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Knights of Malta ArmorialThe Order of Malta in Poland

War Memories: Teresa Kleniewska-Karska


Teresa Kleniewska-Karska (nee Kobylecka) was born in 1921 in Radomszczański district in Poland. She was a nurse and a member of  ‘Our Strange Group’ ZWZ/AK during the Uprising; her pseudonym was ‘Grazyna’. She is a recipient of the Cross of Valour. Mrs Kleniewska-Karska came to Great Britain in 1946. For over 30 years she lived in Canada. She resides now in London.

Teresa Karska 1946Teresa Karska, 1946.Right from the beginning of the German attack, Varsovians were conspiring against the German invaders and those women who were willing and able joined the Home Army (Armia Krajowa of AK) as recruits and were given military training. Even before the Warsaw Uprising we all stared death in the face on a daily basis. One of my girlfriends was supposed to carry a rifle over to one of the training centres, and there was no other way of transporting it except by tram. It was spring time, so she dressed up the rifle as a sapling—sticking a twig down the barrel with some rough leaves poking out of the top, wrapping the whole thing up in paper. The tram was very crowded. A young man standing next to her did not look very happy about the space she was taking and commented: ‘Are you carrying a rifle, Madam, or what?’ She turned pale and nearly fainted, her hands shaking all the way until the tram arrived at the training centre. A discovery would have meant certain death.

Malta Hospital Staff Warsaw 1941Nursing staff at The Knights of Malta Hospital, Warsaw, 1941.

 Luck of the draw—the Uprising

In 1940 I was accepted into The School of Agriculture and it was during these studies I joined the AK (Home Army). Initially, I attended some first-aid courses and lectures on politics and history. On completion of our training we all took an oath to our group, which we called ‘Our Strange Group’. After Red Cross training, I worked as a nurse in the Knights of Malta Hospital but my medical knowledge was rather limited. One particular night whilst on duty, I can never forget. A patient with appendicitis arrived and Doctor Zebrowski ordered: ‘Straight to the operating theatre, nurse’. My job was to keep the patient under anaesthesia during the operation. ‘My God—I thought—I have never administered anaesthetics before’. In those days you had to keep dripping the anaesthetic liquid directly into the patient’s nose while holding his jaws open to prevent him from suffocating. My hands were rather weak and I struggled seriously but managed in the end. An experience not to be forgotten.’

At the same time, with my girlfriends, we ran a refuge for children. At the main train station in Warsaw, we would snatch Polish children being transported by the Germans from the Zamość district to camps or other parts of Poland or the Third Reich, as part of their policy of ethnic cleansing. We would approach the carriages and take some of the children as though they were our own and then hide them temporarily in a factory in Wola. Later, fake documents would be issued for them. We all took turns to take care for the children and just before the Uprising we drew lots – who would go to fight in the Uprising and who would stay with them. Luckily, Mr and Mrs Mazaraki lent us a small abode on their country estate near Skierniewice. Some of us stayed there with the children—but my lot was to join the Uprising.

Bombardment of the hospital

In Okopowa Street in Wola, we organised a little hospital but only used it for a few days as we moved on to the Old Town. There was another little hospital there too, but we soon moved to Miodowa–Długa Passage, where a large hospital already existed in a basement. We had a few rooms—naturally we also had to look after some wounded German soldiers. We lived through bombardments, fire and even the crash of a South-African plane. And then the end came.

You could feel that the Old Town was falling and would taken by the Germans any day. We stayed on at the hospital to prepare for evacuation and as a precaution placed the wounded Germans close to the entrance. I turned to my friend, Helenka Brzozowska and said ‘Listen, Helenka, next door a priest is conducting a mass for the sick,’ as we walked out, a bomb hit the room! Twelve of our colleagues died. Only the two of us survived. Clearly we could not go back but we tried to remove the rubble but it was all too heavy. We talked to our trapped colleagues; we gave them water through a little hole. My cousin among them, Jolanta Miroslawska. I remember, she cried: ‘I am burning from my feet up’. It was horrible! Through a small hole, she managed to hand me a signet-ring which I was to give to her mother.

Warsaw Uprising 1944Uprising—Rifles against German tanks!What should we do next? We had to carry those who were alive out of the hospital. So we started moving them one by one—we would put one on the ground and come back to get the next one: step by step till we reached the Knights of Malta Hospital, in Senatorska Street—it was quite a long way away. The wounded were received there but I was transferred to the hospital in Wola. However, because there were enough medical personnel there, the nurses newly arrived from the Old Town were sent out of Warsaw, transported in horse carriages covered with cloth to the nearest train station. I left Warsaw by the next train. Till the end of my life, I will not forget the conversation I heard in the carriage: Two ladies sitting next to me were talking about the wonderful time they had had playing bridge the day before. It was a shock to me! Through such tragedy and ordeal…we thought the whole of Poland was involved and yet here life was going on normally.

In the summer of 1945 we organised the exhumation of our colleagues’ bodies. A meeting with Helenka Brzozowska was arranged in Warsaw. We hired a funeral company who promised to help us. Life was very hard then, our financial situation was horrible. We had hardly anything to eat. We retrieved the burned corpses and buried them in Powązkowski Cemetery in Warsaw. There is an inscription on the grave-stone: ‘Remember us in your prayers. One does not live to fight, but fights to live. And when life is scarce, look death in the eyes and brave it’.

I was in God’s care during the occupation. I lived in Żoliborz at my sisters’ and commuted to school. There were round-ups every day. One day the tram I was travelling in was stopped, everyone was taken out of the tram and sent to hard-labour camps. I managed to sit down on the floor in-between the carriages. The tram moved on with me inside, completely alone. Either the Germans did not notice or they just could not be bothered about me. One was always in danger, always under pressure.

There could be a round-up at any time. From the Uprising, I remember an event when, feeling tired, I sat down by a small basement window to get some rest. Sniping and firing was going on. One of my friends shouted: ‘Teresa, back off from the window!’. I moved and seconds later a bullet whizzed through the window. I was so lucky! I was never wounded, but so many close to me died—during the war I lost 80 members of my family.

Teresa-Karska June-09Teresa Kleniewska-Karska, June 2009.When things became quieter I decided to go to see my aunt in Wloclawek to give her the ring from the daughter who had been killed by the bomb blast. At the station the train was seriously overcrowded. People shouted to me ‘Get on the roof’. Can you imagine? I tried but because I was small I had problems. Suddenly I heard a voice: ‘Teresa, Teresa, can I help you get up here?’ I looked up and saw one of the nuns from the Niepokalanki Sisters’ Convent in Szymanów where I had boarded before the war. I answered: ‘Yes, please, Sister’. There were already people on the roof. I joined them.Between Warsaw and Włocławek there are quite a few tunnels. When approaching them somebody would shout: ‘Heads down’. And all of us would duck. I don’t know how I survived all of this? Perhaps it’s the prerogative of youth.

Translated by Ewa Cieplińska-Bertini

First to Fight


Excerpt from First to Fight: Poland's Contribution to the Allied Victory in WWII.  ISBN-13: 978-0955782442.