NOTE: This overview of my recent discoveries at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust, Studium Polskiej Podziemniej (SPP) got so long I will publish it in three separate posts over the next few days. Here is part I. During the German occupation of Poland during World War II, the Polish Underground Army worked in secret to resist, sabotage, and fight against the Nazis. Another name for the Polish forces is “AK,” short for “Armia Krajowa,” or “Home Army.” I talk about the soldiers as “the partisans;” in Polish sources they are also called “konspiracja,” “the conspiracy.”
The extraordinary story of my mother’s service in the Polish Underground can be hard to reconcile with the person I knew. Mama would hide when strangers visited the house because she was afraid they would stare at her scars. How could she have carried secret messages to the partisans in the forest or talked calmly with Nazi officers on the German-only trains right under signs that read, “Danger! The Enemy is Listening!”? And yet, as her daughter I also knew her strength and persistence, especially when matters of principal were involved.
I couldn’t find much specific information about my mother at the Warsaw Uprising Museum or the Polish National Archive of New Records in Warsaw. Next, I turned to the Studium Polski Podziemnej (SSP), Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London. But when the archivist responded they have no record of Maria Bereda in their indexes, a part of me wondered if Mama could have fabricated her whole story.
But that made no sense. My mother didn’t lie. She struggled with guilt even when she tried to tell the smallest untruth. Instead, she would avoid certain subjects, and would keep silent when people came to their own incorrect conclusions about them. That’s why for instance I thought she was the same age as my dad when I was a child. My oldest brother inferred it from the sequence of their birthdays—Dad’s was on March 1 and Mom’s was a few months later on June 26—and Mama didn’t bother to correct us.
Mama didn’t like talking about her past, but the story about how she was verified after the war was one she was more willing to tell. She had to go to London to do it because wartime records were scattered and incomplete. During the war, the Underground Army didn’t have the infrastructure to maintain centralized records. Often, lists of personnel and promotions were memorized or scribbled on any available scrap of paper. Also, to prevent the Nazis from infiltrating the underground forces, details of separate units were kept from each other. Most partisans only knew about those serving directly above and below them, and even members of the same unit referred to each other by code name. All of these were strategies for insuring that if someone was caught or compromised, they would have minimal information to share and so could inflict a minimum of damage to the organization. Also, few records remained after Warsaw was bombed to the ground following the Warsaw Uprising. The Central Verification Commission was in London, where the Polish Government in Exile had been throughout the war.
Mama travelled from Poland to London in March 1946. She wanted to be sure that an official record would exist to mark her participation in the war, and she wanted to get the Cross of Bravery she had been granted but never received. At the Commission, she reported on her training, her unit, her superior officers, and her activities. When she told me this story many years later, she was very proud of her ability to recall all these details from memory, things that could only be known by someone who actually served in the Underground. The commission checked everything for accuracy before the verification was confirmed.
I already had a copy of the “Special Questionnaire” Mama had filled out as part of this process; I had found it in her papers. At minimum, I should have been able to find the original at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust (SPP), which houses the archive of the Verification Commission. Fortunately during a recent trip to London, some focused digging at the SPP turned up a treasure trove of documents. Already in our e-mail correspondence, the SPP archivist Krystyna Zatylna had seemed confident that something would turn up if we looked harder. She eventually found Mama’s records where they had been mislabeled and misfiled.
According to their website, “The Polish Underground Movement (1939-1945) Study Trust (PUMST), was founded in London in 1947. It is a research and academic institution, which contains historical material on the Polish Underground State (the Underground Administration and the Polish Home Army – Armia Krajowa) during the Second World War.” Included among their materials, the verification papers sit on high shelves right in the reading room in accordion folders shelved alphabetically. Personal files are arranged alphabetically inside the folders, each in a separate manila envelope.
The first folder Krystyna pulled out for me contained last names starting with “Br” instead of “Be.” My heart fell when I didn’t find Mama’s records. But then Krystyna climbed up a wooden ladder and found the folder with the “Be” names. There it was: an envelope labeled Maria Bereda-Fijałkowska. For a time, Mama used this hyphenated name, tacking on the maiden name of her grandmother.
Krystyna explained that much of the work at the archive has been done by volunteers so there are a lot of mistakes. She also asked me a lot of questions. Was Mama’s name always hyphenated? Did she use any other names? Did she ever go by Fijałkowska? Was she ever married? She also asked the names of my mother’s units. I rattled off what I knew: she belonged to “Zadra” in the Women’s 5th Division of the Central Command stationed in the Wola District of Warsaw; shortly after the Warsaw Uprising began, she joined “Koło” Group, and served in the Old City–Stare Miasto and City Center–Śródmieście Districts . I also gave her the names of Mama’s superior officers. It was as if I was being verified myself.
To be continued…