In many memories of the year 1939, there is a recurring theme that children were about to start school when World War II broke out. Sometimes, specific accounts can be found in memoirs, describing prepared school bags, festive uniforms, and the fact that almost at the last moment, as if on the doorstep, the children were turned away – writes Tomasz Łysiak in a column for Niezalezna.pl.
This is surprising for several reasons. Firstly, in June 1939, it was already established that because September 1st would fall on Friday, the 1939/1940 school year would begin on Monday, September 4th. This alone indicates that children couldn’t have been “getting ready for school” on that Friday. But that’s not all.
At the end of August, the Polish Ministry of Religious Affairs and Public Education issued the following announcement, published in newspapers: “The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Public Education informs that the start date of the 1939/1940 school year, originally set for September 4th of the previous year, will be postponed for several days and will be determined by a separate order.” This means that at the end of August, it was already known that the school year would start late that year.
After the outbreak of the war, another change occurred. In the newspapers of September 2nd and 4th, there was another announcement from the ministry, which stated: “The Minister of Religious Affairs and Public Education has authorized the curators of school districts to initiate the 1939-40 school year by resuming classes in their respective schools as soon as possible, starting from Monday, September 11th of this year. Students who cannot report to their schools on time due to transportation conditions will be admitted to them at a later date.” Of course, we know that even on September 11th, this did not happen due to the tragic events in Poland.
However, what strikes me the most in all of this are the memories of “getting ready for school” on September 1st, 1939. Where did these come from? Did they actually refer to September 4th, and over the years, in people’s memories, did they “shift” to September 1st, blending with other scenes and events? Regardless, the most important thing remains. In that year, that devilishly gloomy September of 1939, Polish children did not go to school at all. The Germans took away not only their school (what later returned during the occupation was not really a Polish school), but also their childhood, the joy of life, a normal world, a sense of security, and sometimes simply life, health, homes, and families. Before the children, a real, years-long hell was unleashed.
Photos taken in September 1939 that depict children so far have been shouting at us. One of the most famous photos shows twelve-year-old Kazia Mika grieving over her older sister Andzia, who was killed. Everything in this photo represents war and the despair of an innocent girl struck by war. The child’s grief. And also, the helplessness of an adult. In this case, the photographer Julien Bryan, who (as he later recounted) could only hug and try to console the child after taking the photo.
However, many of these little ones were never even hugged. Their grief, loneliness, fear, and crying went unphotographed. The suffering vanished in the smoke of German-bombed cities and villages, burning houses, hospitals, and schools…