The Words of War

One man's incredible fight for truth and survival in the face of the authoritarian Nazi regime.

“In reality, Warsaw, with its embassies and theaters and museums, was a highly sophisticated and elegant city, and its inhabitants were often far more worldly than the young German soldiers sent there who had been brought up on a provincial diet of narrow-minded Nazi propaganda. Warsaw inhabitants lived in close-knit working-class communities, handsome villas or suburban flats; they loved their families and their neighborhoods and their churches, and they followed the latest fashions, theatre and films as keenly as their counterparts in any other European capital. The young German soldiers sent to arrest eighteen-year-old Wladyslaw Bartoszewski in April 1940, and send him on the second ever transport bound for Auschwitz, were astounded to find complete German editions of Goethe and Heinrich Heine on his bookshelves; it had not occurred to them that knowledge of German or French literature was commonplace amongst educated Poles. Despite the mass arrest of university professors in 1939 and the official ban on university education, hundreds of students clandestinely obtained degrees during the war, the courses being overseen by the underground Department of Education and Culture. Professors deported from the University of Poznan established a secret University of Western Lands in Warsaw, with 250 teachers and 2,000 students. Other scholars risked their lives to hold lectures in their flats: one student was sitting her final exams when the Gestapo burst in and arrested her teacher in front of her.”

What is memorable about this passage is how something we usually take for granted in everyday life is interrupted, even prohibited, and ultimately becomes something for which people risked their lives during World War II: educational opportunities, or the sheer pleasure of learning and bettering one’s self.

In my own education, I remember learning how to distinguish between totalitarian and authoritarian governments: an authoritarian government seeks to control all political and governmental operations within a society, but at least some social and economic arrangements were open for people to choose for themselves without governmental approval or control, while a totalitarian government seeks to control all aspects of the citizenry’s lives—political, economic, social, religious, cultural, and all other facets of life fall under the control of the state. The above passage from Alexandra Richie’s history of Warsaw in World War II not only shows the totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany through its desire to ban higher learning among the invaded Poles, but also highlights the incredible shortcomings and ignorance which results from any political system which seeks to control and limit human knowledge. The young German soldiers—erroneously taught that non-Aryan Germans were Untermensch, or subhumans—were shocked to see the works of literature on the bookshelf of a young 18-year-old Pole, probably about the same age as the soldiers themselves.

Even more interesting for students of history to consider is the lengths to which that same young Polish man, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, went to continue expanding his mind and education through the war years. Bartoszewski attended classes in secret in Warsaw throughout the war while working as a journalist with the AK (Polish resistance Home Army), documenting and reporting on Nazi crimes within Poland.

We know today where this path took him in life. Not only did his thirst for learning, knowledge, and establishing the truth about the Nazi occupation sustain him through the German occupation of his country, but it prepared him for arguably even greater trials that he faced after the war. The communist regime imposed by the Soviet Union on postwar Poland jailed Bartoszewski for his ties with the Home Army twice on false accusations of spying, for approximately 18 months from late 1946 to April 1948, and then again from 1949 to 1954. He was officially told that he had been wrongly convicted in 1955.

Bartoszewski then embarked upon a long career as a public intellectual, historian, and journalist. He received recognition for his efforts on behalf of Jews during the war as a member of the Righteous from the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel, traveled in Western Europe and the United States, taught modern history in a number of institutions, supported the Solidarity movement, and after the communist government fell served twice as Poland’s foreign minister. He worked tirelessly to mend and improve relations between Poland, Israel, and Germany. With a harmonious intent and an unconquerable spirit, he never stopped learning or promoting the history of what had happened amongst the peoples of those lands during World War II.

And as a matter of full disclosure, his son Wladyslaw Teofil followed in his footsteps regarding the pursuit of knowledge, studying at Oxford University where he earned his doctorate and also met his future wife while she was studying history there—Alexandra Richie.

“Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people,” wrote the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine in his play Almansor over 100 years before the young German soldiers in the above passage discovered that a young Pole, supposedly a lesser intellect and inferior man, also knew his works. A reader today is left to understand, as those soldiers did not—only if we actually open those books, and our own minds and spirits to reason and new ideas, will we be able to persevere, strengthen, and flourish in our lives as Wladyslaw Bartoszewski did.

This is the second of two posts on Dr. Richie's book Warsaw 1944:  Hitler, Himmler, and the Crushing of a City. See Part One.


“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
 – Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum


Keith Huxen

Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.    

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