Polonia Warsaw and World War II – the war fought on the footballing pitch
Polonia Warsaw, formed in pre-independent Poland, reached the pinnacle of their glory post-independence, was shattered in the Communist rule that followed World War II and then tried to resurrect again in the last few decades. Kanad Basu here at Goalden Times walks down the memory lane of the historic club in their fight for survival and glory during the World War II era.
Let me be honest. I had no idea about Warsaw Uprising before visiting the city. We all know that Poland was the worst affected country in World War II. However, my knowledge was more or less restricted there, except some excerpts about Auschwitz and Katyn. When I was browsing through wikitravel for places to see in Warsaw, I was informed of “Warsaw Uprising Museum”; which is supposedly one of the must-visit places in Warsaw. I started digging up about what this “Uprising” was.
The Warsaw Uprising was the largest single military effort made by any European resistance movement during World War II. It was an endeavor by the Polish home army to liberate the nation coinciding with the advancement of Soviet Red Army on the Eastern front. The Uprising started on August 1st, 1944, exactly at 5 pm. For the first few days, the Polish army was able to liberate Warsaw and the city started operating a peaceful, free life, devoid of any Nazi intervention. However, the Soviets did not establish radio contact with the Polish home army and did not advance beyond the city suburbs, allowing the Germans to reinforce and defeat the Polish home army. There has been a plethora of theories why the Soviets did not help the Poles. Some historians believe that the Red Army was tired and exhausted, and hence, could not proceed to fight the Germans. However, a popular belief remains that Joseph Stalin, the then existing head of state of USSR, did not want to help the Polish home army, who were composed of anti-communist members, as their victory would stop him from establishing a communist regime over Poland in the post-war era. This theory gains more support because of the fact that a lot of home army soldiers were prosecuted after the war, and some of them were deported or executed.
While I was visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum, I met an old man who gave me details about the events of uprising. It was quite interesting to hear them from someone, who, perhaps experienced them first hand (He refused to admit that). One of his statements shocked me — “There were footballers who fought in the Uprising”. That was something which I found really interesting. Once back home, I started digging up and found out about Polonia Warsaw.
Polonia Warsaw was formed in 1911, seven years before Poland’s independence. Polonia Warsaw, the oldest Polish sports club, with football, basketball, track and field, and swimming teams, has a history that closely resembles the Polish political scenario over the last century. In fact, Warsaw was under the Russian Tzar rule at that time. It was a result of unification of three schools, Korona, Stella and Merkury. The club was officially registered in 1915. The players donned a jersey of black shirts and white pants; the black shirts symbolically mourning the state of pre-independent and divided Poland. This patriotic devotion earned them their popular name “The Black Shirts”. The players wore white shorts and red socks, signifying the colours of the Polish flag. Post-independence, Polonia emerged as the strongest club of Warsaw, finishing as joint-champions in 1926. According to Jonathan Wilson, in his book, “Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe”, Polonia was a romantic club formed by the Warsaw intelligentsia. In the first derby with city rivals Legia Warsaw, Polonia secured an emphatic 8-0 win on 10th June 1921 (Legia took revenge with a 8-1 win in 1932). Before the establishment of the Polish top league in 1927, Polonia defeated Legia seven times, and Legia won only two derbies. In spite of all the hardships that Polonia suffered, as we will see later, the Warsaw derby stands at 29 victories each, thereby putting Polonia on a par with Legia. In the late 1930s, a lot of Polonia players were representing the national team — the most prominent being Wladyslaw Szczepaniak, who played 34 matches for Poland. Wladyslaw captained Poland against Brazil in the 1938 World Cup, when Poland lost 5-6. He represented Polonia in 700 games. Another important player from Polonia who played in the Polish national team was Jerzy Bulanow, who also captained Poland in 17 games. Apart from these, Erwin Nyc and Henryk Jaznicki also represented both Polonia Warsaw and the national team. However, the scenario changed in 1939, when Germany and Soviet Union occupied Poland to start World War II.
World War II and Communist Rule
Polonia was a club renowned for its patriotism. Throughout the period of Polish occupation by Germany, players of Polonia were involved in attempts to liberate their homeland. Henryk Jaźnicki, Polonia forward, fought actively in the Polish September campaign. He was subsequently caught by the Germans, and imprisoned in the infamous Pawiak prison, in Warsaw. He even served in the Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Polonia was also a part of the underground Warsaw football championship, which was the only football tournament in German-occupied Poland, winning the trophy in 1942 and 1943.
Wilson, in his book, mentions that during the Warsaw Uprising, footballers from the club fought along with the home army against the Germans. This made the communist government regard the club as “dangerously independent”. During the war, Polonia’s stadium, which was close to the Jewish ghetto, was destroyed. Polonia won their first Polish championship in 1946, defeating AKS Chorzów in the final match of the two-way round robin league, played between four teams (the other two being Warta Poznań and ŁKS Łódź). The match was played at the Polish army ground, since Polonia’s own stadium (located near the Jewish ghetto) was destroyed in the war. Polonia’s honeymoon period was over before it even began. As Wilson says, the Communist government, fearing the rise of Polonia as a nationalist club, ensured their budget was always limited so that they never rose above the second division. The communists reorganised Polish football, by implementing the same system that existed in Soviet Union at that time — each club will have a state-body as a ‘benefactor’. While local rivals Legia Warsaw received the blessings of the rich Polish army, Polonia’s sponsors were the poor Polish railways. The club name was changed to Kolejarz (which means “Railroad worker“) and the Black Shirts were banned, since the new Stalinist government wanted to eradicate everything associated with pre-war Poland. Polonia, after winning their first Polish Cup in 1952, were relegated in the same year. It would take them 40 years to get back to the First Division. The rise of Legia, accompanied by the misfortune of Polonia, is also attributed to the compulsory army training that existed in Poland during the communist rule. All youth academy players had to go through five or more years of military service, completing which, they would get an offer to join Legia. Clearly explains why young talented footballers would not want to join Polonia.
The communists reorganised Polish football, by implementing the same system that existed in Soviet Union at that time — each club will have a state-body as a ‘benefactor’
End of Communist rule and beyond
Polonia returned to the First Division in 1992 — a time when the communist rule has ceased to exist in Poland. However, the ride was bumpy, as they were relegated after only a season. Polonia fought back and were promoted again in the next season. Polonia went on to complete an unprecedented treble in 2000, winning the Polish championship, along with the League Cup and Super Cup. In the championship, Polonia defeated local rivals Legia by a margin of 3-0. Polonia’s bumpy ride continued as they were relegated again in 2006 as they finished last in the Polish First division. In July 2008, Polonia merged with Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski, thus occupying the latter’s place in the First Division. In 2013, due to a huge debt of 8 million Polish złoty owing to extreme mismanagement, Polonia was declared bankrupt. Despite finishing sixth in the league, they were automatically relegated five levels, to the lowest level of Polish football. This was really shameful for a club with a rich hundred year old history. There are constant efforts by some dedicated supporters and former players/managers to alleviate the club’s situation.
Polonia Warsaw is probably the most romantic club of Poland. Their supporters still blame the communist government for the club’s poor performance. Often they are seen holding anti-communist banners in the center of “Kammienna” sector in every game. It’s really disheartening to see a club like Polonia biting the dust and we can only hope they regain their lost glory someday. As Jerzy Engel, the manager who took Poland to the World Cup finals in 2002 says, “Polonia was not only football. You could meet scientists or artists or painters here. There was a very good atmosphere within the club, because when you don’t have a lot of money what you have to have is spirit.”