How I studied during the occupation
After the surrender of Warsaw and its occupation by the Germans, I started to go to the third branch of the Maria Ostaszewska private school in Żoliborz. The primary schools had the same curriculum as before the war, except for history and geography classes – we were not taught those subjects officially because the German authorities had banned them.
At first, underground education was organized in such a way that every class was divided into groups of five or six pupils. Each one of those groups was given a teacher. The teachers were usually friends from middle school. Later on, however, when the school board realized that they could teach the “forbidden” subjects at our school under the pretense of work or some other less important subjects, secret classes were abandoned and we continued our underground education on the school grounds.
The German authorities rarely made inspections at our school, so our classes were regular and went undisturbed. We worked through the curriculums for classes four, five and six – both in the official subjects and in the forbidden ones – in their entirety.
We learned from the books of Radliński, Wuttke and Martynowiczówna. We got those books either from friends or from older siblings, or we bought them in the shops. It was worse with the teaching aids. It was hard to hang up a map during class because we had to be ready for an inspection at any moment. We didn’t have any wall maps, but we had a little atlas. The conditions in the building were good. There were around 20-30 pupils in the class.
Our attitude to learning was not a serious one. We did not yet understand its great significance. We went willingly to classes only because there was a particular compulsion for danger and adventure residing in every one of us. We thought about what would happen if, let’s say, they discovered us. They would certainly have arrested us and that would have been an adventure like none of us had ever known. I was 10 years old when I thought that.
My attitude to learning was the attitude of the majority. Later on, however, that attitude changed with the advancing years.
There were not enough teachers for our secret classes, so we were taught by our pupils. Those “teachers” had a difficult lot with us, but they also tasted the sweetness of teaching. They had to answer questions just as we did at school (because in general, they were still studying), but later they were able to get their own back on us.
I remember the constant arrests and roundups that covered ever broader circles during my time at primary school. I joined the underground scouts while I was at school. It gave me very much, but the arrests did not leave us untouched. The Germans followed our trail and started to investigate. The higher powers ordered the troop to be temporarily dissolved, that is to say, simply to go into hiding. But one of our scouts was arrested, held and investigated at Pawiak, and then deported to Germany. Those moments made the biggest mark on me from my time at primary school.
I graduated after three years at that school and was enrolled at a clothing and haberdashery vocational school. Officially there were no middle schools. The school I was enrolled at was a regular – but underground – middle school with the same composition of teachers as in my pre-war Princess Anna Vasa middle school. If there had been almost no danger in my primary school, then here it was different. Our official subjects were: knitting, weaving, patchwork, textiles, drawing, religion, Polish, zoology, mathematics and languages and the unofficial ones were: history, geography and Latin.
We went to school in the afternoon because the premises were being used by another school in the morning. The classes were not especially overfull, but there was not the same amount of pupils per group as before the war. It was forbidden to bring textbooks for the unofficial subjects to school, we only had notebooks that we hid in a secret pocket in our aprons or in other hiding places when necessary.
We had history lessons under the pretense of patchwork classes. Cloth, threads and needles were spread out over the tables and beneath them were the notebooks connected to the topic of the lesson. We didn’t have a wall map there either, but we had an atlas. Our history teacher brought us various pictures, photographs, drawings and artefacts.
We did the curriculum for the first class in history, learning from the textbooks of Moszczeńska and Mrozowska. What’s more, a refresher class in history was organized for the girls who hadn’t studied it at primary school. Our Latin studies were taught under the guise of textile classes. We mastered the course in its entirety. We also learned geography under the pretense of another subject, namely weaving. Since there was no wall map, each of us had a small map that we had drawn for ourselves. We learned from the books of Chałubińska and Janiszewski. We covered all the material for the first class in both the official and unofficial subjects.
The situation with the textbooks at that school was easier because part of the books from our pre-war middle school had been saved and later they were lent out for the whole year to the pupils learning there. Those girls who had books they didn’t use gave them to the tutor in exchange for ones they needed. The community helped us in such a way that all the school books that could be found were given to the pupils to use. Besides that, they warned us when there were street raids.
Our attitude to work was entirely different than in primary school. We understood now the importance and significance of learning, and why the Germans didn’t want us to study. We learned not for the sensation and a possible adventure, but with the understanding of what that learning meant for us.
We valued the courage and determination of the teachers who taught us and raised us in the difficult conditions the occupation brought with it. The teaching conditions were very morally and materially difficult both for the teachers and for us. But it was the difficult moral conditions that affected us more. The constant arrests, the executions in the streets – even the youth was overtaken by mental exhaustion. The street raids, during which we trembled at the thought of what was in our briefcases and the question that constantly arose: will they find it or won’t they. The relief afterwards, if they didn’t, and the strange sort of trembling in the knees.
The brighter moments of the occupation were when we got the news of the contributions taken from the Germans, of the liberation of prisoners or of a sentence that the Underground State had carried out on one of the German executioners.
Those moments came more and more often until the uprising began. We did our duty at first, repeating Latin words or reciting the works of various poets. However, the days passed and the situation became ever more difficult, and we lost the desire to learn. It was driven out of us by exhaustion and the terrible moments we had experienced and the things that were happening around us that we were still too young to face.
After the fall of the uprising, I made my way out to Pruszków and went to live on the Zakrzew estate near Tomaszów Mazowiecki. I taught myself there. Finally, after Germany’s surrender, I came to Włocławek, where I started to study at an official Polish school. We younger people are glad now that we can work overtly and openly and that we don’t have to put others in danger. Now, after six years of occupation, we appreciate the value of a real and normal school.