When Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, defeating the country militarily, soldiers and civilians carried on the fight as partisans, forming the Polish Home Army.
When the incursions began, 17-year-old Jozef Zawitkowski was a high school student taking military officer training courses alongside his academic curriculum in the small city of Nisko close to the Ukrainian border.
The eldest of three children, he became a resistance member. Eventually, his youngest brother, Wladyslaw, joined the same section. Their father fought in WWI and covertly provided support to the resistance.
Zawitkowski was deputy commander leading about 300 members in the “Ojciec Jan” unit, which was positioned in the cover of the Janow Forest in Poland’s southeast.
From those thick woods, Zawitkowski and other officers assisted in shaping their unit into a combat machine that raised mayhem with German forces.
Following Russia’s switch to the Allied side after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Zawitkowski and his compatriots continued to battle the Germans.
They were vigilant, using intelligence, where German convoys and patrols originated, attacked them, and melded back into the forest.
When the Nazis could not capture resistance members, they interrogated persons they suspected had family members who were partisans, he explained. If they determined the individual’s identity, they would execute their relatives. Included for liquidation were others who were not related to a partisan, but supported the resistance.
At other times they were sent to concentration camps, often dying there.
Zawitkowski said his best friend from high school who was in his unit was executed at Buchenwald the day before American troops liberated the camp.
The largest battle in which he participated started on June 14, 1944, on a hilltop in the Janow Forest known as Porytowe Wzgorze.
There were about 30,000 soldiers comprising three divisions supported by artillery and air force, Zawitkowski recalled. They had no heavy equipment.
The overwhelming number of Germans was successful in encircling the partisans, whose forces were bolstered by Russian units which at that stage in the war, 1944, had also penetrated the area.
While eradicating the resistance seemed a given, the Germans never got the opportunity. Members of Zawitkowski’s unit, who knew the forest and lesser known routes intimately, took them through areas enclosed by quicksand. German forces were fewer there, and the partisans fought their way past the enemy under cover of darkness. The Germans suffered even more casualties.
When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Russia turned on the Polish people once again, installing a Communist government. The Poles resisted again, including Polish Home Army members and Zawitkowski.
Zawitkowski was interrogated by the Communists, but they were not successful in breaking him. Unfortunately, his father was not as lucky. He was questioned by the Communist secret police and executed in 1946.
Eventually, he returned to civilian life, married the former Janina Machut, began raising a family in Poland, but Zawitkowski’s dream was to reunite with his brother, Wladyslaw, who had moved to America, The Buffalo News reported.
That aspiration took place in 1966 when he, his wife and five offspring were given U.S. immigration visas and relocated to Auburn, then Rochester, N.Y.
Midway through his 90s, Zawitkowski, holder of the Polish Cross of Independence with Swords, Polish Officer’s Cross, and the Polish Veterans Medal, has outlived all his former comrades of the Second World War resistance unit.