The year 2009 marks many milestones: ninety years since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, ninety years since the founding of the Hoover War Library (now the Hoover Institution); and seventy years since the outbreak of World War II. On September 1, 1939, as the Nazi Blitzkrieg thundered into Poland, who could have guessed at the earth-shattering devastation that would ensue for the next six years or how the modern world would look seventy years later.
Of the six thousand archival collections in the Hoover Institution Archives, more than 20 percent relate to World War II, including a multitude of important documents from Poland’s London-based government in exile; release certificates of deportees to the Soviet Union; diaries of frontline soldiers, statesmen, and generals; and even a film from inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.
The parts of history that seem most interesting are most often the personal stories, especially those that we can relate to. In September, 1939, my grandfather, Konrad Siekierski, a lieutenant in the Polish Army, was assigned to defend the Poniatowski Bridge leading into Warsaw. At one point during the Luftwaffe's aerial assault on the city, a Stuka dive bomber dropped one of its bombs near his post. By some miracle it did not explode, but merely crashed through the pavement a few feet away, showering him with cobblestones. This was truly an amazing twist of fate.
While preparing a recent archival exhibit at Hoover, I discovered the photograph below, from the perspective of a German pilot over Warsaw. It made me wonder what it was like for my grandfather to look up into the skies above Warsaw during those dark days in September.
Smoke drifts upward from Warsaw in a photograph taken during the September Campaign by a Luftwaffe pilot, from his photo album. On September 27, 1939, after heavy ground and aerial attacks, Warsaw’s defenders surrendered to the Nazi invaders. Album Box fEC, World War II Pictorial collection, Hoover Institution Archives.