No record exists today that shows how Polish Red Army mortar man Zenon Bernatowicz felt as he woke up on the last morning before he was fatally wounded, Tuesday, March 13, 1945. Nothing tells of whether he was stoic, angry, sad, or frightened just before he was shot up in the fighting within the outer German defenses of Kolberg, a city that briefly harbored some 85,000 evacuating German civilians and 3,000 garrison troops. All we know is that he was badly injured in the forested resort area called Maikuhle (or Załęże, in Polish), where the fanatical Volkssturm, a German civilian militia raised at the behest of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebels, fought intensely.
During the weekend before Zenon was shot, his unit, the 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 6th Polish Infantry Division of the Red Army assigned to envelope and attack the city from the west, had joined forces with the 1st battalion along the Baltic Sea coast. They had met stiff resistance from the Volkssturm among the gravestones within the city’s cemetery. No doubt that the shooting match against the volunteer defenders, composed of Germans, both local and displaced from elsewhere in Pomerania, seemed ghoulish to him. Still, the Polish Red Army units were making significant progress against these poorly trained irregulars on Mar. 13 in front of the Kleist redoubt. Indeed, by the time the Soviets took the Kolberg, quickly rechristened by its Polish name of Kołobrzeg, 60 percent of the city’s civilian German fighters would be killed and more than 80 percent of their homes and businesses destroyed.
The weather had been a late-winter variety of intermittently miserable. The day before he was shot, the ground below his feet remained mostly frozen and the clouds above his head had dropped to such a low ceiling that planes supporting his unit couldn’t fly. The lack of air support helped the Germans, who had been in the process of evacuating the civilian population by ship to places like Swinemünde, present day Świnoujście on today’s Polish-German border, and Bornholm, a Danish island just beyond the northwestern horizon. Some 70,000 would escape as part of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s Operation Hannibal, the organized removal by ship of German civilians in the face of the feared Soviet advance on eastern Germany.
The Germans, of course, had reason to fear the Red Army. After more than three years of atrocities carried out as horrific expressions of German chauvinism, many Soviet soldiers appeared to be driven by unrestrained revenge, even as they advanced across the old Polish-German frontier into Pomerania. On the Kolberg battlefield, the Germans noted that Polish soldiers often distinguished themselves as being more furious in their fighting than the Russians. The few Germans that dared to remain behind did so under the perception that they would somehow be able to mix in with the Poles that the Kriegsmarine evacuation excluded.
In the city center on the day Zenon was shot, Soviet artillery rained shells down like a hurricane downpour, leaving centuries-old German buildings as smoke-billowing ruins on the eastern side of the Persante (the future Parsęta) River. Kolberg had been surrounded by Soviet soldiers for already more than a week. After being cut off from retreat, Nazi authorities declared the city a “fortress”, which meant that the soldiers defending it would be obliged to defend it to the last man. Naturally, the Volkssturm took the lead as the city’s most aggressive defenders in early part of fighting, even during the weekend in which Zenon’s unit fought for the city cemetery. But eventually, the cemetery fell to the Poles, and the first brigade of these Volkssturm withdrew into the center of the Maikuhle district.
Today, the spot in which Zenon last fought in former Maikuhle is located within Kołobrzeg’s National Unity Park (Park im. Jedności Narodowej). The Polish military has the area fenced off today as a training zone. After he was shot, Zenon was taken to a field hospital, probably located not far from the park. One report within the Soviet military archives says that he died two days later from gunshot wounds. Another said that he lasted until April, at least two and a half weeks later, long after the last German evacuation ship left the remaining 2,000 German garrison troops behind to surrender Kolberg, and long after Zenon’s compatriots pledged their country to a “marriage with the sea” near the city’s lighthouse. In any case, his body was apparently accounted for after he died of his wounds, sometime in April 1945.
From the entrance to the Kołobrzeg War Cemetery
In 1948, the remains of the fallen soldiers, which had been buried in several dozen cemeteries scattered within the town and its environs, were moved to this place. The separate quarter was established within the municipal cemetery and the memorial with the symbol of two swords was erected/designed by (the late) Wiktor Tołkin (d. 2013, renowned for the Wedding to the Sea statue near Kołobrzeg’s lighthouse and monuments to Nazi victims at Stutthof and Majdanek concentration camps). In 1980, the cemetery area was enlarged and the cemetery was established.
At the entrance, there is a relief map with the attacking units’ combat trails marked on it. A little bit further in there is a symbolic sarcophagus with three dimensional elements concerning the fighting in 1945, and Polish combat history in Pomerania over the centuries. In the sarcophagus there are six vessels containing the soil from the sites of the heaviest fighting in Kołobrzeg.
In the middle of the cemetery, there is a big square for conducting masses and celebrations. There are the cross and the altar, which were built from stone blocks of St. George’s Church, of which the heavy fighting took place.
The next part of the cemetery comprises of the grave quarters. The names of the fallen soldiers are carved on the granite tombstones. The alleys between the quarters are paved with stones and pavement slabs from the streets of Kołobrzeg, on some of them the vestiges of the fighting can be seen.
The remains of 1,441 soldiers of the Polish Army and 257 soldiers of the Soviet Army who fell in combat in 1945 rest in this cemetery. Except from that 7 soldiers who died of wounds in Kołobrzeg in 1939, and 9 Polish forced labourers who had been killed during combat in 1945, were buried here as well.
Cemetery designed by Zygmunt Wujek and Hieronim Kroczynski
Dr. Hieronim Kroczynski: Historian, co-organizer and longtime director of the Museum of the Polish Army, retired. Author of 17 books (including at least three specifically on Kołobrzeg) and more than 200 smaller works, co-writer of many documentary films.
Zygmunt Wujek: Graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, sculptor, long-time activist in the protection of monuments commemorating struggle and martyrdom throughout the Communist and post-Communist period.
The road to Kolberg
For Zenon, the journey to his final resting place lasted hardly a half-year. He accompanied his brothers Wladislaw and Michał to the Soviet Army recruitment station in Oshmyany on Oct. 9, 1944, to enlist in the fight against the Germans. Their enlistment took place slightly after the third month following the return of the Red Army through their area of the Belorussian SSR. Zenon had been 16 at the start of the war in 1939, but now he reached the age of 21, while Wladislaw was four years older at age 25. Michał, who served in the army of interwar Poland (when their hometown was in that country), was the oldest of the enlisting brothers at age 32. They had wanted to go to war as part of the same unit, and requested that to the lady at the recruitment station. However, she told them that “there are no brothers in the war,” meaning that they would be separated into different units.
Still, it was probably no coincidence that the three ended up in the Polish Red Army, which although was intended to represent a Communist-resurrected Polish state, nonetheless consisted almost entirely of soldiers from the Soviet-annexed part of Interwar Poland. Certainly Michał’s service in the Polish army before 1939 must have flagged the three Bernatowicz brothers for these special units. In a small measure, this at least brought them at least a little closer together in the command structures than they would have been if they had been simply Russians.
Zenon’s unit, as I noted in a previous article, had been assigned on Oct. 24, 1944, to serve alongside a division of the Soviet NKVD within the Leszczyny valley in the Bieszczady Mountains above Przemyśl. His unit, as part of a sort of “on-the-job” training, assisted in land seizures and forced conscription in an early effort to root out the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, from the region. Given the minimal basic training that would have been provided him, he was without a doubt already part of the unit when on Wednesday, Dec. 13, the Soviet General Staff declared the 11,000-strong 6th Infantry Division ready for combat against the Germans.
A week later, Zenon’s unit departed the Bieszczady, and arrived by train near the Praga District of Warsaw after the New Year’s holiday on Saturday, Jan. 13, 1945, somewhere north of Otwock and Józefów. Their transfer was carried out in strict secrecy, with no radio use or written orders issued. In order that they couldn’t be spotted by the enemy in the air, they disembarked from their train at night and quickly manned positions along a 35-kilometer stretch of shoreline between Żerań (within Białołęka, north of the Praga district) and Kuligów on the Bug River.
On the night of Tuesday, Jan. 16, they crossed the ice of the Vistula River and advanced into Warsaw. By the next morning, Zenon’s 6th Division linked up with the 2nd Division near the site of the Saxon Garden, in the midst of the smoldering ruins of the Polish capital. The scene was certainly apocalyptic: a total of 85 percent of the city was destroyed by the withdrawing Nazis, and only 174,000 (less than 6 percent of the 3 million that used to live in the city before the war) residents were still around. Nonetheless, that Thursday, the Polish Red Army held a victory parade for those few survivors to see.
Zenon’s 6th Division, though, was not in the Polish capital long. By Sunday, Jan. 28, his regiment had managed a 260 kilometer advance by foot to the city of Bromberg, known today as Bydgoszcz. Two days later, they crossed for the old Polish-German frontier at Vandsburg, today’s Więcbork. German resistance began to slow them down at Jastrowie, where they fought a 4-hour battle about 60 kilometers from the German border. Here on Friday, Feb. 2, the 6th Division suffered their first battlefield casualties with 5 dead and 9 wounded.
From Jastrowie, the 6th advanced on Sypniewo, 20 kilometers further west, and then on Kłomino before finally reaching the Pomeranian wall at Rederitz (present-day Nadarzyce) on Tuesday, Feb. 6. While the 16th Regiment was ordered to flank the Rederitz fortress and approach it from the west and southwest, the 18th Regiment suffered the loss of some 513 men in the attack, 15 of which were officers, including the battalion commander. It would take until Saturday for the advancing Polish line to reconstitute itself.
When the line did re-establish itself on Feb. 10 along a front extending from Doderlage (present Dudylan) near the captured Rederitz fortress to Alt Lobitz (present Łowicz Wałecki), the 16th held the area around Deutsch Fuhlbeck (present Wielboki). Their progress was slow in the first week of fighting inside Pomerania as the German rearguard, consisting mostly of the Bärwalde Division, protected a withdrawal of retreating fighting forces and evacuating German civilians to the coast. On Tuesday, Feb. 13, Zenon’s company lost a couple of soldiers taking a town called Rudek near the Machliny lakes, even as the bulk of the 6th Division advanced further west toward Heinrichsdorf (present Siemczyno). On Feb. 19, Zenon’s regimental commander, Lt. Colonel Wasyl Czernysz, was wounded in fighting near Linichen (present Świerczyna), and Colonel Stanisław Ziarkowski, Zenon’s last regimental commander, replaced him as the unit went briefly defensive before advancing on their final push to the coast.
At Kolberg, the target of the Polish First Army’s advance, the port city’s defenses were given over to Afrika Korps veteran Col. Fritz Fullriede only a couple weeks later on Mar. 1, highlighting the town’s importance to both the German evacuation effort and maintaining German morale. His skills would soon be tested to the fullest. By Thursday, Mar. 4, the day Zenon’s company arrived at Virchow (present Wierzchowo), Kolberg was cut off by units of the First and Second Belorussian fronts, some of which attempted an immediate assault. Fullriede, with garrison troops and Volkssturm militia, as well as supporting fire from German battleships off the coast, managed to repel this first attack, though, and the Soviet command turned over the assignment of storming of the city to the newly-arrived Polish First Army under Soviet General Stanisław Popławski.
A new assault began almost immediately on Mar. 8. The 6th Division was to follow the Left Bank of the Parsęta to the Port, while the 3rd Division advanced on the Right Bank. As quickly as it started, the attack failed and both forces were repelled, prompting Gen. Popławski to plan a larger assault four days later, starting on Monday, Mar. 12. With the 4th Division joining the fighting, Zenon’s unit would be assigned to take Maikuhle and the port while fighting along the coast. Though this third assault would be successful, the battle here would, in fact, be Zenon’s last.
A death kept secret
When Zenon finally passed away from his wounds, news of his death was supposedly sent to his older brother Michał, who was to pass along the information on to the family. An unknown soldier who was traveling to Michał’s unit for other business was tasked with conveying information about his younger brother’s fate verbally. For that reason, nothing was ever written to his family back home about his death.
For some reason, however, the soldier assigned to the task of passing this information along never reached Michał’s unit, or if he had, he never passed along the information. When, after the fall of Berlin, Michał returned home, he was able to tell the fate of Wladisław, the brother who went with Zenon and him to fight – he had gotten married and settled under an assumed name with his new family in western Poland near Zielona Gora. However, he had no information on the fate of Zenon. For all anyone knew, he found his way to the West, and may have been raising a family of his own in some distant land.
As early as 1947, the Soviet military had, in fact, compiled at least two reports on the fate of Zenon Bernatowicz, but because such information was regarded as a “state secret,” it was never conveyed to the family, even when they filled out forms to get this information from their local army commissary. In Kołobrzeg, the city had begun creating a monument for him and his comrades in arms at the Communal Cemetery near the St. Wojciech Catholic Church, but because his home remained after the war annexed to the Soviet Union, information about this honor was never successfully conveyed back to his Belarusian home village of Trukhany.
Ultimately, it took an Internet search more than six decades later for the family to find his fate. Thanks to the efforts of Janusz Stankiewicz, an online genealogical enthusiast who had been collecting Polish family history facts from as early as 2005, Zenon’s family finally found out in 2010 that he had died a hero’s death in the Battle of Kolberg/Kołobrzeg. It took Russian defensiveness about its role in World War II to finally get them to publish sometime between 2007 and 2013 what should have been public record all along, documentation confirming the deaths of those members of the Red Army who were killed in the “Great Patriotic War.” His Belarusian family finally found their missing son, the news of what happened to him, and as a result closure.
Military records for Zenon Bernatowicz taken from the Russian Ministry of Defense’s OBD Memorial website.
90. – ФИО – Бернатович Зенан Иосифович – Наименование части 16 П.П. – Военное звание, рядовой – Должность и специальность, стрелои – Партийность (нет) – Год рождения 1923 – Какой местности уроженец, д. Труканишки, рн. Ошмяны, обл. Вильно. – Каким РВК и какой областью призван и с какого года в армии, Ошмяны – Причина и время поступления на излечение () – Причина и дата смерти – умер от ран 15.III.45 г. – где похоронен, в гор. Кольберг – Ближайщие родственники, Родственные отношения фамилия имя и отчество, жена (sic) Бернатович Янина – Где проживает (подробный адрес) д. Труканишки, рн. Ошмяны, обл. Вильно
Информация из донесения о безвозвратных потерях
- Фамилия Бернатович
- Имя Земан
- Отчество Иосифович
- Дата рождения/Возраст __.__.1923
- Место рождения Вильно обл., Ошмяны р-н, д. Труконишки
- Дата и место призыва Ошмянский РВК, Белорусская ССР, Вилейская обл., Ошмянский р-н
- Последнее место службы 6 сд
- Воинское звание рядовой
- Причина выбытия умер от ран
- Дата выбытия 15.03.1945
- Первичное место захоронения Польша, Кошалинское воев., пов. Колобжегский, г. Колобжег
- Название источника информации ЦАМО
- Номер фонда источника информации 58
- Номер описи источника информации 18003
- Номер дела источника информации 470
Именной список – Безвозвратник потерно военнослужащих по Ошмянскому району Молодечненской области по состоянно на 5 марта 1947 г. – форма 2 Г.П. Секретно Экв. Пряпоженкв в вх. 227960
4. – ФИО – Бернатович Зенан Иосифович (есть) – Военное звание, кр-ц (381ввс-45) – Должность и специальность, рядовой миномётч. (умер от ран в апреле 1945 г.) – Какой местности уроженец, Молодечненск. Обл., Ошмянский рн., Палянский с/сов., д. Труханы – Каким РВК и какой областью призван и с какого года в армии, Ошмянским РВК Молодечненск. обл. 9.10.1944 года – Когда и по какой причине выбыл, Можно считать умершим от тяжелого ранения в апреле месяце 1945 года – где похоронен, () – Ближайщие родственники, Родственные отношения фамилия имя и отчество, брат Бернатович Михаил Иосифович – Где проживает, Молодечниск. Обл., Ошмянский рн., Палянский с/сов., д. Труханы – Примечания, Письменная связь прекратилась в феврале мес 1945 г., с места прохождения воинск. службы в в/части п/н 38246 «С». По устному сообщению товарища сослуживца его брату, что военнослужащий Бернатович З.И. был тяжело ранен в апреля 1945, при взятии гор. Кольберга войсками 1го Белорусского фронта.
- Информация из документов, уточняющих потери
- Фамилия Бернатович
- Имя Зенан
- Отчество Иосифович
- Дата рождения/Возраст __.__.1923
- Дата и место призыва 09.10.1944 Ошмянский РВК, Белорусская ССР, Вилейская обл., Ошмянский р-н
- Последнее место службы 1 Белорус. Ф п/п 38246 “С”
- Воинское звание красноармеец
- Причина выбытия умер от ран
- Дата выбытия __.04.1945
- Название источника информации ЦАМО
- Номер фонда источника информации 58
- Номер описи источника информации 977520
- Номер дела источника информации 269
The August train: visiting Kołobrzeg for the first time
In the morning light, the overnight train called the Pirat left Białogard on its last leg to the coast. Starting out from the Silesian city of Bielsko-Biała the night before, everything seemed to promise “adventure” for all the passengers taking a long weekend to spend on the beach. Backpacks containing rolled up wind screens and tents, along with the usual changes of clothes and swimwear, stuffed the shelves above the Polish holiday-seekers looking for an escape from the forecasted record-setting heat wave that weekend. When I boarded the train at Wrocław, a family with a sleeping 11-month-old boy accepted my presence in their compartment with something of a collective sigh. The train had become crowded.
For me, sharing a compartment with a family and its infant worked out great. Being a father, I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry that much about noise. The parents would be doing everything in their power to put their child to sleep, or keep him entertained should he wake up. There wouldn’t be drunken partying or aggressive arguing. And being that I wasn’t the parent involved, I wouldn’t have to respond to the child crying. That said, the night went by peacefully.
In the morning light, the Pirat passed through the same farmlands that were decorated with melting snow when Zenon marched through them. Rather than German defenses, though, the turbines of modern wind farms faced off against our passage along the Polish rail line. Before long, the train slowed down as it entered into the built-up urban areas at the edge of Kołobrzeg, the last stop.
I grabbed my computer satchel and carry bag and exited the train, passing through the underpass and through the German-like station on the way to the street. Having studied the city maps online, I knew where the bus stop stood, and about how long I would have to wait for Bus No. 1, the run that would take me to the cemetery. As advised, I paid my fare to the driver as I climbed aboard.
As the bus drove all through the town, the modern city of Kołobrzeg appeared as a typical middle-sized European city, its downtown bedecked with small business struggling after a quarter century of operation and the occasional Biedronka or Kaufland supermarket breaking the pace. Every so often, an ancient artifact stood out as a survivor of all the artillery shells that the Soviets fired during the assault on the city, such as the brick water tower that stands not far from the old mill dam on the Parsęta River.
Eventually, the bus reached the cemetery entrance. At this stop, the highway out of town, named for Zenon’s division (6 Dywizji Piechoty) changes from an urban arterial into the rural DW102 provincial road as the sidewalk disappeared below a set of high tension electrical lines. Following the sidewalk to the end, though, led me to the gate to the Cmentarz Wojenny, or the War Cemetery (of the soldiers of the Polish and the Soviet Army fallen during the Battle of Kołobrzeg 1945).
The cemetery is laid out at the edge of the larger Cmentarz Komunalny, or the city’s community cemetery. This burial ground replaced the destroyed German cemetery that once stood near the coast, not far from where Zenon was fatally injured. From the air, the War Cemetery looks like a giant circle, where a third is dedicated to a parade ground, another third to a tree garden, and the middle third to walkways containing stones commemorating the mostly Polish Red Army liberators who died while taking the town. Along the first walk, on stone F-32, szeregowy (or private) Zenon Bernatowicz’s name is written.
As the tablets at the entrance read, this cemetery was set up in 1948 following the collecting and re-burial of all the war dead buried in various parts of the city. They were supposedly buried in the park area where the stones with the names were placed, but not finding any specific information confirming this detail, it seemed to me that they could just as likely be buried in a mass grave where a Wiktor Tołkin memorial with two swords marks the center of the circle. It seems hard to believe that five men could be buried under a stone that would hardly cover a single man.
Having seen the memorial garden and worked out the logistics of a future visit, should my wife’s mother ever want to come to visit him in Kołobrzeg (I still hope that, even though her health is deteriorating), I returned to the bus stop and caught the bus back into the city. The bus driver was the same fellow who drove me out to the stop, and seemed genuinely surprised to see me on his bus coming back. Old people who had gone out shopping mixed with students heading to unspecified destinations as the morning sun heated the air in the coastal city.
I next explored the city center, looking for a wifi hot spot. However, none of the free spots seemed to work. As the temps climbed to tropical levels, I finally reached the lighthouse, and from the base of it I took my first gaze at the Baltic Sea. Its blue horizon seemed to be covered with distant fog banks, beyond which appeared somehow even more distant landmasses, but these became clearly illusions the longer one stared out at them. Turning my gaze to the shoreline, I saw what I knew my daughter would want to find here, had she come along on this trip, the beach. A very crowded beach it was at that, with nearly every meter of sand covered with tanning bodies and the occasional tented attraction.
Supposedly the beach walk, called Bulwar im. Jana Szymanskiego, was supposed to be a large free wifi hotspot, but again I couldn’t log in. I took note of everything the beach had to offer, and stopped at the Marriage to the Sea monument commemorating the 1945 pledge by the Polish Army to never allow Poland to be separated from the Baltic again, a pledge made on Mar. 20, shortly after the city was captured by Zenon’s compatriots. He might have already been five-days dead by that time.
Eventually I found a coffee shop back in the city center that had wifi and conveyed the success in finding Zenon’s grave back to my wife in Belarus before heading back to the coast to try and enjoy the sand and sea for a few hours before boarding the Pirat train back to Wrocław. After I got there, I finally found my computer was able to log in to the free wifi from Bulwar Szymanskiego, but the battery was too low to really enjoy Internet access for too long.
Unfortunately, the trip back was the least enjoyable thing about my visit to Kołobrzeg. If it could be possible, the train back to Silesia was more crowded than the train coming to the coast. This time, my travel companions didn’t include a baby with parents trying to coax it to sleep. Instead, my compatriots were mostly young people with beer. Further, the day’s heat still lingered in the air, even as the windows were opened, to which being stuffed in compartment with eight people did little to help in getting comfortable. Eventually, I gave up and hung out in the walkway. No one got off at any of the stops, not even Poznan, as we rode into the night. Finally, as dawn gripped the western Polish sky, the Pirat arrived at Wrocław station, and I escaped.
The air outside was nearly tolerable, but I knew that after the sun came up on this day, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, it wouldn’t be that way for long. By afternoon, the temperature reached 38.9 degrees Celsius in the Biskupin district, just into triple digits on the Fahrenheit scale. As it turned out, I missed escaping the record high temperature for Wrocław by just a day.