Maria Mostowska was a young pediatric nurse when the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi Germans occupying Poland broke out on August 1, 1944.
Seventy-five years on, she still vividly remembers how German troops put her against a wall and aimed a machine gun. She recalled how quickly the hospital filled with wounded resistance fighters and civilians, and how the Nazis destroyed the capital city.
“We worked round the clock dressing wounds, we did not leave the surgery,” Mostowska told The Associated Press.
Some 50,000 fighters of Poland’s clandestine Home Army — most of them poorly armed — fought the Germans for 63 days before surrendering, in the biggest single act of resistance in occupied Europe during World War II. Some 18,000 insurgents were killed and another 25,000 were injured.
On Thursday, Warsaw honored the failed uprising, which had been a taboo topic during four decades of communist rule imposed on Poland after the war.
Wreath-laying ceremonies by state leaders took place and sirens wailed as huge crowds gathered in Warsaw stood silent at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT), the hour when the uprising began. Elderly veterans among them saluted.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas joined the events in a symbolic acknowledgement of his nation’s crimes against the Polish people decades earlier.
Maas asked Poles for forgiveness, stressing German responsibility for the atrocities.
“I am ashamed of what was done to your country by Germans and in the name of Germany. And I am ashamed that this guilt was kept silent for far too long after the war,” Maas said in remarks at the Warsaw Rising museum in the capital.
Maas also expressed his support for building a memorial in the German capital to the Polish victims of the Third Reich — an initiative backed by German lawmakers from most parties. There are already four memorials in Berlin, inaugurated over the past 15 years, to various groups of Nazi victims: the Jews, Sinti and Roma, and people with physical and mental disabilities.
The Polish resistance fighters were hoping for quick support from the Allies to free Warsaw from the Germans and take control before the Soviet Red Army arrived.
But no substantial help came, and the desperate fight that had been ordered by the government-in-exile in London went on for two months before the surviving insurgents surrendered.
German bombings and mass executions led to the death of some 180,000 civilians, and rebellious Warsaw was razed. The Nazis expelled some 500,000 remaining residents, sending many to the Auschwitz death camp. The Warsaw Uprising failed to prevent the Soviet control of the city and of the country.
Mostowska was working at the Karol and Maria hospital in the Wola district, where, on Adolf Hitler’s orders, German and Ukrainian troops exterminated tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, in revenge for the revolt.
She recalled that the Germans came one day and raided the hospital, acting like “madmen,” killed the chief doctor and top nurses.
“They put us against the wall, aimed a machine gun, so we thought they would kill us that instant,” she said.
But suddenly the orders changed and they were made to run, carrying the children, to another hospital. She was carrying a paralyzed 10-year-old girl.
“When we reached that hospital, we saw heaps of dead bodies of the doctors and the patients (the Germans) had killed,” Mostowska said.
The eight babies they had brought from the first hospital died within days because “We had nothing to feed them,” she said.
She remembers the bravery of young women, including one who helped save a fighter’s life.
“One day a teenage girl reached the hospital, dragging and pulling a young fighter with a severed leg, who was in a very bad shape. And she herself was rather petite. I have no idea how she managed to drag him to the hospital but she did it,” she said.
The young nurse and others searched the abandoned houses for food and medication. They saw German troops come in trucks at night, taking valuables from houses whose residents had been mass-executed before setting the properties ablaze.
Speaking in the same apartment where she has lived since before the war, Mostowska, 96, conceded that while the rising will always be seen as controversial, it was motivated by the determination to fight the Germans.
“The hatred was so intense that I thought I could almost touch it,” she said.
Mostowska has put the hatred away, though.
“The Germans are completely different now,” she said. “We live on the same planet; we can’t be in conflict all the time.”