Cursed Soldiers, a rural vengeance war

Interview with Tomasz Łabuszewski, a researcher on the postwar anti-communist underground

On 1 March 1951, after a show trial in the Mokotów prison in Warsaw, seven members of the WiN independence movement [IV Zarządu Głównego Zrzeszenia “Wolność i Niezawisłość”] were shot. The anniversary of this crime has been commemorated since 2011 as the National Memorial Day of the “Cursed Soldiers.”

Tomasz Wiścicki interviews Dr. Tomasz Łabuszewski, chief of the Office fo Histoirical Research in Warsaw, and a researcher on the postwar anti-communist underground.

Dr. Tomasz Łabuszewski, chief of the Office fo Histoirical Research in Warsaw, and a researcher on the postwar anti-communist underground (photo: Polish Press Agency)

For obvious reasons, research before 1989 about the Polish anti-communist underground wasn’t possible, if we don’t count official stories about “skirmishes with outlaw bands”… Can we, after the passage of more than 20 years, say that this part of our history has to some extent been invesitigated?

In 1989, we didn’t start from zero with our knowledge on the topic of the “cursed soldiers,” but from less than zero. Over those 45 years, the stereotypes created by historians in service of Communist propaganda had accumulated, and had established in a large part of society a view of “bandits,” or in the best case of people who hadn’t understood the historical changes after the Second World War. Such stereotypes especially applied to those local communities in areas where the postwar guerillas had massive support and peristed for many years. The Communists in many cases managed to destroy those communities, and especially the educated members of them, and construct in place of them a “socialist” society, where bandits were called heroes and heroes were called bandits.

There were many individaul publications presenting source materials or based on testimonies, but to our day there has been no monograph on any of the fundamental groups, including the Armed Forces Delegation for Poland, the Association “Freedom and Independence” (WiN), the National Armed Forces (NSZ) and the National Military Union (NZW). Neither do we have publications about many local organizations, such as the Underground Polish Army (KWP), the Warta volunteer formation in the Wielkopolska region (WSGO “Warta”) and many others. Despite publications about Józef Kuraś, codenamed “Ogień” [Fire], there is a lack of a complex perspective on the topic of the group that he ran.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that nothing was done. The fundamental popular publication that broke with sereotypes in the thinking about the postwar underground as ephemeral and of limited range is undoubtedly Atlas podziemia powojennego [Atlas of the Postwar Underground]. It showed that we’re dealing with a national phenomenon that’s extremely essential from the point of view of the recent history of Poland, which is only competed with on the road to Poland’s regaining freedom in 1989 by the eruption of Solidarity. Several thousand people involved in postwar conspiracy made up the largest participation of Poles in anti-system activities of that era. Only Solidarity would achieve a larger scale.

Józef Kuraś, (noms de guerre “Orzeł” (Eagle), “Ogień” (Fire)), 1915-1947 lieutenant in the Polish Army who fought in the Polish September Campaign, a partisan of Armia Krajowa and Bataliony Chłopskie in the Podhale region and after World War II one of the leaders of anticommunist resistance. He died in Nowy Targ on February 22, 1947 from a self inflicted wound after being surrounded by units of Polish secret police. Vilified by communist propaganda, he was officially rehabilitated after the fall of communism (public domain)

What was its territorial range?

When we look at the map presented by the Atlas, the obvious association with the scale of activities in the January Uprising of 1863 comes to mind. We’re dealing with an emanation of the Polish insurrectional, independent tradition in the same communities, local societies not only of the legal noble class, as in the Podlasie region, but also of farm workers, as was the case in Kurpie. It comprises territories of present-day Poland, but also territories in the northeastern areas of interwar Poland where such activism had also been very noticeable during the January Uprising. The defence of Polish society, the resistance to the sovietization around Grodno, Nowogródek, in part of Wilno [all then in the USSR], it’s an area of forgotten history.

We’re dealing with a phenomenon encompassing all of present-day Poland plus the northeastern part of interwar Poland, with special intensification along the present “Eastern wall,” that is, in Podkarpacie up to the Białystok region, through the Lublin region, Podlasie and northern Mazovia, to a minor degree in Wielkopolska, not to mention territories of the Western Regained Territories, though it’s worth noting that those territories became an area of activity for the Eksterytorialne Okręgi Kresowe [Exteritorrial Borderlands District], brought there by the population resettled from eastern Poland. I think of the regions for WiN Jelenia Góra West and of Wrocław, created by conspirators from the Tarnopol region and the Lviv Home Army.

The special intensification of activity along the “Eastern wall” was a result of people’s experience who were caught in the Soviet occupation in summer 1944. Autumn of that year was a period of unspeakable repression, in scale and extent, by the Soviet security apparatus that used the presence of around two million Red Army soldiers in the eastern territories of present-day Poland to break the back of the independence movement. This was done to create space for the Polish Communist authorities to start their operations. That experience from late 1944 contributed to the violent reaction of people linked to the independence underground in spring of the following year.

There is a hypothesis that people fled to the forests after the war less than voluntarily, that to a greater extent they were forced there by repressions: that this involved people who had no other option. Is this hypothesis confirmed by the research?

Yes and no. On one hand, we’re dealing with purposeful actions by the Communist security forces, which by definition aimed at physical elimination of the most determined anti-Communist group in Polish society. It wanted to force people out, then physically destroy those remaining through pacification and other repressions. This is why for many people the safest place, paradoxically, was with the forest squads.

On the other hand, participation in the postwar underground was a consequence of choices made at the beginning of the Second World War. Most of the commanders are in the independence conspiracy since 1939, 1940, 1941. For them, what happened in Poland in 1944–1945 was the beginning of a new occupation, a Soviet one, but in the case of territories taken by the USSR in 1939, it was a second occupation [by the Soviets]. In my opinion, the core part of regular members and above all of the staff made a conscious decision to fight for independence – despite the extremely unfavorable geopolitical situation, and despite the growing consciousness that this is a sacrificial undertaking. Despite there being no chance for an armed conflict between the West and the Soviets, they belived they should bear witness. For local communities, this witnessing by the last partisans held great meaning – it indicated standards. If we don’t question the sacrifice of Father Brzóska, who fought on after the January Uprising had collapsed, why should we question the sacrifice of those people still active in the 1950s or the final one, Józef Franczak, codenamed “Lalka” [Doll], who perishes on 21 October 1963.

Józef Franczak (1918-1963) – soldier of the Polish Army, Armia Krajowa World War II resistance, and last of the cursed soldiers – members of the militant anti-communist resistance in Poland (public domain)

What was the chronology of the postwar underground?

The first period – the massive one – ends undeniably in 1947. After the elections rigged by the Communists, many people despair, seeing that everything they’d counted on has failed, such as waiting for an objection to be voiced from the West and its influence on the situation in Poland. It was clear that the Communist authorities are anchored for a long time and are able to do anything and pay any price without consequence. This is why over 50,000 people decide within the so-called amnesty to reveal their identities. The purpose of it was not to help them to start functioning legally within the system. The authorities wanted to break them morally along with the spirit of the people, to be able to play them out operationally.

After 1947, from among tens of thousands of people in forest squads there remain about a thousand, and from 12,000 up to 20,000 in underground structures. They are systematically eliminated. I call 1948 “the year of great hunting” – pacification in the realms of several voivodeships, liquidation of the final structures. The following year, many field commanders die, local ones are destroyed. After 1949, lone squads remain, established on the last territorial networks, islands as yet undiscovered by the security department then successively eliminated. The year of the establishment of the constitution of the People’s Republic [PRL], 1952, was commemorated by the security department with the annihilation of many such squads. In later years, we’re dealing with survival groups, aimed exclusively at staying alive, and single soldiers trying to hide. 1956 doesn’t bring any breakthrough moment. Finally, in 1963, the death of Józef “Lalka” Franczak, the soldier of the Home Army – WiN from the Lublin District, in the underground since the 1940s, which symbolically punctuates the end of the phase of armed conspiracy.

A vague group of soldiers from the postwar underground was hiding under assumed names. They remained wanted men till the end of the PRL era, still regarded as enemies of the Communist system, though they were in their 70s and 80s. I’ve seen documents from 1984 when the SB [Security Service] worked out in detail contacts of the Wołkowysk regional leader because they couldn’t locate one lieutenant who was in hiding till the end of the PRL. Those people died under assumed names, their children use them. Those who survived first established contact with their families in 1989. In this way, the history of the Cursed Soldiers came to a symbolic closure.

One might imagine the majority of those in the wartime underground during German occupation not seeing much difference when judging the postwar situation in Poland, though some sought a place in the new reality, to the extent they were able and allowed to, while others remained in the forest. What was the decisive factor?

The demobilization of the Home Army on 19 January 1945 was dictated for political reasons, providing leaders and regular soldiers a chance to chose a future. It seems to me that in case of the command staff’s decision, first came a sense of responsibility for their people, especially after seeing the repressions leveled on their comrades in arms after Operation “Burza” [Storm, in 1944], when the underground took a chance revealing their identities.

Soldier’s grave during the Warsaw Uprising (public domain)

Let’s also take into account a psychological aspect. Let’s remember that for people who’ve experienced five years of war, this can result in psychological burnout. You notice this in the case of Scout companies from the Warsaw Uprising. Some then engage in the underground, but their activities have an ephemeral character. After 1945, they organize one unsuccessful operation: after the arrest of the Radosław Group, they try to take a Soviet general near Powsin, but for bearing arms and participating with the Home Army’s Kedyw headquarters, they suffer reprisals anyway.

Let’s add to that a very important aspect of growing hoplessness. That Germans would lose the war was obvious for everyone since 1943. Even in 1945 there is hope for a conflict between the ex-Allies, but by 1946 these chances are reduced. The falsified referendum on 30 June 1946, then the elections that follow, make people realize the West won’t lift a finger, that we’re under Soviet occupation and the Soviets are able to do anything they want.

Of what activities did the anti-Communist underground consist?

First, they run activities of propaganda. They informed society about what was really happening, which in light of the total Communist propaganda had a special meaning. In fact, each regional structure, at the level of counties, published a paper, such as the Orzeł Biały that WiN published in a few thousands copies. The scale of this activity was so broad that it was equaled only in the 1980s.

Second, they run armed activities. In large part, this was motivated by self-defense – a reaction to security-department activities. Even operations of greater impact, like overrunning prisons or camps, breaking into the office sites of security, had characteristics of self-defense. Freeing comarades in arms, attacking operational groups directing pacifications or militia posts – a great threat to the underground – and, ultimately, liquidating agents. Of course, this war at the local level had a very grim and cruel character. Agents were a threat to members of the underground as well as to their families and average people. These operations of liquidation were run by almost all postwar underground organizations, including WiN.

Of course, we’re dealing here with a fratricidal war. Let’s remember what provoked the divisions – that the Communist security demanded that fathers hand over their sons, mothers denounce their daughters and sisters denounces a brother.

Communist propaganda stated that we were faced with a civil war in Poland. This was meant to distort the truth about postwar reality. It meant accepting that Communists in postwar Poland were an legitimate political group that just had a different vision of Poland. In my opinion, it is a false statement. The Communists should be considered traitors to the idea of the independent Polish nation and what had happened in 1944-1945 was just the aggression of a foreign state that, unfortunately, had for a while been an ally of our enemy. The reaction to this aggression was the anti-Communist uprising. In this period, the Soviet factor is dominant, stabilizing the presence of the Communists in territory of present-day Poland.

June 1947. Polish ‘cursed soldiers’ of the anti-communist underground. Left to right: Henryk Wybranowski “Tarzan” (killed Nov. 1948), Edward Taraszkiewicz “Żelazny” (killed Oct. 1951), Mieczysław Małecki “Sokół” (killed Nov. 1947), and Stanisław Pakuła “Krzewina” (public domain)

For the first two and half years, the underground was a main problem for the Communist authorities. In some counties, Communist power ended out at the turnpike into town. What would have happened if this underground hadn’t existed? Would the collectivization of agriculture and the crackdown on the church have occurred a few years earlier? And would the final impact on Polish society be different? There is no answer to such questions, but it’s worth at least raising them. The underground was an emanation of independence efforts on the part of Polish society – in spite of the weariness of war and of repressions, society still held to these endeavors.

What was the aim of Communist operations against the underground?

To eliminate the enemy as quickly as possible, using all available means. In years 1944-1945 it was done by Soviet hands. Up to January 1945, from Polish territory under Communist rule around 50,000 people were deported to camps, and those numbers remain incomplete. The majority of them were people linked with the independence elements. The Home Army of the Lublin region lost around 10,000 members. For the Home Army in the Białystok region, it was around 4,000. We don’t know how many were killed and I doubt we’ll ever learn this precisely. Up to December 1944, in the northeastern territories of Poland – this is in the Polesie region, in Nowogródek, Wilno and in part in the Białystok voivodeship, in the counties of Grodno and Wołkowysk, around 3,000 Home Army soldiers are killed. These are huge numbers.

In 1945, there is a calm that lasts for a few months. Along with the advance of the front towards the West, the military is also left securing the NKVD’s rear areas. The Communist authorities think the underground was subdued and, that after 19 January 1945 and the demobilization of the Home Army, that people would go home. But they didn’t. What happens is a reaction, and in spring 1945, NKVD units return to Poland. That summer, there are already 30,000 people: three divisions. The most spectacular of their operations is a roundup in the Augustów Forest in July 1945, with the participation of units from the First Belarus Front brought back from Germany. The entire forest is surrounded, everyone who appears on the way is detained then simply murdered. Only in the 1980s did a committee searching for the victims arrive at the number of from 600 to up to 800 bodies, but there may have been up to 1,500. This pacification occurs also in the Grodno region. It is organized by Polish security forces, which are steadily increasing their combat readiness. They deploy – following the Soviet formula – their own army, the Corps of Internal Security, but this is not enough, also units of the Polish Army are also needed to take part in it. One of them, the First Tadeusz Kościuszko Division, participates in the roundup in Augustów Forest. The Westerplatte Heroes Brigade known from Czterej pancerni [the popular 1960s TV series] is pacifying the Podlasie region. In fighting with this brigade, in fact, Paweł Jasienica  (Lech Leon Bytnar, the distinguished historian) is wounded.

Later, as underground forces grow weaker, the security department gains power in its structures. At the beginning of the 1950s, there are around 320,000 officers and soldiers. The more the underground weakens, the stronger the department becomes… At the beginning of the 1950s, when according to the department’s estimate, underground forces number around 200 people in the entire nation, pacifications involving several thousand soldiers are being organized, in several counties at the same time. This is intended to break the back of local communities that remain resistant and aiding the underground. To this day, we don’t know the number of people who lost their lives as a result of those operations.

Are we not even able even to estimate this?

We know that in prisons in the first decade of communism around 21,000 people died and were murdered. If we subtract the number of criminals, these include 19,000 or 20,000 people repressed for political reasons. We also know that military courts passed death sentences on over 5,000 people, and to that we should add an indefinite number of people sentenced by regular courts.

This number remains indefinite?

I don’t know the number. Communist historians in the 1970s estimated the number of people who died during these pacifications at over 8,000. This seems substantially underestimated if we compare it with the results of our research related to the history of specific counties in the Mazovia voivodeship – even if we consider that those counties are not representative of all Poland – where the number of victims typically reaches several hundred people in each instance.

How strong was support for the underground among local civilians?

Underground forces are estimated, in their peak moment, that being 1945, at a maximum of 20,000 soldiers. This number goes successively down, but still in 1946 there are over 10,000 people in the forests. In my opinion, in 1945, there were 250,000 people in the underground, to which we have to add persons linked to the underground in indirect ways, who provided intelligence information, fed and accommodated them. If we take into account a fluctuations of staff, which menas that people were coming in and out, there may have been half a million people linked with the postwar underground.

Monument to the Cursed Soldiers in Rzeszów
(aut. Lowdown; CC BY-SA 3.0)

What’s your basis for such an estimate?

I base it on the supposition that a supply network for a unit numbering several dozen must have constituted a few hundred people. This was also the range of arrests accompanying the disintegration of units comprising several dozen people in the early 1950s.

Communist propaganda stated that in forests were representatives of the “owners’ class” who’d lost in the creation of the “People’s Republic.” Is this true?

The postwar underground is a peasants’ irridentism, it’s a vengeance war. The percentage of noble-class people, professional officers, free agents is slight. Some 90 percent of them are peasants and petty nobility, distinguished from the peasants only by origin, not by material status.

Author: Tomasz Wiścicki