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September 1939 – Blitzkrieg & Spheres of Influence: A Narrative of Actions & Reactions…   Leave a comment

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Chronology of The First Week of War; September 1-8:

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

2   Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued an ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.

3   Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

5   The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; the Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland.

6   France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.

8   The Polish Pomorze Army encircled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw but was repulsed by the Polish resistance.

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

At the end of June, Hitler’s demand that Poland agrees to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the Western Allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Kraków, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.

The Final Steps to European War:

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At the start of 1939, Hitler had had no plans for war even against Poland. Since the Munich crisis, diplomatic pressure had been put on Poland to consider the return of the Prussian city of Danzig to the Reich, and to discuss possible readjustments to the status of the ‘Polish Corridor’ which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

In March, the Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, had given a firm refusal to these requests. Stung by what he saw as intransigence on the part of the Poles, Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for war against Poland. At the end of April, the Polish-German Non-Aggression pact of 1934 was abrogated by Germany, and across the summer months, German forces prepared ‘Plan White’, the planned annihilation of the Polish resistance. But Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary was not so taken aback. Four months previously, he had warned the British Cabinet of the possibility of a deal between Stalin and Hitler. Both the British and French governments now realised that the agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany freed Hitler’s hands for an invasion of Poland – and so it proved.

On 1 September, German troops crossed into Poland and two days later, Britain, in accordance with its treaty obligations with Poland, declared war on Germany. Hitler had expected a local war with Poland, lasting a matter of weeks. Instead, he now faced, at least potentially, a major European war with Britain and France.

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The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August:

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above: Molotov (seated), Ribbentrop (standing, left) and Stalin at the moment of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in the Kremlin in August 1939. Stalin, as this picture shows, was happy and at ease with the Nazi Foreign Minister.

Laurence Rees (2008) has pointed out that, by the summer of 1939, pragmatism had taken precedence over principle. Hitler wanted the German Army to invade Poland within a matter of days. As he saw it, there were German territories to retrieve – the city of Danzig, West Prussia, and the former German lands around Posen, as well as the rest of Poland’s valuable agricultural lands to conquer. But he knew that any into Poland risked war with Britain and France. Moreover, from the Nazi point of view, a vast question hung over their plan to invade Poland; what would be the reaction of the Soviet Union, Poland’s neighbour to the east? If the Soviet Union formed an alliance with the French and the British, how would the Germans react to encirclement by enemies?

So, that summer, off the back of trade talks that were happening in Berlin, the Germans began to sound out the Soviets about a possible treaty of convenience. By 2 August, the urgency of the Germans was palpable. The economic treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed on 19 August in Berlin. Ribbentrop then pressed the Soviets to allow him to come to Moscow to sign a non-aggression treaty. When the Soviets seemed to dither, Hitler stepped in personally and wrote an appeal to Stalin to allow Ribbentrop to go to Moscow. The Soviets relented and Ribbentrop arrived there on the 23rd. The motivation of the Germans was not difficult to fathom. Hitler’s long-term policy was still to view the Soviet Union as the ultimate enemy. As far as he was concerned, its Slavic people were not ‘worthy’ of owning the rich farmland they currently possessed. His almost messianic vision was that one day soon there would be a new German Empire on that land. But he was not concerned, for now, to pursue visions. This was the time to deal with the urgent, practical problems of neutralising a potential aggressor. The Nazi régime acted with at a speed that impressed even the Soviets, as Molotov testified in a speech in September:

The fact that Mr Ribbentrop acted at a tempo of 650 kilometres an hour called forth the Soviet government’s sincere admiration. His energy and his strength of will were a pledge to the firmness of the friendly relations that had been created with Germany.

Yet whilst it was relatively easy to see what the Germans were getting out of the deal, it was, initially, far less simple to explain the attitude of the Soviets. Unlike the Germans, they had a choice and could have accepted the offer of an alliance with the British and the French. At a cursory glance, that seemed to be the logical course of action, not least because they had signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland in July 1932 and neither of the two western democracies was as vehemently antipathetic to the USSR as the Nazis. In addition, the British had already made peaceful overtures towards Moscow. But Stalin knew that Britain had preferred a policy of appeasement to the Germans to an alliance with the Soviets, and he still felt insulted by Chamberlain’s failure to consult him about the Munich Agreement of a year earlier. Moreover, the fact that it had taken the British until the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939 to realise the potential benefits of a treaty with the Soviet Union did not impress Stalin. Five days earlier, he had made a speech to the 18th Party Congress in Moscow in which he talked of a war being waged by…

aggressor states who in every way infringe upon the interests of the the interests of the non-aggressive states, primarily Britain, France and the USA, while the latter draw back and retreat, making concession after concession to the aggressors. Thus we are witnessing an open redivision of the world and spheres of influence at the expense of the non-aggressive states, without the least attempt at resistance, and even with a certain connivance, on their part. Incredible, but true.

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

The Führer accepts that the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia and Latvia, up to the river Duena, will all fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Stalin objected at once to these proposals, insisting that the entire territory of Latvia fall within the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. The meeting was immediately adjourned until Ribbentrop had contacted Hitler about this request. The Führer was waiting for news of the negotiations at the Berghof, his retreat in the mountains of Bavaria. Herbert Döring, the SS officer who administered the Berghof and witnessed the events of that day, noted the reactions of the commanders meeting there to the news that Ribbentrop was about to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviets:

The generals were upset, they were looking at each other… It took their breath away that such a thing could be possible. Stalin the Communist, Hitler the National Socialist, that these two would certainly unite. What was behind it, nobody knew.

Suddenly, the call came through from Ribbentrop with the news of Stalin’s demand. Döring recalled:

Hitler was speechless during the phone call, everybody noticed. Stalin had put a pistol to his head. 

Hitler agreed to ‘hand over’ the whole of Latvia to Stalin. The main details of the ‘spheres of influence’ were enshrined in a secret protocol to the pact. Then the conversation in Moscow became more discursive as Stalin revealed his frank views about his ‘dislike and distrust’ of the British:

… they are skilful and stubborn opponents. But the British Army is weak. If England is still ruling the world it is due to the stupidity of other countries which let themselves be cheated. It is ridiculous that only a few hundred British are still able to rule the vast Indian population.

Stalin went on to assert that the British had tried to prevent Soviet-German understanding for many years and that it was a ‘good idea’ to put an end to these ‘shenanigans’. But there was no open discussion in Moscow of the Nazi’s immediate plans to invade Poland, nor what the Soviet response to it was expected to be. The nearest Ribbentrop came to outlining Nazi intentions was when he said:

The government of the German Reich no longer finds acceptable the persecution of the German population in Poland and the Führer is determined to resolve the German-Polish disputes without delay.

The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of the Versailles Treaty to cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a ‘casus belli’ by the Nazis, as had the ethnically German Baltic Port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939,

Danzig is not the real issue, the real point is for us to open up our ‘Lebensraum’ to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.

Yet Hitler was driven by more than simple practicalities. The forthcoming war over Poland was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the promises he had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs – Untermenschen  (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilization. This was to be the world’s first wholly ideological war, and, as Andrew Roberts has written, the reason why the Nazis eventually lost it. By August 1939, Danzig and the Polish Corridor had become the focal point for Nazi propaganda.

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The Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was finally signed in the early hours of 24 August 1939. German and Soviet photographers were allowed into the room to immortalise the unlikely friendship that had blossomed between the two countries. But Stalin’s last words to Ribbentrop were spoken with apparent sincerity:

I assure you that the Soviet Union takes this pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its new partner.

Back at the Berghof, the atmosphere grew ever more anxious in the hours before news of the signing of the pact came through. Herbert Döring watched that evening as Hitler and his guests stared at a dramatic sky over the high mountain peaks. He recalled that:

The entire sky was in turmoil. It was blood-red, green, sulphur grey, black as the night, a jagged yellow. Everyone was looking horrified – it was intimidating. … Everyone was watching. Without good nerves one could easily have become frightened.

Döring observed Hitler’s reaction to the remark of one of his guests, a Hungarian woman:

“My Führer, this augers nothing good. It means blood, blood, blood and again blood.” Hitler was totally shocked. … He was almost shaking. He said, “If it has to be, then let it be now.” He was agitated, completely crazed. His hair was wild. His gaze was locked on the distance. Then, when the good news that the pact had been signed finally arrived, Hitler said goodbye, went upstairs and the evening was over.

The reaction in Britain to the rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union might have lacked the drama on the terrace at the Berghof, but it was certainly one of immense surprise. It was a new and incomprehensible chapter in German diplomacy, as one British newsreel declared, asking what has happened to the principles of ‘Mein Kampf’?… what can Russia have in common with Germany? All over the world, Communist parties, who had been campaigning for a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism, struggled to make sense of the new reality. In Germany, the Nazis were equally non-plussed by the news. SS officer Hans Bernhard heard of the news of the signing of the pact as he waited with his unit to invade Poland. For him, it came as…

… a surprise without doubt. We couldn’t make sense of it. …in German propaganda for years it had been made clear that the Bolsheviks were our main enemy. … (it was) politically unnatural.

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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The German armed forces made meticulous preparations for the Polish war. They committed fifty-two divisions (against Poland’s thirty), organised into five armies surrounding Poland on three sides. They included five Panzer divisions of three hundred tanks each, four light divisions, with fewer tanks and some horses, and four fully motorised divisions, with lorry-borne infantry. These tank and motorised divisions spearheaded the attack, supported by 1,500 aircraft. Altogether, they had 3,600 operational aircraft and much of the ‘Kriegsmarine’, the German navy. Poland had only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanised brigades, three hundred medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and four hundred combat-ready aircraft, of which only thirty-six were not obsolete. They had a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than a million men, Poland tried to mobilise its reservists, but that was far from complete when the devastating blow fell at the hands of 630,000 German troops under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.

Polish forces planned to fight a holding action before falling back on the defence of Warsaw. When the campaign opened German forces moved with great speed and power, quickly penetrating the defensive screen and encircling Polish troops. At 17:30 hours on 31 August, Hitler ordered hostilities to commence the next morning, and at 04:45 on Friday, 1 September, German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command (OKH), with Hitler merely putting his imprimatur on the final document.  At this early stage in the war, there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between Hitler and his generals, so that the Führer did not interfere too closely in the troop dispositions and planning. Neither was he cowed by his generals, as he knew that, had he been a German citizen, he would have been commissioned and have emerged from the Great War in command of a battalion. Moreover, his two Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Despite being mocked as ‘Corporal Hitler’ by the former Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill, he showed no inferiority complex when dealing directly with soldiers who had outranked him by far in the previous conflict.

According to ‘Plan White’, on either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland and crush its armed forces. Army Group North would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig, unite with the German Third Army in East Prussia and move swiftly capture Warsaw from the north. Meanwhile, an even stronger Army Group South, under von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north. As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel bombers, with top speeds of 350kph carrying two thousand kilogram loads, as well as Dorniers and Junkers (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish roads, airfields, railway junctions, munitions dumps, mobilisation centres and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the ship Schleswig Holstein in Danzig harbour started shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose screams hugely intensified the terror of those below. Much of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and air superiority was quickly won by the Luftwaffe. The Messerschmitt Me-109 had a top speed of 470kph, and the far slower Polish planes stood little chance, however brave their pilots. Furthermore, Polish anti-aircraft defences, where there were any, were wholly inadequate.

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The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, believed to have derived from the pre-Great War Schlieffen Plan. Whatever the provenance, it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between the Polish ones, enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not the preponderance in men and arms, but above all the military doctrine of ‘Blitzkrieg’. Poland was a fine testing ground for these tactics. Although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with immensely wide fronts and firm, late-summer ground ideal for tanks. Since the British and French governments had given their guarantee to Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British PM Neville Chamberlain formally promising ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies, Hitler was forced to leave a large proportion of his hundred-division Army on the Siegfried Line or ‘West Wall’, a three-mile-deep series of still-incomplete fortifications along  Germany’s western frontier. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to leave no fewer than forty divisions to protect his back. His best troops, however, along with all his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his aircraft, he devoted to the attack on Poland.

In charge of the two armoured divisions and two light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, a long-time exponent of the tactics of Blitzkrieg. Wielding his force as a homogeneous entity, by contrast with Army Group South where tanks were split up among different units, Guderian scored amazing successes as he raced ahead of the main body of the infantry. Polish retaliation was further hampered by vast numbers of refugees taking to the roads. once they were bombed and machine-gunned from the air, chaos ensued. It soon became clear to everyone, except the ever hopeful Poles, that the Western Allies were not about to assault the Siegfried Line, even though the French had eighty-five divisions facing the forty German. Fear of massive German air attacks devastating London and Paris partly explained Allied inaction, but even if they had attacked in the west, Poland could not have been saved in time. Although the RAF had reached France by 9 September, the main British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not start to arrive until the next day.

What the Allies did not fully appreciate at this stage was the ever-present fear in Hitler’s calculations that there would be an attack in the west before Poland was defeated. In particular, he thought there might be a secret agreement between the French and Belgian general staffs for a surprise thrust by the French high-speed motorised forces through Belgium and over the German frontier into the industrial zone of the Ruhr. In addition, he suspected that there might also be an agreement between the British and the Dutch for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland in order to attack the German north flank. In the event, it turned out that no such agreements were in place. As the Poles retreated, seven thousand ethnic Germans in Poland were massacred by their Polish neighbours and the retreating troops. The Poles did this on the basis of their fear of betrayal, but the Nazis soon responded in cold blood, and on a far larger scale.

By 5 September, the Polish Corridor was completely cut off. On the night of 6 September, France made a token invasion of Germany, advancing five miles into the Saarland along a fifteen-mile-wide front, capturing a dozen abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the Siegfried Line and waited. As France was still mobilising, no further action was taken and five days later, the French troops returned to their original positions with orders only to undertake reconnaissance over the frontier. This was hardly the all-out support of the Allies, and Hitler did not have to remove a single soldier from the Polish front. Meanwhile, by the eighth, the Polish Pomorze Army was encircled in the north and the German Tenth Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw but was initially repulsed by the fierce Polish resistance.  Despite years of threats by Hitler, the Poles had not built extensive fixed defences, preferring to rely on counter-attacks. This all changed in early September when the city centre of Warsaw witnessed makeshift barricades being thrown up, anti-tank ditches dug and turpentine barrels made ready for ignition. However, at the same time, the Eighth Army had soon broken over and around the Polish Kraków and Lodz armies by the 17th. The Polish Government fled first to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were welcomed at first, but were later interned under pressure from Hitler. Hitler’s plan had been to seize Warsaw before the US Congress met on 21 September, so as to present it and the world with a fait accompli, but that was not quite what was to happen.

On 9 September, Hermann Göring predicted that the Polish Army would never emerge again from the German embrace. Until then, the Germans had operated a textbook attack, but that night General Tadeusz Kutrzebra of the Poznán Army took over the Pomorze Army and crossed the Bzuta river in a brilliant attack against the flank of the German Eighth Army, launching the three-day battle of Kutno which incapacitated an entire German division. Only when the Panzers of the Tenth Army returned from besieging Warsaw were the Poles forced back. According to German propaganda, some Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed only with lances and sabres, but this did not, in fact, happen at all. Nonetheless, as Mellenthin observed:

All the dash and bravery which the Poles frequently displayed could not compensate for a lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.

By contrast, the Wehrmacht training was completely modern and impressively flexible: some troops could even perform in tanks, as infantrymen and artillerymen, while all German NCOs were trained to serve as officers if the occasion demanded. Of course, it helped enormously that the Germans were the aggressors, and so knew when the war was going to start. In fact, they were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, and they were simply better at it than the Allies. Blitzkrieg required extraordinarily close co-operation between the services, and the Germans achieved it triumphantly. It took the Allies half a war to catch up.

But as the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Union made no more to invade from the east. Consequently, Ribbentrop was concerned about Stalin’s reaction to any German incursion into eastern Poland, the region that adjoined the Soviet Union and that it had just been agreed was within the Soviet sphere of influence. He cabled Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, on 3 September:

We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.

But the Western Allies had just declared war on Germany because they had agreed by treaty to protect Poland against aggression. If the Red Army moved into eastern Poland, would they now decide to fight the Soviet Union as well? The Soviet leaders were concerned that a pact which, from their point of view, was designed to keep them out of European war might now drag them into it. But there remained strong arguments in favour of military action. The Soviets recognised the material benefits to be gained from annexing a large chunk of the neighbouring country with which they had historical scores to settle. Stalin was still bitter about the war the Bolsheviks had fought with the Poles after the Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, and before the USSR came into being. The Curzon Line, the proposed border at that time between Poland and its neighbours, was used to agree on the spheres of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moreover, ethnic Poles were not in a majority in these eastern territories. Around forty per cent of the population were of Polish origin, thirty-four per cent were Ukrainian and nine per cent Belarusian. This, the Soviet propagandists realised, allowed any incursion to be couched as an act of ‘liberation’, freeing the ‘local’ population from Polish domination. A combination of all these factors meant that on 9 September, Molotov finally replied to Ribbentrop’s cable of the 3rd, to say that the Red Army was about to move into the agreed Soviet ‘sphere’ in Poland. At a meeting in Moscow the following day with the German ambassador, Molotov told Schulenburg that the pretext for the invasion would be that the Soviet Union was helping Ukrainians and Belarusians. This argument, he said, …

… was to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible and at the same time avoid giving… it the appearance of an aggressor. 

With only three Polish divisions covering the eight-hundred-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September, in accordance with the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Russians wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grabbed all three, without any significant resistance. Soviet forces began to cross the frontier in the east against only light resistance, led by Marshal Kovalov in the north on the Belarusian front and Marshal Timoshenko in the south on the Ukrainian front. In a radio broadcast the same day, Molotov justified the Soviet action by the ‘plausible’ argument he had outlined to Schulenberg. Caught between the two great powers, Polish fighting power evaporated. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September. The following day all Polish resistance ceased. The Red Army was initially welcomed in many places and there was confusion in some places as to whether this was an actual invasion at all. Perhaps, some thought, the Soviet troops had really come to ‘help’. Maybe they would just motor through the flat countryside of eastern Poland and confront the Germans, who had already captured most of the west of the country. The photograph below reveals that there was little panic on the streets.

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The total losses of the Red Army in Poland amounted to only 734 killed. Stalin continued to use Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland in order to restore peace and order. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and self-government until November 1989, half a century later. By mid-September, the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lvov, but some fighting had broken out between Cossacks and Germans, with two of the former killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. The campaign cost 8,082 German lives with 27,278 wounded and the loss of 285 aircraft, whereas seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, with 130,000 soldiers wounded. Mellenthin concluded that:

The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.

The whole of western Poland came under German control. On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to draw up a demarcation line which gave Warsaw to the Germans and the Baltic states as a sphere of interest to the USSR. Almost at once the German authorities began to break Poland up. Silesia and the Corridor became parts of the Reich, and a central Polish area called the General Government was placed under a Nazi administrator, Hans Frank. Thousands of Polish intellectuals were rounded up and murdered. Peasants were removed from their villages in parts of western Poland and replaced by German settlers. Hitler had been right to calculate that Britain and France would give Poland little help, but he was wrong about localising the conflict. Although Britain and France declared war on 3 September, there were only isolated raids by Allied scouting parties and aircraft. After the defeat of Poland Hitler wanted to wage a winter campaign in the west, but was prevented from doing so by bad weather, and both sides sat through the winter and early spring of a ‘phoney war’.

In eastern Poland, casual abuse of the ‘class enemies’ of the Communist system turned into a widespread and systematic arrest. On 27 September, just ten days after Red Army troops had crossed into Poland – the Soviets came for Boguslava Gryniv’s father. He was a prominent lawyer and head of the regional branch of the Ukrainian National Democratic Party (UNDO), a legally constituted organisation. When there was a knock at their door the Gryniv family were surprised to see a member of the local Soviet authority, as it was a church holiday and they were about to celebrate with a family meal. But they took his father away anyway, leaving the family to pray for him not to be punished and to be returned to them. He was one of the first of many to suffer at the hands of the Soviets in eastern Poland. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around 110,000 people were arrested during the reign of terror facilitated by the occupation of eastern Poland. Aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920-21  Russo-Polish War, anyone who might form the nucleus of new national leadership, were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

As in the case of Boguslava Gryniv’s father, individual arrests of members of the intelligentsia and others thought of as a threat to the new régime began from the moment the Red Army arrived in mid-September. Gryniv was sent to the local jail immediately upon arrest, a small cell that usually held drunks and petty criminals. All the most important people who had remained in the town were in this prison. They thought it was simply a ‘misunderstanding’. However, about three weeks later he was taken to Chertkov, where he discovered that all he was accused of was membership of UNDA, a legal organisation before the invasion which was by no means anti-Bolshevik. However, in reality, he was seen as a dangerous member of the previous ‘ruling class’. He disappeared from the prison towards the end of 1939 and fifty years later his family finally learnt that he had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

On the same day that Boguslava Gryniv’s father was arrested, the Soviet government’s new best friend, Joachim von Ribbentrop returned to the Kremlin to finalise the exact borders that would exist between them. After tough negotiations lasting until five in the morning, it was agreed that the Germans would get Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians the rest of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic. The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Bialystock in the new Russian sector, and the fourth partition in Poland’s history was effectively complete. The Soviets had obtained the lands in their ‘sphere’ without meeting any serious opposition and without even making a formal declaration of war on Poland. Molotov would have done well, however, to take note of Hitler’s statement made many years before in Mein Kampf:

Let no one argue that in concluding an alliance with Russia we need not immediately think of war, or, if we did, that we could thoroughly prepare for it. An alliance whose aim does not embrace a plan for war is senseless and worthless. Alliances are concluded only for struggle.

The Germans had faced fierce Polish resistance in the west, but they had completely consolidated their hold on these lands. After a full day of bombing on 25 September, with no prospect of meaningful help from the Western Allies, a full-scale ‘invasion’ from the Russians in the east, and communications cut between Smigly-Rydz and much of his army, and with food and medical supplies running dangerously low, Warsaw capitulated on 28 September. It was then three days before the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city, by which time it was too late for many of them. Field kitchens were set up only for as long as the newsreel cameras were there. By 5 October, all resistance had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers were taken captive by the Russians, and 693,000 by the Germans. On that day, Hitler travelled to Warsaw in his special train to visit his victorious troops. Take a good look around Warsaw, he told the war correspondents there, … that is how I can deal with any European city.

What was to be called the policy of  Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) had begun as soon as the Germans had entered Poland. For the master race to have their ‘living space’, large numbers of Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen had to disappear, and during the rest of the war, Poland lost 17.2 per cent of its population. The commander of three Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ every enemy of National Socialism they found as they followed the troops into Poland. Since Nazism was a racial ideology, that meant that huge swathes of the Polish people were automatically classed as enemies of the Reich, to whom no mercy could be shown. Fortunately, between ninety and a hundred thousand Polish combatants managed to flee the country via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, eventually making their way to the west to join the Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister in exile, who was in Paris when the war broke out and set up a government in exile in Angers in France.

The Wehrmacht took an active part in the violence, burning down 531 towns and villages, and killing thousands of Polish POWs. The claim made by German soldiers that they had been simple soldiers who had known nothing of the genocide against the Slavs and the Jews, was a lie. The nature of the SS had become immediately apparent upon the invasion of Poland. On 5 September 1939, a thousand civilians were shot by them at Bydgoszcz, and at Piotrków the Jewish district was torched. The next day nineteen Polish officers who had surrendered were shot at Mrocza. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. Even Jewish farmers were forced into ghettos, despite the obvious need for efficient food production in the new eastern satrapy of the Third Reich, early evidence that the Nazis were willing to put their war against the Jews even before their war against the Allies. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves. Far worse was to come…

(to be continued…)

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Annihilation & Liberation in Warsaw & Paris: August – October 1944 (I).   Leave a comment

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above: a street in Warsaw. The Germans destroyed the city in the summer and autumn of 1944.

Introduction – An Appalling Martyrdom:

The approach of the Red Army to Warsaw at the end of July had encouraged the anti-Communist ‘Armia Krajowa’, the Polish Home Army, to attempt an uprising at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 August 1944, under their Generals Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski and Antoni Chrusciel. As a consequence of this decision, for more than the full two months of August and September 1944, Warsaw suffered an appalling martyrdom as the SS moved in to destroy the Polish insurgents with every kind of inhumane warfare. The result was a desperate and tragic struggle by the Warsaw Poles, just as the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of April 1943 had been for the Polish Jews. The Uprising was crushed with maximum ferocity by the SS in just sixty-three days, which was nonetheless a remarkable length of time for resistance when it is considered that only fourteen per cent of the Home Army were even armed when it began, with only 108 machine guns, 844 sub-machine guns and 1,386 rifles. Warsaw became a city reduced to ruins, where even the ruins were blasted by German guns and aircraft: the dead lay entombed in the ruins and the wounded lay untended on roads or suffered their last agonies in gloomy cellars. Those fighting from the sewers were finished off by gas grenades flung on them by German troops.

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The Poles, understandably, had wanted to wrest control of their capital and the sovereignty of their country, away from the Germans before the arrival of the Russians, who they correctly assumed to have no more desire for genuine Polish independence than the Nazis. So, while the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically at the Soviets, something that Stalin understood only too well. Appeals for Soviet aid fell on deaf ears, giving the impression at first of glacial indifference and latterly of unbending hostility. The Soviet policy seemed to soften somewhat in mid-September, but by that time the underground army had been throttled. Meanwhile, of lesser note but no less tragic, the rising in Slovakia petered out, though on this occasion Soviet troops fought as best they could to bring direct military aid to the insurgents: the gamble did not come off, however, as Koniev failed to break through to rebel-held territory and Soviet units were left to fight gruelling battles in the Carpathians until late November 1944.

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Laurence Rees’ recent book Behind Closed Doors (2008), drawing on material only available since the opening of the Kremlin archives, provides a detailed account of the Moscow meeting between Prime Minister Mikolajczyk and other representatives of the Polish government in exile in London on the one side and Stalin and Molotov on the other. Given the entrenched positions of each of the parties and the massive disparity in real power, the meeting held on 3rd August was destined to be a failure. What was most remarkable, however, was the manner in which Mikolajczyk misjudged the situation. He knew that, as he talked with Stalin in the Kremlin, the fate of millions in Warsaw rested on the result. But despite the urgency of the situation there, the Uprising was the fourth point on his agenda, following a series of points referring back to the Soviet invasion of 1941. Even then, it was dealt with within the context of the exiled Poles’ desire to carry out elections in Poland based on universal suffrage. However, at the end of this all this verbiage, Mikolajczyk finally came directly to the most pressing point: I now have to ask you to order help to be given to our units fighting in Warsaw.  Stalin replied that he would ‘give the necessary orders’, by which he meant that he alone would decide what was required, and he then remarked that he had noticed the absence in Mikolajczyk’s remarks of any reference to the Lublin Poles, the Committee of National Liberation, with whom the Soviets had already concluded an agreement. Mikolajczyk gave a lengthy and emotional response to this, including the plea that:

The four main Polish political parties which are represented in this government (the London Poles) and have for five years carried on the struggle against Germany should have a say in the matter.

Stalin dismissed this view, saying that he had agreed to meet the London Poles, at Churchill’s request, in order to discuss a ‘union’ with the Lublin Poles. Mikolajczyk then made the extraordinary request that he be allowed ‘to go to Warsaw’. Stalin had to remind him that ‘the Germans are there’. The two men then reiterated their respective positions. Stalin wanted the London Poles to deal with the Lublin Poles, and Mikolajczyk restated that, though he would co-operate with the Lublin Poles, they represented a very small section of Polish opinion. While the two ‘sides’ may have been talking to each other, there was certainly no meeting of minds. Stalin spoke increasingly more directly, openly revealing his scorn for the Polish Home Army:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are often short of rifles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government had ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this – their forces are not up to that task. As a matter of fact these people do not fight against the Germans, but only hide in woods, being unable to do anything else.

He added, ominously, that ‘the Poles quarrel among themselves’ and that this was something that, in the future, the Soviets would not allow to continue. Of course, there was no real comparison to be made between the representatives of the Polish government in exile and the group that the Soviets had set up in Lublin. But Stalin became so intransigent on the question of the recognition of the Lublin Poles that the minute-taker felt compelled to write: There is a general feeling that the discussion has become futile… The meeting ended just before midnight. Mikolajczyk was partly to blame for his own humiliation at Stalin’s hands, simply because instead of focusing the agenda on the one practical measure that needed at that moment, support for the Warsaw Uprising, he tried to pretend that he was dealing with an equal and to discuss matters which the Soviet leadership did not want to discuss. In sharp contrast to Stalin’s reticence to help the Poles, Churchill reacted quickly to the plight of Warsaw’s inhabitants. Their fight in the streets and parks of the city was precisely the sort of romantic endeavour that appealed to him. On 4th August, the day after Stalin’s meeting with the Polish delegation in Moscow, Churchill sent a cable to the Soviet leader which read:

At the urgent request of the Polish underground army, we are dropping, subject to the weather, about sixty tons of equipment and ammunition into the south-western corner of the city where, it is said, a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seems very near. They are being attacked by one and a half German divisions.  This may be of help to your operations. 

Heroes and Villains:

Tadeusz Roman was one of the Polish RAF pilots who tried to help the insurgents in Warsaw. Twenty-five years old, he had served time in a Soviet prison after being caught trying to flee from eastern Poland. After the armistice of 1941, he had made his way west and joined RAF Bomber Command. Now based at Brindisi in southern Italy as part of the Polish Flight, it was not just a matter of honour to help the insurrection. His brother was in the underground army, and Tadeusz thought, mistakenly as it happened, that he was in Warsaw, but, in any case, all the Polish pilots volunteered to take part in the long flight, one of the most dangerous of the war, taking between ten and eleven hours. Starting on 4th August, flights left both Bari and Brindisi, with the airmen of the Polish Flight initially dominating the operation. Between then and the end of September more than two hundred flights were made, dropping a total of more than a hundred tons of supplies. Around eighty Polish airmen lost their lives in the operation, together with more than a hundred other Allied flyers, many of whom were South African. The dangers confronting the bombers were not just from the air defences around Warsaw but from the lengthy and tortuous route over German-occupied territory on the way to the Polish capital and back. Tadeusz’s own luck ran out on 28 August, just after he and his comrades had dropped their supplies over Warsaw. Flying low, at two thousand feet, anti-aircraft fire smashed into one of their engines. Over Krakow, they were hit again, but they managed to coax the plane back to Italy, where they crash-landed on the airport’s perimeter. The other three planes that accompanied him on that night’s mission never returned.

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Meanwhile, Mikolajczyk had left Moscow and returned to London. At his last meeting with Stalin, in the Kremlin on the evening of 9 August, he told the Soviet leader that his talks with the Lublin Poles had convinced him that they would eventually reach an agreement. But when he asked Stalin again for ‘immediate assistance’ for Warsaw, he was met with obfuscation: It would be different if our armies were approaching Warsaw, Stalin told him, but unfortunately, this is not the case. He went on to explain that a vigorous counter-attack by the Germans had forced the Red Army to delay their move on the Polish capital. He was sorry for your men who started the battle in Warsaw prematurely. The discussion then moved on to examine the practicalities of an airdrop, about which Stalin was sceptical, but he nevertheless again promised to help the Home Army in Warsaw. However, towards the end of the meeting, when the Polish PM asked if Stalin would tell us something to comfort the Polish hearts at this difficult time, Stalin replied that Mikolajczyk that he was attaching too much importance to words: One should distrust words. Deeds are more important than words. Just four days later the TASS news agency announced that, since the London Poles had not notified the Soviets in advance about the uprising, all responsibility for what was happening in the city lay with them. On the night of 15 August, the American Ambassador had a meeting at the Kremlin with Soviet Foreign Ministry officials, after which he sent a cable back to the USA, reporting:

The Soviet Government’s refusal (to help the uprising) is not based on operational difficulties, nor on a denial of the conflict, but on ruthless political calculations.

Clearly, as far as ‘deeds’ were concerned, Stalin failed the Poles in Warsaw. But it is still possible that when he had met Mikolajczyk on 9 August, he had not definitely made up his mind. He had, as yet, given no reply to the Western Allies about his position on the uprising. One possible interpretation is that between the meeting and the TASS statement on the 13th, he changed his mind. On 9th he was inclined to help, but by 13th he had decided that he wouldn’t. Although he had already demonstrated that his determination to disband the Home Army, in these days he knew he faced battles ahead with the Western Allies over the composition of any future Polish administration. He had no reason to expect at this point that the Allies would eventually go along with his wishes and recognize a modified version of his puppet government, and may have calculated in early August that, if he was to be successful in getting the London Poles to agree to be subsumed by the Lublin Poles, he would need to offer some kind of assistance to the Warsaw Uprising. Laurence Rees has concluded that Stalin was always inclined to act as he did and refuse to help the Poles in Warsaw, a refusal which fitted a pattern of behaviour in which the Soviet leader had demonstrated time and again his distrust of the Poles and his desire to see the Home Army ‘neutralised’.

In any event, by 13 August, Stalin had made up his mind and, during the rest of August, the crucial period of the rising, the Soviets gave no assistance, not even with dropping air supplies. Although it is arguable whether the Red Army would have reached Warsaw in August, they faced a counter-attack from the Germans on the 2nd on the front line east of the city, they could have made the air bridge more successful if they had wanted to. In fact, a statement from the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to the US’ Moscow Ambassador on 18 August made their policy quite clear:

The Soviet government cannot, of course, object to British or American aircraft dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, since this is an American and British affair. But they decidedly object to British or American aircraft, after dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, landing on Soviet Territory, since the Soviet Government do not wish to associate themselves either directly or indirectly with the adventure in Warsaw. 

Finally, on 22nd, Stalin himself reiterated this message in the clearest, most strident and insulting terms possible. He described the Home Army as a ‘bunch of criminals’, and stated that the Soviets would refuse to help the Western Allies with the airlift. Churchill tried to enlist Roosevelt’s support in sending a combative reply, only to be told by the American President on 26 August that he did not consider that it would prove advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to UJ (‘Uncle Joe’ or Stalin). Hugh Lunghi, a member of the British military mission to Moscow, went with the chief of staff of the mission to the Soviet Ministry of Defence to try to get the Soviets to help with the air supplies:

I must have gone there with him almost daily for the first two weeks, and afterwards it became sort of hopeless. We realised they were not going to allow either us or the Americans to land on Soviet territory. And this seemed to us to be the most terrible betrayal, not only of the Poles, but of the Allies. And again, another example of Stalin cutting off his nose to spite his own face, because it meant the Germans would put down this uprising more easily and then the remaining Germans would be available to oppose the Soviet Army. So it seemed quite crazy to us, but also terrible. We were fuming. We were absolutely furious in the military mission.

In reality, however, Stalin had calculated that if he stood back and did nothing, the Home Army would almost certainly be annihilated. And that was what was then happening inside Warsaw. During August, German SS soldiers, supported by various collaborators – including Cossacks from the 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps – conducted a brutal house to house war in the Polish capital. The most notorious SS unit in Warsaw was led by Oskar Dirlewanger. Although he himself had gained a PhD in political science in the 1920s, he presided over a gang of ill-disciplined and bloodthirsty soldiers, most of whom were convicted criminals released from captivity. They were already notorious for their mistreatment of civilians in the occupied Soviet Union. Matthias Schenk, an eighteen-year-old Belgian conscripted into the German Army, served as a demolition engineer in Warsaw alongside Dirlewanger’s Sturmbrigade. In 2008, he was still haunted by what he saw:

Once we went towards a house (which served as a school) with 350 children. We went upstairs and the children came down – children of nine to thirteen years old. They held up their hands … “Nicht Partisan!” … and they stood on the steps. And the SS started to shoot. And then the commander said: “No ammunition – use the butt of the gun!” And the blood spilled down the stairs.

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This was by no means an isolated crime, for the Axis units in the city committed a whole series of atrocities. Many of those witnessed by Matthias Schenk seem purely sadistic, like the point-blank shooting of a little girl and the blowing-up of a thirteen-year-old disabled boy by placing hand grenades in his pocket. Every day in Warsaw, women and children were slaughtered by the occupiers out of their warped sense of ‘fun’. When a hospital held by the Home Army was stormed by the Dirlewanger brigade, Schenk saw, in the aftermath, Polish nurses being sexually assaulted by the SS:

They tore the clothes off these women and jumped on top of them, held them down by means of force … then they were raped … Then Dirlewanger drove them through the (German) crowd, which cajoled and applauded them to the gallows.

These appalling actions were part of a systematic Nazi plan to crush the uprising with brutality. Under the overall command of SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had previously supervised the shooting of Jews and partisans in the occupied Soviet Union, the Germans targeted civilians as well as members of the Home Army. By 8 August, in one district of the city alone, the Germans had killed at least forty thousand civilians. The overall atmosphere of the German action against the Poles was captured by the SS commander-in-chief Heinrich Himmler, who later stated that he had told Hitler at the time of the rising that:

From the historical point of view the action of the Poles is a blessing … Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city which is the intellectual capital of a sixteen to seventeen million strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years … will have ceased to exist. By the same token… the Poles themselves will cease to be a problem, for our children and for all who follow us. 

Himmler’s use of language is significant. It is reminiscent of the ‘justification’ he gave to senior Nazis for the extermination of Jewish children. They had to be killed along with their parents, he said, because otherwise, they would only cause problems for future German generations. He had previously told SS officers that there was no point in killing Jewish men and allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandsons. On 2 September, German troops and their auxiliaries stormed a makeshift hospital treating wounded Home Army fighters. At first, the soldiers took valuables from the wounded, such as gold crosses and watches, but those that followed, many of whom were drunk, raped the women. Twenty-year-old Danuta Galkowa, hiding on a stretcher in the basement, under a blanket, heard the horror being enacted all around her:

It was for them entertainment. They were excited by the fact that the people were yelling. … I was in despair, I was afraid only of rape, because I wouldn’t be able to live through that. 

The wounded men of the Home Army who were present in the cellar could do nothing to protect the women. They had serious stomach wounds, broken legs and arms, and could not move. The horror lasted from eight in the morning until dark, when the troops finally left, setting fire to the hospital as they went. Danuta tried to escape, dragging the wounded Home Army officer who had protected her on the stretcher. She pulled him to the entrance, where the Nazis were shooting those trying to escape. A German auxiliary turned his gun on Danuta but it jammed, and in the smoke, darkness and chaos she managed to get away, over the bodies of those who had been murdered in the courtyard, together with the wounded fighter. Eventually, this man who had saved her life became her husband.

Conflict Among Allies:

The summer and early autumn of 1944 were, therefore, a time of conflict between the Allies, not only over what seemed to be the eternal question of Poland but also over the post-war shape of Europe, and, most particularly, Soviet intentions towards the eastern European countries that they were shortly to occupy. Towards the middle of August 1944, the Soviet general offensive began to slacken, Soviet armies outrunning their supplies since behind them lay an advance of some 350 miles. Soviet troops were on the East Prussian frontier and had bridgeheads on the Vistula and the Narew, while the Soviet command planned to wipe Army Group North off the map. The Finns
had already abandoned the German-Finnish compact and late in August were suing for peace, harsh though the terms proved to be.
In the event, the Romanians beat the Finns in the race to make peace. The Soviet hammer having battered three German Army Groups (North Centre and North Ukraine), it was now the turn of Army Group South Ukraine to fall under it. Even before a shot was fired, however, this Army Group faced disaster, hemmed in as it was between the
Red Army eager to fall on it and the Romanians, who were even more eager to betray it.

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On 20 August, Malinovskii’s 2nd Ukrainian Front launched its attack, encircling five German corps in the Jassy-Kishinev operation, while Tolbukhin’s forces trapped the Romanian 3rd Army. But defeat
in the field was outmatched and outpaced by political events when on August 23rd a coup in Bucharest knocked Romania out of the war with King Michael’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. Romania’s declaration of war on Germany followed in a trice and Romanian troops were ordered not to open fire on the Red Army. The Romanian defection had cataclysmic consequences for Germany with far more
than the fate of an Army Group involved: the fortunes of war in the entire south-eastern theatre had changed virtually overnight. With a German army hopelessly trapped and what was left of two Romanian armies laying down their arms, the whole of southern Bessarabia, the Danube delta and the Carpathian passes lay open to the Red Army. Henceforth neither the Danube nor the Carpathians could bar the Soviet advance and ahead of the Soviet armies lay the route to the Hungarian plains, the gateway to Czechoslovakia and Austria, as well as a highway to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

While these battles and the battle for Warsaw raged on, Winston Churchill met with General Wladyslaw Anders, Commander-in-Chief of the free Polish Army, at Polish military headquarters in northern Italy. In the context of the controversy over the future of Poland, this meeting, on 26 August, was one of the most revealing of the war. Churchill began by congratulating Anders on the performance of the Polish II Corps during the campaign in Italy. He also enquired about the ‘mood’ of the soldiers, given what they are going through at the moment. Anders replied that, while the spirit of his men was ‘excellent’, their great concern is for the future of Poland, and at the moment, the current situation in Warsaw. Churchill said that he and President Roosevelt had asked Stalin to help those fighting in Warsaw, but their request had met with a negative response. Churchill assured him that while they were not ready for joint action over Warsaw, the Allies were doing everything they could to provide aid via the air route. After some argument over the future of Poland’s eastern borders with the Soviet Union, Churchill promised that…

… since Great Britain entered this war to defend your independence, then I can assure you that we will never abandon you.

These words were similar to those he had used at the previous meeting of the two men in Cairo, immediately after the Tehran Conference. Anders himself had been imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanska prison during the earlier partition of Poland in 1939, and was under no illusions: as he told Churchill, Stalin’s declarations that he wants a free and strong Poland are lies and fundamentally false. Once again, Anders voiced his serious concerns about Soviet intentions based on current as well as past experience, including the massacre at Katyn:

As they enter Poland, the Soviets arrest and deport our women and children deep into Russia as they did in 1939; they disarm the soldiers of our Home Army, they shoot dead our officers and arrest our civil administration, destroying those who fought the Germans continuously since 1939 and fight them still. We have our wives and children in Warsaw, but we would rather they perish than have to live under the Bolsheviks. All of us prefer to perish fighting than to live on our knees.

According to the minutes recorded by camp, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Lubomirski, Churchill was ‘very moved’ by Anders’ words and added to his earlier declaration:

I know that the Germans and Russians are destroying all of your best elements, especially intellectual spheres. … But you must trust – we will not abandon you and Poland will be happy.

Anders, not surprisingly, was somewhat suspicious of Churchill’s words. He was right to be, not because Churchill was being disingenuous, but because Anders knew he was no longer in a position to make such a promise, considering that a Red Army of 6.7 million was already marching into his country. He reminded the British PM that the Soviet Union would be immensely strong after the war; he was sceptical of Churchill’s view that Britain and the United States would be able to restrain the USSR after the war through their superior supplies of planes, tanks and guns. Churchill was not promising that the Western Allies would be prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union if Stalin refused to guarantee Poland’s independence, but his reply implied the possibility of military action, something that he had explicitly ruled out earlier in the year.

Collapse, Courage and Conflict:

By the beginning of September, the entire German defensive system was on the point of collapse. At that point, Bulgaria, which up to this point had been at war solely with Britain and France, made the inexplicable and suicidal decision also to declare war against the USSR on 5 September, only to collapse within twenty-four hours after the Russians crossed the Danube. Bulgaria, Axis ally of Germany but at heart pro-Russian and Slavophile, received Soviet armies without a shot being fired and duly declared war on Germany on 8 September. Hitler still fed on hopes that the entry of Soviet troops into Bulgaria might well speed an Anglo-Soviet collision, as the Red Army made for the Dardanelles – whereupon German troops in Army Group E might act as a ‘kind of police’ (with British approval) to hold the line against Bolshevism. There was certainly Anglo-Soviet rivalry in the Balkans, involving both Yugoslavia and Greece, but nothing to precipitate outright conflict.

The courage and ingenuity of the Poles during the Uprising were truly remarkable. When the Germans cut off the water supply to the city, the Poles bored wells by hand. Then, on 1 September 1,500 defenders had to retreat from a position at State Miasto (Old Town), using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square. This lay only two hundred and fifty metres from German positions, and General Bór-Komorowski, the Home Army commander, knew that a few gas-bombs through the manholes or an outbreak of panic in the tunnels would prevent anyone from getting out alive. He nonetheless gave the order, since the defenders had nothing more to lose. So, leaving the Old Town completely defenceless in the event of a surprise German attack, the entire force, along with five hundred civilians, including the wounded and a hundred German prisoners, went down the manhole. As Bór-Komorowski wrote:

Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared … Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about one and a half miles in length. … There was no time for rest periods, because room had to be made for others who were waiting by the manhole. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the line moved forward, for the water had now almost completely drained away and the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. The soldiers had no sleep at all for several days and their only food had been dry potato flakes. The rifles slung around their necks seemed unbearably heavy and kept clattering along the tunnel walls … The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.

When the Stukas, artillery, tanks and finally infantry attacked the positions the next morning, initially believing the Poles’ silence to be merely a ruse to conserve ammunition, the Germans found their quarry gone. The Poles had escaped, at least for the present.

By this time, and in contrast with Warsaw’s impending fate, the Allied forces had succeeded in liberating Paris, though not without cost in terms of both men and machinery. The Americans had poured forward through gaps in the German defences which had been created by the carpet bombing of Brittany at the end of July. Collins’ VII Corps took Avranches and allowed US forces to attack westwards into the Breton hinterland and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us. 

Better communications and better inter-personal relations might have led to an even greater victory at ‘the Falaise Gap’, the mouth of an area eighteen miles wide by ten miles deep known as the Falaise-Argentan pocket, than the one gained by Montgomery, Bradley and Patton between 13 and 19 August. It was the news of a large Allied invasion of the south of France on 15 August, Operation Anvil, with 86,000 troops going ashore on the first day alone. That had persuaded Field Marshal von Kluge to withdraw from the Falaise pocket. The next day, Kluge ordered a general retreat out of the pocket, warning Jodl at the Army Headquarters that it would be a disastrous mistake to entertain hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Panzer Group West, comprising the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, sustained around fifty thousand casualties, while the Allies lost twenty-nine thousand at the Falaise. Eisenhower visited the pocket forty-eight hours after the battle and later described the scene it as…

… unquestionably one of the greatest “killing grounds” of any of the war areas … It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

With Allied fighter-bombers flying three thousand sorties a day, the twenty thousand German soldiers who did escape, the shattered remnants of the hitherto formidable Panzer Armies including Group Eberbach, did so with their 88mm guns intact. After the war, Bradley and Montgomery blamed each other for the over-caution at Falaise, but Kluge’s defeat there led to his replacement by Field Marshal Model on 17 August and enabled the Allies to make for the Seine and to liberate Paris, which had risen on 23 August. Out of the thirty-nine divisions which took part in the Normandy landings, just one was French, 2e Division Blandée (Armoured) under General Leclerc. It fought very bravely in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, and entered Paris first on 25th, as part of the US Fifth Army, although this did not elicit any noticeable gratitude from the Free French leader, General de Gaulle. He had set foot in France for the first time since 1940 on 14 June, more than a week after D-Day, and only then for a one-day visit to Bayeux, after which he had left for Algiers and did not return to French soil until 20 August. In the meantime, Patton’s Third Army had broken out of Avranches at the end of July and had driven through Brittany.  While the French Resistance, the résistants and maquisards, under a separate command from the Free French forces were hampering German armoured retaliation, de Gaulle played little part in any of this from his base in North Africa.

In Paris, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz took the humane and historic decision not to set fire to the city. Hitler had demanded of him that Paris must be destroyed from the top to the bottom, that he should not leave a single church or monument standing. The German High Command earmarked seventy bridges, factories and national landmarks – including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral – for destruction. But Choltitz deliberately disobeyed these barbaric instructions and continued to ignore Hitler’s enquiries as to whether Paris was burning. The Germans did not, therefore, fight in the French capital the battle of extirpation that they were simultaneously fighting in Warsaw, bringing about the utter destruction of the Polish capital and two hundred thousand of its people. Instead, Choltitz surrendered and went into captivity as soon as he decently could once the Allied forces arrived. He told the Swedish diplomat who negotiated the terms that he had no wish to be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris. In all, the French lost only seventy-six soldiers in the liberation of Paris, although 1,600 inhabitants were killed in the uprising, six hundred of whom were non-combatants. De Gaulle had asked Eisenhower to allow the French troops to be the first to into the capital, and the Supreme Commander duly gave the order to Leclerc to advance on the city on 22 August.

In any case, the Allies did not see Paris as a prime military objective rather than a purely political one. Eisenhower could spare the French 2e Division from the far greater battles that were taking place right across northern and southern France, fought by British, American and Canadian forces against crack German units. Omar Bradley in his memoirs dismissed Paris as a pen and ink job on the map. The first of Leclerc’s Sherman tanks rolled up the rue de Rivoli at 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 25 August. In the surrender document signed that afternoon by Choltitz and Leclerc, there was no mention of either Great Britain or the United States; the Germans surrendered the city to the French alone. De Gaulle arrived in Paris soon afterwards to make a speech at the Hotel de Ville in which he proclaimed that Paris had been liberated by her own people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, … eternal France. The Allied contribution was summed up in a single phrase. Putting the ‘Liberation’ in context, however, the historian of the Occupation, Ian Ousby, later wrote:

Paris’s concentration of both people and cultural monuments ruled out aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, so taking the city would soak up time and lives in a campaign already behind schedule and high in casualties. Besides, the capture of Paris was not tactically essential.

On the morning of 26 August, de Gaulle led a parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées to a thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame. When the head of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault, came up abreast in the parade he hissed, ‘A little to the rear if you please.’ The glory was to be de Gaulle’s alone. Since he did not wish to steal de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower himself did not enter the capital until the following day, five days after he had given the order for the 2e Division to take it.

The Challenge of Leadership:

For his part, although Stalin had decided by the middle of August that the Soviet forces would not support the Home Army in Warsaw, his policy towards the uprising was still not entirely transparent. On 18 September the Soviet authorities overturned their earlier decision and allowed one flight of American bombers en route to Warsaw to refuel on Soviet territory. Also, in the two weeks from 14-28 September, the Soviets themselves dropped supplies on Warsaw. However, since these drops did not involve the use of parachutes, much of the fifty tons of aid provided was destroyed on landing. They were conducted mainly for propaganda purposes so that Stalin could counter the growing outcry of world opinion about Soviet inaction in the face of the destruction of Warsaw, enabling him to demonstrate his public support to the Home Army without offering any effective assistance. Halina Szopinska, a twenty-four-year-old fighter with the Home Army in Warsaw, later testified as to how the airdrops had been a sham:

They had these small planes and would throw dry bread without a parachute and when it fell down it would just break into powder. … They would drop guns without a parachute – ammunition as well. There was no way we could repair it. So they pretended they were helping. They were doing it in such a way that it wouldn’t really help us.

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Above: Halina Szopinska, a member of the Polish underground Home Army (AK), who was captured and tortured by the NKVD in December 1944. She then served ten years in prison.

By the end of August, the NKVD had been told to detain and interrogate all Poles who had taken part in the uprising and who had managed to ‘escape’ into the Soviet part of occupied Poland. These interrogations included brutal beatings and humiliations, such as those endured and testified to by Halina Szopinska. The NKVD regarded them as spies for ‘the English’ as well as for the Germans. Halina was sentenced to ten years in prison and in Lublin Castle, she learnt how former members of the Home Army were executed by firing squad as traitors ‘to the motherland’.

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In the West, on 1 September, Eisenhower took over day-to-day control of all ground forces from Montgomery, much to the latter’s chagrin. Eisenhower’s plan was for a broad advance into Germany, whereas Montgomery wanted a narrow ‘single thrust’ into the heart of the Reich, spearheaded by his 21st Army Group. On the same day that Montgomery put forward his plan, Patton produced one in which his Third Army led the way instead, with characteristic immodesty, calling it the best strategical idea I’ve ever had. Omar Bradley, meanwhile, felt that his drive on Frankfurt ought to be the centre of operations. It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, actuated these soldiers, and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness, though doubted by Brooke and Montgomery, stems partly from his success in achieving that. Montgomery’s scheme would have required the Scheldt estuary to have been used as a direct supply route into the Rhine, but the Germans continued to hold it long after the fall of Antwerp in September, with the largely undamaged Fifteenth Army to the north of it. His plan to strike off across the North German Plain towards Berlin, crossing the Weser and the Elbe, made little military sense considering the level of resistance offered by the Germans until as late as April 1945 in this territory. It would also have reduced the US Third Army to the minor role of protecting the flank of the British forces.

Instead, the Supreme Commander stuck with his ‘broad front’ approach to the invasion of the Reich, which he believed would bring all our strength against the enemy, all of it mobile, and all of it contributing directly to the complete annihilation of his field forces. Partly because of the efficacy of the V-weapon flying bomb and rocket campaign against Britain, which could be ended only by occupying the launching sites, the main part was still to be the 21st Army Group’s advance through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and into the Ruhr Valley, which would also close off Germany’s industrial heartland, and thus deny Hitler the resources to carry on the fight. Eisenhower split the 12th Army Group commanded by Bradley in two and sent most of the First Army north of the Ardennes to support Montgomery, leaving Patton’s Third Army to march on the Saar, covered to the south by the 6th Army Group which had made its way up from the Anvil landings in the south of France. By the end of August, Patton had crossed the Marne and was soon able to threaten Metz and the Siegfried Line. To his intense frustration, his advance was halted by running out of petrol due to the four-hundred mile supply lines to Cherbourg. However, Brussels fell to the 21st Army Group on 3 September and Antwerp the next day, but, as already mentioned, Antwerp was useless to the Allies without the control of the Scheldt estuary.

In September, two months after his sacking, Rundstedt was recalled as Commander-in-Chief West. Watching the Hitler Youth Division retreating over the River Meuse near Yvoir on 4 September, Rundstedt said what many German officers were thinking, but few dared state, that it is a pity that this faithful youth is sacrificed in a hopeless situation. On 11 September, the Allies set foot on German soil for the first time, when American troops crossed the frontier near Trier, yet Hitler still had armies numbering several million men, albeit far too widely dispersed. His ‘Western Wall’, the Siegfried Line, seemed formidable, and his reappointment of Rundstedt was good for the Wehrmacht’s morale, with Field Marshal Model remaining in charge of Army Group B, Rommel and Kluge both having committed suicide, after having been implicated in the Bomb Plot. Later in the month, Churchill – convinced that Hitler was a hopeless strategist – ridiculed him in the House of Commons:

We must not forget that we owe a great debt to the blunders – the extraordinary blunders – of the Germans. I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler, as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to connecthim in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher. But there is one respect in which I must draw a parallel. Both these men were temperamentally unable to give up the tiniest scrap of any territory to which the high water mark of their hectic fortunes had carried them. … he (Hitler) has successfully scattered the German armies all over Europe, and by obstination at every point from Stalingrad and Tunis down to the present moment, … has stripped himself of the power to concentrate his main strength for the final struggle.

Yet even while the House of Commons was laughing at Hitler’s strategic blunders, the Führer was planning a concentration of German forces in the Ardennes that would once again astonish the world. Montgomery’s bold scheme to use the British 1st and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to try to capture the bridges over the Meuse and Rhine and thereby ensure the encirclement of the Ruhr to the north came to grief in mid-September in and around the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. Despite the highest order of heroism, mistakes were made in the planning stages which meant that it was doomed before it began. It was the largest airborne assault in history, but the intelligence that should have warned the 1st Airborne Division of two Panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem was given insufficient weight so that it did not take enough anti-tank weaponry to the drop zones. Operation Market, the airborne assault of Friday, 17 September, was initially successful, but the simultaneous ground attack, Operation Garden, reached Eindhoven and Nijmegen on the 18th and 19th respectively, but could not break through determined German resistance in time to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem.

(to be continued…)

 

Posted August 22, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Axis Powers, Balkan Crises, Baltic States, Belgium, Berlin, Black Country, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Canada, Compromise, Conquest, Crucifixion, Egypt, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Flanders, France, Genocide, History, Holocaust, Hungarian History, Hungary, Jews, liberal democracy, Marxism, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, North Africa, Paris, Poland, Refugees, Russia, Second World War, Serbia, Socialist, tyranny, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Warsaw Uprising, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

Every Picture Tells a Story:

Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942.  In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.

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A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels.  Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.

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On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.

The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.

My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.

toms-family-4

So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.

photo-in-magazine-1943

The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.

15-october-1944

One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.

may-1944

One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.

The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:

To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.

By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.

In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.

By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.

Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?

The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.

In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.

By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.

Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.

In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:

Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.

She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:

The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.

Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.

The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb  Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.

Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.

Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

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