Letters from Halle-Salle Prison
Letters from Halle-Salle Prison
By: Krystyna Wituska
Date: September 18, 1943
About the Author: Krystyna Wituska was a member of the Polish resistance movement that fought against the occupying German army after Poland was invaded in 1939. In 1942, Wituska was captured. During the period between her capture and her execution in 1944, Wituska wrote over ninety letters from prison that described her imprisonment and her outlook towards both her life and her inevitable death in custody.
The Second World War began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland on September 17, 1939, in furtherance of a secret pact made between Germany and the Soviet Union earlier that year known as the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop agreement. Poland was defeated on October 6, 1939; its government never formally surrendered and instead it established itself as a government-in-exile in London.
By 1941, the Polish resistance, or underground, was organized around the ZWZ (the Union of Armed Resistance), the forerunner to the Polish Home Army. The ZWZ engaged primarily in acts of sabotage against rail lines and German armed forces transportation. The ZWZ also undertook military intelligence gathering operations regarding German troop, tank, and aircraft movements that the ZWZ passed along to British military commanders. In the course of the war, the Polish underground enjoyed a number of notable intelligence successes, including the discovery of the location of the German V-1 rocket manufacturing plant.
Wituska joined the ZWZ in 1941. Fluent in German, Wituska was assigned to observe and report on German troop movements in the Warsaw region. She acted in this capacity until 1942, when her name was discovered among those listed in the papers of her fiancé, who was also a ZWZ member. Wituska was arrested by the Gestapo, the German secret police, and forcefully interrogated. Wituska was then transported to Germany, where she was incarcerated in a series of prisons, most notably the Alt-Moabit prison in Berlin, and the Halle-Salle prison in the city of Halle, in eastern Germany.
The two letters excerpted here are a part of a ninety-six letter collection, one that includes both letters to Wituska's parents and to the daughter of the German prison guard, Hedwig Grimpe, who risked her own life to smuggle the Wituska letters out of Alt-Moabit.
18 September 1943
[This letter was given to Sonnenschein to keep and then forward to the Wituska family after Krystyna's death. Mrs. Grimpe did this after the war.]
You will receive this letter after my death. It will be sent to you by a person to whom we are immeasurably indebted. She has been our friend, and our guardian. At great personal risk, she tried as much as possible to ease our difficult fate; she shared with us whatever she could, never asking for anything in return. We called her our "Ray of Sunshine," because whenever she came into our cell, she brought her joy and laughter. We became friends with her daughter. You saw her once, Daddy; do you remember?
I only regret that I will never be able to repay her for everything that she did for us, for her dear heart of gold. She was especially fond of me and I loved her as one can only love one who offers a hand when you are truly in need and never thinks of this as charity, but only as something normal. Please don't forget her.
Dearest parents, writing this letter, I still don't know what will be the outcome of my application for clemency, but believe me that I am completely ready for death and I don't entertain any false hopes. Our long separation has deepened my feelings for you, and it pains me to leave you in such sorrow. But believe me, I am prepared to go to my death with head held high, without fear. This is my last obligation to you and to my country. Prison was for me a good, often difficult school of life, but there were nevertheless joyful, sunny days. My friendship with Mimi will remain with me, an unforgettable and wonderful memory until the end. She taught me to never lose my humour, to laugh at "them," and to die bravely. We will die on the eve of our victory knowing that we did not resist in vain against injustice and brute force.
Don't despair beloved parents, be brave dearest Mummy. Remember that I watch over you and grieve over every one of your tears. But when you smile, I smile with you.
May God reward you for the love and care with which you have enveloped me. Farewell, dearest parents, farewell.…
26 June 44.
How hard it is to write this last letter. But you must believe me—I am not afraid of death, I do no regret my life. I only think how much sorrow I give you, how you will grieve during the last hours of my life. I want to thank you again for your care and your love, for your unconditional dedication, my dearest Mummy! I can never thank you enough for everything you have done for me, for my joyful, carefree childhood. Don't cry,
Mummy, may God ease your pain. I know that you long ago forgave me all the trouble and worry I caused you. I am looking for words that would help me cheer you but I can only think of one sentence that Pani Wanda said when she lost Lolek: "God's best-loved die young."
I am completely at peace, believe me, and I will remain serene to the end. My last obligation to Poland and to you—is to die bravely.
Beloved Daddy, dearest Mummy, I feel you are with me today and I am so conscious of my great love for you. I dedicate my last thoughts to you.
Be brave! Bid me farewell.
The letters of Krystyna Wituska are remarkable both for their insights into the character of their author, as well illustrating the considerable sensitivity possessed by Wituska regarding the relationship between her life and her pending death.
Wituska was not treated as a prisoner of war by the Germans, as might otherwise have been the case for a captured enemy combatant. She was imprisoned and the subject of an execution order for her work with respect to gathering military intelligence. For reasons that are unclear, Wituska's execution did not take place until late June 1944, over fifteen months after the order to do so was issued.
At the time of her letter from Alt-Moabit prison in Berlin dated September 18, 1943, Wituska had been imprisoned for approximately nine months. She was awaiting her application for clemency from her execution order in good spirits; Wituska plainly believes that her request will be rejected by the German authorities. The tone of the letter is one of resolution regarding her likely fate; Wituska employs language that echoes the sentiments expressed by all freedom and resistance fighters in the course of history—she is prepared to die an honorable death and one that will occur in advance of her country's ultimate victory over the enemy.
Wituska also describes the actions of the Alt-Moabit prison guard (later identified as Hedwig Grimpe) in bringing an element of humanity into her life in prison. It is plain from the attitude demonstrated by her captors towards Wituska, had Grimpe been discovered assisting Wituska with the sending of her letters, it is certain that she would have suffered harsh consequences or death.
In her letter of June 28, 1944, Wituska is preparing for the death that she now knows to be inevitable. She has spent a further nine months in harsh and unremitting prison conditions, and yet the tone of her final farewell to her family as expressed in this letter is as cheerful and as resolute as the words written the year before. It is evident that the period of eighteen months imprisonment has not broken Wituska's resolve to be brave and steadfast in the face of her execution. Much of Wituska's sentiment about her death is directed to her understanding of the concept of personal responsibility, to both her family and her country.
The Nazi regime in all of the countries occupied by the German army throughout the course of the Second World War was as repressive and as determined as any in recorded history. The actions of Grimpe underscore the basic notion that at its essence, humanity and a sympathetic consideration for the plight of another human being will occasionally conquer oppression and brutal treatment. As Wituska noted in her letter, Grimpe received no benefit and she took significant risks to provide comfort to Wituska.
It is of interest that the sentiments of Wituska concerning her imprisonment and her execution were apparently unknown to her comrades in the Polish underground after her capture. Wituska was not an important member of the ZWZ and there was no effort made to rescue her; thousands of Polish resistance fighters were captured and executed by German authorities between 1939 and the retreat of the German army in 1945. Unlike many romanticized figures in history who were imprisoned as a result of their participation in the advancing of a cause or political objective, the capture and the subsequent execution of Wituska was an accepted consequence of the war against the Germans. Her words of hope and her uplifted spirit were never used as propaganda to boost the resolve of the Polish fighters.
Wituska's letters have a historical impact similar to that of the Diary of Anne Frank, the renowned writings of the thirteen-year-old Jewish girl who hid with her family from the German authorities in occupied Amsterdam in 1942. It is an irony of history that the Frank diaries and the Wituska letters span the same general period, from 1942 to 1944. Both Wituska and Frank write with an immediacy and a poignancy that provide a historical coloring that is not present in other contemporary sources.
Tomaszewski, Irene, ed. I am First a Human Being: The Letters of Krystyna Wituska. Quebec City; Vehicule Press, 1997.
Tomaszewski, Irene, ed. Inside a Gestapo Prison: The Letters of Krystyna Wituska 1942–1944. Detroit, Michigan; Wayne State University Press, 2006.
National Film Board of Canada. "Web of War." July 1, 2005. <http://www.nfb.ca/trouverunfilm/> (accessed May 20, 2006).