The politicalisation of many historical events in recent years has contributed to the polarisation of society. For those whose actions are often used as propaganda, the co-opting of their movements takes away from the bravery they displayed in harrowing circumstances.
It was a velveteen rose which took centre-stage for one man on 1st August.
Laced with red and white ribbons and residing quietly in the hand of Uprising Survivor 96-year-old Bohdan Dembiński, this small flower was a far cry from some of the other ceremonies to mark 75 years since the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising which took place the same day.
Predominantly in Warsaw, but also across Poland, services to commemorate the 63-day resistance by the Home Army against Nazi Germany occur every year – but the country felt particularly electric on this anniversary. Parades and ceremonies throughout the week culminated in the entire city of Warsaw stopping in its tracks at 5pm – or ‘Godzina W’ – to mark the exact outbreak of the rising. Crowds mainly accumulate in the centre around the Palace of Culture, the air thick with smoke and chanting.
For the last four years, Dembiński has flown back to Poland to take part in the veteran side to these commemorations, which now involve survivors and their families from across the world. He says that he fought for this particular future:
‘We were doing it not only for our lives, but for the lives of our friends, families – for everything,’ he explained.
His story, which began from the outbreak of war, wove its way between the gentle, bittersweet whispers of Chopin carrying like silvery feathers from loudspeakers across the cemetery. Treading past us, through the gates and into the thick fog of smoke and people which drifted at intervals across the paths, uniformed soldiers and children, bearing red and white roses swaddled in their arms like babies, flowed ceaselessly in swathes of green and grey, blue and red. Beyond them, on the very skirts of the cemetery, clusters of Polish flags for sale by the side of the road licked the air in spurts of red and white. So too did the edges of the ribbons on that frail rose, which Dembiński tenderly fingered throughout our interview.
As the Polish summer days gradually tumble towards the 1st August, many such stalls pop up across the city centre, stuck fast to the tourist trail from the Saxon Gardens to the Old Town, selling flags, T-shirts, pins, armbands, and all manner of Uprising-esque apparel.
Five years ago, for the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Uprising, one of the ten insurgents’ values the younger generation promised to uphold was tolerance. This year, the central square in Warsaw, just in front of the Palace of Culture and Science, was full to bursting with a chanting tempest of their slightly-older classmates, waving the purchases from these stalls. It bore more resemblance to a political rally than sombre remembrance.
The potential for politicising the Uprising remains a questionable topic in Poland today. Some have argued that even the ambitious Warsaw Uprising Museum, established in 2004 to tie in with the 60th anniversary of the Uprising, is a case in point. In a visceral reconstruction of the events of summer 1944, visitors are taken on an interactive journey through the Uprising itself, punctuated by the sound of exploding bombs and rattling gunfire. Phones can be answered, free reproductions of Uprising posters collected.
One can even have a rest break for cake in a 1940s-style café.
Though comprehensive, and certainly positive in terms of raising awareness, questions remain whether the Museum goes far enough to truly commemorate the true sacrifices of the insurgents – or whether it allows for debate around the topic of the Uprising itself.
Last year, the Kordegarda Gallery hosted another immersive Uprising exhibition, which translated the events into virtual reality. This was based around a real story of Uprising survivor Władysław Sieroszewski, and the Gallery did include displays of primary material around his experiences.
Yet some Poles refused to visit – the exhibit would be too emotional, they said. Or too recreational – in both senses of the word.
Every year, the days up to the 1st August also mark an exodus of some Varsovians from the city; people who turn down engagement in activities they now consider too politicised. Polish media outlets on the day were churning out articles on the lack of German atonement for war crimes and the fight to seek reparations, an issue which has rumbled on for many years in the country – and which many felt was too political an issue for a day of remembrance. Even in the safety of the home, Polish state children’s television broadcast a spirited, pop music-esque video under the name, ‘I’m Going to Fight, Mum’, depicting a young boy dressing in Uprising-era clothes to fight for ‘country and honour’.
Spirited, that is, until the boy dies at the end.
Of course, the Little Insurgent statue on the cusp of Warsaw’s Old Town is testament to the bravery of younger Uprising fighters, and their sacrifice for the Polish nation. But it is, fundamentally, a statue – a place of remembrance and commemoration. On 1st August, parading past it in their hundreds, clad in their plasticey, mass-produced AK or ‘Kotwica’ armbands, come flurries of the children of today. Politicising history allows for this blurring together – for however well-meant a reason – of past and present; past sacrifice and present emulation. Pride is one thing, but the reasons behind the Uprising in the past may well have altered in the present.
I asked Dembiński what his reason for fighting had been.
‘If I pinch you,’ he said, raising one papery arm, coated in a Batalion Odwet AK armband, from his rose and gesturing towards me, ‘you will ask the same question.’
It was a universal response – and one quite literally hands-on, belying the slivers of that pre-war intelligentsia elegance still visible in Dembiński’s personality. He was only 16 when war broke out, and his priority remained his education. But following years of degradation, he was persuaded to change his mind.
‘We were treated by the Germans as guilty’, he explains, his soft voice cracking with pain.
‘Once, I was standing in a queue to get a little bit of bread, and I wasn’t precisely in the place I should have been.’
‘A German soldier came over to me and hit me in my face.’
‘Why should he hit me?’ he asked, ‘just because I was one step away?’
When his brothers encouraged him to fight for his nation, he trained undercover in Warsaw, within the ramparts of a resistance swathed in so much secrecy that he was unaware that his brothers were active members of the underground.
And though he might already be a living, breathing bastion of the Polish capital, with a connection which courses ceaselessly through those translucent veins, his connection to the Uprising goes even further than that. His home, Ulica Filtrowa 68 – where Michael’s cousin, and Bohdan’s niece, still lives – ended up being the location at which the uprising was declared.
‘We were ready for it,’ he says bluntly.
But it seemed that preparations were lagging behind – in the first hours of the Uprising, Dembiński found himself in a room of 20 soldiers waiting for armour and supplies, which never arrived.
Ultimately, the choice was made to steal weapons and for the group to make their way back into the city centre. In another twist of fate, his journey back ended up taking him through his now-unoccupied secondary school from 1935 to 1937, on Ulica Śniadeckich.
I asked him what he thought about being back there. He paused.
Dembiński went on to survive the Uprising, but ended up being sent to a POW camp in Germany. After liberation, which he moved permanently to the west, returning for the first time since the war to his pre-war apartment – the home of so much history for him and for Poland – only after around 20 years had passed. On day one of this year’s visit, and despite his age, Dembiński even refused to relinquish control of his wheelchair, pushing it himself over a kilometre across the Polish capital to take in the sights of a city now completely new to him. When I saw him, he had returned to being shepherded by his son Michael in his wheelchair, who has been writing up reports of each day on his blog, W-Wa Jeziorki.
Only his soft voice betrayed his age – but then, this could have just been the emotion of the day. In his rheumy, ice-blue eyes, brimming with emotion, were sharp memories; so sharp that the Uprising could have happened that very day.
The problem is, it didn’t.
Michael thinks the real commemoration of the revolt began in the evening, after a near 12-hour schedule of events, as generations of Uprising survivors and their families collected under candlelight in camaraderie and affection. Away from the crowds, there was ‘no politics, no ideology,’ says Michael, so clearly his father’s child.
‘Just warm, genuine togetherness.’
The pair also spent ‘Godzina W’ at the cemetery, with Dembiński first participating in a military guard of honour at the Batalion Odwet memorial. Of the nine survivors from the battalion there on the 1st August in 2017, there were a mere six last year. Only four were there this year. And there was another guest there too: tenderly balanced in a cascade of red and white ribbons to the back of his wheelchair, Dembiński’s rose remained with him.
Later, as I finished my returning journey from the cemetery through the depleting crowds in the city centre, I saw that Dembiński had quietly bent down on quivering knees to place this fragile rose at the grave of his younger brother Józef, who had died in the Uprising in 1944, aged 19.
Beneath my feet; beneath the Polish flag in front of me, waved vivaciously by a young Boy Scout balanced on the side of a wagon; beneath the eyes of three solitary workmen, in varying hues of high-viz, straddling the zigzagging edges of the Rotunda, discarded flares the same colour as that rose littered the streets. Beneath that was the rubble, and the blood of those who had sacrificed so much, and the grit and determination to keep its flame alive.
“You’re a hero – but I’m sure you’ve been told that already,” I had whispered to Dembiński as I got up to leave. He grinned.
‘Everybody would do the same.’
Warsaw is in Dembiński’s soul – and Dembiński is in the city’s. Even after everything has been swept away and Warsaw returns to its daily schedule, this heroism – quiet, unassuming – should never be forgotten.
There may be thorns beneath this rose of commemoration – let us hope that the correct one is cultivated in the future.
*This article was amended on 6.8.19 to correct Bohdan Dembiński’s age when the war broke out and the relationship to the relative living in Ulica Filtrowa 68.