Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention
by Aleks Krotoski
The radio was hidden in the wardrobe. The wardrobe, a beautiful piece that was part of a set of bedroom furniture hand-carved from birch wood by her father, now sits in the spare room in her Southern California home. The rest of the pieces, with their matching curves and hand-crafted clawed feet, are now in her bedroom, just as they were until 1939. She and her mother managed to save them all by stowing them in a neighbour’s attic when the Gestapo came to take the rest, and then in another neighbour’s attic when the Gestapo gutted that home too. She smuggled them out of the country when they escaped in 1945, piling them on top of the car her father found after they were reunited in Romania.
The radio was square with curved edges, an elegant piece which, by coincidence, matched the look and feel of its wardrobe prison. It even had feet like the wardrobe. That hadn’t been planned, of course; she got what she was given. The radio was fairly large, she says now, thinking back sixty years.
She got to know its face very well over the four years they were companions. It was her link to the impenetrable outside world. It confided in her. It told her its secrets. But the radio is long gone. And it isn’t the hero of this story. My grandmother is.
Poland at war
My grandmother’s name is Helena. Well, that was her name on 1 September 1939, when Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Later, she’d be known as The Crow. Now she goes by Wanda.
Helena was living with her mother in Skierniewice, a military town 76km outside the capital, Warsaw, on 1 September 1939. Her father, an army officer and the apple of her eye, had left the family for the border in April as it became clear that war was imminent and the armed forces were mustering.
Helena was twelve when her village and her home were occupied. She and her mother, alone and terrified, tried to escape to Warsaw on foot. They made it to within 14 miles of the capital before realising that home was safer. But when they got back, they discovered that their village was crawling with Gestapo.
Poland fell quickly. The military aid the country was expecting from Britain and France didn’t arrive, so the Poles spent the six years of the war under either German rule in the West, or Russian in the East. But Poles are feisty and resourceful, and they didn’t give up: They squirrelled members of the central government out of occupied territory and into exile in London, and formed an underground army loyal to this secret state. Of all the countries to fall to Hitler’s army, Poland’s resistance movement was the most well-organised. By the time the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in July 1940 to “conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements,” as Wikipedia puts it, the Poles had already established an underground network of spies.
The relationship between the British and Polish intelligence communities was already strong; the Poles has delivered an Enigma-cracking code to Bletchley Park in July of 1939 and had created several handmade Enigma machines for their allies. Polish technicians continued to innovate during the War, inventing lightweight radios to replace the SOE’s devices that they used to communicate between the Brits at home and their agents in the field.
But unlike other occupied territories, Poland’s resistance largely operated separately from the SOE network of specially-trained cloak and dagger spooks. It had systems of intelligence, from espionage to semi-organised guerrilla warfare, all carried out by ordinary people desperate to win back their freedom and willing to die trying.
They were an enormous asset to the SOE, providing 43 percent of British intelligence about Poland, including finding out about the existence of the concentration camps.
But what the Poles needed most from the Allies was intelligence from the outside: What was happening on the front lines? Where were supplies from the Allies being dropped? Did anyone care about what was happening to them? They needed to connect to the SOE in a way that would distribute the news to the underground army as quickly as possible. If the SOE could shift its regular communications operations to broadcast, it would be able to reach a much larger listener base, and word would get out more quickly.
And for this, the BBC was their interface.
The BBC was already broadcasting in seven languages in September 1939, but that number grew to 40 two years later, as its various foreign arms consolidated into the BBC European Service. In addition to transmitting news, documentaries and other output, the broadcasting corporation appended coded messages at the end of its news programming, from cryptic clues like le lapin a bu un apéritif (the rabbit drank an apéritif) and the moon will be blue tonight to lines of poetry or snippets of music.
These messages personnels were the brainchild of a French SEO operative who realised that every time his colleagues in occupied territories communicated with home base via the easy-to-triangulate two-way radios they were issued, they put themselves in the line of danger. But the BBC, broadcasting one-to-many, made the two-ways obsolete, and saved the lives of many.
This was the lifeline for the Polish Home Army, the source of their intelligence. The BBC transmitted its own news in Polish on its longwave and shortwave frequencies. The content of the broadcasts was controlled by the British secret services, but they took their guidance from the Polish government-in-exile. They also gave the government-in-exile an hour of its own every day, Radio Polskie. A minute of music signalled the end of every Polish Service broadcast, which my grandmother, at the receiving end with her own, illegal radio, would note down and pass to her contact in the underground army.
When they occupied her village, Hitler’s army confiscated all the radios. It was part of the propaganda strategy: Anyone caught anywhere in Poland with a radio would be killed, no questions asked. The German army kept a few for themselves and installed them in the central squares, where they broadcast news and dispatches from their own transmitters. In public, the airwaves were full of the Fuhrer’s triumphs. There were no Western transmissions. No Polish songs. And if you were caught listening to the BBC by any means, you’d be killed. Again, no questions asked.
Of course, the Nazis didn’t find all the receivers. A pair of Polish escapees arrived in London in 1941 and informed the government-in-exile that there were around 1,500 known underground-controlled shortwave and longwave radios. Helena had one of them. She got it from her maths teacher, who was himself a member of the underground army. He illegally taught Polish children the academic skills they weren’t getting in the Gestapo vocational schools.
Helena took the radio from its hiding place in the wardrobe five times a day and wrote down the messages personnels, numbers or song lyrics at the end of each broadcast. Every morning she would put the piece of paper inside the lining of her coat and leave the house to deliver it to the next person in the human intelligence chain. She didn’t know his name and he didn’t know hers. Her code name, and the code names of the people she received her instructions from and the people she gave the information to, protected her. She didn’t want to test her stamina under torture.
She would walk down the chestnut-lined street to the end of the park, turn right and cross the river bridge, holding her nose against the smell of rotting leaves. She’d pass the house, one of those that sat below street level, that the German lived in. Sometimes, when he was lying on the sofa under the window she could see his belly rise above the sill. She’d walk by the row of shops, look in the window of her mother’s general goods store at the men who were more interested in the information they were hearing than the goods they were buying, and make her way to one of the old wooden houses that lined the end of the block. The one with the wooden roof.
The man who met her knock wasn’t a local. He was from somewhere else. She didn’t know him at all. He was tall, slender. He looked like an army officer. Straight. She’d give him the paper. They barely smiled. Sometimes his wife answered the door instead, and took the paper from Helena. She was slightly dumpy. You wouldn’t notice to her if you saw her in the street. That was the point. They were silent. No one spoke during these exchanges.
She’s not sure even now what happened to the intel she passed to the straight man and his wife in the house with the wooden roof over those four years. She thinks it was about Allied drops, details of ammunition, guns, people. She thinks. But she doesn’t know. She never asked.
It’s likely this is exactly what it was. And more.
In 1943, an internal BBC memo discussing the Polish Service reported that although they were likely broadcasting to fewer than 2,000 people, most of these listeners were connected with the production of the more than 1,000 underground newspapers, with circulations of up to 43,000 each. The underground press in Poland was enormously active, publishing not only news about the war, but also novels and other works of literature, plays and magazines, and anti-occupation propaganda. The Tajne Wojskowe Zakłady Wydawnicze (Secret Military Publishing House) was the largest underground publisher in the world. Helena’s own cousin was part of the distribution network. He was caught, age 18, with an underground newspaper in his hand. He was sent to Auschwitz. He didn’t return.
Helena had no backup plan on her delivery missions. She had no alibi. If she’d been caught, the Gestapo would have known that she had a radio. There was nowhere else the intel could have come from. But she never changed her route.
As time progressed, she was asked to listen and take notes from more than just the information at the end of the Polish service broadcasts. The Germans knew what was going on and tried to obscure the signal en route by intercepting it and polluting the frequency with bells, whistles and buzzes. Through all that noise, Helena listened to the news from the front lines, reported by the BBC, hearing the words spoken by the voices of her government-in-exile. It was almost impossible to understand anything at first, but after a while her ears began to pick out what was behind the noise. And she was transfixed, gripped by a secret, unfolding drama that she wasn’t able to talk about with anyone.
Her time with the radio ended immediately after the Warsaw Uprising in the late summer of 1944. She and her mother were expelled from their home and found refuge with a cousin, a doctor who’d been given two rooms under the roof of a house on the corner of two streets. The bottom floors were occupied by Gestapo.
The maths teacher who’d delivered the radio arrived with a box to take it away. Helena was devastated. The war was reaching a crescendo: The armies from the West were coming, finally, and for the first time in many years, there was good news coming over the airwaves. But she spent the rest of the war in silence. Staring at the empty spot in the wardrobe.
Wikipedia, “The Special Operations Executive, Poland” , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Operations_Executive#Poland
Radio Rewind, “BBC Radio History, 1939-1945”, http://www.radiorewind.co.uk/radio2/for_the_forces_page.htm
About the author
Aleks Krotoski is an academic and journalist who writes about and studies technology and interactivity.
Her book, Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You, looks at the psychology research behind the claims about the positive and negative forces of the digital age.
Aleks has a PhD in Social Psychology and was a Visiting Fellow in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute.
She presents BBC Radio 4’s award-winning science series The Digital Human. She hosted The Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast since its inception, in 2007.
She presented the Emmy and Bafta winning BBC2 series Virtual Revolution in 2010, about the social history of the World Wide Web. She writes for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers. Her writing also appears in Nature, BBC Technology, New Statesman, MIT Technology Review and The Telegraph.