subscribe to our newsletter

Cursed Soldiers, a rural vengeance war

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

On 1 March 1951, following a show trial at 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 of Historical Research in Warsaw, and a researcher on the postwar anti-communist underground.

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

For obvious reasons, research before 1989 about Poland’s anti-communist underground was impossible, if we don’t count official stories about “skirmishes with outlaw bands”… Can we, after the passage of more than 20 years, say that any part of this history has been investigated at all?

In 1989, we did not start from zero in our knowledge of these “cursed soldiers,” but rather from less than zero. Over the previous 45 years, the stereotypes created by historians in the service of communist propaganda had convinced much of society that [these cursed soldiers were] “bandits,” or in the best case, a group which lacked an understanding of the historical shift following the Second World War. Such stereotypes were used against local communities in areas where the postwar guerillas enjoyed massive support and persisted for many years. The Communists in many cases managed to destroy those communities, especially their educated elite, constructing in their place a “socialist” society, where the bandits became the heroes and the heroes became the bandits.

There have been many individual publications citing source materials based on first person testimonies, but up to the current day there has been no monograph on any of the fundamental groups, such as the Armed Forces Delegation for Poland, the Association “Freedom and Independence” (WiN), the National Armed Forces (NSZ) or 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”) or many others. Despite publications about Józef Kuraś, codenamed “Ogień” [Fire], a complex investigation into the topic of the group that he led is still lacking.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there was never any investigation. The Atlas podziemia powojennego (Atlas of the Postwar Underground) contested popular stereotypes about the postwar underground as an ephemeral and limited undertaking. It revealed this movement to be an incredibly essential national phenomenon – one matched only in importance by the creation of Solidarity and its impact on Poland’s path to freedom in 1989. The several thousand people involved in this postwar conspiracy comprised the largest number of Poles involved in subversive activities from that era. Only Solidarity would engage a larger scope of involvement.

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, an obvious association with the scale of activities from the January Uprising of 1863 comes to mind. We’re dealing with a natural expression of the Polish insurrectionist, 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, and part of Wilno [all then laying within 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. Although 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 of the 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 the result of the experience of those who were caught up in the Soviet occupation in summer 1944. The 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 those who were linked to the underground in the spring of the following year.

There is a hypothesis that people reluctantly fled to the forests after the war, 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 had been part of 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 of regular members and above all the staff made a conscious decision to fight for independence – despite the extremely unfavorable geopolitical situation, and despite the growing consciousness that it was going to be a sacrificial undertaking. Despite there being no chance for an armed conflict between the West and the Soviets, they believed that 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 last resistor, Józef Franczak, codenamed “Lalka” [Doll], who perished 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 were rigged by the Communists many people despaired at seeing that everything they’d counted on, waiting for protests from the West to change the situation in Poland, had failed. It was clear that the Communist authorities were digging in for the long haul and were able to do anything and pay any price without consequence. This is why over 50,000 people decided during 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 remained about a thousand, and from 12,000 to 20,000 underground structures. They were systematically eliminated. I call 1948 “the year of the great hunting” – pacification in the realms of several voivodeships, liquidation of the final structures. The following year, many field commanders died, and local ones destroyed. After 1949, lone squads remain, established on the last territorial networks, islands as yet undiscovered by the security department until they were 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, aiming exclusively at staying alive, and single soldiers trying to hide. 1956 doesn’t bring any breakthrough moment. Finally, in 1963, it is the death of Józef “Lalka” Franczak, a 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 continued 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, which their children still use. 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 the German occupation would not see much difference when judging the postwar situation in Poland, though some sought a place in the new reality to the extent that 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 choose 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 on revealing their identities.

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

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

 

Let’s add to all of this a very important aspect of a growing hopelessness. That the Germans would lose the war was obvious to everyone since 1943. Even in 1945 there was hope for a conflict between the ex-Allies, but by 1946 these chances were reduced. The falsified referendum on 30 June 1946, then the elections that followed, made people realize the West wouldn’t lift a finger, that we would be under Soviet occupation and the Soviets would be able to do anything they wanted.

Of sort of activities did the anti-Communist underground carry out?

Firstly, they undertook propaganda-related activities. They informed Polish society about what was really going on, which in light of the overwhelming communist propaganda had a special importance. In fact, each regional structure, at the county level, published a paper, such as the Orzeł Biały that WiN published in a few thousand copies. The scale of this activity was so broad that it was equaled only in the 1980s.

Second, they carried out armed actions. In large part, this was motivated by self-defense – a reaction to the activities of the security-department. Even operations of greater impact, like overrunning prisons or camps, or breaking into security office sites, had an element of self-defense. Freeing comrades in arms, attacking operational groups directing the pacifications or militia posts – these were 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 liquidation operations were run by almost all postwar underground organizations, including WiN.

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

Communist propaganda stated that we were faced with a civil war in Poland. This was meant to distort the truth about the postwar reality. And it meant accepting that the Communists in postwar Poland were a legitimate political group that simply had a different vision of Poland. In my opinion, this is a false statement. The Communists should be considered traitors to the idea of an independent Polish nation and what had happened in 1944-1945 was simply another aggression by a foreign state that, unfortunately, had been an ally of our enemy for a time. 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 the 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 big problem for the Communist authorities. In some counties, Communist power only extended to the town border. 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 have been different? There is no answer to such questions, but it’s at least worth raising them. The underground was a sign of Polish society’s drive for independence – in spite of its weariness of war and of repressions, it still held firm to this fight.

What was the aim of Communist operations against the underground?

They wanted to eliminate the enemy as quickly as possible using all available means. From 1944 to 1945 operations were carried out by the Soviets. Up to January 1945, around 50,000 people were deported to camps from Polish territory under Communist rule; the numbers of these victims remain incomplete. The majority of them were people linked with independence factions. 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 any exact numbers. Up to December 1944, in the northeastern territories of Poland – in the Polesie region, in Nowogródek, Wilno and in part in the Białystok voivodeship, as well as in the counties of Grodno and Wołkowysk, around 3,000 Home Army soldiers were killed. These are huge numbers.

In 1945, there was a calm that lasted for a few months. Along with the advance of the front towards the West, the military was also left securing the NKVD’s rear. The communist authorities thought 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 happened was a reaction, and in spring 1945, NKVD units returned to Poland. That summer, there were already 30,000 people – three divisions. The most spectacular of their operations was 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 was surrounded, everyone who appeared there was detained and then simply murdered. Only in the 1980s did a committee searching for the victims arrive at an approximate number of 600 to 800 bodies, but there may have been up to 1,500. This pacification occurs also in the Grodno region. It was organized by the Polish security forces, which were steadily increasing their combat readiness. They deployed – following the Soviet formula – their own army, the Corps of Internal Security, but this was not enough, units of the Polish Army were also needed to take part. One of them, the First Tadeusz Kościuszko Division, participated in the roundup in Augustów Forest. The Westerplatte Heroes Brigade known from Czterej pancerni [the popular 1960s TV series] was pacifying the Podlasie region. In fighting with this brigade, in fact, Paweł Jasienica  (Lech Leon Bytnar, the distinguished historian) was wounded.

Later, as underground forces grew weaker, the security department grew commensurately stronger. At the beginning of the 1950s, there were around 320,000 officers and soldiers. The more the underground weakened, the stronger the department became… At the beginning of the 1950s, when according to the department’s estimate, the underground forces numbered around 200 people across the entire nation, pacifications involving several thousand soldiers were being organized in several counties at the same time. This was intended to break the back of local communities that remained resistant and supportive of 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 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 those 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 local civilians’ support for the underground?

Underground forces are estimated, at their peak in 1945, to have reached a maximum of 20,000 soldiers. This number goes successively down, but still in 1946 there were over 10,000 in the forests. In my opinion, there were 250,000 people in the underground in 1945, which would include persons linked to the underground in indirect ways, e.g. those who provided intelligence information, fed and accommodated them. If we take into account staff fluctuations, which means that people were coming and going, 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 those in the forests were representatives of the “owners’ class” who’d lost out in the creation of the “People’s Republic.” Is this true?

The postwar underground was a peasants’ irredentism, it was a vengeance war. The percentage of members of the aristocratic class, professional officers, and free agents is slight. Some 90 percent of these soldiers were peasants and petty nobility, distinguished from the peasants only by origin, not by material status.

Author: Tomasz Wiścicki