For a long time it was believed that the fifteen-year-old was an imaginary character

Today the former defenders of the city are commemorated at a modest cemetery, many a time destroyed by “unknown perpetrators”. The invaders have their streets and monuments.

On September 9 will take place the premiere of a war movie "Eaglets. Grodno '39",directed by Krzysztof Łukaszewicz, co-produced by Polish Television.

The defense of Grodno was one of the most extraordinary events of September 1939. It has its heroes. One can clearly see two groups. The first were very young people, teenage boys who with the help of Molotov cocktail were trying to destroy Soviet tanks. The second group were officers during peace holding official positions, not participating in military maneuvers but when the need arose they orchestrated effective resistance against the Soviets.

The best known among the first is Tadzik (Tadeusz) Jasiński – up till recently having been more of a legend inasmuch as even his very existence was questioned. At the Grodno cemetery he has only a symbolic grave and a commemorative plaque while there are graves of other young men who fell at that time. And among the latter, the actual city defense commander, major Benedykt Serafin, stood out. For several years prior to 1939, he had been head of the District Replenishment Command, i.e., a military official, not a line officer.

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If we were to compare present Grodno city center with pre-war photographs there is a close resemblance. Most of the houses stand today as they did decades ago; there is a monument to Eliza Orzeszkowa, there are churches although St. Mary’s Church (aka as Vytaut’s Church) was blown up already after the war. And names of numerous streets have been changed but actually the pre-war Orzeszkowa Street bears the name “vulica Azheshka”.

The city residents are different too. Before the war, Poles dominated, with about 60%. The second-largest group was Jews, 37 percent, while the rest were mainly Belarusians. Today there are officially about 20 percent Poles, and in fact certainly more; Jews account for only 0.1 percent, and Belarusians dominate.

And for today’s authorities – as well as for the previous ones – the heroes of September 1939 aren’t Poles or Polish defenders of the city, but the Soviet invaders. Driving from the south-west the same way that the Soviet tanks attacked, along Gornovykha Street, we reach a bridge on Nemunas. Senior political instructor Grigoriy Alexandrovich Gornovykh was one of the first to get killed in an assault on Polish positions. He came from the Ural Mountains, from Vierkhniy Ufaley near Chelyabinsk – from home to Grodno he had to travel 2700 kilometers. He died sitting in a gun turret, apparently convinced that the people of Grodno would welcome him with bread and salt, putting up triumphal gates.
Polish soldiers welcomed him and other Red Army soldiers with shoots form canons and machine guns. Today the former defenders of the city are commemorated at a modest cemetery, many a time destroyed by “unknown perpetrators”. The invaders have their streets and monuments – the defenders are commemorated with street names in several Polish cities. The administration of Oktiabrskiy District in Grodno describes the monument to Gornovykh as follows: “On September 17, 1939 the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army entered the Polish territory in order to liberate Belarusian lands, detached from BSSR and USSR under the Treaty of Riga as a result of which Ukrainian and Belarusian nations were divided into two parts. It was an act of historical justice, uniting the artificially divided Belarusian nation in a single state – Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic – which became yet another important step towards the independence and sovereign development of Belarus”.

Tough defense

Grodno was at the rear of the Polish-German front. Before the war, it served as a garrison town. This is where the Command of the 3rd Corps District, headed by General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński, was located, and here the infantry and artillery regiments were stationed. But as late as August 1939, most of the army moved west.

Nevertheless, new units were formed. The Grodno Operational Group was created, but on September 10 its units were sent to the south of Poland to defend Lviv. The Polish command wanted to strengthen the so-called Romanian forebridge, i.e. the area preventing access to the Polish-Romanian border. French tanks and British planes were to reach our country across this border. Lviv and the suburbs were to resist until the expected French offensive against Germany. So Grodno and Vilnius had a third-rate role to play.

And yet they were getting ready. More backup units were organized in Grodno. In total, over 2.5 thousand people, including the marching battalion of captain Piotr Korzon and the guard battalion of major Benedict Serafin. An attack by the Germans was expected and the defense of the central part of the city was being prepared. The defenders prepared a supply of bottles with incendiary liquid - so it was not an invention from the time of the Warsaw Uprising. Polish uhlans in Kodziowce near Sopoćkinie, threw such bottles, and if they ran out of them, they would even use oil lamps(!) And with very good results.

September 17 was a shock for everyone. Unfortunately, people's reactions were different. General Olszyna-Wilczyński broke down. According to Serafin's account, he gave him an order in writing, appointing him the commander of the defense – and left in the direction of Sopoćkinie, with the intention of traveling to Lithuania. On the way he was stopped by the Soviets and brutally murdered. The local starosta and the city mayor left in a panic. Vice-mayor Roman Sawicki and the commander of the RKU, major Serafin remained where they were. As explained by a well-known specialist in the defense of the Northeast Borderlands in 1939, professor Czesław Grzelak, when there was no senior commander in the city, the command was taken over by the head of the replenishment command anyway.

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The Soviets didn’t reach the city until September 20. Why did they walk three days from the border (Vilnius resisted only one day)? The answer may come as a surprise: they ran out of gasoline. Tanks had to stop, fuel was poured out to about twenty of them, and they moved west…

With bottles against tanks

Stefan Chociej is already an elderly man, he uses a wheelchair. He lives in Dąbrowa Białostocka, but his hometown is Grodno.

- My older sister studied in middle school, in the second grade. Her colleagues persuaded me, took me with them, one of them was son to the police commissioner Ryszard Neumann who by the way later committed suicide. They had gasoline bottles ready, told me what to do. We set up an ambush in Orzeszkowa Street – says Mr. Chociej. – Russian tanks were approaching. I threw the bottle at the first moving tank, I hit it, it started to burn. Unfortunately, the next one, following it, fired and I myself was hit in the right hand. We hid under the bridge and I passed out and I didn't know what happened next. Then my sister and my friend took me to the hospital and they treated me there. It hurt terribly, but fortunately the bone was not damaged ... They killed two of their friends, because the first tank that was lit was not firing, but the next one did - he says.

Almost nobody remembers about Mr. Chociej, which is a pity. The most famous defender of Grodno remains Tadzik Jasiński. He was described in a book by Grażyna Lipińska – then the headmaster of the school and the commander of the Social Emergency, then twice arrested by the Soviets and sentenced to years in a labor camp. According to her account, Tadzik was supposed to throw a bottle of gasoline at the tank, but he forgot to set fire to the clogging rag (the rag was also soaked in incendiary fluid; when the bottle smashed against the armor, a great flame exploded). The Red Army soldiers captured him and tied him to the front of the tank. He was recaptured by the Poles, but wounded many times died in the hospital in the hands of his mother. Before his death, she told him: “Tadzik, be happy! The Polish army is back! Uhlans with banners! They sing!!!".

Many myths have arisen around Tadeusz Jasiński. There were suggestions in Belarusian forums that he did not exist at all. But there were also opposing voices. There is information that he lived with his mother Zofia at 9 Bonifraterska St (after the war - the corner of Svierdlova and Socyalisticheskaya). He was a half-orphan, a pupil of the Charity Institute. Opponents of Tadzik’s story also argued that it was impossible to tie the boy to the tank. But the fact that the Red Army used “human shields” is confirmed by other accounts.

It came as a surprise, when the “Grupa Wschód” association discovered a photo and a portrait of Tadeusz Jasiński. The memorabilia found their way to the Sybir Memorial Museum in Białystok. And in Grodno, an entry was found in the parish register of the no longer existing parish church. It says: “In the year one thousand nine hundred and thirty-nine on the twenty-first of September in Grodno at 31 Vitoldova St of the hereby parish during the war, Tadeusz Jasiński, 15 years old, was killed. He was not provided with sacraments. / Zofia Jasińska’s son / His corpse was buried on September 23, 1939, at the military cemetery in Grodno. "
Major Benedict Serafin. Photo from Piotr Kościński’s archive.
According to Grażyna Lipińska, Tadeusz died in a hospital while the parish register says that it happened at 31 Vitoldowa St; Lipińska wrote that that the boy had been 13 but as a matter of fact he was 15. She could have been mistaken over that issue. It is also possible that in September 1939 at 31 Vitoldova St there was a field hospital or at least a dressing station. Either way, Tadzik remains a legend but has become a real person.

Clerk in command

Andrzej Poczobut – journalist, activist of the Union of Poles in Belarus, who has been in custody for over a year, accusing of “stirring up hatred” and “glorifying Nazism” – knows every street and house in Grodno. Walking from Akademitska St, he said: - major Serafin lived here. This house is gone ... He would turn into Orzeszkowa St and go straight, then left, into Dominikanska St. He was ten, maybe fifteen minutes’ walk to his workplace, the District Replenishment Headquarters. And another house, which he often visited, i.e. the headquarters of the 3rd Corps District Command, was also nearby ... – he added.

Serafin put on his uniform, said goodbye to his wife and two daughters, and went to work. After eight hours, he returned. During World War I, he fought, among others on the Italian front, in the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian army, in 1919 he entered the front of the Polish-Ukrainian war. But he moved from front-line duty to an important, albeit clerical, position in Grodno. And when the Soviets reached the city in the morning of September 20, he was in command. Others, generals and colonels, left Grodno. Some people were in a hurry to visit nearby Lithuania. The major, captain, lieutenants remained in the city…

The Soviets tried to get to Grodno through the bridges over the Nemunas. Several tanks drove into the center to sow terror. But the Red Army soldiers were not trained to fight in the city. The tanks (although they were much smaller than today) found it difficult to navigate the narrow streets. And there, Polish soldiers and young people with bottles with incendiary liquid were waiting for them.

The defenders had only two anti-aircraft guns from Lida at their disposal. One of them stood on the slope above the Nemunas and fired at the attackers. Unfortunately, the Bofors did not have anti-tank missiles, so their effectiveness was modest – but they managed to destroy a lot of Soviet machines anyway.

Meanwhile, the communists tried to organize an “uprising” in the city. Some of them got out of prison; armed, they thought that they would easily capture Grodno. However, swift counteraction of the police and military frustrated their plans.

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But the defenders had no chance of winning. Although the Reserve Cavalry Brigade “Wołkowysk” with General Wacław Przeździecki reached the city, the general decided to withdraw to Lithuania and called on the remaining defenders to do so. Not everyone complied with it. In the morning of September 22, major Serafin and vice-mayor Sawicki, together with the majority of the army, left the city, but some resistance points defended themselves to the very end. The Soviet losses are officially estimated at 53 killed and 161 wounded and 19 tanks and 3 armored cars destroyed, but according to the accounts of the defenders, they were actually much higher.

Soviets murdering defenders

On September 22 in the afternoon, Grodno was already in Soviet hands. The pogrom began. Mariusz Filipowicz and Edyta Sawicka described it in an article published in the “Biuletyn Historii Pogranicza”. The description of the results of the battles in Grodno conducted by units of the 16th Rifle Corps of the Red Army includes the following fragment: “Loot: 400 rifles, 120 missiles, heavy and hand machine guns, cartridges, which were handed over to the commissar for capture; 600-700 people were taken prisoner. Losses in killed enemy - more than 200 people. 29 officers were shot, including the colonel, majors, captains and others ”. On the so-called “Psia Górka”, the Soviets shot about 20 students defending the Rifle House; near Poniemuń - cadets, probably from the 77th Infantry Regiment in Lida. The number of those killed is estimated at around 300 military and civilians. The murders were carried out by NKVD officers with the participation of local communists.

The authors quote Karol Szlamek’s account: “In my yard, at 3, Sobieskiego St, four defenseless Polish soldiers were arrested and then shot. To be shot dead. I saw a lot of people shot, whose bodies had not been buried until On October 4 [19] 39, they were located in the gardens at Pohulanka St, next to the Skidel highway ”.

Romuald Czubiński, on the other hand, described how a Soviet colonel approached a group of detained Polish soldiers: “The research has begun. Questions: who are we and why are we resisting the Red Army, which came to free us, as the working class, from the yoke of Polish masters, that you should have (...) pointed your weapons at Polish officers and gentlemen, and because you didn’t you deserved punishment”. Czubiński managed to escape; those who remained were shot. He recalled that “Skidelski Square suffered the most, where many school and working youth were shot. (...) Terror prevailed in the city, it was enough for a passer-by to inform a policeman or some NKVD soldier that he or she was an officer, policeman, private or shot at the invading Red Army units etc. fesrafin

Should Grodno have been defended then? As pointed out by Agnieszka Jędrzejwska, PhD in an article on the website “Kresy1939”, “there was no possibility to take up an effective and equal fight. Lack of regular units, armament, defense plan, people’s lives put at risk against an overwhelming enemy force are, of course, the most important arguments one can hardly question”. As she points out, “from the perspective of the inhabitants left alone the answer could be only one – to fight! In the name of honor, dignity, at all costs, even at the cost of life, which happened to many”.

Grażyna Lipińska, in turn, indicated that it was not “a fight that was politically, militarily and strategically reasoned, and directed by people who were prepared for it and responsible for its consequences. It is a general patriotic spurt, a rising of madmen driven by freedom, willingness to sacrifice, and often despair”.

From a political point of view, this fight turned out to be extremely important, because the battle for Grodno is the only one that the Russians admit to – it cannot be concealed. The Soviet author, Piotr Lidow, in his book “The Taking of Grodno” wrote: “The resistance shown by the enemy at Grodno was a pre-mortem convulsion of the Polish army. About three thousand Polish officers who escaped from the Western and Eastern fronts concentrated in Grodno. On the one hand, they had a border with Lithuania, on the other – the advancing Soviet troops. There was nowhere to go ... The arrogant nobles decided to slam the door before stepping off the stage of history. (...) Polish officers, non-commissioned officers, corporals and policemen constantly came to the city. They walked individually on bicycles from Vilnius, Skidel, Suwałki, Osowiec, Białystok, Augustów – escaping from the Soviet and German troops. Twenty generals turned up. There were also ordinary soldiers who managed to convince themselves that the Bolsheviks were bloodthirsty beasts and to fall into their hands meant death. The officer pack quickly made contact with local OZN (Obóz Zjednoczenia Narodowego – National Unification Camp) leaders. This was the name of the ruling party of Piłsudski people, of Śmigłys, Becks and Mościckis. (...) Anyone who agreed to fight was promised a large sum of money. The money was spent the day before. A frantic consolidation of the approach to the city began. (...) Apart from the Piłsudski people, counter-revolutionary scum of various kinds were attracted to the defense of the city ”.

The entire book is written in this style - but it shows that Grodno was struggling.

And the Soviets, just like the Russians today, proved that on September 17, 1939, there was no aggression - because the Poles did not defend themselves. Meanwhile, they did – in Vilnius, Grodno, Kodziowce, Szack and Sarny. And thanks to them showing resistance, the whole Soviet and Russian idea of perceiving history collapsed: the Soviets entered because the Polish government did not actually function (while actually it did), there was no Polish resistance (and yet there was), the Red Army was friendly towards the local population (in fact there were murders) and were happily greeted (sometimes with triumphal gates, but often with rifle shots). That is why it is so important.

– Piotr Kościński
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Still from the documentary 'Blood on the cobblestones. Grodno 1939 ”. Photo printscreen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dq9hhO6u1IU&ab_channel=FundacjaLelewela
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