story of the soldiers of the Polish Home Army (AK) who fought in
the Warsaw Uprising in August and September 1944 did not end
with the capitulation of 2nd October of that year.
Instead what ensued was a new episode in their lives in the POW
camps dispersed throughout the territories of the Third Reich.
the Warsaw Uprising lasted, the fate of insurgents captured by
the enemy varied. In its very first weeks those captured were
treated as plain ‘bandits’ and, if not immediately shot in
Warsaw, they were either deported to concentration camps or to
the German interior to do forced labour.
the London based Polish Government-in-Exile’s determined
interventions did affect the terms and conditions of the act of
capitulation, which acknowledged combatant rights to the men and
women who had fought in the Uprising. This meant that the
insurgents had prisoner-of-war status and were therefore
interned in German Stalags or Oflags. Supervision
of these prisoners lay exclusively in the competence of the
German armed forces called the Wehrmacht. The
capitulation document granted equal rights to both male and
female prisoners. This was the first case in history where women
found themselves behind the barbed wire of a POW camp.
start of the Uprising, on 1st August 1944, there were
approximately 5,000 women in the Warsaw AK. They had the same
rights and duties as the men. They took part in all of the AK’s
activities: in the administrative and logistic services, as
nurses or couriers, in sabotage as well as in the spreading of
information and propaganda. If caught by the Germans, they could
expect the same fate as their brothers in arms: the firing
squad, prison or the concentration camp.
insurgents started leaving Warsaw on 5th October.
They had to march approximately twenty kilometres to one of two
transit camps, either in Pruszków or in Ożarów. The
wounded and other patients of Polish resistance hospitals were
taken to the Western Railway Station (Dworzec Zachodni) and
loaded onto trains bound for a hospital and POW camp at Zeitheim
– this transport included 586 women. Another transport of
wounded prisoners, including 445 women, departed from Pruszków
to Stalag XI A at Altengrabow and Gross-Lübars.
transports from Ożarów headed in various directions:
IV B in Mühlberg and thence to its sub-camp in Altenburg, while
382 women officers and 38 privates were sent to Oflag IX
C in Molsdorf.
December 1944 the Germans started to send women prisoners from
the Polish Home Army to Penal Camp (Strafflager) VI C in
hardship shared by all the women POWs were the deplorable living
conditions at the various camps. The German authorities were
simply not prepared to take in a couple of thousand women with
special prisoner-of-war status. The male prisoners were sent to
camps that had been functioning since 1939 and were
automatically put under the care of the International Red Cross.
The women, on the other hand, were kept in overcrowded barracks
separated from the main POW camps by barbed wire. In these
cramped conditions, cold, frequently hungry, and lacking even
the most basic sanitary facilities, these women had to endure
the severe winter of 1944-1945. Yet they resisted persistent
threats and coercion to renounce their prisoner-of-war status
and become civilians, for according to the Geneva Convention of
1929, as captured combatants, they could not be forced to work
in support of the Third Reich’s war effort.
individual Stalags social life among the prisoners was
quickly organised by women officers who had been specially
selected before the deportations to conceal their ranks so that
they could remain with the soldiers under their command. Their
objective was to look after the youngest women prisoners,
maintain discipline and help their subordinates adapt to the
completely new conditions behind barbed wires.
those interned there were women with higher education,
polyglots, artists as well as other activists in culture and
education. Thus series of lectures, discussions and various
other cultural events were organised in order to liven up the
intellect and avoid psychological breakdowns.
December 1944 the Germans started sending AK women prisoners to Strafflager
(Penal Camp) VI C in Oberlangen. 5,000 women took part in the
Warsaw Uprising, 3,000 of them were interned as POWs and 1,721
of these ended up in Oberlangen.
camp had already had a dark history. Situated in the marshy
Emsland area of northwest Germany, it had been one of the many
concentration camps set up in the years 1933-1938 to hold
opponents of the Nazi regime. After the outbreak of World War II
the camp was taken over by the Wehrmacht and began to
hold POWs from the occupied countries of Europe. The harsh
climate, slave labour, hunger and disease turned the camp into a
place of death.
October 1944 Oberlangen Strafflager VI C was struck off
the POW camp register on account of totally inadequate living
conditions. Therefore the International Red Cross in Geneva was
unaware of the fact that women POWs were later to be interned
Germans continued to regard the Oberlangen facility as a penal
camp and started to send women members of the AK there as a
punishment for being obdurate rebels who had refused work as
civilians in the German war industry.
conditions in which we had to endure the winter of 1944-1945
were very difficult: two hundred prisoners in each rotten wooden
barrack, draughty doors and windows (some lacking windowpanes),
three-tier bunks, thin palliasses and only two cast-iron stoves
burning damp peat that produced more smoke than heat. In one
barrack there was a row of metal troughs with taps from which
water, when there was any, barely trickled, and behind it two
rudimentary latrines, all of which amounted to the camp’s
entire sanitary facilities. Eight barracks were designated for
the healthy inmates, while at the front of the camp there was a
hospital barrack, the camp kitchen, a sewing workshop, a
bathhouse and a delousing station – of which I do not remember
the last two ever functioning. One barrack was used as a chapel,
while two more were left empty. These we exploited as an extra
supply of fuel: we took out planks from the bunks, pulled up
floorboards and even removed door and window frames until the
camp authorities started imposing severe penalties for
destroying government property.
food was the same as in other camps: in the mornings and
evenings a tepid herbal tea, frequently mouldy bread, the
occasional piece of margarine or a spoonful of beetroot
marmalade. At midday we would receive soup from bitter cabbage
or grubby peas with two or three jacket potatoes.
final stages of the war had a disastrous effect on supplies. Red
Cross parcels from previous camps arrived in only very small
quantities, if they were not stolen by the Germans or spitefully
held at Lathen Railway Station some 12 km away. Meanwhile the
Red Cross in Geneva remained oblivious to the fact that the camp
had been reactivated.
the difficult conditions, the Polish organization within the
camp functioned effectively and efficiently. Having already
experienced life in other POW camps, the women at Oberlangen
continued to maintain their own command structure and army
camp authorities refused to recognize Irena ‘Jaga’ Milewska
as camp commandant, but on account of the fact that she had been
appointed by the commander of the Women’s Military Service,
Major Maria Wittek, on 3rd October 1944, she was
assigned to the post of camp delegate and thus held some sway
with the Germans.
German command at the camp comprised four men: SS Colonel
Miller, who was soon replaced by Captain Mehler; the
quartermaster Lieutenant Treiber (a vulgar and spiteful man who
was on very bad terms with the Polish women); Company Sergeant
Majchrzak and Corporal Zwieklick (called by us Świetlik –
the Polish word for glow worm). There were also three German
women of undisclosed posts who would carry out surprise
inspections and searches. There were 80 guards in all keeping
watch on the camp.
Polish organisation within the camp was managed with an iron
hand by ‘Jaga’. Maintaining discipline among 1,721 women
aged from 14 to 60, of various social backgrounds and very
different levels of education required not only determination
but also a good understanding of human nature. ‘Jaga’
selected a competent staff to help her carry out this difficult
task. The commanders of individual companies (one company
equalled one barrack) concealed their officer rank so as to be
able to look after all the internees. This was vital,
particularly with regard to underage prisoners and to those who
had nervous breakdowns – among us there were victims of the
so-called barbed-wire syndrome.
key to getting on with one another in Oberlangen was not only a
matter of discipline but also of solidarity and camaraderie. In
January 1945, when the first ten children were due to be born,
for there were women who had become pregnant before leaving
Warsaw, ‘Commandant Jaga’ announced at roll call: ‘A baby
is to be born, and it will be naked because its mother has
nothing.’ These words were enough: every woman who had
anything to spare – a piece of bed linen, a handkerchief, a
blouse or an undergarment – would undo the stitches, cut, sew
and wash. So many bonnets, baby gowns and nappies were made for
the first child that there was also enough for those who were
born later. Cartons from Red Cross parcels were converted into
day work squads (Kommandos) would leave the camp to carry
out compulsory chores: to the forest to gather firewood, to the
peat bogs to collect peat and to the fields to deposit the
contents of the camp latrines. Our free time was spent on
cultural activities, general education and military instruction.
were women of many talents among us, and as far as possible they
tried to teach others some of their skills. As in previous camps
we also organised lectures, group discussions and artistic
activities. With the help of a penknife that had somehow
remained concealed during the many searches or a nail pulled out
of a bunk, simple objects such as, tin cans, a piece of cloth or
some straw were transformed into refined cups, ornamental
gorgets or pictures.
practice in the camp was hampered by the lack of a priest. After
persistent appeals, the Germans agreed to allow the chaplain of
a nearby POW camp for Italians to occasionally say Mass at
Oberlangen. However, the priest was unable to hear confessions
or give spiritual advice. Therefore Lt ‘Zbigniewa’ and
qualified nurse ‘Maryla’ requested the Italian cleric to
permit them to take vows that would entitle them to hear
confessions. On the initiative of these two women, a ‘questions
box’ was set up so that prisoners could anonymously air their
most serious personal problems without suffering the humiliation
of being identified. The objective was to protect inmates from
psychological trauma that could drive them to trying to commit
suicide, for such cases had already occurred in Oberlangen. The
idea proved to be popular with the prisoners.
the coming of spring the Germans stepped up their efforts to win
us over. One day a man arrived who the camp authorities
introduced to us as Hitler’s personal friend. For three days
he tried to convince our Polish commander of Germany’s good
intentions towards Poland and to us in particular. He wanted us
to form a women’s legion that would fight against the Red
Army. Our authorities advised this man to first gain permission
from the Home Army Commander-in-Chief, General Bór-Komorowski,
who was still being held in the Reich as a prisoner-of-war.
time after the ineffective visit of the Füehrer’s friend a
group of German officers arrived to try to persuade our command
to testify that we had been treated in accordance with the
Geneva Convention. The group was headed by the commanding
officer of all the POW camps in the region, who tried to
persuade our commanders to withdraw a report, due to be sent to
Geneva, on the offensive way in which Lt Treiber had treated our
Commandant ‘Jaga’. On that occasion he told her ‘I spit on
the Geneva Convention’ and then fired in her direction –
fortunately he missed.
increasing number of visitors was a sign that the end of the war
and Germany’s defeat were fast approaching.
18.00 hrs on 12th April 1945 the Oberlangen camp was
liberated by soldiers of General Maczek’s 1st
Armoured Division. The immense joy of being liberated by a
Polish force was to last for weeks, but at the time the war was
still on and we would have to wait another month before the
women soldiers of the Polish Home Army and former POWs in the
Third Reich could start the next chapter in their lives.