Military history


Amid the Ruins of the Nazi World 1945


Warsaw and Lódz

The Red Army, after the massive operations during the summer of 1944, which had forced the Wehrmacht back from the Beresina to the Vistula, needed time to recover and re-equip. Yet at the end of July, as Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front reached the eastern suburbs of Warsaw, Soviet radio stations had called on the Poles to rise in revolt behind German lines. But Stalin had no intention of coming to their aid or even letting the Western Allies help them with air drops. This was because the revolt was planned and led by the Armia Krajowa – the Home Army – which owed allegiance to the émigré government in London, and not to the Committee of National Liberation, the puppet Communist organisation set up in Lublin. The tragic, doomed heroism of the Warsaw uprising lasted from 1 August until 2 October. There is no mention of it in Grossman’s notebooks, which might well reflect the complete news blackout imposed by the Soviet authorities. After the Germans had crushed the rising, they systematically destroyed a large part of the city, as Grossman would see.

Preparations for the next leap forward began in October 1944. The Stavka plan was a series of three simultaneous assaults with four million men. In January 1945 two Soviet fronts would attack East Prussia from the south and the east, while Marshal Zhukov, who had now taken over the 1st Belorussian Front, and Marshal Konev, with his 1st Ukrainian Front, would attack western Poland and Silesia from their bridgeheads across the Vistula south of Warsaw. The difficulties of bringing up munitions and supplies for such a vast operation had been increased by the German scorched earth policy, including the deliberate destruction of Soviet railway systems as they withdrew. Grossman appears to have left Moscow in mid-January 1945 to rejoin the 1st Belorussian Front. His vehicle stopped in Kaluga, some 250 kilometres south-west of Moscow.

An old man in Kaluga, reasonable and prone to philosophising like all watchmen, said when he was shutting the gate of the petrol station behind our [Jeep]: ‘There you are, heading for Warsaw. The war’s now going on over there, and there had been a time one winter when I had to open the tanks and let petrol pour into ditches. That was before the Germans came to Kaluga. Ten years will pass and boys will be learning about it at school and ask me: “Is it true, Dedka, that the Germans got to Kaluga?”’

Operation Bagration the summer before had been extraordinarily successful, but the new offensive soon proved to be the most rapid advance ever launched by the Red Army. Zhukov and Konev, spurred on by Stalin, concentrated on a speed of advance, following the breakthrough, which would totally disorientate the German Army. They were greatly helped in this by Hitler’s insistence that every order should be checked with him first, thus allowing no freedom of action for commanders on the spot. And by the time they obtained a decision from Berlin, the situation on the ground might have changed out of all recognition.

Grossman, never forgetting the terrible humiliations of 1941, gained a fierce joy from the supremacy of the Red Army. Rather as he had been fascinated by the snipers in Stalingrad, he was now drawn to new heroes, the tank troops who exploited the breakouts into the German rear and never allowed their enemy a chance to regroup.

Tank troops. Some tankists have come from the cavalry, but tankists are at the same time artillerists, and also mechanics. They’ve inherited cavalry daring and the culture of the artillery. Mechanics are even more skilled than artillerists. If you want to find a front commander who is an expert in both tanks and artillery, you should get a former tankist who has been promoted to an all-arms commander.

The main problem, especially in a headlong advance outrunning supply and maintenance units, was carrying out repairs to keep tanks going and finding replacement parts. Often vehicles had ruthlessly to be cannibalised.

The 1st Belorussian Front’s attack began on 14 January 1945 from the Magnuszew and Pulawy bridgeheads. The German line was broken open by the 5th Shock Army and the 8th Guards Army, the old 62nd Army from Stalingrad, still commanded by General Chuikov. The main objective was to cross the River Pilica, a tributary of the Vistula, to enable the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies to break out and smash the German rear. Colonel Gusakovsky, a Hero of the Soviet Union twice over whom Grossman came to know well, did not wait for bridging equipment. He later told Grossman how he ordered his tanks to smash the ice with gunfire, then drive across the river bed. It was terrifying for the drivers.

‘Crossing of the Pilica. We blew up the ice and crossed over on the river bed, thus saving two to three hours. All that ice rose in a gigantic mountain in front of the tanks and crashed down making a terrible noise. When tanks are in pursuit across rough terrain, infantry armed with the Panzerfaust1 is the greatest danger of all . . . We were moving extremely fast; there were days when we advanced 115–120 kilometres in twenty-four hours. Our tanks moved faster than trains to Berlin.’

On the right, the 47th Guards Tank Brigade, reinforced with troops from other arms, raced forward to capture an airfield south of Sochaczew, a key town due west of Warsaw. Soviet fighter regiments began operating from this new base within twenty-four hours.

New features in our advance. Our tankists capture German airfields, this gives our aviation an opportunity to support mobile groups. A new development in the interaction of infantry with self-propelled artillery. The infantry has developed a passion for self-propelled guns, [they] don’t feel naked any longer.

As soon as the 1st Belorussian Front attacked from its bridgeheads, the 47th Army on its right wing advanced to encircle Warsaw, while the 1st Polish Army, under Soviet control, advanced into the suburbs. The German commander, who had only four battalions of very unfit garrison troops, decided to evacuate the Polish capital. Hitler was overcome with rage and ordered that the Gestapo should interrogate the officers involved, including General Guderian, the chief of staff of the OKH directing all Eastern Front operations.

Soviet troops entered a city that was almost entirely destroyed and depopulated. Out of a pre-war population of 1,310,000, only 162,000 inhabitants remained. One officer described it as little more than ‘ruins and ashes covered by snow’. Grossman was among the first journalists to enter. Not surprisingly, one of the first places he wanted to visit was the Warsaw ghetto.

On 15 October 1941, the Nazis had sealed off the ghetto and used it as a concentration camp for Polish and foreign Jews. Up to 380,000 Jews had been held there at one time, before they were sent to their deaths. The majority had been dispatched from theUmschlagplatz – the railroad sidings on the north-eastern edge of the ghetto – to Treblinka. On 19 April 1943, when there were just 40,000 Jews left in the ghetto, a substantial minority, with some weapons provided by the Polish underground outside, rose in revolt. They were mercilessly crushed. The most astonishing part of the story is that they managed to keep up the fight against the SS units for nearly two months.

For Grossman, entering Warsaw was clearly an emotional moment, which he recorded first in his notebook, and then worked up in an article for Krasnaya Zvezda.

Warsaw! The first phrase I heard in Warsaw, when I had climbed up on to a destroyed bridge, came from a soldier turning his pocket inside out: ‘Here, he said, I’ve even got a bit of dried bread.’

Ortenberg described Grossman’s arrival in Warsaw slightly differently. The Vistula had not frozen completely. There were patches of ice and water. Grossman left his vehicle in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw on the east bank of the Vistula, and started making his way between two big patches of water towards two surviving piers of the Poniatowsky Bridge. At last he reached a concrete foundation. Two middle-aged soldiers lowered a light fire ladder for Grossman from the eight-metre-high pier. It was still two metres short of the ice. The soldiers then tied a rope to the ladder and lowered it. Grossman started climbing up this dangerous contraption, which was being rocked by the wind. Grossman thanked the soldiers for their help and walked into the city.

It’s the first time in my life,’ he said, ‘that I’ve used a fire ladder to enter a city.’ The change in Grossman and in other correspondents, who had been civilians before the war, was commented upon by Ilya Ehrenburg. ‘It is amazing how people changed at the front! In peacetime no one could have mistaken Grossman for a military man, but at the front he gave the impression of an ordinary commander of an infantry regiment.’

Along the crumpled and explosion-twisted steel lace of a blown-up bridge, we approached a tall stone pier on the left bank of the Vistula. The sentry, an old Red Army soldier, was standing by a small fire he had made on the quay. He said good-naturedly to the sub-machine-gunner who was standing near him: ‘See, brother, what a good bit of dried bread I’ve found in my pocket.’ These were the first words that I heard in Warsaw. And later I learned that this man in a grey crumpled greatcoat was one of those who had saved Moscow in that terrible year [of 1941] and marched 12,000 kilometres as his part in that great task, the war of liberation.

When we arrived, liberated Warsaw was looking majestic and sad, even tragic. City streets were filled with heaps of broken brick. The wide squares and straight streets in the central area of the city were covered by a network of intricate, meandering little paths, which reminded me of those made by hunters in the dense forests and in the mountains. Its inhabitants, who were now returning to Warsaw, had to climb over the piles of brick; there were only a few streets where vehicles and carts could get through.

A file of old and young men in crumpled hats, berets, autumn coats or macintoshes were walking and pushing in front of them little handcarts with thick tyres, loaded with bundles, bags and suitcases. Girls and young women were walking blowing on their frozen fingers and looking at the ruins with sorrow-filled eyes. There were already hundreds and thousands of them.

Vladislava and Sofia Kobus, two Polish girls who had been living in a cellar with Jews – Jews who have emerged from under the ground, who had spent years in the Warsaw sewer system and in cellars. Yakov Menzhitsky, a worker from a ód stocking factory, and his brother Aron. Isai Davidovich Ragozhek, an accountant from Warsaw. Abram Klinker, ragged, with a bruise, a shoemaker from ód who worked the incinerator at the Warsaw Gestapo [headquarters]. I came across these people in the deserted streets. Their faces made of paper. A shocking figure – a small stocking-maker, carrying from the ghetto to his hole in the ground a child’s basket filled with Jewish ashes. He had collected these ashes in the yard of the Judenrat, at the ghetto. He will leave for ód tomorrow on foot, with these ashes.

The Warsaw ghetto. A wall, one and a half times the height of a man, made of red bricks, two bricks thick, with broken glass cemented along the top of it. The bricks are laid so neatly. Whose hands built this wall?

The ghetto: waves of stone, crushed bricks, a sea of brick. There isn’t a single wall intact – one can seldom see an unbroken brick. The beast’s anger was terrible.

Our meeting. People from the cellar [of] Zhelyaznaya 95z. People who have turned into rats and monkeys. Story about the encounter of two Jews from ód, in the darkness of a boiler room, in a destroyed building in Warsaw, where rats and Jews came at night to drink water. Klinker shouted when he heard a noise: ‘I am a Jew. If you are rebels, please take me with you.’ A voice replied from the darkness: ‘I am a Jew, too.’ They both turned out to be from ód. They found each other in the dark and hugged each other sobbing.

Their hiding place was between the Gendarmerie and Gestapo, on the fourth floor of a half-destroyed building. A Polish girl, with locks and ringlets, gave them shelter. The Polish father of their rescuer had demanded one zloty to get alcohol, ‘Otherwise I will denounce you.’ The ragged Abram Klinker, wanted to give me his only treasure – a fountain pen.

Grossman recounted in his Krasnaya Zvezda article the story of the ‘bunker’ hiding place on the fourth floor of a ruined building.

We have visited the ‘bunker’ – a secret refuge where six Poles and four Jews had been hiding for many long months. The wildest imagination would be unable to picture this stone hole made in the fourth floor of a destroyed building. To get there, one has to climb the vertical walls of a sunken staircase, run over an abyss by a girder that had been part of a floor, and squeeze oneself through a narrow black slit made in a dark storeroom. We were guided by a Polish girl who had lived in the hiding place. She walked so calmly over the abyss. And I have to confess that although I’d spent three and a half years at the front, my heart sometimes froze during this trip, sweat poured down, and everything went black in my eyes. And the people from the bunker did this trip only on dark, moonless nights.

The ghetto. One can imagine how tall the buildings had once been when looking at the huge brick waves into which these buildings have been turned. Amid the brick sea, two [Polish Roman Catholic] churches are standing.2 A woman’s head [carved from] stone is lying among red pieces of brick. Streets have been hacked through this wild masonry forest. The Judenrat building, gloomy, grey. [In] its inner yards – [are] rails, red from cinder, on which the bodies of rebels had been burned from the Warsaw ghetto. A heap of ashes in the corner of the yard – Jewish ashes.3 Jars, scraps of dresses, a woman’s shoe, a torn Talmud book.

Resistance at the Warsaw ghetto began on 19 April and ended on 24 May. The chairman of the community, Chernyakov, committed suicide on 23 July 1942. Members of the Jewish Council of the Ghetto – Gustav Tselikovsky, Sherishevsky, Alfred Stegman, Maximilian Lichtenbaum – were shot early in May.

During the uprising at the Warsaw ghetto, Shmul Zigelbaum (Comrade Arthur), who was then living in London, committed suicide in order to draw the world’s attention to the tragedy of the Jewish nation.4

From Warsaw, Grossman continued on in the wake of the victorious Red Army, to the city of ód where the Nazis had also used the ghetto as a holding camp. ód was seized by Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army on 18 January, just four days after the start of the offensive. The rapidity of the Soviet advance had not given the German authorities time to destroy the city.

ód. Five hundred factories and plants. Directors and owners have fled. At the moment they are managed by workers. The electric power station, trams, railway are working at full power. An old man, an engine driver, said: ‘I’ve driven trains for fifty years, I’ll be the first man to drive a train to Berlin.’

Gestapo [headquarters]: the building is intact, everything is in its place. Luxurious portraits of leaders of the German National-Socialist Workers’ Party are lying around on the pavement. Children in torn felt boots are dancing on the faces of Goering and Hitler. Munitions factories: there were three of them. Two of them were destroyed by the English air force, the third we examined today in ód; – a gigantic facility for the manufacture of torpedoes. They had been building it since 1944, but it never started on full production. There are slit trenches in the yard, stretching parallel to the workshops. Tables in the factory canteen. Signs over some tables: ‘For Germans only.’ A Polish worker says: ‘In the time it took me to produce eight [torpedoes], a German would make forty-five.’ A twelve-hour working day. Two kitchens at the canteen for workers – German and Polish. Two sorts of food ration cards – German and Polish. Huge slogans in German in the workshops: ‘You are nothing, your nation is everything.’

Punishments: when a worker was late, or dropped his tool, or seemed lazy to his foreman, they slapped his face and put him in the punishment cells (in the basements of workshops).

ód, or Litzmannstadt, renamed to commemorate a German general.5 We, the four Jews, represented Russia amid the family of a Russian general, Shepetovsky (deceased). The general’s daughter Irena doesn’t understand any Russian, she only speaks German and Polish. Gekhtman sings Volga songs to her, burring very expressively.

In the ód ghetto. The song of the ghetto [was]: ‘One shouldn’t feel sad and cry. Everything will be better tomorrow. The sun will shine for us, too.’

The ghetto was established on 1 May 1940. They had three bloody days there every week – Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On these days, Germans (Volksdeutsche)6 killed Jews in their homes.

At first, there were 165,000 ód Jews in the ghetto, 18,000 Jews from Luxembourg, Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia, 15,000 Jews from Polish Jewish settlements – Kamish and others – 15,000 from Chenstohova. The biggest number of Jews at the ghetto at one time was 250,000. A famine started. One hundred and fifty people died every day. Germans weren’t satisfied by such a low mortality rate.7

In the first Aktion of December 1942, 25,000 healthy men and women were taken away, allegedly to work, and were killed. The first Kinder-Aktion had taken place in September of the same year. All children, from babies to fourteen-year-olds, as well as all old people and ill people, were killed (a total of 17,000 people). Trucks which took the children away returned two hours later for a new lot. They would systematically take eight hundred to a thousand people away ‘to work’ and kill them. By 1 January 1944, there were 74,000 people left in the ghetto. A trader in tea, Hans Biebow, was the chief of the ghetto.

Before the annihilation of the ghetto,8 Oberbürgermeister Bratvich and Hans Biebow gave speeches and announced that to save the ód Jews who had worked for the state for four years, the leadership had decided to evacuate them to the rear. Not a single Jew turned up at the railway station. Biebow called a meeting once again and arrested lots of Jews, but then let them go back, saying he relied on their consciences. After that, they started taking away, by force, 2,000–3,000 each day. Notes found in the empty wagons revealed that they had been taken to Maslovitsy9 and Oswencim [Auschwitz].

After the final annihilation of the ód ghetto, 850 people had been left there. The breakthrough of our tanks saved their lives.

Organisation of the ód ghetto. It had its own banknotes and coins, post and postal stamps. Schools. Theatres. Printing works. Forty textile factories. A lot of little factories. Sanatoria. A library of photographs. A history bureau. Hospitals and medical emergency aid. Farms, fields, vegetable gardens. One hundred horses. Orders and medals for labour had been introduced. Chaim Rumkowsky, the director of the ghetto, an educated Jew, [was a] specialist in statistics.10

Rumkowsky had proclaimed himself the Chief Rabbi. In luxurious prayer robes, he conducted services at the synagogue, issued marriage licences and divorces, and punished those who had mistresses. He married a young lawyer11 when he was seventy, and had mistresses who were schoolgirls.12 Hymns had been composed in his honour. He proclaimed himself the leader and saviour of Jews. He was the Gestapo’s main support.

In fits of fury, he used to beat people with sticks and slapped them. He had been an unsuccessful, ruined tradesman before the war. The story of his death: when his brother was also put on the train, he, confident of his power, declared to the Gestapo that if they didn’t set his brother free, he would get on the train together with him. Rumkowsky boarded the train and was sent to [Auschwitz]. His young wife travelled to her own death together with him. Rumkowsky had been very proud about the following incident: once, a letter was sent from Berlin to Chaim Rumkowsky, the city was not indicated, and this letter reached him in ód.

ód – the Polish Manchester. Fifteen thousand tailors had been sewing clothes there for the German Army. They were given four hundred grams of bread every day and nine hundred grams of sugar per month. At that time, people in the Warsaw ghetto were given eighty grams of bread per day.

Genicksschuss – bullet in the back of the head.13

Religious belief at the ghetto had decreased dramatically; in fact, Jewish workers aren’t religious in general. Biebow used to send a lot of vitamins to the ghetto. Rumkowsky’s assistant, the Jew Gertler, was connected with the Gestapo, but did a lot of good. He was a very kind man, and people loved him a lot.

When Gertler came to power and the Germans began to show him a lot of respect, Rumkowsky began to hate him terribly.

The hospital in the ghetto produced awe in doctors from Europe. A professor once said: ‘I haven’t seen such a clinic even in Berlin.’ Heroic death of Doctor Weisskopf at the ód ghetto – he had tried to bite through Bibach’s throat.

The uprising at the ód; ghetto was headed by Kloppfisch, an engineer from ód.

ód and Pozna were the two major cities of the Warthegau, the Nazi annexation of western Poland named after the River Warthe. Hitler appointed Arthur Greiser as the gauleiter. More than 70,000 Poles were killed during the process of ethnic cleansing to make way for ethnic German settlers. Hundreds of thousands more went to labour and concentration camps. After the Jews, the Poles lost the highest proportion of their population during the Second World War, even more than the Soviet Union.

The Germans had forced all Polish peasants to leave their houses, took away their land, livestock, household utensils, made them live in huts and forced them to work as farm labourers. The Germans were mostly local, but some of them (160,000) had come from the Ukraine. The children of Polish peasants did not go to school. Children had to work from the age of twelve. Churches were closed. Only one was left out of twenty. The others were turned into warehouses. Farmhands were paid twenty marks per week and given food. Children were paid six marks per month. A German peasant had the right to keep for himself enough produce to feed his family.

One Polish peasant was sent to Dachau because he had said to his German neighbour even before the Germans arrived [in September 1939]: ‘Why do you speak German? You aren’t in Berlin.’ Before the war, Nazis used to get together for [Nazi] Party meetings, under the pretext of praying.

German [settlers] came in two waves – one in 1941, the other in 1944. Germans sold bread to the Poles illicitly, five marks for a kilo, wheat flour at twenty-five marks per kilo, and a kilo of pork fat cost two hundred marks. Thousands of Polish teachers, doctors, lawyers and Catholic priests were taken to Dachau and killed.

‘The Germans called our region the “Warthegau”. They forbade farmhands to move anywhere. They were slaves.’

Poles were forbidden to enter shops, parks and gardens. They could not travel by tram on Sundays, and by motor vehicle all week.

Bauerführer14 Schwandt had three male farmhands and three female. He was a huge fat man, and paid his farmhands nothing. Before the war, he had a bar and a grocer’s store. He had four Morgens [acres] before the war, and now he has fifty.

There was a commission that checked the fulfilment of obligatory supplies of produce by German [farmers]. Poles weren’t given vodka, but Germans were allowed it on holidays. Poles would be sentenced to three months in prison for using a lighter fuelled with petrol.

Some Germans didn’t believe that the Russians would come, and they made fun of those who made big carts to take away their belongings. They didn’t believe it until the last day.

The [Red Army] infantry is travelling in carriages, coaches, cabriolets, shining with polish and glass. The guys are smoking makhorka, eating and drinking, playing cards. Carts in supply trains are decorated with carpets, cart drivers are sitting on feather beds. Soldiers don’t eat army food any more. There’s pork, turkey, chicken. There are some rounded faces with pink cheeks in the infantry now, this has had never happened before.15

German civilians caught out by our tanks are now going back. They get beaten up [on the way]. People unharness their horses. Poles are robbing them. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked. They answered in Russian: ‘To Russia.’ Here, there are five kinds of Germans: those from the Black Sea, from the Balkans, from the Baltic countries, Volksdeutsche and Reichsdeutsche.16

Grossman soon found that the behaviour of Red Army troops changed on foreign soil. He still tried to idealise front-line troops, while putting all the blame on rear units, such as supply and transport. In fact, the tank troops whom he so idealised were often the worst looters and rapists.

The front-line soldiers advance by day and night in fire, holy and pure. The rear soldiers who follow them rape, drink, loot and rob. Two hundred and fifty of our girls were working at the Focke-Wulf plant. Germans had brought them from Voroshilovgrad, Kharkov and Kiev. According to the chief of the army political department, these girls have no clothes, are lice-infested and swollen from hunger. And according to what a man from the army newspaper said, these girls had been clean and well dressed, until our soldiers came and robbed them blind and took their watches. Liberated Soviet girls often complain about being raped by our soldiers. One girl said to me, crying: ‘He was an old man, older than my father.’

1 The Panzerfaust was a shoulder-launched rocket propelled grenade produced in huge quantities at the end of the war by the Nazi war industry as a cheap anti-tank weapon.

2 Grossman may have been referring to the Church of the Virgin’s Blood at 34 Leshno Street, the centre of Catholics of Jewish descent.

3 They were not all Jewish ashes. The Nazis also used the ruins of the ghetto as an execution ground for Catholic Poles.

4 He was a member of the National Council of the Polish Government in Exile.

5 Lieutenant General Karl Litzmann was the German commander who died in 1915 while attempting to capture ód in the First World War. He was awarded the Pour le Mérite, the ‘Blue Max’.

6 Volksdeutsche were ethnic Germans living outside the Reich. These were either members of the local German minority or, more likely, members of other German minorities brought in by the Nazi authorities to settle their new Gau, or Nazi district, the Warthegau, an area of north-west Poland, ethnically cleansed of Poles and annexed as part of the Reich. German commanders, such as General Guderian, were given large estates there by a grateful government.

7 Out of a population of just under five million in 1939, the Warthegau contained 380,000 Jews and 325,000 ethnic Germans.

8 Himmler gave the order to liquidate the ghetto on 10 June 1944, a few days after D-Day.

9 Maslovitsy was also where Major Sharapovich discovered the German cache of valuable books which they had seized from the Turgenev Library in Paris. These were taken back to Moscow to the Lenin Library.

10 Mordechai Chaim Rumkowsky was a controversial character to say the least. A bankrupt businessman appointed Judenälteste, or Jewish elder, by the Germans, he obtained complete power in the ghetto, through controlling the food supply. In an autocratic fashion, he not only ran the ghetto as if it were his private fiefdom, but decided who was to die and who was to survive, by selecting those for transports to Chelmno and later Auschwitz. Grossman’s account of the ghetto seems rather optimistic. Even within a year nearly 20 per cent of the population was dying from disease and starvation.

11 Her name was Regine Weinberger.

12 Rumkowsky’s ‘mistresses’ were young women threatened and forced into becoming his concubines.

13 Literally ‘neck-shot’ in German, in practice to the base of the skull.

14 A Bauerführer was the local Nazi Party leader and organiser of peasants and farmers.

15 Red Army soldiers were looting from Polish farmers just as much as from German settlers.

16 In this case, by Volksdeutsche he means ethnic Germans from Poland. Reichsdeutsche are, of course, those from pre-1939 German territory.

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