In 1944, the Polish underground resistance - called the Home Army - launched an audacious rebellion against the Nazis known as the Warsaw Uprising. Stefan Bałuk, 97, was there. After the war, he was betrayed by the city he risked his life to free. (more photos below)
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Silent and Unseen
At the start of the war, Bałuk followed the Polish Army around Europe, eventually to the UK. There, he was recruited to the so-called Cichociemni, literally "quiet and dark" agents. After parachuting back into occupied Poland, Stefan worked on document forgery, used to make resistance fighters seem legitimate to Nazi police.
The Warsaw Uprising began in earnest on 1 August 1944. For a flavour of the time, take a look at this propaganda newsreel produced in the UK by the Polish government in exile, called Tale of a City:
One problem at the start was communication. Fighters in one part of the city lacked the proper radio crystals to communicate with commanders in another. Someone needed to get the right crystals across heavily-guarded train tracks.
It was a dangerous mission, and Stefan Bałuk’s company volunteered. By luck, they managed to get across. But getting back was another issue. The only option, according to Stefan, was the sewers.
The sewers became the main weapon in the Home Army’s arsenal. They used the tunnels to wage guerrilla warfare out of the manholes.
But it wasn’t glamorous - often, it meant walking through excrement, sometimes neck-high. Here’s how Bałuk describes moving through the sewers:
"The tunnels were egg-shaped, wide at the bottom, narrower at the top. We used to move around using what we called "the bunny method." To crawl through a tunnel, we’d use these special rods about 60 centimeters wide. I’d move the rod forward, cram it against the sides, and then pull myself up and forward. Imagine going one and a half kilometers through one of these sewers … it’d take 4 hours."
Ultimately, the Uprising failed. Stefan and the rest of the city were marched off to camps. On his way to Germany, Stefan escaped. They were picked up a few days later by Soviet troops and shuttled back to Warsaw.
One of his superiors, arrested by the communists, gave in to their demands and talked. Stefan and hundreds of Home Army soldiers were arrested, beaten, and subjected to show trials as enemies of the People’s Republic of Poland.
Stefan was tortured, especially when his captors learned that he had lived in the UK. He was sentenced to prison, and granted amnesty in 1947. Warsaw, the city of his birth, the city he had dreamed of freeing, had imprisoned him.
After being released, Stefan kept his past to himself. He was visited every few months by the secret police, often arrested and interrogated about his supposed attempts to subvert the government.
It wasn’t until 1971, when some friends managed to get him work as a photographer, that Bałuk says he finally began to feel like he was living again. That’s 24 years after he was released from prison.
After the fall of communism in 1989, surviving members of the Home Army were celebrated as heroes. Bałuk was awarded the rank of General. But the word "hero" doesn’t sit well with him.
"The word hero is so overused. I don't like it. My personal satisfaction is that I did something good for the country. I'm finished with the word hero."
Throughout the war, Bałuk says, he was just a soldier doing what he was told.
Now, Stefan says his grandchildren are the first generation to care about his life.
"They ask me, what was the war like? What did you do during the war? They ask these questions whenever they visit, usually sitting by the fireplace."
Stefan Bałuk has seen dramatic battles for freedom and painful, ironic betrayals. He’s also been lucky: many times, his life was saved by mere chance. But he’s also lucky merely to have lived long enough, long enough to see Warsaw free and prosperous, long enough to answer the questions of an appreciative generation, for whom war is a distant nightmare.
Stefan Baluk's book is 'Silent and Unseen: I was a Polish WWII special ops commando', published by Askon (Polish language). For more information, .