Thursday, 30 July 2015

The mass grave near the centre of Warsaw

The memorial plaque on the "PAST" building in Warsaw
Today in the Centre of Warsaw

We remember every 1st of August the heroic sacrifice made by Warsaw’s inhabitants of all creeds in the Warsaw uprising commemoration. A remembrance ceremony banned by communist authorities for many years because of the complicity of the Soviet Union in not lifting a finger to help the Polish army or Warsaw’s citizens. Despite pleas from Churchill, Stalin refused to engage the German army occupying Warsaw or allow Britain or America to use Russian airfields to drop supplies.  The Soviet red army sat in Praga on the other bank of the Wisla watching a horrific tragedy and genocide unfold.

The Wola Massacre monument in Warsaw
The City and Poland celebrate the sacrifice of the AK (Polish army) and citizens who fought in the uprising; they mourn the total destruction of their city, the loss of 200,000 civilian lives. They mourn the Wola massacre, carried out in revenge for the uprising where 50,000 people were executed and murdered.

Before the destruction of the city and the massacre of its inhabitants was carried out in revenge for the uprising, Heinrich Himmler said:

"The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation." 

His order wasn't successful. 

Warsaw’s schools and pupils look after war monuments and remembrance plaques, cleaning them, lighting candles and placing flowers and Polish flags on all of them before the 1st of August.

Polish school children cleaning and decorating memorial stone in Warsaw

Warsaw’s cemeteries are full of victims of the uprising, but sadly the streets of Warsaw hold many more. Places where ordinary life goes on, where people, work, walk and shop. The pavements cover the bodies of the unknown dead. Hala Mirowska where 510 Poles were shot, and their bodies burned in a pit below the market hall being one such place.

Hala Mirowska food market in Warsaw where
510 people were executed

The inhumanity exhibited exceeded any level of barbarism known to man. The number of executions, exacted by a shot in the head, or mostly being beaten to death with a rifle butt or shovel, as the German army were told not to waste bullets, was unprecedented. 

Buildings were set alight with flamethrowers, escaping women raped and killed, often forced first to watch their children being thrown back in the burning building. Inhabitants of whole buildings marched out on to the street and killed in cold blood.

After the war, Warsaw lay in ruins, the level of destruction, almost impossible to describe, the picture below gives a perspective of how little was left and the scale of the devastation. 

Warsaw Ghetto 1945
A view of Warsaw from the roof of a school in ul stawki.
If you know the girl in the photo please contact us

Not one German was punished or convicted ever for the Wola Massacre, some of the perpetrators died in captivity during the war, some lived on until their death in Germany. Some of these animals still live, their names on a murderers list published by the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

But what happened to the victims body’s who perished in the uprising ?

Many were buried in the Warsaw uprising combatants cemetery, but many more were not.

One story we do know thanks to Donat Szyller who wrote on “na ” in Polish about "the mass grave" underneath his residence. It is important the world knows what happened in Warsaw; this can’t be hidden or prevented from being known by the language barrier. 

So I have translated Donat Szyller’s article and used his photographs so the world may see the horror of the end result for some of the victims who tragically  were murdered during the Warsaw uprising.

I have not changed his words at all, to ensure the stark reality of which he writes is not demeaned when you read his words. 

“The mass grave near the centre of Warsaw”

By Donat Szyller first published on 2013

There is a place in Warsaw, where the number of living inhabitants is seven times smaller than those are dead. This is one of the biggest mass graves in this part of Europe. I live in this place. Today I want to tell this story.

My apartment is a concrete box packed in a Gierek style block. Seven little box like flats on each floor, and four floors in the block. In each box , there lives between one to three people. This makes a total of nearly 60 residents.

However, those 60 aren’t all the residents, beneath my feet, just four floors below; there lie the remains of men. 70 years ago between, 1940 and 1943 more than seven thousand people were shot and buried here, Jews and Poles. They are my neighbours. I have seven thousand neighbours. 
The mass grave at the stadium

Today this is one of the few places in Warsaw where people still live on mass graves. In this place today, stands H frame blocks of flats made from reinforced concrete filled with bricks 

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the exhumation of some of their graves, which took place on the 13th December 1988, several people, will light a candle. The ceremony will be attended by officials, priests, rabbis, representatives of the Nissenbaum Foundation and the Jewish community. But it is not enough. It's much too little. That's why I want to remember the story of what happened here decades ago. Nazi crimes in other places in Warsaw are widely known, but it is the story of Ul Gibalskiego, lying almost in the centre of Warsaw, which is forgotten and covered with dust. 
Today the street is associated more with the wave of mafia crime from the 90s than with the occupation terror. 
Before there were blocks of flats here, there was the sports stadium. It was created in 1926. The pitch belonged to the Sports Club of Workers and Academics (SKRA). The stadium of Skra sat in a rectangle marked out between ul Okopowa, and ul Mirecki and confined by the walls of cemeteries belonging to the Jewish and Evangelical religions.

Skra stadium and on the left ul. Mirecki. Early 1960s  

In October 1940, the stadium became part of the Warsaw ghetto. Germany banned the practice of any sport. The pitch was empty. Until finally, in one of the Nazi bureaucratic head’s sprouted the thought: why let such a good stadium go to waste? 

For three years through the pitch of the stadium passed thousands of people. Women and men, Poles and Jews, young and old. Everyone received a death sentence and was executed on the spot. Those bodies stayed there for many years naked, in torn dirty rags and buried in the pitch or in a mass grave in the adjacent Jewish cemetery. Jews were brought here and buried who were killed in other parts of the ghetto. 
"No longer the land of the dead to burial" 
said Emanuel Ringleblum, the chronicler of the underground Warsaw Ghetto archives, when he wrote about the area on 20th May 1940, he went on to say 
"The dead were buried at night, between the hours of one and five in the morning, without a shroud of white paper, they are then put in mass graves. At the beginning the corpses were piled in separate graves next to each other, now they are put in one grave. No longer the land for burying the dead."
Victims of starvation in Warsaw Ghetto 25th may 1941 source

"Of particular interest is a shed in which lies during the day dozens of dead people. I was stood in the shed. It is simply macabre. Dead bodies are lying covered with a black sheet of paper. You can see shreds of their clothes here and there. Dead people are just skeletons. Bones covered with skin, that's all you can see, almost like an abattoir. These skeletons of dead men, I can see only thin skin stretched over their bones."
Three months later Ringelblum noted
"In the heat that belches from these mass graves, the stench is so strong that it is impossible to walk past them, if you do not plug your nose."
Franz Blattler (actually Franz Mavick, his real name) a chauffeur of the Swiss medical mission, described the place two years later in 1942.
" Beside the old Jewish cemetery there is one of the biggest mass graves that ever existed, full of Jews from all parts of Europe. The corpses imported in two-wheeled wheelbarrows. 
Women and men are buried in separate graves. When you pull up with yet another wheelbarrow, a man comes up, one of a few Jews who, thanks to this work remain temporarily still alive. Each of them grabs a corpse behind its head and by the legs and, depending on the sex of the corpse, puts them in one foul swoop down on the right or left. Then you hear a bad sound which sounds like an empty stomach hitting the ground, as if resonating like through the sound box of a violin - in the truest sense, the melody of a horrible death."

August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising. Ul. Mirecki and Skra stadium fence

AK Radosław Archive,

Photos from the past 
Today the living residents of this neighbourhood don't need to move far from the computer to compare views of the stadium from decades ago. The military aerial photographs from before the war taken in 1935, show the stadium in full glory. The Football pitch and the athletics track next to it. The trees growing around both cemeteries: the evangelical (pictured on the left, and to the east of the stadium) and the Jewish cemetery (above, to the north).

Skra stadium. Aerial view in 1935 • Google Earth

In 1945, just after the war, Soviet airmen photographed the place again. After the war there is hardly a trace of most of the cemetery trees. In the picture you can see plundered, empty spaces surrounding the ruins of the stadium. In this view the stadium looks disgraced - bare, stripped like a flower with no stems and foliage. It resembles a naked, dead body. However, much scarier is the image of the ruins of the stadium recorded on the grainy black and white photo. It shows nine holes - seven freshly dug and two partly covered with soil. Masses graves, a gift left behind by the German army.

Aerial 1945 • Google Earth

Aerial view 2013- Google Earth

12 Tons of Human ashes
Today, at this point runs ul Edward Gibalskiego (Edward Gibalski street) , and on the former pitch of Skra stands blocks of flats built in the 60s and 70s.
According to the office of the borough of Wola in Warsaw, registered living here today are 1076 residents. For everyone living there are seven more lying dead. The number of victims who were buried under ul Gibalskiego is more than seven thousand.
During the reign of Warsaw Gestapo chief Ludwig Hahn it was noticed that in the capital there was a special unit called Sonderkommando 1005 supervised by the SS and police officers from the battalion III / SS-Polizei Regiment 23. Branch. The unit was known in Warsaw as Leichenverbrennungskommando (the cremation division) their task was to attempt to hide and obliterate Nazi war crimes. In this task, its members exhumed and burned thousands of corpses of murdered victims. In Warsaw there was a network of crematoria managed by them with branches scattered all over the borough of Wola.
One of them was right here - at Skra stadium. Here bodies were burned, in the open air, with 6 to 8 furnaces working most of the time. Bodies were brought here from all over the borough, victims of street executions, shootings in the ghetto, or people who died of starvation and disease.
How many murdered peoples bodies and ashes are buried here, and how much ash was buried under the earth in this place?
Hundreds of kilos of ash? Maybe thousands of kilos?  
We will never know.  
As a comparison – we can see how much ash was collected from the streets. In 1945, after the massacre of Wola, from the streets of this district Poles collected the ashes of people murdered and burned by the Germans. There were 12 tonnes of ash. That weight is equal to a whole Warsaw double city bus filled with people during rush hour.

Jewish prisoners forced to work by Sonderkommando 1005,
posing on a machine to crush bone •
Exacavation extracts remains

After the war, in 1945, some graves were exhumed in part at the Skra stadium. The dead were transferred to the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery. But a small part, not all.  In fact just a few, too few, too little.

Then after this, the graves were no longer talked about. The city built blocks of flats here and laid out streets. Until 1988.

On the left Skra stadium. View from ul Okopowa. Probably 1960.

• photo. Theodore Hermańczyk, CAW archive 
I remember that day it was October, then I sat taking a lesson at a nearby elementary school. That day powerful excavators were working at a construction site of a residential building, then the diggers revealed hundreds of human bones in the soil. Construction was halted, and the dead were excavated to the surface. This way the remains of about 300 people - Poles and Jews were saved. 

On December 13, 1988 they were entombed in an underground concrete catacomb sandwiched between two blocks of flats, and a monument was erected. A ceremony took place with the ritual of Judaic and Roman Catholic religions. In a joint prayer, the ceremony was attended by 21 rabbis who came to Warsaw from all over the world and Catholic priests with Bishop Henryk Muszyński at the helm.

Monument Joint Martyrdom of Jews and Poles in Warsaw •

A year later, Bishop Henryk Muszyński stood there again at the Monument of Martyrdom of Poles and Jews.

How many unnamed residents still rest in undiscovered graves beneath the pavements, parking lots and foundations of our blocks? No one knows. But I at least, try not to forget these people and remember them.

Donat Szyller 2013.

Incidents like this remained hidden from the world’s view due to communist indifference and the language barrier, of Polish and Yiddish preventing people finding out what happened.

Warsaw stands today, rejuvenated, growing, alive, with Warsovians bringing up families and working, and carrying out our business on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. Everyday Poles and foreigners of all religions tread the streets where genocide and atrocities took place. The fact we are here, and our city lives is testimony to those who lost or gave their lives to defend this city. The fact we are all here, bustling and rushing around working and living proves, the Nazis didn’t win, Warsaw lives on.

On 1st of August the town will stand still, as we remember those who lost their lives in the Warsaw uprising, and we do it like this .

Warsaw Today