WIELUN (Poland): World War II began when a German battleship shelled a Polish base on the Baltic coast on September 1, 1939.
Wrong, say residents of Wielun, who want the southern Polish town to win global recognition, albeit 70 years late.
On the road into this community of 24,000, a “Welcome to Wielun” sign looms large. Three numbers stick out: “4:40”.
That was the time the Luftwaffe bombs rained down, five minutes before the battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire at a Polish garrison in Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), triggering six years of warfare around the world.
“We want people to remember that the barbarity started here,” Mieczyslaw Majcher, Wielun’s 53-year-old mayor, told AFP.
“But we have the impression people ask: ‘What’s Wielun?’”
Eugeniusz Kolodziejczyk, 82, knows only too well.
“I remember standing right by this tree. That’s when I saw the planes coming in,” he said, gesturing skywards to a flight-path branded into his memory.
He was at the station seeing off his father, who had been called up by the army as war clouds gathered.
“I can still see it clearly. I shouted to him: ‘I can hear a loud noise! I can see planes!’ Then the bombs started falling,” said Kolodziejczyk, one of 42 remaining eyewitnesses.
“They fell on the hospital, the synagogue, the church, the houses. I remember the rubble. The whole place was on fire, stinging our throats. It was like fog, you couldn’t see more than five or ten metres.
“I’ll never forget it until the end of my days. We didn’t stand a chance.”
Further raids hit around 7am, 10am and 2pm.
Three-quarters of Wielun was destroyed. Around 1,200 of its 15,000 inhabitants were killed and many more were injured. Half of the dead were Jews, who made up around a third of the population and mostly lived in the centre.
Unlike Wielun, Danzig is iconic for Poles. There, 180 soldiers at the small base on the Westerplatte peninsula held out for seven days against 3,500 Germans.
“It’s not a contest with Westerplatte. They were two different things.
Westerplatte was the first battle, but Wielun was the first attack on defenceless civilians,” said Majcher.
Wielun has inched back into view in recent years.
In 2004, Aleksander Kwasniewski was the first Polish president to hold a September 1 commemoration in the town. His successor, Lech Kaczynski, is expected to come this year, after ceremonies with world leaders at Westerplatte.
But Wielun’s story is still barely known outside Poland.
It lay 21 kilometres from the then Polish-German border – shifted far to the west after the Nazis’ defeat in 1945.
Other than proximity, however, the reason the Luftwaffe chose it as a target remains unclear.
Even Nazi-era sources painted a contradictory picture. Some asserted there were troops in the town – no Polish evidence backs that – and others that it was undefended.
“There was no military. No industry,” said historian Tadeusz Olejnik, 74.
“Germany had the most high-tech bombers available, capable of precision attacks. And they didn’t hit targets like the railway station, the post office, the town hall, or the bridges.”
Nazi Germany’s doctrine of “Blitzkrieg” – lightning war – involved hammer blows by the Luftwaffe and thrusts by motorised land forces.
“Blitzkrieg wasn’t just about fighting. It had a strong psychological element, aiming to sow panic and chaos on the roads when refugees fled,” said Olejnik.
The squadron that attacked Wielun included veterans of the notorious Condor Legion which bombed the Basque town of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish civil war.
Olejnik has a theory why Wielun was forgotten.
“Even the Polish army communiqués of September 1 didn’t mention Wielun. It seems the town was so heavily hit that the news couldn’t get out. Then that gap fed into official history after the war,” he said.
The bombing only marked the beginning of Wielun’s suffering.
When German troops arrived they herded Jews into a ghetto, forced them to clear the rubble, and later sent them to death camps.
Non-Jewish Poles were also massacred, or expelled to make way for German colonists.
In 1940, Kolodziejczyk was deported to Germany, where he spent the rest of the war as a farm labourer, risking his life by joining a resistance group.
The air war was to mark him again.
On May 6, 1945 – two days before Germany surrendered – he was in a field when three aircraft shot through the sky.
“They were British Spitfires, roaming uncontested,” he said, recalling the joy he felt that his ordeal was nearly over.
Asked if he has ever forgiven, Kolodziejczyk said: “Memory is one thing.
Forgiveness is another. But I don’t blame innocent Germans for what happened”.—AFP