2 Days After This WWII Hero Gave His Granddaughter Away, The Family Were Dealt A Devastating Blow

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With a military honor adorning his chest and likely a feeling of pride in his heart, Bronisław Karwowski leads his granddaughter Joanna down the aisle on her wedding day. Now aged 94, the World War II veteran has played witness to some of the most harrowing chapters in human history – but this fall day is one of joy. And there may be barely a dry eye in the house as the bride and her grandpa walk arm in arm through the church. Just a few hours later, though, Karwowski’s family’s happiness will be overwhelmed by tragedy.

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Yet on such a beautiful day, it may have seemed impossible to imagine that heartbreak would follow so soon after. And Karwowski himself had seen terrible trials and hardships over the course of his life after taking up arms against both the Nazis and the communists.

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Karwowski was born in 1924 in the western Polish village of Spokojna and had been a member of a choir at a cathedral while he was a boy. Ultimately, though, that life would be interrupted after war broke out on September 1, 1939. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland on that date, when Karwowski was just 15 years old.

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So in 1942 – and while Karwowski was still living with his parents – the young man joined Poland’s largest resistance organisation: the Armia Krajowa. Aged just 18, he would risk his life serving with the organization, helping to collect arms and to distribute the output of an underground press. Perhaps Karwowski did not know it then, but this bravery would come to characterize the rest of his life.

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You see, although the free Polish government had fled to France and then the U.K., Karwowski and those with whom he worked refused to concede their nation’s independence. Poland belonged to the Polish people, they felt – and these fighters would accept no other authority. But two years later, in May 1944, Karwoski’s activities saw him land in a particularly dire predicament: he was captured by the German forces.

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Even more ominously, Karwowski fell into the hands of the Gestapo. Undaunted by this nightmarish turn of events, however, he managed to escape while being transported to the German secret police headquarters in Lomza. He then made his way to a village named Mikuty where he took up arms once again – this time serving in the resistance movement’s forestry department.

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Karwowski subsequently participated in one of the darkest battles of the entire war: the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. As German forces retreated from the Red Army across Poland, some 50,000 Polish soldiers fought to liberate the city from the Nazis. In fact, this was the largest operation performed by any European resistance movement in the whole of World War II – even if it was doomed to fail.

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At first, the Polish Home Army succeeded in driving back the Germans and reclaiming control of some parts of the city. As a result, the Polish flag could once again be seen flying in the liberated streets, while old songs were heard again, too. And with the Red Army closing in, it may have initially seemed certain that Warsaw would soon be returned to Polish hands. Yet the Soviet forces had no intention of assisting the uprising.

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Indeed, the only support that the Home Army got from the Allies came in the form of air-dropped supplies – and few of these reached the Polish forces. Then, as the battle dragged on, the resistance fighters began to run out of ammunition, leaving them with no option than to withdraw. And this retreat would come at a terrible cost.

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You see, as the Germans moved through the city and reclaimed Warsaw street by street, they took revenge on the civilian population. And a mere two months after the uprising had begun, it was over. All told, the action claimed the lives of some 16,000 Polish soldiers – many of whom had struggled alone and essentially without support for 63 days.

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But the Soviet Union’s apparent refusal to support the insurrection remains a matter of debate among historians. When the uprising began, the Red Army was positioned close to Warsaw, while the outskirts of the city were weakly defended by a single German infantry division. Nevertheless, when the resistance fighters took up arms on August 1, 1944, an order was sent by the Kremlin that no attempts should be made to press ahead.

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Speaking to Winston Churchill shortly after the end of the uprising, Stalin claimed that German defences had made it impossible for his army to support the Polish forces. Yet while there are some historians who concur with this assessment, many others believe that Stalin was simply reluctant to commit resources in that direction – preferring instead to consolidate forces in the east rather than push on to Germany. And for all it meant to the Polish people, reclaiming Warsaw was not a tactical priority for the Soviets. The end result, then, was that the Polish Home Army was left to fend for itself – with the outcome proving a bloody one.

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Relative to its population, Poland suffered more heavily than any other Allied nation in World War II. It’s believed today, in fact, that as many as one in five people in Poland were killed during the course of the conflict – with three million Polish Jews being murdered in the Holocaust. And after the Poles surrendered, the Germans enacted a systematic bombing campaign designed to obliterate the city that made no distinction between civilian and military targets.

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In the end, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians lost their lives in the uprising, while between 60 and 80 percent of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Indeed, by the time that the war was over, just 15 percent of the city would be left standing. Warsaw – home to almost a million people before WWII – was nearly erased.

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And every year, on August 1, Warsaw comes to a standstill. On this day, sirens sound and plumes of white and red smoke swirl over the city’s skyline, while locals spend a minute in silence to remember how the Polish capital was almost wiped from the face of the Earth.

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However, as the dust settled on one of the most horrifying spectacles in modern military history, Karwowski was marching steadfastly on. And in many ways, that is his legacy. Karwowski was the man who seemingly kept moving forward – no matter how heavily the odds were stacked against him and regardless of the havoc and hellfire that rained down around him.

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But even following the retreat of the German forces from Poland, Karwowski’s fighting days were far from over. You see, the arrival of the Red Army had seen one oppressive foreign occupier replaced by another. The Polish freedom fighters would thus become an anti-communist movement, and they began another underground campaign. In 1947, moreover, Karwowski became a second lieutenant in the resistance forces.

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And having escaped a war that saw an entire city practically razed to the ground, Karwowski once again took his life in his hands by opposing Stalin. He and his brethren were labeled the “Cursed Soldiers” by the communists, and over the course of Stalin’s reign, thousands of these resistance fighters were arrested, tortured and tried. Many were also ultimately executed.

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Years later, Karwowski explained that he and his friends had been able to fight against the Red Army largely because of the help that they had received from their communities. Yes, the soldier’s refusal to see his country bowed was a sentiment that was apparently shared by many of his countrymen, as regular people put themselves at risk in order to offer their support.

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Then, in 1948 Karwowski once again found himself in the hands of his enemies. Under an amnesty in 1947, he had issued a statement to the PUBP – Poland’s secret police and intelligence forces. “I knew they wouldn’t leave me alone, so I went to Szczecin,” Karwowski explained to city website Lomza.pl. And while the freedom fighter was likely fully aware that he was taking a significant risk, it may nevertheless have seemed like the best course of action at the time.

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But even though Karwowski had been promised amnesty, he was arrested once he had arrived in Szczecin. And for six months after that, he languished in a PUBP detention facility in Białystok – a large city in the northeast of Poland. Recalling his experiences there decades later would still bring tears to his eyes.

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While locked up, Karwowski was beaten and tortured by his captors. He was also pressed to give up the names of his compatriots, but he refused – despite the agony to which he was subjected. And, understandably, the experience left an indelible impression upon Karwowski. Of all the hardships and horrors that he had borne witness to, he would later describe his time in Białystok as being the worst that he had faced.

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Speaking to Lomza.pl many years later, Karwowski noted one fact that he found particularly painful. Specifically, he lamented the notion that the men who had tortured him and his fellow fighters would not only live out their lives as free men, but that they would also receive triple the pension that Karwowski was entitled to. It seemed a bitter irony.

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Eventually, Karwowski was sentenced to ten years in prison by the Military District Court for his membership of the National Military Union. The Supreme Military Court would later reduce the resistance fighter’s sentence to four years, although he was also stripped of his civil, public and honorary rights. And Karwowski ended up serving all of his time in Wronki Prison.

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A consummate survivor, Karwowski told Lomza.pl that he managed to endure his incarceration with his wits intact by solving math questions, using pieces of soap to write up and complete the problems on the door of his cell. One can only imagine that it must have been a dark time for the man who had fought so hard to liberate his country.

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Then, in 1952 Karwowski was released into a world that had changed a great deal. The communist authorities were rebuilding the country, with that year also seeing the official formation of the Polish People’s Republic. But while there were benefits in the form of free and universal healthcare, dissent was forbidden, and the communist party held a tight grip on every aspect of day-to-day life.

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Karwowski would not forget his service, though. Many years later, he became chairman of the World Association of Home Army Soldiers – an organization that aimed to bring together all those who had fought for Polish independence wherever they were in the world. He also served as a captain and then a major on the Supreme Council of the National Armed Forces Soldiers’ Union, representing the fighters of the third-largest WWII Polish resistance movement.

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Finally, over time, the record of Poland’s various resistance organizations was restored. Indeed, the so-called “curse” was lifted, and soldiers like Karwowski were lauded as heroes. Decades after fighting for his country, then, Karwowski would finally be recognized with the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland, the Silver Cross of Merit with Swords and the Cross of the National Armed Deed. And with his honors acknowledged, the man nicknamed “Grom” stood as one of the most decorated Polish veterans of World War II.

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Then, when Karwowski’s granddaughter’s wedding day rolled around in August 2018, the former freedom fighter was the one to give her away. Karwowski wore his military garb for the occasion, too, with a further group in WWII-style uniforms marching behind the veteran and Joanna.

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And once the ceremony was complete, the newly married couple emerged from the church and were greeted by cheering guests, a shower of confetti and an honor guard of military personnel with rifles raised in salute. All in all, it made for an extraordinary spectacle – as well as a great tribute to an ageing hero.

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Joanna later recalled the simple, poignant message that her grandfather had given to her before their walk down the aisle. “I was looking forward to this moment, and I am proud I have lived to see it,” the Daily Mail reported him as saying. And Joanna admitted that his words had perhaps unsurprisingly brought tears to her eyes. “He promised he would walk me down the aisle, and he kept his word,” she said.

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Karwowski had made the promise knowing that it could be a struggle to honor it, though. “Four years ago, he was fitted with a pacemaker, and he told me then that I needed to get married quickly because he had an expiration date,” Joanna explained to the Daily Mail. Still, indomitable as ever, Karwowski held on to accompany his granddaughter on her big day.

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And for Karwowski, it would be a spectacular occasion. After all, so many of his compatriots had been erased from history without ever having their stories told. He, on the other hand, had lived to see himself play a key part in Joanna’s life.

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In fact, Karwowski had been something of a father figure to Joanna. “I moved in with my grandparents when I was one, and they took care of me,” she told the Daily Mail. “[My grandfather] was amazingly patient. He had 13 grandchildren, and all of us would fight over who got to sleep next to him because he used to tell nice fairy tales and stories.”

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It may seem incredible that a man could live through all that Karwowski had and emerge as a gentle, patient grandad telling fairy tales to little ones. Joanna explained, though, that while his spirit remained unbroken, his wartime experiences stayed with him. And, in fact, Karwowski had shared stories of his soldiering days with his grandchildren – even though Joanna had sometimes been too young to understand them.

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Joanna later explained how thrilled she was that her grandfather’s tale has reached so many people. “I’m really surprised and happy that the story of my grandad was so widely heard,” she told the Daily Mail. And while Joanna was glad to see her big day celebrated around the world, Karwowski himself was reportedly no less pleased.

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Indeed, Karwowski apparently told Joanna, “We’re on Facebook!” He was apparently proud, too, that people all over the planet had seen him keeping his promise to his granddaughter by walking her down the aisle. Unfortunately, though, this joyful moment would soon be followed by a time of sadness that no one may have seen coming.

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As it transpired, Karwowski’s big moment came not a second too soon. On September 1, 2018 – a mere two days after the wedding ceremony – the 94-year-old “retired to the eternal guard,” as the Polish National Armed Forces reported. The organization released a statement that honored the war hero’s achievements, thanking him for his service and mourning his death.

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And just as her grandfather had kept his word and walked arm in arm with her on her wedding day, Joanna had fulfilled her vow to stand by him as he prepared for his final journey. “I promised [my grandfather] that I would not let him die at the hospital,” she explained to the Daily Mail. As a trained nurse, Joanna instead cared for him at home. “I’m so happy that the memory of him will stay alive, and everyone can see him the way I did: as an amazing person and a beloved grandfather,” she said.

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Then, after having stood firm against two of the most terrible despots of modern times and risked his life in the service of his people, Bronisław Karwoski was finally laid to rest. The veteran was buried in a church cemetery in Dąbrowa Białostocka, where he was given a military send-off and a salute of honor. And no one could claim that he hadn’t earned his place in Poland’s history.

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