On Christmas Eve, soldiers on the front found it hard to spot the first star in the flashes of explosions and the glow of fires. Celebrating Christmas was equally difficult for their families left in the occupied country, or for captives and prisoners in POW and concentration camps.
The first Christmas after the defeat in the fall of 1939 proved to be particularly hard for Polish people. It was very difficult to carry the burden of defeat and cope with the pain after losing loved ones. Christmas Eve fell on Sunday that year, so many people already celebrated it a day earlier, on December 23. The midnight mass, due to the curfew, was postponed to Monday morning of December 25. This change alone made that particular Christmas different than any other. On top of everything, on the night of December 26/27, the Germans shot 106 men in Wawer near Warsaw, as a revenge for the death of two German soldiers killed by common criminals. After those events, the feeling of terror spread across the entire state.
There was, however, one place, an oasis where Christmas was celebrated according to the old Polish tradition – with happiness and joy, as if there was no occupation whatsoever. Truth be told, the chances of Germans appearing in Bielawa, where the unit commanded by Maj Henryk “Hubal” Dobrzański had been stationing for quite some time, were close to zero. On Christmas Eve, the major welcomed guests from all around the region, and he celebrated that particular Christmas time by giving promotions to his loyal soldiers. As Melchior Wańkowicz wrote in Hubalczycy: “They awoke on the first day of Christmas to a roasted deer and a ton of cigarettes and vodka awaiting them. These were some good days in Bielawa, ten whole days in that one place. They shot deer, boars, there was plenty of food.” It was the most wonderful Christmas, because they were free. On New Year’s Day, Hubal decided to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and ordered the whole unit to take part in a holy mass at the parish church in Studzianna: “A unit of several dozen people marched in threes, like cavalrymen do. Every single button sparkly clean, like in pre-war times, belts – pure delight for corporal’s eyes. Two of them kept guard in front of the church with LMGs, grenades. The rest made their way towards the altar, pushing through a crowd of people, and one could see that they were a Laudan banner returning from the war.” Meanwhile, a German garrison stood in Studzianna, a stone’s throw from the church, and did not even poke a nose out. A true Christmas miracle!
Exiles and Prisoners
Hubal’s men would be considered extremely lucky by interned soldiers. “Sikorski’s tourists,” as Poles in camps in Romania and Hungary were referred to, had mostly one purpose – to get out of the camps and reach France, where Gen Sikorski was creating his army. However, at Christmas time their thoughts circled more around their families left in the occupied homeland. Bombardier Tadeusz Niwiński and his fellows of the 11th Independent Motorized Anti-aircraft Artillery Squadron, which protected the Commander-in-Chief’s Staff during the September campaign, celebrated Christmas the Felsöhangony camp in Hungary. “The first Christmas on foreign land was very sad for us,” recalls Niwiński. “Lt [Aleksander] Żabczyński, together with the other officers, went around all the barracks with Christmas wishes. We ate Christmas Eve dinner at our barracks. Of course, there had to be a Christmas tree in each of them, richly decorated with self-made ornaments. There were also carols and openly shed tears.”
Homesickness and lack of news from Poland crushed everyone’s hearts, but the soldiers never let their spirit be broken. There is an anecdote told by Niwiński, that “Hungarians liked our Polish carols a lot. Their vicar once invited over our chaplain with a selected group of Polish soldiers, just to learn some of the Polish carols, whose notes he wrote down on music paper and later played on the harmonium he had in his apartment. He also generously treated us to delicious Tokay, which only made the singers more enthusiastic. At one point, a soldier started singing »Koło mego ogródeczka« [Near My Garden], which everyone gladly sang along to.” As it turned out, the vicar loved the song, which had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. What is worse, he decided it was the most beautiful Polish carol and he asked for it to be sung during the mass. This way the soldiers got themselves in trouble. How does one change a song in which a girl sings to her Johnny: “He’s been coming round my house all spring long, waiting for me to grow up” into a Christmas carol? There was no other choice, and as Niwiński recalls: “We sang one stanza substituting the words with those of the carol »Przybieżeli do Betlejem« [Shepherds Came to Bethlehem]. You can imagine the astonishment on the faces of interned Polish soldiers gathered at the church. I wouldn’t be surprised if this »carol« was to this day sung by the inhabitants of Felsöhangony.”
Polish carols could be heard at Christmas also behind the fences of German oflag and stalag camps. Germans – more than in occupied Poland – respected their prisoners’ Christmas traditions. Besides, they themselves celebrated this holiday in a very festive way. The situation was radically different at Soviet camps at the turn of 1939/1940. 2nd Lt Kazimierz Wajda, one of the officers imprisoned at Kozielsk, wrote in his journal under the date of December 22, 1939: “It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow, and it will be really great. In today’s order, the authorities forbid us to sing carols tomorrow. Well, they can kiss our asses. We’re going to sing all evening. They gave us bread at dinner. I ate all of it. We got tea and sugar. Now Rudnicki and Łącki have gone to boil water for the tea – naturally from snow, because water is »out«.”
Not only Christmas celebrations, but any, even the slightest manifestation of religiousness was strictly forbidden at camps managed by NKVD. Nevertheless, this ban did not work. Another prisoner of the camp in Kozielsk, one of the few that managed to survive it, father Zdzisław Peszkowski, wrote years later: “Even in those difficult conditions we managed to organize Christmas. Everyone in my sector even got a small gift. [...] Before we shared a wafer, we sent the youngest one to see if the star was already up. In the silence of the night, we began our Christmas Eve. The oldest one of us read a fragment of the Holy Bible, which I had earlier copied from a prayer book of one major, a lucky owner of such a treasure, and we all wished one another Merry Christmas and all the best. […] We weren’t allowed to go out at night... although the world was so beautiful: untouched snow, silence, star-lit sky, and thoughts that could be added wings only with prayer.” This was the Christmas celebrated by the prisoners, most of whom were to be later murdered in Katyn. In spite of everything, Christmas in the camps in Kozielsk and Starobielsk also brought hope...
Christmas Wafer Shared with an Enemy
“Dzisiaj w Warszawie, dzisiaj w Warszawie wesoła nowina, / Tysiąc bombowców, tysiąc bombowców leci do Berlina…” (Today in Warsaw, today in Warsaw, very happy news, / a thousand bombers, a thousand bombers are flying on Berlin) – this “carol” was sang on the streets of Warsaw at Christmas in 1941, 1942 and 1943. As Ludwik Landau wrote in 1942 in his Kronika lat wojny i okupacji (Chronicle of the Years of War and Occupation): “This Christmas is sad in all respects for Polish people – although recent news on the events of war have given them some hope.” Indeed – Friedrich von Paulus’ 6th Army was breathing its last at Stalingrad, and the news on the achievements of Polish pilots and seamen in the West uplifted everyone. There was also the Polish victory in faraway Africa, near the Holy Land, where the Savior was born. It was where the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade fought. Glorified as the defenders of Tobruk and victors of the Battle of Gazala in December 1941, the soldiers wrote in their chronicle: “At Gazala, the brigade spent their Christmas and New Year happily and pompously, mainly thanks to the seized storerooms.”
This is what the Carpathian uhlans wrote about their first Christmas under the African sky: “The first Christmas was celebrated by the Carpathian Uhlan Squadron (still a Squadron!) in a very festive way. Our squads ate Christmas Eve dinner at their places of accommodation, receiving wishes from the Brigade commander and the Squadron commander. Each soldier was given as a Christmas gift a silk handkerchief with an embroidered shield in Polish colors and the inscription »EGIPT 24.12.1940«. The gift was offered by Mr. Schönman, who came from Warsaw, but settled in Egypt, married an Egyptian woman and became a successful businessman, an owner of, inter alia, silk factories.”
For Polish soldiers stationing in Africa and the Middle East, Christmas without snow and palm trees decorated with ornaments was indeed a very exotic experience. However, the strangest Christmas was celebrated by 90 Home Army women soldiers, who after the Warsaw Uprising capitulation were taken to Stalag XI B/Z in Bergen-Belsen. At the end of December 1944, it was more and more often rumored that the camp would be evacuated to another place. Regardless of these rumors, the women did not give up Christmas preparations. As one of them wrote down in her journal: “Christmas can’t be treated carelessly, this was our point of honor.” The barracks were cleaned, small gifts were prepared. The Christmas tree was to be substituted by fir branches. The camp authorities even gave permission to a Christmas meeting and a midnight mass at the chapel located in the male part of the camp, where soldiers of September’39 were accommodated, among others.
Unfortunately, all those preparations were ruined by the order that came on December 23, 1944 to immediately evacuate the women. Several dozen women soldiers were loaded onto two cattle cars, with a separated part occupied by guards – Wehrmacht soldiers. Christmas Eve fell on the second day of the journey and the women decided to sit down for dinner after all. A table was created from one of the bundles, decorated with fir branches taken from the camp at the last moment. There was also wafer – a present from the “September” soldiers. Dulled by the cold and the stench, the women were not able to stand when they exchanged wishes: for the war to end soon, for a safe return home, and – of course – victory. The wafer, passed around from person to person, finally reached the “German zone”. There was a moment of hesitation and consternation, but the Christmas tradition proved to be stronger than hostility. The woman standing closest passed the wafer to a German guard. Breaking off microscopic pieces, he wished the women a quick return to their homeland. Another one said he had been an organist before the war, and began singing “Silent Night.” Everyone on the car, ignoring the war standing between them, sang this beautiful carol. On the evening of December 25, the train reached Molsdorf in Thuringia, where the women soldiers joined their companions from the uprising. They stayed there until the end of the war.
The fact that the war ended certainly did not guarantee to the Polish people that they would be able to peacefully sit down for Christmas dinner. This is how one of the commanders of a Home Army partisan detachment in the Kielce region, and earlier Hubal’s soldier, Capt Józef Wyrwa, remembered the last wartime Christmas: “We decorated the Christmas tree [in the quarters] in the partisan way. It was mounted on a pyramid of rifles. The tree was topped with a shiny bayonet, and instead of colorful tinsel and other ornaments, we had ammunition belts and hand grenades. A very peculiar Christmas tree, partisan style. It looked nice. […] Sharing the Christmas wafer was very emotional. We formed a kind of a family, glued together by common misery. »Bóg się rodzi« [God Is Born] sounded, sang in quiet voices. Many faces contorted with pain, eyes became misty. Thoughts filled with images of times before the war, Christmas Eves spent with family, in cozy apartments. I then thought »And what is the nearest future going to bring us?«. How could I have known that I would be spending Easter […] in a prison cell in Poland »liberated« by the communists? Not one of us had foreseen that.” After the initial shock, the next Christmas was again spent in the Polish way – with hope...
autor zdjęć: NAC