Vilnius, September 1939: Polish fight for honor

In 1939, Vilnius (Wilno in Polish), today the capital of Lithuania, was a city in north-eastern Poland, inhabited mostly by Poles (65%) and Jews (28%). The defence of Wilno against the Soviets lasted one day.

Wladyslaw Korkuc in 2014

“Armed resistance rescued the Polish honor of Wilno. Our city did not organize triumphal arches, red flags and banners for Soviets. Wilno met them with bullets,” Wladyslaw Korkuc told me long time ago. Korkuc was a soldier of the AK [Polish Home Army, anti-German resistance during WW II – ed.], prisoner of Stalin’s Gulag, later a teacher of music, and founder and manager of many Polish art groups in Lithuania. A living legend, he died in 2014.

The first battles against the Soviet troops broke out late in the afternoon of September 18. “The streets immediately became empty, in a few neighborhoods we could hear intense shooting, and in the evening, together with my friends, scouts, we tried to get to Bouffalowa Mountain [Pamenkalnis in Lithuanian, in the centre of the city]. There were scouts and officers who – against orders – remained in the city, fighting the Soviets. However, the shooting on both sides was so intense that there was no way to get to the defenders of Bouffalowa. The fight for the city lasted all night and the defenders left their posts in the morning,” Wladyslaw recalled.

Another place in Wilno where the Poles fought against the Soviet invaders was the Zielony Most [Zaliasis tiltas in Lithuanian, or the Green Bridge] across the Wilia River [Neris in Lithuanian]. “There was a kind of barricade on the bridge. The fire was so strong that tanks with red stars couldn’t pass through this strategically important Wilno bridge. This was the way in which the last troops of the Polish army left Wilno, heading towards the Lithuanian border. Soviet tank tried to bypass the burning bridge and cross the Wilia. In the river I saw two submerged tanks. I don’t know if they were hit by city defenders or simply bogged down in the riverbed,” Wladyslaw Korkuc said.

The Green Bridge before WW II

Another fight occured around the Mausoleum of the Mother and Son’s Heart [where the heart of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1867–1935), Polish statesman and army commander is interred] in the cemetery in Rossa [Rasu kapines in Lithuanian]. The honor guard of the Polish Army had been released on September 13. After the withdrawal of the soldiers, the guarding of the Mausoleum was taken over by Wilno scouts. But on September 18, the scouts were reinforced by the KOP [Polish Border Protection Corps] soldiers. The fight in the cemetery began in the evening. Traces of it are still visible on cemetery gravestones, also on the plaque of the Mausoleum. The fight in Rossa resumed in the morning of September 19. The Soviet unit managed to encircle the defenders. Their commander, Major Krassowski, issued an order to withdraw.

Rossa cementary before WW II

When I asked Wladyslaw Korkuc if, after all those years, he saw the meaning in the hopeless defense of the city, he replied without hesitation, “But it couldn’t be otherwise. We, teenagers in September 1939, knew that this battle would be lost, but that we would win the war for our freedom. Already, in the first days of the Soviet occupation, we stole rifles from the military warehouses.” At the age of 16 Korkuc was sworn in as an AK soldier, taking part in fighting against Germans in July, 1944. After the war, in Soviet-occupied Wilno, he was active in the underground Polish scout organization. He was captured by Stalin’s KGB. During the investigation he was tortured. He was sentenced to years in the Gulag. He came out only after the death of Stalin. Korkuc brought up the next generation of Poles in Wilno in the spirit of patriotism and love for Poland.


Robert Mickiewicz

The author is the editor-in-chief of “Kurier Wileński”, the Polish language daily newspaper in Lithuania


pictures:  Wladyslaw Korkuc – “Kurier Wilenski”, other –  public domain

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