From Revolutionary to Prime Minister: the Unknown Fates of Polish Terrorists
They were train hijackers, bomb makers, arsonists and saboteurs. Some even held up liquor stores. They would later become Prime Ministers and Presidents of Poland. General Piłsudski and Ignacy Mościcki were amongst those who spent the Partition of Poland fighting for freedom; or, in the eyes of the occupiers, committing acts of terrorism. We can now see their most daring actions immortalised in photographs and pictures from the period.
These conspirators were among the most ruthless enemies faced by the Russian leadership and the Tsarist police force. They blended into the crowd, and took the authorities by surprise. Their bombs were home-made, their equipment well-hidden, and their actions plotted out in conspiracy right under their oppressor's nose. Today, they would have to be called terrorists. And even though their targets were first and foremost the uniformed representatives of the occupiers, innocent civilians also fell victim to their violence. Wojciech Lada's book Polscy terroryści (Polish Terrorists) tells the story of the members of the Organizacja Bojowa (Combat Organisation) (1904-1911) and the Frakcja Rewolucyjna PPS (Revolutionary Fraction of the PPS Party) (1906-1914, then as PPS from 1909) – formidable people in difficult times, from the late 19th century through to 1918, the year of Poland's regained independence.
As the 19th century ended, London became a political asylum for many PPS (Polish Socialist Party) members persecuted by the Tsarist establishment. Still, Albion was not all that friendly towards our conspirators, even if it provided refuge from surveillance by the Okhrana – the Russian Empire's secret police. The exile's premises were safe, but also very poor. Anyone who not born into a rich family usually experienced great financial difficulty.
Ignacy Mościcki, a prominent chemist, scientist, inventor and the future Polish president also a held some less savoury roles… that of bomb-maker and failed suicide bomber. Together with his collaborator Michał Zieliński, he plotted an attack on Warsaw's governor-general, Yosif Hurko. After he learned that his plot had been unmasked by the Tsarist authorities, he fled with his wife to London in July, 1892. He spent 5 years there, studying at the Finsbury Technical College as well as the Patent Library. Unfortunately, he couldn't at all cope with everyday life in a foreign country. Mościcki would later remember: "My efforts to obtain a job lasted for some time, before I decided they were hopeless. Finally, the little reserve of money I had was totally exhausted […] We had a supply of coal and some potatoes, but no money to buy bread". The future president started to manufacture kefir (soured milk), and he also tried his skills as a hairdresser.
Bombs often failed to explode, or they were thrown so ineptly that the terrorist was more wounded than the victim. This is how Stefan Okrzeja was caught – he threw an explosive device into a Tsarist police station in the Praga district. The explosives injured and deafened Okrzeja, and half-conscious and dazed, he attempted to flee the scene but took a wrong turn. He was quickly caught, sentenced to death, and hanged in Warsaw's citadel on the 21st July, 1905. Stefan Okrzeja became a legend to Polish independence fighters. In 1920, his portrait was even printed on postcards, together with the phrase "Praise to the martyr!".
Dynamite was one of the most frequently used weapons of the Organizacja Bojowa – the military branch of of the PPS. A dynamite attack on Wola near Warsaw was described in the Kraków newspaper Nowości Ilustrowane (Illustrated News). The magazine released the news, accompanied by a telling image and emphasised with a caption: "When the clouds of dust and smoke fell, a terrifying view presented itself to the bypassers' eyes. All of the patrol's rank-and-file soldiers were horribly wounded, lying on the ground in their own blood. With crushed arms and legs, butchered faces, they were writhing in pain, wheezing in final agony".
Failed actions which ended with the deaths of young fighters made Piłsudski realise that professional training was required. The programme encompassed lessons in operating weapons, constructing explosives, and street fighting. Soon, these instructions were published as a manual. The pamphlet contained information and pertinent technical illustrations on how to use guns, and it also taught about sabotage. Subsequent chapters conveyed how to destroy enemy materiel. They were entitled: Destruction of a Gun, Destruction of a Machine Gun, Destruction of a Cannon, Destruction of a Cannon with the Use of Explosives.
Walery Sławek, the future three-time Prime Minister of the Second Polish Republic, was a legend in the PPS. Even prior to the creation of the Organizacja Bojowa he made history as an resourceful runaway from Sieradz prison (which he escaped from on the 18th of December, 1903). Beyond the walls of the prison, in a part adjacent to a private garden, a rope ladder was attached to a tree and hidden in the bushes. The other end of the ladder was equipped with a little piece of wire with a stone, and this end was tossed over the prison walls. After diverting the guards' attention, Sławek pulled the ladder over to his side of the wall, and climbed over it. He wandered through the surrounding forests, fighting hunger as well as the cold, before he finally made it to Warsaw. There, he began to form the Organizacja Bojowa movement.
Only one of the PPS fighters dared to perform a suicide attack – the young engineer Tadeusz Dzierzbicki. After the death of his younger brother in a street protest, he decided to kill the governor-general, Konstanty Maksymovicz. On the 18th of May, 1905, Dzierzbicki sat down to sip a coffee at the Vincenti's cafe by Miodowa street. He planned to throw his own hand-made bomb into the Russian official's carriage when it passed. But two police agents entered the premises, and the stranger with a package immediately drew their attention. When they approached him, Dzierzbicki knocked his package off the table, causing an explosion. The remains of the assassin were found in the premises along with the bodies of the two agents, and a fourth body belonging to an unidentified stranger. A few innocent people also suffered major injures, while Maksymovich died a natural death in 1916.
One of the main motives behind the assassinations was revenge for the brutal and abusive treatment of Poles by the Russian invaders. Attacks on the detested Tsarist police officials were widely described in the press, especially in Polish papers officially published in the Austrian state. The Austrian regime proved significantly more liberal, and there were no violent attacks on alien authorities on what was formerly Polish territory. The areas taken over by Russia and Prussia did not allow the publication of this news, but it was spread there illegally as so-called bibuła (the name in Poland for the underground press, later also used under communist rule in the country).
Apart from brownings and dynamite, bombs turned out to be the most efficient weapon of Polish terrorists. Their advantage was not only their firepower but also the psychological impact they had – bombs were a true demonstration of force.
Members of the Frakcja Rewolucyjna (Revolutionary Fraction), also called Fraki, continued the PPS's actions after the party split in 1906. They gathered funds for their revolutionary activities by robbing the occupier's liquor stores, and carriages that transported larger sums of money. In 1905 alone, 246 such attacks took place, enriching the party's budget by some 16 thousand rubles. With these funds, the group purchased guns, explosives, and growingly professional lab equipment for the construction of bombs. After each act of expropriation, which the Russian authorities called theft, the Frakcja Rewolucyjna left behind receipts with their official stamp.
Daring and dangerous attacks on post trains became the flagship action of the PPS. One of the most significant incidents of this kind was an attack on a government train which was transporting large amounts of cash under special surveillance. The attack near Bezdany, which took place on the 26th of September, 1908, became legendary also because of the participation of Józef Piłsudski. Piłsudski was a Polish statesman, and later the person most responsible for the creation of the Second Republic of Poland in 1918, 123 years after it had been taken over by Russia, Austria and Prussia. Some of the best fighters also took part in the action, including Edward Gibalski, Józef Kobiałko, Aleksander Lutze-Birk and the subsequent three Prime Ministers of Poland: Tomasz Arciszewski, Walery Sławek and Aleksander Prystor. The famous action was also conducted in a horrifyingly hectic way. Piłsudski would later explain: "I was tormented by the vagueness of the relations […]: I was not the clearly appointed leader. And because of this, I did not want to enter into conversations about the roles that would be ascribed to particular people".
The above illustration is an image of one of the largest armed actions of the PPS's Organizacja Bojowa. On the 8th of November, 1906, led by Józeń Motwiłł-Mirecki, the fighters attacked a closely guarded post convoy, which was transporting large amounts of money and securities.
Later a senator of the 2nd Polish Republic, Ksawery Franciszek Prauss was a renowned smuggler of bibuła press during the period of the underground fights for Polish independence. His wife Zofia was also famous for bravery of no smaller proportions, and she showed great devotion to fighting the Russian enemy. Women who fought were not so much "with weapons in arms" but rather with "weapons under their skirts" were less subject to revision. Władysław Dehnel later recalled: "The most capacious companions were thin and tall. Morawiecka, for example, was the most capacious one I knew. Her husband used to say that his wife takes shape when she has a 'pud' (some 16 kgs) of bibuła on her".
The assassination of Anatoliyush Ulikh on May 16th, 1909 was one of the many attacks on police chiefs. Stanisław Andrzej Radek said that: "The fighters took their positions near the governorate headquarters. They did not wait long when Ulikh appeared in the usual company [of eight gendarmes]. 'Henryk' surfaced in front of him, and shot him dead with one accurate shot from a distance of five paces. Before the policemen who followed Ulikh caught up with what had happened, the fighters scattered them with gunfire". The daring executioner was Władysław "Henryk" Bartniak, the head of the combat unit. Three policemen died, but all the fighters survived, including two who were wounded. The press widely commented on this spectacular action by the PPS fighters. Another such incident was the killing of the Łódź police chief, Hilary Khjanovsky. Above is how an illustrator imagined the action.
One of the most brave actions of the "Polish terrorists" was freeing ten prisoners from the Pawiak prison on the 24th of April, 1906. The action was lead by Jan Gorzechowski aka Jur, later an officer of the Polish Legion, and a director of the Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (He was also the second husband of the famous writier Zofia Nałkowska). The headline of Kurier Warszawski magazine read: The Abduction of Pawiak Prisoners! The action was soon commented upon in the whole of Europe, and it also inspired Ryszard Ordyński to direct the film Dziesięciu z Pawiaka (The Ten from Pawiak).
The bravely conducted action also demanded great acting skills from the fighters. They were dressed for the occasion in specially tailored Tsar gendarmerie uniforms and equipped with excellently forged documents. They appeared in the prison on Pawia street, demanding the extradition of ten prisoners in order to transport them to the citadel. Their leader (Jur) impersonated Baron von Budberg, weary and bored with his tasks. He intertwined some of his Russian sayings with German ones, as it was rare for Germans who worked for the Tsar to be true polyglots. All prison staff bowed low before him. After brutally forcing the prisoners onto a wagon, they made an unhurried leave from the Pawiak. A little while later, the gendarmes which were supposedly escorting prisoners, suddenly pulled out brand-new brownings and, laughing, handed them out to the prisoners.
Wojciech Lada is a journalist and columnist. His areas of study include historical music and literature. He is a longtime collaborator with the Życie Warszawy magazine. His texts can also be found in various weekly reviews, as well as music portals and press devoted to history. Polish Terrorists is his second book. Previously, together with Jerzy Skoczylas, he wrote Wielkie ucieczki (The Great Escapes,) (2010), a book devoted to the most spectacular escapes of the PRL Polish communist state.
Polscy terroryści (Polish Terrorists)
Znak Horyzont publishing company, Kraków 2014
size: 145 x 218 mm
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, November, 2014, translated by Paulina Schlosser