of the German units. I was able to pass on information on what divisions and the type of equipment that was moving through Lublin. The other information that I thought was important was the opinions of the German soldiers, especially what their morale was like. I was able to find this out, as I could talk with them.
MH: Did you know who else in the garage was working for the underground?
Krzyzanowski: I knew some of the other people working in the garage who were in the underground but not all of them. We formed a group, you could call it a squad, and we had regular meetings and briefings. We would meet in private apartments after work or on Sunday after church. It was difficult to meet, as the workday lasted 12 hours. We would start work at 6 in the morning and go until 6 in the evening six days a week, with only Sunday off. Sometimes on Sunday there would be an alert when a large German unit was moving, and we had to be ready to work on their vehicles. Also there was a 9 o’clock curfew in the evening, and we were not permitted to be on the streets after that. I worked in the garage until early in 1944, I believe January, when I was ordered to move to a special guerrilla unit operating around Lublin. It was a very special unit, as its assignment was to receive airdrops from the Polish planes flying from Italy with supplies. Apparently they decided that I was good enough for this sort of assignment. They asked me if I would like to go, and I said yes. To be in the regular army was quite an honor, as we received English uniforms and weapons.
MH: Did you receive pay for being in this unit?
Krzyzanowski: No, it was strictly volunteer.
MH: Your pictures show your officers riding horses. How did you hide the horses from the Germans?
Krzyzanowski: All of our officers liked to ride horses. We hid the horses just like we hid, in the villages. One time we attacked a German stable in Lublin in the spring of 1944 because we needed a good carriage and some good horses. Our commander said that he was tired of riding a horse and wanted a carriage. So he ordered six of us to go into Lublin and get a carriage for him. We were able to do a raid in the middle of an occupied city during the day because we wore civilian clothes and had our pistols hidden. We made the raid about 8 in the evening, just before the curfew. We knocked on the door. They asked who we were, and we told them that we had special request from the German commander. When they opened up, we tied them up. We did not shoot at them or kill them, as they were Polish. We told them what we wanted, and they sat quietly in a corner. We took two carriages and drove them out of town. I had never had anything to do with horses before this raid and had to drive one of the carriages out of the city. It was a very cold and dark night, and I was very nervous driving the carriage through the woods, but we were young and considered it a great adventure. We later used the carriages to pick up people who parachuted in to meet us. They were surprised and pleased when they were given a carriage ride, as they were expecting to have to fight Germans right after they landed. We would take them to a large country estate that was owned by one of our colleagues and let them have a hot bath.
MH: Did the planes only do airdrops, or did they ever land?
Krzyzanowski: We only had one landing in our area, on April 15, 1944. The plane, an American Dakota, landed about 30 or 40 miles south of Lublin. The airfield was a pasture that we lined with kerosene lamps. The plane brought in two commandos from the Polish army in Italy and left with emissaries from the Home Army. One of men who left, Andrzej Pomian, is living in Washington, D.C., today. Normally we had airdrops, though. In all we had 16 airdrops. They dropped weapons, ammunition, uniforms and occasionally people. Food was not usually included in the drops, but one time we were dropped some tea bags that had a little picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt shaking hands with the Polish leader General Wladislow Sikorski. The tea bags were also inscribed in Polish “Fighting America for fighting Poland.” Little things like this let us know that we were not alone and that someone was taking care of us. We even used the parachutes, as the ladies in the villages would make shirts out of them for us. We conducted these activities until July 1944. I am very happy to say that we did not lose any of our airdrops. We were able to get all of the equipment and successfully hide it. The idea was that when the German army withdrew, there would be a general uprising, and the weapons that were airdropped to us were to be used then.
MH: How did you train and practice firing your weapons without the Germans hearing you?
Krzyzanowski: Lublin had a few forests around it, and at night we could train and practice firing our weapons. In fact, I have a photograph of us on a training exercise.
MH: Didn’t you worry about the Germans hearing you?
Krzyzanowski: During the daytime the Germans were the lords of the country, but at night they were afraid to move. It was an interesting situation, as during the day we were hiding in the villages and at night it was the Germans who were hiding.
MH: How would you get food? Did you have a regular supply system?
Krzyzanowski: The people would feed us, and we would pay them in Polish money, as we were sent plenty of money from England. While the food in the villages was better than it was in the cities, food was still scarce, as the Germans confiscated a lot, but we had enough. The people in the countryside were very supportive.
MH: Did your unit ever have any combat with the Germans?
Krzyzanowski: Oh yes, even though we were not a fighting unit and were given orders to avoid the Germans. Still, we were ambushed in the villages when someone would tell the Germans that we were there. In some cases we suffered heavy casualties. The Germans would surround the village and then attack us. We were always able to escape, as they would never completely surround the village. Quite a few of my very close friends were killed in action. It was very hard.
MH: Did your unit ever set up ambushes for the Germans?
Krzyzanowski: Our main job was to take care of the airdrops, but if we were waiting at a highway and one German car came by, we would stop it by shooting at it. If the Germans survived the ambush, we would release them after we had disarmed them. We would tell them to report that they had been attacked by the Polish army. If the men in the car were SS or Gestapo, they would be killed. There was no question about that. However, most of the men we captured were in the Wehrmacht. It was dangerous work, as one Polish unit near us was attacked and destroyed by a SS unit.
MH: What happened in July 1944 that caused your unit to stop receiving airdrops?
Krzyzanowski: The Russians started a big offensive, and we received orders to fight the withdrawing German units. It was very hard on us, as we only had light weapons and the Germans had artillery and armored vehicles. We used Gammon grenades. We would put the Gammons in their path when we saw them coming, but it never worked. A friend of mine did destroy one armored car with a PIAT, the British bazooka. The armored car was one of two armored cars that were escorting a convoy. After the first armored car was destroyed, the convoy retreated. We fought, I would say, bravely, and we lost a lot of men. Sometime around the end of July the Germans left our area and the Russians moved in.
MH: What happened after the Russians arrived?
Krzyzanowski: The first thing they did was to order us to disarm. They also told us that we had to enlist in the Polish army that they had with them, and of course that army was controlled by Communists. Anyone who disobeyed was arrested and deported to the Soviet Union. We had a long and very serious meeting with our commander. He said that we could either disperse and go home, with the probability that we would be picked up one by one, or we could stay together and at least could support one another if we stayed together. We decided to join the Communist Polish army. I was made a second lieutenant along with many of my comrades. We were put into different regiments, well treated, given weapons and allowed to command units. Everything seemed normal as we were preparing for combat. However, in November 1944 we were picked up one at a time by the Russian secret police. I was taken when the commander of the regiment sent a message to me to report to him at his headquarters. When I entered his headquarters, he was sitting at his table, and I saluted him. Right then two Russians grabbed me from behind, took my pistol, tied my hands and put me in a truck with some of the other men from my Home Army unit. It was very well organized. They put us in a special detention camp near Lublin for former soldiers of the Polish Home Army. We were lucky, as some men were executed by the Russians. They kept us in the camp until April 1945. We woke up one morning at 6 and the entire camp was surrounded by Russian troops. We were then loaded on trucks, taken to a railroad station and then taken to Russia. We were kept in Russia near Moscow in special camps for Polish soldiers for almost three years. There were about 3,000 men in our camp.
MH: What was the camp like?
Krzyzanowski: The camp was a regular POW camp mainly for officers and not a labor camp. In fact, as officers, we were not permitted to work. There were a few enlisted men in the camp, and they were forced to go out and work. We were fairly well fed. We were questioned but not regularly. They had very good files and knew everything about us. We had our own internal organization and had a number of high-ranking generals from the Home Army in the camp. There were escape attempts. Most of those attempts took place through the barbed wire. Some of the men did escape and were not recaptured. The ones who were caught were beaten mercilessly by the Russians. Some of the men who made it all the way to Poland were arrested in Poland and brought back to the camp. The ones who remained free had to go underground when they got back to Poland.
MH: Why did the Russians decide to release you?
Krzyzanowski: In 1947 we decided, since the war was over and Poland was seemingly independent, to stage one protest after another to force them to send us back to Poland. Eventually we had to go on a hunger strike. After the hunger strike the Russians dismantled the camp and divided us into three groups. In November 1947, they started taking us back to Poland. I was wearing my Polish army uniform when I was released, so when I got to Warsaw I reported to the Ministry of Defense and asked them what I should do, as I was officially still in the army. They told me that I could go home and resume my civilian life. One of the officials asked me if I knew why they had deported us to the Soviet Union. I told him that I had no idea. He told me that in 1944 the members of the Home Army were a danger to them and that they were afraid that the Home Army might fight them like we had fought the Germans. So they felt that it was safer for them to send all of us to Russia. Now that they were in complete control, they were no longer afraid of what we could do. After I returned home I entered the University of Warsaw and got married. In 1959 I received an invitation to teach Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley. After a year I was able to get my wife to join me and received a similar invitation from the University of Michigan. We went to Michigan, and the university wanted me to stay beyond the one year. I told them that we would be glad to stay, but they had to help me get our children to the United States. They wrote to the Polish government asking them to release the children, and for some reason the children were sent to us. After three years at Michigan I completed my Ph.D. and received an offer from the University of Colorado, where I taught for one year. Then we moved to the University of Kansas for three years. In 1966 I was invited to Ohio State, where I taught until I retired in 1991.
MH: What did you do to receive the Polish Cross of Valor?
Krzyzanowski: I received it for guiding an officer and his two assistants through the German and Russian lines twice. The officer was a major and a specialist in military airplanes. We expected at the time that the Allies would send a large group of airplanes and troops to help us. The major had received an order to secure the airport near Lublin with our unit. He was on the German side and thought that the airport was controlled by the Russians. However, once we got to the Russian side, he realized that the airport was still occupied by the Germans. It was pretty hard, as the lines were continually moving. Plus there were plenty of Germans and Russians shooting at each other. We had a horse drawn carriage. We stayed off the major highways, as the Germans were using them to retreat and the Russians were using them to advance. So we used side roads and forest paths, traveling at night and during the day. By this time I knew the area very well, as I had driven the carriage at night many times in this same area. At one time during the trip the Russians came into the village that we were in. They told us that the war was over for us and to hand our weapons over. We told them no, as we did not have any orders. They said OK and that the NKVD [the Narodny, Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs] would come after us and take care of us. The Russian frontline troops were pretty nice and were more interested in fighting the Germans than arresting people.
MH: How did you get all of the photographs?
Krzyzanowski: All of the survivors from our unit get together twice a year. When I was over there they asked me to write a book about our unit and gave me the pictures to include in it.
MH: Any final thoughts?
Krzyzanowski: I am glad that I did what I did and that I was a part of it. No regrets in spite of the years in the Russian camp.
Ed McCaul is a frequent contributor to Military History. For further reading, try: By Devil’s Luck, by Stanislaw Likiernik; or The Secret Army, by T. Bor-Komorowski
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.