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Warsaw Boy: A Memoir of a Wartime Childhood, by Andrew Borowiec, Viking, RRP£16.99, 384 pages
One of the many commemorations cluttering the calendar this year is the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, the Poles’ desperate two-month fight to wrest their capital from Nazi control. It might struggle for airtime in the UK but the event will be solemnly marked in Warsaw, a city that traditionally stops in silence for a minute at 5pm on August 1, the moment when the insurrection began.
This bitter urban campaign provides the centrepiece of Andrew Borowiec’s excellent memoir Warsaw Boy. Born in 1928 into a military family, the young Andrew – or Andrzej – grew up with a fascination for all things martial. By the time he joined the uprising as a tender 15-year-old, Borowiec had already experienced much; from the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, to life in the German-occupied west, to his induction into the clandestine work of the Polish underground, through which he came to participate in the fight for Warsaw.
His account of the uprising is hugely engaging. Armed with little more than his youthful enthusiasm for the fray, he traded his short trousers for a looted German battledress and joined a combat platoon. Charmingly, his first thought upon hurling a grenade in anger was that he would never be able to live back with his mother afterwards.
Nonetheless, he quickly found himself in the thick of the action, drawn into the elite Zoska Battalion, fighting in the rubble of the capital, crawling through sewers with his comrades and all the while waiting for Stalin’s Red Army – paused on the far bank of the river Vistula – to come to the city’s aid.
Finally overwhelmed after 63 days, the Polish soldiers trudged into German captivity, leaving behind as many as 200,000 civilian dead but thankful that they had at least been granted combatant status and would avoid the grim fate otherwise reserved for “partisans”. Injured by shrapnel, Borowiec ended his war as a labourer on a German farm. After a brief visit “home” to Soviet-occupied Poland, he was convinced to seek his future in the US, where he made a career as a journalist.
His view of the Warsaw uprising is – like that of some of his countrymen – rather mixed. Though he criticises some Polish operations during the campaign as “criminal folly”, lamenting that “taking on our enemies with little more than our bare hands is something of a Polish tradition”, he nonetheless gives short shrift to those who parroted the Muscovite line that the uprising was launched by a clique of irresponsible adventurers and dilettantes. Tellingly, perhaps, he dedicates the book to “all the Warsaw boys – especially the ones who never grew up”.
Borowiec has a good ear for the killer anecdote, whether it is arrest by the Gestapo or an amorous liaison with his French teacher. For all the horrors that he describes, his is an affectionate, wryly amusing account punctuated by episodes of warmth and humanity, including the author’s seemingly perennial efforts to be – as he put it – “relieved of his virginity”.
Unlike many wartime memoirists, he writes confidently about events beyond his own experience. Though the Polish capital is at its heart, Warsaw Boy touches on broader aspects of Poland’s wartime story, not least the still little-known Nazi-Soviet division of Poland that prevailed from 1939 to 1941, and the Soviet “liberation” that followed Germany’s defeat.
As such, the book is a highly readable and engaging first-hand account of the tribulations of a country for which Britain went to war in 1939, and about which most of us still know far too little.
Roger Moorhouse’s ‘The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin’ is published in the UK next month by Bodley Head