Polish resistance fighter battled Nazis from cover of forest - The Buffalo News
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Polish resistance fighter battled Nazis from cover of forest

When  Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, starting World War II, the Polish people's troubles were just beginning.

About two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east.

The Polish army fought hard but was no match, and was soon defeated by the two invading forces.

But Poland's resistance did not end there.

The remnants of the Polish military and many patriotic citizens rose up as an underground force known as the Polish Home Army. These fighters proved themselves formidable throughout WWII.

At the time of the invasions, Jozef Zawitkowski was a 17-year-old high school student taking military officer training courses in addition to his academic curriculum in the small city of Nisko, near the Ukrainian border.

The oldest of three children, he joined the resistance and in time, his younger brother, Wladyslaw, joined the same unit. Their father, a World War I veteran, secretly provided support to the resistance.

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Jozef Zawitkowski, 95

Hometown: Nisko, Poland

Residence: Wilson

Branch: Polish Home Army, also known as the Polish underground resistance

Rank: lieutenant

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: 1939 - 1944

Most prominent honors: Polish Cross of Independence with Swords, Polish Officers Cross, Polish Veterans Medal

Specialty: underground unit deputy commander

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Jozef Zawitkowski served as a deputy commander in charge of some 300 members in the "Ojciec Jan" unit, which was stationed in the safety of the Janow Forest in the southeast portion of Poland.

It was in this dense woods that Zawitkowski and other officers helped mold their unit into a fighting machine that  raised havoc with the Germans.

"My father trained other young men in land navigation, firearms and military tactics," said Jan Zawitkowski, Jozef's  64-year-old son, who assisted his 95-year-old father in telling this story. "My dad is more comfortable communicating in his native Polish."

Jozef and his comrades frequently fought the Germans after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin realigned his country with America and the other Allies after the Nazis attacked Russia in June 1941.

In his words translated by his son, Jozef Zawitkowski said:

"We were going against the German occupants who were ruthless against the Polish population. We knew where the German convoys and patrols were from intelligence and we would attack them and then go back into the forest for our safety."

When the Nazis were unable to capture partisans, they interrogated individuals they suspected had family members in the resistance.

"If the Nazis found out the identity of a partisan, they would go after their relatives and execute them. They would either hang or shoot them. Even others who were not related and supported the partisans faced the same fate," Jozef Zawitkowsky said. "That was the norm."

The Nazis, at other times, sent partisans and resistance sympathizers to concentration camps, where they often faced death.

"My best friend from high school who was in my unit and caught was sent to a camp and he was executed the day before the Americans liberated Buchenwald," Zawitkowski said.

The biggest battle he participated in began on June 14, 1944, on a hilltop known as Porytowe Wzgorze  in the Janow Forest.

"There were three German divisions, around 30,000 soldiers, and about 3,000 partisans. The Germans had support from artillery and its air force.  We had no heavy equipment. There was quicksand in the area," Zawitkowski recalled.

At one point, Zawitkowski said he captured a German and during an interrogation, the prisoner revealed how enemy pilots from the Luftwaffe knew exactly where to drop bombs on the partisan units, despite the cover of the forest canopy.

"The prisoner told us that the German ground forces shot rocket pistols that exploded in different colors. The color red identified the position of the partisans below. The color green warned the pilots that they were approaching German units."

With that knowledge, the resistance started shooting rocket pistols that exploded in the color green, identifying them as German ground forces to the enemy pilots.

But despite the ruse, the enemy's overwhelming numbers succeeded in encircling the partisans, whose forces included Russian units that by 1944 had also infiltrated the region.

Jozef Zawitkowski, right, fought the Nazis from the Janow Forest in southeast Poland.

And while crushing the partisans seemed certain, the Germans never got the chance to annihilate them. That's because members of Zawitkowski's unit were intimately familiar with the forest and lesser known routes that took them through areas surrounded by quicksand.

German forces were not as built up in those areas because of the quicksand, and the partisans succeeded in battling their way past the enemy under the cover of night. The Germans suffered a greater number of casualties.

When Germany lost the war in May 1945, the Soviets once again turned on the Polish people, imposing a Communist government. But many Poles again resisted, including Zawitkowski and other Polish Home Army members.

"My dad was interrogated by the Communists. They threatened and tried to break him, but did not succeed," said Jan Zawitkowski.

Jozef Zawitkowski's father was not as fortunate.

"The Communist secret police interrogated my grandfather and they executed him on June 30, 1946," Jan Zawitkowski said.

In time, Jozef Zawitkowski returned to civilian life and married the former Janina Machut. They began raising their family in Poland, but it was Jozef's dream to reunite with his brother, Wladyslaw, who had started a new life in America.

That goal was realized in 1966 when Jozef , Janina and their five children were granted U.S. immigration visas and moved to Auburn, then Rochester. In more recent years, Jozef Zawitkowski started spending most of his time in Wilson, where some of his children reside.

He says he is grateful for the opportunities America provided him and his loved ones.

"It was hard adjusting with the language, but I was able to gain good employment," he said.

Halfway through his nineties, Zawitkowski has outlived all of the other members of his WWII resistance unit.

Still able to get around on his own, he says he enjoys taking walks along Wilson's Lake Ontario shoreline, sometimes gazing out at the water and reflecting on his long and adventurous life.

 

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