The day of the uprising was chaos.
The Polish underground had scheduled a surprise revolt against its German occupiers for 5 p.m. But planning something so large surreptitiously is no simple task. Shooting began early, and Olga Lorentz was distressed to realize she couldn't get to her assigned place.
The scene: Warsaw, Aug. 1, 1944. Germans had controlled the city for five years. But the Russians were bearing down on the Germans from the east, and the Allies were winning back western Europe. Polish resistance fighters hoped - believed - that once their uprising began, they'd get help from both sides.
Two months later, on Sept. 30, as she ran through the streets with bullets whizzing past, the 17-year-old medic had seen several lifetimes' worth of blood and destruction. The Poles had suffered through the futility of their cause and of war in general. And Lorentz was about to require a medic of her own.
Lorentz, the mother of Durango resident Danusia Lorentz, now lives in Florida. She sat down for an interview during a recent stay here, plucking details from a childhood brought to a premature end.
On Tuesday, she leaves for Poland to attend events surrounding the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. She's going with her friend and fellow resistance partner Maria Seraydarian, who became a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the act that kicked World War II into high gear. Two days later, then-12-year-old Olga and her family packed into a truck and fled Warsaw to eastern Poland, controlled by the Soviet Union.
It was a flight of necessity. Olga's father ran five newspapers in Poland, and was on a Nazi death list because of the papers' political positions. When German soldiers took over eastern Poland on their way to the Soviet Union in 1941, Olga, her sister and her mother returned to Warsaw. Olga's father changed his name and remained in eastern Poland.
In Warsaw, Olga secretly attended school - Poles were not allowed to learn certain subjects, such as chemistry. She also joined a "girl scout" group that made anti-Nazi propaganda, such as papers hung on street corners. That wasn't enough for her.
"I feel I am useless," she says in a still-strong Eastern European accent. "I was already pretty grown up."
At age 16, she made a bold move, claiming she was 18 so she could join the Polish Home Army - the underground's military wing. After school, she worked in a hospital to learn to take care of the wounded. She trained to be a field medic.
Her hatred for the enemy grew. She remembers that if a resistance fighter killed just one German soldier, the Germans would round up 100 Poles, line them up and shoot them, then call in the residents to cart the bodies away.
"I saw this happen" almost daily, she says.
Olga's sister died in 1943. She was running and fell under a streetcar; her mother was in an upstairs apartment, watching.
The underground resistance, backed covertly by the British and the London-based Polish government-in-exile, made plans for a revolt. The date and time were chosen: 5 p.m. Aug. 1, 1944. Olga, code-named "Mouse," was to be stationed near a cemetery.
But "some nut started to shoot at 3 o'clock," Olga recalls. "There was confusion. I was supposed to be in a difference place than I ended up. It was pretty disorganized."
As the guerrilla-style fighting reigned in the streets and homes, Olga's four-person crew carried around a stretcher and began performing triage. They rushed to help where needed, and one of Olga's jobs was to administer morphine.
"It bothered me all my life that I make the decision whether the guy, or she, gets the shot or not," Olga says. "And the worst one was the last one ... " she says, her voice trailing. She doesn't expand, preferring not to have that story printed.
The uprising lasted 63 days. The Soviets, not far away, did not help. The Allies, a couple hundred miles away, helped with periodic airdrops but were hindered because the Soviets did not fully cooperate. The Poles never really had a chance against a trained, well-supplied army.
On Sept. 30, 1944, Olga and several cohorts were running across a wide avenue when two bullets hit her, one piercing her right shoulder.
Her unit surrendered and was forced to walk 18 miles from Warsaw to a warehouse in an outlying town. At a medical clinic, a Russian prisoner of war, who also was a doctor, quickly examined her.
"I never forget. He said, 'Odrezat,' which means, 'Cut the arm off.'"
Russian was among the five languages with which Olga was familiar.
"When I heard this, I ran away like you wouldn't believe, you know?"
Olga Lorentz cautions several times during the interview, "Don't make a hero out of me. There were so many of us. I was one of the thousands of people. I did the job I was supposed to do."
In all, an estimated 16,000 Polish fighters and 150,000 to 200,000 civilians died during the insurrection. After the Poles surrendered, the Germans kicked everyone out of Warsaw, looted anything valuable, then dynamited an estimated 95 percent of the city's buildings. It eventually was rebuilt after the war using the old street plan.
Poland, of course, regained its independence after the war. Olga's story turned happier, too. After a few months of incarceration, one day, the German captors disappeared. The war was over. Olga ended up in England, met an American man of Polish descent, moved with him to Rochester, N.Y., and began raising a family.
Olga's two sons and one daughter didn't learn much about her days as a resistance fighter until recently. Danusia Lorentz recalls that growing up, "We couldn't have anything German."
"I was anti-German something terrible," Olga says.
When she flew into Berlin during her days working as an agent for the Dutch airline KLM, she refused to leave the airport.
A few years ago, after touring Europe, Olga concluded that of all the people she'd encountered, Germans were the friendliest. Times change, wounds fade. The Germans of 1944 aren't the Germans of today.
"There comes the time that you say, 'Not everybody's bad.'"
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.