With Ewa Ponińska on the Warsaw Uprising and the daring operation, for which she received the Virtuti Militari, talks Małgorzata Schwarzgruber.
September 30, 1944 was a special day in your life. Why?
On this day, an officer I didn’t know pinned on me the ribbon of the Silver Cross of the War Order of Virtuti Militari. I collected the certificate No. 11685 several years later in London. After the fall of the Warsaw Uprising I was taken from the Żoliborz district, together with about 2,000 Home Army soldiers, to the transit camp in Pruszków. We were sitting in a huge hall on a concrete floor. Then I heard one of the staff reading my name. He took me to the end of the hall, where several soldiers were standing in a row. An officer, unknown to me, was reading their names and decorating them with the Cross of Valor. He called me as the last one. I heard that he was decorating me with the Virtuti Militari. I was stunned. Together with the Cross, I was promoted to platoon commander. I took ages to fall asleep that night. I didn’t know then that I got the decoration for the operation carried out at the end of September. During an intensive attack of the German 19th Armored Division, I volunteered to make contact with the cut off Resurrectionist convent in Żoliborz, where our forces had built defense. At the time I was a liaison officer at the 227th scout platoon of the “Żyrafa II” Group in the Home Army’s Sub-district II of “Żywiciel” in Żoliborz.
There were 117 Home Army soldiers inside the convent, attacked by about 2,000 German troops and 16 tanks.
These were the last days of the Uprising, but we didn’t think about giving up. Żyrafa’s command was located in the buildings on Krasińskiego 20 and 29, and the Resurrectionist convent. The Germans were attacking – first artillery drum fire, then tanks and troops. We lost contact with the convent. The commander of the Żyrafa Group, Lt Ryszard “Tatar” Wołczyński, hesitated to designate the person who was to make contact. I volunteered. I had to cross Krasińskiego street, with a huge barricade placed on it. Our boys of the 227th platoon advised me to give it up. “You won’t be able to pass,” they said. The convent was severely damaged after artillery fire, the upper floors were on fire. I slowly crawled onto a pile of rubble, hoping that the Germans wouldn’t notice me. The only way into the convent was through a hole made in a wall, but that was exactly the target point of the biggest German tank, Tiger. I decided I had to take a leap between two shots and I couldn’t slip. I jumped – and I made it. I’m alive.
This is how the action was described by Stanisław Podlewski in Rapsodia Żoliborska [Żoliborz Rhapsody]: “Liaison officer Ewa, a madly brave girl, tries to make contact: under a rain of fire she reconnects a ripped cable of a field phone. This courageous girl manages to reach the convent three times. Covered in grey dust, bruised, in torn clothes, she tirelessly carries ammunition, grenades, collects reports, comforts the boys.”
The Germans attacked. The situation in the convent was tragic. Many killed and wounded. There were no bandages, dressings, they were running out of ammunition. I had to go back with a report on the situation. In the evening of the same day, Tatar sent me to the convent once again, with an order to retreat. I got to the place, but there was nobody there. It was quiet. The convent was on fire, my eyes were hurting from the smoke. I was scared that the Germans had cut me off. I had heard stories about the deaths of girls caught by the Germans. I ran outside, but there was nobody there.
Then you met a civilian who said that there were two severely wounded people in the basement of an abandoned building at 29 Krasińskiego street.
I returned there with Żyrafa’s nurse and a stretcher. We knew that the Germans did not respect the Geneva Conventions and finished off our wounded. I met those two soldiers of the 227th platoon years later, during a reunion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. I couldn’t believe that those two balding and grey-haired men were the same young scouts who had fought so fiercely years ago. We started talking and... we were young once again.
Let’s go a few years back, to talk about events that led to awarding an 18-year-old girl with the highest military decoration. Let’s start with the outbreak of the war. How did it change your life?
I was 13 then. I had been studying for a year at the Convent of Sisters of the Immaculate Conception in Nowy Sącz. When our school was turned into a hospital, my first thought was that we would have longer holidays. It didn’t occur to me then that wounded people after bombings would be sent there. It didn’t take long for me to stop perceiving war as an adventure. When my mother and I started travelling to the east, our train was bombarded and shelled from the air. People were killed or wounded. We reached the Convent of Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, near the town of Kowel and the Soviet border. I remember the park surrounding the convent and walnuts ripening on trees. Several days later Soviet troops marched into Poland, and the convent was closed. We went to Lviv, where we found shelter at the Poor Clares Order. We lived in cells and were given soup once a day. In January 1940, my mother decided to cross the Polish-Romanian border and get to Bucharest, where my father was staying at the time.
Did you manage to meet with him?
We were arrested while crossing the green border. It was very cold and dark, as the night was moonless. We were walking with others in a line across fields in complete silence. When we saw a Romanian railway station and the Dniester was the only thing that separated us from it, I heard someone shout: “Ruki w wierch” [Hands up]. A moment later we were surrounded by Soviet border guards. We later learned it had been a trap prepared by our guide. We were led to the border post, and on the following day we were transported to the prison in Kolomyia. When we were waiting in a huge room to be assigned to cells, I read the writings on the walls: “They are taking us to a Gulag in the Soviet Union, please inform our family,” or “Our transport is leaving tomorrow, we don’t know where to.” There were hundreds of names and addresses left by Polish officers, judges, officials, teachers arrested by the Soviets. After a few days in Kolomyia, we were transported to the prison in Stanisławów. Being a child, I was not interrogated, but my mother was questioned many times. She was accused of espionage and sentenced to a gulag, and I was sent to my relatives in Lviv. When in July 1941 the Germans entered Lviv, I was able to send a letter to my mother’s sister who lived in Warsaw. My aunt paid some man to bring me to the capital, and there I started a new life.
You joined the underground?
I started learning at the middle school in Żoliborz. I joined the 33rd Warsaw Girl Scout Team that prepared young people to work in secret military organizations. In February 1943, I was sworn in as a member of the Home Army. I swore my military oath at the sacristy, before Father Zygmunt Trószyński, the Home Army Chaplain in Żoliborz. I vowed to serve Poland loyally and to keep military secrets. I finished courses on operating military phones, using weapons, as well as street fighting preparatory courses. We were a disciplined army, although we only had armbands.
Then came a day when that army had to stand against the Germans. What was your role in the Uprising?
My aunt tried to keep me at home and lock me in the bathroom, but I wanted to fight for my country’s freedom, like the insurgents of 1863. I was a liaison, so on August 1 I was running around the city from the early morning, delivering orders. I received an armband in the national colors, with my platoon’s number on it. Our boys, in helmets, or with bare heads, some with guns, others with grenades, stood to fight against the Germans, who were armed to the teeth. What we didn’t know then was that Hitler wanted to crush the insurgents at any cost. About midnight of the first day of the Uprising, after unsuccessful attempts to capture the designated objects, LtCol Mieczysław “Żywiciel” Niedzielski ordered us to withdraw to the Kampinos Forest. There we felt safer, because the Germans rarely entered the local forests. On the following day, the courier brought orders from the commander of the Home Army, Gen Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, saying that Warsaw is fighting and we must return.
I was building phone lines then, but bombings, explosions and projectiles destroyed cables faster than we managed to mend them. Ultimately, Żywiciel decided that liaison officers would carry orders as couriers. We were always on the move, from one task to another. Nevertheless, it was hard to forget about death. One day, I was crawling across a pile of rubble, when I saw a streak of blond hair sticking out from under the bricks. Someone was lying in the rubble...
What was the situation like in the last days of the Uprising?
German artillery fire was very strong, they attacked with tanks and infantry. Żywiciel ordered us to gather near the “glass house.” It was a big building in Żoliborz where we had started the Uprising two months earlier. When we got the message about the capitulation, we were devastated that we had been fighting for nothing. The following day, at about 5 am, our units marched along a line of heavily armed Germans and laid down their arms. It was September 30, 1944. We became prisoners of war.
The order on decorating you came from LtCol Mieczysław “Żywiciel” Niedzielski. Why did you write a letter to him concerning the Virtuti Militari?
I thought that there were many others that deserved that decoration. I had not expected it, but I was very proud, of course. I got a reply a few days later, in which Żywiciel wrote: “I am sending certificates, and also, please acknowledge that you are a being such a baby asking me why you got the Order of Virtuti Militari. You know well that you went where men would hesitate to go. Disregarding the danger and certain death, You went straight into the flames. Stop being so humble, girl, because Your courage was high class, and that is why you got such a high decoration. There were other girls of similar bravery, who did not get decorated, but You, Ewa, are the true embodiment of the work and courage of all Polish women, for whom I cannot have enough words of gratitude and praise.”
Ewa Ponińska – a liaison officer in the Warsaw Uprising, decorated with the Silver Cross of the War Order of Virtuti Militari.
autor zdjęć: Anna Dąbrowska