by Tomasz Łysiak
Some funerals in Poland are more than a solemn ceremony and the entire nation participates in the historical event. Our hearts tremble, and intellect gives way to an intuition which declares that we are facing a remarkable moment reaching beyond time and space.
Such a moment occurred when people stood on the wharf looking at a ship as if it was emerging from the far ends of Lethe Lake as it carried the mortal remains of our bard Juliusz Słowacki. All of Poland cried in despair when a funeral procession followed the gun carriage which carried the coffin of Marshal Piłsudski. And so it should happen now, when we say goodbye to Major Zygmunt Szendzielarz, who is rightfully placed in Powązki Cemetery’s pantheon of our heroes.
As an officer of The Vilnius garrison of the 4th Cavalry Zaniemeński Regiment he participated in the great and symbolic funeral of Marshal Piłsudski, wielding in his hands the regimental flag. On May 12, 1936, the first anniversary of the Commandant’s death, Second Lieutenant Zygmunt Szendzielarz held a solemn vigil during the transfer of Pilsudski’s heart and ashes of his mother from the Saint Theresa church to the Rossa Cemetery in Vilnius.
What he was thinking and feeling during these events we do not know, but they certainly shaped the spirit of this great cavalryman who could not imagine serving beyond arch-Polish formation, reminiscent of Kircholm, Vienna, and Somosierra. He was the type of officer with full verve and imagination, probably not the type who “walked buttoned up.” Patryk Kozłowski’s biography of Szendzielarz described him as being one the “hot shots” and rightly so, for he was fearless. We just need to look at the opinion of his commander’s statement qualifying him to the Infantry School, in 1932 – “his character is formed, he is cheerful, sometimes impetuous, has very high ambitions, extremely self-confident, very chummy and generous. He is disciplined, conscientious, and dutiful, very fond of the military service. He has very high energy and perseverance.” The commander was right. This opinion in its entirety fits the future tough hero like a glove. He was feared by the communists, his subordinates obeyed and totally trusted by.
Zygmunt was born in 1910 in Stryj, into a family of a railway official. He grew up during the struggle for Independence, his two older brothers defended Lwów against the Bolsheviks in 1919. Oldest brother Rudolf was killed in battle and the younger Marian was awarded the Cross of Military Virtute. Growing up, Zygmunt was surrounded by an atmosphere of a new, young, vibrant Poland emerging from the ashes with her cult of heroic attitudes, national uprisings and respect for veterans of the January Uprising. He knew about Bolshevism, which then attacked Poland – so later, again experiencing its “bounties” he was not surprised. Like many other Undeterred Soldiers fighting communism in the 40s and 50s, he was aware of the horrors of system that subjugated our country. This claim is also supported by his adopted nickname – “Łupaszka” (sometimes also called “Łupaszko”) – the nom de guerre of the legendary guerrilla fighter skirmishing the Bolsheviks during the war of 1919 – 1920. It was a sign of conscious reference to the heritage of those who already fought the advancing hordes from “Another World.”
In the defensive war of 1939 Szendzielarz showed that he was a born leader. During the night of 9 September near the city of Magnuszew, Polish troops were crossing the Vistula River – and the majority of soldiers drowned. Szendzielarz moved his squadron to another location, and saved them from certain death. They fought valiantly against overwhelming odds and were defeated. He was captured, but soon escaped. He went to Lwów, to Wilno, and then unsuccessfully tried to get to the West. When this failed, he stayed and decided to get involved in the underground.
5th Vilnius Brigade of the Home Army (AK)
In August 1943 Szendzielarz was in command of a unit which was previously led by Antoni Burzyński “Kmicic.” “Kmicic” trusted the Soviet partisans who proposed cooperation in the fight against Germans, but later captured the Poles. They executed some immediately and the others were used to form a unit subordinate to them. It was these remnants of the “Kmicic” group that became the foundation of the 5th Vilnius Brigade of the Home Army organized by “Łupaszka”. They soon became known as the “Death Brigade.”
In the beginning of guerrilla warfare the Brigade was struggling with several opponents at once – the Soviets with their partisan units that constantly hunted Poles, Germans, and Lithuanians who supported them.
When new volunteers approached Szendzielarz, he accepted them readily, though he was wary of them. Edward Pisarczyk “Wołodyjowski” described their meeting as follows: “Zygmunt Szendzielarz stood in front of us staring piercingly into our eyes. It seemed like he was determining who we were and what motivated us. It may very well be that he did not trust us too much. But after some time, he said: “I’m an officer and commander of this unit, I welcome you and together we will fight for Poland against our enemies, but do not forget your additional obligation, to avenge the death of your colleagues.”
Sometimes there were situations that after one grueling fight with Germans, the 5th Brigade had to fight immediately with Soviet partisans. However they won spectacular victories and their fame spread – the “Łupaszka” Brigade quickly became famous. One day, while visiting family, “Łupaszka” fell into German hands who wanted him together with his unit to start cooperating with them. “Łupaszka” refused. Similarly there was no cooperation of any sort after talks with Germans in Swejginie in which he participated, along with the head of the Vilnius District of Home Army, Lt.-Col. Krzyzanowski “Wolf.” The talks were a palpable error of Krzyzanowski, as it was clear in advance that Germans would not agree to the terms of a “reactivation of Poland within the pre-war borders” or pay war reparations. But the very fact that they took place later allowed the communists to draw after the war the heaviest accusations against the Home Army soldiers of collaboration with Germans. The IPN case file of Szendzielarz contains documents prepared by Lt.-Col. Adam Humer, where he clearly suggests using these arguments during the court proceedings, and not just fighting with communists in 1944-47.
The Germans released “Łupaszka” after a series of attacks perpetrated by partisans, but also because they knew that he would continue to fight the Soviets. In fact, after getting out of German hands he immediately went back to fight the Russians. But, – to avoid any suspicion – he battled the Germans just as vigorously.
In June of 1944, according to some researchers, the hero image of Szyndzielarz appears to be stained by a scratch. Are these allegations correct? It all started with the Lithuanian police unit’s brutal murder of Polish citizens of the Glińciszki estate. Thirty-eight people were killed, mostly children and women, one was pregnant. Szendzielarz flew into a rage and ordered retaliation. The “Rakoczy” and “Max” squads killed twenty seven people (including women and children) in Dubinki, the Lithuanian village. In June of 2015, IPN published a book by Pawel Rokicki “Glińciszki and Dubinki – War crimes in the Vilnius region in mid-1944 and their consequences in contemporary Polish-Lithuanian relations.” The book shook the academia, because it showed, after a meticulous investigation that Poles actually killed in retaliation not only traitors and collaborators, but also women and children. There is just one problem, Rokicki assigns direct blame to “Łupaszka” trying to prove that he himself ordered the murder of women and children, and there is no evidence of that. The reprisal was to be directed at the armed “Szaulisy”, militiamen and policemen. The list of culprits was created, and in the “Rakoczy” report there is a mentioning of ordered “execution”, but nothing on killing entire families. Moreover, that is how some of the Polish soldiers assigned to the mission understood the order, shooting only informers and Lithuanian policemen and leaving their families unscathed. Unfortunately, some others, we need to admit with a heavy heart, took revenge by murdering all that were encountered. All of this does not allow drawing the circumstantial conclusion that the killing of women and children was directly ordered by the Brigade commander. His entire life story shows a completely different approach to fighting the enemies.
“Łupaszka” was impulsive and had “fire” in his veins, but he kept his troops in line with an iron hand. The 5th Brigade was an exemplary example of discipline – starting with uniforms and ending with the behavior towards an opponent. The Worziany skirmish is the best example. Surprised by the Germans, “Łupaszka” first broke out in a brilliant way from entrapment then assaulted the enemy, smashed them utterly and then left, without touching any personal belongings of the dead bodies. The Germans could not understand this – all killed had rings on their fingers, and wallets full of money in their pockets. The only recorded case in which Szendzielarz lost control and killed a prisoner without court order occurred on May 8, 1946, when the Major shot Joseph Haras, an UBP agent.
Up to the end he had the full trust of his superiors, who considered him a supreme field commander. When there were some differences of opinion, it usually became clear later that he was right in assessing the situation. This was the case of the “Ostra Brama” assault performed during operation “Burza”. Szendzielarz refused to participate in the struggle for Vilnius, not because he did not want to free his beloved city, but because he did not want to fight shoulder to shoulder with the Red Army which his commanders sought. It ended in a very bad way for them. Krzyzanowski and his officers were arrested by the Soviets during their first “friendly” meeting. “Łupaszka” was right.
“God be with you Gentlemen”
He did not concede that the Soviets were entering Poland as “allies.” His Brigade was decommissioned and brought to life again. The soldiers were still fighting for the same ideals; on their chest they wore a coat of arms with Our Lady of Ostra Brama, which became their trademark. Szendzielarz did not trust any official pardons, he refused to talk to the Bolsheviks. The struggle with Germany ended, but for the Poles the war still lasted as understood by “Łupaszka” and its people. It was necessary to fight for a free Poland because they foresaw on an imminent outbreak of a conflict between the Anglo-Saxon West and the totalitarian Soviet Union.
Szendzielarz was trying to lead a normal life and sought contact with his daughter. After a failed marriage and the death of his wife he became involved with his unit nurse Lydia Lwów “Lala”. He believed the most important for Poland was a fight to the end. He tirelessly fought the NKVD, UB, or KBW. Sometimes the battles of the Wilno Brigade were performed so brilliantly that they bordered on insanity – e.g. once they drove a car, singing out loud the soviet song “Katyusha”, to a city full of Soviets, before shooting them.
He used his own military techniques. For example, he divided the Brigade into smaller units, which were stationed in various villages and met in prearranged locations. He was a true nightmare for the Communists but eventually they got him. After the rigged elections of January 1947 it became clear that a further struggle was hopeless, but coming forward was equal to a death sentence. Finally they cornered and caught him in the vicinity of Zakopane and quickly moved him to Warsaw. During his interrogations, top Communists came to see the Major as a wild and dangerous animal that was caught and put into the cage. Minister Radkiewicz visited him at the Prosecutor Rożański’s office and said: “So, Major, I do not hang on a pine tree, and yet we meet.” He referred to the words with which “Łupaszka” replied when the minister previously tried to persuade him to meet and discuss the terms of surrender and ceasing fighting by the Brigade. “Łupaszka” replied bluntly – such a meeting was possible, but under the tree on which Radkiewicz would hang.
He considered all Communists as a bunch of crooks and murderers, with which one does not speak. Up to the end he held tough in the investigation. He denounced nobody. When the death sentence was announced, he had only one request – he wanted to marry his beloved “Lala”. They refused. On February 8, 1951 when he was called from his cell for the execution he turned back to his fellow prisoners and said: “God be with you, Gentlemen.” He went composed and proud. He was shot “Katyń” style in the back of his head and buried in a nameless hole, beneath the cemetery wall.
Now, after so many years, the moment has come in which the Poles stand over his coffin and say, “God Bless You, Major.”
Note: The Minister of Defense, Antoni Macierewicz, posthumously promoted Major Zygmunt Szendzielarz to the rank of colonel.