Surviving Warsaw 1939–45 — Dr Marek Szablewski — 1st March 2021

Dr Marek Szablewski

What a fant­astic, emo­tion­ally charged talk by Marek about his family ori­gins in Warsaw during the Nazi occu­pa­tion of Poland!

Marek him­self grew up in Sheffield in the 1960s, leav­ing for Durham in 1992 for an aca­demic career in applied chem­istry and phys­ics.

Much of his talk centred on the war­time exper­i­ence of his father. Witold Szablewski, per­haps unusu­ally, spoke freely to Marek before his death in 2008. This was the cata­lyst for the award of a Winston Churchill Fellowship in 2011 to explore the family’s involve­ment during the occu­pa­tion in more detail. The aim was to ensure that the hor­rors of that time are never for­got­ten or diluted. In the words of Primo Levi, an Auschwitz sur­vivor, “It happened, there­fore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen every­where”.

Poland’s his­tory was almost oblit­er­ated during World War II. So Marek now spends a good deal of his time talk­ing about his family’s time in Warsaw during the Nazi occu­pa­tion to groups like ours and par­tic­u­larly school chil­dren.

Marek’s father, Witold Szablewski, was a tool maker, set­tling in Sheffield after the war

Witold Szablewski

and seen here cyc­ling with a friend in Warsaw before the Ghetto was estab­lished (fig 2)

A younger Witold Szablewski on the right

The build­ing in the back­ground is the only pre-war build­ing left in that street, a vivid example of the whole­sale anni­hil­a­tion of the city by the Nazis.

Witold Szablewski returned to the rebuilt city in 2004 as a hero in recog­ni­tion of his role in the Warsaw Uprising and in remem­brance of the thou­sands of Poles whose lives were lost.

Poland’s tur­bu­lent his­tory is also rep­res­en­ted by a series of maps of its ever-changing bor­ders from war­fare.

Reference: Norman Davies “God’s Playground Vol 1 Clarendon Press Oxford 1989

The absence of black (upper right) indic­ates loss of Poland’s sov­er­eignty in 1791–1807, 1874–1918, 1939–45 by Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary respect­ively.

Grandfather Stefan seen here upper cent­ral

was a printer and trade uni­on­ist, arres­ted by the Russian author­it­ies on mul­tiple occa­sions for organ­ising strikes, and spend­ing time in Tsarist pris­ons. He had a Russian wife and was con­scrip­ted into the Army. Captured by the Germans, he escaped from Lamsdorf (later StalagVIIIB) and fought in the Polish upris­ing which led to inde­pend­ence, by which time his Russian wife and child had dis­ap­peared. He filed for divorce.

He became a police­man, remar­ried and Marek’s father was born to his second wife, who died a few years later

His Grandfather’s reac­tion­ary beha­viour overtly tempered after he became a detect­ive. He then mar­ried a Jewess, and was work­ing at the Škoda fact­ory in the mid-1930s, prob­ably also under­cover when cor­rup­tion in the com­pany was rife, for instance, issu­ing false qual­ity cer­ti­fic­ates.

He then man­aged blocks of flats claim­ing that he lost his police job “because his wife was Jewish”.

Marek’s father, Witold, became an appren­tice tool maker in spe­cial­ist sur­gical equip­ment in the Ghetto. During the occu­pa­tion, the family house was exchanged to one out­side the Ghetto wall. He had to travel in and out every day to work but often car­ried money, obtained by selling con­tra­band, into the Ghetto.

Jews were expec­ted to walk in the gutter if a Nazi passed by, schools were shut, only a basic edu­ca­tion was avail­able, Jewish bank accounts were frozen, and Chopin was banned. Life was very dif­fi­cult and viol­ent. For instance a state­ment in a 1940 issue of Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi news­pa­per; “In Prague, big red posters were put up on which one could read that seven Czechs had been shot today….  if I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not be suf­fi­cient to man­u­fac­ture the paper”.

The Ghetto was large with an area of 1.5 square miles and 300,000 Jews within. Enclosure walls across tram tracks had “typhoid” notices to keep people out. It was com­pletely des­troyed by the Nazis at the end of the war as the Russians’ moved in.

This pic­ture shows Josef Blösche, the Warsaw SS-Rottenführer, (with the machine gun) round­ing up Jews during the Uprising. He was nick­named Frankenstein because of his cruelty and he was sub­sequently executed for war crimes.

Marek’s father, who was not car­ry­ing Jewish papers him­self, was sworn into the Resistance. As a keen pho­to­grapher, he recor­ded troop move­ments. At one point he was arres­ted by the Gestapo with a gun to his head but bluffed his way free and lying that he had no know­ledge of his Jewish mother’s where­abouts. On another occa­sion he was car­ry­ing a hidden mes­sage for the Leader of the Jewish Council, when the offices were raided by the Gestapo. He was lent a Star of David arm­band to evade cap­ture within the Ghetto.

Witold gave Stefan’s daughter’s (Russian) birth cer­ti­fic­ate to his Jewish wife, together with its Nazi tax stamps. She was then able to mas­quer­ade as his own daugh­ter as a non-Jewess.

With the help of a local his­tor­ian, after return­ing to Poland, Marek found the ruin of a gues­t­house run by Carmen Achmarańska, and where his Jewish step-grandmother had worked during the occu­pa­tion. It was a favour­ite Nazi water­ing hole. They deman­ded to stay the night. She evac­u­ated the guest house, and was accused of being Jewish, which she denied. She was to be taken to Warsaw 15km away but was shot in the head on the way. The locals were instruc­ted to leave her in the ditch as a warn­ing. She had saved so many lives. The ‘Carmencita’ guest house was burned down in the 1950s.

At the end of the occu­pa­tion in August-October 1944, after the Warsaw Uprising in which Witold took part, there was sys­tem­atic destruc­tion by the Nazis as the Russians moved in. No more than 1000 people remained in the ruins of the city, left hidden under rubble in cel­lars when the city was lib­er­ated by the Red Army in January of 1945.

During the Uprising, German pris­on­ers were extrac­ted from the cel­lars of the tele­phone exchange in Warsaw. According to Marek’s father, women miners dug their way into the build­ing to allow the res­ist­ance fight­ers access, as they were smal­ler and could gain access more easily. His father was heav­ily involved in the Uprising which res­ul­ted in 250000 deaths. The Nazis plundered much art work and other valu­ables, scorch­ing the city before the Red Army moved in. It has now been beau­ti­fully restored to its ori­ginal state in the old town.

At the end of the Uprising, Witold was taken pris­oner and trans­ferred to Germany as a POW, like his Father in Lamsdorf.  His par­ents and half-sister were taken to Berlin as slave labour­ers for the build­ing of Berlin’s Templehof air­port. He came to Hardwick Hall after the war and was employed at Gilbow Tools, Bridge Street Sheffield, and then at W.Tyzack Sons and Turner Ltd of Little London Road in Heeley.

Further recom­men­ded read­ing and pod­cast:

9780131719187: Conversations with an Executioner …

East West Street by Philippe Sands | Waterstones

Marek’s report for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust:

Marek’s recent pod­cast for Holocaust Memorial Day: