In honor of Mother’s Day 2020, here’s a chapter on Mom’s service in the Polish Home Army during World War II.
Bisia was officially sworn into the Polish Home Army at age 20, not long after its formation in February 1942. Her qualifications were that she knew the area well around her family’s estate in southeast Poland, was fast – both on horseback and bicycle – spoke fluent German, and had a taste for adventure, developed after being the youngest in her family, and always struggling to gain respect. But it was that same youth and gender that also afforded her a degree of latitude in dealing with the Germans who dismissed her presence in areas where soldiers gathered.
She served mostly as a courier as the underground forces in occupied Poland were utilized for reconnaissance and sabotage. Sometimes messages would be sent by word of mouth as someone would stop on a pretext of other business and deliver orders in a quick, private exchange. Other times orders would come via a brief telephone call. One day in the summer of `43, Bisia received such a call telling her to go to the nearby town of Sanok with a horse and wagon, to a smith shop where she was instructed to see a man.
“You will be told what to do once you are there,” said her contact. “But bring a pistol with you.”
Pistols were only carried when there was a need to use one, even if only to avoid capture. So she knew immediately that this would not be an ordinary mission.
The man Bisia met in Sanok was a blacksmith, a patriotic Pole whose real name she never knew, only his underground identity, “Oak”. It was a fitting description of a man who worked the bellows. He had a broad face and dark eyes and on either side of his leather apron hung arms the size of boughs, made even broader by the blackened soot of the fire. He constructed metal rims for wheels and carriages, sleds, hoes, plowshares, axes, and the like.
Upon her arrival at the blacksmith shop, she exchanged identifying words. Then, the man told her that she was to pick up and deliver a captured German machine gun to their Home Army unit in the forest.
“Spread straw in the back of the wagon,” he said as he wrapped the machine gun in a blanket. “That is the best we can do to conceal it.”
The blacksmith had dismantled the gun, cleaned, and reassembled it. It would be Bisia’s job to deliver it.
She wore a windbreaker and in her left breast pocket, she carried her identification papers and the pistol. Since she was operating in her home territory, she knew that if she were caught the rest of her family would be in danger as well, because in your home territory you used your real name. Only when operating outside the region did you employ your false identification. Bisia’s underground name was Barbara or Basia. This, again, was meant to protect the movement so that if you were captured you could not be forced to reveal the names of your compatriots.
Since many in the aristocracy served in the underground, Bisia knew many of them from before the war. But there were others she knew only as “Kruczek” for instance, which meant “Crow”. Never was the last name given. Other pseudonyms came from Polish literature. Her brother Jas was called Jan Kowalski within the underground, and he had recently been transferred, departing before she had a chance to say goodbye. It was feared that the Gestapo may be looking for him, because one of the men in his cell had been arrested, and they were never sure when news came that someone had been arrested and put under torture, whether other names would be given. So as a precaution people in that person’s underground cell would be moved for their own protection.
It was later than she would have liked when she set off from the blacksmith shop in Sanok, but there wasn’t any choice in the matter. The machine gun had to be transported to the forest. The longer it stayed in the city, the greater the chance for discovery.
Police hour was approaching. So by early evening, everyone made sure to be near home so as not to be stopped. The Germans were quick to action and short on listening when they discovered anyone out of place. They also employed a system where they would occasionally close a road and search whatever came through. Then that same road might be open for weeks at a time. But, of course, you never knew when it would be open or closed.
Rolling out into the countryside beyond Sanok, Bisia hugged the right shoulder of the narrow country road. Before long the clip-clop of the hooves lulled her into the hope that this assignment would pass as easily as the older woman she saw with a long switch tending her two cows on their slow walk home.
Cresting a small rise Bisa could see quite a distance ahead as the sun cast a bronzing light on the fields and trees along the road. But then, up ahead she could make out a guard post manned by three German soldiers. Roadblock!
Her heart began to race. There was still a ways to go before she reached the forest, but along both sides of the road where she was sway-backed fields stood open for hundreds of meters. There was no place to turn that wouldn’t arouse suspicion, because by now the Germans had seen her wagon, too. She had to decide what to do quickly.
As she approached it was going through her mind the possibilities before her. If they found the machine gun, she would immediately be arrested, then likely shot, putting her family in jeopardy, too. But if she began to shoot first, well, that was pushing it pretty far, she felt. Coming closer a chill ran up her arms. She took many deep breaths trying to remain calm.
“Halt,” ordered the German on the left of the road as she approached. “Let me see your papers.”
Bisia had her identification papers in the same left inside breast pocket that also contained her pistol. She reined the horse, and now her decision. What to take out?
I tied the reigns to the brake pole, then patted my chest, pretending I didn’t even know which pocket held my papers. He looked down beneath the cart. Then once more back at me.
“Come on. Come on, hurry up,” he snapped, extending his hand stiffly.
She reached her right hand across into the left inside breast pocket and felt the butt of the pistol. Hoping it didn’t bulge, she removed her kennkarte, the Third Reich’s basic civilian identity document.
She handed down her papers while re-zipping her jacket halfway, wanting access to the pistol just in the case, determined that only if they began a concerted search would she shoot.
There were two soldiers on the right side also carrying rifles. The soldier on the left paged through her papers while another on the right went around to the back of the wagon. Bisia coughed into her hand to have it in a position to go for her gun.
“There can’t be much traffic this time of the evening,” she said off-handedly.
The man inspecting her papers simply looked up without moving his head. In back, the soldier crouched down to look beneath the cart, then, pointing with his weapon and asked, “And what do you have under the straw?”
If I had any advantage, it was that I thought the Germans were predictable. I felt I had a leeway to maneuver with them. I had grown up speaking German and had worked around them for the last few years gathering information successfully. With Russians, I was surrounded by a mentality I did not understand, and in that sense, I was always more frightened of them. But with Germans, I was more familiar. But if I ever needed such a leeway, now was the time.
“What do you have under the hay?” he asked again, jabbing his rifle barrel near.
Bisia laughed, and said, “Surely, a machine gun, what else?”
The three Germans exchanged a look. Then the soldier holding her kennkarte broke out in laughter. “Oh, the young countess has a machine gun,” he said as the other two joined. “We’d better be careful.”
Bisia began to laugh with them, but her stomach remained trapped halfway to her throat.
Only when the soldier in back lowered his rifle and walked back to the front still laughing did Bisia know she had won her bet.
“You asked me and I am telling you,” she continued, playing up the joke.
Promptly, the soldier holding her kennkarte handed it backed, and asked if she would like a drink.
“Yavol,” she responded, securing the reigns more tightly to the brake and stepping down. So this was the bluff, and she had no choice now but to carry it out fully. So she got from their canteen some kind of horrible booze, and they drank.
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“Yavol. Cigarettes are in short supply.”
As they smoked they talked for a while longer. Typical stupid small talk, turning into one of those semi-flirting situations, keeping everything as light as possible. She was acting as casually as she could but was also afraid she would somehow give herself away with a false moment.
“All right, I have to get going now,” she finally said, “because police hour is coming and I have to be home or you will arrest me again.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t do that,” they said. “But you have to promise you’ll come by again to visit.”
With that, they lifted the gate. Her fear, the energy of it, had turned. She had them. They could never see beyond the fact that she was young and pretty.
I felt almost giddy, but these soldiers took it as a compliment to their company. And I went merrily to the forest to deliver my machine gun. I was nervous until the very end, but I knew I had them.
For this action, Bisia received the Polish Cross of Valor. The citation read: “For unusual bravery in action during the years of the Hitler terror in Poland. For your service to your homeland.”
Needless to say, we kids toed the line pretty tight in our household growing up. That Pop had spent four months in German prison camps during his own service in the U.S. Army before meeting and marrying Mom in a 10-day courtship near the end of the war didn’t offer us an easy out either. They stayed together for 64 years. We lost Mom on April 20, 2009. Pop passed exactly ten years ago today on May 10, 2010. Their memory remains etched deeply in our hearts, especially today on Mother’s Day.