Danuta Gruszczynska-Alasinska – Brave and Bold
by Adrian Bean
It can sometimes be an emotional experience, being at a graveside and reading the words on a stone that has no emotions; the memorial of a young child, or someone who was “accidentally killed” can be overwhelming even if you don’t know the person the words are about. The sound of a lone trumpet on Armistice Day does it for me every time, and the carefully chosen words on a headstone can do the same thing. Words can bring to mind images and thoughts that are heart-warming or poignant. They hit you and you know you’ll never forget that feeling.
Read those words on Danuta’s headstone and thoughts will come into your mind straight away: “Polish Underground Army….The Rising of Warsaw 1944 …… Prisoner of War…Liberation…Pray for her” and she died at the age of only 29.
The story that you see in your mind’s eye is of a patriotic young woman involved in a horrible conflict, doing brave work, but caught by her enemies and imprisoned, perhaps in a concentration camp. Then, perhaps, she found happiness in England after being set free, but died so young. Many questions are left unanswered by the words, but you imagine a brave woman, and you’d like to know more about her story.
And yes, the real story of Danuta is much as you imagine it to have been; she was genuinely Brave and Bold. We’ve recently found out more about this enigmatic woman, the words on whose headstone have made many people wonder over the years. It’s an inspiring but sad story.
Danuta Gruszczynska was born 18th April 1924, and lived with her parents and younger sister Basia (Barbara) in Flat 15 Block 6 Hoza St Warsaw. At the start of the war she was at Secondary School and also working as a clerk, but seems to have been recruited to the resistance Home Army (AK) as early as 23rd March 1940, when she was not quite 16. Her rank was “Rifleman.” She had very little communication with Basia (10 years her younger) and possibly her parents died at this time.
The Warsaw Rising of 1944 was a brave but perhaps futile insurrection by the Polish Home Army, hoping to create a Warsaw free from German occupation before the imminent advance of Russian forces which were soon to occupy Poland. The Rising lasted 63 days from 1st August, with about 25,000 patriots (out of a population of 1,000,000) being involved in fierce street fighting; only about 2,500 of them had weapons. The Germans were savage in their reaction, with about 16,000 underground fighters being killed, 6,000 badly wounded, and a further 150,000 non-combatant Poles dying, many from indiscriminate mass executions. About a quarter of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. There were 5,000 female combatants, and Danuta was involved from Day One. If captured, they could expect the same fate as the men: the firing squad, prison, or a concentration camp.
In January 1943 she had been promoted to the rank of Senior Sergeant, and from 1st August 1944 she was made a courier in a regiment called Bolt. This was involved in very fierce fighting in the northern part of Warsaw, and Danuta delivered messages to and from the front lines. Couriers delivered messages, supplies and explosives via the sewers as small as 3 feet high by 2 feet wide, and would be crawling through filth, dirty water and dead bodies. Couriers who came up accidentally in a German area would be shot. She was probably in constant danger of death and would surely have witnessed much hand-to-hand fighting. Like other resistance fighters, she had a pseudonym – the way she was referred to by fellow patriots to help maintain secrecy.
Danuta’s Warsaw Uprising pseudonym was “Smiala.” – “Smiala” means “Brave” or “Bold.”
She was in Battalion Bolt till 15 Aug 1944, then moved to another unit,“Topor,” in the western part of Warsaw, again as a messenger. She was active until 30th September 1944, when she was captured and was imprisoned in Germany at Sandbostel and then Oberlangen prison camps. 1,271 women of the Home Army went to Oberlangen, which had been taken off the list of “approved” prison camps due to the terrible conditions, but the Germans housed women there as a punishment if they refused to work as civilians in the German war industry.
There is no information on Danuta’s capture or her time in the POW camp but on 27th October 1946, after liberation, she married Stanislaw Alasinski, a Polish soldier who had been in service since the start of the war. In June 1947, after temporarily studying at University, she joined the PSK (Womens Auxiliary Service) as a private (W/3003316), and was stationed at Ontario Camp, Hindhead, Surrey until she was discharged 23rd May 1949. It seems likely that at this point Stanislaw was demobbed from the military, so they could be together. Generally, Polish servicemen and women were given the option of starting life again in the UK, Canada or the USA. The Alasinskis seem to have opted for Canada, but for whatever reason they moved to Bedford, perhaps because there was a sizeable Polish community here. He became a teacher at the Polish School and they bought a house with the War Gratuity. This may have been 11 Ashburnham Road, her address at the time of her death. There are still members of the Bedford Polish community who remember being taught by Stanislaw. Danuta seems to have worked at the Meltis factory.
Danuta died 15th November 1953 at the age of just 29, at the Polish Hospital in Penley, Flintshire. The cause of death was Heart Failure though the underlying cause was Cancer. This, and other hospitals, were set up to care for former Polish servicemen in gratitude for their wartime service, and at one point there were some 2,000 patients and staff.
In her photo-identity card, her anxious, serious eyes are those of someone who has seen terrible things, and perhaps knows of what was to come. After a while, Stanislaw moved to Luton, and in 2007 returned to Poland. He died in 2009. For many years he was a high official in the Polish Combatant Club (similar to the British Legion). They had no children.
Stanislaw and Basia gave their memories of Danuta to the Warsaw Rising Museum, but details are patchy. She herself seems not to have spoken much about what she saw and did (much as Far East POWs rarely spoke about their experiences), so we can only speculate. She won no medals; but that was because none were given in her army. I’m sure that she and her fellow soldiers deserved more recognition for what they did.
The quotation on the headstone is exactly right to summarise her life. Adam Mickiewicz was the greatest Polish poet, in some ways similar to fellow Romantic Lord Byron, in that he fought for patriotic causes, was exiled, and died abroad. He has long been an inspiration to patriotic underdogs, especially idealistic young people in their struggles against oppressors; one poem, “Grazyna,” tells of a female chieftainess who fights heroically but tragically against invaders, and has been the inspiration for female patriots in Poland for generations. The heroine is thought to be based on Mickiewicz’s mistress, and her name means “beautiful.”
If Stanislaw chose the quotation on the headstone, he is saying that Danuta was inspired by the same feelings as Mickiewicz, and that she was his heroine.
Or perhaps she chose the words herself. Perhaps she knew that her illness would kill her very soon, stopping her have the happiness she wanted and deserved in this life; but she was still optimistic, believing that that happiness would still be there, waiting for her after her death.
I’d like to think so.
Danuta’s story is told in our video produced with the help of our friends in the Polish British Integration Centre.
Grave Ref: A.843
Polish Underground Movement Study Trust. London
Polish Red Cross Information and Tracing Service. Warsaw
Warsaw Rising Museum. Warsaw
Ministry of Defence, Military Records. Ruislip
Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum of London
Translations by Gina Marszalek
August 23, 2021
October 01, 2018
September 02, 2018