Rzeczpospolita: The last days of Private Zenon Bernatowicz

Prelude: War heroes are important in most families. They serve to provide role models for bravery among the younger members of the family, and to show a family’s contribution to an important common cause.

For my wife’s family, the last really significant war was the Great Patriotic War, known in the West as the Second World War. It took place as the result of a former corporal rising up to pursue a demented dream that became a nightmare for just about everyone else. The country that my wife’s family was a part of, Interwar Poland (or the second Rzeczpospolita) was swallowed up in the opening days of the fighting, most of it falling to Nazi Germany. My wife’s family’s part, though, fell to the Soviet Union, led by a leader who had arranged to step in about two weeks after the Germans to seize about a third of the country, a nation that had defied the Red Army some two decades earlier in order to come into existence. However, there was little for the Poles to celebrate when the Nazis invaded two years later and took the land away from Moscow’s control in an attempt to utterly remove Interwar Poland’s identity forever. Former enemies became allies very quickly in a desperate struggle to rescue the remnants of what once was.

Zenon, the hero of this story, for a number of years had been merely a missing person, a soldier who never managed to return. No one in the family knew where he went, whether he survived the war… maybe he was off in some exotic foreign land someplace raising a family as a wealthy magnate, or struggling to make ends meet in some desperate part of Eastern Europe. Either way, there were many who wanted to see him again, or at least know his fate.

As it turned out, he didn’t make it through the war. He died fighting the Nazis outside of Kołobrzeg, a quiet city in the western part of what is today Polish Pomerania. To the best of my knowledge, this was his story.

The Soviet Invasion, as seen from Truchany

“Our holy obligation is to reach a helping hand to the brotherly peoples of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus.” Original poster from the period of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939. Art drawn by V. Ivanov via Wikimedia Commons.

On Sunday, Sept. 17, 1939, the Soviet Army crossed the eastern Polish frontier after more than two weeks of Blitzkrieg warfare further west.

Zenon Bernatowicz, the youngest of 11 children of the family of Jozef Bernatowicz of the village of Truchany (a small collection of houses in the present Ashmyany Rayon of Grodnenskaya Oblast), was about 16 at the time of the invasion. Had he been 2-4 years older, he probably would have been serving within the Polish Home Army defensive garrison at Wilno or as part of any of the four other divisions that were deployed to the region of present Grodnenskaya Oblast of Belarus at the start of the war. He might have been sent south with many of these troops to defend Warsaw before it fell to German troops.

Instead, he was at home when the Soviets issued the following announcement just before the Red Army crossed the frontier: “Left to her own devices and bereft of leadership, Poland has become a suitable field for all manner of hazards and surprises, which may constitute a threat to the U.S.S.R. For these reasons the Soviet Government, who has hitherto been neutral, cannot any longer preserve a neutral attitude towards these facts. The Soviet Government also cannot view with indifference the fact that the kindred Ukrainian and White Russian people, who live on Polish territory and who are at the mercy of fate, should be left defenseless. In these circumstances, the Soviet Government have directed the High Command of the Red Army to order troops to cross the frontier and to take under their protection the life and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western White Russia. At the same time the Soviet Government propose to take all measures to extricate the Polish people from the unfortunate war into which they were dragged by their unwise leaders, and enable them to live a peaceful life.”

As the Polish government evacuated down the Dniester River into Romania, Soviet commander Mikhail Kovalyov crossed the border and with almost no resistance passed through nearby Oszmiana (present Ashmyany, Belarus, the nearest big town to Truchany) by the morning of Monday Sept. 18. Armed volunteers were encouraged to defend nearby Wilno (present Vilnius, Lithuania), while those without weapons were encouraged to stay at home.

Soviet troops advanced from Oszmiana at 5 p.m. toward Wilno, but were repelled while trying to take the city that evening. Still, they secured the present airport and the huge Rasos Cemetery to the west of the Old Town. By the next day, the Soviets evicted the defenders from the city, many of whom retreated into still independent Lithuania.

Hostilities in the invasion of Poland ended on the Soviet side with the dispersal and withdrawal into the woods of Polish troops at Wytyczno (near where the present Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian frontiers meet), and on the German side with the surrender of Polish troops at Kock, north of Lublin, on Friday, Oct. 6. Poland, militarily, had ceased to exist.

According to historical writers Andrzej Nowak and Marek Wierzbicki (referred to on the English Wikipedia page on the Soviet Invasion of Poland), the poor non-Polish population generally welcomed the Soviets, who carried out single-party elections on Thursday, Oct. 26, in which many took part, while the previously well-to-do saw the invasion in a hostile manner (and probably did not take part). The economically-struggling Bernatowicz family, consisting of an elder father and adult children living partly at home and partly on their own land, probably did not see much point in going out of their way to either resist or support the change of regime and continued to concentrate more on survival during this increasingly difficult period.

On Saturday, Oct. 28, the Soviet Army withdrew from Wilno and gave over the city to still-independent Lithuania. The Lithuanian military held a parade in the city the next day. Effectively, the city has been on the “other side of the border” from Truchany (designated as part of Belarus) ever since.

Drafted into the Soviet Army

Zenon Bernatowicz with his sister Janina just before marching off to war. Photo via Irena Szadura (Stanislaw Bernatowicz’s daughter).

The 11 Bernatowicz children were born between the year 1900 (the year my wife’s grandfather, Stanislaw, was born) and 1923 (the year that Zenon was born). Besides the eldest and youngest sons, there were five other boys in the family: Michal, Bronislaw, Wladyslaw, Jozef, and Anton. There were also four girls: Janina, Karolina, Jozefa, and Franciszka.

Michał Bernatowicz in uniform. Photo via Irena Szadura.

Of the seven boys, six served military service. Michał served twice, first time as a conscript in the Polish Home Army, and second time as a conscript in the Soviet Army before the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R. Being older, he was conscripted earlier than Wladyslaw and Zenon, who were taken into the Soviet Army together by the Military Commissariat at Oszmiana (at the time within the Vileyka Oblast).

The timing of the conscriptions has not survived in family tales of the war, but a number of events could have triggered his being drafted. By April 1940, the Soviets had managed to crush Finland and saw the independence of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as a weak link in the defense of Leningrad from possible German invasion. On Friday, June 14, the Soviets delivered an ultimatum to Lithuania following trumped up charges of Lithuanian authorities having supposedly kidnapped three soldiers, killing one (who, according to Lithuanian authorities, had committed suicide after being tracked down by police after deserting his post); the Soviet Army occupied the country the next day, and the day following, Latvia and Estonia followed suit.

Of course, by this time, the Nazis were already planning their eastward invasion. Some resistance to Adolph Hitler’s plan to occupy Russia and extract its resources erupted that fall, but by spring 1941, the resistance to the plan was gone. As millions of troops were moved to the German side of its frontier with the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin remained convinced that the Germans would not attack until the United Kingdom fell.

Belatedly, Stalin saw the danger of the German build-up on its borders, and in a speech given to military academy graduates in Moscow on Monday, May 5, he said, “War with Germany is inevitable. If comrade Molotov can manage to postpone the war for two or three months that will be our good fortune, but you yourselves must go off and take measures to raise the combat readiness of our forces.”

So either before this period, or between May 5 and June 22, Zenon was likely drafted at Oszmiana.

Operation Barbarossa

“Defend Moscow!” Original poster from the era of the Battle of Moscow in December 1941. Art via Wikimedia Commons.

Where Zenon was from the time he was drafted until the formation of the Polish 16th Infantry Regiment is unknown. From somewhere in Russia, he likely received news of the German invasion of his home with considerable anxiety, as Oszmiana and Wilno were both probably hit by Luftwaffe attacks (timed to begin in all Soviet-annexed former Polish cities at 3:15 a.m. early on Sunday, June 22, 1941).

By Wednesday, July 9, Vitebsk and Orsha were in German hands, and by Monday, Sept. 1, Smolensk had fallen, putting Moscow in extreme danger. Around the same time, the German Army Group North reached Leningrad, and prepared to lay siege to it. On Tuesday, Dec. 2, the German 258th Division reported to have reached a position near Moscow such that they could see the very spires of the Kremlin. To the fortune of the Russian defenders, a blizzard and extreme cold temperatures (minus 20 to minus 50 Celsius) soon followed, stalling the German advance.

A Soviet counter-offensive was launched on Friday, Dec. 5, 1941. Over the next several days, the Germans were pushed back over 300 kilometers, saving the Russian capital from bombardment by Nazi guns and signaling the failure of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa to crush the Soviet Union.

On the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, finally drawing the United States into the war against the Axis Powers, Soviet troops had retaken Kalinin and Klin. Several attempts to encircle Panzer divisions stalled in the cold were foiled by commanders who finally ignored Hitler’s commands to defend every inch of ground and at long last withdraw. As a reward for their battlefield wisdom, these commanders would soon be purged by order of their Fuhrer.

By Sunday, Jan. 4, 1942, the skies cleared, allowing the Luftwaffe to carry out attacks again, and three days later, the Soviet counter-offensive stalled.

Ukraine

Soviet soldiers taking Lviv in July 1944. Red Army photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The first time that units in which Zenon could have been part emerged in 1943, when the First and Third Infantry Divisions carried out offensives that liberated Smolensk and Kiev, respectively. The First Polish Corps advanced alongside these divisions from Moscow and Ryazan in two parts, finally forming one group at Bryansk, and likely advancing to Zhitomir in 1944.

On Wednesday, July 5, 1944, Private Zenon Bernatowicz was apparently among the Polish soldiers selected in Zhitomir, Ukraine, to be part of the 4th Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Polish Infantry Regiment (a unit subordinated to the 11,400-man 6th Polish Infantry Division, and First Polish Army under Major Gen. Zygmunt Berling – eventually a part of the First Belorussian Front). By Thursday, July 27 (the day after Lviv was liberated), Lt. Col. Wasyl Czernysz was selected as his commanding officer.

The Polish 6th Infantry Division was delayed, for lack of qualified officers, from taking part with the rest of the First Army in the closing phases of Operation Bagration, the summer-long offensive that cleared western Ukraine and Belarus of Nazi forces, reducing Nazi troop strengths by a quarter. After being shifted over to the Second Army, the unit finally left Zhitomir by train on Wednesday, Aug. 23, four days after the end of the Soviet offensive.

In the 9-day journey heading westward to their homeland, the four full trains of Polish troops were often shelled by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who under the slogan of “Neither Hitler nor Stalin,” saw them as enemies. As a result, when the Polish troops disembarked at Przemysl, they became just that. Zenon’s unit, the 16th Infantry Regiment, was assigned on Tuesday, Oct. 24, less than a week after being sworn in as Polish soldiers, to serve alongside a division of the Soviet NKVD at Leszczyny Dolnej, where they assisted in land seizures and conscription in an effort to root out UPA from the region.

Their on-the-job training lasted until Wednesday, Dec. 13, when the Soviet General Staff, after inspection, declared the unit ready for combat. A week later, the division, just short of 11,000-strong, was transferred to the First Polish Army and left to join them at the front, established since September, the second month of the Warsaw uprising, at the Wisła River (where the Polish soldiers there, under orders to hold their position, could do nothing but watch as the Nazis crushed the uprising in the capital, and then systematically destroyed the city, building by building, torching all monuments and archives, including the National Library).

Warsaw

Władysław Szpilman’s tribute at the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Photo by Boston9 via Wikimedia Commons.

By Saturday, Jan. 13, the Polish 6th Infantry Division deployed by train to an area about 12 kilometers west of Minsk Mazowiecki (likely on the rail line north of Otwock and Jozefow). Their transfer was carried out under strict secrecy – no radio use was allowed, no written orders were issued, and all loading and unloading from the train took place at night. From their disembarkation point, the unit took up positions north of Warsaw along a 35-kilometer stretch of shoreline between Zeran (within Bialoleka, north of the Praga district of Warsaw) and Kuligow on the Bug River.

The Wisła River had frozen over, meanwhile. Though the ice surface provided no obstacles behind which to hide, the Polish 6th Infantry Division crossed into Warsaw late at night on Tuesday, Jan. 16. By the next morning, the unit joined up with the Polish 2nd Infantry Division near the site of the Saxon Garden – no known casualties were received by Zenon’s company in this important milestone.

However, by this time, Warsaw was pretty much smoldering ruins, with 85 percent of the city destroyed by the Nazis before they were evicted (the total population still inside the city was 174,000, less than 6 percent of the 3 million that used to live in the city before the war). Two days after liberating the Polish capital, the 6th Division took part in a Friday victory parade, held for whoever was left alive in the destroyed city.

In pop culture, Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist” apparently depicts Polish forces liberating the city on Jan. 17, and nearly shooting on accident the main character, Polish Radio’s Władysław Szpilman, who had been dressed in a German military coat given him by an unusually kind German officer during the Nazi retreat – likely these soldiers were members of Zenon’s division.

Pomerania

Road through the woods near Nadarzyce. Photo by Wojciech “woj45” Kania via the DWS-xip.pl Portal.

Pursuit of the fleeing enemy began immediately after, with the Polish 6th Division following along the left bank of the Wisła toward the town of Stare Grochale. The next night, they advanced to the area of Brochow, further down the Wisła. Finally, the division was given orders to advance the remainder of the 260 kilometers to the city of Bydgoszcz (called Bromberg by the retreating Nazis). Despite the brutal winter weather and a lack of food and fuel, Zenon’s unit managed the advance in six days, arriving and taking the city on Sunday, Jan. 28.

The advance didn’t stop at Bydgoszcz. Two days later, Zenon’s unit arrived at the old Polish-German frontier at Więcbork (or Vandsburg in German), northwest of Bydgoszcz, crossing this former border on Tuesday, Jan. 30. On Friday, Feb. 2, Zenon’s unit in the Polish 16th Infantry Regiment fought its way into Jastrowie, about 60 kilometers further west into what was Nazi Germany, taking the town after a 4-hour battle. (Zenon’s company suffers their first known casualties, 5 dead and 9 wounded, in the fighting.)

After two days of fighting through the defenses of the German Pomeranian Wall, on Sunday, Feb. 4, the 6th Division advanced on Sypniewo, 20 kilometers further west (light casualties: 2 deaths and 2 wounded at Boryslaw and Zdbic). Kłomino fell to Zenon’s unit the next day. Then the division arrived at the fortifications of Rederitz (present Nadarzyce) on Tuesday, Feb. 6. Zenon’s regiment was ordered to flank the fortress, approaching it from the west and southwest (2 dead, 9 wounded, Jozef Nesterowski serving with distinction). But it was the Polish 18th Infantry Regiment suffered greatly in this attack, losing 513 men, including 15 officers (among these, a battalion commander and 5 company commanders).

On Saturday, Feb. 10, the 6th Infantry Division formed part of a 45 kilometer stretching across the German Friedland March from Doderlage (present Dudylan) near the recently captured Nadarzyce to Alt Lobitz (present Lowicz Walecki). They were probably located around Deutsch Fuhlbeck (present Wielboki) along this front, flanked on the left by the 1st Cavalry and the right by the 3rd Infantry Division (the latter of which held down 10 kilometers or so of front).

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 13, the Polish units moved forward in a general advance, with the 6th Infantry Division finishing a couple kilometers further north in a front that stretched from Doberitz (present Dobrzeca Maly) to Wallbruch (present Motarzewo) and the southern shore of Lake Machliny. The 16th Infantry Regiment took up defensive positions on the right (eastward) end of the lake), with Zenon’s company located at Rudek (2 are killed and 3 injured in the taking of this town). Further to the right, the 3rd made considerably greater headway, pushing 7 kilometers from Nadarzyce to Zacharin (present Starowice). To the left, the 1st Cavalry were bogged down by concentrated counter-attacks by the Germans.

The following day, Wednesday, Feb. 14, members of the 16th Infantry Regiment were involved in mine sweeping activity (6 of Zenon’s company are injured that day), and entrenching on the left (westward) side of Lake Machliny. They remained on the defensive for the next few days (1 additional injury, and 2 killed outside of Rudek).

Then at 10 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 19, Zenon’s regiment, the 16th Infantry, was ordered to advance. However, the division command failed to coordinate artillery to support their advance near Friedrichschorst (present Otrzep) and Linichen (present Swierczyna). In the day’s fighting, the 6th division saw 21 killed and 137 injured (3 killed and 11 injured in Zenon’s company). Zenon’s regimental commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Wasyl Czernysz, was wounded and had to be relieved of command. In his place, Colonel Stanisław Ziarkowski was assigned, likely Zenon’s last commanding officer (presuming he survived through this attack). It would take a few days for the unit to recover as the front went defensive, briefly. (Over the next week, two are injured and one soldier goes missing – Franciszek Eliasz – near this battle front.)

The Battle of Kolberg or Kołobrzeg

Photo of Kołobrzeg taken after the formerly German city was liberated by Polish and Soviet forces in March 1945. Photo via the 1964 publication “Twenty Years of the People’s Republic of Poland.”

As Soviet troops finally advanced on the German city of Kolberg, command of the Nazi forces in this vital German stronghold was given over to Afrika Korps veteran Colonel Fritz Fullriede on Thursday, Mar. 1, 1945. The first units of the Soviet 1st and 2nd Belorussian fronts arrived three days later and attempted an immediate assault on that city, and that of Köslin (or Koszalin). Although he could do nothing to prevent the second city from falling, Col. Fullriede repelled the Soviets in this first attack, protecting what had become an evacuation of German soldiers from the doomed city (called Operation Hannibal).

By Tuesday, Mar. 6, after several failed attempts to take the city, the Soviet command decided to turn over the attack to the Polish First Army under Soviet General Stanisław Popławski. The units had been advancing slowly on the city, with Zenon’s company reaching Wierzchowa on Mar. 4, and passing through Rozan and Gawronca the following day before reaching Goscinca on Mar. 6, the day that command was ordered to be transferred. On Thursday, Mar. 8, the Polish 6th Infantry Division arrived, and relieved the Soviet 45th Armored Brigade of its place in the siege of the city.

The plan of attack on Mar. 8 was for the 6th Division to take the harbor area, while the Polish 3rd Infantry Division assaulted from the south (inland). With fire coming from German battleships offshore, the Polish divisions, as had the Soviet units before them, failed in their first attack (perhaps Zenon’s second to last offensive action). So, instead of repeating their assault, the troops returned to the siege lines around the city for a few days.

A new two-day assault began on Monday, Mar. 12, with the assistance of heavy tanks and artillery from the Polish 4th Infantry Division. Though the attack was eventually repelled, the German outer ring of defense was breached. While this was happening, Zenon became the only known person in his unit killed on Tuesday, Mar. 13 (Antoni Kwiatkowski was the other casualty that day – wounded).

German Colonel Fullriede refused calls to surrender, and on Thursday, Mar. 15, the Polish units again assaulted the city, but were stopped from completely taking it by reinforcements shipped in from Swinemünde (present Świnoujście), called the Kell battalion. Nonetheless, Zenon’s division took the city barracks and Salt Island, while the 3rd Division seized part of the railway station.

On Friday, Mar. 16, katyusha rockets were used to destroy the Collegiate Church of St. George in the city, which had been used as a defensive work. Once this threat was removed, Polish troops broke into the inner city and finished taking the railway station, destroying the Panzerzug 72A armored train that had been defending it.

The next day, Colonel Fullriede withdrew all his troops from defensive works around the city, retreating to a fort near the present light house. Most of the troops were evacuated to nearby Swinemünde (40,000 total would escape capture) before the Poles took the port. As a result of the fighting, 80 percent of the city was destroyed.

On Sunday, Mar. 18, the last 2,000 Germans finally surrendered at 8:30 a.m. By this time, a total of 1,206 Polish soldiers lay dead, with 3,000 more wounded. As noted earlier, among the dead was Zenon Bernatowicz, age 22.

Death location given at Genealogie: Stankiewicze z przyjaciolmi:

KOŁOBRZEG – marzec 1945

(opracowanie własne )

W książce “Na drodze stał Kołobrzeg” Pan Alojzy Sroga zawarł dokumentalną opowieść o ludziach, którzy przeszli przez kołobrzeski ogień i śmierć w marcowe dni szturmu na pozycje hitlerowskie.

Jak sam pisze: ” z żalem muszę wyznać, że byłem w stanie dotrzeć jedynie do niewielkiej liczby uczestników bitwy. Było ich około dwudziestu ośmiu tysięcy…. Przedstawiając tedy opowieść o nich tuszę, że będą symbolem polskich żołnierzy i polskiego wysiłku zbrojnego w marcowe dni roku 1945″

Mały fragment relacji żołnierskich tworzy lista poległych, zmarłych z ran i zaginionych bez wieści.Za Panem Srogą prezentują ją we własnym opracowaniu

Bernatowicz Zenon – s. Józefa, 1923, – szer. – 16 Kołobrzeski Pułk Piechoty – 9 pomorska dywizja piechoty

In English:

Kołobrzeg – March 1945

(Written by site owner)

In his book “On the Road to Kołobrzeg,” Mr. Aloysius Sroga documented the story of the people who went through the fire and death of Kołobrzeg in the March assault on Nazi positions.

He wrote: “I regret to confess that I was able to find only a small number of participants in the battle. There were about 28,000… But the presentation of the story of just one body is to present a symbol of the Polish troops and Polish armed effort in March 1945.”

A small fragment of the list of fallen soldiers can be found here, those who died of wounds and were lost:

Bernatowicz, Zenon – son of Jozef, b. 1923 – served as a private in the 16th Kolobrzeski Infantry Regiment, 9th Pomeranian Infantry Division (actually, the 6th Infantry Division)

Many thanks are owed to Woijciech Kania for his research into the Polish units that breached the Pomeranian Wall and marched on Kolberg – the work allowed this family researcher to follow the final footsteps of this previously lost family member. Many thanks are also owed to Aloysius Sroga for documenting Zenon Bernatowicz among the many who died in the effort to liberate Poland from the Nazis. And finally, many thanks are owed to Janusz Stankiewicz for putting Sroga’s work online. Had it remained in print only, it might have taken years for Zenon’s survivors to find closure.

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2 Responses to Rzeczpospolita: The last days of Private Zenon Bernatowicz

  1. Pingback: Your Questions About Parenting Courses Brisbane | Children Development Stages

  2. Pingback: Silesian Summer: Visiting a grave in Kołobrzeg | BenStuff

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