A city shot dead
With 50,000 killed in three days, the massacre of Wola, carried out by the Germans during the Warsaw Uprising, ranks among the greatest mass murders in world history.
The tenement at 129 Wolska Street was truly large, as it comprised 150 flats housing around 600 people. The first days of the Warsaw Uprising were relatively peaceful. But at 10 am on 5th of August, the building's capacious courtyard was teeming with Germans. Their unit numbering several dozen soldiers was armed with machine guns and grenades. With threats and by force they herded all the inhabitants into Wolska Street. “I left our flat with my husband, two sons and two daughters. The gendarmes ordered us and other tenants to move into Wolska Street, cross it and wait in Sowiński Park. The men were separated from the women and boys aged 14 and over were separated from their mothers. [...] At the corner of Wolska and Ordona streets I noticed a machine gun on a platform, and near our tenement , some 10 metres from Ordona Street towards Prądzyńskiego Street, was another machine gun. [...] The Germans began firing at us, and I fell to the ground. I was not wounded but corpses began falling on my legs. My youngest daughter Alina was still alive, lying beside me,” Wacława Szlacheta, one of the very few survivors of the slaughter, recounts after the end of the war. Out of the corner of her eye she could see a soldier approaching a pram carrying her neighbour's several-month-old twins and firing at them. The cries of those babies dying in agony were blood-curdling indeed. When the Germans finally retreated, she was able to flee from the execution site. She found the bodies of her two daughters, but there was no sign of her husband and two sons. In a single moment, she had lost all her loved ones.
For Henryk Haboszewski, the world collapsed at neighbouring Elekcyjna Street No. 8. There too, the murderers arrived at around 10 o’clock. “We were chased out of the cellars towards the park in the Ulrychów area and fired upon as we went. My wife was killed on the spot, our wounded child called out for her mother. Suddenly a Ukrainian walked up and killed my two-year-old baby like a dog. Then, alongside several Germans, he approached, stood on my chest to see if I was still alive. I played dead,” he recounted. The Germans kept leading out successive groups of Wola residents, gunning them down on the spot. A heap of countless corpses accumulated. Those still showing signs of life got finished off. I got weighted down by innumerable dead bodies so that I could hardly breathe. The executions lasted until 5 pm.”
Every inhabitant must be killed
Similar killings occurred in nearly every tenement, park, factory and square along Wolska, Górczewska, Elekcyjna, Płocka, Okopowa and many other Wola district streets. After being emptied of their inhabitants, the buildings were torched, as were the bodies of the murdered victims. That has made it extremely difficult to determine the number of victims. Now we will never know exactly how many people perished there. After the war, the victims' remains were buried in mass graves. One thing is certain: the number of victims was huge. Entire multi-generational families perished. As a result of the “industrial” scale of that crime, the murderers occasionally slipped up. Nevertheless, there was a mere handful of survivors such as Wacława Szlacheta or Henryk Haboszewski. Thanks to their accounts, there has emerged the image of an unspeakable crime. Hitler flew into a rage upon learning that an uprising had broken out in Warsaw and ordered the destruction of the city and the murder of all its inhabitants.
According to SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had been assigned to pacify Poland's capitals, the order went as follows: “Every inhabitant should be killed. Taking prisoners is forbidden. Warsaw must be levelled to the ground in order to set a terrifying example for all of Europe.”.
Poland's capital had suffered a similar cataclysm in the past. During the Kościuszko Insurrection 150 years earlier, Russian troops under General Suvorov had massacred the inhabitants of Warsaw's right-bank suburb of Praga. More than 20,000 people lost their lives during the many-hour-long killing spree.
The Germans apparently did not want to be outdone. In the course of 10 days from 2nd to 12th of August 1944, they murdered more than 50,000 people (and some estimates run as high as 65,000 dead) in the Wola district. Most were killed between 5th and 7th August. The most tragic of all was Black Saturday or August 5th, when between 20,000 and 30,000 people were murdered. If one were to accept a death toll of 50,000, on average that would amount to 700 killings an hour.
It is not by chance that I am citing those figures and the accounts of survivors, because they most forcefully speak to people today. Whereas that massacre is fairly well known and documented in Poland, there is very little knowledge of it abroad. After all, this was not only the single biggest mass murder in Polish history. It was also one of the greatest massacres in the annals of mankind. All the more so when one considers the limited territorial range and space of time in which the atrocity was committed.
It is comparable only to the Nanking Massacre carried out by the Japanese at the turn of 1937 and 1938. When Japanese troops captured the then capital of China, they unleashed an unimaginable wave of terror. Some 100,000 people lost their lives, although some estimates give a three times greater figure. But unlike Warsaw's Wola Massacre, mainly males were killed, while the women were raped. The Japanese were thought to have committed from 20,000 to 80,000 rapes.
Hell came down to earth
The Germans began brutally murdering the civilian population from the first days of the uprising. Suffice it to mention the some 40 inhabitants of several tenements in Marszałkowska Street murdered by a squad of Ukrainians or the nearly 200 people burnt alive at Olesińska Street in the Warsaw district of Mokotów. Polish civilians became living targets in Wola during an attack on barricades constructed in Okopowa and Wolska streets.
All hell broke loose when reinforcements arrived to liberate the governor of the Warsaw District Ludwig Fischer and General Reiner Staehl who were surrounded in the government quarter of Piłsudski Square. Those forces were also ordered to capture what to the Germans was the strategically important transport artery running along Wolska and Chłodna streets, through Saxon Garden park and leading to the Kierbedź Bridge. These relief forces were primarily made up of a hastily assembled police unit from Wartheland (Poznań region) under the command of SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth and an SS brigade commanded by the sadistic SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger. It included a battalion of German thieves and criminals, a Russian and eastern Muslim SS regiment composed mainly of Turkmen and Azeris as well as two Azerbaijani battalions (the Bergman Battalion and the 1st Battalion of the 111th Regiment.) The Germans also sent to Warsaw an assault regiment of the Russian National Liberation Army (RNLA). It was under the direct command of Major Yuri Frolov. For the first 10 days of struggle against the insurrectionists (4th-14th of August), the RNLA regiment was stationed in the Ochota district neighbouring Wola where they murdered, raped and robbed the civilians. Heinz Reinefarth was appointed the commander of all those forces.
The main attack on Wola was launched in the morning
On the 5th of August, after the insurgents had been dislodged from their bastions in Górczewska and Wolska streets, units of Reinefarth's Assault Group began their slaughter of the civilian population. They spared no-one, pitilessly murdering women, children, the elderly, wounded and sick. They surrounded one building after another, chasing their inhabitants into the street or courtyard and gunning them down. Grenades were also often used, especially when people tried to hide in cellars.
Jan Grabowski and the remaining residents of a tenement at 123 Wolska Street were forced to move to an area in front of a nearby smithy. “The Germans opened fire with machine guns and handguns and hurled grenades into a crowd of people lying on the ground,” Grabowski recalled. “After a while [...] I saw the Germans had chased out a new group. […] The shooting lasted at least six hours with interruptions to finish off those still alive.” He himself was not even wounded but his wife and two sons were killed before his eyes. “I heard a gendarme say he would kill my five-month-old son who was crying, then I heard a shot and the crying stopped. I lay motionless and played dead.”
The Germans gradually improved their mass-murder techniques. To save on ammunition and grenades, they came up with the idea of locking people in buildings which they then set on fire. Some people were burnt alive, while others fled from their buildings or jumped out of windows directly into the line of gunfire and flame-throwers. That is how the inhabitants of the Hankiewicz tenements at 105/109 Wolska Street (some 2,000 victims), as well as the Wawelberg Estates at 15 Górczewska Street (2,000-3,000 victims) perished. The murderers ordered their victims to rip off fence boards before their execution so their bodies would burn better.
In August blood clots quickly
The troops led by the sadistic SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger were especially notorious for their cruelty. They were directly encouraged by their pistol-wielding commander who personally participated in many crimes. At the Eastern Orthodox parish of St John Klimak at 149 Wolska Street, SS-men brutally murdered dozens of children at the parish orphanage. Mathi Schenk, a Belgian drafted into the German army and temporarily assigned to Dirlewanger's brigade during the Warsaw Uprising, recalled that occurrence thus: “We blew up the door leading I think to the school. The children were standing in the corridor and on the stairs. There were lots of youngsters with their small hands up. We looked at them for a few moments before Dirlewanger appeared. He ordered the kids to be killed. They were gunned down and afterwards they stepped all over them, smashing their little skulls with rifle butts. The staircase was dripping with blood.”
Dirlewanger's troops also raped many women. “Every time we stormed a cellar where women were hiding, Dirlewanger's men raped them. Often several raped the same woman hastily without even setting down their weapons. After one battle, I was all shaken up standing alongside a wall and couldn't calm down, when Dirlewanger's men barged in. One of them grabbed a woman who was young and lovely. She didn't scream. He raped her, brutally pressing her head down on the table. In his other hand, he held a bayonet. First, he cut open her blouse. Then he made an incision from her belly to her neck, and blood spurted out. Do you know how quickly blood clots in August...?” Many rapes also occurred at the tram depot in Młynarska Street. The tormentors chose young women and girls and brutally raped them before shooting them in the head.
In the late afternoon on the 5th of August, the Nazis somewhat modified their method of liquidating civilians. They had no choice. So many dead bodies had piled up in the streets, squares and courtyards of Wola that the special commandos were unable to incinerate them. The corpses quickly decomposed in the August sun, raising the threat of an epidemic. The so far chaotic massacre turned into a well-organised execution. Several sites, mainly in Wolska and Górczewska streets, were selected for mass executions. Those were mainly factory halls, parks and squares. To make corpse removal more efficient, successive groups of victims being led to their death were ordered to climb up the heaps of dead bodies to be shot. Jan Grabowski, a survivor of the massacre near the smithy at 124 Wolska Street after the war described one such site as follows: “We kept carrying and heaping piling the corpses on two piles until dusk. One pile was some 20 metres long, the other measured 15 metres in length. They were about 10 metres wide and 1.5 metres high.” Sometimes, layers of slabs were added in between the corps layers to enhance burning.
The main massacre sites were the railway embankment at Górczewska Street (5,000-10,0000 victims), the K. Franaszek factory at 41/45 Wolska Street (about 7,000 victims), Sowiński Park (some 1,500 killed), the Młynarska Street tram depot (about 1,000 victims), the Kirchmajer & Marczewski factory at 79/81 Wolska Street (some 2,000 killed) and the Ursus factory at 55 Wolska Street (about 7,000 murdered). At the latter site, Wanda Felicja Lurie, known after the war as the Polish Niobe, experienced a true gehenna. Her recollections are among the best known and most gripping accounts of the Wola Massacre.
On the 5th of August, together with her three children aged 11, six and three-and-a-half she hid in the cellar of the tenement at 18 Wawelberga Street. She was in her final month of pregnancy. The Germans had chased all the building's tenants into the grounds of the Ursus factory. In the courtyard, a metre-high pile of corpses could be seen. “Our group was pointed to a passageway between the buildings. Dead bodies were already lying all about. When the first foursome approached the place where the corpses lay, Germans and Ukrainians shot them in the back of the neck. When they fell to the ground, the next foursome stepped forward to meet a similar fate. [...] I approached the execution site in the final group of four with my three children, holding the two small hands of the youngest children with my right hand and the hand of my older son with my left hand. The children walked, weeping and praying. The older boy seeing the corpses called out that they will kill us as well. All of a sudden, the Ukrainian standing behind us shot my eldest son in the back of the head, then bullets struck the younger children and me. I fell on my right side. My wound was not fatal. The bullet had entered the back of my neck and left through my right cheek. I got a pregnancy haemorrhage. I felt numbness on the left side of my head and body but I was conscious and could see nearly everything that was going on as I lay there amid all the corpses. I observed subsequent executions. A new batch of men was led in and their bodies also fell upon me. […] Another groups of women and children was brought in, and one group after another was gunned down until late in the evening.” Wanda Lurie survived. On 20th of August 1944 at the transit camp in Pruszków, she gave birth to her son Mścisław.
The SS and Wehrmacht murderers did not spare Wola's numerous hospitals. At Wola Hospital at 26 Płocka Street, they murdered all the doctors and nurses (about 60 people) as well as patients (nearly 300). But the biggest slaughter was to occur at St Lazarus Hospital a few streets away. On the evening of August 5th, Azeris from the regiment of the 111th Battalion and the 2nd Bergman Battalion barged into the hospital. They exhibited not a shred of mercy towards anyone. Patients, doctors and civilians seeking refuge in the hospital. Amongst them (were) many children, (who) all perished from shots to the back of the head, machine-gun fire and exploding grenades. Some 1,200 were murdered in the hospital. Some were burnt alive in buildings set ablaze following the mass execution. Murders also took place at Charles and Mary Hospital at 36 Leszno Street. Of the three Wola hospitals the Germans spared only one – St Stanislaus Hospital for Infectious Diseases where they had their own contagious-diseases ward.
On the evening of the 5th of August, General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had taken command of all the forces fighting against the Warsaw insurgents, arrived. He prohibited the killing women and children. That decision, however, was not dictated by humanitarian considerations. The German command simply realised it was a shame to waste a “living force” which could be put to work in Germany. The scale and intensity of the mass murders seriously strained the Germans' ammunition supply. There was not enough to murder civilians and combat the Warsaw insurgents at the same time. Artillery Lieutenant Hans Thieme (after the war a professor at the universities of Leipzig and Göttingen) recalled his meeting with Reinefarth as follows: “Gazing coldly at a column of women and children passing not more than 10 metres away from us, he said: 'You see, Gentlemen, those refugees are our biggest problem! I lack the ammunition to do them all in!'”
As a result of General von dem Bach's decision, the orgy of destruction and murder slightly subsided. But only gradually did that order reach soldiers in the grips of a murderous frenzy, especially concerning Dirlewanger’s soldiers. The mass executions lasted another two days, producing at least 10,000 to 15,000 new victims. Civilians who managed to survive the first wave of murders attempted to make it over into areas controlled by the insurgents (the sudden appearance of shocked and bedraggled survivors had an extremely negative impact on the freedom-fighters and civilian population of the City Centre and Old Town). Other survivors were herded by the Germans at gunpoint to a newly created transit camp in the distant suburb of Pruszków.
“Both sides of the street were lined with buildings that were still ablaze or already only smouldering. […] There were bodies everywhere. Several men here, there a woman naked down to the waist and already cold and rigid. Motor vehicles had ploughed through some of the bodies, casting them off to the sides like old rags. And there were signs of robbery, some smashed-up suitcases, banknotes flying in the air which no-one paid any attention to. Time and again, blood-curdling shrieks and gunshots could be heard. That was Dirlewanger's police murdering people, shooting them dead before our very eyes. Here and there we sloshed through puddles of fresh blood.” That is how attorney Stanisław Wojciech Talikowski described the exodus from Warsaw.
Murderers walk free
It is said that when a person dies the whole world dies with him. In the course of several torrid days in August 1944, thousands of those worlds were killed in Wola. Unfortunately, many perpetrators of those crimes went unpunished. Captured by the Americans, at the Nuremberg trials General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was not turned over to Polish prosecutors since he had agreed to cooperate and testify against his fellow-war criminals. Ultimately, he went to jail but for other war crimes. Neither did the Americans agree to extradite war criminal Heinz Reinefarth. After the war, he even made a political career as the mayor of the town of Westerland on Sylt Island and subsequently as a member of the Landtag (regional assembly) of Schleswig-Holstein. The proceedings against him were dropped in 1967 by the court in Flensburg allegedly due to “insufficient evidence of guilt.”
Only Oskar Dirlewanger lived to experience his victims' vengeance. In 1945, he died in unexplained circumstances in the Baden-Wirtemberg town of Althausen. According to one version of his death, he was attacked by Polish soldiers when they recognised him as the executioner of Wola. But in many cases, those of his subordinates who had survived the war lived peacefully to a ripe old age. In 2008, there emerged an opportunity to try at least some of them. A list of 85 of Dirlewanger's previously unknown henchmen turned up in the archives of the Austrian Red Cross. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, it was established that ten of them were still alive in Germany. But actually, putting them on trial would have required the cooperation of German institutions investigating Nazi crimes and compiling information on war criminals. But the German investigation into the matter was dropped in 2012. The Germans did not make much of an effort and limited themselves to a cursory archive search at the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg and the Federal Archives in Koblenz.
And that should surprise no-one. Our western neighbours apply dual standards when prosecuting Nazi criminals. When it comes to prosecuting war criminals responsible for murdering Jews, German prosecutors are able to sift through archives all over Europe and even put a 93-year-old on trial, as was the case a few years ago with Auschwitz guard Hans Lipschis. But the perpetrators of the unspeakable Wola Massacre continue to be at liberty. Such behaviour, however, is in accordance with the many-year-long German historical policy, whose purpose is to convince the world that the only victims of the war were Jews and German “expellees”. The 200,000 Warsaw inhabitants brutally murdered by the Germans and their eastern allies simply do not fit that image.
Author: Krzysztof Jóźwiak